We are living through a period of intense isolation. Personally I am looking at the prospect of not being able to leave my house for three months. The coronavirus has caused a very sudden and unprecedented scattering of people. But this is happening in the context of a period of centuries during which humanity has slowly become more physically alone. Even by reading this article, you are engaging in an activity which is almost always solitary. In fifteenth century England, only about 5% of people could read. To gain information or entertainment, 95% of the population needed to talk or interact with others. Today virtually everyone in the UK is able to partake in a defining cultural activity, which requires you to be alone.
A similar change happened in music. Right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the only way to experience music was as a group of people, who had to actually sit in front of musicians. But Edison had patented his phonograph in 1877, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, record buying was beginning to catch on. After that, music became a largely solitary activity. The thousands who attended live music were as nothing compared to the millions listening to records on their own.
And so we come to 1967 and the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is fitting that in an age of increasing isolation, this is probably the most famous album ever made. It consists of a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness.
Now, do you want to go on a philosophical journey into the nature of human togetherness? In normal circumstances, I’m sure most would generally pass. No doubt there would be better things to do. But these are not normal times. Years ago I wrote an entire book about the poetry of the Sergeant Pepper album, but I won’t push my luck. I’ll confine myself to the first line of the opening song:
“It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play…”
These words introduce what sounds like a live concert. This Sergeant Pepper concert is happening at a particular time – twenty years to the day after a mysterious mentor first taught the band to play. The sound of an audience which we hear clapping and cheering over that opening line, gives the suggestion of a particular place, a concert hall somewhere. In complete contrast is the album itself, which you can play anytime and anywhere. For someone playing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the special anniversary day can be any day. Similarly, the concert hall can be any bedroom, living room, or tube train shut out by headphones. People are stuck in certain times and places, but there’s the suggestion that this concert is free of such restrictions. Go back again to that opening line: “It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play”. This seems very precise, but in reality no band learns to play over the course of one day. It takes time to learn a new skill. Mastery comes gradually rather than arriving on a particular Tuesday. That day twenty years ago is impossible to pin down. We have no date for it. All the specifics here are artfully vague. Perhaps we can think of the vagueness of the Sergeant Pepper concert as an access all areas ticket.
During the coronavirus pandemic, people have played music at windows, and staged concerts for on-line audiences. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a performance in that same tradition.