My colleague Bob Keeley notes in this blog that he was barely a teenager when the landmark “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album was released 50 years ago. Me? I was just three years old and it would be years before I’d know who The Beatles were and many more years—during college when my roommate had almost every Beatles album—before I would listen to their work more intently. Flash forward a dozen years from then and I found myself a pastor enduring an exceedingly hard season of criticism and controversy.
At that same the TV documentary series “The Beatles Anthology” came out, and listening to interviews with Paul, George, Ringo, and John as well as re-absorbing their music somehow helped me in a difficult moment. There is something hauntingly honest about the Beatles at their best. Few bands sang about “all the lonely people” more than the Fab Four. Few bands expressed that human longing for more, for something greater than themselves than the Beatles. And if it is true that the lads from Liverpool drank from mostly all the wrong taps to slake that thirst, the yearning expressed by their music nonetheless strikes chords of common grace that Christians can appreciate. Below Bob Keeley shares his thoughts and memories as an expert in the band and its music (Bob teaches at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary and his course offerings at the College include an entire Interim course on the Beatles).
~~ Scott Hoezee
A mere three years after taking the U.S. by storm in February of 1964, the ongoing evolution of The Beatles crystalized in the release of the startling Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The band had already been churning out new work at an amazing clip with a new album every 6 months and with four new singles a year. And then, after Revolver (arguably their best album) was released in August of 1966, The Beatles did one final tour and then, silence. They took a break. They might never play live again, they said. The world waited and then started to wonder if The Beatles’ fad had, perhaps, finally run its course.
At the end of 1966 a single came out, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The cover photo showed them looking different. They had mustaches. The music was different too. “Penny Lane” was a remarkable song with a stunningly beautiful arrangement but the flip side, “Strawberry Fields,” was something quite different. It made us wonder what in the world they were up to. There had never been nearly this much time before Beatles albums before.
Then, six months later, in June of 1967, their new album finally hit the streets. It was clear from the cover and from the music contained inside that this was something new. Here was an album that we would spend much of the next six months – indeed, much of the next 50 years – listening to over and over again, continually finding new things to listen to, new ways of thinking about the music, and new ways of seeing how each of the fascinating parts of this tapestry fit into the whole that was Sergeant Pepper.
This entire album is a journey through the world of these four men, a world that includes both the fantastic (the crazy circus of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”) and the mundane (“Fixing a Hole.”) This world also includes a search for something more. It would be a couple of months before the Beatles would sit at the feet of the Maharishi but George Harrison’s recent trip to India inspired him to explore Hinduism in “Within You, Without You.” The Beatles weren’t so sure, though, that they wanted to be so blatant about their search for meaning. After this most obviously religious song they included a few seconds of laughter, as if to say “please don’t take this so seriously.”
I was barely a teenager when Pepper came out – my older brother gave it to me for my birthday that summer – I initially saw this album as another example of the sort of music we kids were expected to grow out of. But, even at my young age, I realized that this was something different. This was more than just an album, it was a song cycle. These songs somehow fit together to make something bigger. The themes ran the gamut of the human experience. “With a Little Help from My Friends” celebrated the joy of living in community, and “When I’m Sixty-Four” showed the blessing of loving relationships. But it wasn’t all happy. “She’s Leaving Home” told the sad story of a young girl leaving her parents for an adventure and “A Day in the Life,” perhaps one of the greatest recordings of all time, showed how boring life could be, even for one of the most famous people in the world.
“I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon sighs as the final track begins with a light acoustic guitar, piano and maracas. The track then takes us on a journey through two different songs melded together by a rush of sound that invites us into the Beatles’ world of light and color. It is no secret that at least some of the creativity of that period was fueled by drugs so when Lennon and McCartney sing “I’d love to turn you on” we have a pretty good idea what they mean.
But it means more than just a sly drug reference. There has to be more to life than this, they’re saying. More than just reading a series of unrelated stories in the newspaper. More than just getting up and going to work. There is a bigger world out there and they’re inviting us to be part of it. This is the same message that Christians have been sharing for hundreds of years. We invite others to be part of the same journey that we’re on, a journey of discovery but, unlike Pepper, one with a clear goal. The long chord (made by three pianos) that marks the end of “A Day in the Life” causes us to listen more carefully as the sound slowly fades away, drawing our attention to the smallest details in the sound. (You can even hear a piano bench squeak if you listen carefully enough.) It’s a breathtaking song, an amazing end to a truly remarkable album. Four young men search for something more and, to riff on a different song, doesn’t that make them a bit like you and me?
~~ Bob Keeley