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It was Fifty Years Ago Today…

June 1, 2017


I’ve read a great many articles recently about how Sgt Pepper is “over-rated” .  The “Pepper ain’t that great” thesis isn’t new… but as the fiftieth anniversary of its release has loomed, the Pepper naysayers have gone into overdrive.  They range from the wholly reasonable “I prefer Revolver actually” type piece to the full-blown “Sgt Pepper destroyed Rock and Roll and we all live with its bitter consequences” narrative.

I actually think it takes more guts to stand up and say “yes it really is the greatest album of all time” at this point.

John Lennon was one of the most influential of Pepper-downgraders.  It should be noted that when interviewed in the 70s, he professed his dislike for prog rock and concept albums in general – that is to say albums which profess to be greater than the sum of their parts.  And whether or not you call Pepper a concept album, it indubitably does make such a claim.  John claimed he was not an “album person” at all, preferring to treat albums as repositories of songs rather than overarching statements.

Sgt Pepper is not a “concept album” in that it’s meant to have a “message” or “tell a story”.  It’s not Tommy and it’s not Pink Floyd- The Wall.  Is it intended to be listened to in its entirety though?  Yes.  Does it have a mood all of its own?  Yes.  And that mood is all the more potent, imaginative and expressive because none of the Beatles had a pre-determined conscious sense of what that mood should be, exactly.

Without doubt, Pepper inspired a deal of self-indulgent conceptual prog rock.  But anything great is going to risk having a baleful influence.  You don’t judge great art in terms of its laziest derivative wannabes.  Without wanting to go all Harold Bloom “anxiety of influence” it’s worth positing the notion that anything with the cultural impact of Sgt Pepper is going to have unforeseen, unforeseeable, and sometimes undesirable consequences.

Well, here’s the thing.  I love Pepper and I don’t care who knows it.

One thing I love about Sgt Pepper is that it’s a triumph of collaborative songwriting.  The notion that John and Paul grew apart as they grew more sophisticated is deliciously refuted by this album and the very best songs on the album show them working closely  together.  “Day in the Life” is of course co-written.  But so is “With a Little Help from my Friends” (the actual composition of which was witnessed by Hunter Davies who was awestruck by the intuitive brainstorming dynamic of an authentic Lennon-McCartney song coming together).  “She’s Leaving Home” is co-written.  “Getting Better” is Paul with significant help from John while “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is John’s but with interesting help from Paul with the lyrics, demonstrating that Paul’s psychedelic imagination was at its height in 1967.  Recently Paul has claimed that he contributed ideas for “Mr Kite” as well.

Love really was in the air.  This is the sound of people who really believed that a better world was possible and imminent.  Perhaps that’s why subsequent generations have hated it so much.  It contains so many meditations on the hopes and fears of wide-ranging ill-defined but transformative love.  There were some odd moments during the recording process for sure.  There were those few minutes of panic when it was realised that a very drugged up John probably shouldn’t be wandering around on the roof on his own.  There were George Martin’s hurt feelings when Paul got so impatient to have “She’s Leaving Home” arranged for an orchestra that he got Mike Leander to do it rather than wait for Martin to clear his schedule.  But the sound you hear on this album is the sound of people who love to work together and who are excited by their own surprise at the unprecedented things they find they are capable of doing.

The title track defines perceived problems with Sgt Pepper because it asks to be considered as a fanfare rather than an autonomous song.  It seems to be saying… “look what’s coming” rather than “look at me”.  It’s purpose is to build excitement for something that’s bigger than it is.  If an album can be bigger than the sum of its parts, then the title track is vindicated.   If it ain’t then it isn’t.  The song morphs into “With a Little Help from my Friends” which is the best song ever written for Ringo and the best song ever written about Ringo.  I’ve never really warmed to the Joe Cocker version of a song always intended for the man whose drumming tied together the work of his bandmates and who refused to play drum solos on principle.  Right up until “The End”, he refused.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is currently my son’s favourite Beatles’ song.  I think it was mine once.

“Getting Better” is based around staccato piano chords, and its affirmations are all the more effective for being grounded and retarded by John’s confessional recollections of abusive behaviour.  It’s the sort of song that is used to over-simplify a Paul = Sunny, John = Cynical binarism.   This binarism falls apart as soon as you look at John and Paul’s larger body of work and larger body of contributions to the Beatles – but here, for once, it works triumphantly on its own terms.

“Fixing a Hole” is long rumoured to be a McCartney-Evans composition.  Mal Evans is no longer with us, so that rumour is never going to be confirmed or debunked definitively.   John spoke highly of “Fixing a Hole”, understandably, because it echoes the dreamy lethargy of many of his own songs.  “Fixing a Hole” is about reclusive mind-wandering and it reminds me a bit (in mood – not in melody or structure) of “I’m only Sleeping” on Revolver.  It’s one of those rare Paul songs (like “Why don’t We do it in the Road” and “Oh Darling”) that John felt he could and should have written himself.

“She’s Leaving Home” is one of the most beautiful songs of its era and an exquisite example of collaborative writing.  If nothing else, it is the loveliest thing in a 3/4 time signature the Beatles ever did.  The little story it tells is perfectly timed and is so tightly constructed that every melodic phrase connects with the gasping fits and starts of the events of the early morning escape/abandonment being described.  It’s painful but not judgmental.  The recognition that youthful self expression and self indulgence can be painful to a generation left behind makes this one of the least characteristic contributions to the Summer of Love imaginable.

“Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” apparently sounds the way it does because John told George Martin to make it sound like circus sawdust.  John could be very demanding when it came to getting the right production but rarely very technical.  He knew what he wanted, but had little interest in the process of getting there.  The song then drifts into the darker unheimlich soundscape that is implicit in all mechanised circus music… and the song as a whole reminds us that recovering childhood also means recovering childhood fears.

“Within You, Without You” has been described as a bit like the sprouts at a Christmas meal.  You need the sprouts, but you don’t look forward to them and/or you don’t enjoy them when you first try them.  George, who does comparatively little for the rest of the album, is charged with the preachy bit.  But we need preachy bit.  The song tries our patience, but our patience needs to be tried.  The song is “down time”, and a recognition that the whole contemporary “All you Need is Love” is going to take a bit of meditative work and self-examination.  The beauty of the song grows with successive  listenings.  It also helps if you actually listen to the words carefully and without prejudice.  As I get older, I like sprouts more and more.

“When I’m 64” is always going to be derided by those who believe that rock music needs to protect intransigent generation gaps.  One of Paul’s earliest songs,  it was finally given the production it needed so as to create something that everyone, from four to sixty four can tap a toe to.  Lots of people claim to hate this song, but if they say they don’t enjoy its melody then they are liars.  It’s a song about melody in many ways, and the power of melody to defy time itself.  Paul McCartney has never believed that coming together in the name of love is the exclusive preserve of the young.

John spoke disparagingly of “When I’m 64” and “Lovely Rita”, disliking Rita because of his distaste for McCartney’s tendency to want to construct little narratives out of “ordinary people”.  What’s really astonishing about Rita is the contrast between the jaunty little anecdotal verses and the transcendent simplicity of the chorus.  Instead of getting irritated by the threat of a parking ticket, this song takes a hate figure and turns her into a goddess who soars above us all.  Without the chorus, the song might sound twee and pointless, but with it, it becomes something rather strange and wonderful.

Everyone knows that John was dismissive of some of Paul’s songs.  But he could be equally dismissive of many of his own songs.  With an overly confessional/autobiographical concept of the creative process, if he didn’t recall feeling  especially inspired while writing a song, he was inclined to demote it to the status of pot-boiler.   “Good Morning, Good Morning” is a case in point – a song which John called a throwaway piece of garbage.  No John.  It’s a marvelous track, rhythmically bizarre and structurally very innovative, but above all exciting to listen to.  Ringo’s drumming ties this strange thing together with delicious precision.  Paul adds a truly thrilling guitar solo.  And John’s own vocal performance is remarkable – nobody else could have managed to sound threatening and hilarious at one and the same time.

As for “Day in the Life”… well, it’s still astonishing.  In “Getting Better”, John’s darkest moments make Paul’s affirmations seem more convincing and necessary.  In “Day in the Life”, Paul’s detailed description of being late for work only makes John’s ethereal disengaged verses seem closer and more urgent.  In their own way, Paul’s contributions are as trippy as John’s.   With the arrangements they made to fuse their two melodies together, they created something that sounds like everybody trying to join together.  The ambition of this song is created out of two men leaning towards one another, finding unprecedented ways to “connect”.

A friend of mine pointed out that the reverberations of that final chord are still echoing.  The album isn’t done yet.   Fifty years later.  Listen closely – you can still hear it.

So there – Sgt Pepper – fifty years on.  Is it so great?

Rock and Roll is (or was, or ought to be) an iconoclastic form of expression.  Any album enshrined as “the greatest” is going to cause some resentment.  Elevating this album to rarefied heights of greatness has just made it easier to take pot shots at.  All of which is probably healthy.  Reverence is not always a healthy creative state of mind.  Challenging canonical authority is often a prerequisite for creative innovation.   But Sgt Pepper has now survived fifty years of generational resentment.  If it was really going to be knocked of that there darn pedestal, it would have been knocked off by now.  Give it up, people.  Of course I will prefer to listen to other albums from time to time.  But I can’t think of ever not wanting to return to Sgt Pepper after a surprisingly brief interval.  I can’t imagine ever feeling estranged from Pepper for very long at a time.

Here’s the thing – nobody sounds “clever” by listing Sgt Pepper as their favourite album.   Loving Pepper is no way of getting attention – no way of showing off your distinctive critical acumen.  But I’m getting older now – much closer to 64 than the Beatles were in 1967 and also old enough to know that I’m not clever, and that Sgt Pepper deserves all the acclaim it has ever received.

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