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

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
‘A lucky man who made the grade’ :
Sgt. Pepper and the rise of a
phonographic tradition in
twentieth-century popular music

Olivier Julien

In this final chapter, I intend to put Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in perspective with regard to the rise of a ‘phonographic tradition’1 in twentieth-century popular music. If the term ‘phonography’ is universally understood as synonymous with ‘sound recording’ (I shall come back to its origins later), the term ‘tradition’ may require some preliminary explanation: it refers here to the centricity of a culture on a medium that determines its mode of preservation, its modes of dissemination and transmission, and eventually the nature of what is regarded as the ‘creative act’ within the scope of that same culture. Such a conception is based on the 1954 International Folk Council definition of folk music:

Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has evolved through the process
of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity which links
the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the
individual or the group; (iii) selection by the community which determines the form or
forms in which music survives. (Quoted in Middleton 1990, pp. 132–3)

It also draws on the following description of the written tradition in Western art music by Jean-Jacques Nattiez:

In Western tradition, what results from the composer’s creative act is clearly the score; it
is the score that makes the work performable and recognizable as an entity; and it is also
the score that enables the work to travel down the centuries.2

As I shall argue, the specificity of popular music as we know it today lies in its dependence upon the third medium that has been available since the late nineteenth century for preserving, disseminating and transmitting music: phonography. This

1 ‘Tradition phonographique’ (Julien 1998, pp. 27, 342–5; Julien 2006, p. 69).

2 ‘Ce qui résulte du geste créateur du compositeur, c ‘est bien, dans la tradition occidentale, la partition; ce qui rend l’oeuvre exécutable et reconnaissable comme entité, c’est la partition; ce qui lui permet de traverser les siècles, c’est encore elle’ (Nattiez 1987, p. 98).

-147-

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