Revisiting the Summer of Love

The following column, I should admit right off the bat, is a direct result of George Harrison’s death. His recent passing led to an evening when the tube was turned off and Beatle records were turned on. One of those records was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

To listen to Pepper again was to listen to a record that is still a marvel. And while it towered over the multi-colored, trail-blazing, acid-drenched rock music scene of 1967, it wasn’t the only great lasting musical achievement that year. Far from it. Hearing Pepper again triggered a wave of nostalgic veneration for that year that will fuel the next two columns.

It cannot be argued seriously that 1967 is unworthy of the piles of platitudes that music lovers and critics have heaped upon it. There are simply too many high-quality arrows in its quiver. Part One of the story takes place in London.

Let’s start with the Stones, who warmed things up in February with Between the Buttons, an album that got them splattered all over the airwaves ("Ruby Tuesday,” “Connection,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together"). They then finished off ‘67 with their blatant stab at psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request, a record best remembered for that crazy 3-D cover.

Things got very interesting in May, when expatriated Seattle-ite turned London guitar god Jimi Hendrix launched Are You Experienced? It was as obvious then as it is now that it was one of the great electric records of all time ("Purple Haze,” “Fire,” “Foxey Lady,” “Third Stone From the Sun,” title track). It’s not an exaggeration to say that many were astonished by the jaw-dropping Experience. Incredibly, there was more. Jimi released Axis: Bold as Love ("If 6 Was 9,” “Up From the Skies,” “Little Wing") six months later in December. Awesome.

Cream released the extraordinary Disraeli Gears in ‘67 (out of all the riffs that roared over the planet that year, none was more revered or overplayed than that of “Sunshine of Your Love"), and there was the completely overlooked (at least here in the U.S.) debut from Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. This was the Pink Floyd of Syd Barrett, not Roger Waters, and Syd—before he went bonkers due to mental problems exacerbated to the extreme by truly ridiculous bombardments of LSD—was positively brilliant, writing, singing and playing his magically childish and other-worldly songs about gnomes, scarecrows, cats, bikes and interstellar overdrive, and pulling them off when he had absolutely no right to do so. Then there was Steve Winwood and Dave Mason’s new band, Traffic, which surfaced in ‘67, first with remarkable singles like “Paper Sun” and “Smiling Phases,” and then with the startlingly good Mr. Fantasy album.

At the top of this glorious, glittery heap was Sgt. Pepper. Released in June, it’s completely accurate to say it was ubiquitous, the soundtrack to the Summer of Love (which somehow turned into the Summer of Speed). Radio stations didn’t worry about singles; they just played it all, and it’s fair to say that the Western world went gaga.

Next week: ‘67 Western style, from Sunset Strip to The Haight.