Mighty Bright Book light review
The Beatlesu2019 1967 album Sgt Pepperu2019s Lonely Hearts Club Band is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of their achievement as a band: their most fully achieved work, and the most coherent and characteristic album that they ever issued.
It also contains in my opinion the greatest song that they ever wrote and recorded.
,It has the hallmark of a classic: it continually invites reinterpretation, and it never seems to go away.
Just when we think we know everything about it, there turns out to be another way to look at it.
This review will be an attempt to show how it does that.
,Be warned, kids: this review is so long that it has a goddamned contents page.
Here it is:,BackgroundRecordingCommentaryReception and Interpretation,BackgroundBy 1966 the Beatles were in a car that was going downhill very fast.
This is not to say that their career was going downhill; but they were a media juggernaut that was increasingly out of their manager Brian Epsteins control--and everyone elses for that matter.
It wasnt so much that somebody was pressing the accelerator too hard; it was that nobody had their foot on the brake.
,-George Martin,During the summer of 1966, a shadow was growing over the Beatles.
,Crowd control at their concerts was becoming a nightmare.
A two-gig engagement in the Philippines turned into a debacle, when First Lady Imelda Marcos elected to ignore the fact that the Beatles had turned down an invitation to a televised party she was hosting.
,In March 1966, Lennon had made his u2018more popular than Jesusu2019 comment, and by August, it had been widely reprinted in the US in the September issue of Datebook magazine, just in time for the band to go on its Summer US tour.
Death threats were issued against the band.
The Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles record to a cross.
,The Memphis, Tennessee city council voted to cancel the Beatlesu2019 19 August concert, but the Beatles decided to perform anyway.
During the concert, a lit firecracker was thrown onstage and the band thought that someone had tried to shoot at them.
,The Beatles had been talking about not touring any more.
McCartney was the holdout, insisting that it was good for them.
On 21 Augustu2014two weeks after a civil rights march in Waukegan, Illinois led by Dr Martin Luther King had been attacked by thousands of white counter-protesters hurling bottles, bricks and cherry bombsu2014the band played a midday concert in Cincinnati, then flew to St Louis to play an evening show at the Busch Stadium.
,It was pouring with rain.
Water was dripping onto the amplifiers.
The stage was as badly built as anything theyu2019d ever played on.
After the gig, the band was herded into a steel-lined van for the trip back to the hotelu2014McCartney remembered it as being like a removal van.
,That was the moment when he agreed with the others: you were right, thatu2019s it, after this tour, itu2019s over.
,Eight days later, they played their last official concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Lennon set up a camera on the stage to photograph the occasion:,,They took a break.
,Lennon went to Spain to play Musketeer Gripweed in Richard Lesteru2019s How I Won the War.
McCartney wrote the score for the film The Family Way, or rather played a couple of tunes to George Martin, who turned them into variations.
Harrison delved into Indian music and spirituality.
Starr bought a house.
,In the rest of the world, Star Trek began screening on TV.
,Riots continued across the USA, in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Hollywood.
The Sunset Strip Curfew riots inspired the Buffalo Springfield song u2018For What Itu2019s Worthu2019.
,Albert Speer was released from Spandau prison.
,The Black Panthers were founded.
,LSD was banned in the USA.
,Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California.
,On 10 November, the newspapers contained the first reports that the Beatles would not be touring any more.
It was widely speculated that they might be about to split up.
,On 19 November 1966, the band members reconvened for the first time since August, at Abbey Road studios, to make their next album.
,,Before Sgt Pepper, the track, not the album, was regarded as the standard pop/rock recording.
I use u2018tracku2019 rather than u2018songu2019 to emphasise the fact that the track is the recording of the song, not the song as a purely musical entity: the track is the realisation of the song in performance and production.
,Albums were regarded as collections of tracks, not as coherent artistic achievements in themselves.
Tracks could be issued as singles, or they could be stand-out tracks on albums, but albums were not expected to have any sort of overall coherence or conceptual or musical unity.
This is why so many albums before 1967 struggle with the matter of u2018filleru2019: tracks a band had to record in order to fill up the space on the album.
The Whou2019s first album My Generation has two tracks that we today regard as being classic Who tracks: the title track, and u2018The Kids Are Alrightu2019.
The rest is more or less OK filler.
,In the highly compressed evolution of rock music between 1965 and 1967, more and more bands began to play with the notion of extending beyond the boundaries of the three-minute song.
Pete Townshend deserves credit for this, in his mini-song cycle u2018A Quick One, While Heu2019s Awayu2019 from 1966u2019s A Quick One (US title: Happy Jack).
But A Quick One the album is still not any kind of unified artistic achievement.
,The Beatlesu2019 retirement from touring in late 1966 meant that there was a lot of speculation about what they were going to do next.
This speculation built and built until, by the time Sgt Pepper was released in May 1967, it was one of the most anticipated albums of all time.
,,RecordingThe first four songs recorded for the new album were u2018Strawberry Fields Foreveru2019, u2018Penny Laneu2019, u2018When Iu2019m Sixty-Fouru2019 and u2018A Day in the Lifeu2019.
,The first two of these songs didnu2019t end up on the album.
But for a long time they were regarded as being part of the project that ultimately issued in Sgt Pepper, so they deserved to be considered along with it.
,u2018Strawberry Fieldsu2019 was written by Lennon while on location in Spain for How I Won The War, although it took a lot of demos and takes before finding its ultimate shape.
,u2018Penny Laneu2019 was written by McCartney after he first heard u2018Strawberry Fields Foreveru2019, although heu2019d been talking about writing a song about Penny Lane as far back as October 1965.
Another inspiration for McCartney was Dylan Thomasu2019 quasi-hallucinogenic recollection of childhood, u2018Fern Hillu2019:,And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barnsnAbout the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,nIn the sun that is young once only,nTime let me play and benGolden in the mercy of his means,nAnd green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calvesnSang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,nAnd the sabbath rang slowlynIn the pebbles of the holy streams.
,Both u2018Strawberry Fieldsu2019 and u2018Penny Laneu2019 are constructed, lyrically speaking, as imaginative returns to a simpler childhood, but theyu2019re very different songs.
,Lennonu2019s song is written as an invitation to the listener to accompany him to u2018Strawberry Fieldsu2019, where thereu2019s u2018nothing to get hung aboutu2019.
,Remember the death threats in the southern USA, a few months earlier? Lennon had faced the darkest consequences of his fame: people could actively hate him for the things he said.
(This would eventually, of course, have him killed.
),No surprise that he was longing for a simpler time in his life, when he could go to the annual garden party in the grounds of the Strawberry Field orphanage in Woolton in Liverpool.
,In the song, Strawberry Field gets transformed into u2018Strawberry Fieldsu2019, an image of Eden.
,But one of the most noticeable things about the song is the way it gets darker and stranger and more disturbing as it goes along: as in a bad dream, the closer Lennon tries to get to Strawberry Fields, the more it seems to pull away from him, with the light folk-rock texture of the beginning of the song turning into a harsh soundscape of brass, dissonant cellos and hammering percussion, before the song descends into atonal burbling from the Mellotron and muttered phrases (u2018Cranberry sauceu2026u2019) As for how it does this, see here: Alex Johnstons answer to Which songs from the Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles is your favorite or your least favorite and why?In u2018Penny Laneu2019, by contrast, McCartney isnu2019t striving to go back to his childhoodu2014he magically and effortlessly transports himself there, the song being as bright and cheerful as a sunny Saturday morning, fuelled by angelic, sighing backing vocals and a bubbling piccolo trumpet solo, blending the Beatlesu2019 own mid-tempo swing with the Beach Boys and Bach.
Harrison would say, in a 1967 interview, u2018We are not only involved in pop music, but all music.
u2019 It sounded at the time like arrogance, but he was simply telling the truth.
,The writer Ian MacDonald has claimed that u2018Penny Laneu2019 is as hallucinogenic, in its own way, as u2018Strawberry Fieldsu2019, citing the fact that in the song itu2019s simultaneously sunny and raining, but all I can say is that, as a Scottish resident, the weather in the northern part of the island of Great Britain can be funny like that.
,The Beatles started to think of the next album as having a theme of childhood.
,,The band worked on through Christmas 1966 and into January 1967, finishing these three songs.
On January 19, Lennon brought a new song into the studio: A Day in the Life.
,It was around this time that Capitol Records, the Beatles US label, insisted that there had to be a new Beatles single.
Epstein was already upset that the Beatles release schedule had slowed down, so Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were issued as a double A-side.
Epstein had a policy that Beatles singles couldnt be album tracks, so that nixed those two outstanding songs as far as the next album was concerned.
Only a few weeks into recording, and the songs about childhood concept was already looking shaky.
,But with Lennon made passive and easygoing by his heroic acid consumption, the Beatles most normally dominant member was, for once, happy to go along with whatever the other guys wanted.
And there was at least one member of the band who really wanted the next album to be a good one.
,During the bandu2019s break in autumn 1966, Paul McCartney had become the last Beatle to take acid.
,It didnu2019t have quite the earthshaking effect on his robust psyche as it had on Lennonu2019s more fragile one, but it did fill him with a sense of renewed possibility.
He was listening to the albums coming out of the USA, notably the Beach Boysu2019 Pet Sounds and the Mothers of Inventionu2019s Freak Out!, and was determined that the Beatles had to at least match the level of creativity on these albums.
,Flying back from a November 1966 trip to Kenya with the bandu2019s assistant Mal Evans, McCartney was thinking about how the Beatles were fed up with being the Beatles:,We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach.
We were not boys, we were men.
It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didnt want any more, plus, wed now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than performers.
,McCartneys curiosity and outward-looking approach (as opposed to Lennons introspection) made him fascinated with the then-current trend for surreal, faintly Edwardian band names that were becoming popular: Quicksilver Messenger Service, 1910 Fruitgum Company.
(In the Anthology video, remembering years later, he busked the fictional name u2018Colonel Mustardu2019s Medicinal Compoundu2019, referencing the hit u2018Lily the Pinku2019 by his brother Mikeu2019s band Scaffold.
),Observing Evans fiddling with the salt and pepper on his meal tray, McCartney dreamed up Sgt Pepper.
Scribbling on a napkin yielded Sgt Pepperu2019s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
,A band playing music for a club composed of lonely-hearted people.
What a metaphor.
,McCartney had always been the most sociable and outgoing Beatle, and the one whou2019d written their most compassionate song thus far, u2018Eleanor Rigbyu2019, with its bleak portrait of an unloved spinster dying and being forgotten.
(Lennon tended to feel sorry for himself; McCartney, more resilient by nature, tended to feel sorry for other people.
),But in November 1966, this remained a vague idea in McCartneys mind.
He didnt yet have anything to show for it.
,At some pointu2014Beatles chronology is, however minutely detailed, a mish-mash of meticulous studio records and fallible personal recollectionu2014the idea of a childhood-themed album was no longer on the table.
,But what was still on the table was the notion that, if they werenu2019t going to tour any more, they would have to up their game and deliver an album that was a bit more unusual.
,At some point, McCartney suggested to the others the idea of recording the album as the Sgt Pepper band.
McCartney later talked about how he thought the idea that the band could literally pretend to be other musicians would be a freeing element, a sort of tongue-in-cheek Liverpudlian prefiguring of Brian Enos Oblique Strategies, in which suggestion cards prompt the musician to approach a piece of music from a new angle.
,Maybe McCartneys idea did prompt a new level of creativity, and maybe it didnt.
They certainly didnu2019t record more than three songs as if they were that fictional band: tracks one, two and eleven.
But their confidence was at a high, and the band was working together.
,After a a long period of development, A Day in the Life was in the can by 22 February.
,Then, it was a matter of the other songs.
,Like all the Beatles albums up till that point, Sgt Pepper had to be finished in a hurry.
,,CommentaryMcCartneys u2018Sgt Pepperu2019s Lonely Hearts Club Bandu2019 took the nascent sound of heavy rock music being developed in London clubs by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and blended it with the Edwardian brass band music that the band members had heard in childhood.
(In my own childhood in Dublin in the 1970s, a park across the road from my grandparentsu2019 house had a bandstand, and Sunday afternoons in their garden would often be accompanied by the sound of an unidentified brass band playing tunes on that bandstand.
) It was a fine, striking opening, a self-conscious Welcome back to the listener.
Maybe McCartneys weedy lead guitar tone on his Fender Esquire lets it down, a little.
But in its fusion of heavy rock and brass band music, it was unlike anything else anyone was doing at the time.
,It segued neatly into With A Little Help From My Friends, the obligatory Ringo vocal, which didnt tease or play up to Ringos comic persona (as previous Ringo songs like Act Naturally and Yellow Submarine had done) but brought him into the circle as a full and valued member of the band.
,Again, check out how Ringo subtly varies his drum part from verse to verse.
The lines What do you see when you turn out the light? / I cant tell you but I know its mine have, as McCartney acknowledged, a superficial suggestion of furtive masturbation, but they also suggest something a little deeper and more mysterious.
By the end of the song, Ringos vocal has merged with the backing vocals.
Its the ultimate Ringo song: simple, touching and heartfelt.
,Lennons Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was, as we all know, inspired by a picture that Lennons son Julian had made in school, but its Lewis Carroll-ish imagery of newspaper taxis and journeying into a strange new world reflects the Beatles own sense of moving into a new land.
It can be heard as a more benign take on the same experiences that had prompted Strawberry Fields Forever.
,Getting Better is an example of how the Beatles smuggled dark material into pop songs: its bright sound belies the fact that its about breaking away from painful and damaging experiences.
McCartney has talked in interviews about his lifelong disinclination to do whatever hes told, no matter who was telling him to do it.
Lennons interjection It cant get no worse is said to have been improvised by him on arriving at the studio while McCartney was running through the song for the others; it certainly gives the song weight, and the final verse, a confession about abusing ones partner, could arguably be said to be true about any of the band, all of whom were less than perfect lovers and husbands at various times of their lives.
,Musically, its a more taut variant on the kind of song Penny Lane is, with those measured fourth-note guitar/piano chords, deepened and darkened by Harrisons use of the tambura in the final verse.
Its not as cheerful as its reputation suggests: it wants to be cheerful, but is forced to be realistic.
,Fixing a Hole was inspired by McCartneys repairs to his newly purchased Scottish farmhouse on Kintyre, but its also about the freedom to dream and play, something that was clearly on the bands mind, given their newfound freedom from the grind of unsatisfactory touring.
Its notable for, among other things, Harrisons guitar solo, played (unless my ears deceive me) on his dayglo Fender Strat.
Unlike almost all guitar solos of the period, it starts high on the instrument and works its way down to the bottom.
Eric Clapton has said that one of the bases for his friendship with Harrison was that he recognised that Harrison wasnt just a Beatle who happened to play guitar, but an individual guitar stylist.
Nobody else played solos like this back then, least of all McCartney.
,Shes Leaving Home is, I think, persistently underrated, even by some fans of the band.
,As a construction, its beautiful.
The structure is wonderfully economical, and the basic situation, of a young woman leaving her family home because she cant communicate to her parents and has found the possibility of love elsewhere, is the kind of thing that only McCartney, of all the members of this band, could have come up with.
It was inspired by a real life news story, but I personally think that the conventional interpretation, in which the protagonist of the song is a very young woman, lacks weight.
The line Shes leaving home after living alone for so many years suggests to me a protagonist who could well be in her late twenties, or even older.
The phenomenon of unmarried women continuing to live with their parents until early middle age wasnt unknown in Britain then, and is still commonplace in other parts of the world.
I think that if we hear the protagonist of Shes Leaving Home as being over thirty, the song gains more force, especially as even as an adult, she cant write a note that would explain as much as she wants to explain.
,The fact that the song is written and played like a 19th century parlour song with a late 20th century sensibility only points up how original it is.
Lennons contribution is wonderfully McCartneyesque: he wrote and sings the parents interjections in the chorus, inspired by the kind of thing his aunt Mimi would say.
,Shes Leaving Home is about what the protagonist of Eleanor Rigby would have done, if only shed had the courage, or been less beaten down by life.
,The origins of Lennons Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite are well known: he took the words from a Victorian circus poster hed bought.
The actual song is a charming novelty number, but apart from its retro appeal, it makes sense as the end of side one, the obligatory commercial for local attractions in the intermission.
,The silly novelty song on a Beatles album was usually Ringos job, but here, its as if Lennon is taking one for the team, another hint at the generally collegial nature of the album.
The song is not without darkness, though: on the Love album, the version of this song segues from the line And tonight, Mr Kite is topping the bill! straight into the nightmarish final section of Abbey Roads I Want You (Shes So Heavy).
,Harrisons Within You Without You Ive written about at length elsewhere: Alex Johnstons answer to In what ways did the Beatles song Within You, Without You combine aspects of Eastern and Western music? Suffice it to say that its the first truly successful fusion of Indian classical music with Western pop song structure.
Harrisons intensive study of Indian music with Ravi Shankar really paid off.
Lyrically, its a lecture, but its urging us to love one another.
You can have worse lectures.
,While still working on u2018Strawberry Fieldsu2019, and at a point where they were considering recording an album full of songs about childhood, the band had recorded McCartneyu2019s u2018When Iu2019m Sixty-Fouru2019, a song that McCartney had written years earlier, when he was 16.
,u2018When Iu2019m Sixty-Fouru2019 is routinely dismissed by rock purists as an example of McCartneyu2019s u2018granny musicu2019, but I think that if we donu2019t understand why itu2019s on Sgt Pepper, we will never get the point of the album.
,In late 1966, the Beatles had for the first time experienced the world turning on them, and refusing to be taken in by their charm and their tunes and their wit.
u2018WI64u2019 is one of those English 60s pop songs like the Kinksu2019 u2018Dedicated Follower of Fashionu2019 and the Small Facesu2019 u2018Lazy Sundayu2019 that uses the music-hall style of early 20th century British popular music to depict a realistic scenario.
,But the Kinks and the Small Faces were still focused on themselves: u2018Dedicated Follower of Fashionu2019 is a satire on the kind of sharp-dressed guy that the Kinks were.
u2018Lazy Sundayu2019 was actually inspired by Steve Marriottu2019s arguments with his neighbours, and in the song, heu2019s still himself:,Wouldnt it be nice to get on with me neighboursnBut they make it very clearnTheyve got no room for raversnThey stop me from groovin, they bang on me wallnThey doing me crust in, its no good at all,The way Marriott half sings, half snarls u2018Lay-zee Sun-day after-noon-ah!u2019 was a direct influence on John Lydonu2019s vocal style in the Sex Pistols.
,u2018When Im Sixty-Fouru2019, however, is flat-out pedestrian Northern realism, presenting the most mundane details of everyday life as if they were something to aspire to:,I could be handy, mending a fusenWhen your lights have gonenYou can knit a sweater by the firesidenSunday mornings go for a ridenDoing the garden, digging the weedsnWho could ask for more,This is the truly subversive and invisibly strange thing about Sgt Pepper: at a time when the Beatlesu2019 generation was asserting its difference from their parentsu2019 generation, the Beatles offered up this song as one that their parents could play for each other.
It contributes to the general feel of Sgt Pepper as being holistic: everyone is being included.
,Letu2019s hear it for Ringou2019s immaculate drumming on this song, by the way, especially his exceptionally nimble ride cymbal work at 1:50u20131:57.
,It was recorded in the key of C major but was sped up a semitone to Db, partly because McCartney wanted to sound younger but also to make it more u2018rooty-tootyu2019.
Lennon plays finger-style electric guitar in the last verse, and at 2:23 his stylistically inappropriate folk-blues picking makes McCartney audibly smile while heu2019s singing.
,McCartneys Lovely Rita was inspired by his being given a parking ticket by a female traffic warden, Meta Davies.
Initially the title character was a negative one, but Lennon and McCartney agreed that itd be better to love her.
The result was one of the horniest songs the band had written since I Saw Her Standing There, with McCartneys narrator evidently turned on by the fact that Ritas uniform made her look a little like a military man.
Harrisons characteristic guitar styling makes for the opening acoustic lick; the song devolves into panting and grunting, as if Rita and the narrator made it on the sofa after the sisters had gone to bed.
Its hardly the strongest Beatles song ever, yet the underlying ideau2014take the characteristic establishment hate figure of the traffic warden, and make her into a love objectu2014is somehow characteristic of the Sgt Pepper vibe.
,Lennons Good Morning Good Morning is one of the most fantastically earthy and rhythmically irregular songs the band ever did.
The verse switches between bars of 5/4, 4/4 and 2/4 and Starr makes it seem completely natural by treating the song on a beat-by-beat basis.
The underlying narrative, of a guy who sets out in the morning in a foul mood but who by evening is in gear and hoping to check out girls, is entirely in keeping with the basic positivity of the Pepper band.
The feel of the song is great: crunchy, dirty and visceral.
It tails off into animal noisesu2014supposedly arranged in such an order that each animal could be eaten by the succeeding one, but whatever.
During editing, George Martin noticed that a last chicken squawk u2018rhymedu2019, musically speaking, with the twang of a guitar being tuned, helping to create one of the bandu2019s most thrilling seguesu2026,u2026a continuous tapping noise leads us, via various bits of echoey studio talkback, into McCartneyu2019s last count-in: One, two, three, fouru2014Lennon throws in a sly Byee!u2014,And then Ringo kicks off Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise), one of the bandu2019s best rock & roll songs.
Fast, tight, tough and grimy, its a true band performance, and the increased tempo makes the original version sound plodding by comparison.
A slick modulation half-way through raises the level of excitement.
,McCartney almost always gave the count-in on Beatles songsu2014heu2019d done it on track one, side one of their first album, although the actual count-in on u2018I Saw Her Standing Thereu2019 (One, two, three, FAW!) was from a different take than the one that they ended up using.
The fact that they left the count-in on this song, as well as Lennonu2019s laconic farewell, creates a sense of closure that links this song not only the title track of the album but also to the very beginning of their recording career.
,This is the end of part of their career.
,The mono version comes with extra incoherent raving from McCartney in the songs closing seconds, but as the applause and cheers ring out, its an exhilarating finale to an album.
,Except that, as weu2019re about to realise, it isnu2019t.
,,A Day in the Life, as Allan Moore observes, starts before the previous song has even stopped.
Lennons pensive strummed guitar (Gmaj, Bmin, Emin, Emin7, Cmaj, Gmaj) is in sharp contrast to the previous songs drive.
,Theres something about the way A Day in the Life emerges sombrely out of the whooping and cheering of the Reprise that makes me think of smoke clearing.
Itu2019s subtly disturbing.
,Its as if the partyu2019s over, the veil is being lifted, and now were coming face to face with reality.
,And the song itself reinforces that, being one of the most casual-sounding intros to a Beatles song: just a guy strumming a guitar and singing about something that he saw, in a thin, rather melancholy, echoing voice.
,I read the news today, oh boynAbout a lucky man who made the gradenAnd though the news was rather sadnWell I just had to laughnI saw the photograph,This is weird.
Hardly even bothering to rhyme.
And what does made the grade mean, and since it sounds like a good thing, why is the news sad?,He blew his mind out in a carnHe didnt notice that the lights had changednA crowd of people stood and starednTheyd seen his face beforenNobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords,Now were getting more: some hints of a road accident, although blew his mind out also suggests suicide and drugs.
what happened, exactly?,We dont know.
Were not told.
,Its just something the singer read in the news.
,You have to laugh.
,Note the way that, although there are at least three Beatles playing now (Lennon on guitar, McCartney on piano and Starr on drums), the effect as if theres only one person: the accompaniment is confined to effects (McCartneys booming piano chords, Starrs perfectly timed, improvisatory slack-tuned drums) that emphasise the solitariness of the singing voice.
,It doesnt feel like a group.
It feels like a guy alone in a room.
,I saw a film today, oh boynThe English army had just won the warnA crowd of people turned awaynBut I just had to looknHaving read the book,Just another stupid war film, then.
Most people arent even interested.
But our man has to look, to consume the sight of it, because he knows how its supposed to end.
,Id love tonTu-u-u-u-u-u-u-rn you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou o-o-o-o-o-onnnnnnn.
,And all of a sudden the bottom seems to drop out of the music, were left hanging, while the singer tantalisingly suggests that he wants to do something to us, anyway, but we dont have time to wonder what, because apart from the steady, mechanical pulse of a piano and a faint voice counting numbers in the distance theres OH FUCKING HELL WHAT THE HELL IS THAT NOISE.
A slowly building wall of discordant noise, the sound of what it feels like to feel sick, or mad, or so removed from your surroundings that you cant take the outside world seriously, and its building and building and building and getting louder and louder and louder and adding on overtones and more sounds until its a giant wall between us and the song, and just when we think oh please no come on I cant take it anymore its louder still, and louder, until its the only sound in the world.
and then it explodes into a chord, and is over, and theres just the piano, playing that same chord, and were back, and an alarm clock goes off.
,And an entirely new song starts, sung by someone else, right up in our ear.
,Its a dark morning bedroom.
You can almost smell the unwashed sheets.
,Woke up, fell out of bednDragged a comb across my headnFound my way downstairs and drank a cupnAnd looking up, I noticed I was late,Pause for some heavy breathing: our (new) man? His dog, eager to go for a walk?,Found my coat, and grabbed my hatnMade the bus in seconds flatnFound my way upstairs and had a ssssmokenAnd somebody spoke, and I went into a dream--,Theres something deliberately provocative about the way McCartney forces the s in smoke.
,But were no sooner with our harassed everyman than were back in the original song, now winding its way through a mighty chord progression with the original singer wordlessly ahhhh-ing in the background.
What is going on? Is our man falling back asleep?,The orchestra we heard before is back, but its behaving itself, playing titanic chords to accompany our dream.
,Then, with a huge, decisive, five-note phrase, were back to where we were, except now the song is more brisk, the drums pattering away underneath:,I read the news today, oh boynFour thousand holes in Blackburn, LancashirenAnd though the holes were rather smallnThey had to count them allnNow they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall,Theres something mocking about the way that last line seesaws between two notes a semitone apart for most of its length.
,But oh shit, weve been here before, havent we, and yes:,Id love tonTu-u-u-u-u-u-u-rn you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou o-o-o-o-o-onnnnnnn.
,Its back, that hellish noise, and it seems to be getting louder faster, and once again we seem to be receding from the world we know, the world of pianos and guitars and words and meanings, into a world of pure chaos and noise and abstraction where we can make nothing make sense except that whatever it is its getting worse, and the noise builds and builds and builds and builds, seeming almost to throb as if its alive, until we are lost inside this vast dark cloud of meaningless noise--,Dah!CLANNNGGG!Two chords, one from the orchestra, one from what sounds like the biggest fucking piano in the world, and it takes forever to die away, as we listen in relief to the growing silence.
,And we feel.
what, exactly?,I always hear the piano chord at the end of A Day in the Life as a kind of bow that the magician delivers to the audience, a musical equivalent of the choreographed bow that the band used to give its audiences on the prompting of Brian Epstein.
Mach schau, boys, mach schau, their German employer Bruno Koschmider used to tell them, imitating their earliest manager Allan Williams: Make show, boys, make show.
,The piano chord is the band saying: Thats it.
As we sit there, disoriented, feeling rather like someone whos just been subjected to the most intense fucking of our lives, going: What did you just do to me?,And the piano fades and fades to nothing, and then silence.
,Reception and InterpretationWhen the Beatles first appeared on the music scene, there was no other group quite like them.
,They looked alike.
This wasnu2019t unusual among British groups, but the usual format was a singer and his backing band.
The Beatlesu2019 smart, showbiz-minded manager Brian Epstein recognised from the start that the band didnu2019t fit the usual format.
No one of them stood out as the obvious leader.
Lennon was funny and sharp and sarcastic, but abrasive; McCartney was cute and charming and friendly, but less funny; Harrison was dry and laconic and watchful; Starr was the kind of guy who says nothing for minutes and then drops a well-placed remark.
They were a group.
That was the point.
,Epsteinu2019s ambition was to make the Beatles as big as Elvis.
He did this by tailoring their outward image, to make them as appealing as possible, to as broad an audience as possible.
,Before the Beatles, the image of rock and roll music had been rebellion: leather and sideburns and motorbikes and snarling at the older generation.
Elvis had had a natural element of that, which heu2019d turned into a marketing tool by appearing in bland movies.
The Beatles themselves had dressed all in leather once.
The Rolling Stones wouldnu2019t wear leather, but they did adopt the rock & roll rebel posture of not smiling in pictures, and flattering their audiences into thinking themselves bold and brave for being consumers of the music.
,Epsteinu2019s genius move was to persuade the Beatlesu2014I think, rightlyu2014that this image was old hat.
,That, in 1961, if you wanted to get somewhere, you had to think ahead.
,The only way to be bigger than Elvis was to be unlike Elvis.
To not pretend that you were a teenage delinquent.
,Cliff Richard, the British pop musician whou2019d been the biggest thing before the Beatles, had practised looking broody and curling his lip like Elvis, but it was all bullshit.
He was an immaculately behaved young man named Harry Webb.
The Beatlesu2014who were, in their early years, far from immaculately behaved young menu2014didnu2019t want to be like Cliff.
,They didnu2019t want to look like a secondhand knock-off of the musicians they revered.
(The only reason Elvis isnu2019t on the cover of Sgt Pepper is that they respected him so much that they couldnu2019t place him in the company of lesser mortals.
),The Beatles were forced to be themselves.
,Contrary to legend, Epstein never changed their sound, only their look.
He got them to stand still on stage, instead of jumping around and laughing.
He put them in suits.
He had them photographed in cool black and white, rather than garish colour.
,The Beatles didnu2019t sound like anyone else, but they looked different from everyone else, too.
Epstein said that their appeal lay in the fact that they were u2018a blend of tragedy and comedyu2019.
,They were all things to all people.
Kids liked their songs because they were tuneful, teenagers adored them because they were idols, adults were intrigued by them because they appeared not to take their celebrity seriously.
,Their fame happened because people clustered round to see what the fuss was all about, and stayed because the music had the power to keep their attention.
,And then, in 1966, when they had been at the top for so long, it started to go sour.
,Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was their response.
,,Sgt Pepper was not, at the time, universally recognised as some sort of transcendent masterpiece.
At least one review in the UK press was positive but run-of-the-mill.
Richard Goldstein in the New York Times wrote a strongly negative review, saying u2018the overall effect is busy, hip and clutteredu2019 and criticising what he heard as over-production.
But even Goldstein was disarmed by the epic u2018A Day in the Lifeu2019:,It has nothing to do with posturing or put-on.
It is a deadly earnest excursion in emotive music with a chilling lyric.
Its orchestration is dissonant but sparse, and its mood is not whimsical nostalgia but irony.
With it, the Beatles have produced a glimpse of modern city life, that is terrifying.
It stands as one of the most important Lennon-McCartney compositions, and it is a historic Pop event.
,But the majority of reviewers were agreed that Sgt Pepper was something new, and received it as such.
Tom Phillips in the Village Voice called it u2018the most ambitious and most successful record album ever issuedu2019.
,And there were features about the album itself, that conveyed the strong impression that it was a coherent statement.
,One was the packaging.
The spectacularly expensive gatefold cover was the first ever to print the lyrics on the back.
It unfolded into a photo of the band smiling into the camera, and included a card insert with cutouts of Sgt Pepper, a cardboard moustache, etc.
, as if the listener was being invited to play at being in the band.
,(The insert card),Another was the sequencing.
The sequencing makes the listener feel that some kind of statement is being made, even if itu2019s hard to say exactly what.
Placing u2018A Day in the Lifeu2019 outside the continuity of the Pepper bandu2019s performance, practically forces the listener to hear it as a comment on that performance, or as an alternative perspective on it.
,But the sequencing of Sgt Pepper was not a carefully thought-through statement by the band.
,The title track had to come first, obviously.
With A Little Help from My Friends had to come after it, because they segued into each other.
George Martin liked to stack the first side of an album with what he considered stronger cuts, and have the last song on side one be a stand-out, which is why the widescreen circus fun of Mr Kite is the last song on side one.
,The reprise of the title track obviously had to come at the end.
But you couldnt possibly put anything after something so titanic as A Day in the Life, so the reprise of the title track had to go before it.
,And so, because of numerous factors, some of them outside the bands control, the album finally assumed the shape that it took.
,This is partly how Sgt Pepperu2019s Lonely Hearts Club Band creates the impression of being u2018organically conceivedu2019, even though it wasnu2019t, and as being in some way coherent.
,Its as extraordinarily stylistically diverse as their last album Revolver, but its far more coherent in its emotional generosity.
Theres a generally positive and warm tone of the songs: there are sad songs and serious songs on Sgt Pepper, including u2018A Day in the Lifeu2019 itself, but that song is hugely ambiguousu2014by turns melancholy, disturbing, dry and ironic.
,But there are no songs as purely bleak as Eleanor Rigby or as purely downbeat as She Said She Said.
The album radiates warmth.
Sgt Pepper seemed to want to welcome everyone, at least until you get to u2018A Day in the Lifeu2019, where it becomes a lot less clear what, exactly, weu2019re being welcomed to.
Was it a last-minute afterthought, a kind of disclaimer? No; as weu2019ve seen, it was one of the first songs on the album to be recorded.
For almost all the process of making the album, theyu2019d already recorded its final track.
,The word u2018loveu2019, and notions of love and togetherness and community, recur through the album, from track to track:,Youu2019re such a lovely audience, weu2019d like to take you home with us, weu2019d love to take you homeWould you believe in a love at first sight? Yes, Iu2019m certain that it happens all the timeItu2019s getting better since youu2019ve been mineWe gave her most of our lives, sacrificed most of our livesWith our love we could save the worldWill you still need me, will you still feed me, when Iu2019m sixty-fourLovely Rita, meter maid, where would I be without youSomebody needs to know the time, glad that Iu2019m hereWeu2019re sorry but itu2019s time to goSgt Pepperu2019s lonely, Sgt Pepperu2019s lonely, Sgt Pepperu2019s lonely, Sgt Pepperu2019s lonely,Iu2019d love to turn you onBut I think that it was this emphasis on love and generosity and togetherness that doomed the album to failure with a certain kind of listener.
Because, in the summer of 1967, not everyone wanted to welcome everyone, and they still dont.
,Sgt Pepper was the moment on which the Beatles truly, heroically blended tragedy and comedy.
Nobody had ever issued a pop/rock album which gave such an overwhelming impression of being a coherent artistic statement.
Despite the somewhat haphazard circumstances of its making, in that respect, it was a game-changer for popular music, just as much as Beethovenu2019s Third Symphony was one for the music of its time.
,As to what that statement actually isu2026,Well, thatu2019s why weve been arguing about it for the last 50-odd years.
,Thanks for reading.
,(The Beatles at the launch party of Sgt Pepperu2019s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Photo: future vegetarian food magnate Linda Eastman.
),AfterwordOn reading this answer back, it occurs to me that some readers might be thinking: Thatu2019s all very well, Johnston, but Do you like it?My answer is: Thatu2019s not important.
I donu2019t write answers this long about albums that mean nothing to me, obviously.
Sometimes I want to listen to Sgt Pepper on repeat; other times, months go by when I donu2019t think about it at all.
,What I wanted to do was talk about Why it got made the way it did, and Why it seems important.
I wanted to write a review that would persuade people that they canu2019t just dismiss it.
,Hopefully, that was achieved.
,Cause now I donu2019t want to have to think about it again for a while.
,(Sources:Cambridge Music Handbooks: Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Allan E.
Moore,Summer of Love: The Making of Sgt Pepper, George Martin,Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald,The Complete Beatles Chronicle, Mark Lewisohn,Anthology, The Beatles,The Beatles Reader, ed.
Neises,Twilight of the Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect, Wilfrid Mellers,Read the Beatles, ed.
June Skinner Sawyers,The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology, Walter Everett,Many Years From Now, Barry Miles,Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, Devin McKinney)