For the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper, Howard Goodall paid homage to the genius of the Beatles—and George Martin—in his fine BBC2 programme Sgt Pepper’s musical revolution (reshowing currently available here). It’s popular musicology, accessible yet demanding, in the very best tradition of the BBC.
One pioneer of taking pop music seriously was Wilfrid Mellers, with his 1973 book Twilight of the gods. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do, although for them the Beatles may make a more palatable example than some genres. Mellers’s tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music.
Sgt Pepper was born out of the Beatles’ frustration with touring—an exhausting schedule through which they had to churn out the old numbers almost inaudibly beneath the hysteria. As they retreated to Abbey Road studios, the process of composition with George Martin (“collective creation”, as was all the rage in China at the time) lasted five months.
The songs work as one long suite, with themes of childhood and ageing, nostalgia, anxiety. But individually too they are gems. It’s world music, in the sense that all genres are their canvas.
Goodall gives us illuminating harmonic and melodic analysis, as with his discussion of Lucy in the sky with diamonds. He highlights the empathy, the different perspectives, of She’s leaving home—an insight into the real lives of 60s’ people, by contrast with the glamour of the image; the zeitgeist subsumed the contrasting moods of Ken Loach’s Cathy come home and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in wonderland—both from 1966. Goodall shows the Beatles’ innovative use of technology, as in A day in the life, whose story synthesizes fragments of reportage—and its amazing last chord.
Even I had been surreptitiously following the Beatles from the word go, and all their work is deeply affecting, but these studio albums took our admiration to a new level. Of course we didn’t—and don’t—need to “analyse” such work, any more than most audiences do when they attend a performance of a Brahms symphony. But such studies show how music-making of all kinds can be deeply creative.
Maestro Goodall makes a game interviewee in Cunk on Britain.
Note also my tribute to Abbey road.