50 years ago! It really doesn't seem like it but it is indeed 50 years since the release of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The BBC are celebrating the occasion with a series of programmes on TV and radio.
The composer Howard Goodall will be presenting a documentary on the musical significance of this particular record. Writing in the Radio Times he explains why the Beatles' music is so innovative and, more importantly, why it is so good. But it’s these five tracks, he says, that raised the bar the highest:
Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite
She's Leaving Home
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Within You Without You
A Day In The Life
But this album didn't just come out of nowhere. They had been exploring new ideas and new sounds for a few years prior to 1967 and the evidence can be heard on some of their singles, notably Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane and in their two previous albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver.
For this selection I have taken three of Goodall's choices and added some others from those two earlier albums.
To fully understand the music and the culture of the sixties this book is essential; Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald -
It is a popular misconception that the Beatles were somehow the 'leaders' of the societal upheaval and the revolutionary protests of the sixties but that is just not true.
They were not revolutionary, they were radical which is a different thing entirely. The purpose of a Revolution, any revolution, is to overthrow the existing social and political order and replace it with a new order, to start again from scratch and usually based on some ideal to create some sort of utopia. A radical, on the other hand, will wish to effect change within an existing system because that system is perceived to have become sclerotic in its functioning or the people have become indolent. A radical idea will breathe new life into an existing tradition and tradition is no more than accumulated wisdom.
the English Radical Tradition - http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2014/03/tony-benn-and-englands-radical-tradition
The four Beatles were traditionalists, they were conservative with a small 'c' as can be seen in the first video above where they bow to their audience at the end of the song.
And they were small 'c' conservative in their attitude to the idea of rewards for endeavour (the labourer is worthy of his hire ) which is why Harrison wrote the song Taxman to reflect the 95% that was taken from their earnings by the Government. It wasn't just the sharks of the music industry trying to fleece them, they realised that the Government, then as now, is the biggest shark.
Seeing the 'revolutionary' fervour and the desire of these 'revolutionaries' to 'smash the system' and the obvious anarchic mayhem that would result from such thinking, the Beatles' thoughts were crystallised back to their traditional and conservative roots. They recorded three versions of the song Revolution but the single released in 1968 (as a double A side with Hey Jude) was unequivocal in its condemnation of such upheaval with lyrics including:
"But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out"
"But if you want money for people with minds that hate
All I can tell you is brother you have to wait"
"But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow"
That couldn't be clearer and the record produced a furious reaction from the intelligentsia of the counter-culture. They accused the Beatles of betrayal! Of what, precisely? MacDonald in his book writes that the 'revolutionaries' all ended up with secure, well-paid jobs in advertising. It would be more accurate to say that the student protestors and the 'peace and love' hippies of the sixties grew up to become the 'greed is good' yuppies of the eighties. As Robert Anton Wilson wryly observed, "It only takes 20 years for a liberal to become a conservative without changing a single idea."
But the music endures. As I noted in a previous post (on art), in 100 years from now all the 'fussing and fighting' will be forgotten and the focus will be on the music because it is not politics which wins hearts and minds, it is art.
Vita brevis, ars longa.