Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?
The eleventh 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.
The story on this song is that the basic phrase and the rooster crowing were taken from a Kellogs Corn Flake commercial. And while the actual commercial has a light touch and an inviting, welcoming tone to it, this song is edgy and even somewhat disturbing. I mean, how cheerio can a song be that begins with the line “Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in”, followed by the rather desultory “Nothing to say but ‘what a day how’s your boy been?’”
The song goes on to describe the day of a person who seems either depressed or just generally aimless. He has no purpose, seems to have nothing important to do (he goes to work, but not with any relish, and nothing seems to happen), and afterward he seems to wander from thing to thing, distracted by whatever strikes his fancy. And his take on everything is “I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s OK.”
All of this is accompanied a musical package that borders on ugliness. I contend there is no such thing as a truly ugly Beatles song. Well, I might concede an argument for “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”. But even some rather intense numbers like “Helter Skelter” have a kind of beauty buried in all the noise. But this song, with its almost overbearing saxophone work, incessantly repeating chorus line (“Good morning, good morning, good”) and chalk on chalkboard guitar solos (by Paul, I gather) comes pretty close. The result seems like a cheery song on amphetamines, a true manic-depressive opus.
In fact, I think “Good Morning, Good Morning” was responsible for generating one notable negative review the album got at its release. Richard Goldstein of the New York Times called Sgt. Pepper “an over-attended child…It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises, and a 41-piece orchestra”. But after being criticized for his review he said, "Other than one cut which I detest ("Good Morning, Good Morning"), I find the album better than 80 per cent of the music around today”. So it seems a safe bet that this song was at the heart of his dislike of the album.
But according to what I am purporting, his dislike missed the point. This song is the way it is by design, subconscious or otherwise. The evidence suggests John put a lot of thought into this song, from the choice of the horn section to the sequence of the animal noises at the end. The song wasn’t trying to be beautiful, because it is describing something completely the opposite.
The character sketches that have made up the album until now (except “Within You Without You”) have addressed various kinds of loneliness, human separation or social breakdown, but have been thought provoking, compassion-inspiring, even profound. And although there will be a couple more brief sketches in “A Day in the Life”, this is really the last of the bunch. But it has no appeal. Anyone who has ever found themselves in this mindset can testify to what a barren, God forsaken ‘space’ this person inhabits. Call it “the ugly side of loneliness”.
We can tend to romanticize loneliness. In a similar sense, I have the impression that movies and TV in the Fifties and Sixties, tried to romanticize drunkenness. It was always given a charming, often comical, aspect. Every actor had their comic intoxicated routine, and Otis on the Andy Griffith Show was a lovable old coot. But later I found myself living in a cheap apartment building next door to a succession of people deep into alcohol problems, and I learned there was nothing charming about it at all. All the color and goodness of such people’s personality was gone. What was left was flat, lifeless, conniving and sometimes dangerous. Or hysterical. Or paranoid. At times, no matter how much you wanted to, it was hard to maintain any compassion for some of them.
That is what I see this song conveying. It is where a life ends up after whatever it is that is wrong with our culture is allowed to run its course. It robs a person of any essential goodness, of humanity, until, I suppose, we end up no better than animals. Maybe, then, it is not just a random notion that this last in a series of character sketches concludes with a series of barnyard animals, arranged according to the logic that each successive animal either devours or is a threat to the one before. It is a long, long way from getting by with a little help from one’s friends.
Next: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
Friday, January 27, 2012
Sunday, January 1, 2012
Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Concept Album that Never Was -- or Was It?
The tenth 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.
When I first conceived of this article, I had doubted whether my theory would hold up for this song. “Lovely Rita” is but a nonsense song, after all, so I feared making too much out of it. It is a fun song, of course, full of delicious phrases and entrancing harmony parts. But it didn’t take long in reflecting on it to see that it not only fits the pattern, but it is perhaps the most artful in doing so.
Start with the opening line:
Lovely Rita Meter Maid, nothing can come between us
When it gets dark I tow your heart away!
When I thought about this line, I recalled a line from the “Love Affair/Affair to Remember” movies, humorously uttered by some stellar actresses in successive tellings of the story: “Have you been getting results with a line like that?” I will defer to any woman’s sentiment about this, but it seems like a patently silly come on. It might be a fine joke between an established couple, but they are hardly words to conquer the heart.
As the song progresses, the singer describes nothing about Rita’s character, nor why he finds her so enthralling. In fact, it is almost as if Rita has no face, nor any other feature to compel a lover’s admiration. Again, I will let the female reader judge, but take this phrase as an answer to the question “What do you see in me?”:
In a cap she looked much older, and the bag across her shoulder,
made her look a little like milit’ry man.
Ladies, can’t you just see that line calling to you from the cover of some beauty magazine while you stand in line at the grocery store: “This Spring you too can look a little like military man!”
And on her part, though she is willing to spend some time with him, she seems to hold him at bay. They go to dinner, but Rita pays. (Hmm.) After dinner, he takes her home and claims that “he nearly made it.” However, in my experience and of that of the guys I knew growing up, “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two” hardly counted as “nearly making it.” Even a girl who wouldn’t necessarily welcome a guy she really liked to her bed after a first date, might at least want to be alone with him and have some privacy.
Rather, her actions seem to me to indicate that, though he may have a certain charm, she is essentially weirded out by him. “Jane, Alice, I just went out with this guy and, well, he’s charming, but he seems kind of weird if you know what I mean. Please come out and sit on the sofa with me!”
But the singer of the song has no clue that she sees things this way. He is full of himself, full of his own self-confidence and convinced she is having as fantastic a time as he is. In today’s choice of words, he would go tell all his friends “I think we really had a connection”, while at the same time her sisters would be saying, “Where in the world did you find him?” Preening self-confidence, in the end, turns out to be but another version of self-imposed loneliness.
What adds to the disconnectedness of the situation is how the song concludes. It changes into a strange collection of noises and grunts assembled over a time of relatively pointless piano vamping, ending with John going “Baby” while a hand runs down the piano keys. It seems an insensitive way to end a romantic song, if that was what this really was intended to be.
It is difficult to see this as just a mental lapse on the Beatles part. After all, they were masters of sensitive romantic songs, before and after Sgt. Pepper, and had shown great taste in how they did everything on this album up until now. This seems intentional, a kind of ‘thoughtlessness by design’. But I think this is the beginning of the album’s “end game”, which will be explained in succeeding posts.
Next: “Good Morning, Good Morning”