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Reference Library: It Was Thirty Years Ago Today

From: dlm3@midway.uchicago.edu (saki)
Newsgroups: rec.music.beatles.moderated,rec.music.beatles
Subject: Thirty years ago today
Date: 1 Jun 1997 14:21:38 GMT


You can't dance to it.

You can't make muzak out of it.

And the cover is so strange that it could haunt you for a lifetime.

Some tracks melt into each other.

Some of the words sound weird.

Sometimes you wonder what it is they're trying to say. Did it make any sense back then? Does it now?

Everybody talks about it. Still. Now. Thirty years after it was born, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" exudes an enigmatic mystique. Sometimes it's so impenetrably a work of insularity that you can't find the key to it. Perhaps it's a myth that there ever really was one!

Watching a documentary like "It Was Twenty Years Ago" (which itself is now ten years old...time sure flies when you're having fun!), about the making of the album and general huzzahs surrounding its anticipation and release, often works better than mere words can do in convincing the viewer that "Sgt Pepper" was indeed an earth-shattering event.

Still, it can be a struggle to get to that plateau of perception.

Granted, it's not so easy to visualize from this vantage of our more enlightened time but as a cultural (no less artistic) event, "Sgt Pepper" far outweighs any work the Beatles---or any other rock/pop-music group of my acquaintance---ever accomplished.

Here we shall pause for any and all who wish to claim there's something more profound. :-)

This does not mean that "Sgt Pepper" is musically better, artistically greater, or whatever it is, than, say, "Revolver" or some significant non-Beatles record of your (or "Rolling Stone" magazine's) personal choice. But the impact of "Sgt Pepper" was, during the sixties, enormous. Is there a reason this is harder to see these days?

Now I'm not sure we'd want to go so far as to claim that "Sgt Pepper" was the ultimate artistic event of the century (though it's a good candidate for it, IMHO). But I've seen it argued, as a matter of fact, that any artwork so hallowed ought not require explanation to new generations who encounter it. Yet it leaves folks wondering (as some of us do here in rec.music.beatles) what all the fuss was about.

On the other hand, it strikes me that Shakespeare, cubism, "Finnegans Wake", and the music of John Cage are all not immediately embraced as works of genius by those who stumble upon them for the first time. Perhaps "Sgt Pepper" has moved into the impenetrable realm of High Art, requiring a certain amount of Background and Understanding before its significance is made clear.

If so, that's a little sad. It may be barely communicable in words, documents, interviews, visuals; but one of the real wonders of "Sgt Pepper" (quite outside the fabric of the songs themselves) was the remarkable way that the pop music universe slowed, stopped, and sat still in silent awe when the LP burst forth from cellophane on 1 June 1967.

That's not a part of the music, all that revelatory anticipation. You can't feel it clearly anymore, unless you use a modern-day analogy (the wait for "The Beatles Anthology" will do nicely as a model for what was common in the past). But you can literally feel its presence encoded in the silence after the record ends...the unutterable interlude when listeners of yore wondered what else would ever be sufficient to satisfy their ears; when other musicmakers pondered how how in hell they could ever make new songs again.

You *move* to most music. Not this. To say that it's cerebral seems inexact, because "Sgt. Pepper" so profoundly affected the senses as well, but not like a Dionysian dance...rather more like an impassioned secular prayer.

For minutes after the last crash of the multiple keyboards, you couldn't even breathe. Even your mind stopped cold and could make no coherent thought. It was as if music was reborn, as if this was its first breath of life, and you were being made new by virtue of having heard its sound.

There were many "firsts" here.

This was the first time that listeners actually held more or less captive by the extraordinary innovative *format* of the package---not just by the visuals but by the very grooves as well. Quick segues or outright lead-ins from one song to another made it virtually impossible for deejays to cut into the unity of songs. And it was hard for you, too, to lift the tonearm and stop the suite. Extra credit here for fans who remember the weight and feel of a tonearm. :-)

The album presentation involved the listener in a new way; there were cut-outs to play with, and a montage of portraits to decipher. And in a particularly bold statement, the lyrics appear in print, not accompanied by musical notation, as on commercial music sheets, but like *poetry*, like literature.

This isn't dance music, not by a long shot! These words have meaning and existence outside their harmonic home, if you want to see them that way.

Now what about that fabled argument: whether "Sgt. Pepper" was really a concept album or not? It wasn't the first, if so; and dissenters have suggested that it's less a unified tale than one had been led to believe...bordering on thematic chaos rather than coherence!

Or was that chaos deliberate?

Is there a unified theme hidden entirely outside the music itself... extraconceptual, if you will? Is there a reason its thematic threads seem so disjointed? Is its thread broken *on purpose*?

That, I think, is what tends to get lost in these latter-day analyses of the album. It's hard enough, coming to "Sgt. Pepper" as a new Beatles fan---perhaps someone not even born at the time of its release---to see what the fuss was about thirty years ago today.

We've seen thirty years of more complex production techniques, more sophisticated packaging, more innovative live presentation in the rock arena. The envelope has been well-pushed in the realm of theme, costumes, conceptual-art; poseurs compete to provoke musical consciousness, and sincerity is subsumed by cynicism. Is the message of love even left in words and music? Is this ultimately the Fabs' fault for inflicting art-rock upon us? :-)

So much has happened. Intellectually one can appreciate the unique stamp of "Sgt. Pepper" in its time, but emotionally it's awfully hard to see it, depending on our own vision of modern pop. The impression remains that *maybe* it wasn't all that much a groundbreaker after all.

Thankfully, that's merely an impression. :-)

Actually, the album *does* work as a "concept" album, but that term must be understood not as promising a unified lyrical narrative---the way we use the term here---but in its original sense as a thought, a notion, an idea, encompassing a multiple and complex musical personality...almost the birth of a tangible entity.

One way the album communicates this is via its *apparent unity*---something those tight segues do much to impress upon the listener---while the actual thematic arrangement is bold in its dissimilarity. It fools us, in other words, into feeling a connection that isn't really there, while it weaves one *that is*.

The swift, unexpected transition from one dazzling musical world to another (even when one song doesn't strictly fade into the next) creates an ever-accelerating auditory momentum. The complexity of the cover montage is echoed in the shifting images-through-words of songs like "Lucy..." and "Mr. Kite".

Ultimately, the major "concept" of the album---the transformation of one massively popular singing group into an obscure brass band, their pop-idol personalities subsumed into antiquated, anonymous players---is actually well-served by the shift in vocal personae from song to song. We *need* that elusive identity. It's the change, not the sameness, that really matters. That's the concept. Is it true that nothing is real? Or is it *all* real?

Odd how this is the way many of us felt about ourselves, in the sixties...a decade fraught with folk figuring out who they really were. Who are we listening to, really? Not Billy Shears' band? Is it a man who can really see marmalade skies, or is he really the pragmatic fellow of "Fixing A Hole"? The Indian sage or the existentialist whose most real world consists of remote events he reads in the newspaper?

And where are the Beatles themselves?

That's the central question. Where, indeed, have they gone? What have they become? Will they ever come back in a form remotely recognizable? Will we know them by their past or by their future?

That's what we asked ourselves then. To understand "Sgt. Pepper" *now*, we have to ask the same questions today, as if the band were here today.

And, strangely enough, they are...of course!

Paul explained the LP much later as "a complete thing that you could make what you liked of---just a little magical presentation." It's a simple statement but it goes far. It also seems evident that the Beatles themselves made what they liked of "Sgt. Pepper."

And they had time, at last, to make what they liked of their creative lives, and to play with the expectations of those who listened, and who anticipated the same old group...the Fab Four, the moptops, the lads, the Boys. What we got, instead of that, was quite another entity!

The Beatles also had time to fashion a work that had layers upon layers---something appropriate for a brief visit or a permanent stay. "Sgt. Pepper" still works that way. You can have a life as complex as all get-out...and yet the LP still disills the best of humankind in its grooves, if you listen to it today or thirty years from now.

The happytalk silver-band, Sunday afternoon's best entertainment; the lovable solo singer; the colorful seer of a child's most precious visions, an adult's most complex conceits; an optimist's certainty, a philosopher's sanguinity; a teenager's grim release from the (imagined?) oppression of home; a philosopher's satori; the soft-shoe insouciance of a music-hall maven; a lowerclass man lusting for the unattainable woman of his dreams; the proto-yuppie awash in the tides of middle-class ennui; a return to one's start-point; the mesmerizing dream of a man who attends to life's ironies and mysteries...who melds the two in a miracle of musical art. The slow build toward apocalypse, the sweet diminution of revelation.

Whether you're available today and ready for the whole experence (in which case I recommend you darken your rooms tonight and light some candles and let everything else go as the album tells its tale), or have to sample it in fits and starts (as your busy lifestyle demands), "Sgt. Pepper" sits like a seed of wonder in your hand. Plant it whenever you like. Watch it unfold. Harvest its bounty whenever you're ready.

It can happen to you today, if you're ready and willing.

Like a kernel waiting to unfold, "Sgt. Pepper"'s magic is all still there, pressed like an ever-new blossom of limitless glory, ready---at your own private beck and call---to reveal its soul.

If you've not heard it before this...or if (by some mischance of unfair circumstance) you haven't heard it properly and leisurely for years...do yourself a favor. Open your ears once more to "Sgt. Pepper".

This is truly a day for celebration of its legacy!


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"You gave me the word, I finally heard...."
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saki (dlm3@midway.uchicago.edu)


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