As soon as ‘Revolver’ came out, the band headed back to the US for another attempt at making stadium-sizes gigs work. It was not what you might call a success. The new songs didn’t make the set list because none of them was really suited to stage performance; the welcome in the wake of the album-burning parties was not what it had been before (Lennon’s sort-of apology appeared to mollify enough people for the tour to go on); and in spite of improvements in amplification, no-one – especially those on stage – could hear a note of what was being played. The band in any case were not particularly interested in these old songs any more, and the climax of the tour in San Francisco was greeted with a collective heartfelt sigh of relief, all four of them having – some more reluctantly than others – come to the conclusion that performing live was simply not possible any longer. The Beatles had existed solely as a live band for years, but once they had begun to get to grips with what recording technology could do for them, they moved on from that phase of their life with few regrets.
Eventually, I suppose, the screaming would have died down. Eventually, the technology would catch up with what a Beatles concert might have been. But by the time that had happened, the forces holding these four together had been overwhelmed by events and the passage of time. One of the things which perhaps gets overlooked when people talk about the second half of the Beatles’ career is that the end of touring was a psychological end to the band itself. From that point on none of them was really in The Beatles any more – they would get together and make music under the Beatles name from time to time, but without the tight bonds imposed by relentless travelling and performing together, they were able to go off and live their own lives, and that process started almost immediately.
On their return from the US, they went their separate ways for an unimaginable three months. George (who may or may not have been on the verge of quitting at this point) went to India and properly learned the sitar; Paul went off to Kenya; Ringo went home and introduced himself to his family, and John, having spent some time making the film ‘How I Won The War’, went to an art gallery one evening and met the Japanese artist Yoko Ono…
Just before going in to the studio to more or less see what happened, Paul McCartney died, which must have been a blow.
As a measure of how much things had changed since the ‘Rubber Soul’ sessions, there was no pressure for an album by Christmas, and for the first time (it’s not clear to me exactly when this happened) an insistence that Capitol in the US would release whatever came out of these sessions in its entirety. The days of wildly varying releases on either side of the Atlantic were (almost) over, and with many of the external pressures removed, the band were able to retreat into Abbey Road and take as long as they needed to record something new.
The ‘taking as long as it took’ part did, of course, cause some problems, as by February 1967, EMI were getting very twitchy indeed about the lack of new material. To appease them, and perhaps aware of the fact that even a Beatles audience would eventually move on to something else, the band agreed to releasing two tracks from the new sessions as a double A side single.
Let me rephrase that: The Beatles decided to release what is surely the greatest 7″ single ever committed to vinyl, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ / ‘Penny Lane’:
(Incidentally, I think you can tell a lot about a person by which side they play first)
Notwithstanding the changes in sound evident on ‘Revolver’, these two songs mark an absolute shift in what ‘The Beatles’ actually is: gone is the clean-cut image still visible during the last tour, in its place are four grown-ups with facial hair and serious expressions – almost an entirely new band, and the music reflects and amplifies this change. Both songs are masterpieces not just of songwriting, but of production and execution. In keeping with the thesis that The Beatles isn’t really a band any more, there is so much going on in both tracks that you simply can’t picture the four of them standing together in a room bashing out either song. The end of the video (sorry; “promotional film”) for ‘Penny Lane’ makes this point eloquently as they ride their horses past their old stage setup.
If you don’t agree that it’s the greatest 7″ single of all time, surely you’ll concede that it’s the greatest 7″ single ever to be kept off the no. 1 spot by Englebert Humperdinck. It also helped build the expectation for the next album to heights which surely no album could possibly hope to meet. ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ didn’t emerge until June, and was released into a world which had moved on even from the apparent extremes of 1966 – there was a genuine shift in public attitudes to just about everything you can think of – long hair, mini skirts, women’s lib, flower power, hippies, the summer of love – all the things you’ve read about really did happen, and then the Beatles provided the soundtrack. No wonder it’s so revered…
And no wonder it became so divisive. It’s far more common for a neglected album to have gradually achieved classic status than it is for something so widely, almost universally, lauded on release to suffer a retrospective backlash; but that’s what slowly happened to ‘Sergeant Pepper’. Ten years after its release, when I was buying any and every new album I could lay my hands on, the received wisdom about the Beatles was that the only version of the band worth bothering about was the one Stuart Sutcliffe had been in; the early songs were fine, but everything from 1965 onward was – well, we used words like ‘pretentious’ almost as if we knew what they meant. It took me years to come back to this album, having suffered through all the ‘greatest album of all time’ lists which inevitably put it first because they had been written by people who were there at the time; people who really understood how seismic it was, and who perhaps didn’t view it as objectively as you might hope. If something really did change the way you looked at the world, it’s hard to then stand back and admit that, you know, ‘Revolver’ is actually a better album.
So, in the end, I think that it’s more important than it was great; had more significance in so many ways than some of its songs merit, and looms so large over the cultural landscape that it’s next to impossible to look at it dispassionately – you’re inevitably reduced to ‘well, I like it’ as the depth of your analysis because it really is impossible to unpick it from all the psychedelia, the cardboard cut-outs and the moustaches.
But I’m going to give it a go.
‘Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is crammed full of some of the most iconic melodies, lyrics and sounds ever committed to vinyl. There’s not a dull moment, and never a point where you think ‘oh, they’ve done this before’. Everything about it is new and exciting, and if it has flaws, it’s probably in that not every experiment can possibly work perfectly every time.
One of the reasons the songs the Beatles wrote are so strong, so memorable and so successful is that whenever either Lennon or McCartney brought a song in for the band to work on, it had to pass muster in the opinion of one of the greatest writers of popular song who ever lived. It was even harder for George Harrison, who had to get his songs past both of them. For me, that process reached its apogee on ‘Revolver’, as everyone pulled together with common purpose; here they are all still trying to outdo each other, and the way they do it is no longer restrained by the limitations of guitar, drums and bass, and I’m trying not to be influenced by hindsight here, but I think there are moments from each of them which perhaps would have benefited from one or other of them saying ‘Hang on, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’.
You know, I’ve started this next paragraph six or seven times now, and I’m still not clear what I’m trying to say, or even if it’s possible to say it. Trying to evaluate ‘Sergeant Pepper’ is like trying to describe a rainbow to someone blind from birth – it can be done, but rarely well; you can get into the technical details of how everything works, but you lose the majesty of it all in the intricate details, and in the end, you’re not sure if anyone is better off for the effort. If I could, I’d award it pink mouse out of ten, because that’s what we’re dealing with here – something which just doesn’t properly fit into the normal categories. It’s a rock album which features ragtime clarinet, fairground organs and calliope, a string octet, an orchestra playing atonally but to a structure, western and Indian classical instruments and musicians, various animal sounds, an alarm clock and a harp – all played by a fictional band.
And through all that chaos, weaving under and over the soundscape are thirteen (well, twelve, as one’s a reprise) perfect examples of the songwriter’s craft – each unique, each as different from what comes next as it is from what comes after. You may not like ragtime clarinet, or have no time for extended jamming on Indian instruments; you may find ‘Mr Kite’ twee or (and you’re wrong about this) ‘Good Morning’ insubstantial, but none of that matters, because all of those songs stand in service to a greater whole, an album which fifty years on still defies description. Of course there are weaker spots – not many, but I still contend ‘Revolver’ had none – but even in its excesses and its whimsy, ‘Sergeant Pepper’ is still pushing at boundaries which no-one even knew existed.
And, yes, you do have to talk about the songs eventually. Let’s get the contentious ones out of the way first: ‘Within You, Without You’ is, to my mind, the beating heart of the album. You can enjoy the whole thing while still thinking it’s too long, but most of the times I listen to it I find myself drawn in to it, partly by the words, which sum up what it was to be young in the summer of 1967 like nothing else. ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ is a musical masterpiece, but its also a little whimsical and slight. Nevertheless, it’s one of the core Beatles songs which everyone knows and loves, even if it’s not cool to admit it. Pretty much everything else just works, and then there are two of the five or six best Beatles songs of all.
‘She’s Leaving Home’ is a miracle. It’s so simple yet so harmonically complex, with the voices of the parents and the narrator weaving through a melody which never allows you to get lost in the story. It’s a sketch and a movie script all in one, and is easily the best song on here but for the final one. ‘A Day in the Life’ defies both description and superlatives. Presented after the imaginary band have taken their leave, it seems to say “this is us; this is what we’ve been doing while all that was going on”. From an early age, I knew that you could do anything with music, because I’d heard the Beatles do it in this song – you could mash two different songs together; you could make an orchestra do things which almost didn’t sound like music at all; you could make a sound on a piano (three pianos, I later discovered) which somehow never faded; you could say those things and make it all sound mystical and magical, and you could make a pop song last over five minutes and still leave us wanting more.
I like much of the music I like because ‘A Day in the Life’ taught me that there were no boundaries if you didn’t want there to be.
After this, rock albums were around forty minutes long; after this, you printed the lyrics on the sleeve somewhere; after this, you could play what you wanted and express yourself the way you wanted, and people would listen, people would give you record contracts. Great bands were driven on to produce their own masterpieces, and solve the problems of playing in huge arenas; bands devised light shows and costumes, used or even invented entire new musical technologies, grew their hair and lived in communes, and they did it all because ‘Sergeant Pepper’ showed them how.
Musically, it’s a shade behind ‘Revolver’; as a significant moment in the history of the music we all take for granted now, it’s off the charts.
Oh, and the apostrophe? just like the original album, I’ve done it both ways. Which is right? A splendid time is guaranteed for all, and that’s all that matters.