A few, very quick thoughts on the Sgt. Pepper’s conference:
- I had no idea there was so much love for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Four of the presentations dealt significantly or almost entirely with that song.
- Ringo didn’t get too much attention in the presentations, but a demonstration of his drumming techniques at dinner the first night was great.
- I can now happily go six months, at least, without hearing a single snippet of “A Day in the Life.” It was played so often in presentations — at least four or five times the first day, and multiple times after that — that it became the running joke of the conference. “Have you heard this rather deep cut from the Beatles? No? Well, here goes!”
- Ken Womack suggested to me that a historiography of rock and roll would be interesting. I absolutely agree! Someone with no kids and tenure should get right on that. In all sincerity, I would love to read it. But it would take me decades to write it.
- According to the buzz at the conference — which was evidently based on the “Recording the Beatles” book, which currently can be yours for the low, low price of 500 dollars American — Paul sang the “Ahhhhh’s” in the aforementioned, rather obscure track “A Day in the Life.” I always thought it was John; it never occurred to me it might be Paul. I might try to get that source via I.L.L. I’m not paying for it, though.
- Really looking forward to Womack’s forthcoming George Martin biography. His presentation on that was the very last one at the conference, and if I hadn’t had to leave before Q&A in order to catch the shuttle to the hotel, to the airport, and back to Kansas (no “There’s no place like home” jokes, please) I would have loved to hear more.
- I had a lovely woman come up after my presentation and tell me how happy she was to see a female presenter; there were also a few other female presenters, all of whom did excellent jobs: I was just the first female presenter. Beatles historiography is slowly but surely diversifying.
- Next time, I’m bringing a sweater.
20 thoughts on “Return from Pepperland”
I too always thought the ahhhhs were sung by John. John and Paul do have a similar pitch to their voices I think. They have been mixed up before.
Erin are you planning on doing any posts on themes talked about at the conference?
The “Ahh’s” came up during Tim Riley’s analysis of “A Day in the Life,” when people began speculating whether, in that song, it was Paul waking up from John’s dream or John waking up from Paul’s dream. Again, I haven’t seen the actual source who says that; when a number of people at the conference credited it to Paul, someone told me it came from the “Recording the Beatles” book. If true, I think its a great example of how the influenced each other vocally.
I hadn’t thought too much about doing an in-depth analysis of the conference. I do have a link to some of the presentations/discussions which occurred, which might interest you:
The main points of discussion at the conference concentrated on musical theory and musicological analysis of the album, and particularly in some frequently cited songs: “A Day in the Life,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the aforementioned Mr. Kite. There was an excellent presentation on the Beatles’ use of deflation — the run-out groove on Pepper, the laughter on “Within You Without You” — to poke fun at themselves and ensure they didn’t take themselves too seriously, or the influence of Music Hall on Pepper. A lot of the presentations were fairly heavy on music theory and used terminology which I’m pretty unfamiliar with. That might be why I’m not sure if I can really assign “themes” to the conference, other than a closer examination of Pepper.
. “A lot of the presentations were fairly heavy on music theory and used terminology which I’m pretty unfamiliar with. That might be why I’m not sure if I can really assign “themes” to the conference,”
Oh I see. Thanks for the links though.
I had to smile about the female presenter comment. I cannot say how many Beatle events I went to, especially in the Eighties (conventions, etc.) where it was a virtual sausage fest. And, if I had anything to say at all, one of the male “experts” would jump all over me to tell how sadly wrong I was! Nice to see this changing… a little.
Gael, Nice to hear from you again!
It was a very pleasant moment, with that female audience member coming up to me and noting how nice it was to see a woman presenting. I imagine that, as another experienced female fan, she may have experienced many of the same sort of moments you described in your post. I’m sorry to hear about those sort of experiences you had at earlier conferences and conventions, getting shouted down. I simply can’t comprehend why those tactics are even considered acceptable. On that track, did you see the chart in “Time” this past week, which noted how the female supreme court justices are interrupted approximately five times as often as the male ones? Yeesh! How estimable a position do you have to be in before gender doesn’t seemingly make it acceptable to interrupt and/or override?
I can say, in my experience at this conference, that I didn’t deal with any of that; nor did I witness that behavior towards any of the other female presenters. Everyone was welcoming — crucial, when you’re as naturally introverted as I am — and, I believe, interested in the historiographical approach I had to offer. Admittedly, my music theory knowledge, as I’ve mentioned, is pretty poor, so there were numerous instances in which I needed further clarification, but my impression is that that had to do with my general ignorance of music theory, and nothing with my gender.
“Nice to see this changing… a little.”
It is. I’m glad everyone is watching it happen. And I’m glad that that female fan got to witness it, too.
I don’t know if you saw the commentary by Amanda Marcotte in Salon about “Pepper” marking a shift in Beatles fandom – the moment when “the men” took over from “the girls” who had been the Beatles driving force since 1963 Beatlemania. In other words, when they became “important” because now males could take them seriously.
“‘Sgt. Pepper’s,’ you see, is the album that marked the shift in rock music away from
the grubby fingers of the teenybopper crowd and into the hushed halls of Great Art. It was the transition album that turned rock from a debased music for ponytailed fans twisting the night away to music for grown men whose tastes are far too refined to worry about whether a pop song has a beat you can dance to… ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ was the point when rock stopped being the music of girls and started being the music of men.”
Man, the trashing she gets in the comments section from the guys is epic. How dare she say such a thing? And… she’s absolutely right. I know. I was a teenybopper girl fan at exactly that moment. One of the male commentators actually calls her “mentally ill”!
So, wordpress ate my reply twice, and now my husband is home. I’ll try to respond more in depth tomorrow.
So, Gael, third time’s a charm in my attempt at replying.
I skimmed that Salon piece in Michigan, while I was half-asleep, on the third night of the conference. I think I like your summary of her main point – that Pepper marked the point in which the Beatles started to matter, because it was the point that males started taking them and their music seriously – better than I liked her article. I think that main point is valid, but I don’t like tossing the rest of Pepper out along with it; as others have pointed out, Pepper also includes some very thoughtful, sympathetic, non-caricaturized depictions of women: esp. in “She’s Leaving Home.” And my personal preference, musically, is the Beatles’ later era stuff; Rubber Soul onward; I can take or leave a lot of the 1963/64 stuff which, she argues, was the more girl-oriented stuff. I’m not surprised to read that the reaction to her article was so vituperative: I avoid comments sections like the plague; I’m a quiet optimist by nature, but those tend to undermine my general faith in mankind.
But you, and she, are absolutely correct; not only is Pepper important because older white males in positions of academic and artistic authority deemed it so, but that transition from the Beatles as writing to and for teenage girls to becoming full blown artists is accompanied by efforts from the powers that be to diminish those teenage girls who had been with the band from the beginning. I think Gillian Gaar may have written on that issue.
And this, in all honesty, is an issue I’ve always wanted to see more discussion of: why are the preferences of teenage girls regarded so scornfully? Is there a single demographic whose musical and pop culture preferences are as roundly dismissed as teenage girls? The widespread perception is that anything that is wholly embraced by teenage girls is silly, shallow, soft, sentimental, and lacks depth. In all honesty: why? Is it became teenage girls are so widely perceived as shallow that anything associated with them or championed by them is also viewed as shallow? Shouldn’t those teenage girls who went to Beatles concerts and screamed in 63-67 get credit for recognizing what the stuffy, powers-that-be would not until Pepper came out?
Oh, I agree. You can’t blame the album (or the Beatles) for the cultural kerfuffle that came in its wake. That’s something totally separate form the actual music and its meaning.
But the negation of cultural products that are embraced by women is a fact and goes back a long way. I think of the way novels were scorned because they were seen as a “feminine” form… until they weren’t. Or the way television was seen as something that babysat stupid housewives (and children, same difference) all day while their husbands were out in the world, working… until suddenly: television! What a great thing! Even MEN like it! Gangsters! Man Men! Meth Makers! It’s the same with the Beatles. The hipsters/cool guys were making fun of them (not musicians, they got it pretty much from the start) as the silly Moptops. Until they weren’t. Believe me, the screaming girls will never get any credit for being the first fans. Beatlemania is still a byword for “hysteria,” that female-only malady.
In all honesty, Gael, while I found myself nodding along to your post, I’ve only dipped my toe into issues surrounding females, their depiction of and role in selecting popular culture, and why their choices are so maligned and overlooked, at least until the male powers that be kindly bestow legitimacy on them. I’ve read “Where the Girls Are,” by Susan Douglass, and an article or two, (including several in that new “New Critical Perspectives on the Beatles” book), but most of my experience with the role of the female, and particularly the female adolescent, in popular culture is personal experience and/or observation. Do you have any suggestions on articles or books that explore the issue further, either regarding the Beatles specifically or the issue in general?
“But the negation of cultural products that are embraced by women is a fact and goes back a long way.”
Not going to argue with that.
I’m afraid it’s nothing more complicated than sexism. Women and girls and their interests must be devalued so that their place in society can be kept under that of men and boys. It’s a system, and it sounds corny at this point but because girls and women carry offspring and men cannot, and can be saddled via that mechanism with essential drudgework men don’t wish to do themselves but which must be done by someone, men have a vested interest in devaluing women and girls, even when it comes to things like music which men also enjoy. It might look absurd laid out but it is one of the most persistent patterns in history.
While I certainly agree there are very real elements of that historical pattern, Anne, I still think its important to qualify: not all men exhibit those behaviors or continue to wish to devalue females. And, as someone who is raising a young boy, I’m happy to say that both his father and I do our utmost to ensure that those toxic behaviors don’t take root.
I remember that so much of the criticism of Paul was the residue of his teen idol-ness. But also his “family obsession” (Linda and the kids), which was so “uncool” (until it became cool when John did it?), but also his “weird” understanding of women and unabashed desire to write about the lives of women! “She’s Leaving Home,” “Lady Madonna,” “Michelle,” “Blackbird,” “Another Day,” etc. — is there another “rock star” (and I use that term ironically) who actually seems to care and write about the lives of regular women in a non-sexual way?
Or “Daytime/Nighttime Suffering”; that’s another favorite of mine with an incisive portrait of a non-sexualized female.
I thought about your post for a while this afternoon, Gael, and I honestly can’t remember another rock artist who has covered women and their lives in a non-sexualized way in their music. If anyone else wants to jump in with a candidate, I’d be grateful.
Your mention of it makes me remember: I’ve always been curious as to whether Paul based at least part of “Another Day” off of Linda’s NY, pre-photographer, pre-Paul life: working a job she didn’t like; being a single Mom; dating but not finding anyone worth staying with. One thing that Paul seems to focus on in his portrayals of females is loneliness, now that I think about it: Eleanor Rigby; Lady Madonna (you can be needed and still feel lonely, and I’ve always found that “lying on the bed” line striking, because I don’t know a single busy Mom who doesn’t slip away for just three-four minutes to lie on the bed for a slice of brief peace” “She’s leaving home” — isolated from her parents/lifestyle.
How could I forget “Eleanor Rigby”! And even “Temporary Secretary.” Or “Little Willow” — a song about his bandmate’s ex-wife that is so tender and lovely. Unlike the standard rock/pop songs that are full of unveiled distain for women while upholding their hetero macho bullshit (I’m looking at you Rolling Stones, among so many others), in Paul’s songs women aren’t things, but actual human beings with inner lives and worth. Even the sometimes brief appearances of Paul’s mother in “Yesterday” and “Let It Be” (and probably others, too, I’d have to think about it) are notable.
Paul Simon may be a candidate, Gael. I’m only really familiar with his greatest hits — both as an individual artist and with Art Garfunkel — but you do have a few songs with portrayals of non-sexualized women — “Diamonds on the soles of her shoes,” Cathy in “America,” and the wonderful portrayal of the couple in “Rene with Georgette Magritte, with their dog after the war.” Those are the first that come to mind.
Welcome back, Erin. (And guys–Erin’s too modest to tell you, but she ROCKED that conference. Kudos 🙂 )
Re the Ahhhs–could it be Paul and John together? Sounds kind of double-tracked.
The lyrics for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was nothing more than a poster put to song, according to John via Hunter Davies and LR. Four presentations? Really?
“Re the Ahhhs–could it be Paul and John together? Sounds kind of double-tracked.”
Could be. Again, I’m not sure who exactly the source is declaring it was Paul, whether its primary or secondary, contemporaneous or retrospective, credible or not, etc. I’m not even sure that it came from the “Recording the Beatles” book; that’s just what another presenter at the conference told me, when the whole “dream within a dream” issue in ADITL came up and suddenly you had a number of presenters declaring that Paul sang the “Ahhhh’s.” I don’t think its hugely significant, just interesting, given that I always just heard it as John.
“The lyrics for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was nothing more than a poster put to song, according to John via Hunter Davies and LR.”
I guess it depends on which angle you view it from. You had a number of presenters arguing that it demonstrated the technique of “found art,” and also the interesting angle that John somewhat reversed himself on its quality, as he was wont to do, from LR in 1970 to Playboy in 1980: in LR it was crap; in Playboy it was brilliant. Several presenters noted how it wasn’t a “straight lift,” as John describe it; only about 1/3 of the lyrics were taken verbatim; the rest were re-ordered and obviously some thought went into the song. One of the presentations focused on just how much George Martin brought to the song in terms of production. Martin was really one of the key figures of the conference; he probably received as much attention as George, if not more, and certainly more than Ringo. And that song might be the prime example of how much George Martin brought to John’s songs, despite John’s later less than complimentary statements about him.
OTOH, in the “Composing the Beatles songbook” doc. you have Peter Doggett dismissing the view of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as “found art” and basically describing it as more of an example of John’s laziness than anything else. And one of the presenters pointed out how not only were 1/3 of the lyrics lifted from the poster, but John basically cribbed his own, previous melody, from “That Means A Lot” and used it again for Mr. Kite. In all honesty, its never been one of my favorites, but other’s MMV.
Only The Beatles could have such dialogue about a song which, in my view anyway, is essentially an album filler. 🙂
Speaking of the ahhhs, you got peeked my curiosity, Erin, so I trolled online to see what the thoughts were out there in Beatleland. Apparently the news has spread, and I found sites which had lively debates about it.
Like everyone else, I assumed it was John’s voice, so I had to have another listen. Dang, now I don’t know! It could be either. Here’s a youtube video with the mystery voice:
(Listens to the “Ahh’s” on ADITL for the fifteenth time in a week).
I honestly can’t tell. I can say that I never heard it as “Paul’ until the conference, when the possibility came up. Regardless of who sang it, it’s an epic moment.
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