‘Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.’
– The Beatles
It is well-known that destruction and creation exist on opposing sides of a knife-edge, but that fact doesn’t stop the lizard brains inside our hairy-ape skulls from perceiving every moment of creation as a step up the never-ending ladder toward sheer fucking human perfection. The atom bomb, Stonehenge, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the World Wide Web: All incrementally ticking us one nudge closer to that moment when we become the smartest, free-est, most righteous entity known to the universe. History, to most, is a never-ending hallway, ancient, covered with frescoes, lined with arches, filled on either side with marble pedestals topped with the busts of those who pointed us toward the infinite and the holy with their ability to create.
Creation, we are told, is the result of the genius following his or her dreams; dreams, we are also told, are part of a mystical mental joining of the spiritual and the psychological, allowing wisdom to be whispered in the ear of those with the genius to listen and the courage and spirit to transform the dream into reality. In our popular consciousness, as it stands now, there is one Ur-story that, somehow, stands above all others in providing a shining example of a group of committed geniuses converting dream-power into a singular product of awe-inspiring beauty and wonder that has, in the wake of its creation, rocked the world and altered reality for all who walk this earth forevermore.
It is a musical cycle, comprised of 13 songs, created by The Beatles and George Martin, and it emerged, like Athena from the skull of Zeus, in the summer of 1967, 50 years ago to the day. To hear many speak of it, their world before the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a black-and-white one; after its release, there was not just an abundance color, there were ley lines between all living things, visible trails indicating not just the movement of matter but the interconnectedness of the universe to a collective consciousness.
But enough of creation: what of destruction? The inception of Sgt. Pepper’s is universally viewed as a cosmically benign event, a miracle birth awash in lysergic beatification and rapturous energy; the record is viewed by all to be a grand leap in maturity not just for the four musicians and their producer who created it, but for popular music, world culture, and human civilization. But if Sgt. Pepper’s is the adolescent shedding skin, then what of the child left behind? And what new and frightening world did Sgt. Pepper’s lead us into, sight unseen?
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The success of Sgt. Pepper’s now overshadows much of the band’s previous magic, most importantly their ability to create a direct line of communication with the listener. The songs of their pre-Pepper era were, for the most part, love songs; but fashioned with a flair and flicker that made it seem perfectly normal for these young voices to be intonating straight to your inner self. It is important for those of us now living to recall that recorded sound was, even in the mid-60’s, still a relatively recent innovation: Those of just a generation prior may well have never encountered recorded sound until near adulthood. This generation coming of age in the ’60s, then, was a kind of global guinea pig set, besieged at all hours from all places by the voices of spectres and saints, unseen souls crooning and screaming and ranting and extolling the immortal connection between the listener and the singer via the song.
The band’s third single, 1963’s “From Me To You,” is an archetype of this variety of direct mental invasion via song: Like so many pre-Pepper’s songs, it diagrams a transactional relationship between the band and the listener whereby the listener need merely give the most discreet sign and the singer will be there to provide attention and care from a never-depleting reservoir of available love and affection. The singer of these early Beatles hits is the perennial man with several handkerchiefs stuffed in his suit jacket pocket on the offhand chance that you, his date, might sneeze several times and need rescuing; and even if Paul or John or George or Ringo may have occasionally sung of their desire tipping into insanity, it never comes across as anything other than rational, and well-intentioned, a group of men who have long ago succumbed to an inescapable truth. “From Me to You” isn’t the sound of frenzied amour, it is well-trained voices in perfect harmony informing you of a service that you might find of use at some time.
Before you scoff at this, know that this is a legitimate utilitarian purpose of music — speaking with a clear voice, sending assurance to those that can use a sublimated spring in their step, fusing rock and roll’s inherent joie de vivre to a message that is direct and powerful. Rock music, and all popular music really, is highly directional, with an energy that tends to efficiently drive from the source to its intended audience in as straight a line as possible. That is what makes it rock, and/or be popular, really — and what elevated the music of The Beatles to that of once-in-a-millennium lightning-strike phenomenon had a lot to do with the sophistication with which they employed this directional energy, and the enormous power of this line of communication they established with their listeners. Speak to anyone with firsthand knowledge of hearing or seeing The Beatles during this period, and you will marvel at the way that that music listener’s connection to the group was personal — fans felt that they knew the band in a way that was, frankly, new to the world of popular entertainment, in terms of sheer intensity.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, then, was really the moment that the group said “Fuck that” to the whole connection. It was an understandable conclusion, really: The fame that the band experienced was of a type and intensity that is unrivalled in human history — media technology amplified by post-WWII economics, the emergence of the teenager as a viable and powerful entity, and Cold War anxieties turned The Beatles into something beyond mere celebrity. John Lennon was a smart thinker on occasion, none more so than when he observed that the band’s popularity had eclipsed organized religion for many. The band had begun by singing ditties to girls, for success, for money, for sex, for the immediate gratification that was and is the peculiar reward of the art form known as rock and roll; but by 1966, their little musical enterprise had perhaps been too successful in those aims. Sgt. Pepper’s, then, was their attempt to dial back the intensity.
The Beatles did so by rerouting their music’s directional energy inward — to unusual effect. Sgt. Pepper’s, like their early work, is still filled with songs sung to girls — but with subversive twists. “Lovely Rita” is a swelling oath of romantic fealty to a middle-aged working-class woman, complete with a seduction stanza that finds our singer’s intended permitting his ravaging affection whilst “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two;” even more perverse is “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a stiff ditty about complacent old age that enjoins the listener to singer Paul McCartney’s fantasia of grandchildren on his knee and scrimping and saving for a retirement cottage. “You’ll be older too,” he winks at his audience, as brass instruments and woodwinds clank along merrily; where once he twisted and shook with the might of rock and roll and conjoined passion for the listener, McCartney here has retreated entirely into a pastoral dreamscape of modest retreat.
Lennon and George Harrison somehow managed to scurry even further within their own craniums, burrowing so far up their cerebellums that it is possible that they managed to forget that there was an audience at all; for Lennon, it was all about finding a way to shed self-consciousness. He would, in his post-Beatles solo career, make a trademark out of his blinding, often embarrassing honesty. In “Getting Better,” he unleashed one of rock’s most harrowing and disturbing verses.
The song tends to be canonized by Beatles acolytes as a top-tier tune whose staccato guitar refrains and sophisticated call and response chorus harmonizing reveal it to be a shining example of the band’s power-pop chops. Which it is, thanks to McCartney’s impressive tuneage, as he plaintively cops to his life’s weaknesses and the ways that he is trying to face up to who he is and embark on a journey of self-improvement.
While McCartney’s verse examines his wasted youth of being “an angry man, hiding my head in the sand”, however, Lennon’s introspection leaves an uncomfortable mark on the whole record. As Harrison strums his tamboura, releasing a thrumming cloud of droning hiss, Lennon sings “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.”
In the 50 years since the tune’s release, no one has ever really refuted the admission of abuse in this line; in fact, it seems generally acknowledged that this lyric is Lennon attempting to interrogate his younger self in much the same way that McCartney grills the angry young person he once was. This generous reading, however, is belied by the line that follows: “Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene, and I’m doing the best that I can.”
‘The process of transformation has to make a halt in order to digest and assimilate the utterly impractical things that the genius has produced from the storehouse of eternity.’
Carl Jung, What India Can Teach Us, 1939
Lennon’s glib and pat rejoinder nauseates to this day, but in a sense it still reflects his exhaustion with the ever-growing insanity of his life and the false world he found himself ensconced within. If the band was beloved by its adoring fans, it’s clear in hindsight that the love directed at them felt like a never-ending assault; physically set upon all over the world by fanatical zealots, they gave up live performance in late 1966, effectively dealing themselves out of the burgeoning business of stadium rock and roll. From Sgt. Pepper’s until their dissolvement as an active entity three years later, their fans would have to satisfy themselves solely with the sounds coming from the vinyl grooves.
Again, this decision is often interpreted as a victory for creativity: Free from the shackles of performance, the band were able to let loose their wildest creative boondoggles in an unfettered studio environment. Of course, this perspective entails viewing live performance as essentially an uncreative endeavor, primarily because it is, above all else, an ephemeral experience. Massive effort is often put into the spectacle of a live performance, only to have the whole production vanish into nothingness at its conclusion; various tchotchkes aside, performer and spectator alike are left with little else but the memory that such an event took place.
And yet the effort put into such spectacle often defines who an artist is, for only in taking musical material and finding a way to transmit it live in person in real time to an expectant throng does an artist truly define themselves in ways that are non-fraudulent. A tough guy on record can be a pushover in front of a rowdy crowd; a timid band in the studio can find the power to connect forcefully in front of the right group of people. Walking onto a stage together in many ways defines the makers of music in solid, concrete terms.
George Harrison was heard to exclaim, after having played the band’s final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966, “Well, that’s it, I’m not a Beatle anymore.” He was the most eager to turn his muse inward, and one of his two contributions to Sgt. Pepper’s the following year, “Within You Without You,” was completed without the contribution of anyone else in the group. It is a song that encapsulates a certain worldview that eventually became the lasting legacy of the band’s philosophy: That within each person is the power to effect change and bring about a better world.
This is, of course, the root philosophy of Transcendental Meditation, introduced to the band (and basically the world) by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during a brief period of time when the band found itself under his spell. The Maharishi’s teachings clearly fit in neatly with the disenchanted Beatles of the late 1960s: Meditating to find a voice inside was a useful way for the members of The Beatles to try to cope with not just their freakish level of fame but the psychic weight of their unimaginable notoriety. “Try to realize it’s all within yourself, no-one else can make you change/And to see you’re really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you,” Harrison gently intones, with a mesmerizing backing of tablas and sitar that effectively blot out any memories of what The Beatles had once been.
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The great irony of Sgt. Pepper’s is that it is the record that effectively marked the end of the band as a group entity — and yet in framing the album as a concept about a fictional group, The Beatles created an eternal image of themselves as a group, frozen in time in a 1967 that they created almost entirely from scratch. The Sgt. Pepper title track may be a lesser track in terms of pure musical impact, but the overall package — the look, the album cover, and the capriciousness that it embodied — wound up somehow creating an indelible group identity for the band at the exact moment that the group’s true dissolvement commenced.
Almost 51 years to the day before the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, on June 5th, 1916, Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener died when his ship, the HMS Hampshire, hit a German landmine near the Orkney Islands. He was, by all accounts, one of the most brutal imperialists of his time, having been responsible for what we would now call wartime atrocities, especially during the Boer Wars.
Forty-two years and two world wars later, I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, a fanciful boutique specializing in second-hand military uniforms, opened on Portobello Road; within a few years, it wound up being the epicenter of a certain fashion sensation that eventually captured the zeitgeist of the swinging sixties. There had been a going fad in the UK for Victoriana, but the real atomic moment for the store happened on a day in the spring of 1966 when Mick Jagger and John and Cynthia Lennon stopped in the shop. Jagger bought a red Grenadiers jacket from co-owner Robert Orbach for five pounds; in May, he wore it on Ready Steady Go when the Stones debuted their new single “Paint It Black”. Orbach and Co. sold out of their stock of Victoriana, and by 1967 they had two stores in London and were selling jackets to Jimi Hendrix and other rock royalty. Later in 1967, a young American animator named Terry Gilliam, having arrived in London and discovered I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet, used Kitchener’s visage as well as period type and imagery when designing the zany look of a new and irreverent BBC sketch comedy series with the whimsical name Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
To an American like Gilliam, this frippery came across as delightfully nutty; to a Brit, the use of Kitchener-era gear draped around long-haired rock and rollers was nothing short of subversive, a deliberate baiting of an older generation. More importantly, it was a distinct nose-thumbing to the concept of Empire. It alluded to an older era of rigid roles and stiff uniforms, but then plunked those tropes down within shaggy rock music in a way that made the rock seem regal-but-not-pretentious.
There were other groups, of course, willing to mine the UK’s past looking to find a way to add some novelty to rock, and the success of shops like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet went hand-in-hand with all sorts of cultural resuscitation. Of note was the immense chart success in late 1966 of a tune titled “Winchester Cathedral” by a British group calling themselves The New Vaudeville Band: An unholy mix of muted horns, fuzzed out guitars, old-timey-singing-into-a-cone vocals, zoot suits, Victorian military gear, sideburns and wetted-down-and-parted-down-the-middle hairdos. It is probably the only song in music history to prominently feature the bassoon and to hit Number 1 in America (it also made it to Number 4 in the UK), and there is certainly no doubt that at the very least Paul McCartney had heard this song when he was coming up with his concept of a “fake band” for the next Beatles record.
‘The real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best. ‘Be Prepared’ in this way, to live happy and to die happy — stick to your Scout Promise always — even after you have ceased to be a boy — and God help you to do it.’
Robert Baden-Powell, in his farewell to Scouting, 1937
By the time the band were having their Sgt. Pepper’s suits tailored in preparation for the album cover, The Beatles had already tried their hand at military costumes, most notably during the making of the 1965 film Help!; for the “I Need You” sequence, they donned British Army outfits to play the song surrounded by tanks on the Salisbury Plain. McCartney clearly saw the Sgt. Pepper’s concept as a turn-of-the-century marching band throwback — the costumes they came up with most closely resembled something John Philip Souza or Scott Joplin would have worn with their respective bands. But it is definitely clear from Lennon’s later fashion choices that the military aspect of the Sgt. Pepper’s uniform was a distinct part of the appeal.
The John Lennon of the post-Beatles 1970s is known for two things: Writing really bitter songs about his breakup with the band, and wearing the same damned Korean war uniform shirt in almost every interview and concert. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s knows the ubiquitous working class cool of the army green shirt — and there is little debate that John Lennon, together with Bob Marley, Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, kept Army Navy surplus stores in business during those decades with their tacit endorsement of this informal use of a iconic piece of American military garb (Marley in particular never to appear anywhere without his Adidas sneakers and M-65 jacket, it’s basically part of the Bob Marley Halloween costume).
When The Beatles were immortalized in cartoon form, in the 1968 animated feature Yellow Submarine, their military band persona became etched in stone as the essential sartorial legacy of the group. As it happens, this cartoon Beatles came just as the band put out yet another album (that year’s The Beatles) filled with what were essentially songs for children. If they had been Americans, perhaps Sgt. Pepper’s would have seen them donning coonskin caps a la Davey Crockett, or wearing Boy Scouts uniforms (or American Revolutionary garb like Paul Revere & The Raiders); as it stood, they used military symbolism to replicate the play and dressup rituals of children.
The most child-friendly song in The Beatles catalog is also one of their most controversial, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” The band swore up and down for years that the song was not intended to introduce fans to the concept of lysergic acid diethylamide, which may well be true; regardless, the disorientation that the song induces in the listener has little to do with the experience of hallucinogens and more to do with the willingness of a child’s mind to imagine whimsy, to look at things that might seem, in the light of day, frightening or strange and find humor in the juxtaposition. Such it is with the image of The Beatles circa Sgt. Pepper’s that has come to represent the group, of grown men in day-glo fake military uniforms and hats playing gently psychedelic music that speaks to their wonder and isolation at a world that they would love nothing more but to retreat from.
Sgt. Pepper’s, as a cultural product, is a towering creation, symbolizing the high-mindedness of its era and highlighting the spiritual fulfillment that is possible by looking within to seek and effect change in the world. It is also simultaneously a lifeless misstep by a group that had grown devastatingly weary of their fame, their fans, their music, and each other. The record is a staggering technical achievement, richly detailed and sonically complex, revealing new layers, sounds, concepts and melodies with each listen; it somehow also finds the band unwilling and unable to connect musically with their own audience, instead going to outrageous lengths to avoid making the kind of music that once had mobs of teenagers shrieking in breathless hysteria all over the world. Sgt. Pepper’s isn’t merely the band’s most acclaimed record, it may possibly be the pinnacle of the rock and roll movement in terms of its ability to produce globally popular works of art; and yet the record is kind of a dud that killed the band and disillusioned a generation.
Pop the needle down in one place and you hear something of sublime exoticism and lyrical wonder; plop it down in a different groove and you are subjected to plodding juvenilia that would put a kindergartener to sleep. Such are the dichotomies of highly rated works that have spent decades never slipping out of the spotlight, never not being something that current works are compared to. Such is the peril of having a record, frozen in time at the point of its creation, be considered a work of overwhelming genius.
Some artists prize consistency, forging a career out of the identity that their work provides for them; initially, The Beatles played within the lines of that system, until, by a fluke of chance, they completely obliterated the system with their freakishly cataclysmic fame. Sgt. Pepper’s is and will always be the sound of the four members of the group atomizing what was left of their group within that system, and attempting a number of new models for how a band can be, post-Pepper’s. It represents both creation and destruction at a high level, and the lessons they learned and the examples they provided apply to literally no one else in the history of the world. All we mortals can do is look upon this work and either exalt it, condemn it, or ignore it; but we cannot put the pieces back together, nor can we return the world back to the state it was prior to the work’s formation — it will continue to comment on our world from its place in 1967 in 50 years, and a hundred years, and on throughout history, flowing within us and without us.
Daniel Brockman is a Senior Writer for Vanyaland. Follow him on Twitter @thebizhaslanded.