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)”