Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Beatles fans who have never come to terms with their break-up like, by way of a parlour game, to indulge in a spot of historical revisionism. What if the Beatles hadn’t split up in 1970? What if they had carried on for another five years? What would their twelfth album have sounded like? Put aside the fact that their early solo albums were by and large essays in exorcising the group they had lost, and I like to think it would have sounded like this:

WAH-WAH (Harrison)
IT DON’T COME EASY (Starr / Harrison)
WHAT IS LIFE (Harrison)
OH WOMAN, OH WHY (McCartney)
GOD (Lennon)

When the Beatles began to break up (or break down) is the subject of considerable debate. Only their first two albums are wholly group efforts, as they reprise their live setlist in the studio while trying to keep a straight face. By the time Beatlemania hit, Lennon was clearly the leader, taking the lion’s share of writing, singing and media duties. When his body became bloated and his mind shrunken from too much LSD, McCartney assumed the mantle of svengali, motivating force and (I use this word reluctantly) genius. The White Album, Abbey Road and Let it Be are solo albums in all but name. People generally agree that the end begun when Brian Epstein died, but McCartney’s and Lennon’s romances with Linda Eastman and Yoko Ono were equally liable (not to mention, after the Filipino leg of their 1966 world tour, a morbid fear that celebrity had dealt them a death wish).

That celebrity, that entrenched feeling that the Beatles are untouchable, complicates the task of listening to their records today. To do so unmediated would be ingenuous, though having Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the head as your companion helps the jaded fan to hear with fresh ears. The only album that I can listen to and thoroughly enjoy, the only one which transcends the notoriety and mythology, is Sgt Pepper. Marcello Carlin suggests that this is because Sgt Pepper is rooted in childhood, the hallmark of English psychedelia. That is true. But Sgt Pepper is not a childlike record. Indeed, now maligned for its widescreen production and overwrought concept, it is still blamed for stripping pop of its innocence, for canonising it, turning it into Art. If this is a return to childhood, it returns with adult eyes – by affirming fantasy and retreating from reality.

Whereas Revolver and Rubber Soul had opened with homages to black American music, Sgt Pepper begins with the nostalgic sound of an English crowd (recorded by George Martin with the Footlights crowd in Cambridge). Having recoiled in terror from live performance, it seems odd that the Beatles should immediately recreate the sound of an audience. But here the audience is manipulated – it laughs and cheers in the right places, it sounds conspicuously grown-up, a throwback to a bygone colonial age.

The Beatles had intended to depict the Liverpool of their childhoods (an idea that had been knocking about since “In my life”), until “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were snapped up for a single release. In the end, Sgt Pepper became a concept album in search of a concept, born from a band desperate to rise above its own constraints. “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities,” said McCartney later, “to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group.” This fake group would introduce a roster of acts: the affable Billy Shears; an LSD trip; three kitchen-sink dramas; a circus performance; a hymn; three short comedies; and a final, atonal, crescendous "orchestral orgasm".

But as the Sergeant’s first act comes on stage, the crowd mysteriously disappears and “With a little help from my friends” is unfurled. Over a Pet Soundsy drum and bass, Lennon and McCartney provide Starr with dreamy harmonies as they ask, “do you believe in a love at first sight?” Starr / Shears replies, all worldly-wise, that he’s certain it happens all the time. This is a wonderfully touching, fragile moment – there is a divine composition to the group (Roger McGuinn described them as having “combined minds”), as if (to quote Aquinas) their complexity is merely infinite simplicity perceived by the finite mind.

“Lucy in the sky with diamonds” is the only blemish on the record – like “Across the universe,” it is a poorly recorded dirge, a trip that goes nowhere. Its lysergic overdrive sounds (peculiarly for a psychedelic record) out of place here. The real heart of Sgt Pepper – and it is a hard heart – is to be found on the next three tracks, three of the greatest songs Paul McCartney ever wrote. “Getting better” is, in a way, typical of McCartney, all clever unorthodoxies and crotchet beats. His bass comes out of nowhere, underlying a brutal lyric which belies the typecasts of McCartney-the-blithe-formalist and Lennon-the-hardnosed-realist (though it must be added that Lennon had a hand in writing the lyrics and, in the midst of an LSD trip, singing them). In “Fixing a hole,” we are presented with a more ambiguous second act to this drama. Beginning with a descending harpsichord, the song is a slow-march made interesting by McCartney’s bass arpeggios, Harrison’s double-tracked guitar solo and the expression of a desire to be hermetically sealed off from the distractions of reality, so that the mind is free to wander. Perhaps this escape is what the protagonist of “She’s leaving home” has in mind, but we are never told as much. Over strings which in anybody else’s hands might be mawkish, Lennon and McCartney tell the story of a girl running away from home from the point of view of her mother. That in itself is extraordinary – who else would have taken up this position? An extraordinarily detailed and laconic lyric (the use of the word “clutching” has been much remarked upon) stops short of moral judgment, the mother blankly accepting (via McCartney’s artless vocal) that “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.” This is, as Ian MacDonald says, “represents, with ‘A day in the life,’ the finest work on Sgt Pepper – imperishable popular art of its time.”

The curtain closes on Act / Side One with a trip to the circus, but this is the most bilious of light reliefs. Listening to the whirls and swoops of the carnival feels something like being churned around in a washing machine. Abruptly, the music stops and we are regurgitated, hosed down but soiled from what we have just witnessed. It is therefore fitting that Act / Side Two opens with a hymn: George Harrison’s “Within you without you.” This is didactic stuff, but performed with a grace and buoyancy that is rarely found in Harrison’s songs:

We were talking about the love that's gone so cold and the people,
Who gain the world and lose their soul
They don't know, they can't see; are you one of them?
When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.
And the time will come when you see we're all one, and life flows on within you and without you.

The Beatles have redeemed us, even if the audience is too stupefied with laughter to realise it. Thus rescued from the casual violence of Act One, we are ready for a comic trilogy: “When I’m 64,” “Lovely Rita” and “Good morning good morning”. If the first is winsomely nostalgic, the second and third sound like nothing else produced in 1967. Bulging with automatic double-tracking, heavily compressed and distorted, both shimmer in spite of their hollowness, and both are remarkable for their instrumental solos. “Lovely Rita” has a piano played by George Martin which is sped up and subjected to ruthless vibrato; “Good morning good morning” features drums so high in the mix that they might as well be soloing, and a searing guitar from McCartney. Fatuous doesn’t get any more thrilling than this.

A last hurrah from Sgt Pepper’s band brings us to – well, let’s just call it the most analysed pop record of all time. You know “A day in the life” as well as you know your own mind, and I’m loathe to say anything that has been said better elsewhere. Better to quote Ian MacDonald...

Made in a total of around 34 hours, “A day in the life” represents the peak of the Beatles’ achievement. With one of their most controlled and convincing lyrics, its musical expression is breathtaking, its structure at once utterly original and completely natural. The performance is likewise outstanding. Lennon’s floating, tape-echoed vocal contrasts ideally with McCartney’s ‘dry’ briskness: Starr’s drums hold the track together, beginning in idiosyncratic dialogue with Lennon on slack-tuned tom-toms; McCartney’s contributions on piano and (particularly) bass brim with invention, colouring the music and occasionally providing the main focus. A brilliant production by Martin’s team, working under restrictions which would floor most of today’s studios, completes a piece which remains among the most penetrating and innovative artistic reflections of its era.

...and to draw your attention to two further things. First, the moment at around 2.45 when McCartney sings “somebody spoke and I went into a dream” and Lennon then apprehends his friend’s innermost thoughts and sings his dream (this, for me, is the moment that encapsulates Sgt Pepper). Second, you have not heard this song until you have heard how it was put together. It’s a rough, brutal manner in which to end a piece about this painstaking masterpiece, but what better way to finish?

* a good album, for sure, but it sure as hell explains why they never got around to making it...


Blogger Snowball said...

As an aside, Pablo Fanque, the first black circus proprietor in Britain, is buried at Leeds Uni...

5:36 PM  

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