Well, I’m surely the farthest thing from unique in celebrating the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’s U.S. release today, but some things are above my overweening need to remain apart. I associate this record, like the band that made it, with absinthe, The Wizard of Oz, and Christmas. Listening to it again last night, I realized I wanted to write far more about it than I’ll ever cram into a single blogpost. I could easily write a post on each song, though I probably won’t, because one has other priorities, at least this one does. After writing a post about Rubber Soul, I let all of 2016 pass without doing a promised one on Revolver, though I finally got to it three years late. The subject is big; you can get lost in the weeds. So I may stick to a few generalities today. And after all, one can write on the same topic many times. In fact, I have already touched on Sgt. Pepper in my book No Applause and here on this blog.
The fact that Sgt. Pepper is my favorite album and the fact that I’m also fairly obsessed with vaudeville are not unrelated. I denied to someone the other day that I am obsessed with vaudeville, but I realize this morning that that is objectively preposterous. I guess what I mean to convey with such protestations is that A) I’m not concerned with vaudeville to the exclusion of all else, which is what a true obsession is; and B) I’m not as obsessed with it as I might be. There are guys who spend all day poring over 100 year old issues of Variety. I very rarely do anything like that. I am interested in the big picture and in making connections — connecting the dots between past and present, between black and white, between young and old. Sgt Pepper is a unifying cultural force like that, and furthermore (as I’ve written more than once), it is steeped in vaudeville.
The vaudeville element is mostly due to Paul McCartney, who like Ray Davies, brought a bit of music hall into the rock arena, and had written “When I’m 64”, or at least a draft of it, when he was a teenager. McCartney only became The Beatles’ bass player because they needed a bass player and it just so happened that he could do anything, at least anything musical. I recently came across a quote where McCartney said that before the Beatles came along, he was thinking he might wind up doing some kind of cabaret act. When you hear bootlegs of another teenage composition, the mock-hokey “Suicide”, you hear that. He was one of those precocious piano kids. You know the kind I mean. The kid everyone hates because he sits there smugly doing something everybody else can’t. For me, this provides insight into the whole thing. On occasion McCartney plays the role, dons the guise, of a rock and roller, in the same way he assumes any musical style for the purposes of entertainment. That’s quite different from BEING a rock and roller. And so when opportunities arose, McCartney reverted to form, asserted his true self. For God’s sake, think of him singing “Til There Was You” from The Music Man in their early set. He actually does that! It’s on one of their records! What other rock bands did that? That’s almost like a declaration of some kind, or (for some) a warning signal, a symptom. “Yesterday” is another important benchmark — his fellow Beatles are replaced completely by a string quartet. Just how does that fit into John Lennon’s band, precisely?
Lennon isn’t absent from Sgt Pepper by any means. In fact, you might say the strongest, most memorable bits are his, like tent poles, daft, hallucinatory, visionary. But they are few in number (just four), while the entire concept for the album, and most of the songs, are McCartney’s, and the overall sound tapestry and all of the arrangements (except on “She’s Leaving Home”) were George Martin’s. Ultimately Martin is probably my favorite “Beatle”. Prior to working with the band, he was best known for producing comedy albums and novelty songs. Much of what I love most on the album has to do with his contribution, and shortly after Sgt Pepper, when Martin’s role became diminished, I like their work a lot less. I love the AMBITION of Sgt. Pepper, the DETAIL, the constant SURPRISE and VARIETY. All of that is vaudeville!
Because of this, many are apt to stress the degree to which the album is not rock. For example, this is not an album in which electric guitar solos dominate (the title song, its reprise and “Good Morning Good Morning” are the only highlights as far as that goes). And of course the drug inspired lyrical content, social criticism and so forth are countercultural at least, though still that’s getting pretty far away from, say, covers of Little Richard. This criticism would continue to dog the band — plenty of rock critics criticized Abbey Road for being “inauthentic”, because of things like string sections and songs like “Something” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. But with the passage of time and perspective, we can only say “so what”? Time is being flattened out. We have all of musical history at our finger tips now. Like McCartney, we are apt to regard rock as another style, one of hundreds, through which to express ourselves, and not some sort of vanguard talisman of rebellion. Yet when Sgt. Pepper came out, it was considered by most people to be very much the latter. It was “acid rock”. “I’d love to turn you on”. “A crowd of people turned away” from “the war”.
But we who weren’t alive (or in my case, were very young) when it came out, see it through other eyes. It is a self-contained thing. For us it has never been the future, or the now, but only the past — which is another element that makes it like vaudeville. I was about 14 when a friend first played it for me, around 1980. And my response was a feeling that everything in my contemporary reality paled in comparison and probably always would. Sgt. Pepper is the gold standard. Anything less feels like some feeble, profitless gesture, some half hearted, lazy exercise in scarcely disguised futility. I want that level of lyrical wit and playful orchestration. ALWAYS. I want to be taken places, many different places. 50 years passed. Not only did the Beatles never hit this mark again, but no one else did either. A thing to be celebrated; a thing to do be decried.
To learn more about vaudeville and even Sgt. Pepper, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.