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Notes on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"


Notes on ... Series #106 (SPLHCB)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: G Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro (instrumental) | Verse | Bridge (instrumental) |
                  | Refrain | Bridge | Verse | Outro (segue al subito)
        CD: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band",
            Track 1 (Parlophone CDP7 46442-2)
        CD: "Yellow Submarine Songtrack", Track 8 (EMI 5 21481-2)
  Recorded: 1st, 2nd February, 3rd, 6th March 1967, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 1st June 1967 (LP "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")
US-release: 2nd June 1967 (LP "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note This opening track, "from an album of the same name", is as fine an example of Beatlesque stylistic indeterminacy as you can find. How else to explain how a song that is otherwise so sweatily suffused with hard syncopation and bluesy bent notes should leave one with the overall sensation of a strutting cakewalk? (That's a rhetorical question, son.)
  Next note I'm willing to make the argument (though not comprehensively within the space of a single page of text) that looking all the way back on it, the Beatles had always had a great capability and penchant for "style bending" (in the sense the term is used with respect to "gender"); and that given a running start from "Revolver", nowhere is this peculiar source of strength more evident than on "Sgt. Pepper". And as is its compositional prerogative, the first track surely sets the tone.
  Next note Formalistically, there's the totally unrelated issue of how the use of both a bridge and refrain here, in absolute arch-like symmetry makes the song feel longer than its scan two minute length; remember, that about ten seconds of that two minutes is the opening mix of crowd and tuning noise!

Melody and Harmony

  Next note Melodically, the song is barely one notch up from a talkin' blues patter song; compare the official version with a most arch concert performance of it by one Jimi Hendrix!! Far from a flaw, this only goes to allow your attention to be drawn to other more actively exploited production values.
  Next note Harmonically, the song is heavily based upon one of the archetypal Beatles' chord progression; the I -» V-of-V -» IV -» I one first heard back in "Eight Days A Week". The hallmark of this progression is the combined chromatic cross-relation and psychological feeling of deferred gratification created by following V-of-V (with its C#) by IV (with its C-natural). I strongly suspect that this chord progression is the original property of Lennon and McCartney though in terms of pure scholarship I unfortunately cannot vouch for it 100%. I'll tell you this, though: if anyone out there can point me to an example of this progression appearing in a pop song prior to the Beatles, you can call or e-mail me just about any time of the day or night.
  Next note As if encouraged by the chord progression or the bluesy bent thirds of the vocal track, the harmony of the song features other cross-relations in the guise of Major/minor plays upon the I / i chord. Arrangement
  Next note As with many a Beatles' song of this period, a rock-instrumented backing track lies firmly embedded within the foundation of the recording. Don't allow any of the overdubbed effects to blunt your sensitivity to the well executed bassline, lead guitar licks and drumming.
  Next note The parts for a quartet of French horns are deftly, if rather absurd-cum-iconically, in-laid. The appearance of bowed string instruments in the fade-up ambient noise (and nowhere else in this track) only heightens the irony, while also setting up the plausibility of such strings showing up later for "She's Leaving Home" and "A Day In The Life".
  Next note In the department of Nothing-Left-To-Chance, it is interesting to plot the programmatic / structural use of the crowd noise. In the opening seconds of the track you hear a rather passive audience chatting non- descriptively amongst themselves, backed by the string section tuning. But once the proceedings get under way, the audience gets right on the edge of their participative seats: the transition from second verse to first bridge features applause followed by inexplicably motivated laughter — someone makes a gooney face, you suppose? The final verse provides more applause, building through the intro into anticipatory screaming!! (Shades of Beatlemania Past).
  Next note The vocal arrangement is quite vintage, with Macca screaming single-tracked solo in the verses with a chorus of the others, in which the timbre of John's voice figures prominently, for the refrain and second bridge.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The track fades in with more than ten seconds of concert hall audience ambiance and orchestral tuning over which the four-measure intro proper abruptly intrudes itself:
      |A       |-       |C       |G       |
   G:  V-of-V            IV       I

   [Figure 106.1]
  Next note The harmonic shape of this intro is convergent on the home key, though you don't quite realize it at first. Given your inevitable propensity to assume the opening chord is I, the shift to from V-of-V to IV, with its cross-relation feels especially novel.
  Next note This is, by the way, far from the first Beatles' album to open with a hammer stroke on a chord other than the one of the home key; try "With the Beatles", "A Hard Day's Night", "Beatles For Sale", and "Help!".


  Next note The verse is a standard eight measures long and parses into a an AAB form of (2 * 2 + 4):
       ----------- 2X ------------
      |G     A      |C     G      |
   G:  I     V-of-V  IV    I

      |A            |C            |G     C      |G            |
       V-of-V        IV            I     IV      I
                                             C:  V

   [Figure 106.2]
  Next note The harmonic shape is almost a little too closely bound to the home key, and the sudden slowing down of the harmonic rhythm in measures 5 and 6 adds some well-needed feeling of room in which to spread out.
  Next note The vocal part of the last four measures places repeated emphasis on the flat blue third, turning the C chord into a C7, and creating a minor/Major cross-relation in the last against the I chords.
  Next note I'll give the IV label to the penultimate chord of this section, though you'll note that Macca implies a kind of V chord with his bassline (which I hear as G -» B -» C -» C# -» D -» |G).


  Next note The bridge is five measures long and parses into two roughly parallel, though uneven phrases (AA'); the elongated second phrase lending the section a rhetorical, declamatory feel.
  Next note The two bridges are differentiated by more than their different arrangements and melodic content. A very subtle difference in the choice between which two chords is given a dominant seventh gives each bridge an alternate harmonic profile.
  Next note The instrumental bridge opens with a dominant seventh chord on C, and this makes the first half of it sound like a short-lived modulation to the key of F Major, which in context of a G Major home key is a relatively distant relation:
      |C7        |F         |C         |D         |-         |
   F:  V          I          V
                         G:  IV         V

   [Figure 106.3]
  Next note The vocal bridge places the dominant seventh on the F chord. This allows you to hear the opening of the section as though the short-lived modulation were to the more closely related key of C, with the F chord sounding like a plain old IV chord whose seventh is more a bluesy embellishment than a structural dominant:
      |C         |F7        |C         |D         |-         |
   C:  I          IV         I
                         G:  IV         V

   [Figure 106.4]


  Next note This is the song's center of gravity: it is the longest of the sections, formalistically it is an arch's keystone, and of course it reiterates many times the words of the title. Think about how the infamous "Reprise" on "Side 2" consists of only this refrain repeated twice, and you almost would never even notice that fact; rather, you passively recall the reprise as merely being "somehow shorter".
  Next note The twelve measure length parses into an AA'B form of three equal phrases. Though the harmony is nothing like the traditional twelve-bar blues form, the poetry of three-times-four almost inevitably suggests something of the blues in any event:
      |G     g     |C     G     |C           |G           |
   G:  I     i6/3   IV    I      IV           I

      |G     g     |C     G     |A           |D           |
       I     i6/3   IV    I      V-of-V       V

      |C           |G           |A           |C     D  G  |
       IV           V            V-of-V       IV   (V) I

   [Figure 106.5]
  Next note Cross-relations and other dissonance abounds here: the Major/minor switch on the I chord (with the minor one presented in first inversion), the "4-3" appoggiatura on the C chord (downbeat of measures 2 and 5), the bluesy minor third in the tune clashing with the D chord (measure 8), and the "implied" V9 chord in the middle of measure 12 — implied by the descending melodic line (F -» E -» D) and Paul's placement of the D in the bassline.
  Next note Favorite details in the arrangement: the vacuum cleaner-like sound of parallel fifths in the bass part, and the final rhythmic gesture on "and four", which somehow reminds me of "Love Me Do".


  Next note We seen many an intro starting on a chord other than I, but this type of outro on IV is relatively unusual; just two measures of the chord vamped over a stepwise descending bassline:
      |C           |-           |
   G:  IV

   [Figure 106.6]
  Next note I'll stand behind the track demarcations of the CD and say that the song ends here in some sense, though obviously, its direct segue into the next track is really more to the musical point. This type of stringing songs together reaches an apotheosis in the "Abbey Road" Medley, but this track, not to mention several others on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and the "White Album" are where you find the beginning of their experiments in this direction.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note This is the one and only time in the canon that the band refers to both "us" (directly and collectively), and themselves in the first person plural within the same song.
  Next note Yes, there's the BBC-oriented "From Us To You" but that's not quite part of canon. And while they do refer to themselves as a group in "Yellow Submarine", the latter song makes a critically different impression for its lack of reference to us; note carefully — their friends (some group of third persons) are on board, but we're not invited.
  Next note This unique person-to-person stance, on the first track of the album, no less, is not to be under-estimated as a factor in the transformation of the Beatles' image with the release of "Sgt. Pepper". I dare say the spiritual buzz kindled in us by the "Anthology" CD's is in no small part due to a remanifestation of this same stance; however belatedly or incompletely it is, as alas, it must be.
  Alan (112195#106)
Copyright © 1995 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.