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June 22, 1967, Vol. XII, No. 36
Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’: The Album as Art Form
By Tom Phillips
A lot of people seem to have misunderstood the new Beatles album. Richard Goldstein, reviewing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in last Sunday’s Times, calls it “an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent.” He likes only the last song, “A Day in the Life,” but calls it “a coda to an otherwise undistinguished collection of work. It’s a coda, all right, but not to an undistinguished collection of work. Goldstein says the songs preceding it are “at best … only vaguely related,” and that’s where he misses the boat.
Without attempting a point-by-point refutation of Goldstein, I must say that I think the Beatles have scored a genuine breakthrough with “Sgt. Pepper.” Specifically, I think they’ve turned the record-album itself into an art form, and a form that works.
To explain: unlike all past long-playing records that I know of, this one has a metaphorical structure, very much like a work of fiction. It takes the form of a performance by Sgt. Pepper’s band, complete with background buzzings and circus-type audience reactions. The band itself, starring the fictional “one and only Billy Shears,” is the central symbol. On the album cover we see the performers assembled, with the Beatles front and center in fluorescent satin bandleaders uniforms. Next to them are Madame Tussaud’s wax figures of the Beatles, and behind them are about 50 other band members, including Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Aubrey Beardsley, Tom Mix, and Shirley Temple. The band then is the world of performance, a world within a world created by and for its audience. And that is all of us, the Lonely Hearts Club of the world.
There are 13 cuts on the record, beginning with the traditional introduction of the band. We are, they announce,
“The act you’ve known for all these years…
“Sgt. Pepper’s lonely, Sgt. Pepper’s lonely,
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The show begins. Without the usual time-lapse between bands on the record, Ringo Starr starts whining in his impoverished baritone, slightly flat:
“What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me.”
Cuts two through 11 are widely disparate in mood and sound, but the significant thing is that the characters who appear form a gallery of Lonely Hearts, leading lives that range from quiet to raucous desperation. Among them are a solipsistic acid-head, an aging-only child running away from home, a troupe of circus exhibitionists, a silly man worrying about his old age, and a nutty kid in love with a meter maid. All the songs here are by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, except for one Oriental-type number by George Harrison. This one fits the format but does not make the grade it’s corny and obvious compared to the rest of the songs.
To continue: Cut 12 is a reprise of the opening song; the show is over. And cut 13, “A Day in the Life,” is a kind of epilogue. Here the whole substance of the work is turned inside out, and what has been an insane world taken as normal is now the normal world viewed as insane. The narrator reads a newspaper:
“And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh…”
What you have here is not a weird coda to a series of unrelated songs, but a comment on a world created by those songs. the internal relationships may not be blatant, but they are real; and one way you can tell this is by noticing the strong sense of having been through something when you finish listening to all of “Sgt. Pepper.”
My verdict: the most ambitious and most successful record album ever issued, and the most significant artistic event of 1967.
(The AUTHOR is a writer on the Broadcast Desk of the Times.)
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