For Christmas someone gave me the DVDs of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and The Who’s Tommy; both exceedingly strange films in their own right – one a messianic pinball odyssey, the other a candy-coloured slap on the wrist to bratty children and the greedy. Watching them both made me very nostalgic for another strange film, Yellow Submarine – an animated fantasy of the Fab Four saving Pepperland from the Nazi-like, music-hating Blue Meanies – which led me to watching it and thinking about its origins, and the doors those origins opened up musically.
In 1966, the Beatles announced their retirement from live performance; after becoming bored with touring, and realising that the need to perform their songs in front of an audience was also restricting their ability to make music. They wanted to create an album that would do the touring for them. They retired to their Abbey Road studios and produced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that was so densely produced that it couldn’t be performed live with the technology of the time. In each song, the Beatles tried to take their music, and by extension popular music itself – and its audiences – somewhere it hadn’t been before; somewhere they’d begun to go previously with their albums Revolver and Rubber Soul, and where the Beach Boys had begun to go with the release of their album Pet Sounds.
Sgt. Pepper was a boundary pusher of what was possible, both conceptually and actually, for popular music and its performers. It began expanding the vocabulary of popular music not only by including orchestration, more complex melodies, cultural themes and influences, sampled sounds, tape looping, etc. (many of these sounds were on-the-spot studio innovations from George Martin, and even equipment tampering), but also by allowing people to realise that such things were possible. Record albums in general also began to become works of art in their own right, created and crafted rather than merely a recording of a performance. The evolving view of what the album could be and accomplish, helped give rise to Sgt. Pepper earning the reputation as the first concept album; an ill-deserved label in the sense that it carried no cohesive theme throughout its entire song base, other than that of experimentation. The Beatles had attempted to make it a whole concept, but gave up after the first couple of songs – the rest having no discernible theme, and the album’s “bookend” feel is kept alive by the reprise of the opening song near the end of the record.
Years before the band had broken new ground by writing their own music, pushing other musicians to follow suit, and Sgt. Pepper continued that tradition of originality. Lyrically many of the songs are deceptively simplistic, yet they are highly symbolic and metaphorical. In form as well as content it also breaks new ground. It was the first album to include the lyrics on the sleeve. This called attention to the words as a separate entity, an element of the creative work having its own merit just as valid as the other components, and showing, even, that lyrics can stand on their own as poetic works without their musical bed. The audiences become far more aware and conscious of the content of a song, and other artists become more conscious not only of the content of their own work, but also the content of the work of others. Musicians began to be seen as something more than mere performers of instruments; they are now creators, artists, and craftspeople.
The attitude of experimentation was not confined merely to the physical appearance of the album and its content. The album encouraged, and reflected, the same attitudes societally. The 60’s were an era of experimentation with mind-altering and expanding drug use; free and open love; protesting against the stuffiness and rigidity of the past and the institutions created by the established authority figures of the day; protesting against military actions abroad that many felt the west had no part in; and so on. Musicians, and people in general, began to realise the vast areas of choice and freedom that were now opening up to them. People began to realise not only what changes could be made, but also that change itself was possible – radical change.
The album may have been aimed at the Beatle’s traditional audiences, but it wasn’t to be handed to them only; it was meant to take them somewhere new. Most current popular music doesn’t do this; it doesn’t provide any challenge – good or bad – as it’s designed for people to like it without any effort. Because of its level of newness and experimentation, Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t intended as a mass-market, moneymaking commodity – something else one can’t claim about most current popular music. The wide appeal of The Beatles would ensure that anything they produced would have an audience, but would by no means ensure that release any success – financially, critically, or popularly.
The album appealed to the musicians and audiences who were ready to go beyond what popular music had been offering them, to experimenters, rebels, those looking to grow past or thwart traditional music-makers, cultural leaders, authority figures, and anyone afraid of challenge to the status quo; those who would be offended by its free-thinking, musical experimentation, and non-Western themes and sounds. This album had challenged the dominant culture by espousing a spirit of experimentation and change, and encouraging those same things in others. The album, and the men who created it, challenged traditional musical styles and uses, beliefs (personal and cultural), personal habits and rights (drugs, sexuality, religion, etc.), attitudes, and morals.
The film that album gave birth to, Yellow Submarine, is an innovator and groundbreaker in its own right – but that’s a story for another day.
Lonita has been an AU student since early 2002, and is studying towards a Bachelor of General Studies in Arts & Science. She enjoys writing, creating websites, drinks far too much tea, and lives in hopes of one day owning a plaid Cthulhu doll. The most exciting thing she’s done so far in her lifetime is driven an F2000 racecar, and she’s still trying to figure out how to top that experience. Her personal website can be found at http://www.lonita.net and what you can’t find out about her through that, you can ask her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org