Chopping Down A Dolls House: What if The White Album was a single album?

White Album at 50

The Beatles, more commonly known as the White Album, turns 50 today. A difficult, brilliant hulk of an album, it’s spent five decades defying the many questions it throws up. Is it the band’s best album? Is it the start of their break up? What is Honey Pie all about?

But no question comes larger than the one that emerged after a chance remark from producer George Martin in the 1970s: Should the Fab Four’s only double-LP have just been one disc? Is there an undisputed best-in-class single album in there? This Jokerside aims to find out…

“It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album”

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FOR A WHILE THE BEATLES’ NINTH STUDIO ALBUM WAS TITLED A DOLL’S HOUSE; AT FIRST THOUGHT, THAT SEEMS THE PERFECT NAME. The double-LP White Album is a brilliantly difficult and perverse collection of songs that defy analysis as much as they demand it. The album has thrown up myriad questions over the past five decades, often encouraging contradictory answers. It’s an album packed with so-called ‘fillers’ that earn more attention than many bands’ lead singles. It’s the record of a band breaking up… Before they made another two, rather superb, albums (three if you count Yellow Submarine, which you shouldn’t).

One thing is certain, it’s a Fab Four album unlike any other. It may reference the Magical Mystery Tour that emerged a year before, but it’s nothing like it, even at its most whimsical; it lacks the experimental concept of Sgt Pepper, perhaps even reacting against it. The contents could be the jumbled interior of a doll’s house, with all the nostalgia in oddly assembled and matched tidbits it implies. But that’s not quite the whole story.

The White Album features some of the Beatles’ greatest optimistic highs, but there’s also an undeniable and persistent air of menace running through it. Many songs referencing death and violence. Not unusual in the Beatles canon, but never so intense, and treated so disconcertingly. Behind it sits a unique discordance; an otherworldly sound that is carried in every song, often with an bubbling and winding melody or percussion line, but remains remarkably elusive. It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album. Take Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before it, or the thinned out back to basics approach of Let It Be (Spector production notwithstanding) that would hammer real splinters into the cracks of the band shortly afterwards. Both those albums have echoes or foreshadowing. But they both hold together in a wholly different way; the White Album endures as a puzzle unlike anything else.  

Long, Long, Long time together?

Could the White Album be the record that broke the Beatles apart?  John Lennon would explicitly state that sometime later, and there were undoubtedly fraught times during the sessions. Ringo left the band at one point (at least), perennial recording engineer Geoff Emerick refused to work on the album as the tension boiled over, and of its 30 songs, only 16 feature every Beatle; a fair few only have two. That’s a bold step away from the cohesive Fab Four that had quickly risen to the peak of western culture just over half a decade before.

The emergence of four separate artists had never been more evident, and that’s clear in the Esher demos – the acoustic demoing of many album tracks at George Harrison’s house prior to entering into the studio. Some however, would have to wait until Abbey Road in 1969 (Lennon’s Polythene Pam, Mean Mr Mustard…). There are Harrison efforts that would find an audience on his later solo albums. Most notably, the song that would become Lennon’s Jealous Guy failed to pass the cut in 1968. As Lennon appears to have suffered the most cast-offs, a fair few of the notable standalone songs are Paul McCartney’s.  

But the tapes and anecdotes around the sessions have never seemed that extreme. The Esher demos, and the trawls of session tapes that Giles Martin used to craft his 2018 anniversary remaster struggle to portray a band at war. The banter and collaboration throughout the finished album is undeniable – an extension of Sgt Pepper’s production. But most importantly, there’s the music itself. Despite the standalone efforts, the quality of the instrumentation when they’re all in the same room, or on one occasion, an Abbey Road cupboard, is the sign of a band at the peak of their collaboration and understanding. The experimentation, far wilder and less contained than Sgt Pepper’s structure allowed, and the subsequent results, couldn’t come from a group that wasn’t getting on. Some of the great examples of the Beatles’ differing interests and tastes complementing each other’s come on the White Album. Harrison’s gentle eastern-influenced guitar lines behind Dear Prudence are a great example of that. Perhaps no coincidence that’s one of Lennon’s favourite Beatles songs. It’s phenomenal.

Bungalow fill?

The title A Doll’s House may seem a good fit for the disparate elements contained within this single, plain-covered setting, influenced by the external, but self-contained in their own environment. But that doesn’t quite capture the album’s other oddity: the journey that emerges from these seemingly isolated songs. There is a definite rise and a definte fall, thematically and musically (the animal trilogy, the classical peak at the cusp of the first disc, the experimentation trail at the end).

What is be easily dismissed as filler is revealed over the course of the album as willful distraction and artifice. It all adds up to the change throughout the double LP that Martin Jr has described as “shocking”.

It’s all too much, as Harrison would later sing, perhaps because this is the Beatles’ only studio double. That’s the rub. It’s easy to suggest that this is the moment, even for a band powering out more than an album a year, that saw their selection process slip. It was fuelled by George Martin’s observations on the quantity of songs the band were working on at the time, and the solo albums that soon appeared. But was a single album even possible? Was there a goal behind the double that appeared that necessitated that breadth?

They clearly excised some songs early on. As mentioned above, Child of Nature, later Jealous Guy, was ousted by McCartney’s similarly themed Mother Nature’s Child. And some of the ‘filler’ is clearly more mischievous than others, as they roped in backing support more conspicuously than ever before (Yoko Ono? Patti Harrison?), crafting a riddle deeper than Sgt Pepper. If the White Album isn’t the malaise of a rudderless group then, splintering a year after manager Brian Epstein’s death, is it all part of a grand design?

The Beatles were incredibly consistent with the number of tracks pressed onto their studio albums up to the White Album’s release. Only three of their previous nine LPs failed to have a balanced seven tracks a side. So, using the tools of subjectivity, themes and riddle, let’s take an axe to that doll’s house and see if the White Album can be whittled down to a 14 track album, even 50 years on.

And most of all, let’s find out if it should.

The White Album – Yes or No?

SIDE ONE

Back in the USSR – NO

Paul powers the drums on his witty, Beach Boys risposte. It’s a storming opener to the album, but we can’t overlook that it’s a pastiche. The Beatles awareness of their contemporaneity is handled far better elsewhere, not least in the 29 tracks that follow. Mostly, we admit, there’s a perverse pleasure in hearing this album without the song that absolutely fails to set what’s to follow.

Dear Prudence – YES

Must not be affected by the beautiful melody line that fades in from Back in the USSR. A key exhibit in the case for the White Album’s difference, Dear Prudence is far removed from the LSD jams of Sgt Pepper. Here’s a band on full pelt and self-referential, even if it lacks Ringo (McCartney takes drums again). The storming crescendos that change throughout, the definitive 60s message, though not stooping to parody or age… It was ready made to be Siouxsie and the Banshees’ biggest hit.

Green Onion – NO

One of this writer’s favourites, from the menacing rhythm to the revelling in recent Beatles history and conspiracy. A lot of time for it, but this list is harsh.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – YES

The Beatles do ska. Not easy to include as this album’s Yellow Submarine, the White Album is beyond such things. Rollicking good fun and thanks to the happy accident of the final verse, and its separation from the rest of the band’s oeuvre, it’s got to stay.

Wild Honey Pie – NO

Extraordinary, especially when balanced against Side 4’s Honey Pie. A fun ditty, it continues the long, yearning sound set by Dear Prudence, revved up through Green Onion and even present in the kerplunk piano of Ob-La-Di. A classic example of the Beatles’ brooking no answers. It’s inexplicable, and perhaps most interesting for demonstrating how this album can make the happiest refrains unsettling. For that, it fails the cut.

The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill – NO

The dark subject matter in the structure of a expedition debrief and fairytale, with Ringo’s vocals high in the chorus mix, it foreshadows some of Lennon’s weightier Plastic Ono work. It’s one of the prime examples of Lennon mining the band’s recent history, only on this album things are more personal and more biting. But its quality doesn’t make the single LP.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – NO

Controversial. From the interjections ‘Hey Up’ to the staccato piano and booming bass line, Weeps is proof like nothing else that George Harrison was overlooked. Listening to the Esher demos helps reveal more of its influence. But perhaps because it’s so White Album, it’s out. Wait for it…

Happiness Is a Warm Gun – YES

A fascinating multi-part song, and based on the demos, there could have been more parts. The closest to an album microcosm, from the melancholy to the symphonic to the rhythm and blues. Lennon termed it a, “history of rock ‘n’ roll”. As John Harris recently put it, this typifies the sound of an album recorded at twilight. Simultaneously personal and surreal, it was reputedly Harrison and McCartney’s favourite song on the album. That could be because of the intense collaboration required to make it work. For that reason, it’s in.

SIDE TWO

Martha My Dear – NO

A rather prancy Macca symphony sets the tone for the second side, but like the whimsy of When I’m 64 on Sgt Pepper there’s a little more to it. This is loaded with searching questions and dark chords. It’s a fine companion to some of the more revolutionary anthems that crept into crooners’ set-lists as the 1960s continued, but is badly affected by hindsight. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer was a year away and coloured the trajectory of McCartney whimsy.

I’m So Tired – YES

Quite possibly the birth of stoner rock, along with the second disc’s Sexy Sadie. Some of the album’s finest lyrics include, “and curse the walls around me: He was such a stupid get”  the Esher demos reveal the melodic similarity to Bungalow Bill, but this one wins as Lennon’s late-Beatles follow-up to I’m Only Sleeping. What a difference two years make.

Blackbird – YES

Despite taking the reins for Sgt Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album may be McCartney’s finest hour. Deceptively simple: inspired by Bach (Bourrée in E minor, which George and Paul both practised in their formative years), developed from finger-picking taught to Macca by Donovan, and later revealed to be one of the album’s subtle nods to politics (American civil rights). It’s also crucial in setting up the classical and animal-related themes heading to the heart of the album (if they make it).

Piggies  – NO

A song with baggage, but apparently sparked from George Harrison’s questioning Paul about his silly songs. It’s satirical and sardonic, but regardless of its misappropriation in counter-culture, it could have been far subtler.

Rocky Raccoon – YES

The third animal-related song in a row, a poke at folk, and a catchy American ballad, with every Beatle involved and George Martin on honky-tonk. One of the album’s most covered, it’s simply essential.

Don’t Pass Me By – YES

Ringo’s first big moment on the album is a storming bunch of fun, with laugh out loud lyrics. Effectively a two-hander between him and McCartney, which is just as well considering the song’s lyrics, written by Ringo in 1962, were publicly mocked by Paul in 1964. Remorse has a place.

Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? – NO

Perhaps an answer to the song before it? It’s a three-chord impromptu Macca wundersong that helps break down preconceptions about the clean-cut Beatles. But in taking himself off to record it virtually alone, this key point of isolation that would still earn Lennon’s ire years later, is solituded out…

I Will – YES

A definitive switch as McCartney’s melodious folk song follows the blistering vocal of Why Don’t We Do it in the Road? This would be a ‘maybe’ along with While My Guitar Gently Weeps but earns a place thanks to the glimmers of Beatles for Sale peeking through and Lennon on box percussion. It’s innovative and haunting; nostalgic for a time that’s impossibly recent.

Julia – YES

For all Lennon’s “hurt” that McCartney took himself to produce songs singlehanded, only Macca’s voice on the demos prevent this from being Lennon’s payback. It’s a stunning moment and one of John’s painfully biographic pieces. The end of the original single album, completing the classical rise of I Will. Included, not least, because of the injustice that it was later issued as a B-side to the band’s single of Ob-la-di ob-la-da.

SIDE THREE

Birthday – No

Rather mesmerising, silly, rocking – Birthday has an astonishing sound. Perhap it’s the peak of Lennon and McCartney’s collaboration on this album which says a lot a year or so after A Day in the Life. Lennon later termed it “rubbish,” but for all the enjoyment conjured up by a piece pretty much improvised in the studio…

Yer Blues – YES

Dark, howling, claustrophobic and eminently singable. As one of the select songs that they Fab Four all appear on, they naturally packed themselves in a claustrophobic cupboard at Abbey Road to capture this stripped back sound. Boy are we glad they did. Best viewed as a firm parry in the battle of Lennon and McCartney to nail the best blues-rock performance that runs through the Beatles’ later years.

Mother Nature’s Son – NO

A fitting, encapsulation of the post-Epstein era. It could rival Blackbird as McCartney’s finest contribution to the album, and duly kicked what would become Jealous Guy from the running order. Another McCartney one piece, according to engineer Geoff Emerick, it came at the height of tensions. So for this list, it’s pushed out the way by I WIll.

Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey – NO

It’s brilliant, don’t get me wrong. Another in Lennon’s veiled, or not so veiled, drug songs. It’s pelting and fun, but leaves the other Beatles in its wake so misses a spot.

Sexy Sadie – NO

Languid excellence, picking up the soft rock of I’m So Tired. But as with that song, there’s a sting. Lucky to make the cut after Lennon’s searing criticism of the Maharishi morphed the title and sweary content. The discordant piano is captivating, the menace barely hidden, paving the way for the singer’s searing solo pieces like How Do You Sleep At Night? The other Beatles early reluctance, and reference to the band’s life off-camera, make this easier to chop.

Helter Skelter – YES

It’s worth including just for the way it comes back at the end. McCartney wanted to rival The Who with a loud and raucous song. There’s also a 27 minute hypnotic version, proving the idea transcends music. No doubt piqued by macca’s extraordinary vocal performance (see Yer Blues), in 1980 Lennon would say, “It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me”. (All Beatles were involved, including Lennon on backing vocals and bass).

Long, Long, Long – YES

A sign of intent, showing where George Harrison’s increased profile (heading into a solo career) would go; establishing what would become a trademark ambiguity, referencing spirituality and love on a scale of acceptance. There’ a lot going on in this deceptively quiet and haunting song, up to the disturbing, final, primal howl.

SIDE FOUR

Revolution 1 – YES

Slower than you remember, thanks to the different versions that emerged. A nice counterpoint to Macca’s album opener, it’s the most overtly political song on the album, but not the most searing. Most interest lies in its excellent composition and Lennon hedging his bets.

Honey Pie – NO

There’s simply no need for this tribute to music hall on a single album, even if McCartney’s persistent fascination with it proves the major casualty of this cull.

Savoy Truffle – NO

Side Four is agony, as it’s where the treat of misdirection truly lies. It’s also particularly painful to shelve a Harrison track. Savoy Truffle isn’t easy to dismiss. For one, it reveals the remarkable solidarity of the album by referencing Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. For another, some see this as the progenitor of glam rock. Sadly, none of this is enough.

Cry Baby Cry – YES

A song that needs to be on the Beatles’ 1968 record. Joining Julia as a skillful fusion of fairytale and contemporary culture, it may mean this album’s concept is far more complete than many think. It puts the Doll’s House in the piece and makes for a fine ending. McCartney’s Can You Take Me Back Where I Came From at the close, a copyright free improvisation, came from the I Will take. But in this trimmed album, makes for a lovely coda in the vein of A Day in the Life while removing its role as a rather sinister introduction to…

Revolution 9 – NO

We can’t conscionably include this on a single LP, as much as the Lennon-driven bat-crazy sampling speaks for much of the White Album’s intent, at least John’s “revolution using sound” left the opening for music that followed.

Good Night – NO

A fine way to finish the double album, with Ringo smoothly taking on Lennon’s lullaby (written for his son Julian) against George Martin’s lush arrangement. For once this is Lennon harking back to a bygone era, but as McCartney’s nostalgia has had short shrift in this pruning, it’s only fair to drop this too. So, Can You take Me Back Where I Came From, left as an open question…

Bonus: There would be little room on the disk (alright, maybe without Revolution 9 there would be a lot), but to stoke the controversy even further, we’d add in Hey Jude. Recorded in the White Album sessions but released three months before, it’s the Penny Lane or Strawberry Fields of this era so we’d be correcting two wrongs.

So there you go, a pruned single LP that looks like this:

Side A

  • Dear Prudence
  • Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
  • Happiness Is a Warm Gun
  • I’m So Tired
  • Blackbird
  • Rocky Raccoon
  • Don’t Pass Me By

Side B

  • I Will
  • Julia
  • Yer Blues
  • Helter Skelter
  • Long, Long, Long
  • Revolution 1
  • Cry Baby Cry
  • Hey Jude

That’s a fine album. But it’s clearly doesn’t conjure up whatever it is the White Album is, not least because it’s cruelly removed the Harrison numbers. And that’s a teller, as Revolver’s Taxman explosively revealed, Harrison was the most salient, with an eye on either side of the circus.

Against an extraordinary year of unrest and politicism, a far stretch from the euphoria that surrounded 1966 and Revolver, where the references and musical development are far more cleancut, the White Album manages to be overtly political but fudge almost all of it. It tips the scale of whimsy, but keeps a cold dislocated heart. It’s the sound of a band breaking up who’ve never collaborated better. It’s the individual and the group like never heard before or since.

The White Album does something no other Beatles album could have done. Hugely affected by their Indian excursion shortly before, from Donovan’s musicality to Lennon’s cynicism the group’s whole awareness had leveled up, about themselves and their situation. With it came a new subtlety and controlled recklessness. What should be definable, a contrariness, was indefinable. Whatever genius was bottled in this band was brimming over, and there’s no greater proof than in the off-cuts. Making an album from the rejected songs tells its own story…

Side A

  • Back in the USSR
  • Green Onion
  • Wild Honey Pie
  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  • Martha My Dear
  • Piggies
  • Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?

Side B

  • Birthday
  • Mother Nature’s Son
  • Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
  • Sexy Sadie
  • Honey Pie
  • Savoy Truffle
  • Revolution 9
  • Good Night

 

Now isn’t that an interesting album? How did David Quantick put it? The White Album is an album you can never get bored of…

Read about Sgt Pepper

Read about Revolver

Personas: Letting the Evening Go with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles Other Egos

Sgt Peppers 50

It was 51 years ago… that the Beatles disappeared, shunted to the side by an Edwardian military band. The Lonely Hearts Club Band, taught to play by Sgt. Pepper two decades before. On their golden anniversary, the most famous band in the world’s most famous alter-egos still capture the imagination…

“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”

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THE ALBUM COVER OF SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND MAY JUST BE THE MOST FAMOUS PIECE OF POP ART EVER PRODUCED. The Peter Blake and Jann Haworth composition is both a perfectly captured instant and a bold attempt to set popular culture in time and space. It’s two, three and four dimensional. Famous faces assembled in the physical montage range from Karl Marx to Max Miller, HG Wells to Oscar Wilde. Objects range from a garden gnome to a Mexican candle stick. From the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe stands in the middle, Sir Robert Peel to the left and Lewis Carroll to the right. Two faces are painted out, Mahatma Gandhi at the request of EMI; Leo Gorcey because he churlishly, or wisely, requested a fee. From the Beatles early career, Stuart Sutcliffe dolefully stares at the camera from the far left. At the front right, a stone statue belonging to John Lennon became the physiognomy of Sgt. Pepper himself. But what of the band he taught to play, 20 years ago?

“That’s a funny place to put a goldfish bowl” – George Harrison, Yellow Submarine

There they are in the middle. Behind the drum skin carefully, if grammar-challengingly, emblazoned with the band’s logo by fairground artist Joe Ephgrave (that would sell for $670,000 four decades later). Decked in alternate hats, and different, brightly stylised military outfits, the four band members stare mirthlessly from the centre of the assembled great, good and censored. In their hands they carry, from left to right, French horn, trumpet, cor anglais, and flute. This four-piece might look familiar, but they’re not the Beatles. You can tell, because of the instruments. Oh, and because the Fab Four stand just to their left. Frozen in mop-topped Beatlemania – if you think they’re not looking quite themselves you’d have to take that up with their guardians at Madame Tussauds.

Thanks to Lennon, there’s a nod to the rapid ascent of that other band right at the heart. He asked Mona Best, owner of Liverpool’s Casbah Club and mother of Pete, the drummer famously dropped on the cusp of their ascent, if he could borrow her father’s war medals to wear. He later returned them safely along with the cash box trophy, immortalised in the floral ‘L’ of the band’s name on the cover.

Just left of centre, in-between the wax Paul McCartney’s grey suited elbow, and the moustached John Lennon’s day-glo green funny bone, it might as well be New Year’s Eve 1966, a sharp turning point in the perpetually evolving career of the band. Or perhaps a bit earlier…

End of the road

“Cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell”

The Beatles stopped touring in August 1966 after a difficult Asian tour fed into a tumultuous American one. John Lennon’s comments to The Evening Standard in March 1966, comparing the band rather favourably to Jesus, led to protests and ominous undertones at a nearly cancelled concert in Memphis. But it was in Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29 August that the Beatles road trip ground to a halt. For safety, Beatles concerts were staged in arenas. But flooded with supernatural screaming from the moment the Fabs appeared to long after they left the stage, the band couldn’t hear each other or their instruments. For a four-piece built on harmony, steadily shrugging off the pop star tag in favour of ground-breaking musicianship, the number was up for live performance that night. And as Ringo later recalled, for no one more than Lennon.

Frustrated, exhausted, and unhappy with their direction after a gruelling but prolific four years in the public eye, the Beatles immediately embarked on their second three-month holiday of 1966. Both breaks proved seminal. The first break prologued the fusing of the Beatles’ pop musicality with experimentation; the second cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell of Sgt. Pepper.

Somehow, the early break had accelerated the Beatles’ already fast-developing sound, with recording of the extraordinary Tomorrow Never Knows falling at the beginning of the Revolver sessions that April.

During the autumn break, Lennon was drawn to a film role in How I Won the War while furthering his journey to LSD-fuelled mind expansion. At an art launch he met Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney stuck to the studio, developing his knowledge of classical music while working on a soundtrack with producer George Martin. George Harrison headed to India to hone his Sitar skills under Ravi Shankar. Ringo Starr spent some quality time with his family, probably bought a car, and joined Lennon on location in Spain for a holiday where it was “damn hot”.

For the most part then, the defining influences and direction of the Beatles’ latter career were taking shape. Things had changed. Their new album would be the proof. The band’s earlier break led directly to touring and recording of their seventh album. By November 1966, Abbey Road studios had turned from a stop on a conveyor belt to a refuge from the maelstrom. They could focus solely on recording their eighth LP as tours fast retreated to history. With a broad canvas ahead of them instead of a road, an uninterrupted, unprecedented, five months in the studio lay ahead. Their experimentation was primed to reach its next stage.

As George Harrison reminded us, “We were inventing things you know, don’t forget”.

It began with the ground-breaking double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the perfect balance of Lennon and McCartney across two sides of a disc… or rather it didn’t. As well as being beaten to the number one slot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me, those November and December 1966 recordings never made it onto an album. Blocked by manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin’s noble if misguided belief that fans shouldn’t have to pay for a song twice. In the middle of the two recordings the whimsical ditty When I’m Sixty Four was laid down, described by McCartney as “Goony”, as in Goon Show, it was a sign that something theatrical, if not tongue-in-cheek, was afoot. 64 was to be the first album track of the sessions and it proved one thing: While Sgt. Pepper challenged, crossed, and smashed musical and production barriers, there was more to it than a technological revolution. As much as the Beatles had won their new ability to concentrate on studio work, they also needed to carve out a new creative space.

Pass the Sergeant

“One of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time”

In fact, inspiration for the band’s innovative approach came in the same month that recording sessions began, although they would take some time to take form. It was on plane from Kenya to London, and all thanks to a condiment.

As McCartney tells it, he was grabbing a bite with band roadie Mal Evans when he, “mumbled to me, asked me to pass the salt and pepper. And I misheard him. He said ‘saltandpepper’. I go, ‘Sergeant Pepper?’ I thought he said, ‘Sergeant Pepper’. I went, ‘Oh! Wait a minute, that’s a great idea!’ So, we had a laugh about it, then I started thinking about Sergeant Pepper as a character.” (Paul McCartney, 2017)

McCartney developed the concept almost immediately, visualising Pepper as leader of an Edwardian band, attending an award ceremony in a northern English town. Anachronistically, they took their moniker from the trend for long rambling band names and hippy culture that was breaking out across the west coast of America and had fascinated McCartney on the Beatles’ recent tour. His sketches developed the band’s military uniforms alongside a floral clock. That vision resembles the result, but it was to be moulded by necessary and inspirational collaborations over the next six months.

First, there were his band mates. As the zeitgeist unfolded, it was clear that the need to remove themselves from their past was universal. As McCartney put it, “I thought, let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos”. They were trying to “get away from ourselves”. In the grip of exploratory mind-opening, Lennon was quietly content to let McCartney take the lead, and Paul threw himself into the concept.

But it was only after the recording of the song Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the February of the recording sessions that McCartney’s brainwave truly developed, and the first rock concept album sprang to life. Two songs had already been recorded, including 64 and astonishing, iconic album closer A Day in the Life; another of the session’s perfect fusions of McCartney and Lennon in one composition.

The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track was an experimental step back from the more rounded, modern songs the Beatles recorded during 1966, but it managed to achieve something quite different. It fused a heritage, variety nostalgia with heavy rock. As a ripping, challenging sound as much as a rhythmic throw-back, it’s timeless. With the segue into With a Little Help from My Friends and McCartney’s introduction of singer Billy Shears, Ringo was the only member of the band’s alter-egos to be named (perhaps purposefully laying hints for emerging Beatles conspiracy theorists), and the concept was set. For a whole two songs.

Almost all the LP’s songs, including Good Morning, Good Morning and Lovely Rita carry the sense of acutely observed British sentiment. There’s a catching and uplifting joyousness in the mixture of dreams, (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Fixing a Hole) and mundanity, often in the same number. It’s a step away from the contemporary feel that had characterised the band’s previous albums, but not a step back. Those expecting a uniform concept after the opening two tracks are left wanting. Come the album’s end, it’s only in the title track and its reprise that an attempt at fluid continuation is present. And Billy Shears’ one and only song was a late-recording, written under pressure from the band’s label EMI in March 1967. The reprise followed at the suggestion of the Beatles’ friend and future head of Apple Corp Neil Aspinall. As Lennon wryly told him at the time, “nobody likes a smart arse”. But it was a masterstroke. That euphoric final recording of the session is not only one of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time, but one of the album’s highlights. It would have taken the final slot had A Day in the Life’s final chord not been so, well, finite.

The classic embrace

“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”

It wasn’t surprising that Sgt. Pepper was highly anticipated, it was a Beatles record after all. What was and still is surprising is the euphoria that met the zeitgeist of its release, five days earlier than scheduled, on 26 May. The band was ecstatic with the result, but the society around them also seemed to be waiting with open arms to receive what Times critic Kenneth Tynan would soon call a, “decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation”. It managed to fit 1967 like a key.

It may not be many Beatles fans’ favourite album, but it’s culture’s. It swept the western world, in an instant, dominating the airwaves in the late spring. Few things walk into the status of instant cultural icon, so how did it manage it?

There’s something about the album’s timing, composition, vision, fusion of music, art and theatre, Britishness and sentiment. Although it’s occasionally colder than Revolver, and predicts the aloof dislocation of their later albums, The Beatles crafted an optimistic celebration in what George Martin called the pinnacle of their collaboration. It was both utterly fantastic and entrenched in times past. It’s not a clash of time and culture but a gathering of all times. On the cover, taking vocals in two songs, maybe three, was the Edwardian band that couldn’t possibly celebrate its 20th anniversary in the late 1960s; that couldn’t possibly entertain hard rock with French horn and flute. Sgt. Pepper, for all its darker tones and occasional disconnected hubris – step forward John Lennon – was taken in a big hug by a generation eager to adopt an instant classic. Each song pushed music production, but as an expectation not an aim. Extraordinary flows through every song, but often in a terribly modest way.

Technical limitations were broken while they brought modulation from classical music to popular, expanded horizons from the old English home town to India. New techniques were invented through hard-worked, old school practicality. In a way, Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to. While staring into the kaleidoscope: yes, Sgt. Pepper is where the mundane sits alongside the imaginary, and backed by two sides of roaring tunes, complement each other.

Persona grata

The band concept isn’t strong, soon falling apart on a linear listen. But the creation of a rock concept is another trick Sgt. Pepper slipped easily into culture. In the parenthesis of the first and penultimate track there is enough space for the band to ease out of their natural personas. It’s the apparently lazy pursuit of that persona concept that aids Sgt. Pepper longevity. As the eponymous band dips in and out, most famous for their role on the album’s cover, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band manage to be simultaneously dated, modern and timeless.

And the band’s fans were ready to roll with that. It’s not like the floral signature of “Beatles” isn’t one of the overriding features of the distinctive cover. But the Fab Four had already done more for the concept of personas than the world realised.

Prior to the Beatles, most well-known figures who’d carved a foothold within popular music were solo artists, or an outstanding frontman, guitarist, or both who would emerge from a group to strike out on their own. The Beatles, however, set the template for a four-piece in band lore. So definitively in fact, that none of the many four pieces that have followed in their wake have achieved the balance of the original.

Legacy

None of those considerable four-pieces that inherited the formula in the decades that followed managed to balance such distinct personalities. It was a delicate balance in the Beatles’ case: the quiet one, the funny one, the pretty one… By A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the band was playing with their split personalities across songs, album covers and film. The dissolution of the Beatles in 1970, in a worn acrimony that fate would never reconcile, was there from the start. Those balanced personas could be unbalanced. Sgt. Pepper was the culmination of their optimum balance.

Over the next year the Beatles would adopt other minor personas, including cover star Lewis Carroll’s Walrus (“The Walrus was Paul” as 1968’s Green Onion tells us), and other characters in the extraordinary film and album concept Magical Mystery Tour (following hot on the heels of Sgt. Pepper in 1967, shortly after Epstein’s death).

In Yellow Submarine, the animated band (avatars of a real band uninterested in completing their film deal with United Artists) would set off to rescue their alter-egos and all Pepperland. But after the tumultuous, legacy defining cultural moment of Sgt. Pepper it’s telling that the next time the band recorded an album on this scale (the following year, after the misjudged road trip of Magical Mystery Tour), the album cover would be a simple, reactionary white.

Pepper creates himself

Perhaps the roots of The Lonely Hearts Club Band were stitched into the fabric of 1962’s Beatlemania and destined to burst out at some point. The Beatles inadvertently created the importance of persona in popular music in their rapid ascent. Just half a decade later, Sgt Pepper saw them combine it with the comfortable homogeneity of music past.

Glam bands would later seize the persona and concept that Sgt. Pepper hinted at to attract fans. There’s a marvellous coincidence, no doubt infuriating for one side of the equation at the time, that David Bowie’s debut album was also released on 1 June 1967. But as contrary as some parts of the Sgt. Pepper album is, personas were a natural way for the Beatles to distance themselves from their fan base. Back to McCartney, getting the okay the Beatles way:

“I just talked to all the guys and said, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ They liked it and I said, ‘It will mean, when I approach the mic, it’s not Paul McCartney. I don’t have to think this is a Paul McCartney song’. So, it was freeing. It was quite liberating.”

As manager Brian Epstein was reported as saying at the band’s decision to abandon live touring in 1966, “What am I going to do now?” He didn’t give up trying to convince the band to return to the road, but he never succeeded in his lifetime. Brian Epstein would die almost exactly one year after their final performance at Candlestick Park, having overseen their rise to being the most famous band in the world, and their creation of one, if not the, greatest fictional bands of all time.

And not turning up for most of the album, was one of the Lonely Heart Club Band’s greatest moves. We still enjoy the show.

References:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 50th Anniversary reissue

1966: Revolver at 50, Jokerside.com

You Gave Me the Answer Sgt. Pepper special, Paulmccartney.com

The Beatles, Hunter Davies

Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald

Sgt. Pepper Forever, BBC Radio 2

Beatles Anthology

First published on Niume on 26 May 2017.

Turn back the clock with our 50th anniversary celebration of Revolver

1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50

1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns 50

“Kicking off with a different loner”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released in Italy 50 years ago today, completing Sergio Leone’s hugely influential trilogy. The Dollars Trilogy? The Man With No Name trilogy? Whatever it completed, however it fits with the other films, Jokerside salutes the 50th anniversary of a classic that created and consolidated a sub-genre…

IT’S 50 YEARS SINCE ENNIO MORRICONE’S FAMOUS THEME FIRST WHISTLED FROM CINEMA LOUDSPEAKERS, MAKING WAY FOR FIVE DECADES, SO FAR, OF COUNTLESS REINTERPRETATIONS, RECYCLING AND PASTICHE. Although, it’s not really 50 years… True, the final and most famous film of what we’ll call the Dollars Trilogy for ease was released in director Sergio Leone’s native Italy 50 years ago today. But it’s not until next year that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly celebrates its golden anniversary in the country that lent the film its fabric if not its landscapes and behind the camera talent. Oh, nor its predecessor For a Few Dollars more. Nor in fact, that film’s predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. You see, every film of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was released in the United States in 1967. That may sound like a heady year for the Western, but each release was met with middling disdain on release. 50 years on, it’s a different story…

Leone’s impact on the rich fabric of world cinema stemmed from the film wealth of his upbringing. The son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film star Edvige Valcarenghi, by the 1950s the young Leone had worked his way into cinematography and screenwriting in the Italian capital he was a native of. Italian cinema that had blossomed over the previous half century and never shied from borrowing elements from international cinema despite the frequent bright sparks of its own auteurs. It was to be a tradition continued in the Dollars Trilogy opener, A Fistful of Dollars. A deliberately fresh take on the established American Western format, it introduced The Man with No Name. A stranger emerging from the nowhere of the desert, entering a new town, and soon extracting money from two rival gangs by playing them off each other. He’d incur a vicious beating on the way to a bloody victory, but for all the enhanced violence and terror, this mysterious antihero was full of quiet sarcasm, prone to the odd trick alongside his evident gun skills and an odd protagonist to root for in the midst of some kinetic camera work.

Unfortunately Fistful’s debt was worn broadly, prompting Akira Kurosawa, the eminent director of the sublime Yojimbo to send Leone a letter telling him it was “… A very fine film. But it is my film”. The fact that Kurosawa’s 1961 film was itself was quite probably indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest didn’t matter as the suits fell in Yojimbo’s favour. The recognition of similarity in intent would have surely gratified Leone, who towards the end of his career said: “From a project like (Kurosawa’s) Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.” But for all the costly sacrifice, in terms of distribution and box office, from this first ‘homage’ Leone had set cardinal rules for what would quickly become known as Spaghetti Westerns. He picked apart the Western genre, defied conventions and infused it with an utterly inappropriate yet tremendously fitting context of other times and cultures. Morricone’s scores was a massive aid in that quirky, healthy, disrespect.

The cunning of Fistful‘s anti-hero would grow with the trilogy and become a defining trope. Unexpected actions played out through partnerships riven by betrayal, always circling and sometimes opposing supreme and callous violence. Leone would later describe the “picaresque” aspirations of the trilogy’s final instalment, the third film that truly fuses the Western to that Spanish and southern European narrative form.

Boiling spaghetti

“I had always thought that the ‘good,’ and the ‘bad’ and the ‘violent’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” – Sergio Leone

It turned out that predominantly Italian film-makers working in Spain, funded by from Germany, Italy and Spain, made a fine Western through Leone’s lens. And that was the point. Westerns had dominated American film production for many years, but the industry was grinding down by the mid-1960s. And the genre wasn’t alone, the same was true with that other great fuel of Hollywood, the musical. Within a decade, both would be blown out of the water as the sharks of new wave cinema jumped in. But while Hollywood eased off, as if prescient of its collapse, Leone saw potential.

A Fistful of Dollars was an attempt to re-establish the Western for the Italian market, the director realising that the Wild West still generated considerable interest in Europe. Recognising a crossover appeal, the favourable response of Italian audiences to the contemporary work of his peers and the entropy of a genre that he considered stagnant and unrealistic, Leone sought to make an Italian Western. At the centre he put a trickster in the grand Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, an enigma of a man who could act as the pivot between comedy with extreme violence and drag the audience into an unfamiliar stylised world. And to seize that mantle he picked an actor best known for small-screen scale cowboy fare, damning his capacity for facial expressions on the way. The rest, as they say, was and is history.

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

“Welcome to you stranger”

It’s impossible not to see A Fistful of Dollars as an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but any sacrifice in originality is swamped by the by the celluloid adrenaline it shot into a moribund genre and its overall benefit to a burgeoning sub-genre. A distinctive entry, it remains the most clean-cut of the Dollars Trilogy even as it lays down and explores what would become those oh so crucial crucial Spaghetti tropes. We first meet the Man with No Name, in this film called Joe, as he watches bandits shooting at the feet of a child, shortly after wryly accepting a spurned glance from a woman at a window. That woman is the distracted Marisol and although her story lies at the heart of scuppering Joe’s plans later on, Fistful never threatens a love story. There’s no foreshadowing for that in the considerable, unseen history of this man, nor the masochistic ploys he almost immediately sets in motion. His first, trademark, mono-syllabic greeting of “Hallo” is to Silvanito the innkeeper who tells him as much from the start.

“Eating, drinking and killing, that’s all you can do”

Fistful was shot on a miniscule budget of around $200,000, allowing for a sparse town for The Man to walk into. Often empty, but dominated by the two rival gangs he flits between, there’s no doubt what will unfold in a town where the coffin maker’s so experienced he can measure for a box with a glance. Having felled the gunslingers who humiliated him when he entered the town, crucially proving his prowess to both gangs, the first pang of the Man’s wry humour falls on the coffin maker: “Get three coffins ready… “My mistake, four coffins”. Within minutes Leone’s presented the shape of this character, from skills to hard edge, devilish patience to humour. Read more…

Doctor Who: The Master through the decades – The New Series Compression Eliminated

The New Series Masters - 21st century

Bringing the Master’s journey up to the current day. For the past two years, Jokerside has tracked the Doctor’s arch-nemesis through time… Well, through the past five decades. From his suave arrival in the 1970s to her tussles with the Twelfth Doctor, Jokerside presents the summary… The 21st century: The Master throughout the New Series!

ARRIVING EIGHT YEARS INTO THE SHOW’S RUN, THE MASTER QUICKLY ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AT THE TOP TABLE OF DOCTOR WHO VILLAINS. The 18 years that followed saw mixed fortunes for the dastardly Time Lord, from volte faces to crispy husk, from zombie smarmy to a complete lack of priorities.

The suggestion remained however, that the foe would always return for the big moments. While the Daleks and Cybermen stole a spot in the show’s 25th anniversary season, it was the Master who backed the final story of the Classic Series. On many levels, brilliantly named Survival. Seven years later, it was the Master who took the role of antagonist in the Doctor’s short-lived foray into American television.

So surely it was a done deal that the show’s glorious return to British screens in 2005 was counting down to the greatest death-dodger’s next resurrection… It just took a couple of years. And when this Jokerside retrospective of the Master through the decades reached the 21st century, a few rules needed to be broken.

The schism caused by the Great Time War on screen and the machinations of the BBC behind it, led to two parallel glances for the first decade of the new century. The Who canon had split and the trail of the Master with it. Although it hadn’t appeared likely at the beginning of the decade, the 2000s would prove to be a pivotal decade for the despicable Time Lord. He was to take on three distinct forms, breaking out of his survivalist years with a bang, before plummeting back to them and helping to take out yet another of the Doctor’s incarnations on the way. And then things were really going to change.

But the confusion started, as Jokerside observed, with the villain’s demise at the close of the 1996 TV Movie, “an inescapable ‘curse of fatal’ type death, was subsequently picked up by two very different returns that resolved in two parallel universes. And of course, thanks to the ever-eccentric machinery of the BBC, they’re as co-dependent as they are incompatible. Yeah, and people wonder why fans are pre-occupied with canonicity… To make matters even more confusing, across the two realities there are some notable similarities to mull.”

So, let’s split the universe.

The Master in the 2000s – “Dear me, how tiresome” (A Tale of Two Jacobis)

Scream of the Shalka, online anniversary special (2003)

The Master in Scream of the Shalka and UtopiaNovember 2003 marked Doctor Who’s 40th anniversary, but there wasn’t to be much of a celebration or televised special as there had been around the show’s 10th, 20th or 30th birthdays. At least, not in the usual sense. Doctor Who was no longer a beast of television, but continued through an extended universe of audio plays, books official and unauthorised, comics, reprints, merchandise and in the of-their-time web pages of BBC Interactive.

The dream project of James Goss, then BBC producer now Who author, had to steer the production over rocky terrain to bring a new kind of special to dial-up internet across the world. Gs pulled a number of great decisions from the jaws of adversity, such as hiring Paul Cornell to pen the script. And Cornell’s take was no slavish continuation:

“Cornell crafted a classic and creepy tale in the Quatermass-mould, an innovative invasion that was in many ways a lighter precursor of the process Russell T Davies would undertake for the television reboot. It’s no surprise they came up with some similar solutions in the changed media landscape of the new century. Rightly ignoring regeneration, as Rose would, Shalka introduced a new Doctor with a notably sharper and fluctuating personality, coping with in-built angst as he struggled to shake off the grief of losing an unseen and un-named female companion. In this continuity, much to his chagrin and resentment he’s continually dispatched to problem areas by those unseen and unnamed… We can only assume that the Time Lords had a new PR team in.”

And alongside Richard E Grant’s new Doctor came was a refreshing if deceptively familiar Master in tow.

“In a series of short scenes, this Master cuts a memorable figure. Superbly voiced by Derek Jacobi, his is an incarnation very much in the Delgado mould. In many ways, this is Cornell’s love letter to that Master. But the trick here is that he’s never a major threat. As if he’s trapped in a time loop of the last few minutes of almost every one of the Delgado incarnation’s plots – forced into joining forces with the Doctor.”

Cornell managed the difficult feat of wringing classic menace and humour from the villain, enhanced by the flash-based but effective animation that often keeps, “this android Master’s silhouette in shadow amid stunningly shadowy imagery, as if to compound his mysterious constraint.” The links were never tied up, but there are clear assumptions to be drawn from this and his fate at the climax of the TV Movie. Best of all, it brought a ready-made new dynamic for the show’s leading Time Lords: Read more…

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