It’s impossible to hear the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the way it was heard when it was released, in 1967, 50 years ago today. Filled with instruments rarely heard in British rock music, such as the sitar, and technical experiments including double-tracked vocals and variable tape speeds, it was like nothing that had been etched into vinyl before, much less by a pop band. It was a testament to what four young Englishmen and a producer, with nearly unlimited resources and unregulated drugs, could conceive in a studio, where the Beatles had retreated after too many shows drowned out and cut short by screaming fans. They had no intention of performing the songs in concert.
Almost immediately, it was imitated. So often, and so badly in fact, that within a decade the “psychedelia” genre it inspired had become an embarrassing artifact of the 1960s. There is no way to hear the album’s originality anymore, though its importance remains unassailable. Today it may be the musical equivalent of James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental book as universally acclaimed as it is unread.
When Mia reconfigured its contemporary galleries this past winter, it brought in an artist very familiar with album rankings—and “Sgt. Pepper” in particular. Dave Muller, of Los Angeles, has worked as a DJ and still does, especially at his own openings, and he became known for painting stacks of LPs—personal top 10 lists. He once titled a show “iamthewalrus” (after the Beatles song), which included a painted depiction of the iconic “Sgt. Pepper” album cover, shredded into something like confetti or fajita strips. He called it Sgt. Pepper (Chopped and Screwed).
Muller painted Mia’s contemporary galleries with lively murals and reconstituted them with artworks from Mia’s collection. And among the things he painted on the walls is a set of vintage headphones, a talisman of his musical fanaticism. Sgt. Pepper, when it came out in 1967, was the first real “headphones album,” something you would want to listen to intensely, without distraction—even though it was released in mono (a stereo remix came out last month).
Muller’s headphones suggest not just a connoisseur’s undivided attention to art, but also an artist’s attention to detail, the kind that would stand up to such close scrutiny. This is what the Beatles created with Sgt. Pepper: no matter how diluted its power has become through imitation, the staggering craftsmanship at it core has held up—as good a definition of a masterpiece as any.
Top: (left) Dave Muller’s mural of Pioneer Monitor 10 headphones in gallery G374 at Mia; (right) detail of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover.