The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, June 04, 2007

Part One: “A jetplane made of golden syrup”

Everything about its circumstances, inspiration, recording and packaging suggests that Sgt Pepper was from day one intended to be an Event, and unless you were, as the late Ian MacDonald emphasised, between the ages of 14-30 at the time you will never know what it was like to be “alive” in the middle of that Event, can never hope to comprehend exactly how and why it meant so much to those people, the people who, in Britain alone, sent the album to the top of the charts for more or less six straight months and ensured its status as Britain’s best-selling album; at four million plus sales, only the first volume of Queen’s Greatest Hits comes anywhere near.

In most senses the case is unarguable. I wasn’t alive for the Queen’s coronation or JFK’s assassination or any part of either world war so the best I can do to approximate what it must have “felt” like is the standard means of archival, historical and anecdotal evidence. But broadcasts and articles do not transmit primary senses of awe, shock or transcendence. I felt a frisson of what it must have meant when I woke up on the morning of Tuesday 9 December 1980 to a world full of grief over Lennon’s shooting, but at three years old, how could I possibly have felt, in 1967, the colour and wonder which everyone else says Sgt Pepper imbued in them? I remember the video for “Strawberry Fields Forever” – about the first pop song I can recall hearing and retaining in my life (though Cream’s “I Feel Free” might have pipped it by a month or two) – on Top Of The Pops but that’s about it; until I started school the following January, and my days became ordered and therefore so did my memory, it’s all a haze of things pleasant, days mundane and horrors which I have not yet been able to expel from my mind.

In terms of album releases, the nearest equivalent Event in my lifetime was the release of the third Oasis album (on a Thursday). There were queues half a mile long outside both Woolworth’s and Safeway’s in Camberwell at six-thirty that morning; everyone bought it, took it home, were initially excited by it, and then the slow dawning that it was neither a beginning nor ending of time…and if Be Here Now is not quite the disaster that it has subsequently been labelled, then neither is it an especially focused record nor a particularly intriguing one. So one tends to treat retrospective “Events” with a natural hint of cynicism…was the Pepper effect really like that? Did, as Kenneth Tynan indicated at the time, it really stop the world for a week or so?

Whatever the effect, there is no doubt that we and subsequent generations have been repeatedly punished for not being of the correct age or inclination at the time of Pepper’s release, and not just those of us who came after; what about Larkin’s “typists and Cavern cloakroom attendants” whom the Beatles had by 1967 “lost” to the more straightforward lust for Engelbert or Tom or their many chest-busting, chart-busting imitators, or who had simply turned to the Monkees for some fun again (I nearly qualified that “fun” with an “uncomplicated,” but nothing about the Monkees was uncomplicated…and that was their advantage), or the post-war generation who had thought the Beatles endearing or wacky at the Royal Variety Performance but didn’t buy into the sixties swing wholesale, who were confused by the world not turning out as either Winston or Clement had promised and sought refuge in the easy balladic purchase of a Jim Reeves or a Ken Dodd?

Nevertheless it was difficult growing up in the seventies, trying to establish one’s own musical world and perspective, and constantly having it hammered into one’s head that nothing I ever attempted or dreamed could have any hope of approaching the antechamber of unassailable greatness that was the Beatles, and Sgt Pepper in particular. Small wonder that most of my generation turned violently against them – think of the original Beatles followers of ’62, sick and tired of hearing about their parents’ sacrifices in the war, seeing little in the way of palpable benefit, only having just extricated themselves from the compulsory nightmare of National Service, and you will recognise how rapidly each generation ends up repeating the previous one’s mistakes.

Still, the Pepper punishment has persisted, with successive decades of anniversaries to recollect a receding glory and remind us yet again that Things Can Never Be As Good As This Again. As though they were in the first place. There has been the usual rash of recycled anecdotes from the surviving participants, the utterly depressing spectacle of the current crop of underwhelming British bands doffing their caps and faithfully recreating the original tracks under “original working conditions” – as though George Martin wouldn’t have rushed to the studio Fairlight or 48-track mixing desk had either been available forty years ago!

This latter observation also raises the question of exactly how widespread this “Event” permeated Britain as a whole. Outside central London, Britain until well into the seventies might as well still have been the twenties – in the sticks you were still expected to show due deference to those superior in terms only of their bank balance or the arrangement of numbers on their birth certificate. Shops still largely bore Edwardian frontispieces, were dank and unattractive inside, and were run by stern, elderly people who would most likely have burned all children if given the choice. Ears, and worse, continued to be boxed in both school and home. This was as true of Uxbridge or Croydon as it was of Uddingston, where I grew up. However, you can’t sell four million albums in London alone, and the Beatles’ popularity was hardly diminished outside the parameters of the Circle Line.

The great irony of Sgt Pepper being marketed as an Event is that its music is unremittingly inward-looking, and despite the surface jollity of its sleeve, with its Ontario Police Department badge, where Sir Robert Peel cheerfully co-exists with Karl Marx, its music turns in on itself more decidedly even than that of The White Album. Whereas most of that year’s great music was intent on opening out – whether to embrace as wide and new a public as possible, or to open out the pores of music itself, to expand its language – Sgt Pepper is largely introverted, the musicians concerned about their own fates, with questions of identity and orientation such that they disguise themselves as a cheery marching band to conceal those black suits from Tussaud’s, the memory of Stuart Sutcliffe, that it’s “Billy Shears” rather than any of “The Beatles,” and that the said Mr Shears begins to sing about loneliness, isolation and the need for bonding, even if only with himself (“I don’t know but I know it’s mine”) – is Lonely Hearts Club Band the most overlooked oxymoron in pop?

Nothing about Pepper is straightforward, or even welcoming. Some have responded to its fortieth anniversary by wondering whether 1967’s record buyers would still have been venerating Al Jolson. In fact this latter is not entirely untrue, and “When I’m 64” casts a knowingly dubious eye on the New Vaudeville Bands and dancing bears of one 1967 world and also cannily, if sadly, foresees its author’s own fate (but then “Simon Smith” was written by the extremely knowing Randy Newman, and the movement’s most astute operatives, the Bonzo Dog Band, speedily mutated into Britain’s Mothers of Invention). It subtly warns us not to live in the past.

Indeed, Pepper’s reputation increasingly rests on less than a half of its songs. How often does oldies radio air the morose, XTC-inventing “Fixing A Hole” or the confused rocker “Lovely Rita” or the determinedly radio-unfriendly “Good Morning, Good Morning” with its concluding, escalating hill of predators? Moreover, how often would you want to hear these songs – or even “Within Or Without You,” despite the latter’s conscience of assumed nobility – voluntarily?

Lennon’s songs are inevitably the more shaded and desperate. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” though far too long, is drenched with distended, filtered remembrances addressed to no one in particular. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” is the hard bottom to the springy surface of Barrett’s “Bike” – and while it is not, strictly speaking, essential that you do so, let me say that it is impossible to reach a full understanding of Sgt Pepper without having full awareness (more so, arguably, than SMiLE across the ocean) of the album being recorded in the studio next door; an album, moreover, which did a better and funnier job of stretching out the atoms of pop and turning them into rock than Pepper managed (since the latter’s radical implications are all in the words and appearance rather than the music). “Carnival Of Light” was until very late in the day earmarked for inclusion on Pepper, was the Beatles’ clearest response to the Floyd capable of “Interstellar Overdrive” and perhaps the group should have been brave enough to include it (had the CD been in existence in 1967, no doubt they would have done, let alone “It’s Only A Northern Song” or for that matter “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”) – but maybe its reputation is protected by its failure to appear on any legal Beatles release; would hearing its fourteen minutes now prove as tiresome a letdown as “What’s The New, Mary Jane?” was when it finally saw the light of day on Anthology 3? Both Lennon and Barrett were drawn back to the dusky attics of childhood, extracting and liquefying the wonderment to be found in those old trunks, the webs of intrigue; and to a roughly equivalent degree (but in radically different manifestations) they never managed to get out of that attic.

The two key songs to me seem to remain “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day In The Life” – one Paul with some John, the other John with some Paul – and both demonstrate that, nostalgia or not, the past is capable of suffocation. The protagonist of “She’s Leaving Home” acts as though forcefed sterile jollity for all of her life because that’s what her parents liked when they were her age and is therefore left with no option but to slip discreetly off the page at the dawn of her true life – and yet, musically, this song, like the majority of the others, could easily have been written in the forties, or earlier, whereas most of Lennon’s appear to seep out of a late-nineteenth century sewer of carnival, prudery and blood.

And then, after the show is over, this quiet little acoustic guitar in the corner continues to strum, and with a serene wave of only mildly ominous piano, Lennon drifts in quietly, looking both to end and begin time; he’s read the morning paper which Mr Martin left lying around the studio – the Daily Mail, dated 17 January 1967 – sees the story about the stoned yuppie going through the lights at Redcliffe Gardens, crashing his car and himself, goes to a film preview, thinks about Vietnam (since 1967 was also the year of the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” and Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today” (“Awwwww, there ain’t no life NOWHERE!” as the world splits apart), then goes back to the paper, reads about the potholes up North and whether they could be used to bury the war dead in the Albert Hall, sits and thinks through all of this, and wonders why this can’t be the last day of the world as he knows it…and so the rising torrent is not apocalypse, except to things which have outlived their use and purpose, but a gigantic fuck you to this decrepit, cap-doffing world, a demolition carried out only to ensure the building of something better, an emotional leap (thank goodness George Martin knew his Ligeti), the rising of souls and spirits…

…and that pause, the final and decisive risk of a leap across the gulf of the unknown, hoping for a landing…

(think the album version of “Save The Country,” that long sustained string chord at the end of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” THE DRIFT – a record which completes something its creator started in 1967)

…and he lands on that E minor chord which, as Goldman reminds us, is traditionally used in Western music to symbolise heaven, atomising, decaying slowly but always alive somewhere across the universe, far from the playful deceits of Pepperland (McCartney’s mid-song jaunt is like the final remnant of debris surviving from the first explosion, a mock-jaunty account of having to run for the bus and wear a hat – even in 1967, wearing a hat! – then having a smoke and ah fuck it)…and something new is born, something capable of changing and even preserving other lives forty years later. The other implications and consequences of this Event I will examine tomorrow.

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