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With ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles Celebrated Britain’s Lost Empire, and Found It a New Role

Variety logo Variety 5/25/2017 Martin Lewis
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“Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role…”

The former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, made this dramatic assessment of the UK at what became a celebrated West Point speech in December 1962. At the time it created a major fissure in US-UK relations. Acheson had no means of knowing that at the exact same time, there was a cultural quake building up deep inside the British Isles that would explode in a volcano that would not only help Britain find a role, but also cover the entire world including the USA with red-hot streams of musical lava. For in December 1962, the tremors that had developed at the fault-lines of the UK’s nadir after two world wars resulted in a rumbling in the grim northern city of Liverpool. The Beatles were coming…

And as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – arguably the high-water mark of the Beatles’ remarkable seven-year burst of creativity – we can see an album that was simultaneously a fond salute to Britain’s vanishing empire, and a giant leap forward into the nation’s new role as the world’s pioneers of new musical horizons.

A few months after Acheson’s dour summation  – and in conscious defiance of the rolling gloom that had washed over the Empire like a rolling pea-soup fog since the Great War – the Beatles exploded. First in their homeland and then throughout the known universe. A galvanizing, invigorating wave of incandescent optimism. As though the British bloodstream had been mainlined with 10 grams of pure cut joy.

In the latter part of 1966 they took the fateful decision to give up the live performances that – because of the limits of that era’s amplification equipment and the preference of their female fans to listen to themselves scream – had rendered concerts an exercise in money-making over music. Money, it transpired, was not all that these lads wanted. They fervently wanted to follow their muse. And encouraged by their enlightened manager Brian Epstein and nurturing producer George Martin – they were about to find the Holy Grail.

The sessions that yielded the “Sgt. Pepper” album inspired the Beatles to go boldly forth across new frontiers. A magical tour that discovered mysterious new textures that are still being reworked today by every youngster who plucks a fretboard or plonks a keyboard. And yet there was an odd incongruity on the album that became apparent as one listened to the words that were innovatively reproduced on the album’s packaging.

In practically every way imaginable the Beatles were forward-looking. They broke established barriers of instrumentation, arrangement, lyric-writing, vocalizing, melody, harmony and rhythm. They soared vastly beyond the primitive imaginations of the rock ‘n’ roll pioneers who had inspired them and they created bold, new infrastructures for songwriting and recording. They wrote about subject matters that had hitherto not been in the province of popular entertainers.  And nowhere was this more apparent than in that landmark “Pepper” album. Rightly hailed at the time as the Great Leap Forward.

And yet paradoxically, the entire album was suffused in a sepia glow of nostalgia – emanating from their words. As their music progressed at warp speed into the future, the topics of the Beatles lyrics continually explored the past. A considerable amount of their words reveled in their childhoods, schooldays and the fading memories of the vanishing British Empire. “Sgt. Pepper” was the apotheosis of this fascinating juxtaposition between nostalgic words and progressive music.

Interestingly, it was also their last truly English album in respect of the song topics and lyrics.

While they rapidly conquered the world in 1964 and beyond, lyrics on the Beatles’ recordings were geographically and culturally neutral. The love songs they wrote and recorded between 1963 and 1966 focused on universal emotions rather than specific places and objects. Crushes, affairs, heart-breaks and renewal took place in the heart rather than in named locales. Norway represented furniture to burn rather than a romantic skiing destination. With the Beatles, one emotion fitted all cultures.

Because in the years 1963-1965 the Beatles recorded a few covers of American songs, there were occasional references to Americana that sprang from their lips. The “dime” popped up in “Rock and Roll Music” and “Bad Boy”. And Ringo sang nasally about the Oscars. The Beatles even declared their intent to visit Kansas City on their 1964 album “Beatles For Sale,” though by the time they recorded the Leiber & Stoller ditty they had actually visited the place – which was more than the song’s L.A.-based composers had done when they wrote it in 1952!

Nothing better conveys the immense philosophical distance they traveled than to note that in the elapse of just three and a half short years they went from pleading “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to proselytizing “I’d Love To Turn You On.”

But though their planet-wide success made them globe-trotters, the lyrics that John and Paul (and increasingly George) wrote remained homeward-bound. That started changing in late 1967. The Beatles’ lyrical references started to reflect the world outside of England’s green and pleasant land. George’s “Blue Jay Way,” about an L.A. thoroughfare, led the charge. And in 1968 and beyond the Beatles’ words told of tiger-hunting in jungles, Chairman Mao, Hollywood screen legends, American police departments, the black mountain hills of Dakota and more. They went literally across the universe.

However – something remarkable happened in the brief shining moment between November 1966 and April 1967 – the heady twenty-week span in which the Beatles conceived, wrote and recorded the fifteen songs that emerged from the “Sgt. Pepper” sessions. Yes fifteen songs. The thirteen that appeared on the album and two songs intended for the album “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” that were wrested from them by a jittery record company for rush-release as a single in February 1967.  (The passing of six months since the release of their last album and single in that era was deemed a dangerously long period of time to go without issuing new “product.”)

As they created their masterpiece that was on the far shores anything that had been envisaged by others in terms of music, the majority of the lyrics paradoxically looked back.  Not in anger – but with gentle affection for the rapidly vanishing world of their childhood and in particular of Britain’s once proud Empire. It cherished the bygone Georgian, Edwardian and Victorian eras when the sun never set on the lands that Britain colonized and the waves that Britannia ruled.

The songs evoked decidedly English phenomena such as colliery brass bands, eccentric circus performers, quaint railway stations; hobbies such as knitting, sitting by firesides or on sofas with sisters; lonely hearts clubs, rocking horses, messing about on rivers, sending postcards, partaking of pies – both marshmallow and fish ‘n’ finger (the latter much desired by teenage boys) – all of course washed down with lashings of hot tea. There is no New York or New Orleans in sight. Just the decaying post-industrial northern town that was old Blackburn. And the final song on the album enshrines two enduring architectural symbols of the Victorian era – the House of Lords and the Royal Albert Hall.

These nostalgia-imbued lyrics were more Norman Rockwell than rock ‘n’ roll. And yet simultaneously the music took us into a brand-new promised land.

The stately British newspaper The Times encapsulated the album best in its review. Using the delightful original meaning of a word that in 1967 had not yet gained a new context for the burgeoning LGBTQ community, the headline declared: The Beatles revive hopes of progress in pop music with their gay new LP.  The critic was correct.  The album fused the essence of Britain’s past with music that foretold its future.  It was, and remains, jubilantly gay.

Producer/humorist Martin Lewis is a noted Beatles scholar. His many Beatles-related projects include compiling the discography for their authorized biography, consulting on the “Anthology” project and producing the first deluxe DVD edition of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

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