The Beatles reinvent themselves and popular culture in the process
When the Beatles released their long-awaited follow-up to Revolver, it was almost as if suddenly the band had gone from black and white to full-blown Technicolor, thanks to the cover, one of the most iconic of its time, or any time (and one which would probably require a whole essay to analyse in itself). And are those moustaches the Fab Four are wearing? Clearly Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was not just intended as a musical transformation, but also one of rebirth as well as reinvention for the group as a whole.
By 1966 The Beatles were so rich and popular that they could have easily chosen to record their next LP at any studio in the world, and no doubt benefited from the latest state of the art technology. Instead they opted for the archaic recording facilities at Abbey Road, a studio whose four track equipment was even then considered hopelessly antiquated. However such a decision was as illogical as it was ultimately endearing. Perhaps they simply preferred to remain in London with family and friends rather than board a flight for New York or Los Angeles.
Whatever their reasons, Sgt. Pepper was an absolute triumph, thanks mainly to the gentlemanly George Martin, whose production skills are nothing short of spectacular, especially if one considers the somewhat primitive conditions under which it was recorded. Because no matter how creative and talented The Beatles themselves undoubtedly were, without Martin’s elegant expertise and mastery of recording techniques, Pepper might not have proved to be the sonic success that it was.
Now for a record that was considered at the forefront of youth culture, a generation that always seemed to be aspiring for something new, much of its subject matter is decidedly old-fashioned.
The title track and opener might seem trippy though is practically Victorian in its style and structure, owing itself more to Gilbert and Sullivan than any recent acid adventures the band had been undertaking. Not an unusual thing for the English, who were never averse to borrowing as well as adapting their rich musical heritage, no matter how ancient, and make it fit within their own creative vision.
“With a Little Help from My Friends”, written by McCartney (with some assistance from Lennon), and sung by Ringo, is not only pop perfection, but more importantly an accessible ditty whose lyrics are concerned with the fundamentals of friendship, life, love, and probably anything else you can think of. In other words, the very qualities each of us hold and cherish as human beings.
While McCartney could be described as the ‘avant-garde’ Beatle, it was Lennon who wrote the whackiest of tunes, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is one of John’s best. Beginning with what can only be described as a sort of psychedelic overture on harpsichord; Lennon rapidly takes the listener on a journey through his LSD fuelled imagination. Though unlike Syd Barrett, whose own lysergic inspired compositions had a tendency to wander off into bedlam before reappearing again, “Lucy” is firmly rooted within a traditional pop song structure, no matter how insane it seems.
“Getting Better” is pure McCartney; in other words catchy, upbeat, and annoyingly addictive. So good in fact that it probably gave Lennon the shits, but I’m sure even he couldn’t argue against a great melody. The unfortunate aspect about this song is that nowadays it sounds more like the sort thing one hears on T.V. advertisements. Not so “Fixing a Hole”, an electric-baroque number where McCartney sings about the more basic things in life, and the experiences the majority of ordinary people could relate to, and likely continue to.
The Victorian splendour of “She’s Leaving Home” is a narrative concerned with a young woman sneaking out of her caring parents’ stately dwelling to run away with a “man from the motor trade”. It’s a touching piece and one where the listener’s sympathies lie with both daughter and parent alike, where her mother and father wonder “what did we do that was so wrong”. A sweet and tender snapshot into the generation gap that was rampant in those days.
And speaking of Victorian, what would have been side one ends with the glorious carousal-like “For the Benefit of Being Mr. Kite”, the sort of song any five-year old could appreciate, but an adult? Drugs man.
On side two (in vinyl speak) George Harrison breaks out the Indian prayer beads with the sitar laden “Within You, Without You”, his strongest spiritual statement yet, and is in complete contrast to the rest of the record.
McCartney’s quaint and quirky “When I’m Sixty-Four” is another ode to the Everyman’s existence, which includes ordinary domestic activities, such as gardening, cooking and growing old. Basically a song the entire human race can identify with. “Lovely Rita” is another bandstand tune by Lennon with lyrics that one trusts are not entirely autobiographical considering that he was married to Cynthia at the time. The tripping continues on “Good Morning, Good Morning”, a song that borders on absurdest pop.
The band reprise the title track, albeit in a far more rockier style than the version which opened what can only be described as an eclectic collection of ditties. However it is the final track that perhaps garners the most attention by fans and critics, Lennon’s despairing view of everyday life through the eyes of the daily Morning Mail, including 4000 holes in Blackburn, and Lancashire. “A Day in the Life” is a plaintive and yet depressing observation of reality. Lennon’s voice is expressive, though resigned to mankind’s existential destiny. It takes McCartney to cheer us up and help forget about such dark and depressing things as Lennon is obviously trying to express. However John’s all-encompassing theme returns before segueing into what resembles a racing car whose wheels are beginning to come loose as it travels ever faster down the track, with an orchestra to match, to an almost nauseating degree, until the final horrifying crescendo comes crashing down to a sudden and violent halt, leaving the listener hanging, suspended in stillness as the vibrations float away into the far reaches of the universe.
When one thinks of concept albums, The Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, and The Who’s Tommy often come to mind (there are no doubt many others that exist in people’s record collections), but strangely never Sgt. Pepper itself. Because deep down it doesn’t really feel like a concept album. At least not in the way we understand it today. Yet who really cares, so long as the music is good, or even groundbreaking, which it undoubtedly is.
While McCartney was the main driving force behind it (something which Lennon was rather resentful of apparently), all four came together in splendid style to produce one the late 20th Century’s most popular and enduring works of art. As George Martin says in the liner notes of the remastered edition: “Sgt. Pepper’s… very soon developed a life of its own. I remember it warmly, as both a tremendous challenge and a highly rewarding experience. For me, it was the most innovative, imaginative and trend-setting record of its time.”
And who can argue with that.