Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released 26 May 1967)
Having written about 17,000 words on the Beatles, I am certain that the novelty of reading 2000 words or so each day has worn off for my readers, and most of them have long since departed this series to find something more interesting to read. At this halfway point, then, I can start offering my own arguments on what the Beatles were trying to express without worrying about people coming after my head. It’s something of a risk — I might read too much into these albums and see things that aren’t there — but in my defence, I would not be the first person to do so, for an astonishing number of people have tried to analyse you as a work of literature. So here goes: you are a celebration of all the fantasies night has to offer, while at the same time being a sober reminder of how reality will always prevail in the end.
I can hear my professors breathing down my back, asking me “what makes you say that”? (Actually, they’re saying “get back to your capstone”, but writing this is much more fun.) Happily, you are an album where the number of references to support this idea are so plentiful that it’s possible to point at anything and it’ll fit. Let’s start with the surface — and I do literally mean the surface: your cover shows the Beatles surrounded by a bunch of famous people in the UK’s past and present, pretending to be (as the title songs suggest) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Yet reality immediately notifies us how transparent this charade is: as the flower arrangements tell us, this band is not Sgt. Pepper’s any more than it is mine, and the people standing all around them are only waxworks, assembled to give the impression of grandeur. And even as Paul (and to a lesser extent John, and to an even lesser extent George) decided that they would create whole new personas to accompany their new direction in music, the music within you carries so many traces of George, John and Paul (oh yeah, and Ringo too) that you are unmistakably more “Beatlesque” than any of the other albums. So in trying to create a fantasy, the Beatles accidentally brought out the fullest reality: the awesomeness of their music. Well done, you four.
Of course, people do like to argue about what IS “Beatlesque music”, and the music world still hasn’t come up with an answer fifty years on. (To be fair, the Fab Four liked to revamp themselves every two albums or so, so go easy on the musicologists.) But I like to think that you are the album which defined what Beatle music is all about: an unafraid tendency to mix up genres and try new things that would sound outlandish, even crazy — things, in fact, that would only sound plausible in the weirdest dreams. And the Beatles take this to the fore in you by letting their most outlandish fantasies flow in you — and when I say outlandish, I MEAN outlandish. In you there are songs where not only do the lyrics not make sense, but even the music seems to be snippets of a bunch of incomprehensible subjects. Consider “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, where the listener is treated to not so much a complete story, but more a series of images that can be best described as “Lewis Carroll meets Salvador Dali”. Accompanied by a strange, slow melody that trips along unsteadily, as if great care and effort is needed with every note produced, the lyrics are extremely vivid and fanciful: cellophane flowers, newspaper taxis, a girl with kaleidoscope eyes? These things, so cute and weird, could only be possible in a dream.
And this is where night comes in: it’s simply incomplete with dreams and fantasies, whether they are good or bad. They’re what make nights so unknowable: it’s fuzzy and mysterious, and anything could happen, just like night itself. Which is why John and Paul make use of this and try to make a LOT of things happen. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”’s fairground music recalls scenes set at a carnival, a place where all sorts of freaky (and incredible) stuff is on display and where all the sounds seem to mesh together — and more importantly, the music takes you back to your childhood when everything sort of clashed together in a blur, a fantasy ride of sights, sounds and even smells (I genuinely think of cotton candy every time I hear this song). What more can I say about it except that it’s a wonderful song?
Meanwhile, “Lovely Rita” gives us the more carnal sides of night: we hear Paul making some VERY sexual moans at the end of a song about a date. (Children, please cover your ears.) It’s just a little too close for comfort, but at the same time it’s something of a suburban fantasy: relations with a traffic warden gives a part of daily life an intimate twist. (Speaking of which, what DOES Ringo see when he turns out the lights? “With a Little Help from My Friends” doesn’t tell us, but I do hope it’s a vision of his love and not… er… his little friend.) These are the things we get up to at night, a time where we sit back and simply let our minds wander. What we can do in the shadows is limited only by how far we let our imaginations fly.
And yet there are also songs that suggest that maybe, just maybe, the fantasies we see in the world fall apart when they’re held up to scrutiny. Here I turn to “When I’m Sixty-Four”: yes, it is a very sweet song, all nostalgic and full of imagined domestic bliss. (For the record, I think that despite being a little too sugary, it’s still much better than its reputation suggests. So there.) The simplicity of the tune is exactly what makes it charming — in fact, it sprays English charm everywhere. But notice the way the lyrics are phrased: why are all these sentences in questions? The narrator is not talking about how happy he is that he now has a steady relationship going on, he’s full of anxieties about the future: “will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”. Simply put, he still worries that the relationship might disintegrate any second now. I know that this was one of Paul’s earlier songs, but DAMN IT it’s still an integral part of this album, and Paul CHOSE to include this. And since the narrator shows insecurity, even a slight hint of desperation (believe me, it’s so easy to read all this as “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME”), I feel that Paul’s expressing how even the most rewarding fantasies have their cracks within — something might just go terribly wrong at any instant. Songs like this one, and “Fixing a Hole” (where there’s a sense of ignoring problems that need to be dealt with) do tell us that if we look a little closer, the cracks in these fantasies are no laughing matter — they’re spread far and wide, and the whole thing could crack… at any second.
If you’ll allow me to get a little meta for this next paragraph: the fragile nature of the fantasies also bear themselves out when one peeks at the crew list. George Harrison — the person who most fully immersed himself in the counterculture movement — was only able to get one track of his into the 13 we find on you. And it’s not a very good piece either: people tend to be very divided on whether “Within You Without You” has something to say, or indeed if it tries to say something. Of course, nobody can deny that the combination of Indian and Western instruments is a masterful touch, but it drags on longer than necessary: just how prepared are we to listen to George drone on for FIVE WHOLE MINUTES about how love is everything? At least, I think that’s what he’s saying… people find the lyrics to be nonsense, but having listened to it (TWICE!) for this letter I say it’s worse — it’s hollow and doesn’t say anything new. So not only does the person who cared the most about psychedelia go missing, he can’t even articulate his message clearly when he’s given his one shot. (I know the feeling.) Doesn’t bode well for your movement, does it?
And of course, one has to remember that this dream, like any other dream, is not a permanent thing. I wonder if my readers have ever found themselves in a dream which was so good that they didn’t want to wake up? (I assume that none of them have dreams in which a voice tells them to murder someone.) Bad luck — a lot of songs here show that there’s always a rude slap in the face lying in wait. Interestingly, these songs all have a dawn setting (or at least the end of a night of fun), and as the day breaks (and your mind aches) it also reveals unsavoury details of what’s been happening in real life. I’m not a parent (to my knowledge) but even I felt sad for the parents in “She’s Leaving Home”, who wake up to discover that their daughter has eloped with another —- their daughter, who they thought had always been happy under their roof and who they thought was too kind to run off with another man: another fantasy smashed to bits, voila. There’s also “Getting Better”, where Paul starts to sober up after some unexplained kink in the relationship — perhaps the only instance where reality turns out to be something optimistic. Though as this is yet another of Paul’s songs, one can only expect so much. Even more blatant — and at a much higher volume — we have “Good Morning Good Morning”, which basically evokes a morning of the most mundane kind. Never mind the interesting bunch of animal sounds (what is this, a day on the farm?), there’s a sense of tiredness rather than energy within the song which no amount of special effects can erase. The title phrase is shouted into your ears until you feel irritated enough to skip to the next track, where you find the reprise of the title song — but this time, it’s to say goodbye.
It’s at this point where the reality starts to really come roaring back into focus, and you start pulling us out of all the dreamy stuff we’ve been delighting in for some time. You remind us that we’ve only been listening to a band play in the past 33 minutes, and all the stories we’ve been hearing aren’t necessarily real — are all those fantasies fake? Were we just glancing at mere shadows before? But we have no time to consider all this, for with the words “we’re sorry but it’s time to go”, you remind us that this remaining fantasy is also ephemeral: sooner or later, the fantasy ends, and in a smattering of applause, we exit the concert hall and are left facing reality — the most crushing, mundane sense of reality possible — in the famous album ender. (I will now enter a weirder writing mode, as only befits this wonderful but extremely strange track. Please excuse the lack of jokes.)
“A Day in the Life” is a thing by itself: written in the earlier days of your production, it lacks the sort of pomposity and over-saturated whimsy that characterizes later tracks. And it is magnificent: it starts off simple, with just a few strummed guitar chords, and the lyrics are as normal as normal can be. (I never knew how “I read the news today, oh boy” could be so unbelievably banal until John Lennon sang it in the most pathetic — or is it dreamy? — voice imaginable.) And then, it builds… slowly at first, with more and more instruments added in, John’s voice floating to us like a ghost all the time. This time, there are no fantastic images to grasp but the face of everyday life. Gradually, you become aware of a creeping howl of strings — the sound of evil? Even as you listen, the evil continues to grow and then this wall of notes comes closer and closer and suddenly it’s crashing over you and there’s sound everywhere you look and OH GOD PLEASE STOP IT… thank you, John.
But what’s this? A dreamlike sequence in which nothing but John’s relaxed vocalizations are heard, we float through a Wonderland of strings and brass not knowing where to look or what to think. For a moment, we might think that the fantasy side of our experience so far will make a triumphant return… but too soon it ends, replaced by a nightmare where the howl of the strings returns to haunt our minds, growing and growing… then with a final crash of an E-chord, we’re left staring into a void, a void which only grows and grows as the silence takes hold, swallowing all our hopes and dreams and everything fantastic until there’s nothing, nothing left but the darkness, and the sheer banality of it all.
And herein lies your greatest statement towards my thesis at the top: 1967 was a year where everything was wonderful, where much of humanity believed that love would conquer all. Everyone went out onto the streets, hugged one another and held each others’ hands, and hoped that this would be the start of an era where there was only peace and harmony and highs — “with our love we could save the world, man!”, as George Harrison might have said. But then the dream ended, and we all woke up to the harsh realities of life and the violence of 1968. So did the Beatles: after trying their damnedest to maintain the illusion and meditate their way to a better world, they came back from India to a whole new reality, and tensions between the four of them that would ultimately lead to them splitting apart in just two and a half years’ time. In a sense, you were also a spookily accurate statement on what always happens with utopian dreams: the fantasies of the night, the ecstasy of the drugs, would soon be over. Sooner or later, our normal, humdrum everyday lives would roar back in with a depressing vengeance.
Still, you stand as a record of what dreams and hopes we had at the time, a testament of the will we had at one time. I have to wonder, though: fifty-odd years on from the Summer of Love, is your ultimate message final? Does “A Day in the Life” signal that the world will always descend back into sheer desolation? After all, the idealism we saw in 1967 hasn’t been repeated since — we’ve all grown much more cynical about the world, and we tend to think little of unrealistic illusions. Perhaps it is, but I choose to have faith about these things. Maybe someday we might also lower our guards to a level where we can comfortably turn our fantasies into part of reality. In the meantime, we’ll always have the memories to tide us over. You were a damn good dream while it lasted.
Favourite track: I’ve shifted allegiances on this one several times: originally it was “With a Little Help from My Friends”, then I discovered the dreamlike world of “A Day in the Life” — but the true winner for me is ultimately “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, because it evokes dreams and a carnival of fantasies so well for me. And we do need an escape from reality every now and then.
(Featured image from cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, copyright EMI Music/Parlophone Records.)