Friday, March 18, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

George Martin, the Beatles producer, commonly referred to as the "Fifth Beatle" (though not by John Lennon), died last Tuesday at his home in England. He was 90. I was under the impression that he had already died,

Martin's obituary in The New York Times summarizes his career as follows:
Mr. Martin helped redefine a record producer’s role in pop music. He was one of a handful of pop producers — Phil Spector and Quincy Jones among them — to become almost as famous as the musicians they recorded. And when he left Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI Records, to start his own production company in 1965, his reputation as the producer of the Beatles helped raise the stature of record production as an independent career, rather than as simply a record label function.
In the dozen years before he met the Beatles, Mr. Martin produced symphonic, chamber and choral recordings, jazz albums and a string of popular comedy records by Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. In the 1960s, as the recordings he made with the Beatles rode the top of the charts, he also produced hits by other British Invasion acts, among them Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. He later worked with a diverse roster of pop and jazz performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, the Bee Gees, Jeff Beck, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Paul Winter, Cheap Trick, America and Ultravox.
His collaboration with the Beatles inevitably overshadowed his other accomplishments. From 1962 to 1970, Mr. Martin produced 13 albums and 22 singles for the group, a compact body of work that adds up to less than 10 hours of music but that revolutionized the popular music world. After the Beatles broke up, he virtually doubled that output, overseeing archival releases drawn from the group’s concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, BBC radio performances and unreleased studio recordings that reveal a great deal about the Beatles’ working process.
George Martin's greatest achievement, and the greatest achievement of the Beatles, is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the ur-document of the 1960s, what Robert Christgau has referred to as the "massification of bohemia," numero uno on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."

The Hippies might have existed without Sgt. Pepper's, named as they were in the press on the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in January 1967 (Sgt. Pepper's was released in June), but thanks to Sgt. Pepper's the Hippies went global. The album was number one throughout the summer of 1967. American consciousness was so saturated by Sgt. Pepper's in the 1960s, blue-collar workingmen drank their lunchtime coffee in dark winter diners accompanied by Lennon and McCartney's "A Day in the Life" on the radio. I know because I was there, a little kid eating lunch with his dad.

One would be hard-pressed to find another example in the history of popular consciousness when the avant-garde was being mainlined so directly to the masses. George Martin used techniques found in the work of John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki to create the trippy effects in "A Day in the Life." According to Allan Kozinn, "George Martin and the Beatles: A Producer’s Impact, in Five Songs":
The song that closes “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and is, for many listeners, the most astonishing track on an astonishing album, actually began as a pair of unrelated songs: The melancholy outer verses were Lennon’s, the brighter central section was Mr. McCartney’s. What transformed these fragments into a cohesive whole is a touch of avant-garde string scoring by Mr. Martin. By the time the Beatles set to work on the track, on Jan. 19, 1967, they and Mr. Martin had mapped out its structure. Two of Lennon’s verses would open the song, followed by Mr. McCartney’s verse, which would lead back to final thoughts from Lennon. Between the two composers’ sections, though, the band would vamp for 24 bars, and there would be another long vamp after the closing verse. How these would be filled — well, Mr. Martin would figure that out later. 
For several weeks, the group tweaked the main parts of the song, polishing the vocals, drums and bass, adding extra percussion parts, and trying to imagine what should occupy those long vamped sections. Mr. McCartney thought an orchestral section would be good, but left the question of what that should entail to his producer. Mr. Martin’s solution was to take a page out of the playbooks of classical composers like John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki, who at the time were creating works in which chance played a role. Mr. Martin hired 40 symphonic musicians for a session on Feb. 10, and when they turned up, they found on their stands a 24-bar score that had the lowest notes on their instruments in the first bar, and an E major chord in the last. Between them, the musicians were instructed to slide slowly from their lowest to highest notes, taking care not to move at the same pace as the musicians around them.

The sound was magnificently chaotic, and it became more so once Mr. Martin combined the four takes he recorded (some with Mr. McCartney on the podium, some conducted by Mr. Martin himself). It was a brilliant solution: as Lennon’s voice faded into the echoic distance, the orchestra began its buildup, ending sharply on the chord that begins Mr. McCartney’s section.
My parents purchased a copy of Sgt. Pepper's upon its release. It was played repeatedly on the family phonograph, probably so much so that grooves of the vinyl were worn down. The record no doubt structured my freshly myelinated little brain.

Listening to Sgt. Pepper's all week on my way to and from work what jumps out is the division of the album into bursting exuberance, positiveness and exceedingly hopeful tracks -- "With a Little Help From My Friends"; "Getting Better"; "When I'm Sixty-Four"; "Lovely Rita"; "Good Morning Good Morning" -- and the psychedelic, trippy tracks of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"; "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"; "Within You Without You"; and the masterpiece "A Day in the Life."

The overall effect screams -- Another world is not only possible, it is here right now; and it is wonderful!

It is hard to imagine, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the #1 album of all time, a message more alien in our current milieu with its multiplying perpetual wars, skyrocketing inequality, a political drift towards fascism, mass species extinction and a planetary crisis brought about by human-induced climate change.

Sgt. Pepper's is the shiny diamond, a beautiful artifact from the post-WWII age of post-scarcity. Anything and everything was possible, and possible right now. 

We have almost completely lost this sense. It has been drummed out of us decade after decade. Our bones our now bleached dry. We are in a constant state not of bliss but of pain

A timely example of this is the story from the other day by Sabrina Tavernise, "C.D.C. Painkiller Guidelines Aim to Reduce Addiction Risk":
WASHINGTON — In an effort to curb what many consider the worst public health drug crisis in decades, the federal government on Tuesday published the first national standards for prescription painkillers, recommending that doctors try pain relievers like ibuprofen before prescribing the highly addictive pills, and that they give most patients only a few days’ supply. 
The release of the new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ends months of arguments with pain doctors and drug industry groups, which had bitterly opposed the recommendations on the grounds that they would create unfair hurdles for patients who legitimately have long-term pain. 
In the end, the agency softened the recommendations slightly but basically held its ground, a testament to how alarmed policy makers have become over the mounting overdoses and deaths from opioid addiction. Opioid deaths — including from heroin, which some people turn to after starting with prescription painkillers — reached a record 28,647 in 2014, according to the most recent federal statistics.
Can you imagine a more apt juxtaposition? If Sgt. Pepper's announced the "massification of bohemia" with a tribute to LSD, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," our present age is distinguished
by narcotic death. There are many reasons for this spike in heroin and prescription painkiller deaths -- the crass commercialism of a gigantic, poorly regulated pharmaceutical industry and the shameful quality of care provided by most medical doctors rank high on the list -- but a pervasive, almost atmospheric feeling of pain and hopelessness cannot be dismissed. It is real. You can feel it and so can I.

I have my own hypothesis about this pervasive atmosphere of pain and hopelessness we find ourselves in today; it is highly speculative, to the point of being located solidly on the lunatic fringe. I was going to indulge in it this morning because it follows on ideas I stumbled upon at the same time I was thinking about the alchemists' VITRIOL, as mentioned in last week's post. But it will have to keep. I am out of time. We will return to it next week when we treat ourselves to another psychedelic bombshell from 1967, Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's.

If fifty years ago we were thirsty for the infinite possibilities that psychedelic experience offered, why today are we are deadening ourselves en masse with painkillers? Just think about this. Now we spend our holidays watching football games funded by commercials for pills to reduce opioid-induced constipation.


  1. I read a book a few years ago that went into some detail about the Japanese imperial control of the opium/morphine/heroin traffic in occupied China in WWII. Not only did the selling of drugs essentially make a large segment of the population unable and unwilling to fight against their invaders, it made profits for the Japanese too.

    This model seems to have recurred in the US post-WWII, as drug use seems to have been targeted at American minorities. While psychedelics, which had been a central part of the CIA's various mind control explorations, marked the sixties, other waves of drugs, the cocaine, amphetamines and opioids have taken their place. One might look at the sixties as a cultural drug experiment played on the American public by those seeking ways to control the population.

    In his book DEEP POLITICS Peter Dale Scott lays out the basis for law enforcement and drug traffickers as natural allies. It proved impossible for local law enforcement to shut off all drug sales and importation, so it allied with drug dealerships that serviced the poor minority communities. That way the local police had some control over the drug trade, and made kickbacks from the chosen drug dealers. Meanwhile, the protected drug traffic in turn aided the police in eliminating its competition. It explained the rather curious relation between Jack Ruby, drug traffickers and the police.

    When the DEA was created by Nixon he used E. Howard Hunt to stock the new agency with "ex" CIA officials. Essentially, the importation and distribution of illegal drugs became federalized. Profits from the drug trade accumulated in various unofficial CIA slush funds. Members of organized crime got "out of jail free" cards from the feds and locals. We got glimpses of such slush funds with the Vatican banking scandal, the S & L bustouts, and BCCI.

    In short, the business model of Imperial Japan had been adopted by American intelligence. You could blame the electric sitar on the CIA.

    1. I recently re-watched MAGIC TRIP, the 2011 Alex Gibney documentary about the Ken Kesey and Merry Pranksters 1964 cross-country psychedelic bus trip to the New York World's Fair which is the origin of the Hippies. There are a lot of interesting strands in the film, foremost of which is the government-sponsored LSD experiments that Kesey participated in as a graduate student at Stanford, which led to his writing ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and his literary stardom as the next Jack Kerouac. A topnotch book on LSD and the Sixties is ACID DREAMS: THE COMPLETE SOCIAL HISTORY OF LSD, THE CIA, THE SIXTIES AND BEYOND by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain. Another interesting tidbit from the Gibney documentary is Kesey's testimony that the Merry Pranksters' cross-country psychedelic bus trip was prompted by Kennedy's assassination. So, yes, you're right. In a way, the electric sitar, heard another way, is just so much CIA blow back. Kesey at the end of film is shown answering a question (or approximate version) about this and he pathetically acknowledges that he ended up "scrambling his marbles" as part of a what cannot be denied was originally a government project. Peter Dale Scott is one of the only thinkers to consistently limn the connection between the illegal drug trade and government intelligence services.

      The '60s were a time of great hope and bounty. They likely would have been subverted without the "false infinity" (Theodore Roszack's term) of acid and cocaine (the theme of EASY RIDER). But the drugs sure made it easier to fuck everything up.

      Thanks as always, Bob, for your thoughtful comments. And thanks too for the tip about the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. I downloaded LIVE FROM NEW YORK, an in-studio at a Long Island radio station from 1972. I am enjoying it.

  2. What a great piece of writing. We've lost a lot of ground, haven't we?

    Although, with the caveat: "We" means mostly people like me: white, straight people with no physical disabilities. Those of us who aren't in that category might not care to turn the clock back fifty years. Still, it's us rich white Westerners who are driving the ongoing cultural and ecological collapse, and who shoulder the responsibility to look at it more closely.

    I eagerly await your promised lunatic fringe post.

    1. Thanks, J.O. Yes, you're right. Sexism and racism dominated the 1960s more so than today. Thanks to the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution of the '60s, things improved greatly for women and blacks. The sonic tidal wave of the era, if one excludes the Beatles, was Motown.