Did you like the picture of Mahatma Gandhi on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? You didn’t? Well, there’s a simple reason for that. Gandhiji never made it to the album cover. He was part of the original line-up. But then, the government of India—in an act of unparalleled foolishness—objected to his inclusion.
The objections were conveyed to EMI, the Beatles’ record company, which had an Indian subsidiary in the form of HMV, and the conglomerate was sufficiently intimidated by the governmental disapproval to demand that poor Gandhiji be removed from his first-row position just after the Beatles, next to Marlene Dietrich. No matter. George Harrison was able to pack the cover with endless Indian gurus whom you and I have never heard of. Do the names Shri Yukteshwar Gigi, Shri Mahavatra Babaji and Shri Lahiri Mahasaya ring a bell? No, I’ve never heard of them either. Except for Shri Paramhansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi), the Indian gurus on the Pepper cover remain people whose names we never knew but whose faces are imprinted on the counterculture subconscious.
As you probably know—unless you’ve spent the last few months on Mars—this year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the Sgt Pepper album. Over the last decade, it has become fashionable to knock Pepper, to claim that Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde has a right to be regarded as the greatest album of all time over Pepper and to argue that Revolver or even Abbey Road are greater Beatles albums.
But the anniversary has been marked by such nostalgia that Pepper’s place in history is safe—for the next few months, at least. We’ve all read articles telling us about the genesis of the album and assuring us how the world would have been a very different place if Paul and John had not grown silly moustaches and worn bandmaster clothes.
I’ve spent the last month listening to Sgt Pepper again to see if the hype and the nostalgia are valid. The most surprising conclusion for me has been the rediscovery of the vaudeville element to the album. Such songs as When I am Sixty-Four, Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite, Good Morning Good Morning and Fixing a Hole would not have been out of place in a piece of musical theatre. None of them deserves to be remembered as being among the Beatles’ best songs.
The interesting thing about When I am Sixty-Four, which has been used again and again to mark Paul McCartney’s coming of old age over the last several months, is that it was never intended solely as a piece of musical whimsy. According to George Martin, who produced the album, it was “Paul’s personal vision of hell…the idea of being even 40 years old was inconceivable, too horrible to contemplate. In the 1960s, it was a particular sin to be old and alive.” Poor Paul. Like Pete Townshend, he did not die before he got old. Instead, he got stuck with Heather Mills.
George Martin argues that to see Sgt Pepper in totality, you have to include the two songs that were left off the album. Strawberry Fields, named after a mental asylum/ Salvation Army hostel/ children’s home (I’ve read all three versions and I’m still not sure what the truth is), is John Lennon’s masterpiece, second only to A Day in the Life (also on the album) and Imagine (which he recorded after the Beatles broke up). I don’t think Penny Lane, Paul’s nostalgic nod to Liverpool, is anywhere as good but its narrative style marked a break with the pop songs of that era (remember that 1967 was the year when the Beatles topped the chart with the forgettable Hello Goodbye).
The songs that make the album musically distinguished (apart from Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane) are A Day in the Life, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Within You Without You and She’s Leaving Home. A case can also be made for With a Little Help From My Friends, intended as a joke song for Ringo to sing but which acquired a life of its own after Joe Cocker recorded it as a single.
She’s Leaving Home is one of McCartney’s finest ballads but loses out from being regarded as just another song on Pepper. And though it is fashionable to make fun of George Harrison’s Within You Without You, it is probably the first Beatles song to completely discard the traditions of the Western pop song with no chords and no middle eight.
Of the other songs, one thing stands out: the drug influence. The key line in A Day in the Life is “I’d love to turn you on.” And all those protestations about Lucy in the Sky being inspired by a painting that Julian Lennon did at school of a girl called Lucy have been shown to be false. At the time the song was written, Julian was three years old and incapable of conceiving of the phrase, Lucy in the sky with diamonds. The song deserves to be taken at face value. It is about an acid trip (just listen to the lyrics) and it is not a coincidence that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds can be abbreviated to LSD.
Do the drug influences detract from the album’s strength? On the contrary. I think they work in its favour. And they tell us that the Beatles were not just at the height of their powers but they were willing to make a social statement as well. Until Sgt Pepper came along, musicians were content to write three-minute pop songs. The good ones were released as singles and the others were just fillers.
The point of Sgt Pepper is that even though the songs themselves were not all first-rate, they were not intended to be hit singles. When Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were released as a double A-side single, it was the biggest flop in the Beatles’ career thus far. And yet, John and Paul didn’t care and went ahead and made Pepper anyway. In that sense, Sgt Pepper marked the coming of age of rock music. With one album, the genre went from being teen entertainment to becoming a legitimate school of music. None of the albums that was said to answer Pepper has stood the test of time (for instance, The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request or Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s, let alone Brian Wilson’s aborted masterpiece, Smile).
For that reason alone, Sgt Pepper deserves to be remembered as the moment when rock went beyond pop and beyond the single and became a way of life for many of us.
And it was 40 years ago that Sgt Pepper taught the boys to play…
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