You can keep your ’52 Mickey Mantle. I’m on the hunt for a ’78 Brad Whitford.
If you read this blog at all regularly, you know I maintain a passing interest in baseball cards. I still have my childhood collection in a couple of three-ring binders, and I usually add a pack or two a year, just to see what this year’s models look like.
Through the years, I’ve given short shrift to non-sports cards. I’ve just never thought of ’em on the same level as sports cards, and I’ve never pursued them. I think I have three or four Star Wars cards that came on the same tray as long-ago fast-food burgers, but that may be about it.
This, though, might just change my entire mindset. It’s a set of 66 cards issued in 1978 by cardmaker Donruss to commemorate the would-be feel-good movie of the summer, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
(I have Jeff Katz, a.k.a. @SplitSeason1981 on Twitter, to thank for calling my attention to these. If you’re on Twitter, Mr. Katz is a worthy and interesting follow: Not only has he written a book about the strike-divided 1981 baseball season, he was until recently the mayor of Cooperstown, New York.)
Sgt. Pepper’s is a dismal plastic abomination of a movie. It’s vulgar and nonsensical and misbegotten, capturing none of whatever elusive magic was generated by its (somewhat overrated) namesake album.
As one of the friends I first saw it with said: “I wondered: How can you take a bunch of Beatles songs and build ’em into a plot? And I found out the answer: You can’t!”
That’s why I enjoy it, though. I’d like to think I’m above schadenfreude, but I’m not, really. And I savor every frame of the movie while thinking, “Somebody — a whole bunch of somebodies — honestly thought this mess was going to be a blockbuster.”
Sure, there are a few memorable musical performances. Earth, Wind & Fire is sweet, and Alice Cooper is so far off the wall he carries it off. But every second of the rest is a wet kipper-smack in the face of highly paid professionals who should have known better — performers, screenwriters, directors … hell, even gaffers and best boys.
These cards take the sweet taste of schadenfreude up another notch.
Because, not only was there a movie, there was merch to go with it. A novelization. A double-album soundtrack (of course it was a double album.) Belt buckles. Posters. And, yes, trading cards. Because the Beatles were magic; the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton seemed magic; and Hollywood was gonna cash in on that magic every which way it could.
(I pause for a moment to consider whether anyone in America actually did think it was magic. Was there some kid in Omaha who sat there breathless when — SPOILER WARNING — the weathervane turned into Billy Preston? Somebody who ran out the next day and used all his lawn-mowing money to buy four packs of Sgt. Pepper’s cards from the otherwise untouched box at the corner drugstore? If there was, God bless him. The light shines on us all, unexpectedly, from time to time.)
Katz found his complete set of Sgt. Pepper’s cards for $5, which is no great expenditure. I’m trying to decide whether I actually want to own a set, or whether this website — which has photos of every card — tells me all I need to know.
There’s a lot of overlap in the set. I count at least three cards of Maurice Gibb playing drums, plus another three related to the hot-air balloon that occupies, like, 10 minutes of the movie. I don’t need to physically possess any of that.
On the other hand, card 44, “Father Sun’s Temple of Electronic Cosmology,” is quite possibly the maddest, most illogical thing ever committed to cardboard.
If you’d never seen the movie — like, if you bought a box of cards at a flea market and this was in it — what in the hell would you think was going on? (I mean, it doesn’t make a lot of sense even if you have seen the movie, but imagine coming to it with no context whatsoever.)
And No. 52 — “Sgt. Pepper dies at ceremonies in his honor” — is bizarre and perverse. Of all the moments in the movie to put on a card … why the old dude stroking out onstage, horn in hand? Just off the top of my head, I can name at least one card-worthy moment in the movie that isn’t in the set that could have gone in instead.
(Imagine a kid buying a pack of Sgt. Pepper’s cards at random — he hasn’t seen the movie, but he’s just getting into rock music, and he knows the Beatles are supposed to be magic, so he takes a flyer on a pack of cards — and this is the first one he pulls. Turn me on, dead man.)
I have enough upcoming expenditures, and enough possessions, that I don’t seriously see myself pursuing a set of Sgt. Pepper’s trading cards. To paraphrase EW&F, I don’t got to get them into my life.
Just knowing that the cards exist, though, makes me want to strut and high-step like a weathervane come to life. Their existence simultaneously represents the victory of Seventies American trash culture and bad taste, and the maximum failure of Seventies American trash culture and bad taste.
That’s a big burden for sixty-six slabs of cardboard to carry … but you know me; I wouldn’t exaggerate.