The Act You’ve Known For All These Years: The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper
ALL ENTERTAINMENT HAS AN EXISTENTIAL dimension: all successful performances imply a life-style and a sense of values, a sub-structure of assumptions upon which the performer plays his part. The Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, successfully crystallised the personalities that had made them the biggest successes in the history of show business: their surreal sense of humour, their sophisticated naïveté, and their four way plug-in personality – clever John, cuddly man in the street Ringo, sardonic George, and precocious cherubic Paul.
The Beatles’ personalities worked well in the movie since their rather repressed alienation from the feverish glamour of the TV studio complemented the deliberately small scale of the film’s view of the world. The clean old man, the harassed manager, the affected director could almost have been characters from one of McCartney’s social pastiche songs, such as ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Penny Lane’.
Their second film, Help!, failed to consolidate the spirit of A Hard Day’s Night or to offer the Beatles a viable way of expanding their image. Instead the film aspired to a glossiness and professionalism that took its norms from the clichés of show-biz conventions. It was supposed to be a vehicle for the Beatles’ talent but it was going in the wrong direction. The plot was a frenzied dash around familiar points on the entertainment compass: jokey Indians, movie parodies, and travelogue locations in full colour. The film was neither realistic nor fantastic. It was primarily artificial. The leavening touches of surrealism seemed uncertain in the context.
“Signs of strain in new Beatles’ film”. – The Times
In their musical and private lives the Beatles were nearing the end of the tether of tours, one-night stands and hysterical adulation. The high-powered artificiality of the TV studio, which they escaped from in A Hard Day’s Night in one symbolic dash through an unguarded exit, seemed to offer them no way out in reality.
On 29 August 1966, the Beatles played their final concert, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The show marked the end of their fourth American tour, and the end of the Beatles as a live performance group. By concentrating on playing the largest venues available, mainly sports arenas, the Beatles had been able to recoup the highest possible gate money while playing the smallest number of dates. Thus their final American tour was at once their shortest and their most profitable. This strategy enabled the Beatles to maximise their earnings, but it also maximised the Beatlemania associated with the concerts. Constantly playing to screaming crowds of 30,000 and over, the fans couldn’t hear the music, and the Beatles couldn’t hear themselves. Whatever potential concerts might have possessed as an opportunity for experimentation, or to develop a rapport with the audience, was lost in the hugeness of their popularity and the strategy developed to exploit it.
“It was wrecking our playing. The noise of the people just drowned anything… On stage we used to play things faster than on record, mainly because we couldn’t hear what we were doing. I used to come in at the wrong time sometimes because I’d no idea where we were at. We just used to mime half the tine to the songs, especially if your throat was feeling rough.”– Ringo
It was not only the end of the road for the Beatles as a live group. Their career as darlings of the Western showbiz world was crumbling. For the first time a Beatles single, ‘Paperback Writer’, released in July 1966, failed to reach number one in the first week. It was the first sign of ebb in the fanaticism of their mass audience, consisting mainly of girls between nine and nineteen. More important, the personalities of the Beatles, particularly John Lennon’s, were showing signs of friction with their Beatlemania personae: lovable mop-tops, lively but harmless.
In June 1966 the Beatles released an LP in the United States, entitled Yesterday and Today, with a cover photo of the Beatles dressed in bloody butchers’ aprons holding up chunks of meat and segments of dolls’ bodies. There was a violent public reaction against the cover and it was immediately withdrawn by Capitol with a mumbled apology that the photo was a misguided attempt at “pop art satire”. When questioned about the incident by the Melody Maker, John Lennon quipped: “Anyway, it’s as valid as Vietnam.” At this remark the other three Beatles “fell about”.
Earlier in 1966, John Lennon had told Maureen Cleave of the Evening Standard that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now”. The remark lay fallow for three months until the eve of their final tour, when a radio station in Alabama resurrected the comment and invited other radio stations to join with them in a total ban on Beatles records, and to organise forthcoming Beatles record burning sessions. Brian Epstein immediately announced that any promoter who wished to could cancel the show he had contracted for, without forfeiting a cent. He also issued a rewording of Lennon’s remark, explaining that what he had really been trying to express was his “astonishment at the fact that in the last fifty years, the Church of England had declined so much.”
“It gets bad when people won’t allow you to do what you wanna do. We’re creating an image for them to either buy or not buy. Like a loaf of bread; you like this bread, or you don’t like it.” – Ringo
“Everything we’ve done up to now has been crap.” – George Harrison, December 1966.
During the years of touring, Harrison had been the Beatle most concerned with the standard of their live performances. He often stood aside from Lennon and McCartney’s extrovert antics at the front of the stage, and concentrated on recreating their recorded sound as exactly as possible. He had also become the most contemptuous of their Beatlemania identity and music, and was the first of the four to make a strong stand against touring.
During the making of Help!, one of the props used by the jokey Indians had been a sitar, and Harrison picked it up and doodled with it during the lulls in filming. He developed a fascination with the sound of the instrument, and used it to play the lead guitar line in ‘Norwegian Wood’ on the Rubber Soul LP. His interest developed as he looked into the background of the instrument’s haunting sound and strange system of tuning.
At the time at which the Beatles quit touring, Harrison’s personality had been the least clearly defined of the four in the public consciousness. To many girls he was the best-looking of the Beatles, but he had none of Lennon’s crazy vitality or McCartney’s flair for playing roles. His commonest expressions seemed to be puzzlement or sardonic detachment, and the few songs of his that appeared on LPs frequently expressed a sense of aloofness and withdrawal:
Do what you want to do
And go where you’re going to
Think for yourself
Cos I won’t be there with you
(‘Think For Yourself’, 1965)
In September 1966, at the first opportunity after the end of touring, Harrison flew to India to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar.
In classical Indian culture there is no such thing as secular music. All artistic activity has religious connotations, and in particular the music aspires to integrate the transient, subjective dimension of improvisation with a mastery of classical form. In addition to studying with Ravi Shankar, Harrison met Shankar’s guru, Tat Baba, and learned the basic Hindu and Buddhist doctrines of cycles of existence: the idea of striving through successive incarnations to liberate oneself from the bonds of mortality; the concept of maya, by which one views one’s identity in society as primarily the product of social conventions, useful insofar as they formalise social interaction, but illusory and misleading as a guide to one’s spiritua1 identity; and the doctrine of karma: the concept of all thought and action producing consequences and reactions which will hamper the individual’s search for enlightenment until all negative thoughts and actions have been atoned for.
As the Beatle who had been most contemptuous of their Beatlemania roles as propagated by the press and commercial pressures, who had tried the hardest to make their concerts musical events rather than social phenomena, and as the only Beatle to take musicianship seriously enough to practice in between tours and recordings, Harrison had been intuitively working towards many of these values. Finding a complex and coherent system which minimised the validity of social conventions, and placed its stress on the individual’s attempt to transcend his social context, was the catalyst that enabled Harrison to establish himself as an artist with his own outlook and technique.
Not surprisingly, in the first flush of discovery, Harrison immersed himself so totally in Indian forms and concepts that he lost most of his identity as an artist and as a member of a rock group: ‘Within You, Without You’.
While Harrison was in India, John Lennon accepted the role of Private Gripweed in Dick Lester’s film How I Won The War, but found little satisfaction in acting or in the company of actors.
Paul McCartney chose to write a film score for The Family Way, Bill Norton’s comedy about sexual conventions in a Northern working class family. Like Lennon, he found little sense of fulfilment and went for a long holiday in Africa afterwards. However, the experience of working with George Martin on a complete score possibly started him thinking about the unity of the Beatles’ music. And the strong Northern background of the film probably served to trigger memories of his own childhood. ‘Penny Lane’, with its controlled nostalgia and echoes of street bands, is likely to be related to The Family Way period.
The second half of 1966 was also a period of heavy involvement in acid-taking for the Beatles. The increasingly exotic textures of their music, and their changes in appearance, can be attributed to the separate activities they had undertaken, a sense of release from the constrictions of their Beatlemania roles, and to their drug experiences.
Of the first songs that they recorded after reassembling in November, Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and McCartney’s ‘Penny Lane’, both sprang from their Liverpool backgrounds and their memories of childhood. Penny Lane is a thoroughfare in Liverpool containing a bus terminal. Strawberry Fields is a Salvation Army children’s home. Every year there was a summer fête which John’s Aunt Mimi would take him to: “As soon as we could hear the Salvation Army band starting, John would jump up and down shouting, ‘Mimi, come on, we’re going to be late.'”
However, the violent contrast between what they remembered, and the way in which they dramatised their recollections in the recording studio, crystallised the differences between Lennon and McCartney’s personalities and outlooks more clearly than anything they had previously produced. And the coupling of the two songs as a double-A sided single, released in February 1967, suggested an intended opposition. The Beatles were increasing the range of their material, and also using juxtaposition to increase the material’s impact, a technique that they exploited most thoroughly in Sgt. Pepper.
I’m going to Kansas City
Gonna get my baby one time
(‘Kansas City’, by Leiber and Stoller)
Let me take you down
Cos I’m going to Strawberry Fields
(‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, by Lennon and McCartney)
Much of American blues, country and western, and rock and roll, music which was the major part of the Beatles’ earliest musical resources, offers the idea of the journey or trip, whether brief or lasting a lifetime, as the most direct means of escape from the troubles of the world.
When a woman gets dissatisfied
She hangs her head and cries,
When a man gets dissatisfied
He flags a train and rides
(‘Dissatisfied Blues’, by Brownie McGhee)
This element held a strong appeal to white youth who came to identify with the music, and used it to express their own alienation.
Much of Bob Dylan’s first LP is haunted by the mystique of hard travelling: the idea of new experiences and a new life lying further down the highway or the railroad track. Another facet of the lure of the road was the mesmeric attraction of the big city to those who felt bored and isolated by life in the small towns of the United States. The image of the city as a goal containing women, excitement and fulfilment, underlies many songs, including ‘Kansas City’, which the Beatles recorded.
The concept and imagery of the trip recurred with new connotations in the Beatles’ songs that expressed the burgeoning vogue for alternative realities to Western materialism: drugs and Eastern religious concepts. The chief difference was that the new direction was internal rather than external. Whereas the traditional romance of travel had revolved around the artist as an idealistic wanderer, discovering the world and himself in his travels, the new internal transport network promised to take the traveler inside himself, to a deeper understanding of his own identity. This change in direction was pinpointed by the two final songs on Revolver. In ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ McCartney sings an account of a journey that fuses internal and external points of reference:
I was alone, I took a ride
I didn’t know what I would find there
Another road where maybe I
Could see another kind of mind there.
However the journey resolves itself by finding the most traditional object of longing, another woman:
Then suddenly I see you,
Did I tell you I need you
Every single day of my life?
At the beginning of the next song, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, Lennon announced unequivocally the departure of the psychedelic bandwagon for new points inside the traveler:
Turn off your mind
Relax and float downstream
It is not dying
Lay down all thought
Surrender to the Void
It is shining
The Void replaced Kansas City as the idealised goal offering fulfilment to all those bored with life in the psychic provinces. The imperatives in the succeeding verses hammer the point home:
But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not living
Or play the game existence to the end
Of the beginning
On the same album the Beatles created their most memorable metaphor of “the game existence”: ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the definitive synthesis of Lennon’s tendency towards cynicism and McCartney’s tendency towards sentimentality. The interaction of these same two qualities underlies the outlook of Sgt. Pepper, an album that extends and diversifies the vision suggested in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ of human society as a huge lonely hearts club. It was this vision that was to provide the static element of the Beatles’ art, and the dynamic of the trip in all dimensions: psychedelic, spiritual, temporal and spatial, that was to provide the kinetic element. It was this dynamic that was developed in ‘Penny Lane’/’Strawberry Fields Forever’. Both songs described places and the trip there and back, but places that existed primarily as metaphors for states of mind, places that existed inside the Beatles.
John Lennon’s first major experiment in psychic geography was his story of nowhere man in nowhere land, in the song ‘Nowhere Man’ on the Rubber Soul LP. Later he was to reveal the song was primarily about himself, but at the time it seemed to have the same one-sided quality that characterised most protest songs.
He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody…
Nowhere man, please listen
Understand what you’re missing
In spite of the redeeming catch phrase (“Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”) the song’s aggressiveness suggested that the problem primarily afflicted others.
On ‘Rain’, released six months later, things had improved slightly. The one-sidedness was still there, but the music had begun to do some of the talking: a shuddering, hypnotic downpour of sound that engulfed the listener in the same way as the subjects of the song were paralysed by their own outlook:
When the rain comes
They run and hide their heads
They might as well be dead
When the rain comes
While working on this song, Lennon took home the tapes from one evening’s session to listen to. Being stoned, he laced them up the wrong way round on the tape recorder and listened to the song backwards. He decided it sounded better that way and for the first time the Beatles included backward running tapes on the record. Their resources were expanding.
Until Rubber Soul I hadn’t been very struck by their music. They were clever, tuneful and lively, but I associated their music with parties rather than listening. Compared to groups who based themselves on the blues, such as the Stones and Animals, the Beatles seemed flashy and glib. Compared to Bob Dylan’s aural landscapes, coherently random imagery and constant pushing past clichés, the Beatles seemed uninventive, limited in form and vision. Their development of a tighter sound, more insidious melodies and more open-ended lyrics on Rubber Soul had been impressive. And their ability to package each song on Revolver in a distinctive musical box had been breathtaking; but for me there still remained a certain glibness, a resolute tin pan alley positivism in the face of the new doors they were opening.
The Beatles’ new single was called ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. A series of pastoral, descending chords conjured up the expected image of strawberry fields. But the one-sidedness of ‘Rain’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ had been replaced by a disturbing duality: instead of standing outside the problem and looking in, the song is sung in the first person and the singer is trying to take the audience with him:
Let me take you down
Cos I’m going to
On the word ‘to’ the airwaves seemed to bend, and the band launched into a sickening, seductive downhill momentum, as the pastoral pipes were subsumed into a solid torrent of sound that seemed to sweep the singer out of the ambiguous clarity of the first verse. Anger at other people’s limitations has been muffled and ultimately negated by a drop-out sense of resignation:
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me
The singer’s voice becomes more distorted and disembodied in each successive verse, the rhythm becomes more pronounced, and the drumming more violent, conveying a helpless thrashing around in a morass of sound. One is actively involved in the anomie described because the singer is talking to us, rather than at us, and falling apart as he talks:
Always no sometimes think it’s me
But you know I know when it’s a dream
I think I know I mean, er, yes but it’s all wrong
That is, I think I disagree
The final verse, with its non-sequiturs and grammatical incoherence, uses the most extreme technique available to the songwriter to convey the inadequacy of language, and a sense of a disintegrating personality.
In the context of the successively more confused verses, the recurrent chorus becomes more sinister, like some litany of chaos repeated to shut out the engulfing confusion:
Let me take you down
Cos I’m going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever
Remote, electronic trumpets underline each statement like an ironic fanfare, and sombre cello figures round off each mumbled verse, as though finishing the speaker’s lines for him. The sound solidifies and flows on, sweeping the singer away with it. After the final chorus there is a fractional lull, and then the band chugs off out of earshot, like a full orchestra tumbling down a hill. There is a second’s silence and then a more liquid sound reappears, perhaps representing the singer in bliss in the lotus lands of his dreams, until a repeated, clanging guitar note briefly erupts and then vanishes; the gurgling orchestra fades away again; a few words are mumbled; the rest is silence.
George Martin’s account of how the backing of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was created conveys an idea of the Beatles’ technical complexity at the time. Lennon was dissatisfied with the first backing track they had recorded:
“He’d wanted it as a gentle dreaming song, but he said it had come out too raucous. He said could I do him a new line up with the strings. So I wrote a new score and we recorded that. But he didn’t like it. It still wasn’t right. What he would now like was the first half of the early recording, plus the second half of the new recording. Would I put them together for him? I said it was impossible. They were in different keys and different tempos.”
Eventually Martin speeded up the slower recording by five per cent, and this brought it to the same tempo and key as the faster recording. He was then able to mix the two tracks together.
The mumbled words at the end of the song became the centre of much Beatle theorising. What Lennon actually says is “I’m very bored”. Several critics looking for proof that this was a drug song interpreted the words as “I’m very stoned”. By the time of the ‘McCartney-is-dead’ rumour in the United States, American radio stations were hearing the words as “I buried Paul”.
Rolling Stone: “When did people first come up to you with this thing about John Lennon as God?”
Lennon: “About what to do and all of that? Like ‘You tell us, Guru’? Probably after acid… I write messages, you know. See, when you start putting out messages, people start asking you, ‘What’s the Message?'”
John Lennon’s strongest songs have all been written in the first person, and usually describe some form of pain. Paul McCartney’s songs display more formal variety and less intensity. He enjoys constructing complete scenarios with characters, settings, plots and denouements, often introducing them like an omniscient narrator who winds up the clockwork and watches his characters perform. The most obvious pitfall of this technique is the danger of lapsing into a rather mechanistic sterility, as though the simple setting of events in motion was a statement in itself. In ‘Another Day’ we view a girl’s routine at work, in her flat, in a city. The narrative piles up realistic detail without any real insight:
Slipping into stockings
Stepping into shoes
It’s just another day
like some warped paean to life’s monotony.
However, when such a story is integrated into a clear concept, the cameos take on lives of their own, like miniature theatres. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is an outstanding example, with its transition from the opening chorus, surrounded by eighteenth century string cascades:
Ah, look at all the lonely people
to the two vignettes of isolation, whose anguish is conveyed by more staccato cross-rhythms, and whose condition is signalled by a wealth of detail; ‘a face that she keeps in a jar by the door‘, ‘the words of a sermon that no-one will hear‘. The movement from the general to the particular, and the final fusion of the two figures in the last verse without disturbing the separateness that is the song’s theme:
Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name,
Father Mackenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave,
No one was saved.
is so simple as to be breathtaking, and smooth without being facile.
‘Penny Lane’ is a similar success: a dream of a suburban childhood summer, with a cast of unfrighteningly eccentric characters whose quirks are reinforced by numerous musical details: flutes that “stop and say hello”, a slightly frenzied trumpet fanfare for the banker, triumphant bells to signal the fireman’s “clean machine”, as the song moves from introspection to retrospection via the realistic detail that is one of McCartney’s descriptive strengths. There is a time-warp at work too: it is pouring with rain in Penny Lane, yet the rain never impinges on the blue skies of the narrator’s memory, or on the summer air of the baroque brass band backing.
The song seems genuinely magical, rather than simply sentimental. Part of the reason for this is that though the scenario sets the characters in motion, they retain their autonomy, opting in and out of the aural theatre in which they perform:
Behind the shelter in the middle of the roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway.
The characters’ actions repeatedly surprise the narrator:
In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer
We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim
And then the fireman rushes in
From the pouring rain – Very strange!
But the strangeness is the strangeness of unsullied innocence. The barber, the banker, the fireman, the pretty nurse are characters from a toytown childhood, untouched by squalor or fear. Even a colloquial piece of Liverpool smut: “four of fish and finger pie” (finger pie is Liverpool slang for sticking one’s fingers into a girl’s vagina) seems drained of its meaning by its context.
The songs seemed more powerful than anything I had previously heard by the Beatles, particularly ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. It seemed to have a life of its own, to grow organically and move at its own pace and in its own direction. The words and music deliberately open up the confusion of the situation, rather than rush towards a resolution in the manner of ‘Nowhere Man’. Those who find “living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see” could equally well be the wretchedly “normal” crowd from ‘Rain’, still sheltering from changes in the psychic weather, or those who criticise them: the hippies squatting on their alchemical perches (“No-one I think is in my tree”) looking down in scorn on straight society. The external reality is unreal, or at best, relative:
Can you hear me that when it rains and shines
It’s just a state of mind
and so is the drug-induced process of escape:
I mean it must be high or low
That is you can’t you know tune in
All that can be stated with confidence is the dark pun, “Nothing is real” (either ‘There is no thing that is real’ or ‘The quality of nothing is a real thing’.).
There is certainly a connection between the ambiguity of drug experiences (which may be viewed as either a positive enlargement of one’s vision, or as a self-destructive form of escapism) and the ambiguity of the trip to Strawberry Fields: one is not sure if the singer is going of his own volition, or whether the stay there will be temporary or permanent. What the words and music do establish is the potency of the momentum to opt out.
“We realised for the first time that some day, someone would eventually be holding a thing that they’d call ‘The Beatles’ new LP’, and that normally it would just be a collection of songs or a nice picture on the cover, nothing more. So the idea was to do a complete thing that could make what you liked of, just a little magic presentation. We were going to have a little magic envelope in the centre with the nutty things you can buy at Woolworth’s: a surprise package.” – Paul McCartney
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded between January and April 1967, occupying about 700 hours of studio recording time. The concept of making the record a self- contained show was arrived at towards the end of the recording sessions. The reprise of the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ track in which the band sing their farewells, the track which gives the album its rather nebulous unity, was recorded on 29 March, at the end of the sessions.
“You know, Pepper became a unit only when we put it together. It wasn’t designed that way. It wasn’t until I started piecing it together and cutting in sound effects that it really became a whole.” – George Martin
But the concept of Sgt. Pepper was the product of more than skilful splicing and mixing of tapes. Partly it was the final nail in the coffin of their Beatlemania personas The cover suggested as much: the Beatles dressed in Ruritanian costumes, physically endistanced from their mop-top former selves represented by models from Madame Tussaud’s, gazing across their name spelt out in flowers, suggested a formal burial of the Beatles’ myth.
That they successfully achieved the separation, reincarnating “the act you’ve known for all these years” as ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ may be attributed partly to more ambitious and sophisticated recording techniques, which enabled them to carry off the effect with appropriate theatrical panache, and partly to the alternative realities they had discovered through drugs and religion, alternatives which they deliberately contrasted with the norms of everyday life. But the album’s unique quality lies in its use of a theatrical/magical framework to enclose songs displaying special sensitivity to the tension between individual and social values, a tension implicit in the Lonely Hearts Club who assemble the show.
In the opening track the Band make their thunderous entry as the incarnation of music as a unifying force. In McCartney’s description, “They’re a bit of a brass band in a way, but also a rock band because they’ve got the San Francisco thing.”
We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
We hope you will enjoy the show
We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sit back and let the evening go
The audience responds with laughter and applause, but the remote, metallic quality of the crowd sounds, (like canned laughter on a TV show), simultaneously suggests the remoteness of such showbiz routines from any real contact with its audience, and the remoteness of the new studio based Beatles from their Beatlemania audience. Lennon and Harrison sing in snide harmony:
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.
The Beatles on tour had said as much to their audiences every night, and they had been lying practically every time. McCartney, bellowing at his loudest as Master of Ceremonies, interrupts with an announcement of “the one and only Billy Shears”, and a grandiose fanfare effect, accompanied by Beatlemania style screams, leads straight to Ringo’s anti-climactic appeal for support:
What would you think if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
There could be no better expression of the gulf between the showbiz clichés of togetherness with one’s audience, and the reality of an uncertain, daily search for security and warmth. Led on by Lennon and McCartney in a condescending question and answer sequence, Ringo expresses a tottering faith in the value of friends, opting for a social identity because he cannot conceive of himself without friends, rather than because he can pinpoint their positive value. And the tune’s good too.
Do you need anybody?
I need somebody to love.
Could it be anybody?
I want somebody to love.
The earthbound rock and roll backing, and uncertain friendships of Billy Shears are replaced by the fantasy friend of Lucy in the sky, characterised by a backing dominated by a celeste-like organ figure. The song serves to open up a world of fantastic imagery and preternaturally bright colours to complement the world of Billy Shears groping in the dark for what he can’t see but knows is his. Musically, the two worlds are linked by some of McCartney’s most haunting bass patterns.
‘Getting Better’ brings the waltz-time phasing effects of ‘Lucy‘ violently down to earth. This is the most primitive song on the record, musically and socially. With its exaggerated beat and harsh guitar chords it describes the clash between individual and social values at its rawest: in the mellowing of adolescent revolt into a passive settling down. The mixed qualities of teenage frustration are exampled by private violence:
I used to be cruel to my woman,
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.
and the craziness induced by institutional repression:
I used to get mad at my school,
Teachers who taught me weren’t cool,
You’re holding me down, turning me round,
Filling me up with your rules.
All four Beatles were judged to be varying degrees of failure at school but no real personal rage enters the song. The only ambiguity lies in the falsetto howls of ‘can’t get no worse’ underneath the confidently assertive chorus of
I’ve got to admit it’s getting better
It’s getting better all the time
‘Fixing A Hole’ has a similar theme of coming to terms with frustrations, but the harpsichord in the backing, and the more sophisticated imagery which uses the room as a metaphor for a state of mind, indicate a more self-controlled, more middle class version of the problem. The singer has a stronger grasp on his own life, and the reference to:
Silly people run around, they bother me
And never ask me why they don’t get past my door
contains one of the few autobiographical moments of the record.
“Sometimes I invite fans in, but it starts to be not really the point in a way, because I invited one in, and the next day she was in the Daily Mirror with her mother saying we were going to get married. So we tell the fans, ‘Forget it’.” – Paul McCartney
‘She’s Leaving Home’ returns the LP to more formal, social framework. A typical story of a girl leaving home, and the non-communicating dialogue that underlies the situation, is treated like a mini-opera which simultaneously formalises the incident, and makes the characters more sympathetic through the slight absurdity of their musical setting. Again the contrast between the isolated individual and the social unit is concentrated in to such lines as:
She’s leaving home
After living alone for so many years
And again the problem is replaced by another fantasy landscape, ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’, evoking a somewhat ethereal carnival atmosphere. Virtually all the words and phrases in the song were lifted by Lennon from an actual 19th-Century circus poster he possessed, which creates a striking contrast in the tone of the lyrics with the suburban world of the previous song. And the placing of the track at the end of side one, halfway through the album, re-introduces the theatrical framework.
those who live on the surface of reality are doomed to ignorance; only by going beyondmaya, the surface reality of facts, events and categories, which are the basis of the mainstream of secular Western conceptual techniques, can one find harmony. A harmony which does not neatly integrate the individual into his social context, but which reveals the illusory nature of an absolute distinction between the individual and his surroundings, a distinction which underlies most forms of alienation:
When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you
For me, the song fails to work in spite of its many attractive elements. The opening line has the elemental simplicity that characterises Harrison’s best religious songs:
We were talking about the space between us all
The irregular time signature, constantly shifting between 5/4 and 4/4, gives the song a fluid metrical quality appropriate to the message, a quality also present in the sequence in which the solo sitar and violin section exchange and elaborate upon each others’ themes, conveying a sense of and spontaneity. But ultimately, the whole song fails to flow together. The element of preaching is too dogmatic and aggressive to do justice to the themes of fluidity and natural harmony that underlie the song’s outlook. The stiffness of the language effectively separates the song’s vision from the minutiae of everyday life:
We were talking – about the love that’s gone so cold
And the people who gain the world and lose their soul
linking it to memories of Sunday School, rather than to a powerful moment of enlightenment.
In retrospect the song’s chief significance lies in its being the beginning of Harrison’s spiritual songwriting. After a period of writing songs in an Indian style, Harrison began refracting the Indian religious vision through Western musical forms, a way of working that was to produce more powerful and more integrated forms of expression than ‘Within You, Without You’. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, perhaps the most brilliant, through successive glimpses of a floor that needs sweeping, a world that is turning, and a love that is sleeping, fuses a sense of the everyday with a vision of the world as a cycle of suffering. Underscored by the eloquence of Eric Clapton’s blues-based guitar playing, the result is a song which transcends cultural compartments and does justice to its title: compassionate rock music.
As the last notes of the one totally self-committed song on the LP die away, a leering outburst of laughter erupts. Harrison explained:
“It’s a release after five minutes of sad music. You haven’t got to take it all that seriously, you know. You were supposed to hear the audience as they listen to Sgt. Pepper’s show. That was the style of the album.”
However, this is the only moment when the audience actually conflicts with the mood of the performance. It seems a sinister, rather than a liberating one.
The most exotic song on the album is followed by the corniest. Harrison’s Eastern vision is followed the first of McCartney’s period piece ballads, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. In later examples, such as ‘Honey Pie’, the whimsiness inherent in such a technique became cloying, and tended to smother the attractiveness of the melodies. In ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ the problem doesn’t arise because the cheerful corniness of the music complements the question asked by the song: Do feelings date as rapidly as music? Marriage is society’s chief cure for isolation, but how permanent an answer is it? The song is sung by a young man to his girl, but the style and backing of the song are a pastiche of nineteen-twenties pop. As in ‘She’s Leaving Home’, musical incongruity is used to humanise the situation: the young man singing an old-fashioned song inverts the problem of old people trying to preserve the feelings of youth. The concept of marriage as a convention to embalm and preserve emotions is related to the stiltedness of feelings on a postcard, and the impossibility of turning love into an official formula or form:
Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
The suggested range of activities together are the most clichéd imaginable – knitting a sweater, digging the garden. But the irrepressibly cheerful backing, long clarinet lines, sighing choruses and bells, make this the most optimistic song on the record. If the friendships of Billy Shears are uncertain, and the vision of ‘Within You, Without You’ seems too remote, contentment with domesticity is the best we can hope for. A trite enough solution. But part of the technique of Sgt. Pepper lies in the way it keeps close to the brightly lit mainstream of common experience, never looking far outside, until the end.
‘Lovely Rita’ is simply a joke, musically and lyrically, in which a strangely unbalanced band, the drummer is too loud and the pianist appears to be in the next room, try to sing a ballad of love at first sight with a traffic warden giving out parking tickets, with added comb and paper whooping noises for dramatic effects. The song ends with an appropriately bizarre musical/sexual climax in which the pianist attempts to take a solo, accompanied by loud orgasmic grunts and gasps, and cries from the rest of the band of “Up!” After painfully working his way up the keyboard, the desperate climax is abandoned with a shout of “Leave it”.
Lennon makes a revisit to a modified nowhere land in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’. Musically embodied in a brass section played by the group Sounds Incorporated he cruises around town attempting to pick up some momentum.
Everybody knows there’ s nothing doing
Everything is closed it’s like a ruin
Everyone you see is half asleep
And so on, until watching the girl gives the narrator a slight rise, and the song closes with the prospect of some action, and an ambiguous tolerance of the situation:
Go to a show, you hope she goes
I’ve got nothing to say but it’s OK
Good morning, good morning, good morning
A stereo menagerie flits from speaker to speaker, a chicken clucks, there is a thunderous drum break, and the Lonely Hearts Club Band reappears amidst more laughter and applause, signalling the return of humanity to the rather sterile landscape of the previous song, and the end of Sgt. Pepper’s show.
The unity implied by enclosing the album within an introduction and a finale is slightly specious. This is a drawback only if one is looking for a closely structured work, with all themes carefully dovetailed. Such a work would be a lot less varied and vital than Sgt. Pepperas it exists. The fact that no strenuous attempt is made to justify the inclusion of as foreign in form and content as ‘Within You, Without You’ in the show is one of the album’s strengths, a sign of the same autonomy and open-ended quality that prevents ‘Penny Lane’ from ticking over like a clockwork toy.
The only love songs within the Sgt. Pepper theatre are the jokey, unconsummated ‘Lovely Rita’ and Julian Lennon’s fantasy girlfriend ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. Three songs outline the theatrical/magical framework: the two ‘Sgt. Pepper’ tracks, and ‘Mr. Kite’. The remaining seven songs are principally concerned with different levels of social existence: the deadpan loneliness of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, the naively adaptive ‘Getting Better’, the carefully modulated self-control of ‘Fixing A Hole’, the mock-classical suburban isolation of ‘She’s Leaving Home’, the mystical alternative ‘Within You, Without You’, the optimistic apprehension of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, and the resignation to sterility of ‘Good Morning Good Morning’.
And within these seven songs, Sgt. Pepper gestures towards, and defines, several points of a world view that is more comprehensive than any other single work in rock. ‘She’s Leaving Home’ recorded the puzzled parent’s point of view, as well as the alienated girl’s. ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ was the first time pop stars had thought aloud about losing their hair, and the deliberately corny backing suggested the fate that would befall all popular music, no matter how sensational in its time.
If there is a weakness in the Sgt. Pepper’ cycle, it is that the songs are too dominated by the norms of social life and popular song. There is a degree of isolation in ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, of revolt in ‘Getting Better’, some awareness of claustrophobia and sterility in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’, but nothing that seriously threatens to strain the good humour of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. There seems to be no account taken of boredom or terror or despair. Until we come to the one glimpse we are given of life after the show is over, outside the Lonely Hearts Club.
As the cheers and blues shouting voices die away, a wisp of a guitar tune emerges to accompany a high-pitched, quavering voice picking up an empty, wistfully alienated outlook from the rag-bag of the media: “I read the news…I saw a film…” ‘A Day In The Life’, the most powerful song on the LP, and the only one to exist outside Sgt. Pepper’s show, crystallised around three verses by Lennon, each one loosely inspired by an actual event.
The ‘lucky man’ was Tara Browne, a rich acquaintance of the Beatles, who had died in a car crash. The film was Dick Lester’s How I Won The War, featuring Lennon as Private Gripeweed. And the 4000 holes came from a paragraph in the Daily Mail. During the recording sessions McCartney added a fragment of his own which he had been thinking of expanding:
“Woke up, fell out of bed…” to fill the gap between the second and third verse. The string transition and orchestral climaxes were arrived at after discussion between Lennon, McCartney and George Martin. Martin’s remark that although Pepper was not a carefully preconceived entity, he could feel it take on a life of its own during recording sessions, is particularly relevant to this song.
The unique power that the song possesses is principally generated by the tension between the empty, alienated naïveté of the words:
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
and the precisely judged effects of the music: the wavering, uncertain piano and guitar opening theme, the sudden thudding drum entry after “blew his mind out in a car”, the intensification of the rhythm as one is jolted into another day:
“Woke up, fell out of bed”, the unexplained alternation of singers, the unexpectedly sensual orchestral transition after “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream”, the celestial piano chords to consummate the record’s final vision and dying wish:
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
I’d love to turn you on
the utter impenetrability of the avalanche of sound, created by every instrument in a 41-piece orchestra moving from its lowest possible to its highest possible note, and the resolution of the whole collage in an endless chord.
The ambiguity of the trip to Strawberry Fields is present in a far more potent form as the gently inviting “I’d love to turn you on” leads straight into the orchestral crescendos that seem to promise total self-delivery or total self-destruction. The noise can seem oppressive or liberating, ecstatic or intimidating. The only impossible response is indifference.
The song remains unique in the Beatles’ work. It does not tend towards the internal landscape of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or the free association of ‘I Am The Walrus’. In the synthesis between the wistfulness of the words and the self-confidence of the music that propels them along, they achieved their most powerful metaphor for a world of tension and illusion. Easy explanations like “youthful alienation” and “a modern Waste Land” have been offered, but the song remains subtler than such formulae suggest, because no clear moral or aesthetic critique of modern life is being made. Instead the song’s meaning arises out of the emptiness of the words and the way in which the fragmented urban vignettes are manipulated by changes in rhythm, vocal timbre and instrumentation to stretch out the vague, innocuous kernel of the song, like a musical rack, into an unspecified source of grandeur and terror.
In retrospect, Sgt. Pepper came to be seen as the fountainhead of “progressive rock music”, a style that was characterised musically by the dilution of the tight forms of blues, country music and traditional ballads with extended improvisations, and avant-garde and ethnic influences; and lyrically by a preoccupation with “youth culture” themes: dope, social dissent and personal alienation were firm favourites.
Sgt. Pepper displays none of these trends. Instead the musical influences are rooted mainly in nostalgia: the stone-age guitar work of ‘Getting Better’, the musical hall elements of ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, the fairground memories of ‘Mr. Kite’, the formal sentimentality of ‘She’s Leaving Home’. And the lyrics came closer to capturing the lives and language of a whole society than any other rock music has done.
The drug influence was there, but usually between the lines, suggested more by the opulence of the music, and only coming into the open for ‘A Day In The Life’ which rises to the occasion by expressing both the beauty and the barrenness of a drug-supported existence. The press debated what sort of weeds were being dug in ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, and whether ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ was really Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. It was an idiotic debate. Most of the interest in and relevance of psychedelic experiences lay in the way in which they interpenetrated more “normal” states of mind. The seductive lotus lands of Strawberry Fields become a swamp of stoned confusion. The didactic “I’d love to turn you on” leads straight to a musical maelstrom that lifts one out of the tangled rhythms of a daily routine. To treat psychedelia and drug experiences as an exclusive and self-sufficient world soon lead to artistic sterility, as the Beatles discovered.
Time magazine confidently reported marijuana plants growing on the cover of Sgt. PepperThere aren’t any. And the Buckingham Palace gardener who actually arranged the flowers was not amused by this imaginative piece of journalism.
Rather than giving birth to a new sub-species of pop, Sgt. Pepper was a unique achievement that changed the character of pop forever. Undeniably, something was lost. Sgt. Pepper was theatre to be appreciated rather than music to interact with. You couldn’t dance to it and all the words were printed on the back to make certain you really understood. But the positive achievements were more striking. In place of the vagaries of teenage love, the album concentrated on themes of isolation and togetherness; in place of pop’s gleefully barbaric, uneducated persona, the album wrapped itself in a cover loaded with esoterica and intellectual references; in place of pop’s background in black blues and white country music – raw music that spoke of lust and deprivation – Sgt. Pepper flavoured itself with nostalgia, mysticism, drugs and humour; in place of the arrogance and self-sufficiency of youth, the album took circus stars, traffic wardens, visionaries and old age pensioners as its characters.
But out of it all, by virtue of the Beatles’ talent – talent that had been transformed by their creative search for a new persona, by George Martin’s brilliant production, by the insane self-confidence they had acquired after four years on top of the world – they created a complex and infinitely varied concept: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They worked it through in great detail, and finally they exploded it with a cosmic kick in the teeth at the end. It remains the most impressive creation of pop music in the ’60s, and one of the most beautiful things ever created.
More than any other single force, the cultural collage on the cover, the musical eclecticism, drug dreams, Eastern visions and yearning for love and harmony embodied in Sgt. Pepperbrought the hippie movement to England. To consummate the process, the Beatles wrote and recorded, with a little help from Donovan, Mick Jagger and other floral friends, an anthem for the movement, ‘All You Need Is Love’, for a TV show entitled Our World, which was broadcast by satellite to an estimated world audience of 150 million people. The song was then issued as a single with ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’ on the flip side, which revolved around the question, “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?”
‘All You Need Is Love’ was not quite as stupid as it sounded. It featured Lennon’s deadpan style of acid-Zen positivism:
There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made
No-one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
over a bubbling background of the ‘Marseillaise’, ‘In The Mood’, ‘Greensleeves’, and cod echoes of ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Yesterday’. The song was the natural fusion of the Beatles’ taste for instant solutions with England’s Indian summer of 1967: “Legalise Pot” petitions inThe Times, Parliamentary debates on “the Love generation”, kaftans, joss sticks and court reports of “a strong, sweet smell”. The main trouble with ‘All You Need Is Love’ was that it wasn’t true. But that was not completely the Beatles’ fault. ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’ actually tried to ask the beautiful people what they were doing apart from being beautiful:
Now that you’ve found another key
What are you going to play?
Some events of that summer suggested problems that would not be solved by love alone: the BBC labelled ‘A Day In The Life’ a drug song and refused to play it; the pirate radio stations were forcibly closed down by the Maritime Offences Act; Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for possession of four benzedrine tablets (the sentence was quashed on appeal); and Brian Epstein died a sleeping pill-induced death on the borderline between accident and depression on August Bank Holiday.
The manner of his death, immediately after making a number of pro-pot and pro-LSD statements, crystallised the ambiguities in the movement’s chemical enthusiasm, and foreshadowed a casual talent for self-destruction: Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin.
The death of Brian Epstein was the beginning of the Beatles’ disintegration. Without any outside guidance they began to make their own film for TV consumption during Christmas 1967. And they began the setting up of Apple, a typical Beatles’ concept, a conglomerate company to encourage young artists and promote new ideas: hippie capitalism, money-making philanthropy.
The screening of the TV film Magical Mystery Tour on 26 December 1967 produced public bewilderment and hysterical anti-Beatle press reviews. Their anarchic and self-indulgent cinematic ideas were wildly at odds with the conventional expectations aroused by a Christmas TV spectacular. The irony that underlay the production of Sgt. Pepper – the Beatles’ withdrawing from public life in order to produce a simulated, live show – was beginning to have negative results. Sgt.Pepper was a theatre that enabled the Beatles to go further into the norms and contradictions of everyday life than any of their music, before or since. By contrast, Magical Mystery Tour took one to a peculiarly, hermetic, self-enclosed world.
McCartney’s ‘The Fool On The Hill’ contained something of the bittersweet quality of psychedelic enlightenment, or of any state of knowledge that separates one forever from the social mainstream:
Day after day, alone on a hill, the man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him, they can see that he’s just a fool and he never gives an answer
But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.
But this insight never found its way into the film as a whole. The psychedelia of Sgt. Pepperemanated out of, and fed back into the world of Billy Shears, Lovely Rita and Daily Mirrorstories of misunderstood children. The psychedelia of Magical Mystery Tour operated outside any social context; no real link was made with the mystery coach trips that haunt English holiday towns. Instead one watched a busload of rich hippies recording their own whims in a private fantasy that went nowhere. The one moment when the film seemed to work centered around one of the lesser songs in the collection: the Beatles in white tuxedoes doing a sloppy precision dance routine to ‘Your Mother Should Know’, as a stream of dancers in evening dress flowed down a staircase, like a Hollywood dream. The moment was firmly rooted in a mid 20th century myth. This sequence apart, the only myth being utilised was that of the Beatles themselves, and inevitably the film seemed narcissistic.
The Beatles had deliberately chosen to produce their own idea, without a father figure such as George Martin or Brian Epstein to guide them, and they were puzzled and hurt by their first failure. The lack of an outside adviser led to their personal differences being exacerbated. Paul McCartney had been the prime mover behind Magical Mystery Tour and did most of the setting up of Let It Be, their final film, by which time they were having their personal arguments in front of the camera.
Apple led to confusion and financial chaos. Lennon brought in Allen Klein to sort out the mess. Harrison and Ringo accepted him, McCartney didn’t and launched a High Court action to have the Beatles’ partnership dissolved. All their personal problems and differences of opinion over the past three years were written down and read out as affidavits and written evidence in Court No. 16 of the High Courts in February 1971. It would be hard to imagine a more miserable ending. The Beatles of course had seen it all, long ago:
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad…
© Mick Gold, 1974