On the occasion of Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday, I decided to burden myself with the unforgiving task of writing about the Beatles. After trying out a number of different approaches, it eventually became clear that, despite my general resistance to such things, the only way I might possibly contribute something worthwhile to perhaps the most substantial corpus in all of popular music commentary, was to take a personal route. Had I the time and capital to devote myself to a more rigorous study, I would gladly have tried, but even then, those bases are so well-covered by this point it likely would’ve been fruitless. And so, following Sgt. Pepper’s lead, I feel it most appropriate to start at the beginning.
Like many, I grew up a Beatles devotee. You likely knew kids in a similar mold, if you weren’t one yourself. I caught the music bug at a very early age via my record collector father, and by about age 6 they had claimed the top spot on my personal list of all-time favorite bands. I had Beatles-themed birthday parties, obsessed over all eleven hours of the Beatles Anthology documentary box set, and once nearly got into a physical fight with the other Beatlemaniac at my middle school, our conflict stemming more or less from a disagreement over who was the bigger fan. And then, at a certain point, that fanaticism began to wane. I grew interested in other music, other things, and the Beatles became just another relic of my childhood, alongside Runescape and Spongebob. There were even periods of time where, caught up in the flippancy of adolescence, I feigned disdain for my once-beloved boys.
With the maturity of collegiate young adulthood came a more measured sense of respect, but not much of a revival of interest. Sure, the music was still nice, but it didn’t feel like there was anything new for me to learn, I’d already done the work. Yet they remained persistent. And over the years, as my musical interests expanded, I began to feel that nearly every road somehow led back to those four mop-topped lads from Liverpool. Not just the subsequent development of rock and pop music in the U.S. and U.K. — the influence there should be obvious — but in music of all sorts, from all over the world. One can observe their touch in countless artists and musical movements that came in their wake — Brazilian Tropicalia, J-pop, Lucio Battisti, Krautrock, Miles Davis’ late-’60s/early-’70s fusion. I would also find myself drawing lines back to the Beatles as I encountered earlier avant-garde works, and other music outside of the Western mainstream — John Cage, Dadaism, Hindustani classical music, musique concrète, Fluxus, Stockhausen — influences which coursed through the band’s work that my younger self wasn’t equipped to hear or understand. As I navigated my way through the 20th century, the Beatles remained a touchstone, a lens through which to begin to contextualize and understand a vast swath of history, musical and otherwise.
This was most significant, of course, when looking at the ’60s, and the profound musical, cultural, and political evolution that occurred over that brief window of time. It’s significant because the Beatles represent such a perfect microcosm of their era: when “I Want To Hold Your Hand” hit number one in the U.S. in early 1964, they were four cherubic young boys, decked out in matching suits before audiences of screaming teenage girls. There are unique and forward-thinking qualities to be found in that early music, but fundamentally it was a fairly direct extension of the ’50s R&B and burgeoning rock’n’roll that the four grew up on. Flash-forward to 1967, only three years later, and those same clean-cut teen idols are now adorned in candy-colored psychedelic regalia, sporting long mustaches as they pose in front of a pop art collage. As a kid watching footage from the Anthology films, I remember being so struck by that difference, and by the minuscule time frame. I didn’t have the historical context, nor the refined ears, to really be able to comprehend the shift in their music — to me, it was all just the Beatles, and it was all good — but the visual change was obvious, and striking. In those images, my young self was given an incredibly legible representation of the drastic cultural transformation that swept through America, Britain, and much of the world. And still today the Beatles remain useful as a tool for studying that period, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as perhaps the most essential text of all. Released May 26, 1967, it is widely considered the forerunner to the celebrated Summer of Love; its radical sound and metaphysical subject matter set the stage for the countercultural explosion, and soundtracked the summer.
Though neither appeared on the album itself, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” released together as a single a few months before Sgt. Pepper’s, are as essential to the record as any of its actual songs. They set the tone for the rest of the album, both with regard to the listening public and the band itself, as these were two of the first three songs recorded when sessions for the album began (along with “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a rehashing of a tune McCartney had written as a teen). With its thoughtful reflections on childhood, the “double A-side” single introduces the record’s predominant theme, and in so doing it also presents a fascinating dichotomy between their respective authors. In packaging the two songs together, we’re encouraged to view them in dialectical terms: two sides of a 7” single, which in their contrasts are each psychically revealing. Lennon’s offering is a retreat into the depths of childish imagination, finding comfort in the exploration of an internal world, a fantastical vision of the local Strawberry Field garden where “nothing is real” and there’s “nothing to get hung about.” While similarly focusing on a prominent location from childhood, McCartney’s “Penny Lane” is instead concerned with the external. Even as a child he finds himself an observer, the figures going about their lives before him (the barber, the fireman, the nurse) each become characters in a play of his own construction.
These disparate approaches to the same idea correspond quite obviously to the broader approaches of each songwriter. Lennon is absorbed within himself, committed to raw expression and self-exploration, whereas McCartney’s songwriting tends more often to go in the other direction, searching the outside world for vessels, cloaking his feelings and ideologies beneath the veneer of various characters. At risk of over-generalizing (neither artist can be elucidated quite so simply), this tension is undoubtedly at the heart of their dynamic, and in its antithetical nature is crucial to their success as collaborators. (It also certainly factors into their interpersonal conflicts. Lennon would later speak to this dichotomy rather viciously: “These stories about boring people doing boring things … I’m not interested in third-party songs. I like to write about me, because I know me.”) A twice-repeated refrain by McCartney (“very strange”), summoned in response to occurrences presumably beyond the comprehension of the young observer, speaks to a childish sense of nonchalance, a sentiment that is reflected (or perhaps refracted) in Lennon’s own nostalgic lament for a lost simplicity: “Living is easy with eyes closed / Misunderstanding all you see.” Here we can see both a sense of harmony and a profound difference of perspective between these two friends and collaborators.
They’re each among the finest of their respective authors’ works, and in their meticulous and avant-garde production techniques they set a formal precedent for the following album, in much the same way they do a thematic one. The experiments with tape manipulation and sound effects, begun on Revolver, are pushed to a more extreme level here, and “Strawberry Fields” in particular easily trumps “Tomorrow Never Knows” in its use of the recording studio as a tool. In fact, tape manipulation is an especially important technique to focus on here. Not merely because it represented the cutting-edge of pop music experimentation, but because in the case of Sgt. Pepper’s, it interacts quite meaningfully with the thematic content. Every single track features some amount of speeding up, slowing down, splicing, or looping, some instances easily identifiable (the loop at the end of “A Day In The Life”; the backwards cymbals on “Strawberry Fields Forever”), others less so (George Martin’s sped-up piano solo on “Lovely Rita”; McCartney’s subtly pitched-up vocals on “When I’m Sixty-Four”). Any of these manipulations of magnetic recording tape are also, fundamentally, distortions of time, and as such they make fitting complements to an album concerned so deeply with the flow of time, and with attempts to resist or bend it.
Sgt. Pepper’s status as a “concept album” has inspired seemingly endless debate. And indeed, if there is a concept that runs throughout the record, it is not a coherent narrative so much as it is the aforementioned investigation of childhood, a kaleidoscopic patchwork of half-buried feelings and images pulled from the hazy recesses of memory. The brass band alter-egos that introduce the album serve merely as a framing device, rather than a real motif, but still it’s effective in holding together the loose concept. Lennon’s fond memories of the actual Strawberry Field were tied especially to an annual garden party, a neighborhood festival held there each summer with entertainment courtesy of a traditional northern brass band, of the same sort that the album cover’s costumes and the opening track’s sound are meant to recall. Following the famous mellotron introduction, “Strawberry Fields” offers an invitation, “Let me take you down” — gently leading us down the rabbit hole, on a journey through the psychedelia of Lennon’s childhood. The mock brass band introduction that kicks off the album-proper (“It was twenty years ago today”) functions similarly. By framing the record in such a way, the band explicitly invokes the locale that they’re calling on, the Liverpool of their youths.
From there, the group finds numerous angles from which to approach their own pasts. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is self-consciously Lewis Carrollian in its dreamy vision of “tangerine trees and marmalade skies.” And while it’s understandably been hailed as a hallucinogenic drug anthem, the irony is that it was really inspired by a drawing done by Lennon’s four-year-old son (and of course, Carroll understood as well as anyone the innate psychedelic experience that is being a child). What stands out upon further investigation is the song’s constant sense of forward motion: riding on the back of that gorgeous descending melody played by McCartney on a Lowry organ, we are first instructed to “Picture yourself in a boat on a river,” which in later verses morphs into other forms of travel, a “Newspaper taxi … waiting to take you away,” and then later “a train in a station.” The tides of time as a magical vehicle, transporting us down the path of the eternal present as it simply unfurls before our eyes. It’s a perspective one can’t help but relate to childhood, a celebration of the way we as kids submitted wide-eyed to the here and now. “Everyone smiles as you drift by the flowers.”
“Getting Better” is even more explicit in its relation to juvenility, with McCartney offering a counterpoint of sorts to the sugarcoated nostalgia of Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” and “Lucy.” He recalls the frustration of his school days, the constraints imposed by teachers. But he resolves these grievances with a springy optimism in the chorus: “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better / A little better, all the time.” This brings to mind again the notion of forward movement, and is easily tied to the ideologies of the blossoming counterculture movement, the insistence that positive social change was imminent. It suggests a sincere belief in the progressive momentum of time, whether that be the growing up of an individual, or the advancement of a society. (Lennon, as always, is there to offer a sardonic reply: “It can’t get no worse.”)
We continue to build out from there: “She’s Leaving Home” is an “Eleanor Rigby”-esque lament at the generational misunderstandings between youth and parents, while “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” reaches even further back than ’40s Liverpool, the lyrics drawn from an antique poster advertising a 19th-century carnival. The song speaks to the way that such forms of children’s entertainment can take on a menacing quality, one amplified by the decontextualized perspective of a child spectator (certainly the song, and particularly the dense, chaotic arrangement of “Henry the Horse”’s waltz, was effective in frightening me as a young listener). Even the few tracks not linked directly to childhood, like George Harrison’s Indian-inflected “Within You Without You,” are still engaging with notions of temporality. His lyrics appeal firstly to hopeful hippie sentiments (“With our love we could save the world”), but they also hearken back to McCartney and Lennon’s previous reflections. “Try to realize it’s all within yourself … And life flows on within you and without you.” Harrison here seems to be in dialogue with both the inner fantasy world of Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields,” as well as McCartney’s externalized “Penny Lane,” and ultimately pushes beyond even the progressive temporal tide of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” reminding us that the flow of time is eternal, stretching well past you or me.
All of this adds up to something immensely compelling. We have these four young cultural icons who, influenced by experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, are compelled to dig into the psychedelia of their own childhoods, emerging with ideas that are as relevant to the present (and the future) as they are to the past. Indeed, Sgt. Pepper’s on the whole looks as far forward as it does backward, its ultra-modern production techniques pointedly contextualizing its ruminations on days gone by. Never is this more apparent than on “A Day In The Life,” the grand finale. Others have commented on the song’s function as a sort of awakening, reality intruding on the album’s tranquil daydream. It refers first to the young socialite and friend of the Beatles, Tara Brown, who was tragically killed in a car accident — that his death was almost certainly fueled by drugs begins to hint at a dangerous underside to the carefree peace and love sentiments so prominent at the time, and on the album. For a record so caught up in youthful reminiscences and visions of a happy future extending out endlessly to finally arrive here, with a life snuffed out horribly early, is jolting to say the least. And while it may represent an awakening of sorts, at the same time it remains a dream, a banal nightmare of modern mediatization (embodied so memorably by those turbulent orchestral glissando’s), where the horrific death of a close friend is fashioned as a spectacle at which detached onlookers stare, another news item to go alongside a report on potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire. If there is an awakening, then, it comes with McCartney’s entry in double-time, triggered by an alarm clock. But he awakens not to cruel reality but simply to more blank mundanity, too busy rushing around to even stop to think, before he again drifts back into the dream. All of this is quite meaningful with regard to questions of temporality, that relentless current, and it makes the ending all the more striking. In that famously sustained E Major chord, we’re offered a miraculous reprieve from the linearity of time, its shimmering overtones seeming to hang in the air forever, granting us a moment of blissful stasis. It does inevitably wither away, but it’s hard not to get caught up in its power all the same. (And the actual last sound we hear, McCartney wryly lilting the phrase “never could be any other way” on a loop, will repeat on a vinyl LP until one manually lifts the needle.)
In the end, one’s taste may simply not align with the music of the Fab Four — and fond as I am of that music, I have no interest in claiming any sort of objective greatness therein — but what’s become increasingly clear to me as I’ve grown up with them is that in order to develop any meaningful understanding of popular music in the 20th-century and beyond, one must go through the Beatles. It’s fair to dislike the music, or even to resent the footprint they left behind, but still the footprint is undeniably there. In much the same way, one can have disdain for the reactionary, and oftentimes demonstrably falsified, nostalgia still heaped upon ’60s pop culture, but to deny the period’s significance is silly. And as the most significant pop-cultural object of that era, a reckoning with the Beatles is simply a requirement for approaching the topic of 20th-century mass culture. Just as they sat, for me, at the heart of a complex network of musical history, they also sit at the center of a web of politics and history, with tendrils extending in numerous directions — from the Vietnam War to the Manson killings to May ’68 and far beyond. The way those reverberations echo through the Beatles’ work can still be felt and seen quite powerfully today.
Now, should they be the only object of significance? Of course not, and the way I’ve positioned them here is inextricably tied to the position they occupy in my own personal history. The point I’m trying to make is that this lens through which I viewed the world as a six-year-old has become an even more enriching one as I gaze through it as a 24-year-old intent on learning more about the world. It’s an especially pertinent sentiment given that I find myself now at precisely the same age as Paul McCartney when he was constructing the work in question. Just as Sgt. Pepper’s finds the Beatles looking to their childhoods as a means of understanding their present and guiding their futures, I now find myself looking to my own childhood infatuation in order to do something similar.
It’s not that these four musicians were somehow the most gifted artists to ever live, nor that they are necessarily the sole originators of all of the innovations and breakthroughs that we tend to credit them with. Rather, they simply hit upon a magical combination, an alchemical mixture of songwriting talents, personality, and, most importantly, fortuitous timing, which located them at the heart of some of the most critical musical and cultural movements of recent history. And you can take their position as cultural emblems even beyond the halcyon days of the ’60s: not only do they mark the transition into the psychedelia of the Summer of Love, but their subsequent disintegration, which seemed to occur just as quickly as their rise, also aligns directly with the collapse of the hippie movement and its lightning fast subsumption from the brink of radicalism into liberal capitalism. By the time of Sgt. Pepper’s, the band, like the movement behind them, really seemed to be brushing up against a genuine political radicalism, and then it all began to disintegrate. The revolutionary power that seemed so real in 1967 all but vanished, leaving in its place only the desolate epithets of Free Love and Flower Power. And the Beatles’ music followed that same trajectory more or less: they quickly grew disenchanted with any notion of actual revolution (see “Revolution”), retreating into more individualist ideas of transcendence (“All You Need Is Love”). And then three years later, they were no more. As someone so immersed in this music, it’s hard not to wonder about their relationship to this mass cultural shift: had the Beatles clung harder to their nascent political ideologies, might the masses have followed suit? It’s a question so abstract it’s hardly worthwhile, but that question does open up a broader one, perhaps the essential question I find fascinating about this band: were they guiding culture or were they simply reflections of it? This complex interlacing is at the core of what I find so compelling about the band today, and it’s what has elevated them from childhood infatuation to lifelong companions.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.