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“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: Reflections on a Beatles opus, 50 years on
The inner gatefold cover of the Beatles' 1967 album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Courtesy of Apple Corps, Ltd.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: Reflections on a Beatles opus, 50 years on

This month, we celebrate 50 years since “Sgt. Pepper” taught the world to listen. As the years ran on, the “foreign” modes of this thirty-five-minute-long album (Hinduist philosophy, ‘20s music-hall, hippie stoner culture) became familiar, lodged into a generation’s memory bank. But can we separate the legacy from the musical text? What else is there to glean in “Pepper” in 2017, beyond all the hosannas?

We must clear away the overpraise and the underpraise, the cobwebs of myths and the underselling of extraordinariness. There is “Sgt. Pepper’s” false status as the first long-playing (LP) work to be approached by the artist as a ‘concept album.’ (“Dust Bowl Ballads,” “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Freak Out!”, “Pet Sounds,” etc. would contest that.) There is Rolling Stone, the old white male rocker’s nostalgia pill in tabloid format, declaring “Pepper” the greatest album ever made. The release date certainly doesn’t help. June 1, 1967 — is there a better date for a work of art to come out and be asked to define an epoch, the Summer of Love? Strip away all the praise, and what we’re left with is but one square on the schizoid quilt of the 1960s pop scene — a lovely time to imagine yourself in, one based on a unity-in-cultural-separateness that is all but dead today.

On “Pepper,” the guise of a Technicolor band gave the Beatles an image on which to build a mini-world. Even though the Sgt. Pepper band was nothing more than a cute McCartney gimmick he conjured up on a plane-ride, and even though the Beatles were beginning to think as four separate artists in late 1966/early 1967, “Sgt. Pepper” still has that distinct Beatles sound—three-part harmonies, shockingly deep simple-lyrics, a bass fatness inspired by the Black artistry at Motown and Stax. At times, it sounds like “Sgt. Pepper” was composed on a 19th-century Wurlitzer organ touched up by a mom-and-pop Guitar Center. It’s an agile contraption, with too many settings to count — instruments culled from decaying British dance halls, Motown’s Detroit studio, an Indian music school, MGM’s movie orchestra and maybe a guitar or two from the early Cavern Club days. The interest in sonic experimentation was whetted by the Beatles’ foray into tape looping (“Tomorrow Never Knows”, off 1966’s “Revolver”); but just a year later, each Beatle was wondering, Can I even achieve what *I* want with the four other lads? The guise of the Lonely Hearts Club Band provided a tentative answer of “for now, maybe.”

Where are they, even? A hippy harpsichordist’s practice room? I’ll bet they bought their bassoons and clarinets at Monsieur Dame’s megawhite music shop, from the Jacques Demy musical “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (released three months before “Sgt. Pepper”). I’ve never figured out what the hell The Lonely Hearts Club Band wants. Love, I guess — but I mean musically, artistically. I suppose they’re some sort of punk Edwardian brass group — you know, with the usual timpani-guitar-trombone section. (Add in some funky bass riffs and incredibly virtuosic Ringo drumming; what fury compelled him to play the way he did on “Rain,” “A Day in the Life,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” “Strawberry Fields Forever”?) If you subscribe to the theory that the Lonely Hearts Club Band is the unifying life-force of the album, then you must love how wonderfully diverse they are: interests in vaudeville, raga rock, circus music, Schubert and a Kinks-y (proto-“Village Green”) love of all things English.

Oh yes—and of course, the Beach Boys. The Beatles and producer George Martin had been blown away by “Pet Sounds,” Brian Wilson’s 1966 magnum opus, a similar Rube Goldberg Music Machine made in California. But there was a key difference. Wilson was one; the Beatles were four, with personalities and philosophies that often clashed. As a mostly solo auteur, Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” pushed his love of clouds of angelic sound to the musical breaking-point. Each “Pet Sounds” instrument is basically unrecognizable, because they’re each working towards a specific harmonizing goal. As a noble naïf, sunny Angelino, and a quiet and spiritual man, Wilson wanted to ritualize the private pleasures of romantic love, to make it cover every square-inch of modern life. The Beatles on “Sgt Pepper’s,” on the other hand, were more drawn to dispersiveness, empty spaces, sharp right-turns at every corner that proclaimed Newness and the uniqueness of each instrument.

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Hunting for Connections, Meanings, and Conclusions amongst the “Pepper” songs is a Sisyphean task. At this point in early 1967, the Beatles realized that their artistic interests were beginning to bifurcate — and they embraced that natural separation. Lennon and McCartney each gave five or six songs to fit the size of an LP (George Harrison, one or two; Starr, one; with countless suggestions from both). Beyond this, though, the songs shouldn’t be collectively considered “a statement about x, y, z.” The magic lays in the sounds floating atop the surface, as these disparate songs are asked to share space with one other. Starting with “Sgt. Pepper,” the Beatles wanted each finished LP to be a glorious patchwork, one which nevertheless felt finite and calculated when it hit store shelves. Since “Sgt. Pepper” is still recognizably “psychedelic,” it isn’t quite to the radical unity-in-separateness of their White Album a year later, which defies all conventional categories of musical genre. But “Pepper” is getting there.

The setlist was also pretty hazy. The idea of having a single concept drive the album was Paul McCartney’s, who wanted an LP that explored the Beatles’ boyhoods growing up in Liverpool. But of all the songs composed during the “Pepper” sessions, only two (and maybe a third) followed that concept, and both of them (John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul’s “Penny Lane”) were released as a double-A-side single, not the LP proper. (The third, George Harrison’s atonal and underloved “Only a Northern Song,” is like a mockery of the project, with its jarring atonal horn blasts, meta lyrics and disquieting aloofness in Harrison’s delivery; it was too gruff and strange for “Pepper,” so it ended up being released in 1969 on the “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack.) By 1967, McCartney had become the group’s de facto leader, writing the majority of the songs on any given LP and shaping the thematic structure. But despite Paul’s desire for a (Paul-approved) Beatles front, the post-’67 Beatles records resisted a uniform sound.

From “Sgt. Pepper’s” onward, the band’s diversities were more on display than their similarities. No tone is settled on for long, fluctuating dramatically not just from song-to-song, but within songs. “A Day in the Life” is the most obvious example, but how about a song about relationship abuse like “Getting Better”? It’s shocking how upfront the male narrator is: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart/from the things that she loved.” (This is a very Lennon-specific addition to a song that otherwise screams Paul’s hub-dub-dub cheeriness; just as acidic and Billy Wilder-like are John’s and George’s harmonies: “It can’t get no worse!”) Sonically, it plods along in a pretty stable soundscape; but those disturbing lyrics (along with a simultaneous tambura drone from George Harrison) upsets the balance. The return back to the Western pop of the chorus (cute, slickly sick, campy) is like the happy ending of an MGM melodrama of the 1950s: Both are blazingly pat, a consciously failed attempt to forget an uncorked past, but still seductive enough to ensure a comfortable fade-out for the listener.

Weaving in and out of “Sgt. Pepper” are two core moods: cheery British pluckiness and barely concealed melancholy; as the years pass, the melancholy slowly creeps over. And it’s everywhere.

It’s in “Within You Without You,” where, at the song’s end, laughing Western snobs mock Harrison’s attempt to merge two different spheres of culture. Instead of admiration for the effort, there is disdain, hostility —“Why dilute one at the expense of the other?,” or “Why bring that foreign gobbledegook to the table?” seem to be the two knee-jerk responses Harrison feared, and that I fear today.

It’s in “With a Little Help from My Friends,” where Billy Shears (Ringo Starr) sings with a soul-crushed flatness. “I need somebody to love”, he says with a glum ‘optimism’; he must repeat it over and again, pop-hook-style, because he holds on to the belief that it will maybe come true. The same year, Grace Slick sang a similar phrase with Jefferson Airplane on “Surrealistic Pillow”; in her case, it was a question (“Don’tcha want somebody to love?”) and a warning (“You’d better find somebody to love”). Hearing her confident belt, you were damn sure Slick was firm and upright. She knew that you knew that she knew the answer. But what does Billy Shears know? An overburdened lounge-singer type, Billy Shears is more insecure than Slick. Except, of course, when he’s with his squad. Even then, those friendships cannot erase the individual lack of confidence he deep down inside feels.

It’s in “Good Morning Good Morning,” where John Lennon shows us the absurdity and arbitrariness of living. In the opening moments, a man’s been killed, the doctor calls the wife to tell her the awful news, then the doc and team shrug it off: “What a day, how’s yer boy been?” What?! Here and in “A Day in the Life,” Lennon is sick of the slump caused by modern monotony, the wake-up-watch-TV-eat-sleep routine. A year ago, in 1966’s “I’m Only Sleeping,” sleep was salvation. In 1967, it is a slog. On “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the other big Lennon winner on “Pepper,” escapism to a La La Land of dreams and wonderment is only temporary. Eventually, Lennon crashes down to earth. The comedown is hard.

But perhaps the place where Melancholy and Melodrama find their greatest home on “Pepper” is “She’s Leaving Home,” which is so dizzingly devastating and traumatizing the more you listen to it. Here, a McCartney “Pepper” song is at the peak ambitiousness of Lennon’s “Day in the Life” or Harrison’s “Within You Without You.” It is actually less interested in the runaway young woman (unknowable, described solely in a series of crisp actions) and more invested in the crusty, old mother and father! Were they written today, the parents’ remarks (“We gave her everything money could buy,” “Never a thought for ourselves,” “We struggled hard all our lives to get by”) would be delivered with a snide, ironic, superior air (“Let’s laugh at how entitled and un-woke they are, and at the fact that they’ll never learn.”) But McCartney’s benefit-of-the-doubt impulse gives the parents an awakening, a moment of epiphany for privileged folk who have never had to question their interiority until now. They slowly come to — not senses, but a sense. Still trying to find themselves. Still un-formed. Inching in some right direction. Comic-book caricatures given an individuality. It’s a glory to behold. Serious irony. An ultimate balancing act of empathy.

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Courtesy of Universal Music Group.

“Pepper” sings to us today, but how could “A Day in the Life” (the most ambitious of the “Pepper” tracks) have predicted a period 50 years beyond it, of which it had no knowledge? The spacey, empty vat of sound — interrupted by networks of busyness and gorgeous cacophony (an infrequent drum fill here, an atonal orchestra there) — a sensory overload all at once because of the derelict bits of important, some pertinent, most not. The world in Lennon’s epic and today is just a slapdash of Information, where people can choose what to tune in or out, arbitrarily declare Authenticity wherever it suits them. “A Day in the Life” is a dirge to unity. It jams many sections together. Together, they sound interesting, yes, but they are never more than the sum of their ersatz parts. Such is the point of most of the famous Beatle combinations (cf., “I’ve Got a Feeling,” the Abbey Road Medley), but they were never so dramatically effective as in “A Day in the Life.”

As one of the last true collaborations by John and Paul (too many irreconcilable differences on 1968’s “The Beatles” and 1969’s “Abbey Road”), “A Day in the Life” is probably the Beatles’ best synthesis of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural, the secular and the spiritual. And, tellingly, tragically, the synthesis nears a feeling of completion without ever getting there.

It is built upon the moments in our lives that go un-narrated. Reading the newspaper. Watching a movie. Catching the bus.

Some of the events can maddeningly blur into one another without a fuss: Our hero blazes twice, in illusory symphonies of nice white noise.

Other events are once-in-a-lifetime: The movie people all turn away from is Richard Lester’s 1967 anti-“anti-war-film” film “How I Won the War.” (Did you follow?) Lester’s angry and alienating masterwork is one of the purest Brechtian epics the Western cinema has ever produced. John Lennon himself “starred” in it, in a supporting role that brilliantly demolished his image as a guru pop-icon of Truth. He was just one of the scurrying ants, a sick victim of sanitized “War is Heroic” imagery. But rather than be subjected to this unpleasant, non-entertaining, eye-opening experience, the crowd prefers to look away. It’s never clear what will stand the test of time, and what will fade away, until the dust of the present moment clears away.

That’s the horrid truth about the daily. In “A Day in the Life,” something extraordinary like “How I Won the War” is just one station in an ambling, humdrum day. In a present moment, solid things are treated as ephemeral smoke.

We knew the state-of-matter of “Sgt. Pepper” when it came out in 1967. In 2017, we’re more sure.

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Carlos Valladares

Carlos Valladares is a junior double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He lives and breathes the Beatles and Motown. His favorite movies include "A Hard Day's Night," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Nashville," "Imitation of Life," and anything touched by Studio Ghibli's hands. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.