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”