Sgt Pepper’s: A day in its life
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New Delhi: If one had to point to one year—just one in 20 unimaginably fertile years of musical creativity—1967 would be right up there. The results of this unprecedented, drug-fuelled, politically-charged, anti-establishment wave of rock music are with us still. If you took a very deep breath, it still may not be enough to stop you from gasping. For the recordings include:
The Rolling Stones (Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majestic Request), The Beach Boys (Wild Honey and Smiley smile), Jefferson Airplane (Surrealistic Pillow), Pink Floyd (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn), Big Brother and the Holding Company (Mainstream), The Who (Sell Out), The Moody Blues (Days of the Future Passed), Bob Dylan (John Wesley Harding), Cream (Disraeli Gears) and Velvet Underground & Nico (its debut, the one with the Andy Warhol banana cover).
Three bands made a sensational debut that year—The Doors (The Doors, Strange Days), The Grateful Dead (The Grateful Dead) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love). Fronted by Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix, all three bands would reshape the course of rock music. Hendrix would go on to redefine the instrument that came to largely define rock at the time and more so in coming decades—the electric guitar.
But wait, there’s more. On 26 May 1967 (in the UK; 2 June in the US), The Beatles came out with an album that became an icon of the era, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They had another one that year—the ruminant Magical Mystery Tour—but nothing could compare to the inventiveness of Sgt. Pepper’s. It was, in many ways, the definitive album of the 60s—the product of four musicians at the height of their powers capturing the mood of an era.
It was also a tribute to drugs.
British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan went overboard, calling the album “a decisive moment in Western civilization” in 1967—a ironic remark given the album’s choreographed burial of the British Empire in its closing song, A Day In The Life. The even greater irony was, of course, the poor reception given to an album by a British band that actually did heavy drugs—the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, which even satirized Sgt. Pepper’s lenticular album cover.
The cover, groundbreaking for its time (Grammy winner for the year), shows around 60 iconic figures, mostly from the 20th century but also, for instance, Karl Marx. Fittingly, there are as many as four Indian gurus—Yukteshwar Giri, Mahavatar Babaji, Paramhansa Yogananda and Lahiri Mahasaya—in what is the band’s most “Indian” album for an extended Indian-themed song by George Harrison, who had by then fallen under the spell of Indian classical music, philosophy and Ravi Shankar.
They are standing in four rows, with the front row taken by the Fab Four (eight actually, because there’s also an entire wax model set of them), and they are looking over a foreground that is filled with what look to be adornments and flower arrangements for a wake. Whose wake? The only clue we have is a floral guitar. It’s a left-handed guitar, placed right under the word “Beatles”, which spawned speculation around Paul McCartney, the left-handed bass player. “Paul is dead,” they said.
He wasn’t, of course. And now plans have been drawn for grand celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s. Several CD, DVD and blue ray sets have been launched, along with a set of vinyls, a 144-page hardcover book and a reissue of a rare documentary, The Making of Sgt. Pepper.
The advent of digital technology means recorded music can keep being “cleaned up”, or remixed according to the tastes of the musicians and producers. Every version sounds different—sometimes a tiny bit so, and sometimes like a whole new creation, if it is tastefully done.
Sgt. Pepper’s, which is often described (wrongly) as the first concept album, lends itself easily to remixing, particularly the standout song out of the 13 in the album, A Day In The Life.
A psychedelic masterpiece tinged with LSD, it was thought up by John Lennon and has a middle eight contributed by McCartney. It starts almost tentatively with an acoustic guitar. “I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade,” sings John, hardly preparing the listener for what comes next: “he blew his mind out in a car”. The song is essentially a portrait of a society that is unraveling—the English army had just won the war, but the crowd of people turned away. And then a massive “drugs interlude” comes in with “I love to turn you on” continuing till the end. Somebody speaks, the singer goes “into a dream” and the manic strings take over in a relentless crescendo ending with an E chord that lasts some 40 seconds. Why? Because it’s hammered out on three pianos all at once.
The song was banned by the BBC for its perceived glorification of drugs and it remained banned until 1972. Oddly, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (that abbreviation, yes, although later theories say it had nothing to do with drugs either) was free to air on radio.
Sgt. Pepper’s started out because The Beatles were getting tired of touring. “We’ve taken the road to its limits as far as we are concerned—what else can we do out there,” Ringo reminisced later. Perhaps aware of its greatness, at the start of the album the band promises, “A splendid time is guaranteed for all”.
“We hope you have enjoyed the show,” Paul sings. Oh yes, we did, we loved it—and thanks for taking the audience home, John, Paul, George and Ringo.