On June 1, 1967 EMI in Britain released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The next day, Capitol released the album in the United States. That was 50 years ago next week.
It is difficult to communicate to anyone who did not live through the experience how the album changed things. First, the arrival of the Beatles and the Merseyside sound in the U.S. in 1964 had triggered incredible creativity. Rock and roll may have originated here, but it had slowly settled into a sedate pattern and bubble gum tended to rule. Whenever someone had a hit, they would crank out an album containing that hit and ten or eleven other standards.
But Beatlemania caused an explosion of innovation. Rock had always moved from the U.S. to Europe. Now it traveled in both directions, and the British stuff was regarded (in the U.S.) as cooler than the U.S. stuff. Moreover, the Beatles themselves had moved beyond their early “Yeah yeah yeah” pieces to produce wildly inventive albums like Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966). That challenged other artists on both sides of the Atlantic, who responded admirably, as with Donovan’s Sunshine Superman and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
It was unfortunate it could not have been that kind of a joyous revival of talent and accomplishment and nothing more. But there were those who couldn’t stand the notion of this marvelous renaissance. H.L. Mencken defined puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy. Being guaranteed to raise a smile made them crazy.
In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew came to Nevada to campaign for Republican U.S. Senate candidate William Raggio. Agnew’s speech denounced “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” one of the songs in Sgt. Pepper, as part of a “drug culture.” Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds = L.S.D., get it? The speech was written for Agnew by William Safire, and the claim was nonsensical. Those with actual, direct knowledge of the song all said the same thing, that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was the title little Julian Lennon gave to a drawing he made at school. Like Dan Quayle, who never watched Murphy Brown before his speechwriters had him denounce her, Agnew was led down the garden path by a speechwriter.
To tie things together neatly, the speech wasn’t much help to Raggio, either. The Nevadan needed greater emphasis on the issues he was pushing in his campaign. But Agnew’s own agenda came first – and a few weeks later, the Federal Communications Commission (chaired by former Republican national chair Dean Burch) said it was opening an investigation of broadcasters who play songs “tending to promote or glorify the use of illegal drugs.” So much for the notion that regulatory bodies with fixed terms are insulated from political pressure.
The investigation came to nothing, but that didn’t stop Tipper Gore and her cronies from reviving the music-made-them-do-it specter years later. Safire, by then a New York Times columnist, wrote a column taking credit for Agnew’s little-remembered speech and praised Gore’s crusade: “With a sense of the irony involved, I salute the women who are leading this fight, among them Mary Elizabeth ‘Tipper’ Gore, wife of the senator from Tennessee, who is the son of former Sen. Albert Gore, one of the liberals Spiro Agnew helped to defeat in the campaign of 1970.”
Our own Carson City once had one of those ministers, Assembly of God youth pastor Darryl Faulk, who got his teen followers whipped up into burning their record albums. “Most Christians are not aware that secular music is poison,” he said. Local fire officials informed him that burning vinyl released poisons into the air, so the teens ended up burning the record album covers and stomping on the records, looking like pagans dancing.
The notion that pop culture like music, movies, and television make people do terrible things but that terrible government policies like endless unnecessary wars or pitting people against each other do not affect behavior is a proposition that could use some scrutiny.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.