Fifty years ago on Thursday, The Beatles released their eighth studio album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Widely regarded as a masterpiece, Sgt Pepper was the last album the quartet conceived and executed in relative harmony before their manager Brian Epstein’s death by overdose precipitated a long and acrimonious break-up. Their final three albums, while intermittently brilliant, lacked the cohesiveness of Sgt Pepper.
Though they were veterans by the time their most celebrated album hit the stores, with a catalogue comparable to that of songwriters who had plied their trade for decades, the Beatles were absurdly young: John Lennon and Ringo Starr were 26 years old, Paul McCartney just shy of 25, and George Harrison had turned 24 that February. There will be plenty published about their achievement this week by people who understand music better than I do, so I will focus on what I comprehend best, which is words. And I will look at their words through the filter of the first pop musician to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
A matter of words
At the start of their career, the Beatles sang other peoples’ words, as all bands did then and most do now. Even as teenagers, though, John and Paul had composed their own lyrics, and soon felt confident enough to give the public a taste. By the time their fourth album, A Hard Day’s Night, came out, they had eliminated other peoples’ words entirely in favour of their own. All songs in that album were credited to Lennon-McCartney, and the baby of the group, George Harrison, would soon reveal song-writing skills of his own.
The tunes they composed were catchy and quirky, but essentially a bunch of silly love songs (Paul McCartney would defend such songs in a chart-topping number with his post-Beatles band, Wings). In 1964, in the midst of a tour confirming their status as the world’s most popular band, the Beatles heard an album titled The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by a songwriter as young as themselves, and were blown away. Rhymes like “I’ve been working like a dog/I should be sleeping like a log” from A Hard Day’s Night must have seemed trivial faced with the lyrics of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall:
“I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison”
Impelled by Dylan, though by no means only by him, Lennon and McCartney broadened the scope of their subject matter. They became great lyricists in their own right rather than poor imitators of an inimitable voice. Dylan’s prophetic, apocalyptic manner is free of any specific historical reference. That allows A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to seem as contemporary today as it did half a century ago. The song was taken as prophesying nuclear war then, and is read today in relation to environmental catastrophe, but it refers directly neither to geopolitics nor green activism. The Beatles took a long and winding road in the other direction. It led to their home, but a home that wasn’t quite the one they left behind. Sgt Pepper is, above all, an album about England and English life. It looks fondly at traditional entertainments: the music hall, the circus, the carnival, and the brass band (in the songs Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite). It casts a half-nostalgic, half-acerbic eye at simple pleasures and relationships (When I’m Sixty-Four, Lovely Rita, Good Morning and A Day In The Life). It welcomes winds of change in the form of women’s empowerment (She’s Leaving Home) and a politically tinged, India-inflected mysticism (Within You, Without You, George Harrison’s contribution to the album, featuring the most coherent use of Indian music forms by a non-Indian composer till that point). And it refers to extraordinary states of mind induced by hallucinogens.
This last aspect of the album has been given the greatest prominence in most interpretations of the album. The BBC banned three songs for alleged drug references, Fixing a Hole, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life, though it allowed Ringo to sing on radio about getting high with a little help from friends. Ever since, commentators have occupied themselves with questions like: Is the title of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds a sly reference to LSD? Is Henry the Horse, the one who dances the waltz, slang for heroin?
The questions are pointless, and have warped the album’s reception for all time. There’s no doubt that the Beatles’ experience with drugs made its way into their songs. We don’t need to look for hidden messages in the title to understand that the dreamy atmosphere of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is probably drug-induced. But an Indian on an LSD trip is unlikely to see rocking horse people, marshmallow pies, newspaper taxis, and plasticine Porters with looking-glass ties. John Lennon’s drug dream is a very British one, and one obviously from a past era. I suppose cellophane still fascinates children, maybe they even play with plasticine, I wouldn’t know. But nobody any longer makes paper boats and sets them sailing on rainwater as it runs to the drain. I haven’t seen a kid do that in over a dozen Bombay monsoons. And I’m pretty sure British kids gave up on that before we Indians did, just as they swapped summer cottages in the Isle of Wight for package holidays to Tenerife and Ibiza.
The specificity of place and time makes Sgt Pepper a period piece, unlike Dylan’s songs. In some ways, I see it as analogous to the paintings of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer painted interiors, domestic scenes, seemingly trivial encounters. But the rooms he painted contained world maps and globes, and were illuminated with a light that spoke of an entire world of adventure at a time when the Netherlands was the world’s most advanced economy. It was overtaken by Britain, which became the world’s greatest power while retaining its insularity (“insula”, after all, means “island”). The songs of Sgt Pepper are about that insular world, about mundane incidents and small lives touched with intimations of radical change, heightened states of mind, and fundamentally altered perceptions.
The shifts between planes of existence dramatised in the album are easy to ignore because Lennon and McCartney were such consummate versifiers. Sgt Pepper is perhaps the most metrically perfect set of pop songs you will ever encounter. Much of the most renowned poetry in the English language is iambic, which means it is composed of “feet” that have two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. A Day In The Life provides an excellent example of iambic verse. I have highlighted the stressed syllables in bold.
“I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well 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”
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds uses a dactylic meter, in which the foot consists of an accented syllable followed by two unaccented ones:
“Picture yourself on a train in a station with Plasticine porters with looking-glass ties
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes”
Getting Better reverses the pattern, employing anapests, two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.
“I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”
I cringe often while listening to pop and rock songs, for there’s always a word inserted with too many syllables, or too few, destroying the rhythm. In this respect, the Beatles are Dylan’s superiors. He has never cared to smooth out jarring, unmusical words. An example is the word “executioner” in the line, “Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden”, from A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.
Lennon and McCartney were also peerless at providing sharply defined images. Consider these lines from She’s Leaving Home, which read like a precise shot-breakdown for a film, complete with a sense of the light and of whether the frame is a close-up or a wide angle:
“Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more
She goes downstairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief
Quietly turning the backdoor key
Stepping outside she is free
“Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown
Picks up the letter that’s lying there
Standing alone at the top of the stairs
She breaks down and cries to her husband ‘Daddy our baby’s gone’”
Sgt Pepper is often called a concept album, sometimes the first concept album of all time. That’s an exaggeration. The concept, such as there is, is a very loose one indeed. What’s true, however, is that the album begs to be heard as an album, in a particular song order. It contains very few songs that stand out on their own, perhaps only Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life. Tunes like Lovely Rita, When I’m Sixty-Four, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, Fixing a Hole, and Good Morning are slight efforts by themselves. I’ve heard them off and on over the years, and grown to like them less, and fell out of love with the album as a consequence. But I heard the entire group in preparation for this column, and fell in love with it all over again. It is far more than the sum of its parts, and has dated in the best way, becoming an extraordinary representation of a particular time and place in the manner of Vermeer’s paintings and James Joyce’s short stories.