Thursday, May 1, 2008

How Many Holes (Part Three)

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

-- The Pepper Band introduced themselves to polite applause, something the Beatles hadn't heard from an audience in years.

-- Paul McCartney gave an airing to his romanticism, as well as the sly subversion of that same romanticism.

-- John Lennon attempted to create a childhood for himself after never really having one of his own.

-- Ringo Starr worried about singing off-key. As well he should.

And that brings us to the third and final installment of ...

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

Let's see. John, Paul and Ringo. Yep that's everybody. No one missing there. I guess we can ...

Wait! What's that I hear? The sound of sitars and tabla drums? That can only mean one thing.

Ravi Shankar is here!

No. No. Even better. It's George Harrison kicking off the second side of Pepper with the album's most explicit statement of philosophical purpose, "Within You, Without You." The last of the Pepper songs to be recorded, the track features Harrison and a number of Indian sidemen; no other Beatles appear.

This Concept Album's concept is the changing of identity. For McCartney, that means playing dress-up and pretending to be a different band. For Harrison, steeped as he was in Eastern religion and ideas, that means the obliteration of self taught in Hindu texts like the Baghavad Gita. He is not pretending here and the earnestness of the song makes it the most direct on the album. "When you've seen beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there," he sings. Notice how once again, the self-doubt from the opening songs creeps in. You MAY find peace of mind. Pepper is many things as an album and work of art and one of those things is a rebuff against absolutism.

"Within You, Without You" closes with the crowd laughing, an addition of Harrison's to lighten the mood and it leads nicely into the next track where McCartney dons the top hat and tails and whisks us off to the British music hall of his youth.

Utilizing the decidedly un-rock and roll lead clarinet, "When I'm Sixty-Four" high-steps along at a charming clip. But just as with his "Getting Better" on the first side of the album, McCartney once again renders adorable some pretty serious and edgy material. Here, the topic is the loss of sexual potency. And just as with that earlier song, things take an aggressive turn ("You'll be older too"). Lennon reportedly kicked in the line about grandchildren and its no surprise that he would contribute something that once again embraced idealized youth.

But McCartney is the star on this one and his idea of reinventing the Beatles as a long-time act with roots in pre-rock and roll England reaches its ultimate expression here, much more so than on the rock-based title track.

He also acknowledges some philandering ("If I've been out till quarter to three, would you lock the door?") which will take us to a tryst with the "Lovely Rita." If there's a song on Pepper that tends to get dismissed, it's "Lovely Rita." On the surface, it's a light romp about falling for a meter maid, complete with dumb puns ("When it gets dark I tow your heart away!). But dig a little deeper, and you get the album's most honest, most revealing portrait of the Beatles' big bad deep dark secret from that era.

In an interview for the Help! DVD, director Richard Lester talks about the problems of following up the success of the first Beatle movie, A Hard Day's Night. I'm paraphrasing, but he basically says that Hard Day's Night was about the Beatles' public persona as performers and personalities and the logical next step would be to take a look at their private lives.

"But we couldn't do that," Lester says, "Because their private lives had become quite x-rated in that time."

"Lovely Rita" opens with a climactic sigh and closes with an all-out orgasm. Remember, this is years before Donna Summer and "Love to Love You Baby." In between, McCartney hints at every variety of sexual combination, from S and M to homosexuality to transvestism to multiple partners to incest. When it came to obliterating identity, the Beatles had dabbled long before Pepper in losing themselves to sexual excesses. And "Lovely Rita" stands in the Beatle catalog as the least romanticized expression of that part of their lives.

But even there, the real world inevitably intrudes. A cock crows (not that I suspect a pun or anything) and it's time to say "Good Morning, Good Morning." Lennon's issues with his mother Julia are well-documented. When you lead off your first solo album with a track called "Mother" and howl "Mommy don't go!" on the chorus, people tend to notice. But he had plenty of Father issues as well (the same song follows the Mommy line with "Daddy come home!") and "Good Morning, Good Morning" is a depiction of a day with Dad.

Lennon's father was a merchant seaman who ran out on the family after Julia refused to pack up young John and haul him off to New Zealand. Lennon wouldn't be reunited with his Dad until Beatlemania had reached its height. One can imagine how heart-warming that awkward encounter must (not) have been.

As portrayed in the song, Dad is a glib spouter of meaningless pleasantries who only comes alive when he starts flirting with the skirts. As with "Strawberry Fields," a reminiscence turns feverish and frightening, the track degenerating at the end into a cacophony of animal sounds.

The Peppers make a return appearance now, their theme song turned into a robotic, repetitive good-bye stomp. It's as if this whole exercise has taken a serious toll on them and they just want to clear off the stage. The Beatles must have felt the same way many times.

But the album isn't over yet. The Peppers are gone and only the Beatles remain. The experiment is a failure. The Beatles will not stay dead and buried.

"A Day in the Life" is famous for its big crescendos and production flourishes, but as it starts, it's just the boys; Lennon on piano, McCartney on bass, Harrison strumming an acoustic guitar, and Starr providing inventive drum fills, exactly like the old days. Lennon's vocal finds him once again in a thoughtful mood, but this time he doesn't reach back into childhood for inspiration. That's something the ancient, moldy old Lonely Hearts Club Band would do. The far more current Beatle John reaches back only as far as the morning paper and tells a sad vignette about a car crash and a semi-famous victim. Then he moves on to the entertainment section and recalls attending a film, which is almost certainly a reference to his appearance a short time earlier in Richard Lester's unpopular satire How I Won The War; another time when Beatle John took on a different identity.

In yet another broadside at absolutism, he quavers about how, "I'd love to turn you on." Again, there's no certainty there, no guarantee that you will be turned on; just the statement of a desire. George Martin's orchestra thunders to crescendo and an alarm clock rings, as if the opening section (and perhaps the entirety of the album) was a bad dream. McCartney takes over the vocal and again, he is far more literal about matters than Lennon. But still he clings to the idea of changing identities, here playing an average working schmo, late for work and running to catch the bus. Then another crescendo, dreamier this time, as if the mundane working world was the real dream.

Lennon takes over again, now curiously obsessed with a half-remembered newspaper account about all the holes in the Royal Albert Hall. He ends with the ambiguous "Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall." What does that mean? Is it a reference to the people who fill that famed concert venue and the fact that they have holes in their lives? Or is it a reference to the Beatles themselves, who had filled the Albert Hall a time or two in their recently completed performing days? Could it be that the number of holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall is "four?"

They tried to put the Beatles in a hole on the cover. McCartney tried to fix a hole to keep the world away. But all along, the holes the Beatles were dealing with were inside themselves. Harrison knew that and said as much. Starr covered it all with jolly play-acting, but couldn't keep the doubt from seeping through. Lennon thought that creating a fantastical childhood for himself might cure it, but was too honest to live in a sugar-coated fairy tale for long. And McCartney tried to paper it over with sex and drugs and pre-rock and roll, but found only the same empty dead end that his young runaway found when she left home on Wednesday morning at five o'clock.

The album closes with the famous lengthy funereal chord. Well, almost. It actually ends with a little snippet of nonsense dialogue that was originally designed to run on the inner groove of the record so that, if you didn't remove the tone arm, it would keep looping indefinitely. The miniature sonic collage sounds like a party with glasses clinking and indistinct voices nattering. One voice rises above the rest, however, and in a taunting, sing-song chants "... and it never could be any other way." And the album is a graphic illustration of that point.

What began as a kind of lark turns into a stark, penetrating look at fate. We can reinvent ourselves, but only so far. Put on your mask and your wig, your brightly colored uniform and your amusing new name if you must. But in the end, you are still going to be you. And though we define ourselves to a certain extent, some of our identity is out of our hands, foisted on us by others and a casually cruel fate.

Think about that the next time "Getting Better" runs over a Philips commercial.

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