A Contemporary Critique Of The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

An indecipherable clutter of chatter, combined with the sound of string and horned musical instruments being tuned up, give an ominous atmospheric intro to what we’re about to hear.  It only last ten seconds but seems to last longer. Out of nowhere the music begins and before we realise what’s going on, we are being informed that ‘It was twenty years ago today, that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play’. Coming into the chorus, we hear what in my opinion are the best harmonies the Beatles ever did (and I include “This boy’, “Yes it is” and “Because” in that comparison).  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was conceived to give the Beatles an alter ego and escape the constraints of the mass popularity that kept them in a tight box during their earlier years. This new phase of The Beatles career would see them grow their hair to the length they wished, not wear the matching clothes that they had been doing until then and create a more individual profile for the members of the band instead of the tight knit collective that had been the case prior. This was the coming time of a sometimes glorious, free spirited indiscipline which lasted until the folly of Apple Corp reared its head a couple of years later.

With the introduction of ‘The one and only Billy Shears’. a vehicle for the very appropriate With a little help from my friends, is provided for Beatles drummer, Ringo Starr. A song that begins by addressing his perceived insecurities, (‘What would you do if I sang out of tune’ and ‘What will I do if my love is away’), by the middle of the song he is in a far more assertive mood. When John Lennon & Paul McCartney sing the questioning and intrusive line of ‘What do you see when you turn out the light’ he has the confidence to reply that “I can tell you but I know that it’s mine”. In other words, mind your own bleedin’ business.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was banned, alongside ‘A Day In The Life’ (more of which later) by BBC radio for alleged drug references. Regarding Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, the BBC banned its broadcast because of its initials (L.S.D). Here, the BBC authorities completely missed the point. Whilst it’s highly unlikely that the lyrical content of the song would be the same without the aid of Hallucinogens (‘Marmalade skies, newspaper taxis, and rocking horse people’), John Lennon claimed, many years later the initials were an innocuous coincidence and with John Lennon’s legendary candour when being interviewed, I’m inclined to believe him.

Paul McCartney performing Getting Better in the United States in 2002

Getting Better was a classic Lennon/McCartney collaboration. McCartney’s perky optimism counter balanced with Lennon’s world weary realism (“It’s getting better all the time, it couldn’t get much worse”). The songs major key confidence, couple with its distinctive intro/coda picks up the mood after the short opening song, the pensive musing it segued into and the surreal prose of “Lucy  In The Sky With Diamonds” that had preceded it.

Paul McCartney performing Fixing A Hole for MTV in 2002

Fixing a Hole, written predominately by Paul McCartney, is very much out of character for its composer. Here he is extolling the virtues of solitude, correcting past errors and misdemeanours and delivering a rebuke to the “Silly people, standing there, who disagree, never win and wonder why they don’t get in my door”. This is the first song, since the opener where we hear the beautiful subtlety of George Harrison’s guitar playing which discretely compliments the vocal melody.

Paul McCartney performing She’s Leaving Home in Moscow in 2003

The melancholy of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is another out of character song composed primarily by Paul McCartney, who was clearly relishing the freedom that the Sgt Pepper alter ego was allowing. With minor key melody harp, arranged by Mike Leander, the song is about a young lady who’s come/coming of age, about her first manoeuvres in the real world and her parents sadness of the baby fleeing the nest (very similar in style to Roy Orbison’s ‘It’s Over’). What is equally remarkable is John Lennon’s sublime cross harmony echoing the lyric. There is none of his trademark tongue in cheek manner, more of an uncharacteristic earnest reading.

Paul McCartney performing Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite in Orlando in 2013

Being for the benefit of Mr Kite has a lyric lifted wholesale of a circus advertisement for Pablo Fanques Circus Royal in Rochdale from 1843, that he purchased in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, while filming the promotional video for Strawberry Fields Forever. The swirling organs contribute to the atmosphere of a fairground to the record. Here the Beatles employ one of their favourite tricks, namely a sudden tempo change from waltz time (3/4), to the more conventional “four to the floor” (4/4) which is the prevalent tempo in popular music and thus give a rhapsodical feel to the song. It’s a very simple method, but one that can make an immeasurable difference. This was another song which raised eyebrows for apparent drug references (Henry the horse, supposedly slang for heroin) but the BBC did not ban the its broadcast.

The Beatles in Sevenoaks for the Strawberry Fields Forever video

After the dabblings in Indian instrumentation on the Rubber Soul (Norwegian Wood) and Revolver albums (Love You To and Tomorrow Never Knows), the Beatles went for a full blown taste of the subcontinent on the George Harrison composed and sung ‘Within You and Without You’. Nothing The Beatles ever did, with the possible exception of “Revolution #9, polarised opinion like this song. The impact it must have had on contemporary Beatles fans whom were used to the almost perfectly crafted and executed pop music that had gone on before must have been incredible. There’s no hint of conventional western musical instruments or time signature on this song, Most of the people who’d bought this LP when it was released in June 1967, would have ever heard anything like it.

“Try to realise it’s always yourself, no one else can make you change” “When you see beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there and the time will come when you see we’re all one & life flows on within you and without you”.  A lyric heavily influenced by Sanskrit, a writing ubiquitous amongst Hindu’s in India, this is the explanation of a man whose mind has expanded at a rate that would be incomprehensible to a lot of his peers. George Harrison was twenty four when he wrote (or paraphrased) that lyric. It’s indicative of its time that it was widely embraced. If a contemporary artist (let’s say One Direction for example) wrote or sung a lyric like that now, it would be vetoed by their management and it would be greeted with widespread confusion if not downright hostility if it had by some miracle, slipped through the net.

When I’m Sixty Four is a classic example of Paul McCartney’s vaudevillian, some people argue, twee style of writing. When I’m Sixty Four is a great mood change after the strong philosophical and heavy musical atmosphere of the previous song. Taking a hypothetical and light hearted approach as to what he was going to be like when he was much older, there is still an insecure subtext in the jovial atmosphere of the song (Will you still need me, will you still feed me ?). When I’m Sixty Four  is also a great example of the dynamics of an album. The song in its own right is not a great song, but under the protective layer of an album and its contribution to the ambience of the Sgt Pepper concept, means that while it’ll never be considered the best song The Beatles ever did, Sgt Pepper wouldn’t be the same without it. It will be interesting to see in the coming years, when songs can be cherry picked for download, what will happen to the album format and subsequently, the composition of supporting songs like When I’m Sixty Four and their ilk.

When I’m Sixty Four from the 1969 film Yellow Submarine

With a lead vocal by Paul McCartney and an exquisite harmony provided by John Lennon & George Harrison, I’m confident that Lovely Rita is to my knowledge, the first, probably the only and very likely the last ever affectionate serenade to a traffic warden. The song is what John Lennon would later call “crafted”, but the brilliance of how the song is performed disguises a very average lyric.

Paul McCartney performing Lovely Rita in New York in 2013

Good Morning, Good Morning was partially inspired by a television advert for Kelloggs Corn Flakes. The song kicks in with the sound of a crowing rooster, distorted saxophones and The Beatles sounding like native Americans chanting the songs title. The song has an infectious lyrical hookline, (“I’ve got nothing to say but it’s OK”), which would be in the modern vernacular be called an “earworm”. In the middle of the song, George Harrison’s blistering lead guitar duels with saxaphones to a magnificent effect. The songs ending has a procession of animals, all of whom supersede each other of rank in the animal kingdom (from cat, dog, horse to lion).

The punchy reprise of the albums eponymous song, is the only unconditional dance track on the album and clocking in at just under two minutes, it doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. Featuring another fantastic & understated lead guitar by George Harrison and a pulsating drumbeat provided by Ringo Starr, the zip and zest of the tune sets the scene perfectly for A Day In The Life.

A somber, droll and heavily echoed John Lennon vocal opens the song. The lyric was pulled from an article in the Daily Mail about Guinness heir, Tara Browne being killed in a car crash (“He blew his mind out in a car”). This song, like “Lucy In The Sky…” was banned by the BBC for drug references. In this case, the line “I’d love to turn you on”. Looking back on this forty seven years later, it’s remarkable that the BBC could behave with impunity and act as judge, jury and executioner on such an ambiguous lyric. In this day and age, the BBC banning a song would be great publicity for the recipients. The rampant success Frankie goes to Hollywood enjoyed in the mid 1980’s immediately springs to mind. In 1967, the BBC were the only legal broadcast outlet in the UK (and would remain so until 1973) so if they imposed a ban on a song, it would in all likelihood, kill it. When the Harold Wilson government bought in the Marine offences broadcasting act in 1967, it was aimed at the only viable alternative to BBC radio, which was Radio Caroline and meant that the BBC had maintained their exclusivity on the UK airwaves.

A Day In The Life official video

Over twenty four bars and thirty six seconds, we get the apocolyptical link between the first and second parts of the song. Paul McCartney’s equally droll delivery about the mundanities of an ordinary day linking into a mesmorising, almost dreamlike vocal link provided by John Lennon and seamlessly into the final verse in which he picks out the lyric, again from a piece he’d read in the Daily Mail, regarding four thousand potholes found on the roads in Blackburn, Lancashire. After managing to seam an analogy between the potholes in Blackburn and the capacity of the Royal Albert Hall to absorb the holes, the song climaxes on the joint horns and strings racing anarchically to a thunderous piano chord, which just like their previous album, finishes on a nigh on impossible note to follow.

The South Bank Show documentary from June 1992 which commemorated twenty five years of Sgt Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band

It’s hard to overstate the impact Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had on popular music. It was the first album to print the lyrics accompanying it, the remarkable cover to the album, created by Peter Blake which has been imitated countless times. It was the first popular album to segue songs, a technique that was also later perfected by Pink Floyd, The Who and The Pretty Things and to a monstrous degree, by the likes of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Most critics consider Sgt Pepper to be a psychedelic album, whilst it obviously has psychedelic imagery and influence, I think it’s unfair to it’s depth and breadth to be just psychedelic, my case in point would is Getting Better, When I’m Sixty Four or Lovely Rita contain any hint of psychedelia on their own? There is no denying that for impact and influence on popular music, to this day, it has never been or probably ever will be surpassed.

Penny Lane official video

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