50 Years After “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” Life Flows On
By Stuart Mitchner
It’s a familiar sight in Beatles lore, a theatre full of girls screaming and swooning to “She Loves You” and “Twist and Shout.” The scene in question was filmed by Pathe news in late November 1963 in Manchester. It’s striking how small and brittle the Beatles look this early in their career, upstaged by the hysteria, out of their depth, the mastered masters performing charades of frenzy on cue while the audience responds with the sobbing, shrieking passion of the real thing. But it’s more than mere frenzy these radiant girls are expressing, it’s the ecstasy of feeling free to let go, sob, laugh, dance, scream, be delirious.
There’s no way to write about the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band without mentioning last week’s terrorist attack at the massive Manchester Arena, where dozens of teenage girls died or were injured, some of them no doubt the grandchildren of the girls experiencing Beatlemania half a century ago in the same city. The girls leaving the Ariana Grande concert, part of the Dangerous Woman tour, had apparently been enjoying another more empowering form of freedom through their identification with a young female singer who had made the transition from girlhood to stardom to the ideal of womanly confidence spelled out in the tour’s title.
“They’ve Done It Again!”
Ariana Grande has been sending her 159 million followers on Instagram and Twitter post-Manchester messages of “kindness, strength, and oneness.” The equivalent of social media for the Beatles 50 years ago was the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the first of June 1967. The week the much anticipated album came out their music was everywhere and strangers were asking “Have you heard it yet?” and saying “They’ve done it again!” No need to specify what the “it” was or who the “they” were. Decades before the internet, millions worldwide were sharing the excitement, absorbing the same message of joy, love, and wonder. By the time John Lennon sang “I’d love to turn you on,” the last words of the album, most of us felt we were already there, whatever “turned on” meant. Dazed, dumbfounded, and disoriented after the last great orchestral orgasm, we were shaking our heads and wondering what hit us.
When Lennon sings that line in “A Day in the Life,” he’s not simply talking about getting high: he’s telling you to open your eyes. Paul McCartney called it “a deliberate provocation”: “what we really wanted was to turn you on to the truth rather than just bloody pot.” Whatever it is, whatever it does to the listener, it sounds a century away from the opening’s number’s quaint, “You’re such a lovely audience we’d like to take you home with us.”
Yes, and right now you can take home the 50th anniversary 2 CD set, which went on sale Friday at the Princeton Record Exchange featuring Giles Martin’s stereo remix of the material produced by his father George, who died last year at 90. Among the previously unreleased takes of all 13 tracks on the second disc are stereo mixes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Recorded during the same sessions but left off the LP, both songs, both legends, were launched as a two-sided single four months ahead of the mother ship. The clear message of that sensational double whammy was that something beyond our wildest dreams was coming in the spring.
Two Big Bangs
Sgt. Pepper was destined to be everything we wanted, needed, and were primed for, and when it finally arrived, we didn’t care that some of the songs, however brilliantly produced and performed, were not in the same league as the ones on previous albums like Rubber Soul and Revolver. The unifying concept of a music hall montage helped, but what lifted the album to another level were special moments as when the sublimity of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” follows the earthy euphoria of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and the way the lush Indian interlude of George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” opens Side 2, which ends above and beyond everything else with “A Day in the Life” and the Big Bang. The two Big Bangs.
No one had warned us that a full orchestra would set chaos to music each time John sang “I’d love to turn you on.” Some found it upsetting, even off-putting. Did we really need a weaponized orchestra ascending to apocalypse in a Beatles album? What happened to those four guys bouncing around like rock’n’roll marionettes less than four years ago in Manchester? It was as if the Beatles had put rock in a rocket and fired it at the sun, producing a sonic boom that rattled the firmament.
Imagine going from “She Loves You” to “He blew his mind out in a car,” from the equivalent of a social media message as primal as “yeah-yeah-yeah” to songs about “newspaper taxis … waiting to take you away …. Climb in the back with your head in the clouds and you’re gone.” Somehow the Fab Four had moved from “you know that can’t be bad” to the news of the day, sudden death and war, and metaphysically sinister innuendoes wherein 4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire became 4,000 people filling the Albert Hall. Then came Lennon’s “I’d love to turn you on” as the music swirled and surged toward something unearthly, a high, a dream, the Rapture, maybe the end of everything — then boom! Twice! And then the last thunderous chord struck simultaneously on what sounded like a thousand pianos filling the hushed aftershock.
At first George Martin wanted no part of McCartney’s suggestion that a full orchestra be brought in to “freak out” creating “crazy crescendoes.” He rolled his eyes when Lennon told him it should “sound like the end of the world.” Martin later confessed, “One part of me said ‘We’re being a bit self-indulgent, we’re going a little bit over the top,’ and the other part of me said ‘It’s bloody marvelous! I think it’s fantastic!’” When a visitor from the U.S. was treated to a preview of “A Day in the Life,” he did a handstand and Martin knew his worries “were over.”
The trajectory from Beatlemania to Sgt. Pepper and beyond, the movement from publicist’s joyride to worldwide phenomenon revolutionizing media and society, presages the labyrinthine wonders and horrors of the internet. As the force of fame gained momentum and the resources at the group’s disposal became more sophisticated and powerful and far-reaching, the music began moving in darker directions, whether by accident or design, half-knowingly, by chance, or in the spirit of a cosmic dare. It happens in Revolver with the morbid grandeur of Lennon’s “She Said She Said” (“I know what it’s like to be dead”); the near demonic relentlessness of Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You,” and finally with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” where Lennon blends the Tibetan Book of the Dead with the soundtrack of a Grade B jungle movie.
No wonder it was around this time that the “Paul Is Dead” rumors began, the mass paranoia continuing with Sgt Pepper, McCartney’s supposed death in an auto accident signified by the “he blew his mind out in a car” line in “A Day in the Life,” where the middle section is sung by Paul who goes “into a dream” between the two big doomy orchestral statements. The dark side is all the more present a year later on the White Album’s “Blackbird,” “Piggies,” “Revolution No 9,” and “Helter Skelter,” material that eventually found its way into the mind of Charles Manson.
John Lennon’s Aria
The apocalyptic denouement makes it possible to mention Sgt. Pepper in the same breath with catastrophes like the assassination of Kennedy, the 9/11 attacks, the violations of life, liberty, and music at the Bataclan in Paris and the Manchester Arena. But beyond paranoia, like the light on the dark side, the genius of Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles is ultimately positive, as Leonard Bernstein knew when he said “Three bars in ‘A Day in the Life’ still sustain me, rejuvenate me, inflame my senses and sensibilities.”
I don’t know which three bars sustained and rejuvenated Bernstein, but for me the revelation on this return to Sgt. Pepper was the wordless aria Lennon sings after the interlude written and sung by McCartney, who, in effect gets up, shaves, drinks a cup of tea, catches a doubledecker bus, finds his way upstairs, has a smoke, and then, “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.” Formally speaking, when Paul’s boyhood mate and songwriting partner vocalizes the dream on his way back to singing “I read the news today oh boy,” it’s only a link, a bridge, a transition, but in the context of the Lennon-McCartney relationship, it’s something movingly significant. John has spoken in interviews of the “beautiful little lick” Paul came up with for “I’d love to turn you on,” a line that “he’d had floating around in his head.” In another interview John says, “Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on ‘A Day in the Life’ …. I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa.” Another choice Lennon-McCartney blending happens when John sings the part of the parents while Paul sings lead in ‘She’s Leaving Home.’”
“We’re All One”
Thinking back to Manchester, still haunted by the two events, images of girls screaming in joy merging with images of girls running for their lives, I only hope that the music they came for will ultimately be, whatever form it takes, the force that “sustains” and “rejuvenates” them, their consolation, if not their salvation. Of all the songs on Sgt. Pepper, the most healing is George Harrison’s, which ends with these words, “When you’ve seen beyond yourself, you may find that peace of mind is waiting there, and the time will come when you see we’re all one and life flows within you and without you.”
Later in the month of Sgt. Pepper’s release, the Beatles performed for an estimated 400 million people on Our World, the first-ever live worldwide television broadcast. The song was one John wrote and sang, his voice at once wistful and passionate, angry and aching, singing “No one you can save that can’t be saved,” aware that people everywhere were listening, singing as if he really believed he and his band could save the world. The song was “All You Need Is Love.”