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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band


THE BEATLES: SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1967)

1) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; 2) With A Little Help From My Friends; 3) Lucy In The Sky With Dia­monds; 4) Getting Better; 5) Fixing A Hole; 6) She's Leaving Home; 7) Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!; 8) Within You Without You; 9) When I'm Sixty-Four; 10) Lovely Rita; 11) Good Morning Good Morning; 12) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise); 13) A Day In The Life.

There are currently two major, equally controversial, schools of thought on Sgt. Pepper, and I do not think I need to explicitly remind anyone of what they are. Both are entitled to prolonged ex­istence, both can be respectable from one angle and laughable from the opposite one. And, unlike certain other situations, the Beat­les bear direct responsibility for this one. In early 1967, they vo­luntarily and conciously undertook an attempt to make an album that would be the best album ever made — or, at least, would take the world places it has never ever seen before, opening a new age in popular music. Did they succeed? Did they fail? Begin trench warfare!

Part of the Sgt. Pepper problem is that, to a large extent, the whole thing was the brainchild of Paul rather than John. With the touring period over and all the band members suddenly finding themselves with lots of extra free time on their hands, they used it not only to grow additional fa­cial hair (adding the «wisened look», so obligatory for generation spokesmen), but also to evol­ve on individual levels, with the drive towards collective work gradually beginning to dissipate. As it turned out, Paul remained the most active defender of the teamwork approach — that is, as long as the others were ready to accept him as the unofficial coach. When it turned out they weren't, things got nasty. Fortunately, in 1967, they still were.

Fortunately and unfortunately, because Paul's increased role in the creation of Sgt. Pepper meant that the first side effect of the Beatles' new-found grandiosity and universalism would also be a balance shift towards the «whimsier» side. The «band within a band» concept that Paul introdu­ced is okay as such, but the «meta-band» in question is a retro-oriented military outfit, and many of the songs they sing are infested with influences of «granny music», as John would say. Many people complained that the record just didn't rock hard enough — with one or two exceptions, the loud electric guitar music of Revolver is nowhere in sight. (Of course, many of the same people also praise the completely non-rocking Pet Sounds as one of the greatest albums ever made, but that's what expectations are for: nobody expects kick-ass electric guitar rock from Brian Wilson.) Furthermore, the album sees George getting ever deeper in his love affair with Indian music, and John entering his most «nonsensical» period — two more grounds for discomfort.

Thus, whoever believes that good pop music should always keep both of its feet placed firmly on the ground will always have a nice ideological justification to dismiss Sgt. Pepper as the enfant terrible of the epoch — an unlucky bastard of combining too much acid, too much childish love for newly-developed studio technologies, and way too much adoration for corny pre-war music standards. And yet I think that the script authors for Yellow Submarine got it best of all: Once upon a time or maybe twice, there was an unearthly paradise called Pepperland...

Clearly, like many other people, I may be biased here, since it was Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour that originally acqua­inted me with the Beatles as such, and, in fact, served as my point of entry into the wide world of rock and pop. But certain childhood memories and impres­sions wither and fade with age, whereas others remain incurable. What I clearly remember — in fact, I am able to relive that feeling each time I replay those records, even if only in my head — is the awesome, incomparable sense of magic and intrigue. Now that I think of it, even though the Beatles are in no way a «kid-oriented» band in general, the rightest age to get yourself exposed to these records is when you are ten to twelve years old — about the same age that works best for stuff like Alice In Wonderland. If, somehow, you only get to hear it later, when puberty and gruel­ing social pressure have already cured you of childhood innocence and idealism, the effect simply cannot be the same. But if you have let the magic permeate you at that tender age, you'd have to be way too corrupted by the outside world to ever let it dissipate and vanish.

It has been frequently stated that Sgt. Pepper is a «concept album» only from a formal point of view. You have the lush album sleeve, the Beatles in uniforms, the title song that introduces «the concert», and the reprise of the title song at the end. Nothing else ties in with the concept, and any of the other songs could have appeared on any other album, so that the whole «first conceptual al­bum ever» appraisal is just a fraudulent myth — records like Pet Sounds or Zappa's Freak Out! were ten times more «conceptual». True and false. Take the «concept» thing way too literally and there will, quite naturally, be nothing to tie together the «setlist» of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. But why the heck should you take it too literally? Should one also insist that ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ is a song written about a girl called Lucy which John's son Julian had a crush on in nursery school? Or about LSD, for that matter?

Of course, Sgt. Pepper is a concept album, and if not the first, then at least definitely one of the best concept albums ever made. But it is not a concept album about a military band. It is a con­cept album about a parallel universe, a «Pepperland» of its own, in which things sometimes re­semble earthly reality but, in the end, are always different. Essentially, it is an escapist album — not the first one, because Pet Sounds was also quite escapist; but Pet Sounds was an «introvert escapist» album, seeking salvation from life's problems deep inside one's own mind, whereas Sgt. Pepper is much more «extravert», at least formally: at the bottom of it, it's all in the mind, as George's character from Yellow Submarine would say, but, want it or not, Sgt. Pepper creates a vivid, dynamic world, in which girls are leaving their parents, meter maids may be invited to tea, Mr. Kite flies through the ring, people run around at five o'clock, and, yes, tangerine trees and marmalade skies a-plenty. Brian Wilson may have not been born for these times, but he didn't really have a strong penchant for tangerine trees, either.

So, how does Paul's «granny-oriented» whimsy tie into this? What's a song like ʽWhen I'm Sixty-Fourʼ, which Paul allegedly wrote when he was sixteen, got to do with parallel universes and es­capism? LOTS, as it turns out. For one thing, its placement on record, right after the last echoes of George's cosmic-level sitar on ʽWithin You And Without Youʼ have faded away, forms one of the most awesome contrasts in history —forming the perfect light-hearted retro-oriented reme­dy for those who sat somewhat uncomfortably through five whole minutes of Harrison's deadly seri­ous Indian introspection. For another thing, what is ʽWhen I'm Sixty-Fourʼ if not an extra bit of idealistic escapism? Its happy, undisturbed, end-of-a-Dickens-novel-style lyrical dreamery, lo­vi­n­g­ly wrapped up in the bass clarinet arrangement, always seemed to me to be emanating from the exact same character who was also busy with «fixing a hole where the rain gets in». And its refe­rences to the Isle of Wight never had anything to do with the real Isle of Wight in my mind — this is not a Ray Davies type of song, tied hand and foot to British Empire realities. It is a drea­mer's dream, maybe even dreamier than the sitar meditation it cuts across. Had they recorded it in 1959, without the clarinets and the slightly sped-up tapes and whatever else, it would not produce this impression, of course — but they didn't, so the discussion is irrelevant.

The bottomline is that all of the songs here, whether they really want it or not, serve this en­tran­cing pur­pose; written, recorded, and produced in different times under different circumstances, they could easily lack the magic aura, but on Sgt. Pepper, they are all graced. ʽFixing A Holeʼ could be just a simple pop song based on routine mundane observations. But with its harpsichord intro, with its «ticking-clock» percussion, with its mystical-flavoured rise-to-falsetto ("where it will go..." — as if indicating the actual direction), with its funny alternations between the intro­spective-meditative verses and the near-hysterical bridge, with its echoey fuzzy guitar solo, with its overall Zen-like contrast between the protagonist and the «silly people» — it's a fuckin' epic. Come to think of it, with this song and ʽFool On The Hillʼ, 1967 was the peak year of McCartney driving a wedge between The Artist and Boring Outsiders, an elitist trick that he, even with all his «accessibility» and «popularity», could easily pull off even better than John. (And I have always preferred Paul's melancholic-loner side to Paul the anthem-writer).

If ʽFixing A Holeʼ is an escapist fantasy that borders on the psychedelic and ʽLovely Ritaʼ is an­other fantasy bordering on the comical, then, supposedly, ʽGetting Betterʼ, with its realistic (or maybe not very realistic) tale of exchanging violence for self-improvement, and ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ, loosely based on a real story, should violate the «no-feet-on-the-ground» rule of Sgt. Pep­per. But do they? ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ does not see the band play any actual instruments, relying exclusively on a large string section in the good old European Lieder tradition. The result is — no «grit», just a sad, poignant fairy-tale in which Paul accounts for the facts and John deli­vers the «Greek chorus» moral ("fun is the one thing that money can't buy"). I never bought it as «realism»: ʽFor No Oneʼ and even ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ, with their sterner, «mini-chamber» mood, as opposed to the blossoming «maxi-chamber» sounds of ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ, belonged to this earthly world much more visibly than the Sgt. Pepper ballad.

Turning to John, the funny thing is that, years from then, he would be skeptical about the whole Pepper enterprise, and, on bad days, condemn it as a silly, insubstantial divertissement, blaming the whole thing on Paul. Yet in 1967, even despite being «trumped» by his pal in the leadership game, he was more than ready to take part in it, contributing songs that did not clash with Paul's, but instead agreed with them in general atmosphere and attitude. ʽLucy In The Sky With Dia­mondsʼ may not necessarily be a «drug» song — it is just a part of human nature to be attracted to the potentially scandalous side of things — but it is a Fantasy, big F and all, one of the most sur­realistic pieces in the band's career. Just one remark is enough: what the hell is the instrument that is playing the opening melodic lines? A Hammond organ with a special stop, it is sometimes said, that produced a celeste-like sound. Any proof of that? Did anyone ever try to recreate it? It genu­inely sounds like nothing else I have ever heard before or after, and, clearly, "tangerine trees and marmalade skies" are quite the perfect words to go along with it.

If the words for ʽBeing For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!ʼ were really borrowed by John from a circus poster, we would still be hard pressed to find the music emanating from any «earthly» circus. Its instrumental sections, both the «waltz» in the middle and the musical carousel of the outro, would rather be a perfect soundtrack to our being strapped in a chair and fed images of a slowly rotating night sky picture during a meteor shower. It is almost mind-boggling when you realize that the sound effects on that final outro were essentially assembled at random from a scissor-chopped tape (and I cannot help thinking that George Martin was really pulling our leg here when he nar­rated the process — this kind of work attitude is fairly incompatible with his usual style). What­ever be, ʽMr. Kiteʼ far transcends the «carnivalesque atmosphere» John wanted for it, taking us out of the circus pavillion into open space very quickly.

More than one opinion I heard draws a very thick line between ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ and every­thing else on the record: in fact, most of the self-proclaimed Sgt. Pepper haters generally admit that «if not for that one song...» etc., while many of the Sgt. Pepper admirers go as far as to pro­claim ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ the best song ever written, a musical/spiritual revelation etc. I do not think, however, that ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ would have ever had nearly the same impact, had it be­en released separately, say, on a 45" like ʽStrawberry Fieldsʼ. It is a climactic moment, not only in the context of the album, but in the context of the Beatles' career as a whole, yet it belongs on Sgt. Pepper, where it fulfills its function just like everything else does.

The one big difference of ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ is that it is essentially a tragic song, performed in a «high register». The rest of the album has its share of sadness and melancholy, but it is either light and meditative (ʽFixing A Holeʼ), or contrastive (ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ — tragic for one party, bright and optimistic for the other). ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ structurally comes on as an «en­core» from the Lonely Hearts Club Band — but it is almost as if an entirely different band appe­ars on the stage here, or, rather, this is the spot where the band justifies the «Lonely Hearts Club» moniker. It's not as if, on a formal, objective basis ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ made far more musical and lyrical «sense» than the other songs. It doesn't. It just makes a sudden dash at the foun­dations of your soul; a dash that you can hardly expect after thirty four minutes of music that guided you through the multicolored fields and forests of «Pepperland» — and now, suddenly, out of no­where, you are led to the shrine. And the shrine is a downer. 

Everyone knows and quotes the famous "I'd love to turn you on" line as if it were, at least, merely a hooli­ganry («let's throw this one and get some extra press coverage»), and at most, a sincere exhortation («let's get them to comply»). What I have always been hearing in that line is the dee­pest sorrow — it's like, «I'd love to turn you on, but it's completely hopeless». And the orchestral crescendo, to me, does not represent the process of «turning you on»; it is an energy outburst that serves to release all the hidden emotional tension in the verses. What is that tension, why it is the­re, what it all means, is another question. Why give an album as phantasmagorically radiant as Sgt. Pepper such a conscience-shattering conclusion?

One possible answer is that the bulk of Sgt. Pepper is utopian in nature. The ten main songs con­spire to show you what could have been in a perfect world — not «perfect perfect», as in comple­tely free of problems and issues, which would be very boring, but «perfectly interesting», as in full of surprises, revelations, inspirations, artistry, and absurd happenings. Then the illusionism is over, and ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ, alternating between John's mini-sketches of life's stupidity and senselessness and Paul's mini-sketch of life's routine, sweeps the whole circus show away. In other words, Sgt. Pepper builds itself up, slowly and expertly, only to self-implode in its last track. The final grand piano chord, all of its fifty seconds or so, solemnly accompanies the wind blowing away the debris.

Unsurprisingly, when I was just a kid, I hated ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ — loved it for its melodicity, catchiness, and depth, of course, but subconsciously hated it because, for a whole five minutes, it was telling me that the fun is over, and that Hollywood forgot to supply a happy ending. In a way, I still hate it, as much as that childhood feeling is still with me, feeling as sorry for Lucy In The Sky, Lovely Rita, and Mr. Kite as one may feel about one's favorite characters killed off at the end of a Shakesperian tragedy. But what is it, really, if not the firmest proof of the ultimate great­ness of Sgt. Pepper? Without this particular direction of the flow, the album on the whole could be no different, in attitude and atmosphere, from, say, a Moody Blues record. With it, it is simply one of the greatest «musical oratorios» ever made. To hell with the pretentious naysayers.

Check "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (CD) on Amazon

27 comments:

  1. A Day in the Life is so amazing. What I love most is the acoustic opening part, why hasn't anyone else created such a sparse arrangement with so much depth?

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    1. Here's a great idea for a mashup...splice the intro to Hard Day's Night onto the end of A Day in the Life. Ironic on so many levels.

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    2. Heck, wasn't Ian McDonald the one who said that the most creative Beatles period is the one in between those chords?

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    3. In response to JimmADerby: the Love album from 2006 did just that; after the acapella rendition of "Because", a reversed version of the final chord of "A Day in the Life" is interrupted by the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night", which then goes into "Get Back".

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    4. Thanks Nathan, I just listen to it on Youtube...that darn Giles Martin stole MY idea!! The cheek on that one!!

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  2. "What I clearly remember — in fact, I am able to relive that feeling each time I replay those records, even if only in my head — is the awesome, incomparable sense of magic and intrigue. Now that I think of it, even though the Beatles are in no way a «kid-oriented» band in general, the rightest age to get yourself exposed to these records is when you are ten to twelve years old — about the same age that works best for stuff like Alice In Wonderland. If, somehow, you only get to hear it later, when puberty and gruel­ing social pressure have already cured you of childhood innocence and idealism, the effect simply cannot be the same."

    Well said. My very first experience of the Beatles on vinyl was side 2 of the Blue Album, I Am the Walrus. Until then, my only exposure had been on AM radio (who always played the big happy hits) TV retrospectives (I was born in '71, so they were ancient history to me) and the TV cartoon series. I was 10 or 11 at the time and I remember being haunted by the line "Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye." I remember literally imagining it...it still turns my stomach. My view of the Beatles as "the cheeky lads" died that day.

    I'm not sure if that reflects or contrasts what you were saying. I actually did not listen through the whole of Pepper until I was 15 or 16 when it came out on CD ('87?). But you're right. As a kid, you can literally imagine "Lucy" with all its phantasmagoric imagery and it makes sense--even if your Sunday School teacher told you it's all about drugs and the devil. That also kind of ruined the show for me, sad to say.

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  3. I loved your last paragraph. When I was a kid, 9 or 10 years old, I also hated "A Day in the Life." I LOVED the hip hop drum beat and harmonies on the Sgt. Pepper Reprise, especially the delicious "We're Sgt. Pepper's One and Only, Lonely Hearts Club Band..." When "A Day in the Life" spun on, it was bummer time. It was also long and a bit scary. John sounded like a ghost, and besides the "I'd Love to Turn You On," which was above me at the time, the rest of the lyrics were perfectly understandable for a child, and they were just spooky and strange. The musical orgasm was frightening, especially the last one which ended with the twisted circus like and jarring backwards inner groove repeat. However, just because it was a half terrifying song, it never stopped me from playing it, and by the time I was 13, when I discovered "Nowhere Man," "A Day in the Life" began to make more sense, coinciding with the subtle awakening of my teenaged consciousness.

    Its crazy how the Beatles have this power to carry through your life, at all stages, the meanings of the songs changing, their power never altering, but evolving in strength and significance. I'm 28 years old now, and Sgt. Pepper still entertains me. I'm no longer absorbed in the intriguing circus like psychedelic world that I was at 9 years old, rather, the music is absorbed in me. I listen to the record now straight through, getting annoyed when a random track appears on my various music players that shuffle things. When I'm riding the train to work, and on a Sgt. Pepper kick, its like switching on a mini-opera, a beautiful surge of substance in an otherwise dreary day.

    Lastly I just want to mention "Within You Without You." I'm guessing one of the most skipped songs, outside Revolution #9 in the Beatles catalog. I too was a criminal skipper of this song all through my teenage years. When I was 18, I distinctly remember being gripped by the song in a way I never was before. Now it is my favorite song on the record, and I'm convinced its equal in mastery to "A Day in the Life." It's exactly what John said about it in 1967, that George is so clear and in tune with himself. It's a true wonder of lyrics and music, a truly cosmic piece of sonic genius. Keep up the great stuff Mr. S.

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    1. "I LOVED the hip hop drum beat and harmonies on the Sgt. Pepper Reprise, especially the delicious "We're Sgt. Pepper's One and Only, Lonely Hearts Club Band..."

      I second that! And you nailed the description of that beat: it's hip-hop, and it's so unique for that era, I cannot think of another instance at least until the mid-70's. I'm not an electronica/trance guy, but I could listen to that beat over and over again. The Reprise is TEN TIMES better than the main theme. And it's not even a minute long...

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  4. // I remember being haunted by the line "Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog's eye." I remember literally imagining it...it still turns my stomach.//

    Oh, you must have missed the playground rhyme that inspired it! It goes;

    "Yellow matter custard, green snot pie,
    Dead man's giblets, black cat's eye:
    Spread it on your bread, nice and thick
    And wash it down with a bucket of sick".

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  5. Dean "WTF is This?" LaCapraraMay 2, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    Everything up to Rubber Soul was progress like virtually no musical force in history (Stones 1964—72 are close); Revolver is good but not perfect like its predecessor. I'm referring to British albums here, disowning the US counterparts 20 years ago.
    Sgt. Pepper is another story: best-sounding record until at least Dark Side of the Moon, which of course is also overrated by almsot everybody. Paul's contributions are great, Ringo handles the fantastic "WALHFMF" like a pro and even George impresses with one song breaking up the monopoly of two dictators. John lets the side down a bit, especially on side two. However, gotta admit "ADITL" is artistically worthy of Beatledom.
    Few '67 records matched Pepper's audacity, inside jokes or sonic qualities but I'll take Wild Honey/Disraeli Gears/Pisces, etc. over this non-concept LP. Face it, until the White Album they were struggling to find a new identity after 1965's triumphs. Here they were both revolutionary and somewhat boring simultaneously, though it remains a must-have all the same...

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    1. I'm impressed that you include Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones in the same class as Cream & the Beach Boys. That's really an underrated album by an underrated artist. I'd throw Days of Future Passed in there as well.

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  6. I'd say this album is very good - definitely an evolution from their previous record, but hey, all the best bands evolve. The first 3 songs are all excellent, I think - "Lucy in the Sky" is just celestial brilliance, all. I also adore two of the somewhat less popular numbers, "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Within You Without You" - the first one just awes me with its instrumentation, and I just love the idea for the lyrics (filler? Pah, it's intriguing!), and "Within You Without You" is just mesmerising. Finally, yes, "A Day in the Life" is awesome (and contains a lot of repressed potential for terror - that song is holding a lot back, which it only really lets go in the baleful orchestral sections).

    I find many of the others sadly forgettable, though. "When I'm Sixty-Four" is pleasantly catchy, and "Getting Better" has some memorable lyrics... but at this point I literally cannot remember any of "She's Leaving Home". "Fixing A Hole", "Lovely Rita" and "Good Morning Good Morning" all seem expendable. Still, they're far from bad, and work nicely with the general feel of the album - so they don't really do it any harm, but a couple could probably have made way for Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane (as others have been saying).

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  7. Love it! Some Beatles fans, I suspect, dismiss it simply because it's not the best Beatles album, much less the GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME. That's hardly fair. It was my first Beatles album, bought shortly after John died when I was 10. I owned it on (really crummy-sounding) pre-recorded cassette, which I could only play through a mono Panasonic tape recorder. It was like listening to it through a telephone. I couldn't hear half the songs' frequencies. But it didn't matter. It was magic.

    Here's something I only learned two years ago. In the mono version of the album, the most boring, dragging-est song on the record, "She's Leaving Home," plays at full-speed, whereas on the stereo version it's slowed down. It sounds much brighter in mono. I've also heard that the syrupy strings were arranged by some EMI guy other than George Martin, who was absent the day the arrangement was written. I don't know if that's true, but compared especially to "Eleanor Rigby," the arrangement of "She's Leaving Home" represents a real failure of taste. IMO, of course.

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    1. Mike Leander scored SLH, much to GM's chagrin. The McCartney machine waits for no man, not even Sir George!

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  8. As a fan of Ritchie Blackmore I don't think Revolver rocks hard enough - Yellow Submarine rocking hard? LOL!
    Neither do I think music should keep its feet on the ground. At the other hand I'm fond of enfant terribles - if they have intrinsic qualities. And this album has. Yes, it might be the best pop/rock album ever, though I can't say it's my favourite.
    At the other hand I have been exposed to this album since I was a toddler, so just call me prejudiced. That also explains why all those deep thoughts on this album leave me cold. Just notice how the granny factor is balanced with a sense of melancholy, which culminates in the album closer.
    A day in the Life is very good. Don't trust the fans on this. The melody of the opening line, I read the news today, oh boy, is probably the saddest the band ever made.
    Heck, I hardly ever listen to Sergeant Pepper (last time was on a plane); the songs are just etched into my memory.

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    1. _"A day in the Life is very good. Don't trust the fans on this. The melody of the opening line, I read the news today, oh boy, is probably the saddest the band ever made."_

      I'll trust the fans over the critics. (Including George, in this case.)

      When John or Paul want to write sad music, they write sad music. Nobody's ever had to argue that "Eleanor Rigby" or "Don't Let Me Down" are sad, because it's obvious to everybody.

      I'd say that "A Day in the Life" is magnificently open ended. They've read the news today. They'd love to turn you on. It's not clear if the news is good or bad. It's not clear if they're wanting to turn you on to something wonderful or something horrifying. It's not clear whether it's inevitable that they turn you on, or impossible. What is clear is that it's something unlike the world as you know it, and that it's something very important.

      I'd also say that George unintentionally makes an excellent argument for this. "And the orchestral crescendo, to me, does not represent the process of «turning you on»; it is an energy outburst that serves to release all the hidden emotional tension in the verses." Yes. Beautiful. And if the verses were really clearly saying "I want to turn you on, but can't" - an expression of resignation - there wouldn't be any tension to release.

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    2. "Don't Let Me Down" is sad? Really? "I'm in love for the first time, don't you know it's gonna last"? Never felt any sadness in that one. Anxiety, yes, but where's the sadness?

      On the other hand, I don't think I have ever read an analysis of, or a detailed opinion on 'A Day In The Life' that didn't mention the sad/tragic flair, so it's not as if I'm breaking the news here. It's not thoroughly in-your-face-sadness, there is subtlety and ambiguity ('Love Reign O'er Me' is another good example), but the mood is genuinely sorrowful throughout.

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    3. Okay, forget "Don't Let Me Down". "Isolation", then.

      Never read an analysis of "A Day in the Life" that didn't call it sad? Come to think of it, maybe I haven't either. Anyway, it's certainly true that you aren't "breaking the news" here.

      But this would hardly be the first time critical consensus was wrong, or the first time critics analyzed themselves into a mistake that casual listeners avoided. (Example: For Ian McDonald, whose comments on "A Day in the Life" are similar to yours, "Nowhere Man" is "the weary weight of this dirge-like song", while "I Am the Walrus" is "angry".)

      Leaving aside detailed analysis, here's a quick survey of how internet reviewers have described "A Day in the Life":

      Mark Prindle calls it a "genuinely beautiful song about close to nothing." ("Eleanor Rigby", for contrast, is one of "the most depressing songs I've ever heard".)

      John McFerrin simply calls it "great" and the "aah aah aah aah" part "beautiful". ("Eleanor Rigby": "...quite possibly the most depressing rock song ever recorded to that point.")

      CapnMarvel calls it "a song ultimately about nothing" that "can sound as if it's about everything and more."

      The point is, for at least some people - including people for whom listening to music carefully is a serious hobby, if not a profession - "sad" simply isn't the first thing that comes to mind when they set out to describe "A Day in the Life".

      You might, at this point, say "Okay, I agreed that it isn't in-your-face sad, but once you go past first impressions, there's a sorrowful subtext." Sure, but I'd argue there's an equally tantalizing subtext. At least, I've never heard it as more pessimistic than optimistic. And I'd argue that the ambiguity/ambivalence I hear in "A Day in the Life" isn't an anomaly. I'd say it belongs to the same species as "Strawberry Fields Forever" ("I mean it must be high or low"), "Penny Lane" (with the subtle poignancy that comes from the modulation on "very strange" so that the chorus is one key below the verse), and various non-Beatles songs from the same time ("Purple haze, all around, don't know if I'm coming up or down"...; "There's something happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear...")

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  9. Quite simply, if you listen to this today, you have to take it as a piece of history. A complete piece, great in its integrity. A one off thing. Because when you get into details and try to analyse it on a miserable song by song basis, you will probably notice that ah well, "When I'm 64" is perhaps a lovely little throwaway and "Within Or Without You" is just an experiment - even if a successful one. And then maybe "Lovely Rita" is not that great either. Oh and also...
    But if you take it as a singular musical statement from the world's greatest band, you will suddenly feel that magic again. I know I do.

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    1. I agree, I never pick out Rita or Good Morning to put into a playlist or anything. It's kind of like Pet Sounds in that respect--There's a few (potential) singles, but the rest of the album is really of a piece. I mean, when's the last time Brian Wilson played "Don't Talk" or "I Know There's an Answer" on stage? Or Paul groove to "Fixing a Hole" or "Getting Better"? The individual pieces don't stand out, but the picture is still brilliant, much like the album cover.

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    2. I'd just like to say for the record that "Lovely Rita" is a minor masterpiece.

      As for Paul not playing it live - well, it's not like it's the only great song that doesn't show up much on his setlists. ("Things We Said Today", "What You're Doing", "Junk", etc.)

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  10. George, I was so glad to see "Only Solitaire" return as a blog: I found the old site a couple of years ago, and have been thoroughly enjoying your reviews.

    I absolutely agree with you about "Pepperland" and this album's attempt to imagine an alternate reality. Now that "Sgt. Pepper's" seems to be on its way to becoming one of the most critically underrated albums, it's great to read your cogent response to the "pretentious naysayers."

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  11. I think Lennon later disparaged the 'concept' because the concept itself was so obvious. Stg Pepper comes on stage, the singer is introduced and a series of acts (or songs) follow. The concept is a concert, like the kind the Beatles had just recently retired from giving. It's funny that in Anthology, John and Ringo both seem to miss this even though Paul comments "send the album on tour". As such, it is the perfect concept album.

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  12. thanks for sharing.

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  13. I've long thought that the unifying concept of Sgt. Pepper is hidden in plain sight: the unifying theme is loneliness and/or alienation. Not *every* song fits this motif perfectly, but nearly all do, if you broaden your understanding of alienation to include a desire for escape.

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  14. This is an excellent review that perfectly expresses why I love this album so much. You made me remember just how awestruck I was when I put this on my dad's record player at the age of seven or so. Wow! The only thing I want to add to the chorus of praise for this album is a quick note about just how incredibly mature this music is. I think that's what gives it the edge, even over Abbey Road. I found your old site a few days ago while hunting down all things Bowie, and I think you write really well. Thanks for taking the time to do these reviews - hell, I may even start listening to Bad Religion!

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  15. How many people on the cover are still alive? 3 Paul Ringo and Bob Dylan

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