Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
‘Tangerine trees and marmalade skies’:
cultural agendas or optimistic escapism?

Sheila Whiteley

It may have been superseded by Revolver as ‘the best Beatles’ album ever’, but for those of us who were around at the time, there is no doubt that Sgt. Pepper summed up our mood. Released slap bang in the middle of the so-called ‘Summer of Love’, it was, as Allen Ginsberg recalls, ‘an exclamation of joy, a discovery of joy and what it was to be alive’ (Sheppard 1987). Despite the murder of Che Guevara, the race riots in Detroit and the gathering discontent at universities both in the United States and the United Kingdom, it was actually ‘a cheerful look around the world: the first time, I would say, on a mass scale’ (Ibid.). Sgt. Pepper seemed, at the time, to exemplify a mood of ‘getting better’. ‘Holes’ were being ‘fixed’, love would still be there at 64, and the band promised to ‘turn you on’.

Of course, I am considerably older than I was in August 1967. I am also older than when I published my first piece on Sgt. Pepper in 1992, and I recognize that with age comes an increasing nostalgia. But as George Harrison said:

The summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love for us … A lot of it was bullshit; it was just
what the press was saying. But there was definitely a vibe: we could feel what was going
on with our friends – and people who had similar goals in America – even though we were
miles away. You could just pick up the vibes, man. (Beatles 2000, p. 254)

In The Space Between the Notes (Whiteley 1992, pp. 39–60), I attributed those vibes to the underlying hallucinogenic mood of the album and, in many ways, this chapter is a revisiting of my original analysis. I have no sudden new insight, despite the ever-increasing number of texts that have appeared over the last decade, but I have listened again to the album, albeit with a none-too-innocent ear, to evaluate whether the tracks constitute optimistic escapism or whether the Beatles gave voice to a more generalized feeling that the old ways were out, so setting the agenda for cultural and political change.

Even at the time, it was apparent that the Beatles held a privileged position within the pop world, that they were able to voice opinions on current situations and be heard by their thousands of fans worldwide. They had become, in effect, the socio-political Zeitgeist for their generation, and this is reflected in Peter Blake’s pop-art design for the album sleeve, which shows the Beatles, as the Sgt. Pepper Band, surrounded by life-size cut-outs of famous figures past and present – philosophers, artists, painters, writers, film stars, comedians and, at Harrison’s request, a number of Indian gurus. Waxwork figures of the Beatles (borrowed from Madame Tussaud’s) confirm their

-11-

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