The Beatles: Sgt Pepper at 50

On Thursday 1st June 1967 the Beatles released their album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and this year sees its 50th anniversary being celebrated. The album had a huge impact around the world and became the soundtrack to what was soon to be termed, “The Summer of Love”. With its iconic album cover designed by the pop artists Peter Blake and Jan Howarth it spent 27 weeks at the top of the album charts in the U.K and 15 weeks at number one in the U.S. Time magazine called it, “A historic departure in the progress of music – any music”.  Today, it is still seen by many as one of the greatest pop album’s ever made. With songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, and the extraordinary, ‘A Day in the Life’. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s created what would become a new standard within which pop music could be judged.

On the album there is a song by George Harrison called ‘Within You, Without You’. What makes the song unique is that it was one of the few Beatles songs not to include the other Beatles. Harrison recorded it with members of London’s Asian Music Circle in EMI Studio 2 at Abbey Road. They tried to create an appropriate mood by inviting the musicians to play sitting on woven carpets, with incense burning and the lights dimmed low.  In the song, Harrison attempted to explore his new found love of Hindustani music. The song was partially inspired by a lengthy suite written by the Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Harrison had recently begun a friendship with Ravi Shankar and had spent the previous year in India trying to learn the sitar. “I had George practice all the correct positions of sitting and some of the basic exercises.” Shankar wrote in his autobiography, ‘My Music, My Life’. Apparently, Harrison found the new sitting postures required to learn the sitar challenging on his hips, so Shankar suggested he take up yoga.

As I began my own personal exploration of Buddhist meditation practices and yoga I was reminded of the song. Through the song Harrison explored a view of Indian philosophy and religious tradition. He also offered a critique on materialism, “the people who gain the world and lose their soul” suggesting deeper meaning and salvation could be found through an inner spiritual transcendence.  I was particularly struck by the words, “When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there, and the time will come when you see we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you”

Harrison’s song can point to an experience of our sense of self as not fixed, but rather as something open, fluid and constantly changing. The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self. This is not a strange form of nihilism and it is not that we do not exist rather, that when we look at our direct experience all we observe are thoughts, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and acts of consciousness. Nothing can be said to be solid and permanent. There is no fixed, unchanging self at the centre of our experience. Everything that arises in our life is dependent on many complex conditions. Unfortunately, we sometimes suffer because we can believe the opposite to be true and spend our days trying to defend or assert a belief in a fixed identity and self.

Such teachings can seem bewildering. I have found it helpful to reflect on the basic view that you people are not fixed and that it is possible to change. People may have limiting views but are not defined by them. Maybe, as we live our lives we too can glimpse a sense of this, experiencing the fluid nature of ourselves and trust that we have the potential to be always so much more than we think we are.

Now, 50 years later, it is still possible to marvel at the brilliance of the crafted pop songs that make up ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and how the biggest pop band in the world at the time were not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of what pop music could be. The Beatles introduced musical ideas from the avant-garde and profound concepts from Indian philosophy; transforming pop music once viewed as a disposable light weight commodity to a thing of beauty, depth and art.