Monday, 21 July 2014

Sgt Pepper as a concept album

The Sgt Pepper crowd - all cardboard cut outs and wax dolls. Photo: Michael Cooper
Music Times has an article about seven half-hearted concept albums, where The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the first one mentioned. The description goes: " In addition to being cited as one of the greatest albums ever made, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is often considered to be one of the very first concept albums, despite the fact that it only half-heartedly commits to its concept. Paul McCartney originally envisioned the album as an evening with the titular band, a concept that's pretty much abandoned after the first two tracks, and revisited once more towards the end. John Lennon even admitted that the concept 'doesn't go anywhere...it works because we said it worked.'"

So much for the Beatles' own judgement of the album as a concept album. However, keen students of the Beatles' ouvre have been able to reinstate the album as a fully fledged concept album, if you see it in the light of one word in the title, "lonely".

Think about it, and you'll find that all the songs are dealing with that particular theme. Either loneliness in itself, the fear of being left alone, or the universal loneliness of any spirit.

1. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The title song, of course, has it in the title. This is a band who are going to speak for the lonely hearts out there - and tells their stories.

2. With A Little Help From My Friends
The singer is afraid to be left alone, "would you stand up and walk out on me?".

3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The singer so wants to meet this girl, but he only catches a glimpse of her - and then she's gone, leaving him alone again.

4. Getting Better
Desperately wanting to tell himself it's getting better, the truth is "it couldn't get much worse". After all, beating up your woman and keeping her apart from the things she loved is going to make her leave you after a while. Time to change your scene, indeed.

5. Fixing a Hole
The lonely man keeps himself busy, fixing a hole in the roof, so he doesn't just sit and let his mind wander.

6. She's Leaving Home
Of course, the girl in the story feels alone and empty, even if her parents have given her "everything money can buy". Meeting a man from the motor trade gets her company, but now it's her parents who are left alone. "Daddy, our baby's gone".

7. Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
A circus would be quite empty and alone without an audience watching it, so the announcer keeps shouting about the event to bring the people in. Tonight Mr Kite may be topping the bill, but what becomes of him once the "last night" is over?

8. Within You Without You
George Harrison's song is more universal, about the space between us all, which means that basically, we are all alone when it comes down to it.

9. When I'm Sixty-four
The singer is afraid to be left alone and lonely in his old age, so he is pleading with the woman he wants to be there with him.

10. Lovely Rita
Not wanting to be a lonely heart, the singer chats up the parking attendant and gets more company than he bargained for.

11. Good Morning Good Morning
Almost a sequel to "Getting Better", the singer gets up and greets the morning, but he's clearly alone with nothing to do, except watch the current sitcom on the TV. I've got nothing to say, but it's okay, he assures himself.

12. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Speaks for itself, the band singing about all these lonely hearts are leaving us, so even the listener is now left alone. Hadn't it been for

13. A Day in the Life
In the newspaper the singer reads about a guy who is killed in a car accident. A crowd of people gather, the deceased looks familiar, but they can't quite place the lone driver. The audience in the movie theatre is leaving, except the singer. He sits there to watch the film through, all alone. In McCartney's section, he is all by his lonesome, waking up, combs his hair and goes up on the top deck of the bus for a smoke. Someone speaks and he goes into a dream. Meanwhile, the holes in the roads of Blackburn, Lancashire is filling up the Royal Albert Hall - an entire concert hall just filled with a giant void. How lonely does it get?
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - front cover

The narrator could easily be the same person in the songs "With A Little Help From My Friends", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", "Getting Better", "Fixing a Hole", "When I'm Sixty-four", "Lovely Rita", "Good Morning, Good Morning" and "A Day In The Life", these could all form parts of the same story about a lonely man. The title song and it's reprise offers the framework of the concept, "Within You Without You" is the philosopher's take on loneliness, "She's Leaving Home" is another kind of loneliness, whereas "Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite!" could be taken as comic relief, being half way into the story. So there you have it - the concept album that wasn't - but was.

4 comments:

Omaraven Hurst said...

The British critics waffling about 'Pepper' over the decades seemed to have failed to note that the 'Pepper' concept is not an album concept but the idea of the 'former Beatles' being part of a bigger gang, the counterculture.
By contrast, quite a few American critics really *got* the idea that the cover is actually a group photograph of the counterculture.

There's a John interview, one of those unearthed in more recent times in which he (kind of) defends or even claims Pepper as being the prototype "Plastic Ono Band" concept.

Ymaginatif Entropy said...

I might be an exception, but I always think it's a pity they left off Only A Northern Song. Even though it was recorded before the concept was even thought of, it would have thematically fitted the album really well - 'If you listen to this song You may think the band are going wrong' - It's all about a band singing songs! Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of course! :)

piper909 said...

Brilliant analysis, I love it! "Sergeant Pepper's lonely, Sergeant Pepper's lonely,Sergeant Pepper's lonely,Sergeant Pepper's lonely...."

Andrew James said...

having been 17 when Sgt.Pepper was released and having played the album a billion times during many different moods and surroundings I would just like to add my take to the authors comments. I agree that it is a "concept" album about loneliness....but not the story of one mans history....it is ways the world deals with loneliness itself everyday.......drugs, fame, abandonment, working, aggression, religion, fantasy, nostalgia, running away, looking into the future are all "concepts" on how different people fill the time and keep themselves sane while they wait for the inevitable final moment that they will spend alone......and that fear cannot be overcome or wished away......so the band Sgt. Pepper is basically asking the listener.......what is your way of dealing with being alone as you move through your life and come to terms with your death