*Click here for my series on the great Beatles albums,
Even I had been surreptitiously following the Beatles from the word go, and all their work is deeply affecting; but their later studio albums took our admiration to a new level. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, 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 studies like those of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) show how music-making of all kinds can be deeply creative.
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Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) 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 Beatles’ previous albums contain many wonderful individual gems, but for me both Sgt Pepper and the following Abbey road are “choral symphonies”, song cycles, seamless wholes—even if only Side 2 of the latter was conceived thus. Individually he songs are gems, but with their themes of childhood and ageing, nostalgia, loneliness all in balanced contrast, they work as one long suite. It’s world music, in the sense that all genres are their canvas.
We have seen how Beatle music began as a communal activity of danced song: and how in their second phase—as verbal developed alongside musical interest—it became concerned with human relationships in a social context. The songs were now to be listened to, rather than danced to; and by the time of Penny lane and Strawberry fields it was improbable that the numbers could even be “participated in” in live performance, since they were dependent on electronic equipment. This does not necessarily mean that the songs have ceased to have ritual significance, for the long-playing record is a more radical innovation than we once realised. It transplants ritual from temple or theatre to any place where two or three may gather together, including the home or commune, as well as club or discotheque. This is why the supreme achievements of pop so far are halfway between ritual and art. With remarkable verbal articulateness, though at a poetic level beyond intellectual formulation, the Beatles’ next disc, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, explores the perennial as well as current problems of adolescence—loneliness, friendship, sex, the generation gap, alienation, fear, nightmare; and perhaps could do so because the Beatles’ early “corporate identity” was always a synthesis of four different individuals. Yet if Pepper is, in this relatively traditional sense, art, it is also a ritual involving the young—through its electronic extension of musical sounds into the environment of the external world—in a ceremonial togetherness, without the prop of a church or state. This two-way function as art and ritual remains valid, even though the Beatles, in common with most pop groups, disclaim both moral responsibility and artistic technique: for that responsibility and technique may be intuitively independent of conscious volition is the heart of the matter.
No longer do the Beatles offer us a miscellany of songs; we rather have a sequence of intricately related numbers, forming a whole and performed without break. The verses, though composed “orally”, by trial and error, are printed on the record sleeve, so that we may go back and read them again, “like a book”: just as on disc we may repeat bits of the music, as one cannot in a live (especially in part improvised) performance.
None of the songs is a love song; and that the main theme of the songs is loneliness would seem to admit that the Beatles’ early attempts at tribal togetherness had failed—not as music, but as a way of life.
Here’s a playlist for the 2009 remastered version:
- Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mellers’ comments, illuminating the transitions and contrasts between songs, reveal just how sequential they are. He continues:
Sgt Pepper himself is an old-world character rooted in the camaraderie of a distant past: “It was twenty years today Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. So we open with a “public” number (by Paul), inviting us to the show, and recalling Edwardian military music, the circus and the working men’s club, delivered with extrovert rhetoric, and with approving audience-noises off-stage. Yet if the brisk rhythm, the jaunty fanfares and the military scoring of this first song suggest simple solidarity, the music is far from being what it superficially seems. In tonality it is curiously ambiguous: for while it gravitates towards a smiling G major, the introduction wobbles between dominant sevenths of D and F, and when we reach the tune itself and the Band, having been introduced, plays and sings, the rhythms of the tootling arpeggiated tune are tipsily displaced by cross accents (three against two) and the “open” tonality is clouded by blue false relations. So this public show-piece hides beneath its zest a certain jitteriness. The cosy world of Pepper may embody a truth; but it’s one that is dubiously relevant to young people today. On the cut-out included with the disc the Beatles sport their resplendent Edwardian uniforms as comic fancy-dress.
Referring to this “overture”, Alan W. Pollack reminds us:
Don’t allow any of the overdubbed effects to blunt your sensitivity to the well executed bassline, lead guitar licks, and drumming.
And he observes that the bowed strings in the fade-up ambient noise prepares us for their major role in She’s leaving home and A day in the life.
- With a little help from my friends. Mellers goes on:
Indeed, the instability of this first song already demonstrates that although Pepper is a military man, very peppery, and runs a band of people playing together, they none the less play to a club of Lonely Hearts. So we’re not surprised when the public junketings fade out, after a reference to the “lovely audience” Pepper hopes we’re going to be, into a sad little song, also by Paul but with help from John, but sung by Ringo, commonest of common men. And he begins by apologising for his incompetence, as contrasted with peppery professionalism. […] The song epitomises the reasons why the Beatles needed one another and reveals why their awareness of “separateness” and “togetherness” was meaningful to the young at large.
Pollack’s analysis is here. Actually, for the first song proper on the album, I find it just too bold in its hamminess: I’m not prepared yet for such irony. But Now For Something Completely Different:
- Lucy in the sky with diamonds—(Pollack here) psychedelic, as Mellers notes, a “revocation of a dream-world of childhood”, its vivid colours
those of a poetically recreated kids’ comic”. The music, too, preserves its innocence: a lazily wafting waltz tune undulates around the third of the scale (with dreamy flat sixths and sevenths in the accompaniment), and the fairy-tale scoring, tinklingly plangent, helps us to see and hear the lovely landscape as larger than life, the flowers “incredibly high”, the girl’s eyes “kaleidoscopic”.
An abrupt change to a rapid 4/4 brings further tonal refinements, and
the fade-out carries us back from trip, childhood and dream-girl to reality, though again with equivocal irony.
- Getting better—balancing contrasts, as this album and Abbey road do. Pollack notes how the abstract Lucy is followed by this representational song, judiciously relaxing the tension. Mellers:
a raggedy music-hall song by Paul, evoking school rebel and angry young man. The scalewise-moving, non-modulating boogie-rhythmed tune expresses fury with rule and authority and lovelessness in personal relationships, with perky insouciance. […] Though the language is not only plain, but blunt, the music doesn’t allow us to take the self-denunciation, or even the denunciation of authority, very seriously. At the same time the diatonic simplicity of the refrain makes its optimism somewhat wobbly. This again indicates how the Beatles’ vulnerability is part of their honesty; so it’s natural enough that this emotional frailty should lead into the deepening commitment of the next song,
- Fixing a hole: Pollack suggests that here the protagonist is actively fulfilling the potential of Getting better. Mellers:
We’ve moved from Sgt Pepper’s old-world club to the dubious potentiality of friendship; from there to a dream-girl or the fairy-world of childhood; from the dream-girl to a remotely possible real one; and from that nervous expectancy to this subtly mysterious little song about the nature of identity. […] It begins in a dorian F, rocking fourths being followed by a pentatonic upward lift, balanced by a descending flat seventh; the end of the first strain creates the mind’s free wandering, as it floats pentatonically upwards, always just off the beat.
- She’s leaving home—in triple metre, like Norwegian wood. Pollack finds it close to mimicry, but surely it’s one of the Beatles’ most moving ballads. Mellers:
The girl and her situation, though typical enough, were culled (Paul tell us) from the Daily mirror, and the verses evoke the mystery of the commonplace, having the true economy of poetry. How much is conveyed by the reference to the “note that she hoped would say more”; how sadly funny it is that she leaves home for the purpose of “meeting a man from the motor trade”, probably a shady rather than conventional character, but either way one from whose life-style the glamour will soon wear thin. Even the parents’ lamentation (“With never a thought for ourselves … we gave her everything money could buy”), though guyed with falsetto obbligato, is without trace of bitterness.
He observes the irregular, subtle musical structure:
The vocal tune is a corny waltz mainly in stepwise movement, but with a yearning life from the second to the tonic in the higher octave, followed by a descent by way of the flattened seventh. […] The arching cello solo is as beautiful as it is comic; and the irregular structure enacts the story, conveying not merely the fact of the girl’s departure but all the muddled hope, apprehension, and fear in the girl’s heart, the fuddled incomprehension of the parents. There’s failure all round, in both generations; yet the failure doesn’t deny the tune’s heart-felt lyricism, nor lessen the comedy of the falsetto obbligato. That the song makes us laugh and cry simultaneously is testimony of its truth to experience.
This little tragi-comedy of personal relationships is banished with a return to the public world of the circus in
- Being for the benefit of Mr Kite! Pollack:
The song’s function in the cycle is more important than its intrinsic interest; it recalls our starting point, after the songs have explored the ramifications of loneliness and togetherness; and by ironic contrast it prepares the way for George Harrison’s number
- Within you without you (Pollack here). “Bringing in the religious implications of the search for identity”, following tracks on Revolver, the Indian sitar again features prominently, its orientalism (Mellers) “re-created in terms of the Beatles’ newborn innocence”. This was one of the main pop creations that were now turning on a generation to Indian music.
In a mixolydian scale with major third and flat seventh, it’s said to be loosely based on rāg Khamaj (The raga guide, pp.100–101; CD 3, #6)—although the only point of such a claim is to lead one towards the complexities of raga in its native form. The refrain and middle section also feature additive metres.
Pollack makes an interesting comment on the eerie laughter at the end of the song:
I’m aware of at least two schools of thought:
- The xenophobic audience (remember there’s an underlying element in the “Pepper concept” that at least indirectly connotes a Victorian/Edwardian outlook of supercilious imperialism) is letting off a little tension of this confrontation with pagan elements.
- The bedazzled composer, in an endearingly sincere nanosecond of acknowledgement of the apparent existential absurdity of the son-of-a-Liverpudlian bus driver espousing such other-wordly beliefs and sentiments, is letting off a bit of his own self-deprecating steam in reaction to the level of true courage expended by him in order to come out of the uneasily-anti-materialist closet.
But, don’t you think it’s a combination of the two?
From these metaphysical reaches within the mind we’re jerked back by a leery laugh; a deliberate exercise in “trivialisation” which may be self-defensive, though its not self-destructive.
Making yet another contrast, the next song, Paul’s
- When I’m sixty-four, as Mellers continues,
cannot be adequately described as parody, though we’re back in a suburban terraced house, and in the raggy, twentyish music-hall style of George Formby, with oompahing tuba bass and noodling clarinet obbligato. This reinvokes Dad’s world and era with comic yet touchingly poetic wit. […] Of course the oldies’ little cottage has to be in the Isle of Wight, and of course their grandchildren must be called Vera, Chuck, and Dave. Yet these oldies are at the same time identified with the Beatles.
Talking of unpromising chromaticisms,
Meanwhile, Pollack seems rather less convinced. Having been a tad disconcerted by With a little help from my friends early on, I’m well cool with the style by now. Returning again to the present,
- Lovely Rita (meter maid) makes an earthly balance for Lucy in the sky, as Mellers notes, not pretending that she is more than “an alleviation of loneliness and distress”. As Pollack notes, it’s been quite some time since we heard anything resembling rock. The song ends with what Mellers calls an “indefinite threat”, something of which persists through
- Good morning Good morning (Pollack: “truly, truly, one of the great songs”), with more additive metres—its euphoria containing a spooky, hallucinatory undertone (Mellers), thus leading into
- Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)—which has “now lost its show-biz glamour, or recognises it as illusory”. Pollack discusses it on his page on
- A day in the life (here), an epilogue transporting us back into the “real” world, both funny and creepy, as Mellers observes; its news items, whatever their source, do indeed constitute “a Day in the Life—anyone’s life, here and now,” with the contrast between the simplicity and frailty of the little tune and the horror and confusion of the events dispassionately referred to. And then a long electronic crescendo ushers in a more urgent middle section, turning hallucinatory. The final da capo is less innocent,
threatened with ferocious percussion, and leading into another and wilder electronic trip that seems to be also an atomic explosion, obliterating both public revelry and private love.
Mellers even considers this song “the Beatles’ deepest exploration of their familiar illusion–reality theme”.
Perhaps it’s an unconscious tribute to the Beatles’ innocent honesty and tough resilience that, after the explosion, the commotion settles into an infinitely protracted if weirdly spaced (with obtrusive thirds) chord of E major: the key which, in the 18th century and after, was traditionally associated—though the Beatles cannot have known this—with heaven!
Which leads us (OK, me) to Bruckner 7 and the north Chinese ritual wind ensemble…
I can’t tell how people listen to an album like this—in a variety of ways, I suppose, like all music: one can zoom in or out on all kinds of music. But however consciously or not one listens, such analysis explains Sgt Pepper’s deep meaning and lasting appeal for audiences.
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For the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper in 2017, Howard Goodall paid homage to the genius of the Beatles—and George Martin—in his fine BBC2 programme Sgt Pepper’s musical revolution (not currently available, but sometimes reshown). It’s popular musicology, accessible yet demanding, in the very best tradition of the BBC.
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.
Maestro Goodall also makes a game interviewee in Cunk on Britain.