Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A Day in the Life

Cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It was c. 43 years ago that the Beatles came out with perhaps the greatest Rock album ever. I am of course referring to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When it was released in 1967 it was greeted with a flurry of positive reviews and quite massive sales along with a blizzard of incomprehension. After all this was a Rock album and since when did Rock musicians try to produce musical art?

Well in the case of the Beatles anyone who was paying attention would have realized that within the confines of that particular commercial art form the Beatles had been trying to produce “art” for quite some time. After all the Beatles had tried to expand the boundaries of what they were doing for quite some time. Such simple tricks as sometimes having the Bass guitar lead or changing the lead singer during a song were things the Beatles were doing from early on. Beneath the top 40, boy meets girl commercial sensibilities of the early Beatles was musical art trying to be unleashed.

The Beatles were also fortunate in encountering George Martin, nicknamed the 5th Beatle, who proved to be a musical genius who had a pretty good idea of what the Beatles were about and tried very hard to carry out what the Beatles wanted and realized that the Beatles were not just pop singers but serious musicians.1

Even in the early stuff we got such songs as In my Life, a decidedly serious and musically only superficially simple song that may be one of the best if not the best pop song produced between 1900 and 2000. There was also the innovative Rubber Soul and Revolver albums and such material as the Sitar enhanced, trippy Norwegian Wood. In Sgt. Pepper’s... the Beatles decided to go whole hog for both commercial and artistic success, within the commercial constraints of popular music.

Now the commercial constraints of popular music in those days were pretty severe. Basically albums had to be collections of boy meets girl love songs, and each song hopefully under 3 minutes so they could gets lots of air play on top 40 stations and sell lots of records. Further albums were considered vehicles for selling top 40 hits and any material on the album not ear marked for top 40 hits was simple filler. Also of course albums were definitely not considered as works of musical art to be conceived as a whole.

There had been efforts to move Albums and pop music in a more serious direction and to conceive of albums as works of musical art as a whole. For example The Beach Boy’s classic Album Pet Sounds,2 was a very determined effort in this direction. In fact the album Pet Sounds is considered to be one of the great rock albums. Unfortunately the album ran into critics and buyers who simply went “What the fuck is that!!”, and album was initially a sort of dud. It has since gained, deservedly so, high status / prestige.

The entire Sgt. Pepper’s... album was conceived as a whole. Even the cover was conceived as a serious work of art that integrated with the music. With its innovative use of colour and its mass audience of famous figures, (Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Oscar Wilde etc.), and its deliberate duplication of the Beatles in their old form and then in their incarnation as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even such jokes as having the Beatles name spelled out with marijuana plants above it. Including such little tricks as having an insert of cut outs and printing the lyrics on the back. Printing lyrics with a pop album was not very common, and in fact I’m not sure if it had happened before. Printing the lyrics did indicate that the Beatles wanted people to pay attention to what they were singing not just the music. After Sgt. Pepper’s... it became almost de-rigure to print the lyrics with a pop album. Musically, the Beatles employed an orchestra and continued their exploration of the limits of popular music.3

The album was built around the concept of a Band concert in which an old well established band performs apparently for a group of middle aged / senior citizens. It as about it the faint air of nostalgia and the crushing ennui of modern life and the desperate effort of so many to escape boredom and loss.

The opening tune sets the stage for the concert.
It was twenty years ago today Sgt. Peppers taught the band to play
And we’ve been going in out of style but we're guaranteed to raise a smile…4
Of course the raise the smile aspect is ironic. This is not a happy album.

After the opening we get A Little Help from my Friends, were we learn that in the doldrums of life friends help and then if you really need it you can:

Get high with a little help from my Friends.
Get by with a little help from my friends.5
I don’t think the Beatles are referring just to drugs here but to how necessary friends are in making life endurable, but the undertone is one of barely repressed pessimism. Friends don’t make life great just bearable.

The third piece Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, has produced a whole myth of inspiration. The idea being that the song is about LSD, (Lucy, Sky, Diamonds). The notion is patently ludicrous. It appears that John’s son Julian had a friend in his school named Lucy and he drew a picture of her on a horse and John asked what the picture was, Julian replied “It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds”. That the song is associated with drugs is not a surprise given its surreal imagery which indicates a longing to escape drab contemporary life.6

Newspaper Taxis appear on the shore waiting to take you away.
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds and your gone!7
Getting Better, is a faux optimistic song about self delusion. In the face of reality the narrator of the song insists that life is getting better when it is not. The narrator insists things are getting better and even pooh-poohs his own bad behaviour. Self delusion at a high level for example.

I used to be mad at my women.
I’d beat her and kept her apart from the things she loved.8
Fixing a Hole, is another song about dreary, drab modern life.

I’m fixing a hole where the rain comes in
To stop my mind from wondering where it will go?9
It isn’t clear why he is doing it; is it just to keep himself from going crazy from boredom or because he doesn’t want water damage?

The next song, She’s Leaving Home, about a young women running away from home to be with someone else makes it very clear that she is running away from home to get away from something not to run towards something. The home is loveless and in a few economical lines that is conveyed:

She’s leaving home; after living alone.
For so many years.10
For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, is a rather strange piece of work, obviously a parody of the novelty song it is however not a fun novelty song. It has in it a strong under current of sheer desperation; of the search for excitement and novelty at any price. The narrator sounds fanatic, almost hysterical in his effort to drum up excitement in what seems to a collection of rather ho-hum novelty acts, but he can’t quite escape not sounding bored with the whole damn thing!

…and of course Henry the Horse dances a Waltz!!11

Within You, Without You, is about the desperate but quiet and determined efforts of the narrator to connect with someone. I presume the women he loves and how these efforts always fall short.

We were talking about the space between us and the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion and never glimpse the truth. Then it is far too late and then they pass away.12
With its Indian melody and sitar playing the song evokes an other worldly feel. Amazingly for all the song’s frustration with the inability of the narrator to really communicate with his love, it is optimistic in that resolution is possible if you live with out illusion.

When you see beyond yourself
Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.13
When I’m Sixty-Four, is on the surface a fun silly little song, sort of like the crap Paul McCarthy wrote after leaving the Beatles. That is just what it appears to be in reality it is being there for someone else. In this case it is old age. Not many people in their twenties and thirties think about what life might be like for them in old age. Behind the jolly melodies of the tune is a crushing fear of loneliness and abandonment.

Will you still need me.
Will you still feed me.
When I’m sixty-four!14
Lovely Rita Meter Maid, is another superficially happy tune that isn’t really about love but about desperation and the longing for novelty. In the song our narrator is apparently a bit of a gigolo and out for his own satisfaction.

Got the bill and Rita paid it.
Took her home and nearly made it.
Sitting at home with a sister or two.15
Good Morning, Good Morning, is another “happy” tune about the narrator who is desperately trying to get through his day.

Going to work.
Don’t want to go feeling low down.
Heading for home you start to roam then your in town.
Everybody knows there’s nothing doing.
Everything’s closed its like a ruin.16
Work is destroying his spirit and so is the soulless nature of his life and experience. However our narrator puts a brave face on it.

I’ve got nothing to say,
But its okay!
Good Morning! Good Morning!17
Then there is a reprise of the first song:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band,
we hope you have enjoyed the show.
Sgt Pepper’s lonely Hearts Club Band,
we’re sorry but we have to go.18
However the audience wants an encore and gets it.

The encore, A Day in the Life, is considered by many to be one of the finest pieces of pop music ever written. The song is also almost relentlessly downbeat and filled with existential ennui. It is a primer in disillusionment. The narrator is profoundly fed up with life in the modern world. He is beyond angry with it anymore; he is simply thoroughly tired of the whole thing.

I read the news today, Oh Boy,
About a lucky man who made the grade.
Though the news was rather sad,
I just had to laugh.
I saw the photograph.
He blew his mind out in a car.
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed.19
Occasionally through the song a random thought passes through our narrator’s head, meaning nothing in particular but indicating a longing for some real feeling in his life.

I love to turn you on.20
Later the song gets back to the omnipresent ennui of modern life and the desperate effort to generate some sort of excitement into it.

I read the news today, Oh Boy,
4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire.
And though the holes were rather small.
They had to count them all.
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall!21
The above piece of apparent nonsense was inspired by a real newspaper piece about 4000 holes in Lancashire that were apparently measured and found to be about the size of the Albert Hall and this was actually reported as news. Apparently the Beatles were struck how this piece of mindless crud showed the ennui of modern life and it helped to inspire this song.

The song ends on a crashing cord / crescendo that ironically counterpoints both the song and an album that is about the ennui and soul destroying boredom of modern life.

Since then the concept album has gone in all sorts of directions but it is arguable that it has never been done better.22.

1. George Martin, Wikipedia, Here.

2. Pet Sounds, Wikipedia, Here.

3. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Wikipedia, Here.

4. From Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, (hereafter Sgt.) From song Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

5. From Sgt., song I Get by with a Little Help From my Friends.

6. See Footnote 3. I am also relying on my memory.

7. Sgt., song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

8. IBID, Getting Better.

9. IBID, song Fixing a Hole.

10. IBID, song She’s Leaving Home.

11. IBID, song For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.

12. IBID, song, Within You, Without You.

13. IBID.

14. IBID, song When I’m Sixty-Four.

15. IBID, song Lovely Rita Meter Maid.

16. IBID, song Good morning, Good Morning.

17. IBID.

18. IBID, song Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Reprise.

19. IBID, song, A Day in the Life.

20. IBID.

21. IBID.

22. There is a British music magazine, which shall remain nameless, that listed Sgt. Pepper’s... as the 50th best rock album ever made. Considering what they thought was better, for example such tripe as the Bee Gees, one doesn’t quite know what to say to such know nothingness. If they had not ranked the Sgt. Pepper’s... as the best no particular problem. However 50th indicates a very determined effort to go against the grain and downplay the album.

Pierre Cloutier

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