Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yes, it’s more than 50 years old. It’s difficult today to describe the importance of the Beatles’ music in 1967. I may have missed something, but I don’t think any act before or since was so dominant world-wide. This album stayed number one for 27 weeks in England, and 15 weeks in the US. I can’t imagine there are too many people alive today who would not recognise at least one of the songs.
I was studying at Adelaide University and the adjacent Teachers College, and the hub of the campus was the Barr-Smith Lawns, just outside the main library. Without computers or the internet, if you needed to read a reference you had to come to the library to do it. The grass, the low walls and a few seats to sit on would be filled with hundreds of students, especially at lunch-times. Here those at the top of the A-list could hold court with their faithful, while us mere mortals tried to find a friendly face to share a sandwich with. It was the ultimate people-watching spot, and I hung around there too long and too often to get the higher grades I needed.
But one day in June 1967, a team of guys from the theatre department came to install some huge speakers, hanging them from the trees and perching them on the roof of the locker rooms. The news spread quickly—the newest Beatles’ album was out, and they were going to play it full blast. Within half an hour, the area was jam packed, and the whiff of dope smoked by the most daring wafted over us.
When that first line, ‘It was twenty years ago today’ came after a classic guitar intro, the place went wild. People started dancing and yelling, some trying to sing along, others telling them to shut up and let us all hear it. The speakers were awesome, at least for 1967, and there were complaints from all the adjoining study areas that no-one could hear the lecturers trying to teach. Many gave up, and streams of students kept joining from ‘serious’ faculties like medicine, law, engineering and even economics, the people we arty types thought incapable of aesthetic emotions.
A little over half an hour later, the last crashing chords of ‘A day in the life’, which many critics think of as their finest work, faded away, leaving almost total silence across the lawns. We were stunned. Great art can leave you speechless; in fact it should, while you process something overwhelmingly new and important. Conversations began quietly, and people began to drift away to usual campus life. Of course, we all went out and bought, borrowed or pirated copies of the album over the next weeks. I went to at least two parties that were specifically about listening to it, while we drank bad wine and smoked the foulest cigarettes we could stand. But nothing compared to the shock of the new, shared with an awed crowd, the day Sergeant Peppers was released in Australia.