Part 2: ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and the Sociology of Imperial Nostalgia
How does this work, then? For one, it set the cultural antennas of the attuned members of their fanbase vibrating wildly at the slightest provocation. The Beatles’ 1967 output is almost always overtly identified with the psychedelic rock movement and with the fuzzy, amorphous “Summer of Love”. Both of these “movements”, however, were much more geographically limited, bursting loud and free out of San Francisco and striking far-flung outposts with ever-diminishing subcultural ripples. For the Beatles, ensconced in their suburban mansions, swinging nightspots, and Abbey Road studio enclave, “flower power” was a distant mirage. They might well don its fashions and gaze through its kaleidoscopic drug haze, but their music would be another beast altogether.
This is why I argue that the defining album of the hippie movement was only tangentially related to it: Sgt. Pepper is about Britain, and the Summer of Love was always about America. The only song on the album that approaches the ideology and rhetoric of the hippie counterculture was George Harrison’s sole contribution, the lush sitar-washed “Within You Without You”, and it follows that Harrison was the only Beatle to have visited Haight-Ashbury at the peak of the scene. Even then, Eastern philosophy informed the lyric more deeply than did acid culture, and it’s still a dense and stunning composition no matter its ideology.
The ambling single “All You Need is Love” is its companion piece, sounding for all the world like something written for all the world. It has become the theme song for the Fab Four’s “hippie phase”, for better or worse (mostly for worse). Though it’s perhaps unfair to totally dismiss either the song or Magical Mystery Tour, the half-baked TV movie soundtrack that included it, they are both afflicted with terminal levels of hippie radiation, giving them an unhealthy tie-dyed glow. One mustn’t look completely beyond this part of the Beatles oeuvre, but the bulk of Sgt. Pepper had something much closer to home in mind.
Deprived of the inexorable creative momentum of touring by the end of 1966, the group was settled and recumbent for the first time in years. For John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this inaction pointed inevitably to introspection. Both the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single of early 1967 and the LP that followed it in the summer were concerned primarily with twilight visions of an imperial Britain that was receding further every day.
There was a dreamy nostalgia to Lennon’s escapist memories of Strawberry Fields, the old Salvation Army orphanage grounds near his childhood home in Liverpool, but strong hints of mental unease were also audible in the circling mellotron and swooning strings. Likewise, McCartney’s characteristically cheerier “Penny Lane” gave another Liverpool landmark a theatrical bustle with an undercurrent of eccentricity (“very strange”). Though its brassy vividness contrasted with the formless enchantment of the other side of the single, the songs are two sides of the same coin: unique attempts to capture a very different sort of fond memory of the British past.
Sgt. Pepper contextualized this neo-nostalgia more fully; it’s a long-form tone poem on the curious stew of post-war, post-imperial Britain, lamenting its gauzy innocence while probing its peculiar fringes. It is not a conservative vision, but a progressive one; to envision a more hopeful future, the Beatles seemed to feel that their generation would have to extricate the good from Britain’s past and leave the rotten bits to decompose. The widening demographic gap that defined the ‘60s, with its outward clash of generational values, was not being disregarded. But the Beatles saw that tension as being productive, constituting a foundation for a shared road forward. To those who cared for nothing but tearing down the stalwart walls of their fathers, this would certainly seem like a dangerous compromise. But Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would just love to take you home.
The society of the older generation does take its lumps on the record, to be sure. In the midst of the wellsprings of emotion of “She’s Leaving Home” is the lament of the shocked mother: “‘Daddy, our baby’s gone! / How could she treat us so thoughtlessly? / How could she do this to me?” Though the final refrain gives us a superficial reason for the nameless heroine’s actions (“she is having fun”), her mother’s self-centered reaction is all the explanation required, and reflects the sense of entitlement of the wartime generation that their boomer children were struggling to shrug off.
War was always a retiring spectre for the Beatles’ generation, something their parents had lived through and sometimes couldn’t forgive their children for missing out on. There’s a moment in A Hard Day’s Night that speaks to this social reality. Early in the film, a haughty middle-aged man in a suit is forced to share space with our moptopped heroes on a train. So irritated is he by their lack of proper decorum that he finally blurts out, “I fought the war for your sort.” Lennon quips back: “I bet you’re sorry you won.” It was penned by a screenwriter, yes, but the sociology of ‘60s Britain is summed up in that one exchange. In America, of course, the younger generation was marching against the war that their elders wanted them to fight, but in the corners of many British hearts, the last war had never ended.
Though Sgt. Pepper is mostly preoccupied with anything other than war, the fictional martial band that provides its conceptual framing is a faint nod at the fading relevance of the British Army in quotidian life. For centuries, Britain had been sending men abroad to fight for the empire; by the ‘60s, there was no longer any empire to fight for, only a country of military and civilian veterans still licking their wounds and expecting their offspring to do the same. But the Beatles don’t want to rehash all of that; it wasn’t the work ethic, the discipline, the collective stiff upper lip that they wanted to preserve of the old Britain. They recall the playing fields, the bustling boulevards, the grandstand players, the pretty meter maids, the children’s drawings.
Sgt. Pepper and his band, “the act you remember all these years”, are as much a reminder of these church fetes and fanciful jubilees as are the whimsical circus performers of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”. At the heart of the “tangerine trees and marmalade skies” of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a childlike sense of wonder. The Britain of the Beatles is not great because it persevered grimly through the blitzkrieg, but because it came through with its joy and laughter intact.
Viewed through this lens, “Getting Better” is an anthem for a forward-thinking country that no longer keeps its people apart from the things that they loved: “man, I was mean / but I’m changing my scene.” But the vision is hardly a narrow one. Certainly, in “A Day in the Life”, Lennon “just had to laugh” at the man who “didn’t notice that the lights had changed” and “blew his mind out in a car”, and it’s not hard to read the reference as a veiled comment on conservative forces oblivious to social change. But there’s also McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”, a genuine attempt by a young man to both imagine himself in the shoes of his elders and to find the experience to be rewarding. This is the key to Sgt. Pepper‘s potent affect and its lasting, multi-generational appeal: the crescendo and final piano chord at its terminus isn’t just a sonic epiphany for those who have been “turned on”, but hopefully for everyone who cares to listen.