We will likely never be rid of the monumental influence of The Beatles, but does the cultural and political legacy of their seminal and most highly celebrated work have much to offer in the 21st century?
“I read the news today, oh boy…”
These immortal lines feel all-too familiar for any bleeding-heart, leftie-liberal (or, in a nutshell, student). For many, it is especially easy to look at the state of the world and despair. Yet this often-self-indulgent tendency is nonetheless marked by, and perhaps engendered through, an inescapable gloss of nostalgia. The inviting and enticing aura of Peter Blake’s iconic cover sleeve for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, in all its technicolour glory, therefore remains so irresistible to the millennial eye.
It is easy to forget its context: Vietnam; the Civil Rights Movement; the criminality of homosexuality and so on. There is very little to glean from history that the Sixties were any rosier for the many than today in 2017. Yet the political and cultural epoch that the Beatles, Sgt Pepper especially, have come to represent leaves a contentious legacy that gives us little better understanding of where we are right now: the UK sailing away from the continent, an orange megaphone for everything the Sixties stood against sitting in the White House, and the same gargantuan Russian bear overlooking a fractured Europe in an age of digital detachment. All of this crystallised by atrocious acts of terror.
If anything, the returning celebration of an album that, in the banal yet immortal words of Ringo Starr, cemented the Beatles’ enduring image as messengers of ‘Peace and Love’, can only reinforce how far we have turned away from the acid-induced kaleidoscope philosophy of that era. Though ‘flower power’ came to symbolise everything contrived and hackneyed about the Sixties that history has come to disdain, the flame of social progression at the heart of 60s counterculture, though perhaps more of a glimmer, is decisively alive, both guided and misguided (particularly in the protests we have seen in recent months).
I digress. What is perhaps ironic about the fact that Sgt. Pepper has historically taken ownership over hippie counterculture is simply its innocuous nature – at face value, it is by no means a hippie album in the conventional sense. There is no protest, no mention of free love, sex, flowers, even Peace (“Peace of mind” is the nearest we get). Its melodies are lush and ingenious, the lyrics naively but steadfastly romantic. The structure of Sgt Pepper is, however, predominantly conservative, dominated by a sweet and delicate composure that contrasts wildly in terms of genre and politics; the rollicking, violent blaze of “Revolution”, their most political release, would not appear until over a year after the release of Sgt. Pepper.
This composure is largely down to the emerging dominance of McCartney, determined to create a slick studio operation hell-bent on smashing the Beatles’ pop-star image through the concept of a travelling band, more colourful, audacious and grown-up than the mop-tops that preceded them. With Lennon enthralled with psychedelic drugs, and George Harrison by Eastern philosophy (not forgetting Ringo, with drums), the album fluctuates between this desire for a clean, jaunty sound and a bolder and more esoteric scope, yet never afraid of inhabiting the intimate spaces that the band’s reputation is immortally bonded to. Arguably, however, only two songs serve as perhaps purely psychedelic anthems. It is these same songs that have made Sgt. Pepper an emblem of what we remember as psychedelia. The album thus becomes a clean and ecstatic marriage of these two wildly distinct but never divergent minds; McCartney’s emergent authority as a craftsman of taut, melodic and unashamedly earnest tunes is pitched against the sprawling, epic latitude of George Harrison’s manifesto of Eastern philosophy, “Within You, Without You”, and, unforgettably, the chilling detachment of Lennon’s “A Day in the Life”.
Formally, the album deserves its longstanding reputation in terms of varying tone and breathtakingly fluid pace that is ultimately indebted to the insistence of McCartney’s smorgasbord approach. We glimpse the piercingly exquisite string heartbreak of domestic middle England in “She’s Leaving Home”, unbridled optimism and the jaunty haze of Macca’s stoned musings placed back-to-back (“Getting Better”/ “Fixing a Hole”). Not to mention the album’s most contentious track: the notoriously twee but inescapably addictive melody of Paul’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”. Topped off by the apex of Pepper’s unparalleled flair for harmony, the spread is jubilant, delectable, and infused with that infamous Scouse drawl in “Lovely Rita”. Though all of this is a far cry from ‘free love’, Paul’s staple tunes feel inescapably nostalgic (though this is no fundamental flaw), with the only substantial lyrical content able to cut through to our modern divided Kingdom being perhaps that piercing elegy to the innocent nuclear family, “She’s Leaving Home”. Similarly, Lennon’s input can’t escape the album’s charmed experimentation with themes from a bygone England, even in 1967. The Lewis Carroll-infused lysergic cornucopia of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ signals, by no mean feat, the mastery of the studio sound which began with “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver (1966) and reaches its kaleidoscopic apex with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” – inspired by another relic of the Victorian circus.
Yet if the enduring legacy of Pepper is to be this bold, audacious scope and diversity of craft, interspersed with tightly wound, unforgettable hooks and poetic trickery (see ‘Fixing A Hole’), for an album reaching fifty it can only serve as the exemplar of a flourishing pop scene under the Beatles’ regime that defined the Sixties. Ultimately, if the celebration of this distant, radical era can only be truly ranked for the crumbs of relevance it offers to our both careworn and careless generation, the answer lies perhaps in the album’s monumental closing track.
While ‘Within You, Without You’ is George Harrison’s only composition on the album, it, coming slap bang in the middle, shrouds Sgt. Pepper with an Eastern mystique that is perhaps the only conscious example of the transcendental idealism that would come to define the countercultural epoch’s philosophical legacy. Nevertheless, though it sheds none of its majestic Eastern psychedelia, it consequently leaves a sense of philosophical wanting. Fortunately, ‘A Day in the Life’ manages to address this contemporary need for a more imaginative approach to culture, society and the world – even if its central glow is one of playful disenchantment.
“I read the news today, oh boy…”
The genius of Lennon’s sardonic and unearthly confusion at the phantasmagoria of contemporary life is indebted to its potency – perhaps even its universality. Even if we replace the charming absurdities of his “four-thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire…” (which, of course, came straight from the Daily Mail), Lennon’s lyrics still effortlessly capture the jaded reaction of a glance at the absurdity of modern life, a reaction even more inescapable today. Yet despite the sceptical afterglow of ‘A Day in the Life’, Sgt. Pepper as a whole exudes a near-eternal joy, an unparalleled and unbridled optimism that ultimately came to define that ‘high watermark’ of the Sixties so poetically captured through the words of Hunter S. Thompson.
This ultimate strength of Sgt. Pepper’s thematic structure cements its status as not merely a classic of the radical era, but also within a distinctly British tradition, even as it moves beyond the fray and towards the East. Though Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band intelligently eschews the traditional conception of the Sixties’ hippie idealism after all, what will ultimately determine its relevance to modern music (beyond being a staple, rightly or wrongly, of the ‘the greatest’ canon) is the potency and currency of its defining traits; the cocktail of spirited tradition, profound perceptiveness, and the addictive delight of its rowdy euphoria, discloses its most poignant relevance to the modern mind; an insistence on our own personal resolve, especially in the face of a whirlwind of confusion. Though we may never truly feel a sense of being a great, revolutionary mass on the precipice of something better, the idealism that the Beatles, above all, seemed to value so crucially is perhaps the most pragmatic option we can take. The reverberation of the thunderous E-chord that closes their most adventurous work, thankfully, is still murmuring.