Music

You're Such a Lovely Audience: 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'

Celebrating Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a little help from their friends; Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker, Neil Young and the Mona Lisa Twins.


The Beatles

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Year: 1967
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Prologue

There will never be consensus as to whether or not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hear’s Club Band was the greatest album release from the Beatles, let alone the greatest album of all time. Released on 1 June 1967, weeks before the official start of what would be known as The Summer of Love, it was the first release from a band which up to that point was writing, touring, writing, and touring again. In the five years since their debut, with the fairly basic song, “Love Me Do”, the Beatles were a slickly packaged, creative and vital boy band. Equal parts the product of the works of Chuck Berry, Motown, and Buck Owens, the Beatles knew how to write the best love songs (“And I Love Her”), star in the greatest rock 'n' roll movies (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964), but they were also smart enough to put themselves under the care of packaging geniuses Brian Epstein (manager) and George Martin (producer.) For the bulk of their career as a group, then, the Beatles understood that they were a product, and eventually, all variations of how to sell the cute one, the smart one, the quiet one, and the funny one (Paul, John, George, and Ringo) would disappear.

Ron Howard’s thorough 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week -- The Touring Years did a thorough job examining the formative development of the band as an entity. The touring ended in 1966, at which point the comfortable mythmaking arbiters of historical truth set forth this premise: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was and is the greatest album of all time. The complicated cover, where the former mop tops, now all in fashionable Carnaby Street Swinging London facial hair, was a smash. Each of them seemed to have assumed a persona, wearing brightly colored quasi-military velvet uniforms. There they stood, before an assembled motley collection of their heroes (including Bob Dylan, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mae West) announcing that this was going to be something different.

Who was this Lonely Hearts Club Band? Who was Sgt. Pepper? The only hint we get is at the end of the title number that opens the song as they introduce Billy Shears (Ringo) singing “With a Little Help From My Friends”, a song that would remain in his repertoire forever.

In retrospect, not every number from this ten-track, 40-minute album is a masterpiece. In Paul McCartney’s “Getting Better” features the line “I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her away from the things that she loved” he claims life is getting better for him, but we wonder if he’s still with that woman. He claims to have changed, but can we trust him? Lennon’s response “It can’t get no worse” after the chorus “It’s getting better all the time” is interesting, but not enough to remove the queasy feelings.

John Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is an overproduced carnival tribute inspired by a poster, and “Good Morning, Good Morning”, apparently based on a TV commercial, seems overstuffed and dependent on sound effects. George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is a museum relic, a good example of his experiments with the Indian sitar that would have been better suited in a different environment with more room to breathe. None of these songs ruin the overall greatness of the album. They simply stand as proof that even a solid masterpiece has blemishes that can’t be erased with the forgiveness of time.

Interpretations

With the recent news that the Beatles are prepping a 50th anniversary expanded release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (including, among many different versions of the core tracks, finally putting “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the album where they should have been released), much has been discussed about the way the songs developed. Less has been discussed, however, about how some of the greatest cover versions of these songs conclusively prove that the Beatles had staying power. (For obvious reasons we will steer clear of the 1978 film version, featuring none of the Beatles but all of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, and some of the most woefully misguided desecrations of songs from that album and others in the Beatles catalog.)

In no particular order, here are those standout covers:

Jimi Hendrix, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, 4 June 1967

The Beatles had released the album on the 1st of June. Three days later, at the end of their residency in London’s Saville Theater, Jimi Hendrix and the Experience pulled off this performance apparently after just listening to it a few times. There’s grainy footage of the performance, but it was more nicely realized as a scene in the 2013 film Jimi: All Is By My Side, with Andre Benjamin doing an interesting take on the guitar god on the cusp of superstardom.

Syreeta, “She’s Leaving Home”, 1972

The remarkable element about this performance is how multi-instrumentalist / producer Stevie Wonder stripped it down and re-dressed it as a soul ballad. Syreeta’s vocals soar and she sounds as if she’s testifying to personal experience, which makes McCartney’s original more of an acting job. This is nothing against the original, the glissando of the harp and the precise control of the vocals. It’s just that this cover is more emotional, more yearning, more exhausting.

Joe Cocker, “With a Little Help From My Friends” Woodstock, 1969

Many will remember this from John Belushi’s spastic rendition on Saturday Night Live, especially when the good-natured Cocker joined in on the fun. Others will remember it as the song played over the title credits of the 1988-1993 ABC-TV show The Wonder Years. The original was unlike anything ever heard in a Beatles song. Cocker and his band took Ringo’s playful singalong and stretched it into an urgent plea for companionship. We’re probably not doubting that Ringo will get what he needs. As for Joe Cocker, we know he gets by, and we sense he gets high, but we can’t be guaranteed he’ll close the deal.

Neil Young, “A Day In The Life”, Glastonbury, England, 2009

The greatest thing about this cover is that Young and his band are so urgent, so focused to build up the steam as he breaks into the mid-section (“woke up / got out of bed / dragged a comb across my head”) and goes back to the final section and the most famous coda in music history. “A Day In the Life” was a strange hybrid song on the record, Lennon’s echo-laden vocals mix with McCartney’s frantic middle-eighth and the entire five minutes feature a frantic string section going up and coming down. In essence, that part makes it a punk song, and Young knows it here, in a cover with his band and a duet with McCartney, recreating his original performance.

The Mona Lisa Twins, “When I’m Sixty-Four”, 2014

This pair of 20-something Liverpool natives does gorgeous covers of Beatles songs, among others, with Everly Brothers-type harmonies and a sweetness that transcends how this might be perceived. In less musical hands, this might be too precious, too coy, a couple of manic pixie dream girls wandering through their grandparent’s record collection. Instead, they really capture McCartney’s Tin Pan Alley / Broadway flirtations and it makes everything timeless. They’re a wonderful discovery while wandering down a random YouTube rabbit hole.

Coda

The temptation to wax nostalgic and try to capture something that never existed in the first place usually infects appreciations on their 50th anniversary. The Beatles were a rough club band from approximately 1960-1962, a polished touring and stadium act for the next five years, and something altogether different in their final three years as a quartet.

What we know about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will always be under layers of passing years, and none of the histories to be discovered will likely add more to our understanding. Completists will automatically flock to purchase the 2017 enhanced, limited edition 4CD/DVD release, even at a price of over $100. No matter the amount of original Beatles variations we can add to our collections, or the “Making Of” documentaries we can watch on an endless loop, the greatness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will grow most effectively when yet another musician picks out the melody on guitar or piano and makes the songs their own.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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