On June 1, 1967—49-years-ago—the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Band, their masterpiece and arguably the most important rock album ever.
Released simultaneously in Europe and America, it was an instant sensation. A pioneering concept album—with a beginning and end instead of random cuts—Sgt. Pepper flew off the shelves.
It was the first album that contained printed lyrics and a gatefold. Its stunning cover with likenesses of artists and historical figures triggered immense interest. Placing the record on the turntable… we hear the orchestra tuning up, and then BOOM, ”it was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.” …”Sit back and let the evening go.”
Critics loved it. Neil McCormick wrote in the London Telegraph, “it is impossible to overstate its impact.” Psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary said Sgt. Pepper’sembrace of psychedelic culture, “gave voice to the feeling that the old ways were over.”
Rolling Stone called the week following Pepper’s release, “the closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 ….In every city in Europe and America radio stations played it and everyone listened.”
Well, not quite. They weren’t listening in eastern Europe, as I was soon to find out. Communist censorship kept Sgt. Pepperaway from the ears of people behind the iron curtain. Gradually, of course, bootleg copies filtered in.
I was a graduate student in Michigan when Sgt. Pepper came out, and about to leave for a two month-long academic seminar in Yugoslavia. Luckily I had ten days to absorb this amazing opus before departing on June 15th
Curiously in that 1967 summer of love, Sgt. Pepper was not available in Yugoslavia, the non-aligned communist nation that straddled the Balkans. At that time Yugoslavia was riding high, presenting itself as a bridge between east and west, a multi-ethnic success story open to western influence, whose citizens could travel where they wanted.
In those years when travelers still dressed up for transatlantic flights, Pan American lined up our group of 20 for a photo at its futuristic terminal at JFK.
Arriving in Yugoslavia was a bit of a shock. This was not the Europe we knew. Belgrade, the capital, was unfamiliar and mildly exotic as it used the Cyrillic alphabet. Zastava cars were tiny, cigarettes pungent, thick Turkish coffee was brewed in copper carafes, and there was slightly sour yogurt, a product not yet common in the U.S.
In the Slavia Hotel on Marshall Tito Boulevard, I momentarily froze when I realized I was sharing the elevator with two Russian generals. Visiting the Chinese embassy we were handed English translations of Chairman Mao’s little red book. Traveling by bus in impoverished Kosovo we experienced public toilets that were holes in the floor with raised treads indicating how things were to be done.
On days without lectures, I prowled downtown shops in search of Sgt. Pepper. The album wasn’t to be found and clerks hadn’t heard of it. I did get tickets for a concert by Graham Nash and The Hollies. That night the English rock group came on stage in floor length moo moos, a large banner above them declaring in English, “Hollies Love Peace.”
I had just about given up finding Sgt. Pepper until somewhere on the bus in Bosnia-Hercegovina a radio station played Help, that tame, earlier Beatles recording.
Aware that we would be spending the next week in Slovenia, the Yugoslav republic closest to Italy, I wondered if there might be some way I could reach Trieste and bring the album back to Ljubljana.
In red, the route between Ljubljana and Trieste, Italy
With the assistance of friends I devised a plan. I was told the train was too slow, making it impossible to get the 60 miles to Trieste and back in a day. There were no buses. But someone said driving was relatively easy and that the border controls were not onerous. With that information, I resolved to hitch hike.
Early on the morning of July 20th, missing a lecture on the history of Slovene painting, I boarded a tram for the city’s outskirts. Reaching the main road south to Italy, I put out my thumb and held aloft the sign I had made the night before from a file folder.
It worked. Two or three rides on a warm sunny day and I was at the border where my American passport worked wonders. Within minutes I was in Italy. One more ride and I was in downtown Trieste, a city once claimed by Yugoslavia in a territorial dispute resolved in the 1950s.
The first record store I came to had a stack of Sgt. Pepper near the cashier. Paying for the album and flush with success, within minutes I boarded a city bus and was headed back to the border and Slovenia.
I arrived at the University of Ljubljana philosophical faculty before dark. Dinner was over but some of our group and a few Slovene students were still in the canteen, which had a record player. I put on the precious Beatles LP. The music played but the response in the room was muted. I however was ecstatic. When our group moved on to the University of Zagreb, Sgt. Pepper became my gift to the students in Ljubljana.
Ironically, less than a week later a telegram arrived informing me that my student deferment from the draft had been rescinded. I was ordered to report for a physical and induction into the army. On the advice of professors, I departed at once to plead for reconsideration.
I arrived in New York on July 27th. That same evening I flew to Detroit, where a week of racial rioting had left parts of the city in flames. As the American Airlines 727 came in to land fires lit up the night sky. Metro airport was a beehive of activity as President Johnson had deployed airborne troops to restore order. Forty-three people died in the unrest and 1,100 others were injured.
Back home in Kalamazoo and armed with a letter granting me an assistant ship in the economics department at Western Michigan University, I won my appeal from the draft board.
Awaiting the start of the academic year, I savored again the mind-blowing effect of Sgt. Pepper on stereophonic speakers. Yapping dogs and synthetic sounds ricocheted through my head as the show concluded with the orchestral climax of John Lennon’s “Day in the Life.”
Thus ended my summer of love.
But what about Yugoslavia, a country that in less than 30-years collapsed amid barbarous civil war? In 1967 scholars utterly failed to see that future. In three-dozen lectures at universities in Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia, there was no mention of ethnic conflict or eventual breakup. The Slavic specialists among us likewise failed to see dangers ahead. Yes, there was talk of regional disparities and rival nationalisms but they were regarded as benign, not malignant.
With the advantage of hindsight, Yugoslavia was held together by force and the charismatic power of Tito, the partisan hero who fought the Germans in World War II. He died in 1980 without a successor. In the years that followed the center weakened and long suppressed ethnic rivalries gained strength. In 1991 when totalitarian communism collapsed in Russia, Yugoslavia—like the Soviet Union—fell apart.