The Magic Circle: On The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper and the Invention of Art Rock, Part 1
1. A language without meaning
The rock and roll “message” is rarely straightforwardly related. Not only is it split between its various sound, language, image and object components, but it is further split within each of these. There is no end to this process. Beginning with the archaic break that occurs with the advent of phonographic reproduction, the signal will grow ever more faint and at the same time specific, as it is divided and subdivided in turn. In this way, it is never allowed to stabilize, to cohere, to take shape as meaning. This message is constantly on the move; it is, perhaps, movement itself. One can only try to follow its passage through the ensemble of materials and media that accumulate endlessly before it, as it is modified or wholly rerouted, imprinted at each station along the way with a new set of semiotic commands. To apply the terms of contemporary art, we could say that this message is fundamentally interdisciplinary and collaborative.
This is in sharp contrast to the former modernist understanding of music as the epitome of holistically self-referential form, and as that to which all other creative forms should ideally aspire. The condition of music within this modernist scheme is that of an essential abstraction; it is precisely a “language without meaning,” as per Claude Levi-Strauss’ famous definition. This is the sort of music one listens to with eyes closed, in the strict absence of image and sense. It is also the sort of music that no longer exists, most probably, anywhere in the world. The image, which initially appears as a crutch-like supplement to the musical record, a substitute for the former presentation of music in the act of performance, increasingly comes to take precedence. This image is ubiquitous now, the record over being only the first circle in a spiraling system that includes videos, promotional films and TV programs, magazines and books, posters, T-shirts, stickers, and so on. In effect, music now underlies the image like a soundtrack, as though a mere supplement to it in turn. Paradoxically however, the image manages to retain a part of the abstract condition that once was the whole raison d’etre of music in relation to art.1 A certain abstraction permeates even the most representational packaging, and this is not any longer the outcome of a tautological folding together of form and substance, but the exact opposite: a coming apart, an unraveling. In musical terms, it is not harmony but dissonance that characterizes it, and it is not the sort of dissonance that exists for its own sake, the sort that Theodor Adorno aligns with the cause of modernist expression.2 This is the dissonance of signs and sign-systems. We are stepping out of the organic realm of brute matter and the nostalgie de la boue enthusiasms that are implicit in the modernist formulation, and back toward the symbolic, the allegorical. Levi-Strauss’ “language without meaning” refers to a lyric-free musicality, and the same goes for that paradigmatic formulation of Walter Pater’s, “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Both are referring to something entirely unlike rock and roll, where lyrical content tends to reign supreme. In rock music, meaning returns, although not straightforwardly; it returns through the back door.
Tzvetan Todorov lists the ironic warps and woofs that sometimes cloud our “view” of a literary or poetic representation, these being: contradiction, discontinuity, superfluity, implausibility and inappropriateness.3 All are indices of a covert content. Underlying what is given forthrightly through narrative and the poetic image, we may begin to sense something else: a vague stirring of intent, a slight disturbance at the surface level that announces still “deeper” meanings. What are these exactly? There is no way of telling, and that is largely the point: whatever it is, is other than what is given and shown. What is manifest in the text and the image will evaporate once it has fulfilled its purpose, which is to act as a foil for what is not there. Todorov’s indices thereby serve to emphatically relocate the work’s content from the court of production to that of reception. This partially hidden content only exists to be interpreted.
The abstract nature of the rock and roll message is wholly tied up with the act of interpretation. Inevitably, that message’s fractured scheme will come up against the modernist demand for self-reflexive cohesion. Even as each individual part of this message pulls inexorably away from the whole, a system of internal rhyming will nevertheless be asserted. The parts will somehow continue to relate to each other; the lyrics, for instance, will refer to the music much more insistently than any other outlying subject. But this reference is inevitably oblique, distorted, specifically made to travel across a great categorical divide. Between essentially unlike media, analogies take shape like neurotransmitters, imprinted with two (or more) sets of commands simultaneously, and it is at this juncture that abstraction occurs. The guiding imperative is, in the words of E. M. Forster, to “only connect,” but these particular connections await our input. Only interpretation can carry them through.
Music as such exists in contemporary art as a field of interpretation, a system of speculative connection-making between an ever expanding range of expressions, materials, media and objects. An overtly representational incentive pervades the space of music once it is divorced from the presentational act of performance. This splitting apart of a former unity is itself generative of a condition that is fundamentally symbolic. Meanwhile, the breach between the newly constituted sign (signifier over signified) and its ostensibly outlying referent will only continue to expand. Abstraction bridges the distance that is implied between signs and sign-systems, and it invites us in at this point, as its interpretative engineers.
2. The task of positive criticism
Contradiction, discontinuity, superfluity, implausibility and inappropriateness: these are our cues. A widening fault line cuts across the linear course of representation; a darkening stain mars the shimmering surface of the poetic image. Vaguely, one registers the presence of another substance underlying the one that is given, distorting it. Now comes the time to draw it, via interpretation, up and out. This is a kind of repair-work.
The impulse to interpret only appears under a very specific set of circumstances: initially, the message must be understood as somehow incomplete and impaired “in itself,” but then it must also be able to suggest its own repair and ultimate perfectibility. In this way, dysfunction is made to coexist with its exact opposite. It is in the nature of the rock and roll message to combine aspects of chaos and order in roughly equal measure.
Now, this is the sort of insight that only becomes relevant, vivid in the light of specific experience. The point at which this message opens up to speculation is also one’s own individual point of access. From there on in, one can only try to chart a meaningful passage through this turbulent culture while at the same time simply letting go and giving in to the arbitrary motion of the waves. What better place to begin, therefore, than with a first album–if not the actual first, then the one that starts the speculative maelstrom turning: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I am in good company with this one, as almost every kid in my general age bracket would have counted it part of their personal collection. Sgt. Pepper is released in 1967 when I am only five years old, but like all the other Beatles albums it has enormous staying-power, and when I finally obtain it some years after, it still sounds vital. Obviously I am not aware of all that has transpired in the interim, and that The Beatles, who once spearheaded the threat that youth culture posed to its elders, have already begun to recede into the arrière garde. No doubt, this is why my father saw fit to buy this record for me (and I know that he was not alone).
Such decisions need not be consciously articulated. Regardless, they begin to suggest a whole social matrix, vaguely at first, and then with mounting emphasis; it will only gain complete definition once one has attained the status of “grown-up” oneself. But right from the outset, one senses that the lines have been drawn between the generations, and that, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this is the conflict that counts. Swayed, perhaps, by an older sibling who can claim the still largely unfathomable culture on the record as their own, one is eager to assume one’s place on the hippie battlefield. I still remember the row that ensued my attendance, with older brother, at a film screening of Woodstock. My father understood it as a deliberate act of sedition, and he was not entirely wrong. Accordingly, I seized my copy of Sgt. Pepper as a minor victory, a communiqué from the front-lines that had somehow slipped right past the eyes and ears of the censor. In the privacy of my room, I would study it at length like some secret code. The start of a collection, just a few records prominently displayed on the shelf. Many, many more will join them in time, but at this early stage in the game, when one’s critical acuity is at lowest ebb, the individual work receives complete and undivided attention. “The task of positive criticism,” writes Walter Benjamin at the start of his own career, “…must be to concentrate on the individual work of art.”4 He goes on to describe a process of total immersion,5 which is pretty much what happens here as well, barring the critical element. Without distance or mediation, kids bask in meaning, the rock and roll mes- sage, as they would in the sun. They receive its warming rays like something magical, endlessly fascinating and a little bit dangerous. They do not read, exactly, but are rather imprinted in its glow. With head between the speakers, lyric sheet in hand, one becomes that much more conscious of one’s condition as a receptacle of sorts for culture. Arranging every element just so, designing the ambiance, it is a modern ritual; the blinds are drawn, pillows scattered, door firmly shut, and then the record begins turning, unwinding, downloading its contents directly into one’s own memory banks. Meaning is transmitted in a steady pulsing stream, only to be twisted up once more on its way through the moist tangles of the brain. It takes hold, here and there, like an infection.
Sgt. Pepper comprises not one but many messages, most of which will tend to elude the young listener. However, what is at stake here is not meaning per se, so much as the particular form that it takes. What happens to meaning as it travels through this shifting assemblage of sound, language, image and object components is what counts. The simple fact of meaning as something in motion — passing through a succession of formal or material or categorical housings, even as it is distorted and abstracted at every link — this alone is salient. And it is this capacity to move and describe a complex system of analogies, that will register most forcefully on a young mind. No matter how tame The Beatles may have become by the time I make their acquaintance, that record still sends out a charge, a jolt to the system that is not just like, but literally is, a foretaste of acid.
I began by characterizing the generational politics of the late ’60s and early ’70s in terms of war; this might be put down to the influence of the Sgt. Pepper LP cover, designed by British proto-pop artist and unabashed fan boy Peter Blake, where the Fab Four are represented in quasi-mili- tary garb. Their assumed persona is that of a marching brass band — the most overtly militaristic segment of the musical community and this point immediately sounds a note of alarm. How is this sharp uniform to be reconciled with the image, extant in news footage at the time, of grungy hippies protesting the war in Vietnam by plugging soldiers’ rifle barrels with flowers, for instance? No doubt, The Beatles have put their own lysergic spin on the proceedings, and yet…. Already we are discussing a subtler order of semiotic modulation, but the stubborn fact remains that these four emissaries of “The New” are here posing in a period style that bluntly bespeaks fascism.
How can this be? As it happens, The Beatles are all born under the sign of Mars. They all experience, in early child- hood, the famously punishing bombing raids of the German Luftwaffe, and for no other reason than their geopolitical location on the northwest coast of England. The industrial port of the British Empire, Liverpool would become one of the foremost suppliers of the allied war machine, and hence also a prime target. It is the sort of history that binds a community together, at least for a while. Interestingly, this early taste of violence and heroics serves to curtail the same in later life: The Beatles are among the first generation of Britons to lawfully elude mandatory military service, rescinded in 1960. But that’s by no means the end of it. Once ignited, the desire for warlike adventure cannot be doused out; it will have to find another outlet.
The aesthetics of rock performance take shape, initially, in a spirit of opposition to the performative orders that precede it — this, also, is a sort of war. The sexual surge and explosive aggression of the rock and roll stage implicitly disrupts the genteel, serene, inwardly contemplative character of the classical stage. Rock’s spontaneity and exuberance are asserted as a break with classical structure, but then, the elevation of the untrained and unsophisticated in itself as a sign of authenticity in rock must fall back upon structure in its most basic and formulaic state. Rock formats are simple and repetitive; this is their essential condition and their stake in a popular legacy that is as far removed as possible from the virtuoso complexity and connoisseurship of the more elevated musical idioms.
By the late ’60s and early ’70s, this push and pull becomes the compositional and the lyrical content of rock. Emerging out of a context of slave-song protest, and serving initially as a much needed reprieve from the strictures of Western musicology, it becomes at this point acutely self-critical. I say “acutely” because self-reflexivity is no doubt there from the start, but as a consequence of its steady refinement throughout the ’60s, it will begin to overshadow every other incentive. The conflicted condition of rock becomes its principal preoccupation, the structural apparatus of reflection turning inward to catch sight of itself… reflecting. Here, again, The Beatles are in the vanguard: they are among the first, in what would be a long line of forwardly inclined popsters, to propose their songs as a thematically connected suite. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a benchmark album in this sense; sandwiched between its carnivalesque intro “It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…”and its reprise near the end “We hope you have enjoyed the show…”is a coherent substance, a set of interconnected themes and variations.6 The history of pop and rock is pervaded with songs that are ostensibly “about themselves,” but it is here that this self-reflexive aspect takes center stage. Moreover, it is with The Beatles that this self-analysis of rock’s conflicted ontology will begin to assume an openly military character. The incommensurable condition of rock’s simultaneous assault on, and embrace of, structure, is here partly reconciled as the tactical one-two punch of a military campaign.
3. About place
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a vision of The Beatles past: a Mme. Tussaud’s waxwork sprung uncannily to life, and dredging up all the warmth, boisterousness and incipient melancholy of the working-class culture of brass bands that is its original context. Attired in their flash uniforms, the heraldry and pompous regalia of military life entirely overdetermined to set them apart from the filthy world of actual combat, they are wholly a post-empire creation, a phenomenon of the fairground as opposed to the battlefield. It would be wrong to declare them impotent though, for whatever these too-bright and stiffly-pressed costumes have lost in the realm of action and utility (Marx’s use-value) is immediately replenished in the realm of expenditure and exchange. In more than one sense, then, these are transitional figures, pointing both backward and forward: backward to an imperial economy of colonialist exploitation and warfare, and forward to the spectacle economy of the sign. WWII marks the epistemological switching station, for the ensuing generations, from an original and authentic that is to say, pre-pop, pre-rock Britannia. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, an increasingly self-conscious youth culture will become obsessed with situating itself historically, and will turn again and again to this charged moment, and to the figure of the allied soldier, as its other and same, simultaneously.
Work on the Sgt. Pepper album begins in 1966; two years later the lines are drawn between the generations, now defined in terms of the counter-culture and the establishment. In 1967 when the record is released, however, The Beatles are still true believers in the politics of compromise and conciliation. The Sgt. Pepper gimmick is a nod to the past, to the way things were; it is a vision of youth dressed up in the garb of its fathers. At the same time, though, it is a vision of the future, of the future Beatles and rock as such, as a nostalgic monument already—the very sort of animatronic phantasmagoria that will come to fill the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Edwardian look of their outfits, customized here and there with touches of frilly psychedelia and Day-Glo color, closely conforms to the hippie period-style that is all the rage in Carnaby Street boutiques like Granny Takes A Trip. In fact, these hybrid alter-egos are conceived from the outset as a “corporate identity.” More so than any other Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper is about place first and foremost: this great and grimy industrial city of Liverpool that the lads all share as home. Impressions are drawn fleetingly from out of the present and then pieced together, seemingly “on the fly,” into a shimmering mosaic that never quite coheres. Clearly, it is not supposed to. However up to date these impressions may be, they are inevitably tinged with the warm glow of nostalgic distance upon capture. One imagines these visions, simultaneously vague and startling, surging up in the rearview mirror of a tour bus that is for- ever taking The Beatles away. There, the present-day reali- ties of Liverpool are decreed by ghostly order, a wavering, carnivalesque assortment of past-lives: returning soldiers, proud bureaucrats, captains of industry, circus acrobats. These are all flipside others to the uprooted personae of late ’60s rock musicians, but at the same time, they produce it. How can this be?
In a time of rapidly escalating social unrest, Sgt. Pepper deliberately assumes a stance of neighborly conciliation. Even if they are no longer quite able to do so with a straight face, The Beatles want to remind us of the warm and intimate pleasures of community. Even “Lovely Rita,” a meter maid, and as such the very emblem of modern bureaucratic soullessness, is rewarded with a love song. A more radical group might have charged her with the crime of “just following orders,” but that is not The Beatles’ way. The meter maid is just another figure in their social menagerie, and that which makes her different must be celebrated. Ultimately, she must be integrated along with all the others, for it is this diversity, at once fantastic and utterly banal, that makes up the communal recipe. Together, these various figures produce the uniqueness of Liverpool, which in turn produces The Beatles as the most unique figures of all.
In this way, the lines of succession are neatly plotted: the ancient order of imperialism, industrialism and warfare gives way to the nouvelle ordre of The Beatles as its other and same, simultaneously. After the fall of the British empire and the subsequent slow collapse of the national economy, it will come time to start strategizing again: a new kind of war to be waged, this time, on the cultural front. “The British Invasion” as it comes to be known, is defined from the outset in these historically revisionist terms, and it makes perfect sense that The Beatles would be stationed on the frontlines of this new campaign.
4. The soldiers come home
Sgt. Pepper is very nearly a literal manifestation of Theodor Adorno’s social theory of music, its communal figures being directly analogous to the various notes, sounds, musicians and musical instruments that the process of composition aims to synthesize into a harmonious whole. They are visions of musical parts “realized,” as living beings, a cross-section of the working-class culture that the Fab Four experienced as children. At the same time, though, they are, like ghosts surging up from the dark heart of the American freeway, already depressingly remote and alien. It is not the one or the other, but both this impossible hybrid that The Beatles have only just glimpsed at the tail-end of their pop-idol tenure, when they are already eager to move on. It is a vision of the past mixed up with the future; a vision that could only be reconciled behind the frozen, corporate manikins that they have enlisted as stand-ins. Old world quaintness meets cutting-edge cool in proportions ingeniously matched to keep the public guessing.
In this way, the band inaugurates what remains a favored strategy for artistically ambitious pop stars to cope with the pressures of an artistically indifferent marketplace: they split into two separate selves, one public, one private. Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band is all flash and surface, like skins sloughed off and then filled back up with machine parts. They are automata, robotic doubles, harking back to the very inception of “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” or “The Age of Technical Reproducibility,” as per Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay. But they also point forward to its spectacular future; in effect, the authentic, “auratic” Beatles have already begun to wither and cave in beside them. From here on in, the past will dissolve into a succession of evermore listless, rotten images. And, for their part, The Beatles are already looking forward to the blank cover of the so-called “White Album,” where the accumulated white-heat glare of a mil- lion, simultaneously triggered flashbulbs will seem to swallow their likenesses for good.
Geopolitical intrigue and “media studies” converge in the spectacle of the Vietnam War, as it becomes increasingly impossible to tell apart the rifle and camera “shots.” This first fully-televised, real-time war has the effect of sensitizing the public to the inherent violence of representation, even as it severely depletes that same public’s empathetic reserves. For The Beatles, who have more first-hand experience than most of this second-hand reality, it is becoming obvious that the two worlds on either side of the screen are ultimately one and the same. The electronic media “electrify” their referents; the moving-image generates movement “out there” in the world. The logic of media is one of escalation, and in war it finds its ideal key-to-lock subject. In a sense, war is merely an escalated version of the violence that the band has already encountered within the rock and roll “arena.” It is a point that Guy Debord’s roughly contemporaneous montage-film The Society of the Spectacle makes abundantly clear, with its succession of frenzied performers vibrating onstage as if they had touched a live wire, and were passing the charge onto their audience. The camera does not simply record what is there; it is the point of origin, the literal outlet, for all this turbulence.
The Beatles know this implicitly, and with Sgt. Pepper they are conducting a kind of media inoculation campaign. The conflicted messages they send out into the world are specifically designed to tweak our expectations, and to slow the ever-accelerating relay of reaction. For starters, their marching band guise is highly ironic considering that, by 1966, when the album is in the earliest stages of planning, The Beatles have already renounced the stage and touring. After clocking some 2,000 hours of live performance together, a farewell concert on August 29 in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park inaugurates a new phase in the band’s evolution: from here on in they will stay put as a strictly studio-based outfit. The soldiers are returning home. As the lyrics suggest, they are at the tail-end of their journey, not the beginning.
“It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.” 1946 or 1947, then, as opposed to the start of the ’60s, is here being proposed as the point of incep- tion and departure. “I don’t really want to stop the show,” claims the singer further on, and again it is ironic, consid- ering that this is the album’s opening song. Clearly, some- thing is ending: the relation that binds these musicians to their audience cannot be sustained any longer, at least not in its present state. The singer’s extreme solicitude, his ongoing attempts to boost the morale of his listeners “It’s wonderful to be here / It’s certainly a thrill./ You’re such a lovely audience / We’d love to take you home with us,”would be written off as a rote showbiz palaver under any other circumstance. Because The Beatles are speaking, however, and from a distance that is steadily expanding, a certain sadness inevitably sets in. Hearts have been broken, and these are precisely the sort of pacifying words one offers to a spurned lover: “It’s not you….” Bearing in mind they will never be uttered live but are written expressly for the apparatus of the record and record player that is now both a last-ditch intermediary and the source of separation between these two formerly intimate parties, one may begin to grasp the extent of the betrayal involved. Then again, the experience of disillusionment and break-up is utterly endemic to the worlds of pop and rock music, almost a rite of passage, and The Beatles know this too.
The soldiers are back, but it is only after all the celebrations of homecoming are over that the real work of stock-taking begins. Reintegration is never easy. The memories of close community that sustained them in their hours of need may well prove illusory when measured against their real world sources. Either that, or as is more often the case, it will be reality as such that no longer quite “measures up.” Dispatched to distant, foreign shores, soldiers are expected to return not only with spoils, but stories, news of the world, to enrich and expand the collective consciousness. Yet it is precisely these stories that are no longer forth- coming; once-exuberant youth comes back saddened and silent.
“Beginning with the First World War,” notes Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Storyteller,” “a process became apparent which continues to this day. Wasn’t it noticeable at the end of the war that the men who returned from the battlefield had grown silent not richer but poorer in communicable experience?”7 “Experience,” as Benjamin conceives of it, occurs where “certain contents of the individual past combine with the material of the collective past,”8 this process of combination producing the traditional basis of any given social order. Experience must be related, retained and repeated, passing directly from one individual to another, and another, and so on. In this way, it is ultimately appended to the mythico-historical narrative of the community, to shape, in turn, the individual narratives of subsequent generations. This original network of oral dissemination only becomes apparent, to Benjamin, as the “secondary orality” of recording and playback takes hape on the horizon. That is, just like his concept of the “aura” in regard to the art object, the storytelling mode is only recognized in the moment of its passing, its “withering” or obsolescence. This “secondary orality” is the implicit subject of Sgt. Pepper as well, but its alienation effects remain couched, for the time being, within a canny simulation of the primary mode. In this way, the marching band plays a transitional role. Like old-fashioned animatronic robots running on the very latest computer chip software, they dispense nostalgia in strategically measured doses so as to absorb the so-called “shock of the new.”
The Lonely Heart’s Club Band is ostensibly formed just as the war is ending. Everything that follows will be filtered through this alienated, post-war sensibility. The age of innocence cannot be regained you can’t go home again! no matter what the lyrics say. Then again, those lyrics are marked by a high degree of ambivalence, and with reason. Even in Liverpool, love is in short supply. Twenty years later and the boys still count themselves among the walking wounded. Their hearts are still broken and this hurt, this lack, now defines their identity.
This lack is the “hole” that needs “fixing,” as they sing in “Fixing a Hole,” to “stop the mind from wandering.” It is not empty, in other words, but takes shape around the unthought and unspoken: a forceful repression. “Fixing a Hole” describes repression as the last intentional act because consciousness is like a house that leaks, both inward and outward. Thought must be stopped from going, through holes in the roof and cracks in the door, “where it will go.” On the face of it, even “Fixing a Hole” is about healing, the care of the self, that is the prerequisite to any lasting relationship. Like so many of The Beatles’ songs, this is also code for addiction, another hazard of both the road and the battlefield, but whichever cause prevails, the result must be understood as either advanced agoraphobia or a rediscovery of the simple pleasures of domestic life. Ultimately it is left to us to decide between them we, “the people standing there/ who disagree and never win/ And wonder why they don’t get in my door.”
The album is full of these paeans to normalcy, but precisely because it is taken account of in this way, the everyday becomes extraordinary. The everyday is what must be re-learned by the one who has been uprooted and has now returned, no longer the same, but other. To the war-torn consciousness, it is above all familiarity that breeds strangeness. It is an experience that The Beatles are not at all immune to, one would assume, and yet still they see fit to give it a lysergic boost in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” This is their short-cut to the sort of trauma that turns everyday coping into an adventure of both sublime and nightmarish proportions. Accordingly, as the song’s protagonist ventures out on a sunny day to reacquaint himself with his hometown, he only sees threats to his reintegration looming up at every turn. These are presented as a succession of gaudy “pictures” passing before the mind’s eye, an almost clichéd cartoon psychedelia. The Beatles are well aware of the fact that LSD does not actually add anything to what is already there; it merely scrambles the internal circuit-board. A bad trip, for instance, will simply submerge the subject within the contents of his own repressions. In “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the subject is effectively riding the line: smiley-face visions of children’s story-book Eden are tinged with an anxious presentiment that one might not in fact be where one belongs. “Picture yourself on a boat on a river,” or “Picture yourself on a train in a station”— something is always “Waiting to take you away.” The experience of the battlefield and the rock and roll stage invite a very similar sort of enthusiasm, apparently, after which the domestic pleasures simply pale. Having existed so intensely in the moment that collaborative violence and savagery affords, having bonded so completely with one’s battalion or band-members on the road to victory, one loses one’s taste for the so-called “simple life.” In truth, it is that other life that was simple, for both of the above arenas invite a very similar sort of subjective regression. This backsliding is at the crux of their respective adventures: one gets to escape the inner voice of self- questioning selfhood in order to channel, once more, the primal forces. “Don’t think — act!”
Back home, conversely, it is all thought and no action. The subject, once fused together with his compatriots into an immaculate, devastating machine of conquest, is left once again alone and self-doubting. “What would you think if I sang out of tune,/ Would you stand up and walk out on me?” he asks sheepishly on “A Little Help from my Friends.” Clearly, these various uncertainties of life will not be assuaged, not even in old age “Will you still need me, will you still feed me,” he wonders further on at the ripe age of 64, married but still unsettled. The process of self-questioning continues, but this is only because the real cause of the problem is never met. Thought orbits obsessively about its repressed contents. The soldier comes back “not richer but poorer in communicable experience,” and this poverty is all that he has to pass on to his children, who will in turn leave home, just as he did, but now whether or not duty calls. The parents left behind in “She’s Leaving Home” simply cannot comprehend it “What did we do that was wrong/ We didn’t know it was wrong.” And the girl, for her part, cannot articulate it. She is seemingly surprised by her own inability to explain why she must go in the note “that she hoped would say more,” but in the end, it is exactly her linguistic poverty or lack that “speaks” the proverbial “volumes.”
5. War and media studies
In “Good Morning, Good Morning,” just before the reprise of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band caps off the album’s song-suite, the singer-soldier protagonist ventures once more into town to “take a walk by the old school.” On this day, however, the picture that was formerly troubled by misfiring synapses is beginning to settle. Apparently, the period of intensive doubt and self-questioning is reaching its end, and one might assume that this resolution comes as a reward to those who never stopped believing in
the healing power of love. Sgt. Pepper is a celebration of community, integration, normalcy, but is not without its underlying ironies.
In the end, the prodigal sons will regain the love of their fathers and, with it, the keys to their ancestral homes. The Beatles are welcomed back to Liverpool as conquering heroes on a par with the prior generation of soldiers that returned “twenty years ago today.” Yet both return “not richer, but poorer in communicable experience,” and it is not in spite of this poverty, this lack, but precisely because of it, that their reconciliation may now occur. Fathers and sons have agreed to tend their respective repressions side by side. In semi-silence, they are finally united. “Good morning, good morning,” shouts the younger to the older one, and to anyone else he might come across. “Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in/ Nothing to say but what a day how’s your boy been/ Nothing to do it’s up to you/ I’ve got nothing to say but it’s O.K./ Good morning, good morning…”
art 2 of The Magic Circle will appear in Volume 7, Number 2 with illustrations by Dave Muller.
Jan Tumlir is an art-writer based in Los Angeles. One of the original editors of X-TRA, he also contributes regularly to Artforum, Frieze, and Flash Art.
Brad Spence is an Eagle Rock artist. He is represented by Shoshana Wayne Gallery.
1. There are moments in recent pop history when an abstract design and packaging style is seamlessly conjoined with the abstraction of its musical contents — this being the whole stock in trade of a trad-jazz label like Blue Note, and more recently in the hip hop department, Mo Wax, for instance but we needn’t be quite so literal.
2. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, London, 1984, p. 21: “Dissonance, the trademark, as it were, of modernism – lets in the beguiling moment of sensuousness by transfiguring it into its antithesis, pain.” And further, on p. 110: “Dissonance is effectively the same as expression; whereas consonance and harmony seek to soften and do away with it. Hence expression and illusion are fundamentally antithetical to one another. Expression is hardly conceivable except as expression of suffering.”
3. Tzvetan Todorov, Symbolism and Interpretation, trans. Catherine Porter, Cornell University Press, 1982, pp. 36-38
4. Walter Benjamin, “Announcement of the Journal Angelus Novus,” Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1: 1913- 1926, ed Michael W. Jennings, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 293.
5. “For the function of great criticism is not, as is often thought, to instruct by means of historical descriptions or to educate through comparisons, but to cognize by immersing itself in the object.”
6. There are, of course, no end of precedents one could cite, from the song-cycles of folk to the structural unities of the jazz album jam, for this sort of ambition. Likewise, within pop and rock music proper, there are all sorts of earlier instances— as a matter of fact, Sgt. Pepper is itself composed as a reply of sorts to The Beach Boys’ own “teen symphony,” Pet Sounds.
7. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” from Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1935-1938, eds. Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 143-144.
8. Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” from Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, Schocken Books, 1989, p. 159.
- There are moments in recent pop history when an abstract design and packaging style is seamlessly conjoined with the abstraction of its musical contents — this being the whole stock in trade of a trad-jazz label like Blue Note, and more recently in the hip hop department, Mo Wax, for instance but we needn’t be quite so literal.↵
- Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, London, 1984, p. 21: “Dissonance, the trademark, as it were, of modernism – lets in the beguiling moment of sensuousness by transfiguring it into its antithesis, pain.” And further, on p. 110: “Dissonance is effectively the same as expression; whereas consonance and harmony seek to soften and do away with it. Hence expression and illusion are fundamentally antithetical to one another. Expression is hardly conceivable except as expression of suffering.”↵
- Tzvetan Todorov, Symbolism and Interpretation, trans. Catherine Porter, Cornell University Press, 1982, pp. 36-38↵
- Walter Benjamin, “Announcement of the Journal Angelus Novus,” Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1: 1913- 1926, ed Michael W. Jennings, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 293.↵
- “For the function of great criticism is not, as is often thought, to instruct by means of historical descriptions or to educate through comparisons, but to cognize by immersing itself in the object.”↵
- There are, of course, no end of precedents one could cite, from the song-cycles of folk to the structural unities of the jazz album jam, for this sort of ambition. Likewise, within pop and rock music proper, there are all sorts of earlier instances — as a matter of fact, Sgt. Pepper is itself composed as a reply of sorts to The Beach Boys’ own “teen symphony,” Pet Sounds.↵
- Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” from Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 3, 1935-1938, eds. Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 143-144↵
- Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” from Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, Schocken Books, 1989, p. 159↵