Sunday, December 18, 2011

When I'm Sixty-Four (ninth in a series)

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

The ninth 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. On the face of it, this just seems like Paul trying to capture the feel of British dance hall music, the British equivalent of America’s Tin Pan Alley.  He does a good job of it.  I know, because my parents liked it, and adults sang it on TV variety shows in the Sixties.  And Paul himself says (if reference to this song) that his earliest visions of being a songwriter had him writing stuff for Frank Sinatra, not writing rock and roll songs.

But even back in the Sixties people were pointing out that this song wasn’t what it seemed.  Although it begins as if it is an older man talking to his wife of so many years, thinking about the future and planning for retirement, the last verse lets the cat out of the bag:

Send me a postcard, drop me a line stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say, yours sincerely wasting away
Give me your answer fill in a form, mine for evermore.
Will you still need me will still feed me, when I’m sixty-four.

In other words, the whole thing was a lonely-hearts advertisement.  What is a lonely hearts club, anyway?  It is the pre-internet pre-computer version of something like E-Harmony, or an internet portal dating page.  People who through normal channels were not succeeding in connecting with a life’s partner would join a club—or advertise in certain kinds of magazines—that promised to increase their chances of connecting with that certain someone.  And by the very nature of this, the participants in these clubs tended to be somewhat older than the usual dating crowd.

So the voice here is of a gentleman providing the details for his dating profile—his tastes, his habits, even the names of his grandchildren.  He seems a widower or divorc√© in his mid fifties: he is a grandfather, but doesn’t anticipate losing his hair until “many years from now”.  And in the same quaint, slightly-coded fashion, he is asking any potential respondents (who will “be older, too”) to reply with similar information.  It is enormously clever, and all tongue in cheek, but imbued with a kind of sadness, if nothing else just because it is so chipper. 

The dance-hall gimmick actually hid the truth pretty well, because at the beginning the singer is saying things that we would have thought our oldsters would have said.  And when compared to old, old standards like “Silver Threads Among the Gold”, with the sense that growing old together was the height of romantic expectation, the ruse probably even took in our parents.

What is fascinating is that it seems to have taken in even the Beatles themselves, including Paul, who both wrote this and came up with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band idea.  This song is noted as the earliest of the Sgt. Pepper songs recorded (December, 1966).  It even predates "Penny Lane" (though not “Strawberry Fields”). If, as they say, they had a concept in mind at the beginning, but later abandoned it, it stretches credulity to think they didn’t see a connection.

But none of them has ever admitted such a connection.  This song is always explained as just a simple ditty of Paul’s that he had been playing around with for some time.  I guess we must conclude one should never underestimate the power of the subconscious mind, both to carry on ideas as well as block awareness of them to the conscious mind.

Next: "Lovely Rita" 

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