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John Lennon: Essence and Reality
Part 17: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the world; the experience of living in modern times. Sgt. Pepper’s captured, affirmed, and infused with a poignant affection, the culture of that entire pre-digital generation, with its beauty and ugliness, caring and neglect, altruism and selfishness, grace and sordidness. Life as lived on 1 June 1967 was photographed and pressed into one disc, in all its diversity and emotional tones, and displayed on one album cover; yet the record sounds and looks relaxed, effortless and endlessly expansive. Every human relationship is sung on that record: the love of man and woman, the infatuation of boy for girl, the connections between parents and children, friends, casual acquaintances, strangers, celebrities and nobodies, performers and audiences, preachers and congregations. It also intimated, as George Harrison said, that: “… individual love is just a little of universal love.” That is why I would unhesitatingly say that it is the greatest record of the era of records.
You could believe that on its cover you see every face you have known and can ever know, including your own. You have to actually hold and look at the L.P. record, not the CD, to really understand the justice of what I am saying, for Pepper’s spoke through Peter Blake’s artwork and packaging as much as it did through its music. But Blake’s efforts would have counted for nothing if the four figures in the middle had been anyone but the Beatles, or, even then, if the music had disappointed all expectations. You could have had the Rolling Stones, or the Beach Boys, or made up a quartet of Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Queen Elizabeth and the Pope for that cover, but it would not have worked. The Beatles were the only group, of any type, where each member was instantly and globally recognizable, and was a valued, essential part of the whole. The cover primed us for music that only the Beatles could have produced. It set the context for that music in a way that perhaps no other cover ever has.
The impact of that celebrated collage on the front of the sleeve comes, in part, from the diversity of the faces which make up the assemblage: they cross all lines of country, race and age. The idea of arranging them as an ensemble is preposterous, and yet they merge into one cultural mosaic which works because the music corresponded. Neither music nor artwork could really be called eclectic, yet both eloquently blend diversities and harmonize differences. This visual unity-in-diversity is strengthened by the interplay of blue, red and yellow on the cover. The clear sky above the panoply of characters is drawn into the middle of the scene by the bright blue of Paul McCartney’s uniform; while the red of the word “Beatles” is resumed in Ringo’s and George’s costumes. One colour infuses from the top down, while the other rises from the foreground upwards, while the centre is grounded by holds of bold optimistic yellow, for example, in Lennon’s clothes, sparks of which are found on various hats and Sonny Liston’s robe.
The cover was governed by the concept of the album: that we’re at a concert performed by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles adopted personas, as it were, and the figures in the mosaic were people who had just heard the performance and were the sorts of celebrities the Band may have appreciated, hence George’s selection of several Indian sages. Blake thought that it might be interesting if the Beatles had also attended the concert, and so he had the wax figures included. But while they can be explained in the context of the album’s concept, those four images extended it tremendously, because to very many people, including myself, they looked as if they were privately at a funeral. The feeling it conveys is more than simply that the past is dead. The sense which I, at any rate, receive, is that the album embraces awareness of life and its passing. And this is not just hype: the grand finale of “A Day in the Life” shows that the Beatles felt something similar and had it in mind. Some writers, such as Timothy Riley, speak of a grave on the cover (Tell Me Why, pp.212-3), but there is no grave, and the flowers which some thought to be a wreath were intended only as a floral guitar. This is not just a detail, I suspect that Riley’s perhaps overly critical comments are occasioned by this misconception. On Sgt. Pepper’s, death is acknowledged, but there is nothing morbid: on the contrary, life is affirmed in the face of passing away.
For all this, the music is and always was primary. It includes some of the Beatles’ greatest songs (I would single out “A Day in the Life” and “With a Little Help from my Friends”). It also boasts the most artistically perfect sound of any record to that time and probably since. Unlike some efforts to jazz up the production with sound-effects, it is not overburdened with forced straining at cleverness (a fault which in my view mars Dark Side of the Moon, witness the pointless tape loops on side 1 and the cash registers on side 2). On Pepper’s, the effects are never an end in themselves; they add interest without stealing attention from the melodies, and pass away almost as soon as they appear. Had the contents of the record been flat, it would not have had the effect that it did.
We now live in a different age, where society seems, more than ever, to be a statistician’s abstraction made up of diverse micro-communities which have few values in common, and frequently do not even communicate without expressing suspicion if not hostility. This has the upshot that not only has there never been anything like Sgt. Pepper’s, but I am minded to think that there never will be. People who are older than I am, tell me that at the time of release Sgt. Pepper’s seemed to be everywhere. Wherever you went, it was being played. Many have commented that this record seemed to have united the Western world for the course of that one splendid summer. And this has a lot of truth in it, but then we should remember that in those days the world could be drawn together. Today, most people have no idea of the music being listened to outside of their own mini-societies. Back then, even bitter, reactionary conservatives knew of the phenomenon that was Pepper’s, and they knew that it was important, even if they saw it as negative. I recall that as late as the early 1970’s, a right wing rag said that previous civilizations had been destroyed by barbarians from without, but ours would be destroyed by barbarians from within, and to illustrate the modern Mongols, had a picture of the Beatles from the Pepper’s epoch on the cover! They hated the Beatles with a passion, but they knew who they were, and, it is so clear now, feared their power and their music. Today, there is no one in youth culture let alone music that commands anything like this recognition. (A good summary of the good Sergeant’s reception is found in Steven Stark’s Meet the Beatles. For example, Kenneth Tynan is quoted as saying that the record was “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization”, p.199).
Pepper’s is unique in sound and content. Even the magnificent Rubber Soul and Revolver, which glory in melodies perhaps even more consistently memorable than those on Pepper, do not possess this quality of both defining and transcending their age. No other album, by the Beatles or anyone else, could have dared and succeeded in capturing what it is to live “A Day in the Life”. And that song worked partly because its message flows in the sound, not being washed up on a coast of words.
The Beatles were remarkable, truly remarkable, for the consistency of the records they made during an intense period, effectively from 1963 to 1969. This should be remembered when they are compared to other acts, such as Elvis Presley who released many times more records over a longer period. In that short period, the Beatles only recorded one dud album: Beatles for Sale. That was followed by Help! While that was, for most people, not as strong as their first three landmark albums (Please, Please Me, then With the Beatles and Hard Day’s Night), Help! was a significant advance on Beatles for Sale, and included two tremendous standards: Lennon’s “Help!” and McCartney’s justly celebrated “Yesterday”. But, for all this, Help!, was a bunch of songs that had to be lumped together in a sequence for want of any other method of getting them onto the vinyl.
The next album, Rubber Soul, showed substantial progress in almost every respect. Although no single song on Rubber Soul is as compelling as the two immortals from Help! (at least not to my ears) the record as a whole hangs together as having an atmosphere, and conveys a mellow mood; mellow but also committed and engaged. The first time I heard it all, many years after its release, I felt: “So that’s what London was like then.” Perhaps I was wrong, but I still hear an organic consistency running through the songs. Not least, Rubber Soul shines with the much under-estimated “Girl” (see part 7 of this series). In a word, the Beatles’ music as a whole had, on this album, matured to a point where the long playing record was more than the sum of its parts. The process of maturing and deepening continued on Revolver, an album which presents some brilliant astoundingly direct music (“Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). Most critics consider Revolver their best album. It is subjective, I know, but musically, I find little to choose between Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. Further, I have a soft spot for Abbey Road and Paul’s tremendous achievement in writing the perfect summation of the Beatles’ career: “and, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love … you make.”
The Beatles had intended that Sgt. Pepper’s include “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”. Had those tracks been on that record, and had “64” which McCartney had written many years before been omitted, it would have more flatteringly reflected their craft at the time of production. Briefly, the weak spot on Pepper’s is side two. It opens with George’s contribution, “Within You, Without You” which has only one flaw, but a serious one: it meanders on for too long. As stated, I am not at all fond of the next two tracks, “64” and “Rita”, which to me are merely Paul being merely clever. Imagine what Sgt. Pepper’s would sound like if “Within You” were shortened, and we had “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” instead of that pair.
John’s song-writing contribution is limited to five tracks: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite”, “Good Morning Good Morning”, “A Day in the Life”, and – with Paul – “A Little Help from my Friends”.
“Lucy” was not written to induce drug taking. Both Julian Lennon and Pete Shotton corroborated Lennon’s story about his drawing a girl from school named Lucy, in an airplane, with diamonds. But of course, this does not mean that John did not surreptitiously use the child’s drawing a cover for drug advocacy. Many people disbelieved Lennon when he said that he was unaware that the first letters of the three nouns spelled “LSD”. But anyone who believes that Lennon would regularly deny drug references when he had admitted and even sung about his drug use on so many other occasions, has no business offering an opinion on Lennon, full stop.
Of course Lennon was under the influence of drugs during the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s and for some time before and after. He never made any bones about this. But he did not write “Lucy” as a pro-drugs song. It is one of those Lennon songs which questions the nature of reality. This questioning came under the influence of many things: the natural sense of wonder we have, especially as children, drugs, and in the case of this song, his reading of Lewis Carroll, who, not incidentally, is on the cover. This questioning was present before Lennon even used marijuana, let alone LSD (see part 7, on “There’s A Place”). I do not believe that Lennon took LSD to escape reality. It seems to me overwhelming that he took LSD because he wanted more reality of a higher order.
As I see it, in songs like “Lucy”, “Rain”, “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am the Walrus”, Lennon was implicitly asking: “is the fantasy of this song not as real to your imagination as most what happens to you in your life”? “Are there not other dimensions of reality that we do not experience?” “Why do we not experience the fullness of reality?” Such questions open many avenues for exploration. I have mentioned some of these in previous blogs. In addition, where Lennon’s signature tune features the instruction “imagine …”, “Lucy” twice invites us to “picture yourself …”. In one, we see “all the people living life in peace”, while in the other “everyone smiles as you drift by the flowers …”. I, for one, don’t see any great gulf between “Lucy” and “Imagine”, although “Imagine” is much the greater song (for example, the chorus in “Lucy” is intruded into the song).
What all of these “reality” songs, and others such as “Across the Universe” have in common is that they draw their magic from Lennon’s belief in the power of the mind, or, if you prefer, of creative imagination. Lennon was deep: he was not just exploring the relationship between the intellectual world and the practical world, as many others, including philosophers and economists do all the time. He was inquiring into the nexus between life as we live and experience it, and our imaginations, meaning here the working of all our projections from within, conscious and unconscious, onto the world outside of us. And this, I think is a vastly more noble and significant enterprise than anything in Western philosophy. In a future blog, I shall deal with Western philosophy, but I think that the point is too important not to avert to it here.
Lennon was not looking for rational foundations for his first principles, which is perhaps not an unfair way to characterize the aim of Western philosophy. Lennon started from where he was, and tried to make it better. He found that many things about his world had been projected there from within, so he starved those projections of some of their psychic oxygen by fashioning new manifestations from within himself in interaction with his surroundings. I am maybe simplifying, but I think it’s a fair simplification. (I think that something much the same can be said for Paul McCartney, and perhaps especially for “Fixing a Hole”, and I may yet explore this if I get to writing about Paul.)
This search of Lennon’s is, I think, the secret of “Being for Benefit of Mr Kite”. “Kite”, like “Lucy”, is a song of a different reality, one engineered by art. Lennon accidentally came across a striking Victorian circus poster. He fashioned from the words of the advertisement a melody that moves in the whimsical way of kites, to the sound of a carnival steam organ. As you listen, you can all but see the kite as it flies, dips, soars, quirkily changes direction and, finally, ascends to the uttermost height of the big top. It has the off-beat but real warmth of the Addams Family. The whole thing seems bizarre, but the actors in this curious spectacle are innocent of any clue that there might be something a little freakish about them. And because they are affectionately innocent, there is not.
“Mr Kite” ends side one of this album perfectly. Not only does the kite soar in the air, far above the earth, but the song is a song of community: “The Hendersons will all be there, late of Pablo Fanques’ Fair. … The Hendersons will dance and sing as Mr Kite flies through the ring. Don’t be late! … A splendid time is guaranteed for all.” When Lennon announces, “And tonight, Mr Kite, is topping the bill!”, the song explodes in aural fireworks, as if a flaming torch had been lit to a box of sky-rockets and catherine wheels. (Some critics find something sinister in “Kite”. All you have to do is look at the expression on Lennon’s face in any of the shoots for the record, more of which have been made available in the 2009 enhanced-CD release. Does he look even remotely sinister?)
By fabricating something crisp, fresh and entertaining, “Mr Kite” removes the slightly maudlin after-taste of Paul’s ballad “She’s Leaving Home” (I find Leander’s orchestration to be heavy handed). The original intention had, apparently, been to end side 1 with “Leaving Home”. Thank heavens for small mercies. If one song on the album resonates with the exuberant magic of Blake’s cover art, it is “Mr Kite”.
Before leaving that, it must be said that sometimes Lennon’s element of cynicism worked like a pinch of cinnamon. In Paul’s “Getting Better”, John chips in from the background: “it couldn’t get any worse”, and so sharpens an edge to the song. But then, that song is a deceptive one. It has a rawness which, many commentators seem to miss, because, I think, it is Paul’s and so they project into it what they think of Paul anyway. Even Riley writes that: “It’s a silly love song, but it’s (Paul’s) most refreshing … What it lacks in sweep it makes up for with infectious lyricism.” I can’t see this at all. On this track, Paul sings: “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man I was mean but I’m changing my scene …”. Now that doesn’t really qualify as a “silly love song” as that phrase is generally taken. It is painful, and one can object that this is Paul’s persona, not Paul. Maybe so, but one can make the effort to absorb what Paul is saying of his alter-ego: he was violent and played power games with his girl-friend. It is neither infectious nor lyrical.
Lennon also contributed to “With a Little Help from my Friends”, an understated song, and also an under-appreciated one, even though it’s generally considered to be a very strong song. It is the only song I know of that deals with the question of loneliness and friendship within the context of an established relationship. “What do I do when my love is away?” Billy Shears (borrowing Ringo’s voice) asks, and then the chorus queries him: “Does it worry you to be alone?” No, he answers, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” So Billy has a “love”, and yet, he feels as if he could be lonely but for his friends, and but for something else – his self. This, I think, is what lies behind the wonderful lines where the chorus ask: “What do you see when you turn out the light?”, setting up Shears’ reply: “I can’t tell you but I know that it’s mine.” This could be a pretty good description of the ineffable feeling of self-in-mystery that comes with “remembering myself”, to use Gurdjieff’s potent phrase. If I recall correctly, Paul, who wrote that line, was unsure of it, but John said words to the effect of: “Keep it in. We don’t know what it means, but we do.”
“Good Morning Good Morning” may have been occasioned by an ad for a yellow food-substitute that generations of hapless consumers have been mis-educated into thinking is a breakfast cereal, but reflects John’s antecedent meditations on the world. Its true soul-mate is Paul’s “Penny Lane”. Like that song, it is a mosaic (that word again) of snapshots from the world. It’s a mosaic and not a congeries of photographs because it bears the overall message of the album: “Yes. Despite everything you can say against it, I say Yes!”. Because the song hangs together as a consistent whole, without breaks in rhythm or melody line, it is harder to spot its picaresque character, but it’s there right before us. The poor man and woman who are objects of the first line are not the objects of the balance of the song: “Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in”. The very next line is addressed to someone else: “How’s your boy been?” Truthfully, Lennon declares, “I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s okay, good morning, good morning.” While the greetings are perfunctory and even robotic, the point is that there is a real person behind them: “Somebody needs to know the time, glad that I’m here.” Habits, grim as they may become, have a sense, have a purpose.
At times, “everyone you see is half asleep”, but later that same day, “everyone you see is full of life.” It’s not just that Lennon found the going hard in the morning, although I believe he did. His final words are “I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s okay, good morning, good morning.” As with “#9 Dream”, he admits that words fail him right now. But he’s not just talking, he’s making music, and the song doesn’t close there. There is a galloping explosion of sounds, similar to that on “Mr Kite” in that both produce an illusion of stored energy being gloriously released. Both songs end with special effects that extend the words and music into humorously managed chaos. I know that some people find a bad humour here, but I have never felt that. My conjecture is that these souls are projecting what they think they know of Lennon into the song. Listening to the brass works and the flair with which Ringo bangs the drums, how could the affirmation of the song as a whole be missed? This is the John Lennon who in that same year was positively impressed by Yoko Ono’s “piece”, where he climbed a ladder to grasp a magnifying glass and read the single word: “Yes”.
John also contributed the bulk of “A Day in the Life”. It may not be a coincidence that the two strongest songs on the record, at least in my opinion, are the two he worked on with Paul: “Life” and “With a Little Help”. The haunting pentatonic melody Lennon produced for the verses rivals, to my ear, the tune of “Yesterday”. However, the contents of the lyrics don’t appeal to cabaret acts, at least not powerfully, and so it isn’t widely covered. I recall, when I was young, some people, then in their late 20s, but who would have been in their late teens in 1967, standing around a piano while someone played this song. When it came to the two transitions from John’s verses to Paul’s snatch of a mini-song (“Woke up. Got out of bed.”), the playing floundered. They had to make-believe that the song flowed (the sole weakness of the song is that it relies too heavily on those two bridges). But whenever they came to the words “I’d love to turn you on”, they did turn on. The sound, the exuberance, the feeling flowing from this little coterie all cranked up. They were, so to speak, turned on. And that is how I always understood those words. Was Lennon referring to drugs? To sex? To human sympathy, or to all of them? Lennon may not have known, or more accurately, may have considered the question a non-question. But, for me, that memory of the “adults” around a piano represents in one vignette the power of this song, and is a reliable key to how to read it and Lennon’s contribution to this extraordinary album.
I have little else to say, but for me, the strength of John’s contribution to this album is not that he balanced Paul’s sweetness (although, as we saw in “Getting Better”, Paul’s sweetness is not so syrupy as one might always think). No, it is that Lennon consistently, on four songs, continued his exploration of the relationship between reality and perception, and, in the end, the results of his search were positive. And, in doing so, he made vivid what so many have said anyway, but few have communicated so well, that consciousness is not apart from reality, but that with one’s attitude, the three form a whole that cannot be broken down into mundane facts on the one hand and sensible opinions (or, when rebuking, not so sensible opinions) on the other.
I have said a lot about context. I think that the importance of context and background is part of the unfathomable nature of associations which Gurdjieff referred to. The power of context is show in one matter which struck me when I was pondering George’s contribution to this record. A lot of George’s credibility came from his being a Beatle. Preachy songs like “Within You, Without You” were received less critically than they would have been without the implied imprimatur of the other Beatles. Context and credibility is why Lennon’s voice is the standout counterpoint on “She’s Leaving Home”. When John sings “We never thought of ourselves, never a thought for ourselves”, you receive the full force of John’s unhappiness with middle-class complacency and its mercantile attitude to affection (I changed your nappies and so you must “love” me). Had George or anyone else sung those words they would have been delivered as a statement of fact. To my mind, apart from the subjective question of whether the melodies and lyrics were any good, those who critique Sgt. Pepper’s too often do so without stepping back and looking at the record as a whole, in its breathing context. Some people analyse it in such fine detail that they lack perspective on what is before them.
In the end, then, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the word “Yes”, spoken with full knowledge of and despite the reality of “No”. It delivered the positive message that life is worthwhile in and through the entire roller-coaster ride of highs and lows, and all the sorrow, pain, joy and delight. Your experience of reality, it says, is at least in part a function of your consciousness. And you have some influence over that.
“For those interested in learning more about the philosophy behind this blog, and Gurdjieff, whose ideas are referred to here, the book ‘George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ by George Adie and Joseph Azize (author of this blog) is available at www.bythewaybooks.com“
JOSEPH AZIZE has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.
“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.