'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' is a summer album from its very first moments when the sounds of instruments being tuned plants the imagination in front of the park bandstand on a warm evening. The album they introduced grew in legend to become the soundtrack of a new future being born. Maybe, according to some accounts, it even played a role in creating it.
The album was released on 1 June 1967 but its tracks had been recorded over 129 days of winter and spring, which aren't always different things in the UK. 'Sgt Pepper' became the accompaniment to a summer of striking imagery, even more so in hindsight, but 1967's season of love was restricted to some parts of London and a few cities on the American coasts. In the many other places where people listened to 'Sgt Pepper', they probably did so in the grey of their older brother's hand-me-down suit jacket, stained mechanic's overalls or school uniforms. For most, it was the same summer as the one before and the one before that.
'Sgt Pepper' might be the best Beatles album or it might not. What can be stated with more certainty is this: it is the Beatles album that attracts the worst writing. The music suffers from the great claims made on its behalf as it fights against drowning in a tie-dye sea of cliché. The mix of iconic album and visual cultural fractures is fruit from a serpent tempting writers to think that they can get the best out of themselves without trying too hard. Taking things for granted helps as well.
It's rare for me to listen to 'Sgt Pepper' without hoping that new listeners come to the album with fresh, open ears and unburdened by the skeletal rattling of dead prose. The way some people go on, first-time listeners might be convinced 'Sgt Pepper' was both the soundtrack for a fashion show montage, and the signal for the young people of the time to ambush Rotary club members and pan-in stained glass windows.
John Harris, a frequent writer on the overlap between politics and music, risked losing the run of himself in the Guardian recently. He argued that 'the basic ideas "Sgt Pepper" soundtracked soon acquired enough influence to begin no end of social revolutions. A new emphasis on self-expression was manifested in the decisive arrival of feminism and gay liberation. Countries and borders came a distant second to the idea of one world.' After reading that, bewildered readers are perfectly entitled to pull themselves out of the water and marvel at the height of the waterfall they've just gone over.
I'm not sure what basic ideas can be gleaned from listening to 'Good Morning Good Morning' or 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite' except that a bored, untethering John Lennon still had enough talent to write songs based on adverts – not that the second one is much good. Harris, in a debate piece published in Prospect, argued 'Sgt Pepper' was a 'massively influential album that did indeed embody a watershed moment in the development of popular music, and the modern history of the west.' From this, you might conclude 'Sgt Pepper' was of equal importance to, say, the creation of NATO. And is it any claim to greatness, anyway, to say a band provided the musical backing to a season or even a year when the same might be said about the measly Sex Pistols? Sinatra contains whole decades and at least two cities in the sound of his voice alone.
With 'Revolution in the Head', Ian MacDonald achieved every writer's dream: he wrote an indispensable book. It's an indispensable book not because it's about the indispensable band – who knows how many of those are in existence these days – but because it's about the music. As the collective memory of the Beatles' time disperses into the ground and it becomes ever-harder for successive generations to imagine the circumstances of their creativity, the music will emerge more obviously as the thing that mattered most. Arguably, that should already be obvious but the devouring of 'Sgt Pepper' by tired contextualisation suggests it's still possible to miss this essential point.
Perhaps the best song on 'Sgt Pepper', 'She's Leaving Home', is really the second-best episode of 'Coronation Street' ever written after 'Eleanor Rigby'. MacDonald ranks it alongside the more-famous 'A Day in the Life' as the album's best track, describing it as 'imperishable popular art of its time' – which I think is the same as what I said. Its most remarkable feature is that it came from someone who was 24, just as the most remarkable thing about 'Eleanor Rigby' was the fact that McCartney was 23 when he wrote it.
That he also happened to be an antenna for all the primetime barminess of international culture is almost as worthy of comment in light of the subject matter. With these two songs, McCartney proved he could evoke the quiet anguish of desperate lives with a brilliant economy of writing. 'She's Leaving Home' is about the desolation experienced by parents when they discover their child's aspirations are different from their own and that realising them requires the rejection of the life that had been lived.
The song is overwhelmingly McCartney's. Lennon is the only other Beatle who appears on the track and only then by interjecting with parental laments during the cleverly constructed chorus. Throughout the song, the mother and father are one in their sense of bewilderment – 'we never thought of ourselves', 'we struggled hard all our lives to get by' – but at the end of the second verse the mother slips intriguingly into the singular as she wonders 'how could she do this to me?'.
Here is a glimpse of the secret belief in a special relationship behind many a united parental front. Like 'Eleanor Rigby', the emotion of the lyrics is heightened using strings – violins, violas, cellos, harps – albeit they are not as obvious nor as driven, and the score, somewhat to his displeasure, was not of George Martin's devising but was rather the work of Mike Leander. 'She's Leaving Home' is a song about people and themes far-removed from everything that summer was supposedly to be about.
It's for this reason I like to imagine members of Jefferson Airplane staring at McCartney in incomprehension when he played them an acetate of 'Sgt Pepper' in San Francisco prior to its release (Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys got a personal rendition in LA but, then, they were proper competition). Ringo, on 'With a Little Help from My Friends', gets the second part of the best line on 'Sgt Pepper' despite being the least summer of love member of the band: 'What do you see when you turn out the light? I can't tell you, but I know it's mine.' Pleasingly, Hunter Davies suggests this might have been the last line written for the whole album.
The subsidiary claim made about 'Sgt Pepper' was that it altered perceptions of what was possible in the popular music industry but if you didn't know by then that the Beatles had changed the game then you didn't deserve to be in the game at all. The argument also presumes that other bands would have the imagination, the time and, crucially, the technical assistance to sail towards the new horizons. And besides, there's nothing on 'Sgt Pepper' that's anything like as much of a departure from what went before as 'Tomorrow Never Knows' on 'Revolver'. Those who claim that new vistas of possibilities were opened by the arrival of 'Sgt Pepper' need to contend with the possibility that the Beatles themselves were already retreating from the vistas they had opened just a year earlier.
Photograph by badgreeb RECORDS (https://www.flickr.com/photos/badgreeb_records/6471576373)
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