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

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
The act you’ve known for all these years:
a re-encounter with Sgt. Pepper

Allan Moore

How robust should an interpretation be? As we change, grow, mature, should our interpretation of something which remains unchanging itself remain unchanged? Should it solidify, perhaps, as we reach adulthood? I first came to know Sgt. Pepper in the early 1970s as a heterogeneous, contingent collection of vibrant songs, some of which I knew well (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’), others of which I barely recognized (‘Within You Without You’, ‘Fixing a Hole’). At the time, somehow, I had gone to sleep between A Hard Day’s Night and the White Album. Not for me, then, the wonder of this new notion of a unified album, made particularly manifest by its packaging, since during this interval I became inducted into the world of the piano sonata (and of sets like Schumann’s Kinderszenen), and by the time I came to Sgt. Pepper, then Tarkus, In the Court of the Crimson King and Thick as a Brick constituted a far more substantial part of my world. I came upon the historical significance of Sgt. Pepper, then, from the outside.

By the still later time I came to see it as a precursor of progressive rock’s infatuation with unified concepts (see Moore 2002, pp. 94–6), I had been sufficiently persuaded of its importance but this was, still, to perceive it in terms of historical, rather than necessarily aesthetic, success. And it was this recognition, I think, which led to my proposing it as a worthy subject for the Cambridge Handbooks series, as what became the book I published in 1997. By means of this intervention I think I have been seen, entirely reasonably, as implying that, as a work, it stands alongside other great monuments to European musical thinking. However, that was not an argument I attempted to make in the book, with the exception of a rather half-hearted attempt in the final chapter, and it is still not an argument I would make with any conviction today.1 Rather, I saw it as representative of a way of making music which, as a practice, was of equivalent importance to the practices traced in the works which were the subjects of other volumes in that series. But of course, I have no more right to insist that this was what the book ‘meant’ than did John Lennon to insist that ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was not a drug song. In my view, the album was a token of its type, rather than necessarily of stature in its own right. But then I am suspicious of the notion of genius, and of the products of genius, of those artistic statements which, because they ‘stand the test of time’, are perceived to have

1 In contrast, perhaps, to the position enabled by the ‘language and conceptual approach of postmodernism’ referenced by Paul Gleed, and about which I remain sceptical (see Gleed 2006, p. 166).

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