"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" / The Beatles
The British Invasion began with the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearance in February 1964; it ended in June 1967 when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not twenty years ago today, but twice that – forty years ago today. After that, there was no dividing music into British vs American – there was just the Beatles on one hand and everyone else on the other.
By now endless amounts have been written about this iconic album, but here the deal is one song at a time. And as it happens, that may be the best way to look at it. Sgt. Pepper is more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are pretty damn fine on their own.
Actually, I’m starting with two songs: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and its reprise, nearly at the end of Side 2. (That “nearly” will become important.) The first one kicks off the contrived conceit of this album – that it’s not by the Beatles, but by a mustachioed military brass band in braided satin uniforms. (Did anybody believe that?) So we start with the audience’s pre-concert mutterings, instruments tuning up, abruptly cut off by a thumping drumbeat and some crunchy guitars. I always think of this as an oom-pah song – that tuba in the bridge is so memorable -- but in fact this intro is straight on rock music. We don’t get the brass going until the middle eight, along with some obviously canned crowd laughter.
What we do get is Paul, in his R&B testifying mode, delivering a pack of statements that clearly could NOT apply to the Beatles – that the band was founded “twenty years ago today”, that “they’ve been going in and out of style,” that the singer’s name is Billy Shears. With the Beatles at the peak of their unprecedented fame, self-effacing remarks like “they’re guaranteed to raise a smile” and “we hope you will enjoy the show” come with a very broad wink – and, considering how the Beatles had to constantly try to escape their fans, you gotta smile at the ingenuous “You’re such a lovely audience / We’d like to take you home with us.” But that invitation -- the offer to be part of the Beatles’ inner circle -- is a constant motif throughout the album, winding up on the last track with John’s offer “I’d love to turn you on”.
Skip now to the reprise, where the drumbeat is much more frenetic, all high-hat and cymbals, the guitars ripping off fuzzy licks unheard-of in the first go-round. The reprise only lasts a minute or so – it’s just there to close the bracket, to complete this framing device. I’ve always been struck, though, by how often they repeat the line “Sergeant Pepper’s lonely,” powering it through a key shift and rise in volume. In the first version, that same line was just a stutter leading into the complete band name; here I picture Sergeant Pepper anxiously scanning the crowd for someone to warm his bed. By now we’ve had ten other tracks about people struggling to connect with others – that loneliness of Sergeant Pepper brings the humanity of the band (and the Beatles) into sharp relief.
As all good concert-goers know, there’s always an encore -- in this case, “A Day In The Life,” perhaps the album’s most disturbing and beautiful number. I’ll get to that in a few days, but it’s worth wondering now -- WHO is supposed to be singing this song? Billy Shears? Lonely Sergeant Pepper? Or is it the Beatles themselves, back in their street clothes, having shooed away the fake band? Something to ponder…the Beatles always gave us something to ponder.