Thursday, December 08, 2005

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

My freshman year of high school, I felt very adult because I woke up to the radio every morning; my stereo, perched on my dresser, was plugged into some sort of timer that made it click on at whatever horrifically early hour I needed to get out of bed in order to make it to school on time. The morning of December 9, 1980, the very first words out of the stereo were “John Lennon: dead.” He had been shot the night before.

Most of my friends in school were juniors and seniors – and we were all Beatles fans. We were the sort of music and drama geeks who would usually end up playing songs on the guitar or the piano at parties; when we had gone through the obligatory “Stairway to Heaven,” we would start in with the Beatles tunes. Either that, or we would play the White Album and act like we were absorbing the deeper meanings from “number nine ... number nine ... number nine...”

My favorite album had to be “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; there was one song in particular that I was obsessed with. This was “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” I don’t know when or where I first heard it, but I was entranced with it. I would play it over and over, lying on the floor in the dark, with gigantic headphones clapped over my ears. Sometimes I would play the song in my room, again in darkness, with my strobe light (purchased from Spencer Gifts) blinking away. I’m surprised I didn’t give myself an epileptic seizure or perhaps induce some kind of psychotic break. Or, maybe I did and I just didn’t realize it. I definitely provoked a fit of madness in my father, when I played the track over and over on his hi-fi. Even outside working in the yard, he could hear it. When I had played it probably twenty or thirty times, he burst in. “WHY?!! ARE?! YOU!? PLAYING!!! THAT?! SONG!!?!!?!?”

I don’t know.

I played the song on the piano endlessly, repeating the open vamp over and over; the song was mesmerizing to me both musically and lyrically. In fact, I have found musical phrases inspired by that motif in many of my shows. They aren’t literally variations but they definitely sprang from my obsession with that music.

I collected various covers of the song: Elton John did a version on his album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which I liked in some ways better than the Beatles. An R&B/70’s funk-influenced version was on the soundtrack to one of my favorite horrible, horrible movies, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which starred Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. I recently found this movie on DVD for six bucks, so I have been revisiting the bizarre deliciousness of this oddity.

The movie came out in 1978 or 1979, right before the movie musical reached the zenith of excess and badness with “Xanadu” (another film I was obsessed with.) The movie had very little dialogue; Beatles songs were strung together to spin out an acid-trip of a plot. As I recall, Frampton and the Bees Gees played Billy Shears and his friends the Hendersons, who had a band called “Sgt. Pepper’s...” well, you know. They lived in a little Main Street U.S.A type of place named Heartland, which was kept pure by the power of four magical instruments ... which they didn’t actually play, but which were kept in a museum by the mayor, played by George Burns. So, the pure, innocent boys went off to big, bad L.A., where they were led into temptation by record producer Donald Pleasance. The boys were seduced by a trashy Motown-meets-Madonna group, Lucy and the Diamonds. When Billy’s sweet girlfriend, named Strawberry Fields, runs to L.A. to find him, the first thing that meets her eye upon getting off the bus is an enormous billboard of “Lucy and the Diamonds.” The billboard comes to life, with Lucy and her girls singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” I suppose that’s a very literal illustration of the song (some screenwriter, locked in a basement: “I know! Her name is Lucy ... and she’s in the sky! With ... I got it! Diamonds!”

The plot only becomes more peculiar, involving Mean Mr. Mustard, a couple of singing electric robots, Alice Cooper running a mind control temple, and Aerosmith as some sort of evil rock band. In the end, a weathervane-statue of Sgt. Pepper comes to life and puts everything right again.

The very best part of the whole movie, though, is the final sequence, in which a completely bizarre assortment of celebrities recreate the cover photo of the “Sgt. Pepper” album, while singing the title song along with some very “Up With People”-esque clapping. Tina Turner sings next to Carol Channing. I think Helen Reddy is there somewhere; and surprisingly, so is Dame Edna. Who in the U.S. even knew who Dame Edna was in 1979? I imagine she was included because the producer was Australian. As the camera pans over the crowd – most of whom even I, a triviahead, have forgotten – one thing is abundantly clear. Personal grooming has come a long way since the late 70s.

The billboard-coming-to-life idea also obsessed me – similar things happened in other craptacular movie musicals of that period, “The Wiz” and “Xanadu.” In “The Wiz”, grafitti outlines of children painted in a playground peel off the wall and become Munchkins, while in “Xanadu” a wall mural of the nine Greek Muses comes alive (to the strains of ELO’s “I’m Alive.” Because they were ... alive.) Although “Xanadu” is too crappy of a movie to stand up to repeated viewings, even for me, I have watched that opening scene over and over on a bad videotape that I bought at a closeout sale for three bucks.

Why the obsession? I don’t know. There was something about the magic of it that captured my imagination – and the not-great special effects only added to it. There was some combination of music, lyric and concept which I found hypnotic – when I was beginning to understand the power that theater and film had over me.

When I was in the first throes of my obsession with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” I read all about the song in various books about the Beatles. There was the usual story that the song title was code for LSD – that the lyrics depicted an acid trip – but I liked John Lennon’s story that the song was inspired by a drawing his son Julian made one day when he was young. The boy showed John the drawing, and said it was a picture of Lucy in the sky with diamonds ... and a song was born.


Blogger David said...

Thank you for the absence of maudlin in your post. My gratitude is eternal.

Spencer Gifts. Oh my god.

One of my friends back in high school worshipped the movie Xanadu. I know. I do love the soundtrack.

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Anna said...

Yes, come ON, Spencer Gifts? Oh, if I could have the hours back...

Xanadu. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven with that movie. FYI, one of the muses (Melinda Phelps: appeared in BOTH Sgt. Peppers and Xanadu AND another in a film called Strawberry Fields (

Coincidence? I think not.

7:07 AM  
Blogger mkf said...

on the off chance you haven't experienced it for yourself, i am enclosing herewith a link to william shatner's cover of the song in question. i play this at parties from time to time; invariably, all conversation grinds to a halt, and people listen in silence, slack-jawed and spellbound. i'm confident it'll have the same effect on you and your readers.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition to the venues of "hi-fi" and piano, I so much enjoyed how you communicated your immersion in Lucy in the sky with diamonds in the painting you created for Willanne as a mourning gift for her (a similarly committed Beatles fan) in the aftermath of her beloved Roger's death. barb

8:49 AM  
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12:23 AM  
Anonymous Richard Compton said...

There is a code in the pictures and words found printed on the ablum cover of "Sgt. Pepper's".

The first "door" of the code is opened with the "key" in the song "She's Leaving Home". Starting with the first "Y" in the song, go back three letters and circle the "S". Do the same with the consecutive "Y"s and you will find it spells the word "SENDER". Remember, with codes, you must have a "Reciever" and a "Sender".

I can show you how I opened this "door" if you contact me at ""

10:14 PM  

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