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45 years of 'Sgt. Pepper' just a day in the life of Glenn Gass

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Noted Beatles and rock 'n' roll scholar and historian Glenn Gass (right), a Greencastle native and professor of music at Indiana University, poses with his father, Clint Gass, professor emeritus of mathematics at DePauw University, following his presentation at Watson Forum in the DPU Center for Contemporary Media.
Taking his audience on a personal journey as well as a magical mystery tour of The Beatles' creation of what many consider the most important rock 'n' roll album of all time, Greencastle native Glenn Gass was as at-home with his material as he is with his life.

He didn't come right out and say it Monday night, but Gass, a 1974 Greencastle High School graduate, had to be thinking: "It's wonderful to be here, it's certainly a thrill. You're such a lovely audience, we'd like to take you home with us, we'd love to take you home ..."

Of course those lyrics come from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the topic of his 2-1/2-hour presentation before a full house at Watson Forum in the DePauw Center for Contemporary Media.

While Beatle lyrics will tell you "it was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play," 2012 is marking the 45th anniversary of the album Rolling Stone has called "the most important rock 'n' roll album ever made ... by the greatest rock 'n' roll group of all time."

With such familiar songs as "With a Little Help from My Friends," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life" included, the album was No. 1 on Rolling Stone magazine's 2005 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Gass recalled his own personal indoctrination into the world of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a fictitious Beatles' alter-ego concept that Paul McCartney devised. The album was released in June 1967 following more than 700 studio hours of work by The Beatles, and it created an immediate stir.

"My own experience involved bringing it home from Downbeat Records," Gass said in reference to the old Greencastle record shop that operated across from the library at Vine and Walnut streets.

"I had to hear it," Gass gushed, "and I had to hear it again. You didn't want to be that guy going to school the next day and saying, 'I don't get it.'"

Prior to "Sgt. Pepper," albums mostly had been collections of unrelated songs. Kids bought 45-rpm singles while adults who wanted to listen to soundtracks from musicals and long versions of classical music, mainly bought albums, Gass suggested.

"Then The Beatles come along, and they're so good, everybody's buying Beatles' albums," he added.

The Sgt. Pepper album, Gass said, enabled The Beatles to "inhabit the role of a fictitious band and no longer be constrained by the idea 'we're The Beatles and we play guitars.'"

In the studio, he stressed, the album meant The Beatles had gone well beyond what they could go out on stage and play. There was no way to make Sgt. Pepper work on stage or at second base of some giant stadium venue.

After his "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" presentation before a full house at DePauw's Watson Forum Monday night, IU Prof. Glenn Gass shares old memories with Janet Hardwick Gaston, who grew up in the same Greencastle neighborhood as the rock 'n' roll scholar/historian.
"This album, of all albums, needs to be heard in its entirety. And there is nothing accidental about this album, it was meant to be heard exactly in this order," Gass told the audience, which was dominated by local residents in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

"The age span in this room is freaking me out," he laughed. "I'm used to an audience of 18-21 year olds who believe everything I say. I'm not used to having reality checkers in the room."

While being such an important rock 'n' roll touchstone, the Sgt. Pepper album certainly isn't meant for the technology of today, Gass assured.

"It's the worst album there is for the iPod generation," he said, later decrying how the students in his IU classes listen to everything through the little white ear buds of their iPod.

"I feel sorry for those people," he said. "It's like we've degraded sound to the point where it's like we're looking at Xerox copies of Picassos."

In going over each of the tracks on the album, Gass provided insights from his nearly 50 years as a Beatles devotee.

He noted, for example, how there is relatively little dead space between the songs on the album in an effort to reinforce the idea you are listening to a live show by the Lonely Hearts Club Band.

"It was as if there were something going on at all times," Gass said, "like some psychedelic 'Ed Sullivan Show' or something."

At the end of the opening title track, the song introduces Billy Shears (aka Ringo Starr), who immediately launches into "With a Little Help From My Friends," characterized by Gass as "the greatest of all the Ringo songs."

And why wouldn't it be, he reasoned, "whenever you've got Ringo singing," Gass pointed out, "that means you've got the greatest back-up singers in the world behind him."

Meanwhile, the "friends" in Ringo's song and the supposed LSD reference ("pure coincidence," Gass says) in the song title "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" have led many to consider Sgt. Pepper as The Beatles' "drug album."

And Gass admitted he has had some difficulty in dealing with that aspect in his IU class.

"It's hard (talking about it) in my class," he said, "because The Beatles took them (drugs) -- I don't know if you know that or not," he added to laughter. "But it was part of the culture of the time."

As he plays portions of each song, providing insight, inside info and informative tidbits about each, it's as if Gass is hearing the music for the first time along with his audience.

"Boy, they're good," he gushed after one audio clip. "What a great band."

And later Gass apologizes for moving through the play list quickly to keep his appearance from continuing on into Tuesday morning, although the audience would have gladly stayed that long. "Boy, it's a hard album to rush through," he sighs.

And as he plays the final chord of the album's final cut ("A Day in the Life"), Gass is exuberant on the Watson Forum stage.

"Wow," he exclaims, "it's as if we've been listening to Brahms' Fourth (Symphony) but I don't think Brahms is this good."

As he shuts down his multi-media system, Gass exhales, "Ah, 45 years," before urging his audience to "listen to 'Sgt. Pepper' all the way through."

One of Glenn Gass' own thrills for this homecoming occasion was having his father, Clint Gass, professor emeritus of mathematics at DePauw University, actually in the audience Monday night.

"My Dad originally hated The Beatles," he smiled. "Now he likes The Beatles."

As the final comment of the evening-ending question-and-answer session, Clint Gass addressed his change of heart toward his son's obsession.

"I never thought the day would come," he said, "that I would, by choice, come and listen to something about The Beatles."

As the room cleared, Glenn Gass was asked to disclose his favorite Beatles' song.

Pausing to think a few seconds, he shook his head.

"I can't answer that," he admitted.

It was easily the only thing he couldn't answer all night.

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I wish I could have been there! It sounds like Dr. Gass gave a magnificent presentation.

-- Posted by nordicheart56 on Thu, Dec 6, 2012, at 9:03 AM

Went to the lecture, . . .awesome. Skipped work the next day, stood in the middle of my son's room between two big Polk Audios, listened to the whole album straight through. Thanks Glen for reminding me how good the Beatles really were . . .

-- Posted by Shoelace on Thu, Dec 6, 2012, at 3:14 PM

Wish I could have been there, too! Glen, you look great! Love the photo with you and your father. My dad "learned" to like the Beatles, too.

-- Posted by '74tiger on Fri, Dec 7, 2012, at 5:38 AM

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