This summer marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (released on June 2, 1967 in the U.S.).

Even on my first listening, there was something holding the whole album together, although it wasn’t something I could have articulated at the time.

Looking back now, I can convey some of my impressions:

The album starts with a raucous “overture” by a fictional pop music group, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Was this the way The Beatles saw their fans — as a “lonely hearts club” — or saw themselves — as the entertainers (or “badchonim” — “jesters”) for a group of lonely people? Maybe both? I took it as a sort of self-mocking statement, which was at the same time immensely enjoyable — as Beatles’ music almost always was.

The “overture” ends with a big, “brassy” introduction of imaginary pop star “Billy Shears,” including the applause of an imaginary stadium-size crowd. The music builds in volume and excitement, only to culminate in a plaintive statement of personal insecurity sung effectively by Ringo Starr. I remember laughing the first time I heard it; laughing at the concept of an insecure pop star — a pop star is supposed to exude extreme self-confidence. The song has a “bouncy” rhythm, and yet, there’s a sadness to it — especially after the “brassy” introduction. It ends with no added applause, and a diminished chord just before the final one, further suggesting something sad or plaintive.

How conscious were the Beatles that they were adding an element of satirical self-reflection that had never been heard in pop music (certainly not to that degree)? Was it even intentional, or was it the outgrowth of humor they shared between themselves — the recognition that the world practically worshiped them, while they knew themselves to be merely fallible human beings (as Paul later sang about being a Beatle, “Baby, I’m a lonely man in the middle of something that he doesn’t really understand”).

Whether they knew it or not — it worked.

The entire rest of the album is held together by that sense of a person looking at the world with attempted neutrality, finding it alternately sad, absurd, weird, funny and so on. People make such petty, ridiculous things important and react accordingly, while distracting themselves with meaningless entertainment (“For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”). That “looking at the world neutrally” captured something of the drug experience.

My own “experimentation” was very slight, compared with many others’. I never used LSD; certainly not any harder drugs. I actually did not use any during the “summer of love” or afterwards, until late 1969, when I wondered what people were getting out of it. I used marijuana until around August, 1971; I started meditating a month later and never used again.

But I remember once, in 1970, being in a state park with a friend. There was thick greenery and a stream running in front of us with cool water. My friend and I smoked some marijuana. As it began to effect me, I looked at the water running and at the summer-green trees. I realized that the water is constantly wearing down the stones in the stream bed; that the leaves — now so lush and green — would shortly begin to change color and die, and that the process is never-ending. I said to my friend, “This world can’t do anything but change” (to which he replied, “That’s the most objective thing you’ve ever said,” referring to my never-ending penchant for thinking about my own thoughts and feelings). 

So, although I wouldn’t have understood it in 1967, The Beatles might have been drawing on their own drug experiences; looking at the world randomly (“She’s Leaving Home; “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite;” “When I’m 64”); finding the ordinary things and people in it diverse and strange. All in the form of “pop songs” — short; maybe 2 1/2 minutes, except for “A Day in the Life” — held together by an inner string of detached witnessing, until the final reprise of the “Sgt. Pepper’s…” overture — now especially ironic, as we ourselves have at this point been the charmed and distracted audience of the whole album.  

Taken by themselves, the songs aren’t necessarily as great as some of the writing that came later. I even read that Paul originally wrote “…64” before he was a Beatle, seeing it in the English Music Hall tradition. He meant it quite literally; it would have been a sweet, humorous piece, like “I’m Henry the Eighth.” It’s only in the context of “Sgt. Pepper’s” that the same song, depicting concern with planning out an entire life in detail and anxiety if the details might not work out 30 years later, takes on an entire other level of satire, humor and social criticism.

The culmination, “A Day in the Life,” sort of encapsulates the entire experience the rest of the album has been describing: People fill their lives with meaningless details, respond to tragedies with muffled emotions, and so on, from which John (the lyricist) would “love to turn [us] on” — so that we could see ourselves and the world we’re creating from a more “cosmic” viewpoint; liberated from the limits of the mundane. He returns to the same theme — sort of — in “Imagine,” which he wrote some years later.

The “detached view” I wrote about above is more typically called “non-attachment” in meditative and religious traditions. The current interest in the Buddhist practice of “Mindfulness” is in the same category: Watch thoughts and events as they happen, allowing them to pass by without judgement or preference. 

But in 1967, for most people, the way to that “non-attachment” was through drugs. This turned out to be spiritually false, because the view was only active while you were under the influence of the drug. It might change your subsequent thinking, but not your actual state of consciousness. You would always need the drug to do that, and quite possibly larger doses and/or stronger drugs later on. 

Also, there wasn’t much thought given (or expressed, anyway) about the changes we would have to make in ourselves. The first step in detachment — or non-attachment — is recognizing that we have been basing our happiness or self-worth on externals. But the next step is learning how to look “inward” (as it were) for those things. “Happiness is dependent on your thoughts,” as Rabbi Zelig Pliskin says in “Gateway to Happiness.” 

“Letting go” during prayer or meditation or the practice of faith (and it is a “practice”), we can experience a field of happiness, energy and intelligence that is always in us. In fact, is us. 

For all that, “Sgt. Pepper’s…” was an album I loved listening to for itself then and now, for the joyous summer it accompanied.