The Wonder of First Contact

If you've just recently returned from Botswana, there's a small chance you missed the news that Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band turned fifty last week. I had just barely been conceived but wouldn't be born until the following January, and wouldn't be listening seriously to music until the late 1970s. By that time Sgt Pepper's was an oldie (things tarnished more rapidly back then), and all the polyphonics the Beatles deployed were familiar and considered normal. 

One of the more remarkable moments on the album is at the end of "A Day in the Life," when a recording of a sixty-piece orchestra fades in, and then very slowly begins to fall out of rhythm and tune, collapsing into cacophony. It all resolves when a single chord (played on multiple pianos) rings out.

This technique, fading into discord and coming back together, is now common. The Beatles weren't even the first to do it. A few months earlier, the Velvet Underground experimented with a similar approach, and It was, of course, also a major current within jazz.* But only about 5,000 people bought the Velvets' album and white America didn't listen to jazz; by contrast, the Beatles sold 2.5m copies of Sgt Pepper's in three months. Soon it was a very big deal.

After fooling around with top forty for my first years, I started to make discoveries in punk and then industrial music where discord and harmony performed key musical and thematic functions. In other words, by the time I was aware of the power of discord, it was already in its derivative iterations. This is true of a lot of the ground-breaking stuff on Sgt Pepper's and subsequent albums. And it's true of my experience of everything in their catalogue: by the time I started hearing the Beatles, this stuff was just music.

I just finished listening to an interview with Giles Martin, the producer who remixed the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt Pepper's--he's the son of the Beatles famous producer George Martin--and he took listeners back to the recording session. The Beatles had assembled an orchestra for the recording of "A Day in the Life," and had to instruct them how to play out of sync with each other. They had them dress up in costume to put themselves in the mood. Orchestras are like schools of fish; they thrive by becoming a single body that can shift and move together. The Beatles needed them to unlearn that lesson, to wander off into chaos.

I can only imagine the experience people had of encountering this material for the first time, without precedent. It would be like discovering the house you've inhabited your whole life has a secret door into a whole new and entirely different wing. People listened obsessively to the Beatles, and I think they were animated by this moment of discovery. For those of us who came later, the sounds were wonderful, but they were rooms in a house we grew up in. They were just part of the landscape.

The explosion of beer in the United States offers a parallel lesson. There is now a whole generation of adults born after the new brewing revolution came to the US. Their houses have many, many more rooms than those of us who started out on cans of Hamm's. There will be a moment of contraction, when the kaleidoscope of styles begins to shrink. From there discoveries will come a great deal more infrequently. Still, we live in a time of discovery, and at the moment, we can hope to see a new Sgt Pepper's or VU and Nico every few years. It's not 1967 anymore, but it's not 1998, either. London Calling is still probably in our future. (Or maybe New England IPAs were London Calling.)

In any case, enjoy it. Discovery isn't everything, and we may be too focused on it right now. But it's never guaranteed. The poor souls who lived until the late 1970s live whole lives never discovering a new flavor in beer. Their "A Day in the Life" moment never came. And eventually, we'll mainly be experiencing derivative discoveries, echoes of the first bombshells. We'll look back on the last decade like those insufferable Boomers look back on the sixties with nostalgia and longing (and the younger generations will hate us for it) (I, for one, am so tired of Boomer nostalgia!). But I think I see why it happens. This is really a remarkable few decades, and I need to stop more often and remind myself to enjoy them.

*I'm no musicologist, and no doubt my focus on the Beatles demonstrates a naivete to those more versed in the revolutions of Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky. But their lessons were lost to much of the popular audience, including me.