Gerard Smyth writes: Philip Larkin tells us in his poem “Annus Mirabilis” that “life was never better than / in nineteen sixty-three …” and associates this belief with the release that year of the Beatles’ first LP. Larkin sees it as a transformative moment, the portal to a new period of sexual freedom, when
…every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank.
Others of course might have regarded two world wars as already having influenced attitudes to non-marital sex – as evident in the novels of many of Britain’s “grim reality” writers of the time: Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, Nell Dunn.
But for many of the Sixties generation it was the slightly later summer of 1967 that signified a more epoch-changing event, musically and culturally. A summer that seemed to bring colour (in its full psychedelic range) and soundtracks to the world as well as, it has to be said, an age of illusion – beginning with the nomenclature “summer of love”.
While the “summer of love” (or “summer of promise”) was primarily an American phenomenon, the soundtrack to it that had the greatest impact was the Beatles’ concept album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, quintessentially British with its music hall array of characters and sense of nostalgia for a changing and fading Albion.
Apart from its status as an innovative and influential game-changer in the history of twentieth century popular music, half a century later it has confirmed its indelible staying power and iconic status as a standard-bearer for the cultural and societal revolution of that summer – a less sweet revolution would come the following year.
The recent media attention to the anniversary of its release on June 1st, 1967 and the many discussions on its significance and timeless qualities give credence to Paul McCartney’s claim that the band had produced “a lasting piece of art”. A shame perhaps that two of the best songs written during that extraordinary burst of creativity – “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” – were separated and omitted from the final selection.
With two previous pathfinder albums – Rubber Soul and Revolver – they had ventured into more complex and daring musical territory. Lyrically too the work had become more mind-teasing. It was smart to leave listeners haunted by the grand epic sweep of the album’s masterpiece, “A Day in the Life”, and that final reverberating E-chord.
Among the dear friends of my youth the Beatles and Sgt Pepper became our common touchstones, the subject of our debates in the schoolyard and not long after that our arguments in dark pub corners. Recollecting that summer, all of us gathered around a turntable for our first taste of Sgt Pepper (a co-operative purchase), the word that echoes down the years is “mindblowing”.
Which of us said it I don’t recall – but it sparked this poem.
(On the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper)
Sunday morning cathedral chimes
but best of all was turning the dial
to Radio Paradise
and those electrifying tunes,
those artful bulletins –
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,
A Day in the Life.
Mindblowing was a word I heard
when the disc stopped spinning,
lost its voice.
It was like breathing new air,
a Godsend in our hands – the unimagined
Lonely Hearts Club Band –
it is now our souvenir of spangled
summer days and youthful beginnings,
of another Annus Mirabilis
but not the one Larkin named,
his warm-up year of sixty-three
when the action started,
the years ahead
like strawberry fields to be harvested.