Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite (seventh in a series)

Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?

The seventh in a series by 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's music.

I always thought was one of John’s best songs: it was inventive, unusual, and fun to listen to.  I always took as the musical equivalent of a man’s business card.  It is at least advertising copy, written in a day when the English language was still being used, as Henry Higgins would say.  But it always seemed to me that John meant it as social comment, given the way he executed the “in this way Mr. K will challenge the world” at the end of the first verse.  He gives a kind of shimmering emphasis to the last word. 

Of course, at the time, we didn’t all have internet access to a copy of the poster that was his inspiration for this.  I thought maybe he added that line, but it is clearly on the original poster, though in a different sense.  On the poster, the challenge is in relation to “this branch of the profession.”  But I believed at the time—and still feel—that John meant it in an absolute sense.  At a time in life where I was figuring out what I wanted to do, this song moved me to hope that I could hand out a card that said I did something more meaningful than jump “over men and horses hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire.”

Over the years I have reacted to “Messrs. K and H” in different ways.  There was a long time when I viewed them with a kind of pity.  The whole picture being presented had a very “much ado about nothing” feel to it.  Sometimes I would think of them as being puffed up and self-important over basically doing nothing more than a bunch of somersaults.  But on other occasions I would think of them more charitably, as people trying to carve out a little something for themselves as best they could with the skills they had.  I wonder which way John meant it?

But from any angle it seems we are looking at the spectacle of a couple of blokes whose jobs have swallowed their personalities whole, and what they are now is the litany of the various acrobatic stunts they are able to perform.  A splendid time may be guaranteed for all, but how about for them?  Is this a life?  Someone familiar with the circus acts of this era can comment on whether such work was degrading, or not, etc., But it would seem there is a more universal question in all this, about whether we are able to maintain a perspective in which “what we do” is only a subset of  “who we are”.   

This song concluded the first side of the original LP, and I would point out an interesting part of the experience of the Sgt. Pepper LP that those of you who only ever heard it on CD or tapes may have never experienced. 

Back in the day, you had to get up and turn the record over after “Mr. Kite”.  There really was no way for it to happen automatically.  There were record changers, to be sure.   You could stack up to about 5 LP’s on the spindle, and after one side finished, it would drop the next one onto the turntable and start it.  But unless you had two copies of the LP and arranged them just so on the spindle, the record would stop and you had to walk over and turn the record.  (Most discriminating buyers avoided those devices by the late 60’s: they could damage your precious records).      

And the break in the action brought about by this allowed you time to reflect.  The first side of the album had proceeded at a relentless pace.  Sgt. Pepper didn’t have the usual long breaks between tracks that were typical on albums of this era—the tracks flowed together as one.  I don’t mean it was hasty, but it was just gripping, compelling, and it barely gave you time to digest it all.  By the time you got to the end of the first side, with the heady trailing off and final echo of the calliope, you became aware of two things.  First, you were breathless or speechless (or both), and secondly, there was the first silence you had experienced in about 20 minutes.  Now all the thoughts, questions, and images of the characters, kept at bay during march of the music, had an opportunity to flood back into your mind as you walked over, lifted the cover and turned the record.

Next: "Within You Without You."


  1. For the original Victorian circus poster John Lennon created the song from:

    But why did Lennon change the Horse's name to Harry? Xanthus is such a lovely name.

  2. I was reminded of record changers just the other day as I got out my double album Nutcracker Suite. Sides 1 and 4 are on one LP and sides 2 and 3 on the other, so the whole stack could be turned over without being reorganized. This was certainly more common in classical music than rock.