Four young men in their 20s get together and make something. This thing they make employs the latest technology (thanks to the artists and engineers around them) to create a pop-cultural artifact unlike almost anything before. It’s colorful, fanciful, with an outlandish title that, on purpose, doesn’t mean much.
That stands for the whole project. These four young men don’t really know what they are doing. They aren’t that interested in knowing – they are exploring, playing, piecing together echoes of different times, places, voices, stories.
Their contemporaries have a range of opinions. That includes, right away, derision: “What is this about? It’s a mess, a pretentious mess, less than the sum of its parts.” (It has been disparaged for half a century.) But it’s also widely interpreted as a startling departure, with aspects of satire, social comment, spirituality.
What they create intersects powerfully with their time. It exerts influence that reaches into music, art, fashion, generational relations. It hastens the decline of “high culture” – the province of the classical, the best, the mandarin tastemakers. Who needs high culture? Four self-taught guys can make something that grabs the world’s ear and makes it think and feel.
I’d say, if that ever happened, it would be remarkable and worthy of remembrance 50 years later. And all of this did happen almost exactly 50 years ago, when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I like other Beatles albums more (my favorite is the U.K. version of Rubber Soul). As a rock album, Revolver is far gutsier and more trenchant. The great inspiration for Pepper – Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys – is a much greater piece of music. And yes, after a half-century, Pepper is much of its time. (That’s not the same as being dated, which it isn’t; it transcends its moment.)
All that said, the race of late to debunk and scoff and dismiss doesn’t get very far. It misses the main point of Pepper: to pretend we are not ourselves and see what happens. Let’s do what we don’t do, play as we don’t play. Forsake, to large extent, the electric guitar, the love song. Take on different voices.
What does happen? Collage, starting with the album cover, with Beatles then and now, and everyone from W.C. Fields to James Joyce, Marilyn Monroe to Lewis Carroll. Much is the emotional collage, ambivalent mash-ups of emotion. We often don’t know what to feel, or can’t explain why we feel what we do.
There’ll be a lot of musical collage, too. A great deal of self-undermining, as in the unexplained audience laughter as the drums pick up during the theme song; as in “Getting Better,” where it’s both getting better all the time and can’t get no worse. (The older I get, the more frightening that song becomes.) Comic projections of ourselves into old age (“When I’m Sixty-Four”), old-time circuses (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”), dates with meter maids, evening walks around town that melt into charges of barnyard animals (“Good Morning Good Morning”).
We’re jacked from mood to mood, state to state, in the switching time signatures and uncertain keys of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”; the two major sections of “A Day in the Life,” unrelated, unstable; and the crazy tape-splicing of “Kite.” Note all the antiphonal songs: lines traded between lead singer and responders in “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Getting Better,” and, most telling, “She’s Leaving Home,” Paul McCartney’s empathetic story of a daughter running off, balanced with John Lennon’s superb voice of the stricken parents. Note the songs that resist meaning (“Lucy,” “Fixing a Hole,” “Day in the Life”) yet still make us feel things, just because music does.
And then there is “Within You Without You,” the most direct, profound piece on the album. The way we see things is illusion; let us open ourselves to connection. As a “message,” if you even need one, it stands up. The music is sophisticated, the melody lovely, tinged with anxiety, and I’m surprised anyone would make fun of it because it is inspired by Indian classical music. Few people this side of Tchaikovsky in his Symphony No. 6 had ever even thought of a 5/4 waltz, but here one is.
I wish they had included “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” as once planned. Imagine that album with those two sonic masterpieces on it. Monumental. The 50th anniversary package includes them, as it should.
It’s an anniversary worth noting. That release, without looking too much into it, of the persona (of the Beatles, of the selves we usually inhabit) into whatever happens — that is when the postmodern crept into pop music. It still entertains and provokes — best when we don’t understand. When I listen to Pepper, I still have a splendid time.