Jun 17

“the note that she hoped would say more”: sergeant pepper five decades on

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Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released the week of my seventh birthday — to date my favourite (an affective fact unlikely to be challenged this year). Seven is the best number.

But it didn’t come into our family lives until a month later, my mum’s 32nd birthday, 4 July 1967. We were on holiday in mid-Wales, on a hillside farm owned by family friends (my godfather) a little up from Aberdyfi. Dad hadn’t joined us immediately — in those years he often had to travel to London from Shrewsbury for days on end, to attend work-related meetings. So he drove up a few days later — we were a two-mini family, very Italian Job in that one way at least — laden with presents for everyone, especially mum.

Mum’s was Sergeant Pepper, of course. And it went straight onto the ancient gramophone in that farmhouse, probably immediately damaging the surface (I bet the needle hasn’t been changed to this day). It was played non-stop the entire holiday — bearing mind that that summer was famously warm and clear-skied, and full of generational hope. My parents weren’t hippies — they were a bit too old and too cautious, dad was 36 that year — but they were caught up in the sense of possibility, working (and living) in a place staffed by young adults committed to natural-science fieldwork and what wasn’t yet widely known as ecology. My sister and I were brought up semi-communally in this space, often babysat by these many idealistic young adults. This summer has remained the perfect snapshot for me of that idealism.

pepper fragment 3

The record itself — the physical object, the sleeve and the inner sleeve and the disc and the label — my sister and I scoured for all its loving, baffling details. The fact — which I know now and knew nothing of then — that this was a land-grab made by the artists (so hugely successful their sales were a not-be-sniffed proportion of the national GDP at a time when other sectors were struggling) to strip control of product-terrain, like sleeve space and label space and even the run-out groove, from EMI (who generally used the spaces to shill rival LPs or EMITEX record-wiping cloth or whatever) and place them at the whim of the musicians, to hire artists like Peter Blake or whoever. In terms of aesthetic decision-making and conceptual control this was a revolutionary and transformative move. (Of course many of the decisions subsequently made were quite poor: musicians are not always artistically smart in other realms than music, and the gatefold-sleeve has been rich in crimes against art.)

I could read at that age — my sister was five, I don’t remember if she could yet— and just loved that all these words were there, the lyric-printing a first, I believe, not that I knew this then, of course, or cared. I loved the bright acid-pop colours of the sleeve — I still own my parents’ copy and they’re still sharp and vivid and dense with memory. I loved the mystery of it: why were they dressed like this, what was the story, how did these scenes and anecdotes connect? I loved to read but was easily disoriented by children’s stories not working as convention demanded — the obvious strength of all this (as demonstrated by my parents’ enjoyment) presented me with a new way to present story material, which I didn’t quite get. This was as thrilling as it was strange: an invaluable sensation to learn in such a lovely context, I think. At least if you think puzzled curiosity is a good quality in a critic — certainly it’s a reaction I continue to favour.

We loved the Blake insert pop-art cut-outs, the moustaches and glasses: in fact we cut them out and donned them, and scampered round the garden in the sun with them (lots of scampering around in the s childhoods). Ruined for future collectors, perhaps — but this wasn’t about the future, it was about an utterly delighted present. And mum and dad enjoyed our delight.

pepper fragment

It wasn’t actually such an easy year for them, though we didn’t then know that. Dad had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s the year before, unusually young at 35. In fact he had been given just ten years to live — the synthesis of L-Dopa (key study published 1968) would change this (he lived until 2010) but in 1967 only a tiny handful of researchers knew anything about L-Dopa. So in this sunniest of summers, mum and dad lived under a shadow of expected grief and trial, which — to my grown-up astonishment and admiration — they entirely kept from their children. I remember dad talking a little to me about no longer being able to draw well, or write — as a young man he had beautiful calligrapher’s penmanship, he and mum both, and was a gifted amateur artist, mainly drawing plants, with occasional gorgeously evocative Christmas cards and such. All that he had to give up (he had to teach himself to write with his left hand instead of his right). I don’t remember ever being told that he probably only had ten years to live — though I must have been, because if I think of it now, this feels like a fact I knew all my life. But I didn’t; I just suppressed the first moment I discovered it (which I think must have been after this summer holiday when I was only seven).

They hadn’t been pop enthusiasts much before this — I have one much earlier memory, of dancing in the staff dining room with other members of staff to “She Loves You” as it played on a transistor on a high window-ledge with the sun streaming in past it. But it was not mum and dad’s radio — and in our flat we really only listened to classical music on radio three now and then, and much more often to classical music on records. Dad had read the famous — infamous — review of Pepper in The Times, by its respected classical critic William Mann, and been impressed by Mann’s admiring approval. (I still have the cutting he kept, inserted into their copy.) As a family we owned the LPs after Pepper — the White Album and Abbey Road anyway — but none from before it.

My favourite track was — and still is — “Within You, Without You”. Dad’s was “Lovely Rita Meter Maid”. My sister can’t decide between “Lucy” (one of her iddle names), “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day in the Life”. Mum’s was “When I’m 64” — she loved the line “Vera, Chuck and Dave”, especially the way Paul sings “Chuck”, and the sentiment too, certainly as coloured by this situation my sister and I knew nothing of then. She lived — it only occurs to me as I write this — to be 69: margaret s (1935-2005)

Which fact is poignant to me in ways that become so much sharper when suffused by all this. I once asked dad, years later, about what new music he and mum might like to listen to. “We don’t really want to listen to new music any more, Mark,” he said. “We want to listen to the old music.” (I wasn’t on ilx when my dad died, and never wrote it up there, maybe I should…)

Cross-posted on ilx, where this evolved as a response someone asking which the best song on the record is — but I can’t separate it from all this flood of memory; both are wound much too deep in the making of me, and I find it literally senseless thinking about such a ranking, it’s just tooo far from how I first experienced the LP.

pepper fragment 2


  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 4 Jun 2017 #

    thanks for this Mark.
    My dad bought the LP some time in the summer of 1967 – possibly because of the positive Times review that you mention – but apart from a copy of the ‘She Loves You’ single and an Edith Piaf EP this was the only pop music my parents owned. They went on to get the Magical Mystery EP but then their interest ceased for a while. I too was seven when Pepper was released and my sister was also five at the time. We also cut out the Peter Blake inserts and I would ponder the mystery of the lyrics – unless we too were jigging around the room. I used to find ‘She’s leaving home’ almost unbearably sad then and it kindled a life long suspicion of men ‘in the motor trade’. One of the qualities I admire about the Beatles is their inclusiveness and it’s one of the chief strengths of the album IMO that it can be enjoyed (probably more) without picking up on the drug/counter culture references.
    About 5 years later we got our first portable cassette player and I persuaded my dad to get Revolver as our first cassette. I enjoyed it as much as, not more than, Pepper – but gradually years of reading the music press – and not actually listen to Pepper – encouraged me to assume the common wisdom that Revolver was the superior album.
    It was Marcello’s review over at Then Play Long that persuaded me to revisit the album and to listen to it after possibly a 30 year gap – this time with over 30 years exposure to a variety of different music pre and post Pepper. What surprised me – after years of assuming that it was a rather insipid confection of harpsichords and mellotrons – was how muscular and Rock-y it was. (cf title track/ Getting Better/ Good Morning). It had far more in common with the White Album than I imagined. It splits the difference between its predecessor and successor in terms of studio trickery and ‘back to basics’.
    I listen to the album quite a lot now – partly out of nostalgia but largely because I still enjoy it.
    Favourite track: Fixing a Hole

  2. 2
    Phil on 4 Jun 2017 #

    My father gave my mother Revolver for her (45th) birthday in 1966, and Pepper the following year; I remember he specifically chose the mono pressings, on the penny-wise basis that we didn’t have a stereo system. (No more we did, until all of two years later.) I think we – specifically my teenage sisters – got far more use out of them than our mother did.

    I also turned seven in 1967, a few days after my Mum’s birthday. I liked a lot of Pepper – I remember thinking ADITL was very profound and mysterious – but I have to say a lot of it went over my head. I remember asking my mother if she thought my sisters would eventually leave home at 5.00 a.m. one day, leaving a note ect ect. She said she hoped not, but I couldn’t quite work out what would make the difference. I found SLH puzzling all round, in fact – in the chorus, who were all these young men lamenting that they’d sacrificed everything for this girl?

    These days I think my favourite track is Good Morning Good Morning (speaking of songs that went right over my head at the time). As well as the sound – which is at once ferocious and ferociously controlled – I like the nihilism of it and the open-endedness: is he skiving off work for one day or is he having a breakdown and walking out of his life? We’ll never know.

  3. 3
    Paulito on 8 Jun 2017 #

    Fantastic post, Mark. Great contributions above too. Nice to see the underrated “Fixing a Hole” is your favourite, Lonepilgrim! I love its abstracted, day-dreamy quality and the sheer amount of space in the arrangement. Those qualities, for me, make it a less ‘heavy’ cousin of “A Day in the Life” (these being my joint favourites on the album along with “She’s Leaving Home”).

    That’s a well-made point about Pepper being a more muscular album – in parts, anyway – than it’s given credit for. The tracks you mention, along with “Lovely Rita”, all rock fairly hard. Yes, there’s some whimsy elsewhere: I find “Within You Without You” turgid and pretentious (sorry Mark!), and “When I’m 64” is charming but a tad twee for my tastes. Generally, though, the album’s music hall elements – so often derided by iconoclast journos in later years – are finely balanced and wedded with contemporaneous rock in delightfully imaginative ways. The highlight in this respect is surely “…Mr. Kite”, an astonishing cornucopia of sound and image that brings to life a Victorian circus in all its dizzying danger and grotesquerie.

    Track for track, ‘Pepper’ may not be their best album but, as pointed out by many far more eloquent commentators than I, its greatness lies in far more than just the music: its art-concept, its visuals, its packaging and above all, its status as a cultural touchstone. It’s surely also their most evocative album – such is the vividness of its lyrics, arrangements and production that almost every track seems to transport the listener to a kind of otherworld. More than any other Beatles album, listening to ‘Pepper’ today still conjures up all the same images and emotions it did when I first heard it as a ten year old kid almost 30 years ago.

  4. 4
    tmsky on 11 Jun 2017 #

    many thanks

  5. 5

    […] 1: The 10-ish years covered the time from the first LP that mattered to me, though bought by my dad for my mum: Sergeant Pepper. Here’s a post on that. […]

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