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”

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

Glastonbury: Memory of a Wet Festival

 Glastonbury Festival Cow 2005

Nine Years since I was last at Glastonbury… It was so darned good I’ve never really felt the need to go back…

Yes back, back to 2005…

SUNDAY 29TH JUNE, AND THE DUST OF WORTHY FARM HAS BEEN WELL AND TRULY SATURATED AND CHURNED BY THE SHUFFLE OF A MILLION WELLINGTON BOOTS.

Strangely, many people seemed to head down yesterday, the Saturday.  By that time the moat of cars would be at peak, blissfully ignoring the threat of long exit queues mashed with mud trenches that will hit them tomorrow. I wonder how many not at all remotely incongruous Bentleys will be stationed on a slope, asking of everyone who passes how long their handbrake tension actually is (consensus: less than three days).

It’s nine years since I was last at Glastonbury and I’m fairly confidently that was my last (in a never say never type way)…

Road Trip

The festival had slumped under regulation and reality

It was an inauspicious start nine years ago.  We had a Thursday arrival as usual, but people were already surrendering to the Glasto week, filling up the site by Wednesday.  By the time we arrived after some rather marvellous Bowie and Beatles harmonies on the road, most pitches had been laid.  The half-hearted attempt to camp near The Glade or somewhere close to that enchanted inner land was blocked.  Turned away several times, and rather burdened by my insistence we only make one trip, we were already behind.

Tired and mottled, it was to our piebald cousins, the cows. The gravel path leading up to farm gave refuge, although it wasn’t ideal.  A lovely, somehow lonely view of the Pyramid Stage, but otherwise just a little less magical and a little more corporate. Cash points beeped not too far away.  Same as it ever was.  The festival had slumped under regulation and reality at the turn of the century.  In 2002 the super fence was unveiled, bringing horrid connotations and two undeniable facts: One that the free festival was over or if it wasn’t , Glastonbury definitely was. The other, that it would never really be the same again.

The Wall Change

I was near an ice cream van

The year that followed the wall was noticeably empty, probably to the tune of hundreds of thousands.  Worse, the crowd, whether uncovered by new found space or simply reflecting a new paradigm, was heavily corporate. City boys taking notes for their next Hedgestock.  It was inevitable that the photo cards would follow, then the hour sell out.  In 2005, was already difficult. I managed to secure tickets with the help of a 56k dial up modem. It was painful. I was lucky…

As usual, Glastonbury isn’t sold on acts. They are almost entirely announced after the tickets have sold out and of course it’s possible, if not encouraged, that you spend the whole festival without seeing a single slice of live music. There’s more than enough going on to hide that away.

I’d been many times before. From the odd state of affairs when Skunk Anansie headlined the 20th century to someone catching Keanu Reeves bass with an apple (and hitting the perfect E). From Roger Water’s huge quadraphonic blackmail and apparently the greatest gig I’ve ever been to, Faithless (that was according to NME – I was near an ice cream van).  Of headliners, from REM to Air, Rod Stewart’s mandolin and football mash up and of course, Bowie’s peerless return in 2000 (Now, that was the greatest gig I’ve ever been to).

Calm Before…

I fell asleep to slight growls of thunder

A first evening at Glastonbury should always involve a trip to the Sacred Space.  Pre-2002, this was a classic place for all sorts of course – punctuated by daring and generally successful attempts to break over the minor wall before The Wall. Obese and neon security bumbling after wiry gatecrashers.  This time, aside from the odd panda car struggling to climb the mud perimeter, there was little of the old.  And perhaps it was the change of atmosphere or earlier camping disappointments but the evening ended in disharmony.

I sat at the Sacred Space for a while, kept company by some cigarettes.  As I left, the night had stolen the purple skies and it was impossible to see the heavy clouds it hid.  I took the long return to the Big Ground and as I walked, large rain drops hit my shoulder. I fell asleep to slight growls of thunder, fully certain that this Glastonbury wouldn’t be a classic.

That it rained overnight was undeniable.  But I woke, late to fairly clear skies.  The day before’s recriminations had gone of course, today was festival day. But the problem was it was already late and we’d missed. It was the year following John Peel’s passing and the Buzzcocks were to kick off the Pyramid Stage. We couldn’t hear them, but we were already well into that.  There was little to comment on the weather, from people or announcements. Phones were limited, Facebook still not massively adopted. It was a fair walk to get The Glastonbury Free Press, which this year has every adjective available for download.

What was strange was the path running down to near the Pyramid area which was now a stream.  Looking out from our rocky outcrop there wasn’t much to see, but in fact we were missing everything and absolutely nothing.

Muddy Ragnarok

Heimdall had sounded the advent…

That thunderstorm had wreaked merry japes overnight, with direct lightning hits knocking out several stages. Radio 1 was down, flash floods had soaked my original camping choice with four feet of water and the first three bands on the main stage had been cancelled. Our camping solution was suddenly wise, our lateness forgotten.

Suddenly, the year defined by Kylie headlining then not headlining had something a little more traditional to worry about. Heimdall had sounded the advent of a muddy ragnarok.

That’s the thing with Glastonbury. In the indent of the valley, too much sunlight creates a dust bowl which is quickly stirred into mud by just the merest dash of lightest rain. Perfect for the English summer in other words. Fetch some strawberries.

Mud skating is easy to gain proficiency in – and by far the best way to get around. For once, the reduced numbers were a bonus.  Many were conducting salvage operations in newly found lakes and there was no temptation to sunbathe and relax at the Jazz Stage arena.  But most of all, when Glastonbury, with cynically overpriced rain attire packing out its markets, heads for the mud, solidarity is the only way forward. If you get stuck, it’s likely there’s a stranger opposite you who’s also stuck. Force and equal force, equal and opposite attraction. That’s what it’s all about.

Endgame

An inebriant with the lightening flexibility of a thousand Neos

I stayed pristine for two days, with expertly attached surfing bin liners on each foot.  That is until Saturday night, when sneaking past New Order I fell into a crater. To great cheers.  From then it was all bets off, an unrecognisable long-haired golem in a Kleenex tee-shirt.  Still, after that plunge there was still an epic journey to undertake – to the freshly minted John Peel Stage – through an obstacle course of mud and hay bales.  And so fuelled by that same solidarity and six litres of hallucinogenic pear cider I set off.

It was perilous. And by my return, after heckling The Magic Numbers (inadvertently and constantly) the mud stretch back was almost unbreachable.  And to my eternal credit, I missed Coldplay headline a festival once again.  At one point, amid fits of uncontrollable laughter, I reached for support on a railing of clothes, all bundled up for the night. The result was an inevitable reconstruction of The Matrix Reloaded burly ball scene, as thousands of green screened monster merchants filed out to save their merchandise, trying to lamp an inebriant with the lightening flexibility of a thousand Neos.  At least that’s how I remember it. There are absolutely dazzling photos of that Saturday that I am officially barred from showing anyone but most involved parties.

And then, on the Sunday the sun came out to burn the zombiefied gathering.  Hair still caked with mud, the sun beating down I headed to the Pyramid Stage just as a festive Brian Wilson, decked in a typical Hawaiian shirt, introduced Little Saint Nick. All the people reminded him of Christmas he said. Strange days indeed,

Yes, 2005, that was a good year. Although I expect this year to be hailed the best, as is customary, Glastonbury now fits so well as a separate BBC blanket brand it’s difficult to see the appeal of heading back.

Nah, I think I’m done with that.

Rock ‘n’ Roll: 60 years of Rocking Around the Clock

ImpossibleRockNRoll

 

It’s 60 years today that Bill Haley and the Comet’s Rock Around the Clock was released, just the mainstream push that rock’n’roll needed…

ROCK‘N’ROLL.  IT HAD BEEN BUZZING AROUND FOR A WHILE OF COURSE… The word ‘rock’ bubbled around in song titles, instruments came and went…  In a few short years it consolidated from blues, jazz, gospel music, swing, folk and country and more, just as it would continue to evolve, consume and spawn genres for decades to come.  It was the mid 1950s that saw  guitar move to the lead, knocking saxophones and piano down the band order to the point where the Comets and their contemporaries came in.

One, two, three…

The legendary recording of Rock Around the Clock, saw Bill Haley and his Comets with customary tenor sax and piano sat alongside steel guitar, piano drums, string bass and electric guitar… With Bill Haley taking both lead vocals and rhythm guitar of course.  Sax and piano would take centre stage in some of the genre’s greatest moments in years to come, but this was the groundbreaking sign of things to come: African-American styles had fully fused with European instruments to make enough noise in just the right way to grab the world’s attention.

Rock Around the Clock was recorded over a year after it was written and would take another year to become a success.  But when it was, those decades of influences and near attempts combined in that adapted 12-bars blues structure to announce Rock‘n’Roll to the world.  With a few inevitable riots in America of course, linking the young movement to juvenile delinquency in a way it would never shake off.  And like a true classic, when it was issued in spring 1954, it was a B-side.

Its legacy can’t be doubted, selling over 1.4 million copies and becoming the first million selling single in the UK; creating myths, rumours and hanging itself out for analysis ever since.  Almost every major rock guitarist of the next three decades were influenced or forced to pick up a guitar thanks to this infectious landmark.

Join me, Hon…

I was lucky – growing up in a household that seemingly only contained two albums: ABBA’s Arrival and Boney M’s Nightflight to Venus.  As such I was free to take a leisurely stroll through rock, and inadvertently it was from near the beginning.  The Reader’s Digest and Buddy the Musical conspired in my favour, leading me from Buddy Holly to Bill Haley via Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry.  Then, as the 60s loomed on the playlist, a kindly (legendary) teacher handed me a 45 cassette tape containing all of Sgt Pepper’s and most of The White Album.  I still have that today, recorded from vinyl; that’s how I still hear those albums.

Before that, it was in the late ‘80s that I came across the Comets’ version of Rock Around the Clock.  But little did I appreciate then just how brilliant it is.  Not just how simple, nor how hypnotic and infectious nor how perfectly it all mashes together; just how it makes a great manifesto for what Rock’n’Roll (and later/simultaneously) rock music would be and is.

A statement.

“One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock

Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock rock

Nine, ten, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock rock

We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight”

Love and intent.

“Put your glad rags on, join me, Hon

We’ll have some fun when the clock strikes one

We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight

We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight

We’re gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight”

Revolution.

“When the clock strikes two, three and four

If the band slows down we’ll yell for more

We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight

We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight

We’re gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight”

Cue brilliant guitar led interlude. 

(every sentiment from rock classics already there: From The Who to Kiss)

And then repeat

“When the clock strikes twelve, we’ll cool off then

Start a’rockin’ round the clock again

We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight

We’re gonna rock, rock, rock, ’til broad daylight

We’re gonna rock, gonna rock around the clock tonight”

Round the Clock Again…

If Rock is all of those things, it’s a cycle in particular.

Of course, as many of those eager to sound its death knell point out, rock should have burnt bright and disappeared in a flash.  But it will never go away.  True, they ran out of guitar riffs and ways to fill a bar years ago, but somehow they keep digging them out.

I think it was in Ian MacDonald’s indispensible Revolution in the Head that first introduced me to the concept of popular music’s 11 year reinvention cycle, all hanging from the undead carcass of rock.  The Comet’s outstanding breakout Rock‘n’Roll in 1955; the mind expansive creativity of psychedelic rock spearheaded by The Beatles and spawning progressive and metal in 1966; the veritable embarrassment of riches posed by punk tussling with disco in ’77 and; the breakout of House from its Chicago roots in 1988 while in Seattle the Sub Pop label coined the term “Grunge”.  Sadly 1999 and 2010 didn’t prove so fruitful after those blistering 40 years, but popular music just has to be awkward.

’til broad daylight…

Still, as all that splintering and evolution threatened to weigh down or overtake a movement defined by being a flash in the pan, it persists.  Every once in a while a rock band will undertake soul crushingly expansive tours, meet The Beatles’  prodigious work rate for just a few albums or issue ‘immediate’ singles – like the Manic’s Masses Against the Classes in 2000, deleted on day of release, para-quoting Gladstone complete with a Chuck Berry cover – not the latest X-Factor winner.

But overall, rock knows what it has to do, there’s a primal flame of life that refuses to be snuffed out.  That was always going to be more than a flash in the pan.

As Alex Arctic Monkey succinctly mumbled, rather amusingly I thought, at this year Brits, after Bowie had became the oldest ever recipient of the Best Male Award…

“That Rock’n’Roll, eh? That Rock’n’Roll, it just won’t go away. It might hibernate from time to time and sink back into the swamp. I think the cyclical nature of the universe in which it exists demands it adheres to some of its rules.

“But it’s always waiting there, just around the corner, ready to make its way back through the sludge, and smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever.

“Yeah, that Rock’n’Roll. It seems like it’s faded away sometimes but, uh, it will never die. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

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