Why the embarrassed laughter matters—Some reflections for the 50th Anniversary of "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"


This coming Thursday, June 1st, sees the fiftieth anniversary of the release of perhaps the most famous and influential (though, perhaps, not the “greatest”) Beatles’ LP of all, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” As a lifelong fan of the band’s music I decided a few weeks ago that I would take a close look at the record on the anniversary to see whether it still offers us any lessons relevant to our own age and culture.

Then last week there occurred the suicide bombing in Manchester which, not least of all because of the high number of child victims, has been an exceptionally serious and disturbing an event for us in the UK. All in all, it seemed that avoiding all mention of it today would be, at the very least, a sin of omission. (Although it is very important for us to be clear that an atrocity like this would hardly be mentioned were it to have taken place in many other places in the world as it does, alas, almost daily.)

For a while I considered abandoning the “Sgt Pepper” theme altogether but, after letting the two things sit side by side in my heart and mind, unforcedly juxtaposed, I began to see that “Sgt Pepper”, and in particular something about a song that lies at its heart does, in fact, says something important to us in what is, and will be for a very long time, a very dark week.

So I’d like to centre my reflections today on that song, George Harrison’s “Within You Without You.” As my good friend, fellow musician and author of “The Rough Guide to the BeatlesChris Ingham says, the song is “the most outré five minutes of the album but, once surrendered to, [it] is a central part of the Pepper experience” (p. 41).


Mark 8:36

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

Ian MacDonald’s entry on “Within You Without You” in “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties” (Pimlico, 1994, pp. 193-194)

Harrison’s “Within You Without You” finishes with a spasm of embarrassed laughter added by its composer during the final day of work on it (the last day of recording for Sergeant Pepper as a whole). His wryness was prescient: this ambitious essay in cross-cultural fusion and meditative philosophy has been dismissed with a yawn by almost every commentator since is first appeared. Bored by the track's lack of harmonic interest, critics have focused on the lyric, attacking it as didactic and dated.
          Apart from its offence to the Me Generation in pointing out how small we are, the trouble with “Within You Without You” for most of its detractors lies in the song’s air of superiority and sanctimonious finger-wagging at those ‘who gain the world and lose their soul’ (‘Are you one of them?). Yet, seeing the world from the metaphysical perspective of Indian philosophy, it was only natural that Harrison should find himself wailing that people could save the world ‘if they only knew’. As for the accusatory finger — bad manners in times of relativism and making-do — this is a token of what was then felt to be a revolution in progress: an inner revolution against materialism. For better or worse, it is impossible to conduct a revolution without picking a side and pointing out the drawbacks of its rivals.
          Harrison wrote the song on a harmonium at the home of his friend [the bass player] Klaus Voormann after a dinner in which the conversation had dwelt on the spiritual aridity of modem life (‘the space between us all ... the love that's gone so cold’). As such, “Within You Without You” is the conscience of Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band: the necessary sermon that comes with the community singing. Described by those with no grasp of the ethos of 1967 as a blot on a classic LP, “Within You Without You” is central to the outlook that shaped Sergeant Pepper — a view justifiable then, as it is justifiable now.

 Why the embarrassed laughter matters—Some reflections for the 50th Anniversary of "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"

As you have heard, in musical terms the track obviously references Indian devotional music and the explicitly religious lyric speaks clearly of Harrison’s relatively recent embrace of Hindu philosophy — although in it there is, of course, also the clear reference to Jesus’s saying about those who “gain the world and lose their soul.” Despite this being Harrison’s only song on the LP, the Indian religious influence spilled over onto the LP’s iconic cover designed by Peter Blake and Jann Hawath. Look carefully and you will find four Hindu gurus present (Sri Yukteswar Giri, Sri Mahavatar Babaji, Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Lahiri Mahasaya) and, right in the centre at the front of the picture, a little doll of the goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, health, fortune and prosperity.

But, here’s the puzzle: as you now know Harrison added embarrassed laughter to the end of this otherwise serious and reflective track. What’s going on here? Well, as you will see, on reflection, I have come to think that this laughter is important, very, very important indeed.

It appears that whilst preparing the final stereo and mono mixes of the song Harrison decided at the last minute to add the laughter from a sound effects tape he found in the Abbey Road library. Apparently both the Beatles’ producer George Martin and their sound engineer Geoff Emerick were opposed to this addition but, in the end, they deferred to Harrison who later justified his decision by saying that the laughter provided “some light relief” and that “You were supposed to hear the audience anyway, as they listen to Sergeant Pepper’s Show.”

Now, when I first seriously and self-consciously listened to the LP (it was in 1979—I was 14—in a mountain hut up the Swiss Alps!) I, like many others before me, thought that the laughter must have been added by John Lennon or Paul McCartney as some kind of a snub to George’s, serious, clearly religious, contribution. At least interpreting it that way I could vent my teenage annoyance at what I felt was Lennon and McCartney’s disrespect of, deafness to, and inability to deal with, Harrison’s deepening Hindu faith. When I found out very much later on that it was George himself who added the laughter it became much more difficult to interpret and deal with its presence in some positive fashion. In fact, until this week, I couldn’t interpret in anyway except negatively as an expression of George simply losing his confidence in the face of Lennon and McCartney’s cynicism towards religion and spirituality in general.   

Today, I want to suggest we leave Lennon and McCartney entirely out of the picture, not least of all because, again as I found out only much later on, that Lennon, recalling watching the track being recorded, had said “There is [George’s] innate talent, he brought that sound together. He’s clear on that. His mind and sound are clear” (Ingham, p. 250-251). So, today, I want to suggest that Harrison may have genuinely felt it really wasn’t right to present his important spiritual message without, in what is a particularly (though not exclusively) British way of doing things, simultaneously undercutting it in some ironic, self-deprecating fashion, even though this was to undercut something he was beginning to value beyond measure; “I mean, old chap, one wouldn’t want to be seen as being too serious about religion now would one?”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we follow through on this thought we should get some sense of the basic spiritual message Harrison wanted to get across in this song.

Joshua Greene (who has written a book-length study of George’s religious and musical development) sums-up the song’s basic message as being that: “A wall of illusion separates us from each other . . . which only turns our love for one another cold. Peace will come [only] when we learn to see past the illusion of differences and come to know that we are one.”

That seems about right to me and the lyric begins by stating the problem:

We were talking
About the space between us all
And the people who hide themselves
Behind a wall of illusion
Never glimpse the truth
Then it's far too late
When they pass away

Harrison’s answer to this problem begins to be expressed in the second verse:

We were talking
About the love we all could share
When we find it
To try our best to hold it there
With our love, with our love
We could save the world
If they only knew

Then he turns to us, the listener:

Try to realize it's all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you're really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you

This but this better way of living was and is, alas, rare in our European and American cultures and it is Harrison’s realization of this that gives rise to his penultimate verse:

We were talking
About the love that's gone so cold
And the people who gain the world
And lose their soul
They don't know, they can't see
Are you one of them?

Indeed, that is the question: “Am I (are you) one of those people who can’t see this?” and the disturbing answer (then as now) was quite probably going to be, “Yes, I am (Yes, you are).” However, there is, potentially at least, good news and Harrison delivers that up to us in his final verse: 

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

As Ian MacDonald pointed out, this lyric was read by many at the time, and many since, as having an unpleasant air of finger-wagging superiority and sanctimoniousness — this has especially been felt by many of those who in our materialistic, capitalistic, and now neoliberal culture who have most assuredly gained the world and lost their soul. But, as MacDonald perspicaciously went on to say, the song is

“a token of what was then [in 1967] felt to be a revolution in progress: an inner revolution against materialism. For better or worse, it is impossible to conduct a revolution without picking a side and pointing out the drawbacks of its rivals.”

Following Sgt Pepper’s release in 1967’s “Summer of Love” the revolution Harrison sensed he was contributing to clearly began to stall. Since then, especially with the rise of an Ayn Rand inspired neoliberalism, we seem even to have taken some significant steps backward. But despite this many of us remain hopeful that the spiritual revolution Harrison encouraged is one  still underway, albeit progressing much more painfully and slowly than we once hoped.

Now, at this point I could easily go on to give a stand-alone address unfolding the upfront monist religious philosophy contained in this song, one that is obviously going to be very amenable to many Unitarians and, at the beginning of last week this was my intention. But, in the context of this week’s horrific suicide bombing in Manchester, I want to conclude by briefly focusing tightly in upon what is, as we now know, Harrison’s final, conscious, puzzling addition to his song — that embarrassed laughter.     

As I said earlier, for years and years I’ve only been able to interpret it negatively. So let’s now return to my suggestion that Harrison may have genuinely felt it wasn’t right to present his important spiritual message without, in what is a particularly British way, simultaneously undercutting it in some ironic fashion, even though it was to undercut something he was beginning to value beyond measure.

You see, from my point of view, one of the fundamental problems with religion in its traditional keys (and actually this is also true of most political philosophies in their traditional keys) is that, because it attempts to speak of the ultimate concerns by which any human being who is seeking an authentic way of being in the world must live and organize their lives, many people succumb to the disturbing tendency then to go on to take these personal ultimate concerns in a dreadfully dangerous and destructive direction by turning them into absolute, universal concerns that, come what may, they believe are to govern everybody else in the world in exactly the same way.

Such a person loses the ability to see and appreciate their own highly limited nature as a creature and also loses sight of the truth that the world is extremely complex and plural and that, therefore, there are always going to be many different ways human beings can live out — broadly speaking — good and decent lives; ways that will not always chime absolutely with one’s own.

One highly effective way of ensuring we don’t make this mistake is to learn ways by which we may laugh again and again at our own inevitable failings even as we try to do better each time we fail (Here I'm thinking of Samuel Beckett's famous and wryly amusing line: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.") This is because laughter provides a vital guard against the very dangerous sin of hubris; that is to say the sin of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence in our own religious and political solutions.

And it is at this point that I can return directly to the suicide bombing in Manchester.

What’s so disturbing about the fundamentalist religious ideology that inspired the bombing is not really anything to do with Islam as such — though many people are trying and make it so — but rather rather it is to do with the holders of that ideology’s dangerous inability to laugh at themselves and their ideology — and here we get close to the real problem: HUBRIS. I think that this is what we need to be tackling in our world — the tendency to hubris as it is found in every one of us, in every religion and in every form of politics. And let us not forget at this time that our own culture’s religious and political hubris over many centuries, especially in relation to matters of foreign policy, must be included in the toxic mix. We all, wherever we are and of whatever political or religious persuasion, must challenge the hubris of thinking our proposed solutions to life’s complex and often intractable problems are wholly right and everyone else’s are wholly wrong.

After all these years it is only in the context of this realization that I want to suggest that it may have been precisely because of the hubris challenging laughter added to “Within You Without you” that I’ve slowly come to take Harrison’s message much, much more seriously than I would have done if it had been presented to me without it.

Had Harrison’s religious message been left unadorned (without the embarrassed laughter) it would have been way too much, way too secure, way too assured — perhaps fundamentalist even. However, as the song actually was presented to us fifty years ago his song sits comfortably uncomfortable and very powerfully in the warp and weft of the whole, hopeful record. Harrison offered us a religious message of hope for a different world for all that was not too serious, nor too glib, nor vacuous, but one pitched just about right.

And when we’ve seen beyond ourselves
Then we may find
Peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come
When we see we're all one
And life flows on within us and without us

But don't now forget to ensure that the "Amen" to this address/sermon must be your laughter at/with me for being so foolish, seemingly superior and sanctimonious enough to suggest that the solution to our problems is essentially the same as George Harrison suggested fifty years ago, and Hinduism has been suggesting for some three millennia. This is because without the necessary addition of hubris challenging laughter my words will always risk being just finger-wagging. A world transforming love must always somehow be accompanied by laughter at our infinite potential to over-reach and get things wrong. 

So, finally, thank you George for the song's inspirational message and for reminding us of the need to laugh at it too.