PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

"With Our Love, We Can Save the World": The Beatles Within and Without the Late '60s Zeitgeist

Ross Langager

The Beatles were consistently constructed as symbolic avatars for the social and cultural shifts of their time and place, even while they were still in the midst of that time and place.

Part 2: 'Sgt. Pepper' and the Sociology of Imperial Nostalgia

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.

Prev Page
Next Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.