Sunday, April 08, 2007

Beatles notes

My mom gave me a tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band for Christmas when I was ten. I didn’t listen to the whole thing right away. First I couldn’t make it past “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” which made me scared to leave my room at night, and then I got stuck on “Within You Without You,” which gave me the unpleasant sensation of seeing into some interior chamber of the universe where the gears that powered cosmic movements churned away and had always churned, indifferent to the scope of human time. Each song posed a different aesthetic challenge, and a general spookiness reigned throughout, a sense that the music was addressed personally to me, that some disembodied, demonic personality was communicating through a sequence of warbling tones that it knew not just deep shapes of my mind that I could glimpse only fleetingly or not at all, but also how my bedroom was arranged. Maybe an account of the permanent strangeness of the album could begin with a review of children’s experiences of it, the way the buzz of the tamboura in “Getting Better” seemed to cut transversally across normal planes of space, making a clearing in the middle of the density of stuff where self-consciousness could emerge for the first time, the way the doubled notes of the harp on “She’s Leaving Home” seemed to cause designs on the wallpaper to ripple, the way the echoing breaths and moans at the end of “Lovely Rita” seemed to prove that Paul was dead, that Lennon was dead but still speaking to you directly, that sex and death were the same, the way the wordless vocal leading McCartney’s part of “A Day in the Life” back into Lennon’s seemed to suspend you in a column of colored light projected from the triple corner of walls and ceiling. Sgt. Pepper’s is kids’ music, after all, starting with the album’s first guiding concept: a collection of songs about their childhood. Julian Lennon’s drawing of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” that song’s Lewis Carroll park-world, opaque syllable sequences like “Blackburn, Lancashire” that drift into your mind out of the vocabulary of some adult who knows and worries about things whose names refract and echo for you in irrelevant patterns of other meanings, all the scenes of mundane, lower middle-class life in post-war England that are blasted out of into soaring aerial views of radical, ecstatic alterity, the universal rainbow palette of the colors on the cover, the Old Curiosity Shop of pump organs and whistles and pipes and resonating chambers of every antique timbre, the global reach of the animal sounds and sound effects, the absence of regular rock music, the rolling sidewalk streetscape in the stride of the quarter notes, and just the virtuosic musicality of the melodies, the carelessly good Mozart way they seem to just flow out of a heaven of always-existing music, plus the fact that the idea of a pop album as an aesthetic unit was only about one year old—all of this suggests that Sgt. Pepper’s sounds permanently new because it is itself a sort of child, an emerging awareness of mind and world, the construction of a transcendent self out of the accidental, uncool junk of one’s provincial surroundings, a collection of shifting and wondrous effects gathered around an absent core, the central, self-possessed non-knowledge that gives a child space to imagine anything.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing in particular that meant a lot to me about the Beatles when I was a child was their Englishness. This also made Dr. Who, the Prisoner, and an affected taste for black tea (with no milk and sugar...I wish I had known then that the real English people drink it milky and sugary) important parts of my life. I think England must seem like such an enchanting alternate universe to American children because our inability to speak a language other than English makes any other place seem too threatning, an accusation of ignorance. At least that's how it seemed to me, and I guess I kind of still feel the same way about England. Although now it seems like a totally unattainable paradise instead of just a fictional fantasyland. Anyways, I can still forgive the Beatles and many other English artists for things that would have seemed like dealbreakers had they been American.

4/09/2007 5:28 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

I was obsessed with England in 4th grade, mostly because of Dr. Who. (My picture of England is still composed mostly of images from PBS, from Prime Suspect and Inspector Lynley.) I don't know if the language thing is the whole story of England's appeal--though it certainly helps explain why certain cultural products were available to us. (I wonder if there were, say, French or German sci-fi shows in the 60s. If there were, we'd probably know about them because hipster-hunger would have brought them to our attention. I wish France and Germany had their own Dr. Who! A metro-station TARDIS, Bauhaus Daleks, West German UNIT.) It would be a PhD-level project to say what made Dr. Who seem so mind-bendingly cool, so much better suited to our (or at least my) imagination than any American equivalent.

My fantasy-England entailed projecting myself into privilege--going to Cambridge, having a manor, walking through endless green fields (& not because I was poaching!). I mean, I never wished to be poor in England, or a minority, or even what my equivalent would be in the English class system. I imagine that most people upgrade when imagining themselves into fiction.

dealbreakers: Like Magical Mystery Tour? Actually, I think that we tend to underestimate MMT (the album/EP, not the movie!). If any other 60s band had made it, we'd consider it a masterpiece. Maybe the biggest forgiven-because-of-Englishness dealbreaker would be Lennon's personality. He may have been the 2nd greatest singer in rock and roll, but he was quite an asshole. I have been told that he doesn't have the same legacy as an activist in England that he does in the US.

4/09/2007 6:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Other than certain Rolling Stones musical products, I guess my dealbreaker would be something like the instrumental parts on Yellow Submarine...or on Low, for example (Bowie is part of my Pantheon of the English, which obviously means that I have forgiven a lot). Maybe when you aren't offered any exotic British-sounding lyrics things start to become more threadbare (on the other hand, one thing I find really numbing about the Beatles is McCartney's more hoitsy-toitsy England-between-the-wars routine). Counterexamples or Stones defense?
Other sci-fi...the mysterious Australian show where they are always on the beach, and the aliens look like regular (blond) people but have a little line of dots on their foreheads. Only seen twice on public television 22 years ago but keeps its status as One of Life's Mysteries to this day.

4/09/2007 6:55 PM  
Blogger Carl said...

There was a Canadian show about a detective with a cane. And one where people wore yellow raincoats? I think it was about someone who was missing. I remember seeing an episode of it at a birthday party. Not only the tape but also the VCR was rented.

4/09/2007 9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inspector Derrick is a great 1970s German dectective show, known to me as a French-dubbed rerun shown in Paris in the early '00s. Crazy fashions and bags under the eyes all around

4/09/2007 11:16 PM  

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