Subtitle this, "Beatles Lyrics: Helter Skelter In The Sky". (A cautionary note, this article is best for tried-and-true Beatles aficionados. But here goes anyway. Take heed, you've been warned.)
In the final echoes of “Penny Lane”, as Paul McCartney’s voice recedes into the mix, the sound of an imaginary flying saucer descends on the Liverpudlian street. One wonders, what prompted this, a congenial travelogue about “blue suburban skies” and “the shelter in the middle of a roundabout” to whimsy into science fiction? A decade later, John Lennon (in his nom de l'humour, Dr. Winston O’Boogie) claimed in the Walls And Bridges liner notes that he saw a UFO in New York City, in Manhattan of all places. Hardly a subject of levity when the FBI is dredging one’s drug history. Several years between, Ringo Starr in his album, Goodnight Vienna, is attired as Klatuu the Spaceman from the classic science fiction film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.Where does fact begin where poetic fantasy leaves off?
A preponderance of the strange and fantastic populate the Beatles mythos. The account of a “Sea of Green” and a sea of holes (that can hypothetically inundate the famed Albert Hall) from which emerge the Blue Meanies is just a lighter shade of H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. The Magical Mystery Tour bus and the Yellow Submarine were vehicles of imagination, enabling the day tripping Beatles to run for help, in secure places like the “Octopuses Garden in a cave”, where they know they “can’t be found”.
The resurgence of interest in Beatles imagery today is spurred yet again. Check the periodic repackaging and reinvention of the catalog that propelled them all those decades ago to an uninterrupted frenzy of creativity. The Beatles Remasters boxes (separate for stereo and mono) and their matching iTunes digital catalog are eminent triumphs of mystique and brand loyalty, coupled with coffee table books, DVDs and all manner of ephemera. The fans “try some, buy some”, once, twice, thrice, and it’s a long and winding road indeed. This year, there's some fresh excitement again with a Vinyl Box collection.
Decades ago, teenaged sleuths actually spun the Beatles vinyl discs backwards on their turntables, searching for clues and Reverse Speech, that elevated off-microphone artifacts in their recordings to significant levels of meaning. For example, John uttering “cranberry sauce” in Strawberry Fields was misheard as “I buried Paul”, that led to one of the most profitable ruses in commercial music. In another song, “I Am The Walrus”, the song’s introduction is started by a police siren. Ultimately, wearing out the grooves was a fair excuse to acquire a fresh copy for the LP collection. And so it goes. Or so it went. "Sitting in an English garden", "standing in the English rain", strongly reinforced the cachet of Her Majesty’s realm and coffers.
Stream of consciousness (“aleatoric methods", classical musicians say) was a technique vastly utilized by the Beatles. It was a talent that came to the Beatles so naturally, the ability to spontaneously confound and charm the imagination, not simply to entertain but to convert. How else could a musique concrete exercise like “Revolution 9” survive the pop music ethos unless the medium became the message itself? “Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine …” was meaningless until we created our own meaning for it.
How about the silent dog whistle at the tail end of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band -- no, we're sure you never heard it. Verify it anyway with your pet’s perked ears or, visually, with a WAV sound editor. Advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic boggles the mind, indeed.
And yet for all the wit and profitability of the Beatles commercial enterprise, “misunderstanding all you see” was an act of looking through a "Glass Onion". Wikipedia describes what Glass Onions are, as “large hand blown glass bottles used aboard sailing ships to hold wine or brandy. For increased stability on rough seas, the bottles were fashioned with a wide-bottom shape to prevent toppling, thus making the bottles look somewhat onion-shaped.”
However, experts say, “the layers of a song that people try to draw meanings from can be compared to the many layers of an onion.” My best advise is to enjoy every facet and layer of it. A procession of characters in search of authors appear through the crystal ball. Sexy Sadie, Eleanor Rigby, Billy Shears and Maxwell Edison join the assemblage of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, marching along the Pepperland way.
Tragically, some of the identifications turned bizarre in the wrong minds, as one infamous cult leader, Charles Manson, who took his cues for ghastly murders from the song, “Helter Skelter”. He had no information that it simply described a 1906 British amusement park attraction, a slide designed to spiral down a lighthouse. The scarcity of erudition or simply the non-existence of an Internet search engine in that analog age, had created such misunderstanding.
“It isn’t hard to be someone but it all works out”, were dangerous words in the bewildered psyche of a deranged Mark Chapman, him who aggregated John Lennon’s lyrical allusions to warm guns and floating downstream. Songs like “Yer Blues”, a song in which Lennon actually pronounces that he would "wanna die", was the ultimate bedevilment.
In fact, Lennon narrated the death of the Ego in “Tomorrow Never Knows” as "not dying" but simply surrendering "to the void." Pearls cast to the proverbial swine. “Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in.” But who would have bothered for caveats and disclaimers in those ever-so-carefree days? “Ignorance and hate mourn the dead; it is not leaving.” Well, now we know, and we move forward. McCartney sings, “Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.”
Deciphering these passages are a relatively child’s play now. One simply copies and pastes the mysterious word or phrase into the Search Engine box and algorithms do the rest. Try it for yourself; we are no longer lost in Blue Jay Way as we once were.
In 1966, Lennon's son Julian showed to his father a drawing of his classmate, a girl named Lucy O'Donnell, which the boy described as "Lucy, in the sky with diamonds." The title’s acronym, of course, was (as George Harrison later put it) "the notorious Lysergic". And the myth had not perished despite much repeated explanation. What further complicates the story is a 2004 interview of Paul McCartney giving credence that Lennon had truly recounted his hallucinogenic experience through Julian’s nursery school illustration. Is this account simply another of Macca's flippant deeds -- that would have Lennon’s ashes swirling stormily in the netherworlds? Alas, that’s for those two to work out far later, "in the next world and in any world", within them, without them.
By Johnny Alegre
(in the thrall of a well awaited 2012 Beatles Vinyl Box Set)