Of course, it’s hard to deny the power of a year that saw the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Disraeli Gears, Forever Changes, John Wesley Harding and storied debut albums from Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Velvet Underground and a little power trio called The Jimi Hendrix Experience, just to name a few.
Using Pepper as his jumping-off point and thematic hold, Heylin – who counts both the best Dylan bio ever and an amazing history of the bootleg industry among his works – delves deep into the bands and music that permeated 1967.
He does a good job interspersing the story of Pepper’s creation with that of the year’s other two major works – Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Brian Wilson’s lost Beach Boys magnum opus, Smile. Using a combination of original interviews and clip jobs, he manages to give voice to most of the year’s major musicians as well as producers and scenesters.
However, the results are hit-and-miss. Covering well, well-worn ground, the narrative fails to consistently engage the reader or offer fresh insight. And while perhaps the latter was not even Heylin’s goal – he takes the role of historian rather than critic – his prose is still often dry.
Oddly, it’s only in the last two chapters that Heylin seems unchained from his role, offering more forceful (and engaging) opinions in discussing Pepper’s place in post-’67 popular and critical culture.
He correctly ascertains that in its wake, most works by major rock bands were, and are, judged in terms of their effectiveness at being “art” instead of simpler listening pleasures. Thus bands like the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, Bad Company and Grand Funk Railroad are regarded with disdain by people who get their records for free, always expect music to reach for lofty sonic ambition or otherwise make a “statement.”
Likewise, Heylin points out that in recent years, Sgt. Pepper has become bulletproof, seen as the biggest accomplishment by rock’s most popular group in rock’s watershed year. However, its songs hardly touch on the day’s politics, youth culture or even the “peace and love” vibe.
And ask any average Joe or Colin to name a Beatles record, and this is the one they’ll come up with, although Revolver’s reputation has transcended its more famous and colorful successor – which doesn’t even remotely deserve the categorization of a “concept” record.
So while The Act You’ve Known for All These Years is a neat summary of 1967, it still feels like Heylin’s less-than-sharp blades are plowing a much-used field. But it is a field of some pretty fine smoke. – Bob Ruggiero
The Act You’ve Known for All These Years: A Year in the Life of Sgt. Pepper and Friends, by Clinton Heylin, Canongate, $24, 352 pp.