For some weeks now Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, the first part of his epic three-volume history of the Beatles, has been staring reproachfully at me from the top of the to-be-read pile. The time to absorb its 900-odd pages will come soon. Meanwhile on Saturday night I took the opportunity to listen to its author give an illustrated talk on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Centenary Theatre in Berkhamsted School, Hertfordshire, during an evening in aid of the Pepper Foundation, a locally based charity which provides specialised nursing care for children with life-limiting or terminal illnesses.
As it happens, Sgt Pepper is not in my top half-dozen Beatles albums, but the extent of Mark’s erudition and the depth of his engagement are such that I was fascinated by both the background detail and the close analysis he provided while showing related film clips and playing snatches of tapes from the sessions to show how the songs were built up.
It was an absorbing 45 minutes, and a perfect preparation to what happened after a short interval, when the charity’s founder, Robert Breakwell, took his place on a suddenly very crowded stage as the director of a troupe of dozens of musicians and singers, mostly amateurs, all primed to perform the album from beginning to end.
How bad an idea does that sound? How easy was it at that moment to exchange sardonic glances and make mental plans for an early exit and a quick drive back to London? All I can tell you is that the next hour passed in a whirl of surprise and enchantment as performers of all ages, abilities, shapes and sizes tackled the challenge not just with enthusiasm and energy but with a wonderful degree of imagination.
For the opening “Sgt Pepper” song itself, two cheerleaders held up cue cards — “LAUGH”, “CHEER” etc — to enable us to replicate the sounds borrowed by the Beatles and George Martin from Abbey Road’s library of sound effects. As it turned out, however, this wasn’t going to be an attempt to imitate the original. Each song was interpreted in a way appropriate to the material, the talents of the performers and the resources available on stage, and often given a creative twist.
So we heard “Getting Better” done by five young women in a Spice Girls sort of way, “When I’m 64” sung by a group of children and “Good Morning, Good Morning” subjected to a delightfully scatty acappella arrangement. “Within You, Without You” featured not just the sound of a sitar but a haunting snatch of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. “Fixing a Hole” was sung by Mike Burnett in folk-music style to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar, a double bass and two backing singers. Claire Boulter’s trained voice was applied with exquisitely transfixing effect to “She’s Leaving Home”, accompanied by a string quartet, a pianist and a choir including many of the night’s performers (a clearly overjoyed Lewisohn among them).
And then came the moment when one or two of us were thinking, “Are they really going to have a go at ‘A Day in the Life’?” How on earth would they cope with the ambition of the album’s concluding track, a towering moment in the Beatles’ musical history? Blow me down if they didn’t succeed quite brilliantly, finding ways to emulate the orchestral glissandi and the final piano chord that fades away into an echoing silence.
It was an amazing thing to hear and feel, and it was one of several moments at which Breakwell and his troupe were able to remind us of the Beatles’ special magic, the quality that will surely persuade history that the benign spell they cast over us was the result not just of some sort of passing pop phenomenon, writ extra-large.