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

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
The whatchamucallit in the garden:
Sgt. Pepper and fables of interference

John Kimsey

‘The Beatles as nature intended’: so reads the headline of a 1969 Apple Corps press release for the Beatles’ then-new single, ‘Get Back’. The song, we are assured, is ‘a pure spring-time rock number’ recorded ‘as live as can be, in this electronic age’. Just in case someone might miss the point, the ad copy goes on to aver that ‘Get Back’ features a ‘fab live guitar solo’ and a flip side – ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – that is equally ‘live’. Above all, we are told, the record involves ‘no electronic whatchamucallit’ (Beatles 2000, p. 319).

‘Why the insistent tone?’, one might ask; why should the Beatles, of all late1960s pop groups, need to convince the public that their music is pure, rocking and, well, live? And yet such a question will seem naïve to anyone familiar with the standard-issue Beatles story arc, for that story sees the Beatles as desperately needing to ‘get back’ on the right track by this late point in their career. The rhetoric of the press release suggests much is indeed at stake. On one side, we have nature, purity and springtime; on the other, a nameless, apparently incomprehensible technology – the enemy, it would appear, of all things ‘live’. Our heroes seem to have strayed far from the path of virtue. Where did things go so frightfully wrong?

Ian Shoales can tell you where. In his 1985 essay, ‘Rock Music Today’, he explains:

Rock music used to be about dancing and parties, stolen kisses and fast cars. Then, in
the late ’60s, the Beatles pretended to be Sergeant Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The producer overorchestrated every track, the critics dubbed it a concept album and the
beginning of the end had begun. (Shoales 1985, p. 126)

According to Shoales, the Beatles have a lot to answer for: ‘All the Bad Boys are gone, and all the slow-talking platter pushers in the dead of night. The ghosts of rock and roll used to haunt us as we drove. But that’s rock-and-roll history and it’s over. The Beatles killed it’ (Ibid., p. 125).

Now granted, Ian Shoales is not a real rock critic, he just plays one on television (‘Ian Shoales’ being the arch-pundit alter ego of satirist Merle Kessler).1 Nonetheless, on this topic Shoales can be said to represent what Robert Christgau in 1981 called a growing ‘constituency’ – a core of real-life rock critics who have argued much the

1 During the 1980s, the inimitable Shoales was a featured commentator on the United States’ National Public Radio and ABC television’s Nightline.

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