Reconstructivist Art: Sgt. Pepper

I remember when the big news was that “It was 20 years ago today…” was actually 20 years old. Now it’s 50. In honor of the half-century anniversary of this groundbreaking album, please enjoy this repost:

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as an example of Reconstructivist Art

A ground-breaking psychedelic concept album by the legendary rock band, the Beatles, near their peak of their critical and commercial success, Sgt Pepper is widely considered the best pop album ever released.

(1) Nod to Artifice: Although clearly a studio recording, the album is loosely framed as a live performance by the fictional band of the title. The eponymous band plays their theme song, with crowd noises in the background, as the opening song of the first side of the album, and reprises it as a farewell just prior to the last song of the second side. In an inside joke, the album’s second song is introduced (from within the first song) as being a solo by that band’s lead singer “Billy Shears,” who is really the (mostly non-singing) Ringo Starr, drummer of the real Beatles.

(2) Classic Structure: The song order imitates a classic theatrical presentation, including an introduction (the title track), a first act finale (Mr. Kite), an “intermission” (the side change), a second act introduction (Within and Without You), a curtain call (title song reprise) and a coda (A Day in the Life).

(3) Transcontexual and Iconic Elements: The most notorious transcontextual elements of Sgt Pepper are found in the cover art, which assembles nearly a hundred famous faces, collage-style (presumably as members of the eponymous “Lonely Hearts Club”). Also present on the cover is the band themselves, dressed in pastel silk travesties of military uniforms as a way of transforming themselves into their iconic alter egos (a group, apparently, of dedicated professional musicians more noted for persistence than success).

At least three other sets of transcontextualized elements are referenced in the music itself: the circus poster that inspired the lyrics for Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, the children’s drawing that was the putative inspiration for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and the stream-of-consciousness references to news headlines in A Day in the Life. Additionally, many of the characters in the songs are iconic in conception and realization. This is true not only of the dreamlike “Lucy” (in the Sky) and the theatrical “Mr. Kite”, but also of more everyday figures such as “Lovely Rita,” (the meter maid) and “She” (of She’s Leaving Home).

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, many of the musical and sonic elements of the album are also transcontextualized. These include the orchestra that tunes up at the start of the album, the invented audience that cheers on the band, the circus noises of Mr Kite, the Indian sitar of Within and Without You, the English vaudeville tribute styling of When I’m Sixty Four, the nod to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in the animal sounds at the end of Good Morning and the nonsense audio in the hidden loop at the end of the record. 

(4) Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: This album largely forgoes the social commentary that marked much of the Beatles’ later work, but it highlights the Beatles’ underlying humanity and ability to connect.

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