After 50 Years, the Magic of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Wears Off
Once, The Beatles were my gods.
I discovered them at sixteen in Peter Brown’s superb biography, The Love You Make. (Brown was their roadie, he cracks a mention in The Ballad of John and Yoko.) The Beatles’ journey from post-war working class Liverpudlians to musical legends thrilled me, and led me to their music.
My favourite outing became a visit to Perth’s State Library, listening to their albums one by one through the library's superbly expensive amplifiers and headphones. What anticipation, when you heard that slight knock and hiss as the needle drops into the groove!
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was never my favorite. I preferred the sweet melodies of Let It Be (notwithstanding Phil Spectre’s “wall of sound” production), and the acoustic ballads of the White Album. But every time Rolling Stone does a Top 100 Albums of All Time edition, there’s Sgt. Pepper at number one. Every time.
The album’s cover is lush and fun. The Fab Four are dressed in faux-Victorian band costumes, each holding a classical instrument. They stand next to Madame Tussaud’s wax figures of themselves, looking as they looked only three years before with their bowl cuts and natty suits. A carefully chosen crowd of cardboard cut-out famous people surround them: from Karl Marx to Marilyn Monroe; from Lawrence of Arabia to Shirley Temple. (Hitler was left out at the last minute.) And right in the front row, for all the world to see, a neat little row of marijuana plants.
There are fourteen songs, almost forty minutes from beginning to end, packaged as a kind of live show. The opening title track is a tight rock tune, grunge guitar interspersed with sound bites of applause and laughter. A French horn plays heroic fanfares.
Pepper flows seamlessly into With a Little Help from My Friends—they had the engineer cut the disk without any breaks between the songs. Ringo Starr sings in his flat and lonely baritone, setting up perfectly the superb McCartney sing-along chorus.
Solo harpsichord opens Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. This is Lennon’s song, and his eerie vocals were created by recording the track at a higher speed, and then slowing it down. A sitar drone creates an Indian ambience, and the pub-sing-along chorus juxtaposes brilliantly with the dreamy verses. McCartney was a beautiful bass player, and on this track, like so many others, he supplies his trademark counter-melodies.
Getting Better is my favorite track. It’s all Paul McCartney, though Lennon’s contrary “Can’t get much worse” lyric is his typically perfect foil to McCartney’s wry optimism.
Fixing a Hole is a (too) pretty McCartney Tune, as is She’s Leaving Home: a lush harp and strings sob-song for emancipated sixties’ youth, so misunderstood by their parents.
Side one finishes with Lennon’s Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, inspired by a vaudeville circus poster. It has a jarring and sinister ambience, offset by McCartney’s bouncing bass.
Side two opens with the only George Harrison track (typically he was allowed two per album.) It’s a dreary five minute Hindu sermon, chanted, without any irony, in Harrison’s thickest scouse accent. Indian percussion and Ravi Shankar inspired sitar bring some interest. Is the burst of laughter at the end self-conscious?
When I’m Sixty-Four is a cheeky McCartney gem. Cheesy clarinets create a perfect pastiche of the kind of old-time dance band that his father led. Lovely Rita is McCartney’s response to copping a parking ticket. More wonderful bass.
Good Morning Good Morning is manic Lennon chaos. The Beatles were on alcohol and amphetamines from the start. Dylan introduced them to pot in 1964. Later they experimented with LSD, and Lennon became a heroin addict. It really shows. The cleverest thing about the song is how the clucking chicken at the end segues into the opening rhythm of the Sgt. Pepper reprise.
The album finishes with A Day in the Life. This is Lennon’s depressing response to a local newspaper article, broken up by a jauntily intense McCartney interlude. It is the only genuine Lennon-McCartney song on the album, but more half-half contribution than a true collaboration. The song features two cacophonic orchestral crescendos, and ends on a massive six-handed E major piano chord. To capture every last second of the sound, the engineers wound up the faders so high that the faint creak of a chair and Abbey Road’s air-conditioning can be heard. The inner groove was cut with a nightmarish vocal babble.
All in all, Sgt. Pepper was Paul McCartney’s album, with only three and half Lennon tracks, and two of those pretty weak. In 1971 a jealous and bitter Lennon sang in How Do You Sleep, his embarrassing rant against his former friend, “So Sergeant Pepper took you by surprise...”
It is often said that Sgt. Pepper “created a culture.” No. It echoed a culture. A post-war culture rapidly descending into self-absorption, spiritual vacuity, crass materialism, and sex without boundaries. That’s where the title was prophetic. The culture that Sgt. Pepper so flawlessly reflected and reinforced, left a depressing swathe of divorce, fatherless children, broken hearts, and loneliness.
At this point I imagine my sixteen-year-old self reading this. He would have been angry: the anger of the worshipper whose gods are disrespected. And I hear others saying, “Lighten up! Sgt. Pepper’s supposed to be a lark, just enjoy it you git!”
Well, I listened to almost nothing but The Beatles for nearly three years. I accumulated a pretty large collection of albums, original year releases, coloured vinyl commemorative editions, half-speed masters, and bootlegs. Every note of every album is deeply imprinted in me.
Then the day came when I had had enough. There was nothing else to listen to, nothing else to discover. I had plumbed the depths of all that The Beatles had to offer. I wanted more, and God knows I even tried to find more in McCartney’s Wings, and his woefully lazy solo albums. (Was it his marijuana habit that murdered his genius?)
It was about then that I discovered Christ. (Lennon wouldn’t have minded the comparison.) The temporary joy that I had once found in the State Library with The Beatles, I found in overflowing abundance in Him. Having consumed The Beatles, unsated, to the last scrap, I was in turn consumed by Him. Having dampened my soul in their puddle, I was now joyously immersed in His clear and boundless blue ocean.
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through Him all things were made, and apart from Him nothing was made that has been made.
In Him was light, and that light was the Light of humanity.
In Him I will for all eternity discover thrilling new harmonies, rhythms, countermelodies, and basslines. For when He sings, the heart swells to breaking, and the very galaxies shiver with delight. In Him the deep longing is assuaged.
Ah, The Beatles. Masters of the recording studio. Hopeless gods. I'm glad I moved on.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: thoughts and letters.