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.