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

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
The Beatles’ psycheclassical synthesis:
psychedelic classicism and classical
psychedelia in Sgt. Pepper

Naphtali Wagner

The first sounds heard on the album Sgt. Pepper – a mixture of tuning instruments and the noise of an audience – create the impression that this is a live recording from the concert hall. I assume that many fans who had been waiting impatiently for the Beatles’ new album thought for the first few seconds that the clerk had accidentally wrapped up a classical album.1 The distraught listeners must have been reassured 12 seconds later by the sound of traditional rock ‘n’ roll, until a contrapuntal interlude (0′43″–0′55″) suddenly brought them back to the classical world. Moreover, this interlude is not just an instrumental episode in a standard popular song; it appears too early to be so (just 22 seconds after the entrance of the singer) and precedes the chorus. In the first verse the singer acts as an announcer whose entire job is to introduce that fictional band whose virtual performance is documented here: ‘So may I introduce to you the act you’ve known for all these years, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Hence it is the entrance of the horns that marks the start of the ‘real’ performance. The horn episode is tied to the preceding vocal verse by a modulation that is not just a transition from one scale to another but a transformation from one gerne to another: the C7 chord, which just a moment before functioned as a blues chord, turns into a traditional applied chord and is resolved to an F chord in accordance with the rules of the classical theory of harmony. The note B♭ turns from a rebellious blue note of the youth culture into the learned, elderly note of the seventh, which demands and is given proper resolution (Wagner 2003, pp. 362–4).

When George Martin reaches this episode in his discussion of the making of the album, he says: ‘… and then a bit of classical work, bringing in four French horns’ (Benson 1992). But the classical image conveyed by the passage is not unequivocal: when the producer plays the horn track by itself (without the rhythm section), we seem to find ourselves in an eighteenth-century atmosphere – but where exactly? A consort of horns does not belong to any standard instrumental ensemble or specific genre in that period. Under the influence of the programmatic context of the frame song, the percussion accompaniment and the uniforms and brass instruments on the

1 More precisely, the opening sounds convey an ambiguous message: the string instruments in the background suggest a classical orchestra preparing for a performance, but the sounds of the audience hint at a different kind of show (for details, see Benson 1992). This very ambiguity may confuse listeners.

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