Sometime during 2007, I posted to my blog Stoning the Devil about Sgt. Pepper. I called the post "Not Getting Better all the Time: The profound darkness of Sgt. Pepper." The basic premise of the post was somewhat complex- that because Sgt. Pepper ends in tragedy ("A Day in the Life"), the "staged" aspect of the album, which ends before "A Day in the Life," constitutes a series of consecutive illusions, which "A Day in the Life" denudes. Thus, "Getting Better" becomes "Not Getting Better," "Fixing a Hole" becomes "Not Fixing a Hole," etc. Listening to the album in this manner ("backwards," as it were), it becomes clear that this interpretive vista configures Pepper as a kind of mirage, offering peace and love vibes and dream visions on the surface while retaining a dark core of alienation and ultimate disillusionment. It is malign. Why hasn't it been taken that way? Partly, it's because critics haven't set themselves the task of listening to the album according to its tragic ending- they stick to the glossy surface, ignoring the way "A Day in the Life" is set apart from the other, "staged" tracks. What's illusory in the staged tracks are the myths of the Sixties- a track like "With a Little Help from my Friends" features a playful call and response, as an Everyman (it could be the same Everyman we later hear in "A Day in the Life") interrogates himself and finds himself to be well situated. The trap-door is that there's no one else in the song- he could be talking to himself. The structure of the verses, musically, allows Paul McCartney to incorporate the kind of bass runs and chord changes which Brian Wilson employed on Pet Sounds- it's a sound of plaintive, cloying innocence. This innocence is up in smoke by the last piano crash of "A Day in the Life."
The quizzical ruminations of "Fixing a Hole" also offer a kind of original philosophical innocence, without involving its protagonist in any serious relationships. For such a communal collection (that's how it was originally taken), there are precious few genuine relationships investigated on Sgt. Pepper (the way there are on Rubber Soul)- the album has a solipsistic streak. The two relationship narratives, "She's Leaving Home" and "Lovely Rita," offer glimpses of failed or superficial relationships. It's a theme that runs through Satanic Majesties, too, if not Strange Days- the Beatles and Stones explore an inability to relate at a critical juncture when the counterculture most emphasized relationships, and communal togetherness. The cruel irony (for those watching closely) was that Sgt. Pepper's solipsism was an anti-response to the counterculture, rather than an affirmation of it. But the superficially dazzling aspects of Sgt. Pepper- its lavish production values (which were unprecedented for a pop album in '67), Pop-Art visuals, and the sense that the Beatles had become auteurs rather than mere pop stars (and that they were taken as representative of their generation's precocity and ambitiousness) won the day, and those listening closely kept their mouths shut. It is a tribute to a generation's ability to blinker itself that the cold artificiality of something "staged," and which ends in tragedy, was taken for a beloved symbol of affirmative cultural progress.
Of the '67 triumvirate (Sgt. Pepper/ Satanic Majesties/ Strange Days), Sgt. Pepper was by far the most commercially successful (was, indeed, phenomenally commercially successful instantly), and the most deceptive. There's even the option of taking Sgt. Pepper, in all its strangeness and ultimate horror, as an extreme black comedy, a kind of satire of the social illusions which were bolstering the counterculture. If so, that makes Satanic Majesties a satire of a satire- warmer (as the Stones tended to be) than the Beatles, but bent along a much more simpatico wavelength with Sgt. Pepper then has generally been supposed. It's also funny that all three albums seem to constitute not only an equivocal response but an outright rejection of the counterculture, rather than an embrace of it. Of the three responses, the Beatles' is the coldest- it may be mystifying for historians to realize the extremely heartwarming response it received. Sgt. Pepper is not only cold but somewhat terrible- the second side of the album is like going down a slippery slope, into the bleak maelstrom of "A Day in the Life." The momentum the second side generates is bloated and empty- the sleazy sex of "Lovely Rita," with its shockingly dark ending (a Beatles trademark in '67/'68), the hideousness of "Good Morning Good Morning" ("Nothing to do to save his life/ call his wife in"), and the rushed phoniness of the "Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)" all point straight to the inevitability of "A Day in the Life," in all its banal deathliness. The first, "up" side of Sgt. Pepper is only more pleasant if not interrogated- a seemingly positive statement like "Getting Better" offers darkling hints ("I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her/ and kept her apart from the things that she loved") more direct and brutish than anything on Satanic Majesties or Strange Days, and the suggestion is that this Everyman (who even sounds, on close inspection, like a version of John Lennon) is both violent and disturbed. It also needs to be put in place that "A Day in the Life" does not definitively end in suicide or death- but what else could its violence and discord signify?
There's another subtext that Sgt. Pepper shares with Strange Days- that dreams and waking states were being confused, in such a way as to suggest that this situation in itself (of the counterculture, and often drug induced) was a kind of nightmare. Whether or not "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was about LSD, it certainly concerned sensory derangement and its appeal, which is being staged (as Jim Morrison does in the song "Strange Days") to be knocked down. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is malign for the same reason- a sinister carnival atmosphere with only a hint of anything but joylessness (significantly, the song is in a minor key). It's another swirling nightmare. Sixties counterculture was big on carnivals and carnival atmospheres- "Be-Ins," "Love-Ins," music festivals, and the like. What the Beatles, Stones, and Doors have in common is the sense that, behind the carnvial masks lurked the same sick, suffering marks of humanity as ever. The mirage nature of Sgt. Pepper in particular meant that even as young people in '67 were "bathing in warm sounds," they were also inadvertantly hitting a slab of ice.