Thursday, May 1, 2014

Getting Better

Robert Bunter: This song is joyful and infectious, but it doesn’t really fit into the Sgt. Pepper concept. It would have made more sense alongside “Good Day Sunshine” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” on Revolver. Pepper is an extended meditation on show business and identity that slyly upends the backpack full of roles and expectations the Beatles were carrying around by 1967. The album opens by announcing that the Beatles have been replaced by a groovy band of satin-military-suit-clad tuba players who are about to take us on a magic carpet ride around the world (and … elsewhere?) The rest of the album uses jump-cut editing splices to whisk us from a psychedelic boat ride (“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”) to a soap opera (“She’s Leaving Home”), a circus (“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”), an exotic Eastern mystic sermon (“Within You Without You”) and an old-time soft-shoe revue (“When I’m 64”). Sure, you’ve got the John-figure lurking in the background throughout, with his spooky moustache and dead carp eyes slowly leaking bleeding Everyman nightmares into the corner of the frame (“Good Morning Good Morning”) before finally pulling back the curtain on the whole charade (“A Day In The Life”) and leaving the listener’s contextual framework in shreds. But for the most part we are strapped safely into the lurching cart of a hallucinatory funhouse ride. In that context, Paul’s relatively earnest and autobiographical “Getting Better” sticks out like a sore thumb.

Richard Furnstein: You clod. "Getting Better" is central to the Sgt. Pepper concept: a song cycle about the promise of renewal in the Age of Aquarius. The bright and bold sleeve for Sgt. Pepper represented an about face from the pen and ink wanderings of the Revolver color. Lennon suggested that we "listen to the colour of [our] dreams" at the conclusion of Revolver. Sgt. Pepper boldly insisted that everything required a fresh coat of paint ("I'm painting my room in the colourful way.."). Paul's entire Sgt. Pepper concept was about escaping the greyscale images of The Beatles. What better way to do this than to don marching band jackets, pick up shiny brass instruments, and adopt a new, garish monicker (truly only bested by the daft "Colonel Tucker's Medicinal Brew and Compound" concept). "Getting Better" is clearly about self improvement, about wiping the slate clean after past transgressions (domestic abuse, poor academic performance, anti-social tendencies). Suddenly: a new day to change one's scene (or as much as possible: "I'm doing the best that I can"). Paul's message of hope carries through the remaining Sgt. Pepper songs: the scenes include reclaiming happiness in the golden years ("When I'm 64"), reclaiming spirituality in the modern age ("Within You Without You"), coming to terms with the ghosts of childhood ("Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane," and "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite"), experimenting with mind expanding drugs (the turned on businessman of "A Day In The Life" and "Good Morning Good Morning") and taking decisive action towards this progress (the lanky teenage rebel in "She's Leaving Home").

Let's tear the whole damned thing down.
Robert Bunter: Hmmm, well I guess you could say that there’s more than one way to look at it. As usual, the extra baggage about the contemporary cultural shifts of the so-called Love generation or “extended meditation[s] on show business and identity” (Bunter, 2014) only becomes obvious in hindsight. That reminds me, an interesting thing happened on March 21, 1967, early into the “Getting Better” sessions. At this point, all the Beatles but Paul had tried LSD. John, George and Paul were in the studio doing some vocal overdubs when John decided to take a pill that he thought was speed. A touch of amphetamine, just the thing to add a little zang to the otherwise tedious process of hanging out in Abbey Road with the most talented and charming humans who ever lived recording an album that represents not only the undisputed peak of their career but one of the highest artistic achievements of the 20th century. Of course, you can guess what happened. He took the wrong pill and started an acid trip right there in the booth. Ringo’s pores became eerily distorted and disproportionate (which later inspired the “Sea of Holes” scene in the Yellow Submarine cartoon). Paul was wearing a strange necklace thing that started to look like paisley sausages. Mal Evans was levitating like a can of beans. Uh-oh. John excused himself from the vocal overdubs. “Sorry lads, I’m not feeling quite right for some reason.” Thus it fell to staid, conservatory-trained producer George Martin to take his young friend up to the Abbey Road rooftop for a bit of fresh air. Pretty soon the others realized what was going on and rushed the hell up there to make sure John didn’t try to swan dive right off the side because on acid you assume that you’ll just gently float to the ground or maybe actually fly. Problem is: you don’t. There’s just a pile of paisley sausages on the iconic Abbey Road crosswalk and a bunch of screaming girls who were hanging around outside the studio and that’s it for the Beatles. The others fetched him back inside and Paul gave him a ride home. When they got there, Paul said to himself, “OK, this is the night for me to try acid for the first time. I’ll take it with John so he doesn’t feel so alone and frightened.” And he did! Paul’s first trip was March 21, 1967. They both talked about it years later in interviews. John: “We got into a heavy thing, staring into each other’s eyes, saying ‘I know, man … I know! I KNOW.’” This is a sweet story to contemplate. They were still young men who’d been through a lot together. Not just the group’s meteoric rise to superstardom, but the loss of a parent. It was not the kind of thing that macho young greasers like John and Paul would ever talk about out loud, but with their inhibitions relaxed by mind-altering drugs, they were able to communicate everything in those three simple words: “I know, man.” If I had a time machine, I would certainly set the dial for March 21, 1967 and lurk outside the sitting-room window at Weybridge so I could witness this tender scene firsthand. I just hope they don’t see me and become frightened.

Richard Furnstein: Don't spook the horse. "Getting Better" also ties in with Peter Blake's elaborate cover art for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Clubs Band. The photo finds The Beatles posing as a marching band, supported by a cast of entertainers, philosophers, addicts, scientists, gurus, and (most harrowing) their childish 1964 selves. It's as if they are saying, "we are nothing more than we, dear friends." Lewis Carroll begat Aleister Crowley begat William S. Burroughs begat Marilyn Monroe. The Beatles are standing on the shoulders of giants, offering the finest artistic output of humans developed with the greatest sound recording techniques and equipment. You are truly blessed. The Beatles are staring out at you (the pimply, soggy listener) as if to challenge you to make the next move. In front of their feet is a lovely garden/funeral arrangement. A collection of flowers ready to explode in the summer of 1967: aching anthers pulsing with the pollen of new life.

Robert Bunter: Speaking of gardening, that was how the idea for the song originated. Paul was chatting with his groundskeeper -- the gentle and reliable Reginald Peake--and asked “How’s it going?” to which Peake replied, “Well, it’s getting better!” and of course Paul got “THAT LOOK” that he used to get when a song was brewing and ran back inside to the piano to effortlessly immortalize the fleeting remark of a common landscaper. Meanwhile, poor old Peake is still standing outside with his pruning shears, staring at the empty space where Paul used to be before he ran back inside, like “What? What did I say?” Later, Paul gave him a signed copy of the finished LP. It was a first-press mono Parlophone in mint condition with all inserts and OG inner sleeve, but the clueless gardener played it repeatedly on his shoddy common-man portable phonograph causing noticeable wear, audible scuffs and unforgiveable surface noise. For the rest of his days, he derived great joy from hearing the record, especially proud of his “star turn” on Side One and the heavy breathing at the end of “Lovely Rita.” When ol' Reg passed away in 1979 from advanced gout, the album was bequeathed to his daughter who kept it in appalling conditions of humidity and heat, not even bothering to store it in a simple two-bit poly bag. That gorgeous inner sleeve (designed by the Apple-contracted Dutch design team The Fool)? Seams split to hell. It was just stacked up on her dumb shelves in a sloppy pile with all her other stupid records. Her kids used to play with it and busted the damned thing all up.

Richard Furnstein: A harrowing vision, to be sure. Paul had a talent for highlighting the minor victories of the diabetic underclass. The sad, pock-marked visions provided depth to such chestnuts as "Another Day," "Eleanor Rigby," and "London Town." The inspiration behind "Getting Better" is less specific; rather, it seems to represent an entire generation rather than one lonely misfit. In that sense, "Getting Better" is a companion track to "She's Leaving Home," showcasing the larger cultural shifts at play. The key lyric in "Getting Better" is "the teachers who taught me weren't cool." It's certainly a minor offense, but the catalyst for a philosophical and lifestyle shift. "Getting Better" offers a life-and-how-live-it manual for the youth who were leaving their parents in the sad suburbs and embarking into a world of discount barbituates, aimless new age explorations,  and primal/hairy sexual intercourse. The sharp and confident introduction of "Getting Better" announces the new chapter. The treated piano and slack single coil electric guitar bursts open the door into the new world. It's a choose your own adventure moment. How are things getting better for you, love? A hippie collapses onto a diseased bean bag chair in a grimy tenement in The Mission. A pot-bellied, cocksure man opens the door to his bachelor pad, wafting in the freedom of divorced life. A diminutive hippie stares out from between the curtains of her straight black hair: "I won't become a Mrs., ma. I'm going to grad school." A slender, wild-eyed Yogi finally masters the King Pigeon Pose after weeks of careful attention to breathing. A young man finally saved enough money to purchase his dream muscle car and is off to cruise the hamburger stand. Martin Luther King's dream. Stonewall. Let's tear the whole damned thing down.


  1. no talk of the odd wording, "Me used to be angry young man
    Me hiding me head in the sand " ?