If you want to know about the music, ask a musician. As Howard Goodall points out, the cultural impact of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been argued at length, but people tend to overlook the songs.
An award-winning composer of musicals and TV soundtracks, he gets under the bonnet in a forthcoming documentary Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution (Saturday 3 June, BBC2), marvelling at the sheer breadth of its ambition and the revolutionary methods invented to create it.
But it’s these five tracks, he says, that raised the bar the highest.
Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!
“On Sgt Pepper the Beatles dipped backwards to a forgotten attic of sounds and atmospheres from the past – music hall, vaudeville, Dixieland, Edwardian military bands – and it’s so rich in detail. Here they evoke a Victorian circus with a story carved from an old circus poster John had found in an antiques shop.
“They didn’t just talk about another era, they used the rhythms, instruments, harmonies and melodies to re-create it, and with drums like a one-man band walking down your street. We know it’s a pop song because it’s on a pop record but in almost every respect it breaks all those rules.”
She’s Leaving Home
“The song is written from three points of view. You get the dispassionate narrator: ‘Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins’. Then it moves sympathetically to the view of the parents: ‘We gave her everything money could buy’ – heartbreaking. And then you sense the perspective of the girl herself locked in her boring, grey world: ‘Something inside that was always denied for so many years’.
“And it’s just as adventurous musically. At the time pop music was more or less bass, drums, guitars and keyboards, and this is a string section and a harp. What McCartney was saying was: ‘I’m not just importing a classical sound to be the dressing, it will be the sound itself’. The daringness of it!”
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
“A John song but the influence of Paul is all over this track. It’s full of Lewis Carroll imagery – both John and Paul were mad about Alice in Wonderland – and has a psychedelic tinge, but they’re not just doing a Hippy Generation psychedelic folk song here; they are creating a child’s world of sound. The beginning section sounds like a little musical box.”
Within You Without You
“This may seem an odd choice, as when this came out we all thought, ‘What on earth are the Beatles doing?’ But I’ve come to love this track so much. It doesn’t just have an Indian flavour, it’s a whole Indian song – the instruments, the rhythm, the scales, the melody. Even the lyrics are Hindu mysticism.
“And it’s so sincere and heartfelt and beautiful. Nowadays you expect to hear a Punjabi rhythm in hip-hop or a Bhangra beat on a dance record, but in 1967 this was a revolutionary, very radical hybrid. You can date the beginning of the Western interest in world music from this song, an incredibly visionary moment in pop.”
A Day in the Life
“One of the greatest songs of the 20th century, full stop. Half a John song and half a Paul song combined in one masterpiece. Even though it was the Summer of Love, this is actually a story about life in ordinary everyday Britain – about reading newspapers, pot-holes in the road, a car crash.
“But the beauty and poetry they eke out of these everyday events is breathtaking, an incredible series of images and a song built up – like the whole album – chord by chord, idea by idea, layer by layer. They moved from one key and one mood and one series of harmonies to another, and it has one of the most extraordinary orchestral moments in popular music, the free-form avant-garde musical glissando.
“In 1967 no one anywhere in the world in any musical genre had heard anything remotely like it. An absolute masterpiece.”