Allen Ginsberg On ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
Words by Riley Fitzgerald
Graphic by Press
Despite two less than auspicious first meetings in 1965, poet Allen Ginsberg and the Beatles quickly stuck up a close relationship. As with many of their generation, Fab Four had grown up idolizing the writers of the Beat movement. The Beatles were fascinated by its foremost poet and the appreciation flowed both ways.
Having first heard the Fab Four in 1964, Ginsberg, after being overtaken spontaneous bout of wild and abandoned dancing, was convinced that the Beatles were something special. “I went to this place in New York City called the Dom,” he recounts writing for Rolling Stone in 1984, “and they turned on ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and I heard that high, yodeling alto sound of the ‘OOOH’ that went right through my skull, and I realized it was going to go through the skull of Western civilization.” In 1965 he famously captured the experience of witnessing a Beatles live in a poem Portland Coliseum.
Yet as with many Beatlemaniacs, the peak of the group’s achievements would, in Ginsberg’s eyes, arrive in the form of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released at the apex of the Summer of Love, the Beatles 1967 album sent seismic ripples throughout popular culture. More than a record, it was a cultural moment. Something Ginsberg commented on in Beatles publicist Derek Taylor’s 1987 documentary It Was 20 Years Ago Today.
“After the apocalypse of Hitler,” Ginsberg shares, “and the apocalypse of The Bomb, there was here [in Sgt. Pepper’s] an exclamation of joy, the rediscovery of joy and what it is to be alive… [the Beatles] showed awareness that we make up our own fate, and they have decided to make a cheerful fate. They have decided to be generous to Lovely Rita, or to be generous to Sgt. Pepper himself, turn him from an authority figure to a figure of comic humor, a vaudeville turn.”
For the Beatles’ American audience, the band’s eighth album arrived in the midst of the Vietnam War and an unprecedented rift between the nation’s youth and the generations before them. For many within the counterculture, the metaphorical Sgt. Pepper was taken as a personification of The Establishment. Though far from “selling out” the Beatles, at least in the star crossed eyes of their hippy fans, had subverted this authoritarian figure into an avatar of peace and love, something Allen Ginsberg also comments upon.
“Some of the wilder and crazier radicals were saying ‘kill the pigs’,” the Beat poet contended. “[The Beatles] were saying the opposite about old Sgt Pepper. In fact, the Beatles themselves were dressing up in uniform but associating themselves with good old-time vaudeville authority rather than sneaky CIA, KGB or MI5. It was a cheerful look around the world… for the first time, I would say, on a mass scale.”
Later, Allen Ginsberg engages in an informal track by track review of the album.“[Sgt Pepper’s] opens with a real interesting nostalgic recall of old vaudeville and good old times,” he begins, making reference to the record’s opening track. “It goes on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, a statement of communal purpose – the next is like a statement of imagination, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, as being elements of importance.”
“The next is a kind of a magic show or acrobatic show,” he adds. “The next is a little statement about illusion and space itself and space between people’s minds. The next is a look ahead to ‘When I’m 64’, growing old. The next is appreciating the ordinary everyday lovely Rita meter-maid. And the next is like going to work and saluting the day and dealing with the everyday business of the day. Then there’s a reprise, reminding us that we’re still in the old tradition. The last is ‘A Day In The Life’ which I thought was the best poem.”
While many are still dividing whether the Sgt. Pepper’s is a true ‘concept album’, Allen Ginsberg closes by noting that there is a certain sense of cohesion. “It has a sort of thematic unity,” he muses, “that’s kind of interesting.”
Ginsberg would become well acquainted with John Lennon after the former Beatle moved to New York in the 1970s. In 1996 he would collaborate with Paul McCartney on the anti-war poem ‘The Ballad of Skeletons’. Despite his ailing health, the poet would also encourage McCartney to release his own book of poetry Blackbird Singing before Ginsberg passing away in 1997.