Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Legacy of Sgt. Pepper (fourteenth and final in a series)

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

The fourteenth and final in a seies 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.
It is tempting to jump right into the question of whether or not Sgt. Pepper did the world any good, but there is something that must be addressed first.  Has this series of articles really proven that there is a unifying theme to the album?  The reader will have to judge that.  Anyone who has read the whole series may at times have thought, “this guy is really off the deep end with all this!”, and who knows, maybe they are correct.  But the goal here was to establish that a unifying theme could be argued, and that I think I have done.

And I still assert what I said at the beginning, that the theme was unconscious, on the periphery, not meant as a didactic exercise.  The whole album—the theme, the values, the characters—seems to have pretty much fallen together as a happy accident.  And it was probably more a reflection of what was going on at the time than it was the call to arms that set ideas in motion. 

To a great extent, though, I think it works better being an unconscious accident.  It would take quite a clever set of writers to come up with a work of this magnitude all formed of hyperbole, irony, veiled anti-assertions and even embarrassing personal revelations.  Not that it couldn’t be done, but even the best writers would have a hard time ‘staying in character’—keeping things from seeming contrived.  And while I consider the Beatles to have been extremely talented, I think such an idea would have been way beyond their capacity. 

But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the album in the light of such a concept.  Since getting this idea, I have listened to the album with a sense of awe.  Without getting too carried away, I would say it is one of the most significant artistic works ever done.  It looks at the theme from so many angles and in so many ways: it is a treasure trove of cultural observation.  It is both beautiful and frightening at the same time, and on a grand scale.  I would love to see someone try to make a stage play or film out of this idea. 

Is frightening a problem?  No, not really.  Sometimes it can be very helpful.  We are prone to forget that the original versions of many children’s stories did not have tidy, happy endings.  Take for instance, “The Little Mermaid”.  The Hans Christian Andersen version ends quite a bit differently than does the Disney cartoon.  But that was for a reason, so that the reader would come away from the story with a resolve to learn the lesson and not make the same mistakes.

But how about us?  Did any of us come away from it with any resolve as to how we would live?  I stated above that I think I did on a couple of points, though at the time I would have scoffed at any suggestion that I was a disciple of some teaching.   And I sense that many of the values we have seen here have been and continue to be ratified in our culture.  The concern that modern life can kill our humanity has been ably and repeatedly expressed by various movies and TV programs over the past decades.  And our culture has gone out of its way to warn parents—especially Dads—to give children the time they need.  Parents today are surrounded by voices, examples and resources to help them take on the task with grace and some degree of intelligence.  And, of course, everyone knows that a career, not to mention a mad drive to “make the grade” can swallow you whole, and deprive you of meaningful relationships and experiences. 

Did all of this come from Sgt Pepper?  Of course not.  Did Sgt. Pepper contribute in anything significant?  Well, No, but then again, maybe a little.  Since it wasn’t really making a conscious point, I think it is fair to assume that it probably didn’t make a conscious impression.  But, based on my own experience and recollection, I have to say it probably did influence people’s thinking to some degree.

What it probably had going for it as an influencer was 1) the colorful characters that were created for the album who serve as unforgettable object lessons and 2) the excellent music that not only conveyed the information, but insinuated it into the core of our consciousness, and kept it in our hearts all these years.  

There is no question that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band awakened a generation and time to the notion that Rock music could handle more complex ideas than “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.  But it seems to me it also suggests that Music provides a better vehicle for addressing ideas with multiple facets, hues of color, shades of nuance, etc., and that it does so in a way that more powerfully conveys the import, worth, tragedy, exhalation or perplexity of all that than any mere essay, poem or novel can ever hope to achieve.  If nothing else, consider the fact that advertising loves to use jingles, not persuasive essays.

My wife renamed this blog “The Song’s the Thing” for a good reason.  When Hamlet found himself trapped in a situation of uncertainty and inaction, he realized he could get to the bottom of his suspicions about his stepfather using a play.  “The play’s the thing by which I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”  But if you want to understand a culture, a time period, a movement, it is fair to say that “The Song’s the Thing.”  Look at the music that’s came out of the era in question or that influenced the era, and you will understand them far better.  And if you want to get an idea across in a way that wins people over and gets people motivated, Americans have shown since the Revolution and before that “The Song’s the Thing.” 

Allow one final parting comment.  Throughout my writing of this, a notion kept nagging at me that there might be some similarity between Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and “The Waste Land” by T.S. Elliot.  I kept chasing the notion away from my head like a pesky fly in warm weather—no way I wanted to go down that road.  But I do find it a humorous curiosity that where Elliot (aided, one imagines by Ezra Pound), stuffed his poem with all kinds of quotes by the literati of Western Civilization, even in their original Greek, Latin, Italian, German or French, that the Beatles packed their album cover with photos of pop culture icons.  The parallel seemed too curious to not at least point out. 

Oops, one other final thing.  I have not addressed the “never could be any other way” business at the very end of the album.  That is because it wasn’t on the original American issue.  This is, after all, a blog about the relationship of popular music with American History.  Most of us in the U.S. didn’t even know that track existed until the “Paul is dead” business in the Fall of 1969, when some radio stations were playing it off imported copies of the British LP, along with things like “Revolution 9” backwards, to look for clues.

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