Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Magical Retreat: Sgt. Pepper After 45 Years

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released in June 1967, is a lovely confection, a beautifully self-conscious neon sign that celebrated with ample imagination the romantic ideal, where the possibility of true love could transcend all of our problems. (If only.) And in that summer, which came to be termed 'The Summer of Love,' Sgt. Pepper's seamless and mellifluous tone made it appear as if that possibility was indeed well within our grasp. However, the idea for the record, following up on their concept single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” (two radically different renderings of childhood and originally destined for the album) came out of the opposite sentiment, a 'Summer of Hate' that took place the previous year.

That particular summer, American cities (as they had almost every summer in the mid-Sixties) were burning in reaction to the continued racial unrest. The escalation of the war in Vietnam had also all but diminished President Johnson's War on Poverty. In short, the tenor of violence was becoming exactly as black activist H. Rap Brown had described it then – as American as apple pie. Amidst this chaos, with the mounting frustration over the dashed ideals of the New Frontier of the early Sixties, The Beatles became easy targets for the angry and the disillusioned. You could say they were even, to a large degree, at the apex of those very ideals being dashed. So their 1966 tour, filled with torpor and turmoil, reached its bottom end with record burnings in the Deep South after John Lennon had remarked that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. In that summer, The Beatles found themselves no longer in control of their meteoric success. When they first chose to engage their audience in 1962, with their first single “Love Me Do,” the goal wasn't simply to become entertainers, but to put new demands on the pop audience. They set out to take popular music and their fans to another place. And in the coming years they did just that – and more.

Of course, The Beatles couldn't change the course of the world around them, to make it a better place. Nor did they intend to. Rather they sought to change our perspective on this world. But Lennon's comments about Jesus demonstrated the limits of the audience's willingness to have their perspective changed. The group learned that any provocative outspokenness would have a price tag attached. So the rules of engagement had clearly changed by 1966. At which point, The Beatles were becoming fixed in the sights of devoted fans, ready to strike if displeased. For self-preservation, the band realized that it was time to stop being Beatles. “The Beatles were hated, as much as anything, for representing the principle that freedom was worse than available,” critic Dave Marsh once wrote while touching on the paradox buried within the pleasure principle of the group. As they grew restless and vulnerable, The Beatles were becoming deeply dissatisfied, feeling wasted and used up by being so available. “No one would have hated The Beatles in '66 if they hadn't been so loved in '64,” critic Devin McKinney reminded us in Magic Circles, his highly readable and perceptive book on the group. “Their mania always held the potential for a different, darker brand of madness.” So before the madness could consume them, The Beatles decided to quit the road.
Burning Beatles Records in the Deep South in 1966

If The Beatles by that time had become what literary critic Leslie Fiedler once called “imaginary Americans,” perhaps they could now imagine themselves as anything but Beatles. In that world, they could even create an imaginary audience to hear their new radical work. To begin, Sgt. Pepper was the brainchild of Paul McCartney, travelling incognito during a holiday in Paris following The Beatles' final tour, when he began to entertain the notion of a disguise for the group. Within these new masks, they could maybe find a new freedom, a freedom they had lost by 1966 being the Fab Four. McCartney also figured that the new album could demonstrate that The Beatles were no longer these mop-top performers; they would become pop artists rather than pop stars. Since many American rock bands, especially on the west coast, were developing exotic names (i.e. Strawberry Alarm Clock), McCartney thought of creating a concept LP where The Beatles could become an old-time combo from the late Forties, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; why, they wouldn't even look like themselves. Decked out in old-fashioned military marching outfits, he wasn't kidding. The band now appeared burdened by age, by the weight of the dreams that carried them from Liverpool to Hamburg to the world at large. They even became more distinct from each other, with different cuts of hair, and now aged by mustaches and beards.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band might have been the official sound track for the heady optimism of that psychedelic summer, but the album's cover was something less than gleeful. It resembled a rather mournful graveside shot of the burial of the old Beatles. With a motley collection of funeral guests, including boxer Sonny Liston, Mae West and British occultist Aleister Crowley, Sgt. Pepper unveiled the reborn Beatles from the ashes of the Fab Four. (Wax figures of the early band in their matching suits even appear over the graveside grieving their own demise.) Where once The Beatles were part of a collective identity, one that encompassed a larger community of fans, they sought now to abandon it as well as their connection to that community. They set out to take refuge from a pop world they helped create, to retreat from the violence they had unwittingly stirred in their fans; in fact, to use their time to deliver a more sophisticated music. But it would be done from a safe distance.

From the first sounds of the opening number on the album, with an orchestra tuning and an audience getting settled, it's clear The Beatles had invented an ideal crowd to hear them, not the potentially dangerous one that they had endured on the road all those years. The Beatles, on the song “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” fashioned something of a mirage, providing for themselves the illusion of performing the kind of live music they couldn't in reality do in concert. They conjured a dynamic between themselves and this imagined audience that didn't reflect the reality of the listeners they had just abandoned. For instance, McCartney shows so much happiness for this crowd he even expresses in the song the desire to take them home. (Can you imagine that kind of consideration being extended to the angry hordes they faced in the American South in 1966?) 

All through the colourful landscape of the songs on the album – including the convivial “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the Lewis Carroll imagery of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the wistful tale about the cost of asserting your independence in “She's Leaving Home,” the kaleidoscopic soundscape of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the richness of the Eastern flavoured “Within You, Without You,” the sudden confrontation with mortality in “A Day in the Life” – you can hear a band going musically forward while simultaneously going backwards. On the record, they're trying to reinvent their past, a past they never actually had, which would then anticipate a future that, we know now, they never got to fulfil. When the utopianism of the pop audience turned sour by 1966, The Beatles began to imagine a utopia that ironically turned out to be truly nowhere.

It's rarely addressed that despite the dazzling innovations on Pepper, there's also an air of caution that threads its way through much of the record. The smooth craftsmanship, which gives the album its glamourous sheen, also masks a fear in the band of spontaneity. (During the sessions, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, in particular, complained that the group didn't play together as a band anymore. Their parts were worked out ahead of time rather than learned during band rehearsals.) Most listeners failed to notice, though, or even care. The album's originality and celebratory spirit intoxicated almost everyone. Not surprisingly, Sgt. Pepper would sell 2, 000,00 copies in the first three months of its release. Listeners heard the album as a bliss-out, a musical bath to clean away the enmity of the previous year. Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman even compared the record, as a happier memory, to the horror of the assassination of JFK. The reference to JFK is significant because (like that tragic event) everyone knew where they were when they first heard Sgt. Pepper. DJ Red Robinson also celebrated Sgt. Pepper as heralding in a new cultural revolution (ironically just as China was simultaneously having its own horrific version of one). But there were others who heard nothing of the sort. “Sgt. Pepper was the sound of The Beatles in hiding, avoiding danger – avoiding freedom,” wrote Devin McKinney. After all, the group's freedom was found in the chaos of Beatlemania, in the testing of their artistic worth, plus the proven ability to innovate in the pressure cooker of relentless demand.

For all of its brilliance, Sgt. Pepper created a false optimistic front (except perhaps on “A Day in the Life”), where the creators conveniently hid behind their innovations rather than (as they had in the past) use their innovations to cultivate an audience. Without the crowd as their adversary, though, The Beatles had no one to measure their utopian ideals by. In the past, the group found greatness on A Hard Day's Night, Rubber Soul and Revolver with little time to spare and under the insistent strain of constant touring; the band now found themselves with all the time in the world, but no urgency to use it. It was rock critic Richard Goldstein, though, who truly spoiled the party atmosphere created by Sgt. Pepper shortly after its release. Writing in The New York Times, Goldstein went so far as to call Pepper “an artistic failure.” While he did assent to the notion that the record was a hippie talisman for the season, he didn't think it provided a very deep perspective on the times, only a shallow reflection of them. “In substituting the studio conservatory for an an audience, The Beatles have lost crucial support, and that emptiness at the root is what makes their new album a monologue,” he wrote. Then quoting from John Lennon's “Strawberry Fields Forever,” he went even further. “Nothing is real therein, and nothing to get hung about. Too bad; I have a sweet tooth for reality. I like my art drenched in it, and even from fantasy I expect authenticity. What I worship about The Beatles is their forging of rock into what is real. It made them artists; it made us fans; and it made me think like a critic when I turned on my radio.”

For Goldstein, the best music turned its listeners into good critics, and given the era, it wasn't the time either for monologues. By the time his review was published, though, he was part of a different kind of dialogue. Goldstein became embroiled in a hailstorm of protest over his review. Besides an avalanche of hate mail by readers of The Times, The Village Voice published a rebuttal by Tom Phillips (angrily written by, of all people, another New York Times regular and colleague of Goldstein's). Paul Williams, in Crawdaddy magazine, thought that Goldstein got so hung up on his own sense of integrity that he couldn't “humble” himself before the album. Imagine that? Humble himself. What critic should ever humble himself before any work of art? How would they then be decent critics? (We've come to a slippery slope. It's bracing to see then a bold stand taken by a critic over such a hugely anticipated album. Try finding similar bravery today. Humbling oneself is comparatively more prevalent now due to an atmosphere of terror that seems to exist among some critics who prefer the safety of consumer reporting at the expense of their critical voice.)

George Harrison in Haight-Ashbury
As beautifully conceived as Sgt. Pepper is, in retrospect, it actually provided a false front for the band to hide behind. Critic Mikal Gilmore elaborated further on what this front hid in his excellent collection of essays titled Night Beat. “By the time Sgt. Pepper was on the streets, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was already turning into a scary and ugly place, riddled with corruption and hard drugs, and overpopulated with bikers, rapists, thieves, and foolish shamans.” Contrast that sordid portrait with the quaint image of The Beatles on Sgt. Pepper. Now they were avatars of a very different Shangri-la, a communal wasteland of lost idealists, instead of the angry Beatlemaniacs left behind. Those disconsolate, lost faces of Haight-Ashbury also represented the other side of the celebratory Sgt. Pepper visage. Into an emotional void created by The Beatles' withdrawal, this hippie enclave cast an unsettling shadow over the bright sounds of Sgt. Pepper. These fans, like zombies out of Dawn of the Dead, crawled out from the kinds of holes The Beatles – and this album of the Summer of Love – just couldn't fix. In short time, The Beatles couldn't fix those holes for themselves.   

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's  Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney     


  1. Not having experienced the album when it was released, I've never been hung up on the surrounding cultural malaise or fallen idealism of its time. As a studio album it showed what that art form can do. I don't see fantasy aspect of it as a problem, but rather a strength. Why not picture yourself on a boat on a river?

  2. I got my mono copy of the album the day it was released in montreal.We were there attending the Expo `67 as a family holiday...I walked into a record and out with a copy in my hand and the hotel where we were staying actually had a record player so I eagelry put it on but not side one track one but instead I looked at the song titles and was struck by the track titled When I`m 64 because face , i was 14 , the Beatles seemed to me to be close in age and i couldn`t imagine what they were thinking with this title.I put it on and to my horror I was hit smack in the face with a syrupy Macca tune that i thought belonged on a Mrs.Mills record belonging to my parents.
    Of course I fell in love with the record eventually but that was my first reaction.