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

The Dark Knight at 10: 10 ways it Introduced a Little Anarchy

Batman The Dark Knight at 10

“Why so Serious?”

Heath Ledger’s Joker, disappearing pencils, Harvey’s lucky coin, love triangles, Batpods and a Caped Crusader having to cross the line. Cinema’s greatest comic book adaptation was released 10 years ago.

It’s a decade since the majestic centre point of Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy simultaneously elevated the perception of what comic book films could be on film and set a tone, whether resisted or followed, for a genre making its way to the top of the box office.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the year of The Dark Knight’s release also saw the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, imperceptibly starting on its own journey to redefine Hollywood blockbusters. That behemoth began rather inauspiciously with the double-bill of an unstoppable force of chaos and a super crime fighting multi-millionaire playboy. Although there was little appreciation that the billion dollar box office barrier The Dark Knight smashed through would soon become de rigueur for the flagship films of DC’s great rivals.

Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre.

A decade on, The Dark Knight stands tall as Batman’s finest celluloid hour. That’s saying something for a film that’s part of a rigid, isolationist trilogy and for a character whose live action pedigree stretches across multiple iterations and 70 years. Nolan’s vision soon proved to be definitive to the point of irony in the fast-growing comic book genre. The trilogy was an impossible springboard for an expanded film universe, but it set the tone under the light guiding hand of Chris Nolan for the difficult DC Extended Universe that followed in the past decade.

The Dark Knight wasn’t the first comic book film that strove for a level of realism or ‘darkness’, but it’s effect was immediate. Given the successful but unfashionable steps to colour that DC’s big hitters Superman and Batman had taken in the 1960s and 1970s, in the 21st century their incarnations would be set by The Dark Knight. The DCEU that duly emerged half a decade later was dark, gloomy, robust, powerful and hard-hitting. This was the universe of gods, eager to set a strong and lofty tone that comic pages could translate to screen. It now seems odd now that this sprang from the grounded and gritty Dark Knight trilogy as much as Nolan’s film’s became a watchword for darkness (read ‘not kids films’) without being mired in it, unlike Batman versus Superman or Man of Steel.

There have been few disasters in the DC films that followed. 2011’s Green Lantern may be the true exception, although that came mid-Dark Knight trilogy. But there have been plenty of disappointments, a far cry from the heights of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The impact of Nolan’s trilogy on the DCEU is still difficult to call. On the anniversary of The Dark Knight’s release this weekend, Warner Brothers premiered trailers at San Diego Comic Con for two new DC films that broke their so-called dark curse: Shazam and Aquaman. Alongside those was an early glimpse at the New Romantic-set sequel to one of last year’s great comic film successes, Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman may have felt like a fresh slice of quality amid other major DC output from the last few years, but it’s storytelling style, reach and multiple levels owed much to Nolan’s trilogy, proving that Batman’s greatest celluloid moment, has a legacy as complex as its narrative.

To celebrate the modern comic classic, Jokerside presents 10 ways The Dark Knight broke the mold and unexpectedly gave us one of the most influential films of all time.

Dark Knight at 10 - Batman

1. It’s extraordinarily faithful

“I think you and I are destined to do this forever”

A struggle with origins have long dragged down the comic book medium, and the rot set into Batman’s modern film existence as soon as Tim Burton’s 1989 classic let a rather homicidal Dark Knight avenge his parents’ death. 2005’s Batman Begins made its more mature intent clear: there were no easy answers, and the crux lay in the battered tussle between Bruce Wayne and Batman.

It was a broad canvas ready to be explored in the sequel, but what was extraordinary was Nolan’s faithfulness to the source material. Joker was no stranger to public consciousness, but his film credentials were tied up in Jack Nicholson’s definitive 1980s take. The rather obvious idea of directly translating many great and classic storylines from the pages of comic books has only settled in over the past decade. After Begins Nolan had his sights set on the very beginning of Batman’s much explored and interpreted nemesis, and adapting an origin lost over decades of character development.

In the run-up to the film, eyebrows raised at Nolan’s assertion that his Joker would follow the character’s original 1940 comic book appearance. But there it is. The chillingly cool opening bank robbery, albeit to a different end, shows the same effective big dollar robber. Working alone for the most part, this Joker is quite at home with physical altercation, even if he doesn’t quite match his early comic book counterpart who could best Batman in a scrap. He comes from nowhere, with no identity but an intelligence to match the otherworldly comic horror of his appearance. And just as in Batman #1 the Joker issues warnings before commiting crimes. Now in a different medium, and not so clearly because he’s obsessed with his own brilliance, he still remains a man of his word. Read more…

Halloween V: Re-carving the Pumpkin – Michael Myers Zombie-style

Halloween V: Re-carving the Pumpkin - Michael Myer Zombie-style

 

Halloween had tried a partial reboot for its 20th anniversary, but it was Rob Zombie who took the definitive slasher back to basics just before it’s 30th. Are you ready to head further behind the mask of Michael Myers than ever before? It’s brutal and all a little bit like history repeating…

“Sam, it’s a fucking massacre”

NINE TIMES LUCKY. AFTER 2002’s RESURRECTION WRENCHED THE FRANCHISE BACK TO ITS CLUMSY SIXTH INSTALMENT, THERE WAS AN APPETITE FOR THE FIRST FULL-SCALE REBOOT OF THE DEFINITIVE HORROR SLASHER. The leaner world of 21st century horror saw most box-office diverted to the dominant sub-genre of torture porn and graphic bodily violence, increasingly removed from the supernatural-tinged slashers of the ‘80s and ‘90s. 2003’s Freddy Vs Jason had closed the door on the slasher anti-heroes of the 80s, even if Michael Myers’ invite had been lost in the post, so there was only one way to go. Ditch the post-modern; go for a straight bat / carving knife.

It took five years for Rob Zombie’s reimagining to return Myers to the screen, returning to the slasher original, its shape reassembled to contemporary tastes. The new director was successfully hooked by rights holders Dimension Films following the favourable reception to his films, House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. But before he allowed himself to be loose on the Shape, Zombie sought the sage advice of franchise grandee John Carpenter. Himself a master of the straight bat, Carpenter either advised, or requested, that Zombie, “make it his own”.

The former White Zombie front man was a compelling successor to Carpenter. As well as writing, directing, and producing, the sequel he could also carry heft in the music department (credited as music supervisor), like his illustrious predecessor – even if the ‘best horror film score’ ever had been taken. And the two films that emerged made for a compelling return. A closed chapter in the franchise, capturing a stark flavour and focus of its own, and one indelibly attached to Zombie’s name. His two-film run is a considered success, certainly beating other reimaginations in the genre, including 2009’s Friday the 13th or 2013’s The Evil Dead; although the pickings were slim.

Zombie’s intended to reclaim the original menace, reintroducing cinema goers to Michael Myers while showing them far more of the icon’s back story. That enabled Zombie to address what he perceived, ironically, as an over-familiarity with the slasher. One that had similarly dampened icons like Krueger and Vorhees in their sprawling horror franchises. He intended to stitch a biographical ambiguity into Michael’s famous journey back home. But adding a past and diluting the original purity, comes with consequences. Consequences for retuned characters, a set sequence of events, and the central antagonist’s MO. Tune up the keyboard. Let’s journey back to Haddonfield.

Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009)

“Look Miss Myers, I do not enjoy calling you down here every five minutes”

Zombie’s decision to delve into Michael Myers’ backstory has major implications for a film that, when in full slash mode replicates the original quite faithfully. The most notable change in those Haddonfield scenes is the considerable shortening of familiar scenes and relationships. The slow build-up and tension so essential to the emergence of the Shape in 1978 is compacted, affecting his appearance, style and movement as well as the web of characters he disturbs.

Child’s play

Halloween Season of the Witch and the Return of Michael MyersThere’s an uncompromising start, of course focussed on the Myers house. But instead of the tracking shot and reveal, we see the dysfunctional family in full, and barely watchable, swing. For all the attempt to add backstory to the hulking monster at the heart of the story, the film has to acknowledge that we already know who Myers is and what he will become. There was never the chance of a shock reveal, which pushes the weight of the narrative on the boy’s journey animal mutilator to knife-obsessed psychopath, although there’s plenty of the clown suit. We meet the live-in lout of a father figure and night-working mum; we see the horrors domestic abuse, the bullying at school, and the older sister who’s a factor in both. Crucially, we also see the baby at home, nicknamed Boo’ by her older brother – here, Michael’s aged to 10 – and also the child psychologist the school calls in when they find implicating pictures, and souvenirs of animal mutilation in his bag. A certain Dr Samuel Loomis. Read more…

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