Category: Sgt. Pepper


The first track of Sgt. Pepper is bookended by a reprise near the end of the record, and this makes a nice circle. The reprise is harder and faster than the original; while the rest of the record sounds new and groundbreaking, this is straight-up rock and roll. When I talk about an album having definition, purpose and unity, this pair of songs is precisely what I mean. Sgt. Pepper doesn’t just meet all those conditions; it helps to define those parameters in the first place. Without this album, they don’t really exist. The fact that it begins and ends with a matching pair of songs is the entire thing in miniature.

Okay, I lied; it doesn’t quite end there. It caps off with what is my favorite song on the record, “A Day In the Life.” After the madcap journey of Sgt. Pepper is complete, we’re left with one last image, and “A Day In the Life” contemplates nothing less that the cycle of life and death. A news story tells of a man dying in an automobile accident (Tara Browne, an actual acquaintance of John), but John also peppers this account with references to his own life, particularly his role in the movie How I Won the War. The first section ends with the line, “I’d love to turn you on,” invoking the phrase popularized by LSD guru Timothy Leary, “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Paul later confirmed in an interview that this was, in fact, a reference to drugs.

On to the second section: an orchestral swell, and the song shifts emotional colors. Paul’s voice tells a rather ordinary story of a student getting out of bed, running to the bus, and then smoking in the school hallway. After the serious account of someone’s death, life goes on. We’re really only very small, and life flows on within us and without us. Sound familiar?

I’ll admit that the third section is a mystery to me. It’s based on another news story about the potholes in a British town, and I can’t figure out what it has to do with the rest of the song. If you can, good for you.

About forty seconds after “A Day In the Life” fades out, there is a quiet, high-pitched tone. It’s almost imperceptible to humans, but dogs would find it very annoying. John apparently liked the idea of more than just humans reacting to his music. The final moment of the album is another innovation that has lasted even to this day. The first secret song ever is a collection of voices and nonsense. It’s located on the absolute inner ring of the vinyl. When the needle reaches that point, it repeats in an endless loop until the needle is picked up. There is normally silence in this part, but not on Sgt. Pepper.

When I played the album for Ruthanne, her face during this secret song was priceless. She was confused, discombobulated, and a little disturbed.

The influence and impact of Sgt. Pepper can’t be overstated. Were it to never exist, popular music would look incredibly different. Nearly every artist has been influenced by it in some way, even if they don’t realize it. I can see shades and shadows of it in almost every album that comes after it. But all of that only matters because of one thing: it’s good. If Sgt. Pepper weren’t excellent in the formalist sense, it certainly wouldn’t have the amazing trickle-down effect that it does. Because of this, Sgt. Pepper can be enjoyed on two levels: its game-changing effect on every future aspect of the popular music industry, and its own multifaceted merits.

George has a presence on Sgt. Pepper, too. Though bored and restless throughout most of the recording process, he makes himself known on a solitary track. “Within You Without You” is a foggy and contemplative trance in the middle of the craziness of the rest of the album. Paul and John spin about in their own circles, but it seems they’re brought to a near-halt by George here. “WYWY” has a ponderous calm to it, and it’s only escalated by the frantic energy of the rest of the album. George’s lyrics are about the oneness of the universe, the way most people live unaware of a world beyond their nose, and how our problems can be solved by things as simple as love and understanding.

“WYWY” says, “you’re really only very small, and life goes on within you and without you.” On the one hand, this rubs against the humanism that’s part of most people’s views. Many people are forced to think the entire human experience only has meaning as it applies to them in particular. To be told they’re “very small” is to tell them that they don’t matter at all.

Then there’s the other view. The idea that we’re “only very small” means that others matter, too. When we realize that we’re all the same size (very small), how we treat one another changes. The individual becomes less important while the good of the community becomes more important. And by community, I could really mean anything; it might be as small as your marriage or family, or as big as your town, country, or the world at large. Once the focus is off the me me me, our attitude shifts and we start to be useful to the world. It’s a position of better balance.

Perhaps by accident, “WYWY” also presents a principle that’s found in Christianity. The line “the people who gain the world and lose their souls” is actually a quote from Jesus himself. The book of Matthew says:

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” Matthew 16:25-27

I have a feeling George would be pretty upset to hear that he was a Christian prophet. Oh well; he probably has bigger things on his mind now.

Tomorrow: Even dogs like Sgt. Pepper!

Most of the songs on Sgt. Pepper don’t really involve the original concept of a fictional band, but the concept works anyway because of the transformation the band was going through. They may not be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they’re not the Beatles anymore, either; at least, not as everyone knew them.

A good example of this is “Getting Better.” It starts off sounding a lot like Rubber Soul and Revolver-era Beatles, or most notably like the single “Penny Lane” which had been released earlier that year. But it also adds elements like a tambura and the strings of a pianet being struck with a mallet. There’s also some great interplay between the singers in the chorus. Paul sings “it’s getting better all the time,” to which John responds “it can’t get no worse.” That sums up the optimism/pessimism relationship that the two had quite concisely.

The Beatles are not without their foibles, though. “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home” are two missteps, slight though they are. I can feel Paul’s twee cutesiness creeping up again on “Hole.” I gotta give him credit for it not showing up at all thus far in the album, and “Hole” is mostly harmless in the full scope of things. “She’s Leaving Home” is another matter. It cranks up the melodrama to a groan-worthy level. Then there’s “When I’m Sixty Four.” I shake my head every time I hear it (and only occasionally bop along to the infectious melody). “64” was the first song recorded for Sgt. Pepper, and was actually written by Paul years earlier. The tape of Paul’s vocals is actually sped up a little in order for him to sound younger, which fits the youthful romanticism of the song.

John fares a lot better than Paul on this record. Gone were the days of glorious collaboration between the two that produced “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Occasionally they make a song together with stupendous results (“One After 909” comes to mind), but for the most part they work independently.

the circus poster that inspired “Mr. Kite”

“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is one of the things a great piece of art should be. It’s based on a very old carnival poster from the 1800s. The poster talks about somersets and hogsheads and other thing I can’t understand, meanwhile guaranteeing that their show will be the “grandest of the season!” The lyrics to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” are taken almost directly from the text of this poster. John bought it from an auction when the Beatles were filming a promo video for “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The song really goes over the top to evoke the entire carnival and county fair experience, employing harmonium, glockenspiel and some complex organ sound effects. The middle eight uses a vast collage of fairground organs and calliope music all jumbled together. All these recordings were literally chopped up with scissors and taped back together for the final master. The mangled remains of the tape are what we hear.

Amazingly, John once said he “wasn’t proud of that” and “was just going through the motions.” Even John’s apathy can create great songs. He’s like the best painter in the world who really wants to be an electrician.

In the same vein is “Good Morning Good Morning.” In both of these songs, I find John’s dissatisfaction with conventional instruments and ways of recording to be quite refreshing. “GMGM” features Sound Incorporated doing the distinctive brass parts, but brass instruments are just the beginning of John’s thinking outside the box. It also features animal noises at the beginning and end of the song, purposefully arranged so that each animal is able to “devour” the one before it. It ends up sounding like some demented farmyard. The song also shifts time signatures in a mad, constant rush that never lets you get comfortable.

On Friday: Hey, George writes songs, too!

Lucy

3-year-old Julian’s picture that inspired “Lucy”

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl in my class a few years named Lucy. At the beginning of the year, we would all take our desks, then go around and say our names. It seemed like every year it would come around to Lucy, she would say her name, and the teacher would say, “huh, like that song.” Then the teacher would sing the first line of the chorus to “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” and say, “I love that song.” Lucy would just nod. She must have heard that a billion times.

The responsibility for “Lucy” lies with John Lennon’s son Julian. He was 3 years old when he brought home from school a picture he had drawn. Kid pictures are a funny thing. We praise and laud them to the kids as if they’re the prize of the century, and hang them on the fridge. Viewed with a critical and objective eye, of course, kid pictures unilaterally suck, but that’s not the point. It’s the kid that made the picture that matters, not the picture itself. And if it’s our kid, then Jackson Pollock better make way. Aside from their usefulness as a window into the child’s psychology, they make parents feel proud of their kid. And they can even inspire a song.

“Lucy” was one such song, and a big fat thank-you needs to go to Julian, and the real-life Lucy who in turn inspired the picture. It’s a wonderful piece of psychedelic whimsy, and has a childlike boppiness. It also features a shift from a 3/4 time in the verses to 4/4 in the chorus. This normally annoys the crap out of me (especially when it’s accompanied by a big tempo change), but it works here. The lyrics speak of tangerine trees and cellophane flowers and marshmallow pies, but the strange and perhaps drug-induced imaginings of the narrator don’t make the listener feel ill-at-ease.

I can hear the question on your lips before you say it. “Is the song about drugs?” There’s the simple fact that it’s called “LUCY in the SKY with DIAMONDS.” L. in the S. with D. LSD. Any 2nd grader (with an unsettling knowledge of controlled substances) could figure that one out, so that’s not enough. But the song has a weird, other-worldly quality, encouraged by the celeste-like intro. The picture I get from the lyrics is of a crazy, colorful world, but it’s more Dr. Seuss than Timothy Leary. Personally, I don’t buy the drug subtext thing, but here’s the main reason. It’s a quote from John himself.

“It was purely unconscious that it came out to be LSD. Until someone pointed it out, I never even thought of it. I mean, who would ever bother to look at initials of a title? It’s not an acid song.”

That settles it for me.

Lonely Hearts

The cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the most famous in rock and roll; it’s a collage of about 60 celebrities and influential people. Dead center are the four Lonely Hearts, with that famous bass drum in the center, their namesake. Complete anonymity is just a dream, however, since the flower arrangements spell out BEATLES. But I’ve got to give them props for sticking to their concept. Right next to the Lonely Hearts are life-size wax figures of the Fab Four. The message is clear; this isn’t the Beatles you used to know.

The first track begins with the low chattering of a crowd, as well as an orchestra tuning up. John’s quivering guitar comes in on lead, and Paul’s voice dives right into the storytelling. Late in the song, the character Billy Shears is mentioned. He’s apparently going to sing the next song (and he wants you all to sing along!), and we wait with excitement. But when the second track starts, it’s Ringo. Even today, it seems like I’m getting gypped.

Ringo – how on EARTH did this guy marry a Bond girl?

Ringo has sung before, and it’s usually a pretty cheesy or maudlin experience. “Act Naturally” and “Honey Don’t” are both pretty groan-inducing. I kinda feel sorry for Ringo; he’s always been a bit of a pariah. Ringo-bashing has been a sport since he joined the band. When asked by a reporter if Ringo was the best drummer in the world, John responded, “he’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.” In his famous SNL plea for the Beatles to get back together, Lorne Michaels offered a check for $3000, but added, “if you want to pay Ringo less, it’s okay; we understand.” I mean, yeah, the guy can’t sing and he looks like a frog, but throw him a bone once in a while.

I was familiar with the song “With a Little Help From My Friends” from an early age, but it wasn’t a Beatles song; it was the theme song for The Wonder Years. That intro with the old-style video camera and the Joe Cocker song were a golden part of my childhood. That’s pretty ironic because at that age, I simply couldn’t understand the nostalgia that show represented for people of the previous generation. The Joe Cocker version is 100% soul (sung by a white guy; more irony), whereas the Beatles do it pretty sing-songy and kid-like.

On Monday: Is “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” about drugs?

Salt and Pepper

When I decided to crawl out of my Beatles-hating phase in college, I went to Napster (remember Napster?) and picked up a somewhat random assortment of Beatles songs. The requirements were that they had to be songs from Sgt. Pepper or later, and I had to have heard of the song titles before. This included both versions of the song “Sgt. Pepper,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” and “A Day In the Life.” Upon listening to those a few times, I decided that I needed the whole album in order to put them in context.

Looking back, that was one of the best decisions I made in my entire life. It ranks right up there with going to London when I was in college and with marrying Ruthanne.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles – 6/1/1967

A revolution was ready to take place in the minds of the four members of the Beatles. All the madness and fervor the last 4 years had brought had taken a toll on John, Paul, George and Ringo. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom in record time, gotten to the summit, looked out over the landscape and said to each other, “I guess we’d better keep moving.”

At that point, in mid-1966, the four of them had had enough: of rock and roll stardom, and of each other. First they did something unheard of for an act that big: they stopped touring. And I don’t mean they took a break or something; they stopped. Even today, that’s pretty weird. It causes me a little incredulity to think that the biggest, most important albums the Beatles made were after they stopped touring. John had a little part in a movie, How I Won the War, and immersed himself in the art scene. This was where he met Yoko. Where would we be if that hadn’t happened? Ringo spent more time with his wife and kids, and Paul co-wrote the score for a film, and even won an award for it. George, for the first time, went to India with Ravi Shankar for what passes for a spiritual awakening. Later, he would convince the other three to go, but more on that later.

At the heart of this, I think, is that all four of them were tired of being the Beatles, and wanted to be someone else. So in late 1966, they started doing just that. On a plane ride from Kenya to England, Paul got the idea for an alter-ego band, characters to stand in for the four of them not just socially, but also musically. On that very flight, tour manager Mal Evans asked what the S and P pots on their meal trays were, and Paul simply responded, “salt and pepper.” I think a light bulb must have turned on in his head.

The original concept for Sgt. Pepper was a concert performed by this fictional band; the four members even had alternate names, and different colored uniforms like superheroes. This didn’t take very long to get abandoned, though it didn’t completely disappear. Much of the visual aesthetic is still intact, even if most of the music doesn’t directly reflect it. My Chemical Romance was taking a page directly from the Beatles (borderline stealing) when Gerard Way invented the Fabulous Killjoys. It was a brilliant idea because it allowed the Beatles to experiment in any direction they pleased. As a result, their creativity rose to meet the opportunity.

Tomorrow: meet the Lonely Hearts Club Band.