Stealing Sgt. Pepper


One of the difficult things about having kids – in my case having one kid – is being forced to defend immorality. Specifically, my own immorality.

This morning while walking my soon-to-be-twelve-year-old-daughter to school I took it upon myself to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic. We were talking about music: and my sentimental tears were almost palpable as I took Sofia back to my youth and the days before cassette tapes (which she has never seen!) when for some reason my dad bought me a gigantic industrial reel-to-reel tape recorder. I think he bought it in the pub.

It was a magical thing. It enabled you to record sounds. You could speak into it and then replay what you had said. I felt privileged to own it.

The first thing I did with my new machine was to start borrowing my friends’ records and taping them. By taping them I mean holding the microphone up to my dad’s giant Russian radiogram’ speakers when everyone was out and not making a sound for the entirety of the record.

This was quite illegal, of course. But I was my daughter’s age at the time and had no concept at all of morality; well, morality in relation to stealing recorded music from a vinyl disk as opposed to stealing sweets from a concrete and glass shop (which I also did). I wasn’t a lawyer. It didn’t occur to me that I was doing anything wrong. When you played a record the sound simply drifted off into the ether. Didn’t it? And what could possibly be wrong with recording that sound as it made its journey into nothingness? In actual fact, wasn’t I merely giving that music the respect that it deserved?

As we walked I told Sofia of my friend Dean Hooper. And how I would sometimes walk home from school with him and call into his house. There, his brilliant mother, a Beatles fan who owned all of the LPs in original mono, would lend me records to tape. Thus in 1976, at the height of punk and fully nine years after its release, I finally got my hands on a copy of Sgt. Pepper. It was then, I told Sofia, that I first heard the epic and amazing ‘A Day In The Life’.

This was my cue to wax lyrical about that endless E-Major chord, the strange voices on the run-off groove that said ‘We’ll fuck you like a superman’ if you played the record backwards; the allegories and similes and metaphors that critics have droned on endlessly about ever since. But then Sofia interrupted my musings with a simple question. ‘Wasn’t that stealing?’ she asked.

Sofia is a bright spark. To digress, I received a letter from her school yesterday telling me that she was ‘gifted and talented’ in something called ‘Design Technology’. When I mentioned this to her she told me it was cooking. But back to the story:

I spluttered a bit and tried to think on my feet. Of course it was stealing, I said. But not really stealing. Oh, OK it was stealing. But not intentional stealing. And then I spluttered a bit more.

It wasn’t an argument that I was ever going to win. Because unlike myself at her age Sofia is well aware of the implications of illegally downloading music and movies. She knows that it is called pirating and is not to be done. She knows that it robs creative artists of their upkeep (and being an alleged ‘creative artist’ myself, I should perhaps know better!). And she knows that by recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (stupid title) I was robbing the Beatles of an honest income.

But, to quote Paul McCartney from a quite dreadful song on Venus And Mars ‘then it occurred to me. I couldn’t be bad…’. Because when I thought about it I’ve actually purchased Sgt. Pepper six times since I stole it all those years ago.

First there was the stereo version that I bought in a record shop in Gloucester Road in Bristol in 1977 for £3.60 (Yes, I really do have a memory like this!); then there was the second-hand mono copy that I bought in 1983 because mono is better, don’t you know? Then there was the CD copy that I purchased in 1987 because the sound was supposed to be ‘clearer’ (it wasn’t and it never will be because vinyl really is better than digital (it’s scientifically proven)). Then there was the copy that came with the Beatles remastered CD box set that I bought, what… four years ago? That was followed by the Beatles remastered Mono box set that I purchased soon afterwards (because mono is better, don’t you know?). Then there was the digital Beatles remastered box set on a USB card that I bought because it might become a collector’s item (it’s still sealed if you want to make an offer).

And I’m not mentioning the fact that I own a copy of Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ album – not the original 1971 album but another that came out in 1989 to accompany a film by that name. This also has ‘A Day In the Life’ on it, making it in all my seventh copy of that song. Quite ridiculous.

So I think, all in all, that the Beatles have had their money’s worth out of me. And that, I believe, opens up an interesting question: Would I have bought Sgt Pepper legitimately had I never have bootlegged the LP as a teenager?

The answer? Most probably yes. In fact, definitely yes. But I can think of lots of other records and indeed movies that I have later purchased after listening to or watching a pirate copy.

I bought them because I wanted to own them. I wanted to own them because they brought something into my life that a pirate copy did not.


10 thoughts on “Stealing Sgt. Pepper

  1. Hi Ian,
    Kids! Loved your post. Daughters are interesting, intriguing creatures and mine really has me on my toes. Her brain runs on turbo and she’s a very quick thinker, which means by the time I’ve registered something is happening, it’s seriously escalated.
    I’ve been doing some writing practice with the kids, which included writing similes. I wrote a post about the outcome of discussing as bald as a badger with my daughter, where she came up with as bald as a blobfish. Of course, I hadn’t heard of the blobfish and thought she was just being difficult.
    My grandparents used to have one of those reel to reel tape recorders and recorded my parents’ wedding and me singing as a child. They were amazing contraptions and I’ve got theirs in my hallway cupboard and mum has misplaced the reels. Typical! We do have one.
    I would say you were of the era when people made their friends tapes with their favourite songs recorded all from the radio. So not only were we copying and stealing songs, we were also exchanging them as well. Obviously, we were a shameful generation.


  2. It makes me sound ancient but I could go on about that tape recorder for a long time. It really was a very important thing to me at the time. Even better, my sister had one too. This mean that I could multi-track, i.e. record my voice and then harmonise with it. This introduced me to the dreaded ‘phasing’ and the fact that, like life, everything deteriorates the more you use it.

    I also experimented with threading a single spool of tape through both machines. This was after I’d put a piece of sellotape over the record head so that I could overdub and get echo effects.

    It’s funny how you never forget these things. Well actually, that’s not true because i had forgotten all about them until that talk with Sofia got me thinking about ti all over again.

    In many ways the scarcity of objects to play with actually was an advantage over what kids have nowadays. I was forced, or rather compelled, to explore the possibilities of that tape recorder. These days kids have everything but appreciate nothing.

    I’m sounding like an old bugger.


    • Hey, In the days of reel to reel tape-recorders, what you did was called showing initiative; much more worthy than being a goody two-shoes.Besides I’m not even sure if it was illegal back then , or maybe it’s just that the definition of illegal was being caught.
      I think Sophie still needs to appreciate the subtle nuances of morality that comes with growing up. Sometimes the greater good requires manipulation of the truth or a little white lie; the Hitler Youth Movement springs to mind.
      If you’re still beating yourself up over it then by all means use the “try before buy” rationalisation, if it gets old Lucifer off your shoulder.


  3. Great story! I got a walkman as a gift when I was 13 which I vigorously held up against my TV to record songs. It did help me finally listen to Norah Jones, because our TV was quite old and I could never “hear” her. Now, I have her albums and I could never have imagined I would love her voice so much. I am a huge Beatles fan but, am ashamed to admit, I’ve never listened to them on vinyl. I would especially love to listen to the early records someday.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this, you were an original “pirate”. I remember waiting for songs to come on the radio to hit record on the cassette tape. Pirating has come from a positive – sharing music. To a negative – stealing music. Sounds like you’ve got a good girl there! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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