This article originally appeared in Issue 11 of Crawdaddy in September/October, 1967
The Beatles are dead! Long live the Beatles! There they are, the metamorphosis complete, standing on the flowered grave of their former selves. There they are, in solid flesh, evidence as indisputable as the rock rolled away from the cave. There they are, in butterfly brilliance, their waxen images set nearby like the larva of a former life. Consider the implications. Is it true what acid can do?
One is tempted to call it a comeback. Throughout the winter, there was a sense of the inevitability of the downfall of the Beatles, highlighted by Lennon’s Christ comment. They’ve gone too far! They can’t go farther! And they said they were breaking up. Suddenly, with Sgt. Pepper, all this is over. The end became the beginning.
But it can’t be a comeback because they never left. Somehow, on the great pop pedestal of our time, right there in front of everyone, the Beatles metamorphosized. Like changing your clothes with utmost discretion in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. The Beatles have resolved the fact that they are the Beatles. It all seems so simple. Yet the agony and effort are apparent, cloaked with grace.
“The world is a stage,” Shakespeare said. And so did Emmett Grogan and so did George Harrison. “We’re the Beatles,” Harrison continued in an interview with Miles in the International Times, “and it’s a little scene that we’re playing, and we’re pretending to be Beatles like Harold
Wilson is pretending to be Prime Minister.” Nothing to get hung about. “The Queen’s the Queen,” Harrison said. “The idea that you wake up in the morning and it happens you’re Queen—it’s amazing, but you could all be Queens if you imagined it.” A lot of people in Britain imagine that they are the Queen. Nobody puts them down.
With all the relief of a trip resolved, the identity koan is realized. “And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right where I belong I’m right where I belong.” That must have been a flash! Wow. The Beatles are the Beatles. “Nothing had changed, it’s still the same. I’ve got nothing to say but it’s OK.” it was good news, and they were ready to share it with the world.
Thus Sgt. Pepper is first an introduction. “So may I introduce to you the act you’ve known for all these years.” Odd to meet an act you’ve known. They were hardly strangers: their voices as familiar as a mother’s, their faces on the shrines of the teenyboppers. And yet the introduction is valid, the acquaintance a surprise. Finally the Beatles have been properly introduced, and, with that foundation, a long friendship seems likely. The Beatles can surely count on valentines and bottles of wine when they’re sixty-four, and the world can count on the best they can do in the forty intervening years.
The introduction is the foundation of Sgt. Pepper. The rest is the castle. A lovely structure, the cornerstone copyrighted 1967. In a year or so it will probably be dated, quaint, a landmark; still guaranteed to raise a smile, but lacking the punch of the present. As Blonde on Blonde is now more memory than immediate. The albums have a great deal in common. Both are monuments; both are manifestos. Dylan was the model for the movement last summer, when the world had hardly heard of hippies. Sgt. Pepper may be the looking glass through which hippies can disappear.
As a manifesto, Sgt. Pepper is the reincarnation of the Pied Piper. (“You’re such a lovely audience. We’d love to take you home with us. We’d love to take you home.”) The language leaves no doubt. A direct escape appeal: “She is leaving home…She is having fun…Stepping outside, she is free.” A travel brochure: “Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.” Further: “I have to admit it’s getting better (can’t get much worse).” Further: “l get by with a little help from my friends.” Further: “I’d love to turn you on.” Finally: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”
So Sgt. Pepper is a recruiting officer. And the Beatles are Bodhisattvas. “We’re all together on this thing,” Harrison said. “We’re just part of it, and we’d like to get as many people who want to be a part of it with us. We’ve got to save them, because they’re all potentially divine.”
They only hint at an end, but they probe the means: “Try to realize it’s all within yourself, no one else can make you change. And to see you’re really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you.” That’s Harrison. Lennon and McCartney suggest means by example, and that is the primary power of the album. The Beatles have changed; Sgt. Pepper is the chronicle and the climax of that change: “Me used to be a angry young man, me hiding me head in the sand. You gave me the word, I finally heard, I’m doing the best that I can.” “Man I was mean, but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can.” “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering where it will go.” You can change too.
Sgt. Pepper is a monument in rock and, as such, a revitalization of their career. The Beatles’ past albums are better examined for influence than compared to Sgt. Pepper. It is such a dramatic break with the past that it is best examined as the ?rst album of a new group. A parallel may be found in The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Another may be coming in the Stones’ next album. They have reached a stage in their evolution where, as McCartney explained to Miles, “I think we are getting influenced by ourselves.”
Of course, they have also been influenced by others. Billy Shears recalls Reg Thorpe. Harrison has sat at the feet of Ravi Shankar. “A Day in the Life” could be the theme for Blow Up. The imagery of Dylan is vividly recalled in phrases like “newspaper taxis” and in freak scenes like “Mr. Kite.” Yet, in the final analysis, few rock albums have borne such a personal stamp.
On the one hand, it is the purest rock the Beatles have ever done. But, as yet another paradox, it could never be done in concert. The Lonely Hearts Club Band will never appear onstage. The album offers the total involvement of a circus, different acts happening simultaneously in three rings, and the tent is the listener’s head. To perform this album live would be like adapting Antonioni for the stage.
So what of the boys in the band? It sounds like the Beatles are getting up in the morning. Sgt. Pepper is daylight music. The dawn after a trip. Compare it to the smoky seductive nightsounds of their previous work. Where have they been since the cover of Rubber Soul? When did they wake up and see the sunrise?
They are crusading and communicating, “taking the time for a number of things that weren’t important yesterday”: a full-page ad in the London Times urging the legalization of marijuana, the probing interviews with Miles in the International Times, which have been reprinted in underground newspapers across the United States, a Telstar broadcast telling the world that “All you need is love.” Currently, they are meandering through Devon and Cornwall in a yellow and blue bus filming, without the aid of a director, a television color special to be screened around the world at Christmas.
And, as the world knows, they have become disciples of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian mystic who teaches transcendental meditation. The Beatles were with the Yogi in Wales when news came of the sudden death of their manager, Brian Epstein. They found strength in the teacher in the face of tragedy, and soon afterward became converts to his faith. They plan to fly to India in early October to study at his ashram in Kashmir.
They recently announced that they had given up drugs, to get stoned on meditation. “I’m more tolerant now than I was,” McCartney said in an interview in the New Musical Express, “and I feel more at ease with myself, but I’m now less certain about many things.”
“In some ways I envy George,” he continued, “because he now has a great faith. He seems to have found what he’s been searching for.”
Several months ago, in an interview in Life, McCartney said that “We’ve reached the point where there are no barriers.”
Few artists, especially in the commercial world of pop music, have reached that point. Those who have tend to stagnate. Without barriers, it is hard to find bearings. But it seems that the Beatles will escape this fate. Harrison explains this to Miles:
We’ve got to be doing things because we’re part of it and it’s nice. You’ve got to have an outlet. It’s like having a big intake in front of your head and there’s so much going on and it’s going through all this, and there’s a little exhaust pipe in the back that goes POW and lets a bit out. The aim is to get as much going out the back as is coming in. You’ve got to do that, because for everything you get in you’ve got to give something out. So the Beatles. And whatever our personal interests are, what we’re doing from day to day, then that’s like our little exhaust, coming out the back.
Sgt. Pepper is the best evidence yet that a Renaissance is on its way. “It’s just the beginning,” McCartney said. “There’s no end.”