Monday, November 28, 2011

"Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band": The Concept Album that never was. Or was it?

The first in a series by guest blogger, John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He’s had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four and the following post contains his initial musings on the Sgt. Pepper album.

Although Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band has long been considered the original concept album, the first vinyl song collection unified by a central theme, the Beatles asserted decades later that it was not such an item. If it began as one, the idea was allegedly discarded long before Sgt. Pepper hit the record bins. So the flamboyant packaging --  the neon military suits and the collage of famous faces -- plus the Salvation Army Band idea inherent in the album's title were apparently created more for a visual unity than anything else.  Otherwise, said John, Paul, George and Ringo, it was like any other album they'd done, just a miscellaneous collection of tracks.

However, the notion of the Concept lingers on for a couple of good reasons. As someone who was seriously listening to such music at the time, I can attest that it was generally assumed there was some central point to Sgt. Pepper though we seemed to all intuit the Beatles weren’t about to spill it. The belief at the time was that Music should speak without the assistance of footnotes, and it was incumbent upon the listener to derive such value as they could from it by honing their own listening skills.

Secondly, there was the fact that the Beatles followed Sgt. Pepper with an unequivocal, though essentially unsuccessful, concept album/TV film called Magical Mystery Tour. This, in conjunction with the fact that the press at the time was everywhere talking about the Beatles “growing up” suggested they were searching for new and more serious ways of taking Rock music to a new level.

Indeed, there was a distinct sense in the late 60’s that we were “rolling up” for the Mystery Tour, or the Magic Bus, or Jefferson’s Airplane (or numerous other modes of transportation), to discover where Music could go. And Rock music did go on to develop numerous ideas, some silly, some temporarily significant and others that had more lasting value.

Personally, all of this led me to explore other forms of music as well, such as classical music,  Works like Sgt. Pepper, Tommy, several Moody Blues albums and others helped me to see that composers wrote symphonies or concertos (not to mention operas) with a view to developing a musical idea far more substantial than just a simple tune.  And although I’d listened to Sgt. Pepper and pondered it literally hundreds of times, it eventually went by the wayside, as things often do in life. 

But a few years ago -- after the Beatles Anthology came out, and the special about the making of the album—something told me that it was time to give Sgt. Pepper another listen-to, so I went and bought the CD.  And as I came back to it afresh, the question about whether it had a theme wormed in and out of my consciousness.  Now a bit older, a bit more experienced, as I thought on it, it hit me that in fact there was a theme, hiding, as it were in plain sight. It was like one of those trick pictures where your initial stares will allow you to see one thing, but when your eyeballs -- or perspectives -- shift, a whole new picture emerges.

In saying this I’ve no interest in contradicting the Beatles own words.  In repeated interviews that I have seen with each of them, there is a ring of truth in their denials of any purposeful intent with the project. It is clear though that they enjoyed playing with words and with notions, whether or not they seriously felt these ideas or sought to promote them.  Perhaps the theme I see came out of a kind of collective subconscious at work, or maybe it is just pure accident, but I wish to show that it is there, that it is a profoundly moving idea, and that in conjunction with incredible songs and musicianship, it is a magnificent work of art. 

Of course, if there is a theme to the whole work, which none of them were aware of at the time, and which none of them ever perceived, I suppose there is a question of whether or not art can be considered great art if the point of it is not even understood by the artist at the time of creating it. That is a question for someone else to address.  Personally, I think the end result would have been very hard to have contrived, so the idea actually ‘works’ better being unperceived. 

And what is this theme? It is too simple: “Lonely Hearts”. Or maybe it is better phrased the way George put it: “the space between us all.” The entire record is a catalogue of people who fail to connect with the social world around them, or of people whose social world is either unhealthy, fractured or just plain non-existent.  Plus, they are in the main clueless about what they are doing: “they don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”  Let’s go through the various tracks of the record and I will show you what I mean.

Next: "A Little Help From My Friends"

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