Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How Many Holes (Part Two)

Previously on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Series" ....

-- The Beatles, disillusioned and endangered on tour had renounced the road.

-- Spearheaded by Paul McCartney, they had devised a cunning scheme to fake their own deaths ... at least, for an album cover.

-- They then assumed the identity of a marching band attached to a military brothel. Naturally.

And now, enjoy the next installment of ...

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (p. Sir George Martin)

So with "The Beatles" dead and buried on the cover (and lying in the first of many holes that figure prominently throughout), Sgt. Pepper's band makes its debut with the eponymous opening track. And what kind of band is it? It's an an old band, celebrating a twenty-year anniversary (in 1967, the Beatles were about a decade removed from when John Lennon first met Paul McCartney and invited him to join the Quarrymen, so the Peppers are twice as old). They are an out-of-fashion band who's been "going in and out of style," as opposed to the Beatles who were still on the ascent and would continue to be for a couple more years. It's a band that plays to a quiet, respectful crowd in a symphonic setting, a total contrast to the hysteria of Beatles' concerts. It's a showbizzy, glad-handing band prone to calling their fans a "lovely audience."

In short, the Peppers are everything the Beatles are not.

Each Beatle viewed the Pepper concept as an opportunity to indulge in his particular obsession. Appropriately as the originator of the idea, Paul McCartney gets the first chance to put his stamp on the new band, and in his hands, its a big, brassy entertainment machine, though an entertainment machine plagued by self-doubt. They "hope" you will enjoy the show, for example. Not a lot of confidence in that. And on the refrain, they repeat over and over again that Sgt. Pepper himself is a lonely guy. Maybe he's made use of the Lonely Hearts Club's services?

The introductory number ends with an introduction of its own, as featured singer "the one and only Billy Shears" takes the spotlight. Shears is played by Ringo Starr and it's one of the album's best jokes that the least-skilled singing Beatle is the star (Starr?) of this new act. Again, the Peppers are the Bizarro Beatles for whom it's always Opposite Day. As with the opener, the Peppers continue to be plagued with self-doubt as Shears apologizes right out of the gate (he fears he will sing out of tune and, more importantly, fears the judgment of the audience should he do so). In this, I wonder if the Peppers are so very different from the Beatles; going from the extreme of utter adulation to the extreme of utter vilification must have made them wonder about how sincere audience reaction truly was.

For Ringo, the acclaimed best actor of the group, the Pepper concept is a chance to test his performing chops. It's interesting that his is the only member of the Club Band that receives an actual name.

In a way, the Pepper concept hearkens back to the earliest days of the Beatles, when they were known as "Long John and the Silver Beatles," each adopting a flashy new stage name. Reinvention was not a new thing for them, though it had never before been taken to such a level.

Next up, John Lennon gets to put his spin on the Pepper notion of casting off the Beatles identity. He takes the whole "twenty years ago today" idea and runs with it, inventing a childhood for himself that he never actually knew. Twenty years before the recording of Pepper, Lennon was six years old, a lad on the streets of Liverpool already fending for himself, having been abandoned by both parents to the graces of an aunt. His youth was not filled with "tangerine trees and marmalade skies." In his contribution to the contemporaneous "Strawberry Fields Forever" single, he used memories of a Liverpool orphanage as a jumping off point for a psychedelic fever dream. And in his first number for the Pepper album, he creates just the kind of fantasy land that he must have pined for as a boy.

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is a hazy, dreamy trip through a child's storybook, fanciful and wildly imaginative. But the key to the song is how the washes of Lowery organ chords ominously undercut the whimsy, as do the three bass drum kicks that introduce the chorus. Appropriately, the acerbic Lennon sows the seeds of the concept's own undoing. Nice as Wonderland is, even Alice couldn't stay there forever.

The Beatles were so talented at taking unpleasant, edgy subject matter and making it not only palatable, but positively adorable. Witness Paul's "Getting Better," which features cynical asides courtesy of John. The song begins with another reminiscence, this time about school days. In "Lucy," Lennon goes back into childhood and brings forth the sweet dreamy bedtime story that never was; McCartney goes back for this song and recalls much more mundane details. Together, they construct a tale that's probably about half and half. The angry young man with the bad school experience grows up to be a wife-beating adult. Only the Beatles could make that scenario into an optimistic singalong. The line between Beatle and Pepper is starting to blur.

An old-fashioned harpsichord leads into Paul's "Fixing a Hole," an odd paradox of a tale where opening up a hole keeps you confined. The hole in question is restrictive not because it lets you out, but because it lets others in. Again, despite his best efforts, the Beatles' experience continues to inform the Pepper's material as Beatlemaniacs fruitlessly attempt to beat down Paul's door. The demands of the audience keep his mind from wandering where it will go, and the only way to keep them out is to fix the hole.

A quick word about drugs: They're great! Ha Ha. I kid. All the Beatles denied that there were any explicit references to drugs on this album, Lennon going so far as to insist that the LSD acronym spelled out by "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was a coincidence, a title inspired by the name his son Julian gave to one of his own fingerpaints. I take them at their word. But it would be naive to think that drugs and the drug scene played no part in their thinking. Whether intentionally or not, references to drugs and drug terminology crop up throughout the album and I think it's significant that "Fixing a Hole" is a term for shooting heroine, whether that pun was intended or not. Drugs were often seen in the sixties as a way of expanding one's consciousness, but far more often, they slammed the door on coherent thought, and isn't that what the song describes?

McCartney continues to dominate the album with "She's Leaving Home," one of the most misunderstood songs in the Beatles' canon. I've seen this song dissected as a commentary on social mores, as a statement about rebellious youth. What poppycock! You heard me. Poppycock! "She's Leaving Home" is a joke, pure and simple, and probably too clever for its own good. Related in excruciating detail, Paul tells us the story of a young runaway and her hand-wringing parents. He goes so far as to pinpoint the exact time of each event "Wednesday morning at five o'clock" and so on. But look at the journey the girl in the song embarks upon: she runs away from doting but clueless parents and ends up meeting a car salesman (probably a used car salesman at that) in order to have fun. I wonder what sort of fun? "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy," George and John harmonize on the chorus, knowing full well it's a monumental lie. This isn't teen rebellion; this is a dippy girl from a dippy family rushing headlong into a sexual tryst with a slimeball that she's going to inevitably regret. Come to think of it, maybe it is teen rebellion.

The music again undercuts the maudlin, soap-opera-esque tale. The strings that the Beatles and producer George Martin had deployed so tastefully and strikingly on earlier songs like "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" here turn cloying and soppy. And I believe intentionally so. Because. It's. A. Joke.

Side One (remember when albums had sides?) ends with another Lennon-penned trip through a childlike fantasy as he gets to go to the circus he never saw as a youngster. By now, the idea of being a different band has mostly fallen by the wayside. But the idea of obliterating identity is as strong as ever. Lennon's reinvention of his own childhood is a stark rejection of the one he actually lived while McCartney indulges in a little self-parody. George Harrison has yet to be heard from, but as Side Two opens, he'll have his say and more.

But once again, I've exceeded my limit for one post. Tune in tomorrow to see how the Peppers get out of this jam.

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