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June 4, 2007

Aimee Mann on Sgt. Pepper — 'P.S. I Loved You'


The singer/songwriter occupied pride of place on yesterday's New York Times Op-Ed page with a wonderful essay on how the Beatles' iconic album, released 40 years ago this past weekend when she was a completely clueless 8-year-old girl, "changed the course of my life."

The piece follows.

    P.S. I Loved You

    My big brother was always the one to bring new music into the house. Until I heard the Beatles playing on his stereo in the basement, my favorite music had been Glen Campbell singing “Galveston” or my father playing “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey” on the piano.

    I was young enough to giggle when my brother changed the words of “P.S. I Love You” to... something more puerile, and four years later, young enough to think that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was really a band, and not the name of a Beatles record. In those intervening years, a transformation had taken place, and both the sound and the look of the Beatles had completely changed. Also, I was a little slow on the uptake, and didn’t notice the name “Beatles” spelled out in flowers on the cover.

    Is it a testament to the quality, or purity, or beauty, or timelessness of that record (released 40 years ago this weekend) that it appealed so thoroughly to an 8-year-old, one who had virtually no contact with pop culture? I could not have been more out of tune with the zeitgeist — it would be two more years before I discovered radio, and even then I would have only the vaguest notion of what was out there. I bought my first LP solely on the basis of the cover (one of the reasons today I try to take extra care with the packaging of my CDs). It was pure dumb luck that it turned out to be Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” still one of my favorite albums of all time.

    But the favorite is, and was, and must remain “Sgt. Pepper’s.” I had a love affair like no other with that record. My brother had bought it, of course, and when I heard it, I braved his wrath and smuggled it out to my friend’s house so I could play it over and over. You’d have had to know my brother back then to fully understand how daring that was.

    In a way, that record seemed made for children: the fun false mustaches that came with the package, the bright shiny outfits, the cheery melodies, the jaunty horns. The band itself seemed almost irrelevant — scruffy mustachioed men in costumes, lost in a sea of collaged faces. I ignored them.

    My ignorance extended to the opening song, which I took at face value as a real live introduction of the singer Billy Shears, who, whoever he was, became my favorite, with his dopey baritone, in humble gratitude for his pals — bless them, it all was so innocent, those marmalade skies and winking meter maids (whatever they were). The darkest moments were with the runaway girl — although a throwaway line in “Getting Better” (“I was cruel to my woman, I beat her...”) gave me pause. He beat her? What the heck? But hey — things were getting better all the time, so ... I shrugged and let it go.

    And then things took a weird turn: a nightmare cacophony of strings, someone blowing his mind out in a car — what was that? Did he get shot in the head? What were the holes in Albert Hall? Things had gotten creepy and dark, and it lost me. I started skipping that last song.

    I can’t listen to “Sgt. Pepper’s” anymore. As a musician, I’m burnt out on it — its influence has been so vast and profound. As a lyricist, I find that my ear has become more attuned to the likes of Fiona Apple and Elliot Smith, and though the words of “Sgt. Pepper’s” are full of vivid images — Rita’s bag slung over her shoulder, Mr. Kite sailing through a hogshead of fire, the runaway girl with her handkerchief — there’s an emotional depth that’s missing. I’m ashamed to say it, but sometimes John Lennon’s melodies feel a bit underwritten, while Paul McCartney’s relentless cheerfulness is depressing. The very jauntiness I used to love as a girl feels as if it’s covering up a sadder subtext. And what’s bleaker than a brave face?

    The whole experience is uncomfortable, like realizing you can beat your own father at chess or arm-wrestling. I don’t want to go back and find that the carcass has been picked clean. Because I know without a doubt that “Sgt. Pepper’s” changed the course of my life. If the magic is gone, it’s only because first loves can’t be repeated. When I was 8, I’d never heard anything like it, and I can honestly say that if I live to be 100, I’ll never hear anything like it again.

June 4, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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I think that after 40 years of over-analysis and the change in music that Sgt Pepper spawned, many people have a difficult time seeing the forrest for the trees. The depth, beauty, and soul of 'She's Leaving Home' and 'A Day in the Life' are still unsurpassed in both the transitional use of classical music with the pop music form, and the surreal imagery Lennon combined with rock n' roll. I'm not familiar with Aimee Mann, but if she's like 85% of white rock/pop musicicans of the past 40+ years, she's taken more from them then she realizes - and I'll go out on a limb to say she has surpassed it depth-wise.. Just a gamble.

I also disagree with Clif's statement that the Beatles weren't "bigger than Jebus". It's no even arguable that Lennon was correct in 1966 when he said that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. As John said, he meant that the Beatles meant more to kids than Jesus Christ. That's a true statement, regardless of whether it's warranted, or whether people wish that it wasn't true.

Posted by: James K Power | Jun 12, 2007 11:19:06 AM

Folks can't accept an honest review of something that history has considered a masterpiece.

Despite what Lennon thought, they weren't bigger than Jebus, and their works were not entirely divine. One of the greatest songwriting ever, but still, there were flaws and these flaws affect everyone differently. For instance, I am an overly optimistic person, regardless of always being put in depressing situations where there is no good way out. As such, McCartney and his relentless cheerfulness doesn't bother me. In fact, it inspires me. I'll go from something like an Aimee Mann album, of which Bachelor #2 has been on of my favorite breakup albums because of her constant 'whining' and pretty much depressive repertoire, back to McCartney's Maybe I'm Amazed and Silly Love Songs thrown on repeat to get back to where I need to.

Posted by: clif | Jun 10, 2007 8:19:59 AM

I’m ashamed to say it, but sometimes John Lennon’s melodies feel a bit underwritten, while Paul McCartney’s relentless cheerfulness is depressing.

OMFG, where to start? Which John Lennon melodies could she be talking about? The ones that she has raided (along with Paul's) throughout her entire post-Til Tuesday career??? Sorry Aimee. Love your music but you ain't John Lennon. Not by a long stretch.

And Paul's relentless cheerfulness is probably depressing to a person who has made a career out of whining about her career in song and in interviews. To me that is depressing and boring.

Aimee has no right to whine. Her career seems to be doing fine and there are a lot of other people

Posted by: thispostkillsfascists | Jun 10, 2007 6:54:53 AM

I thought this piece showed she's now a clueless 40-something. Fiona Apple has more emotional range than Lennon-McCartney?? Give me a break!

Posted by: Charlotte | Jun 5, 2007 9:24:40 AM

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