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The Subversive Madness of Sgt. Pepper
Because "Revolver" was too scawy....
This is part 2. If you haven’t read part 1, it’s here.
By December of ‘66, the Great Global Revolver Freak-Out is over. The Beatles have freed themselves from the restraints of touring, but they’re still confined -- this time in the studio and this time, voluntarily. They have unfinished business with us.
They’re busy remaking Revolver.
I don't mean track for track, although there are concordances. “Love You Too” becomes “Within You Without You.” The claustrophobia of “Eleanor Rigby” motivates a desperate escape in “She’s Leaving Home.” ”The mania of “Good Day Sunshine” morphs into the mania of “Good Morning.” The experimental psychedelia of “Tomorrow Never Knows” coalesces into “Day in the Life.” A case could be made that “Got to Get You into My Life” softens into “A Little Help from My Friends.”
Please don't misunderstand. The Beatles aren’t derivative, not even of themselves. It’s just that like all great artists, they have something they’re driven to say and they’re going to keep saying it until we stop rioting and throwing garbage and actually fucking listen. They have no choice, really -- to do otherwise would be to give up, to compromise, to sell out and pander, and those aren’t things the Beatles have ever been willing to do with their music. The message will be delivered, even if it takes 700 more studio hours to do it.
Don’t be fooled by shiny objects. Sgt. Pepper is presented as the brightly colored child’s picture book version of Revolver, more accessible, less threatening in its affect, but just as dangerous and maybe more so for not seeming quite so dangerous. Splashy graphics grab our attention, printed lyrics are handed out so we can follow along more easily. The Fabs in shiny costumes and hats with feathers (feathers!) woo us with their “look into the camera and radiate love” eyes. Paper cutouts of mustaches and badges amuse the kiddies (that would be us). All of it for the benefit of everyone who got too scared on the first go-round to be able to actually, you know, listen to the music. The lack of subtlety isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
Sgt. Pepper is Revolver stripped of its violence.
If Revolver was knife’s edge and menace, a session with a dominatrix in a squalid underground Hamburg sex club, Pepper is frothy subversion, the decadence of a Victorian boudoir where pain is delivered by a pretty woman with flowers in her hair who vanishes without remembering to release our restraints.
Now instead of the Beatles locked in an asylum with us looking in, we’re inside with them at a carnival of the absurd, constrained by the velvet cuffs of nostalgia, the pastiche of an earlier time, and the whimsical but vaguely unsettling alter egos that Paul hopes might free them, at least for thirty nine minutes and forty two seconds.
At the end of the ‘66 tour, the Beatles are more alienated from their audience than they’ve ever been. Given the way we’ve treated them, they really don’t like us anymore (okay, Paul maybe still likes us a little bit, but only at a safe distance and for the occasional casual shag). “We’d love to take you home with us,” they gush, but it’s a lie, delivered with sneering irony, and besides they did that already in Help (the movie). Beatles irony is always a clue that something more important is happening beneath the surface, something more radical, more transgressive even than Revolver.
Did you think Sgt Pepper is about peace, love and understanding? Think again. Pepper is all about misdirection, the magician distracting us with one hand while deceiving us with the other. Mischief is afoot, but it’s mischief with dark and subversive purpose.
The mischief is that this time, a splendid time is guaranteed for all, and particularly for the Beatles, mostly because they no longer have to put up with our nonsense. We can hear them but they can’t hear us -- they have no interest in hearing us anymore, thank you very much -- as they launch into the live show we wouldn’t sit down and shut up long enough for them to perform the year before.
If you can behave, promises Ringo, we’ll try not to sing out of key, but he does a little anyway, his voice just slightly flat, and don’t think for a minute that, with Perfectionist Paul at the helm, that’s not deliberate. They’re testing our ability to deal with discordance. Will you sing along this time? they ask. We’ll try not to be quite so transgressive (a lie), not quite so frightening (another lie). Can you control yourselves and not throw another tantrum, if we offer you a little help from your friends?
Perhaps. After all, it’s getting better all the time (they sing through clenched teeth)... isn’t it? Well, it is for them (except maybe John) -- it really couldn't get much worse. It’s getting worse for us, though, so much worse, though we can’t see that just yet. We’re not meant to, actually. That’s part of the mischief.
Pepper is Paul’s baby, but at this point, there’s no one feeling the madness of confinement more than John, stranded in stockbroker suburbia and trapped in a marriage forced on him by the mores of the times, watching cornflake commercials and tripping on LSD, mostly out of sheer boredom.
That’s why this time, John is our guide for our descent into madness. His mad Ophelia with the sun in her eyes lures us, White Rabbit-style, deeper and deeper into the acid-drenched landscape of a child’s drawing, until we couldn't find our way out again if we tried. “Lucy”’s not confessional, it’s directive. John’s telling us where to go -- to Hell basically (aka the Underworld/subconscious) decorated in pretty colors so’s we don't notice or mind much. What awaits us at the bottom is the claustrophobic frenzy of “Good Morning” -- there’s no madder track on Pepper, save one -- and the menace of creepy Mr. Kite, whom you wouldn’t want to trust alone with your children.
Paul, on the other hand, is rather enjoying his confinement this time around. After all, he’s got a Project, and he’s busy obsessively sealing up holes to keep the rain (aka, everybody's feelings and their attendant messiness) from bollocksing it all up. As always, Paul seeks what little comfort he needs in sex, but this time he doesn’t find it. His seduction of the lovely Rita is thwarted by her sisters, who don’t seem interested in a foursome, and he’s forced into a furtive wank in the bog, panting obscenely to the masturbatory rhythms of Ringo’s drums and desperately hoping to avoid that most maddening of confinements, loneliness in old age (oh, did you think “When I’m 64” was meant to be cute? LOL, as always, lyrically-speaking, Paul is the ultimate unreliable narrator). His other girl makes it out, but that's a trap too. We all know it's not going to go the way she thinks it will with the man from the motor trade. There’s a desperate call from a Haight-Ashbury phone booth on the horizon.
Things are getting a little heavier now, and George pops in for a quick wellness check and some exposition, his sitar mimicking the cry of a child waking from a nightmare. But it's George, remember? He soothes us with words that don’t soothe at all and aren’t intended to. We’re doing this for your own good, he scolds. You didn’t listen the first time, so we have to do it again. It’s all there, the subtext turned to text for the slow kids in the class (that’s us again). Comfort is proffered and then wrenched away, and it all dissolves into mocking laughter at our fears, our ignorance, our blindness to where they’re leading us, the trap they’ve baited while we’ve been distracted by dancing horses and paper mustaches.
The trap is set now and we still don’t see it, foolish children that we are. The band is about to leave the stage, but before they go they have one last act to present.
All of what came before on Revolver and Pepper has led us to this moment.
“A Day in the Life'' is the Beatles’ master class in the madness of confinement. It’s all right there in the daily papers, after all, and in our calcified daily routines -- there’s nothing more maddening, more confining, than the everyday reality we’re all caught in. And it’s here where their trap is finally sprung, where they blow out our minds, wake us up, turn us on, and finally plunge us wholly into madness, as the many-handed beast crashes down onto multiple pianos, pounding out that apocalyptic major E chord -- the magician’s triumphant “ta da!” and the final terrifying slamming shut of the gates of the asylum.
This is the trap they’ve laid for us, that they’ve been leading us to starting with Revolver. The trap we've been too complacent and clueless to see coming. It’s not the Beatles who are confined at all, not in any way that matters, not anymore and maybe not ever. It’s us. We’re the ones suffering the madness of confinement, trapped in the banality of everyday reality.
As that final chord echoes into the void, the Beatles, cloaked in their disguises, make their escape, departing once and for all the concert stage and its perverted expectations. Sgt Pepper -- not Candlestick Park -- is their final ticketed performance, the concert that they wanted to perform but couldn't because no one was listening. The final thing they needed to do to free themselves of the last vestiges of commercial and popular accountability for their art and their lives.
Starting with George's count-in on "Taxman," the task the Beatles set themselves to (whether consciously or not is irrelevant, as it always is with great art), has been to make us experience -- not understand, but experience -- on a gut level the way we’ve all trapped ourselves in the unsustainable madness of ordinary life. Because of the Beatles’ refusal to participate in that madness, by the end of Sgt. Pepper (but really arguably since the very beginning), they are free.
What they choose to do with that freedom, how wisely or unwisely they use it, that's a story for another day. There are some uncomfortable things that we'll need to unpack together before we can make sense of that story. For now it's enough to say that everything they do from here forward will be to satisfy the demands of their own -- and only their own -- artistic imperatives. They're sorry, but it’s time to go. They’re finished with us now.
Once again, the Beatles bend the zeitgeist to their will. Once again, everybody goes mad. This time, though, because the production is second-to-none, because Pepper is less overtly threatening and more subversive, we’re actually listening during our collective freak-out and we get the Summer of Love instead of the summer of chaos. Those who get it -- and a lot of people do, more than ever before in history, maybe -- wake up and shake off the trap of conformity and ordinariness in search of something more meaningful. Some of them find it, most of them don’t, and we all know it doesn’t end well all around. But that’s that same story, again, that we’re saving for another day.
Like the Beatles themselves, Revolver and Pepper are brilliant individually, but together they are transcendent. The Pepper vs Revolver debate is as misguided and child-like and idiotic as the John vs. Paul debate. The pinnacle of the Beatles’ genius isn't either Revolver or Pepper, it's both/and -- Revolver/Pepper as a single entity, a double album. The two are inextricably bound to one another, conjoined twins connected by "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane." Each is incomplete without the other. To consider them separately is to completely miss the entire point of not just those two albums, but the entire creative arc of the Beatles music.
Revolver/Pepper, when taken as a single entity (and including “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”) rises to the artistic and thematic level of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy, though the closest comparison might be William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. And because of its invention of an entirely new form, its economy of language, its relative accessibility and its extreme relevance to the slow-motion (but rapidly accelerating) collapse of modern culture we’ve been in the midst of since the 1960s, I’d suggest that Revolver/Pepper easily surpasses Milton, Dante and Blake in historical significance and artistry.
The Beatles are and have always been the ultimate tricksters, Merlin-class master magicians of the darkest of arts. Fools on the Hill. There’s a reason Paul occasionally dedicates that song in concert to John, George and Ringo. It’s not about the Maharishi or MLK, not really, not in any interesting way. Paul fibs about that sort of thing, remember? That’s part of the game. He and John are world-class lyrical tricksters. They aren’t going to make it that easy for us. Oh, but wait, that’s the next album, isn’t it? We’re getting ahead of ourselves again.
As the Beatles leave the concert stage for the final time, their manic, delighted laughter at the extraordinary and impossible trick they’ve just pulled off echoes into infinity, trapped in the end groove, repeating endlessly, forever. They’ve done what no one else has ever done and likely never will again on that grand a scale. They’ve managed to rule the world without succumbing to its madness.
They never could see any other way.
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With my deepest gratitude,