Olivier Julien (ed.)
Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today
(Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008)
Review by Alison Notkin
The Beatles are a popular band. During their reign as the “Fab Four” in the 1960s they were a popular band, and thirty-eight years after their ten-year career ended, they are still a popular band. More books have been written about the Beatles than any other band, ever. They were the first band to “warrant” serious musicological writing, and in fact, are one of the only popular music groups to grace the pages of such auspicious publications as the Cambridge Music Handbooks (only the Beatles and George Gershwin have had this honour so far). Music-lovers I meet often tell me that the Beatles are by far the best band that ever existed, and certainly, I, who spent hours of my 1970s and 80s childhood, locked in my basement, listening to records and pretending to be John Lennon, cannot contest that statement. Come to think of it, it is because of the effect of this popularity that I am even here, writing this review that I jumped on once hearing what the topic of the book was.
So it is with utmost respect that I ask the following question: What purpose does this new collection of essays serve? What have the numerous books written about the Beatles contributed to society, and why is it necessary for this particular book to have been published now, in 2009? More particularly, how do this music and this body of writing help the students and researchers who are trying to understand music and to express this understanding in words?
In his preface, Julien declares, perhaps by way of explaining the current relevance of the book, that in 2006, over 220,000 people in Britain voted in a BBC survey for their favorite album released since 1956, and that out of those people an overwhelming number voted for the Beatles and many for Sgt Pepper specifically. One can assume that this collection of expert writings from around the world (mostly the United States and the UK) is meant, among other things, to shed light on the phenomenon of the staying power of this band.
The contributors to this collection have varying levels of expertise on the subject of the Beatles. While only about half of the contributors are musicologists or music historians, they have all previously written articles and/or books on the topic. Some of the essay subjects are related to previous works (MacFarlane, O’Grady), some are updated versions of previous works (Whiteley, Julien, Moore, Inglis) and others contain new work (Hannan, Wagner, Kimsey, Reck). It is apparent in the writing that there is a great deal of enthusiasm from the authors, many of which appear to be Beatles fans themselves.
The main topics of discussion are the events that led-up to the creation of the album, Sgt Pepper as concept album, sixties counterculture and psychedelic drugs, the influence of Indian music and culture on the Beatles, the influence of classical music, the influences of other bands, the studio environment, the relevance of the extensive cover art, and stylistic and personal differences between Lennon and McCartney. In the next sections I will discuss some of the work that I found particularly interesting.
Whiteley revisits work that she did in her book The Space Between The Notes (1992) on psychedelic coding found in the music of the sixties. She comes to the conclusion that while the album is full of details that can be identified as psychedelic escapism, the Beatles, in their role as “zeitgeist of a generation”, also project a seriousness, likely because of fear of war and the uncertainty of the times. She interestingly links the psychedelics in the music with the spiritual ideas of alternate religions to make the conclusion that the album is a reminder that there are alternative solutions out there and that things can get better.
MacFarlane adapts the subject of his dissertation-cum-book on the topic of Abbey Road, to extend to Sgt Pepper and comes up with the thesis that Sgt Pepper, while not a full extended-form album, can be seen as “the first step in a two step process of experimentation that culminates with the extended form of the Abbey Road medley.”
Hannan likens the work of the producer and engineer to that of sound designer, traditionally a term used in theatre and film, whose role is to create effects that add to the general story line of a play or movie. In his essay, he discusses timbres, playing techniques, instrument processing, recorded sounds as narration tools, noise elements, texture, mixing, and the overall structure of the album (e.g. running order), as aspects of the music that all fall under the umbrella of sound design. Using his own insight as well as citations from producer George Martin, engineer Geoff Emerick and scholar Mark Lewisohn, Hannan analyses each song individually to highlight sound design details. He consciously focuses away from traditional music analysis in order to approach aspects of the music that would not be properly be treated using that method. By looking at the compositional qualities that come from elements in sound design, he presents a successful popular musicological study.
Reck, a specialist in Indian music, gives us some perspective on how Indian music became part of the sixties counterculture movement and how the Beatles came to embrace aspects of this music and culture. He identifies details in the music that may have been inspired by elements in Indian music, such as the interlude riff in Here Comes The Sun (tihai rhythmic device) or the scale used in Blue Jay Way (South Indian ranjani raga) or the chant-like melody in Tomorrow Never Knows.
The word authentic is derived from the Greek authentikos which is made up of: autos (self) and henthes: worker and in this context means something like self-made. Kimsey addresses the problem of studio mediation being perceived as something that compromises the authenticity of an artist’s own work. As a methodology, he draws from statements made by music critics, musicologists and musicians from the eighties until now to illustrate his points. He also discusses various binaries that have existed in history such as that from rhetorician Richard Lanham, homo seriosus (the “irreducible identity” of the individual) vs. homo rhetoricus (the public and dramatic presentation of an individual), to show how this problem may have come about.
Moore revisits themes found in his book of 1997. His thesis is particularly intriguing: do interpretations change over time, but he does not go very deeply into the idea, and spends a lot of the chapter referring back to examples in his book while providing little context of what kind of other work has been done on the subject.
The methodological approaches throughout the volume tend to involve studies on historical context, biographical information, descriptions of what happens in the music and subjective interpretation of music and lyric. This kind of information is both interesting and helpful in terms of understanding the music, but it might have been beneficial for the collection to have included some semiotic studies on the signification of the music or reception-based studies with groups of listeners from different demographics.
A sort of double-edged sword seems to have developed where it comes to the notation of popular music. As we all know, current popular music studies tend to shun traditional notation (there are exactly six music examples in this book of 190 pages) because it is said that 1) popular music is a recorded music, not a written one and 2) the language of traditional notation does not provide for many aspects of popular music (such as timbre, texture, and electronic effects) As a result, we lose a potential way to explain music; popular music may not be a written music, but being able to notate it in some kind of graphic way would be a good educational tool. This is an area of musicology that needs a lot of work.
As the BBC survey showed, the Beatles were and have remained an inordinately popular band since their heyday in the sixties. This book does not seek to understand their staying power, but the context within which the band was formed and rose to fame and the aspects of their music that made them so popular in the first place. While the book is not particularly relevant right now, aside from being about forty years since the album was released, the continued writing of these leading academics is imperative to the growing body of work on the subject of popular music in general. The value of the format of essay collection is that not only does it brings us up to date with the work of these leading Beatles experts, but it presents it all in one place.
Many of the contributors in this collection experienced first hand the 1967 release of Sgt Pepper and it is from this perspective that they are approaching their work. It might be interesting to hear from younger generations, both musicologists and fans, who are hearing the music out of socio-political context, and look at what has happened in music since Sgt Pepper, as a possible result of its effects. It would seem that exploring such avenues may help to understand the staying power of this band, a concept that seems, from the preface, to be an important one. Reception tests with modern audiences administered to a broader demographic, both cultural and in age group, could be useful. With all of the talk of the Beatles changing the face of rock and roll with their studio experimentation, it could be useful to try to trace the development of studio techniques post Sgt Pepper, as well as to look at the influence the band had on subsequent groups, and how the influence of Indian music on this album opened doors for other popular music/world music collaborations.
Criticism aside, this is an enjoyable and interesting collection of essays, focusing on a broad range of topics, often insightful and inspired, with an emphasis on the socio-cultural aspects of music. It will certainly appeal to a broad audience, academics and fans of the music alike. I look forward to more titles from Ashgate’s important series on popular and folk music.
(i) "Authentic", in Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved December 21, 2008, from
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