The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), Part Two

The chariot race from William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959)

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

What adventures await Judah Ben-Hur! When last we left him, Judah had been condemned to a living death as a slave aboard a Roman warship. For three years he nursed his revenge, waiting for the day when he would mete out justice to former boyhood friend Messala, the man who falsely accused him of trying to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. What was it that kept Judah focused during those harsh times? Was it the life-giving water? Was it Christ’s tender touch? Was it Judah’s renewed faith in his fellow man? Hardly!

When the hardened Roman commander Quintus Arrius (steely-jawed Jack Hawkins) comes upon Judah for the first time, he decides to test his resolve. Flinging a flesh-ripping whip across Judah’s back, Arrius is impressed with his ability to restrain himself. “You have the spirit to fight back, but the good sense to control it,” he observes. He also notices the angry flame that courses through Judah’s veins: “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That’s good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”

Hate is what will dominate Judah’s life for the remainder of the picture. However, it’s the degree to which he uses that hate that will allow him to overcome the challenges he still needs to face. Arrius perfectly summarizes Judah’s situation, and those of his fellow galley slaves, by imparting the following advice: “Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well … and live.”

Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is tested by Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) aboard a Roman galley

Through a strange quirk of fate (or act of God, if you prefer), Judah Ben-Hur saves the Roman commander’s life. As a reward for his action, Arrius takes him to Rome to train as a charioteer. Then, over the years, he adopts Judah as a son and legal heir to his wealth and property. But the grateful Judah has other plans. He returns to Judea to search for his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), as well as fulfill his oath to seek retribution against the detestable Messala.

Most viewers and critics agree that the fabled chariot race is the high point of this epic story. Taking nothing away from one of the all-time most thrilling action sequences ever filmed (staged by second unit director Andrew Marton), the chariot race climaxes with Judah’s victory in the Circus Maximus and Messala’s brutal demise.

But prior to the tribune’s passing, Messala makes him aware that his mother and sister did not perish, as Judah had previously imagined. In fact, they are very much alive, if that’s what you call it. “Look for them,” Messala viciously blurts out as he lies dying, “in the Valley of the Lepers … if you can recognize them. It goes on, Judah … it goes on … The race … is not over.”

If Judah had not been radicalized before this point, he most certainly would be by now — and more than willing to take up arms against his Roman oppressors.

The Way of the Cross

Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) washes his hands of Jesus (Claude Heater) at his trial

From the spectacle of the Circus Maximus we move on to the public trial and personal turmoil of Christ at the Crucifixion. Roman Governor Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring) is washing his hands of the matter. We see Jesus in long shot, moving from the center of the film frame to the right.

Similarly, we cut to Judah entering, also from mid-center. He carries his sister Tirzah, who along with his mother have contracted leprosy after their time in prison. Roman soldiers on horseback mount the steps which will take them to the scene of the Crucifixion. Next, Jesus is perceived, again in long shot, as he carries his cross. Cut back to Judah at left with Esther (Haya Harareet), the woman he has fallen in love with, and Judah’s mother and sister.

In the next scene, they are all gathered near the steps that lead to a public square. The shadow of Christ’s cross appears against a stone wall — the wall that separates man from God; from the Creator of all things (as He was pictured at the start of the drama) and from those who have turned their backs on His only begotten son, the Savior of the world. Christ has taken on man’s sins in this moving episode.

There is a quick cut to Judah at center frame, his chiseled features facing to his right and to our left. Judah’s words cut to the bone: “I know this man!” he confides in a voice wracked with astonishment. The camera moves over to the three women, Tirzah at left on the lowest level of the steps, Miriam in the center position (both with faces covered by their wraps), and Esther at middle right, her own face a study in disbelief at what is being done to this humble carpenter before them. Her arms are placed on the stone steps in support of her weight. Esther is powerless to help the poor wretch who carries his own cross. Christ’s shadow momentarily falls on her face as he staggers by.

Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), Miriam (Martha Scott) & Esther (Haya Harareet) witness Jesus’s walk to the Crucifixion

In the next instant, Christ stumbles (the first of several falls). The soldiers respond by whipping him into submission. Judah moves in to assist the fallen Jesus. Interestingly, the cross’s beam intersects the film’s frame; it looms larger than any of the women present, or Ben-Hur for that matter. The soldiers also traverse the frame, larger than life and just as threatening. At the soldiers’ crack of the whip, Tirzah cries out, “Easy on him!” But her cry gets no response. Jesus continues the long trek up the steps to his eventual death.

The camera pans to the other bystanders bearing witness to this painful display, Christ’s Via Crucis. Some of the onlookers express remorse and dismay; others mock the forsaken victim; still others can only watch, emotionless and uncomprehending as to the momentous events taking shape before them.

The camera movement continues, panning to the right, following the crowd as they move forward, ever forward. The camera then cuts to Christ’s footsteps. They are heavy and beleaguered by the burden of carrying that enormous wooden cross. The object’s heaviest section scrapes against the stone masonry as he slowly inches his way upward and onward. The music intones a mournful theme.

Christ carries his cross past Judah and his family

At that moment, Jesus stumbles anew. His left arm, bloodied and battered from the beating he received from the scornful Roman soldiers, prevents him from falling altogether. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Judah takes off his robe and charges Esther with watching over his family. He resolves to follow the crowd up the steps in pursuit of the figure, the man he claimed to “know,” but from where? Under what circumstances could he have met such a pitiable creature as this?

Judah pushes his way through the armed guard, his movements going from left to center, and from center to right — just as it was in the desert sequence earlier on (see the following link to my description of this scene: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/the-view-from-the-chair-walk-of-life-an-analysis-of-two-scenes-from-william-wylers-ben-hur-1959-scene-one-the-water-of-life/). Here, in the “Procession to Calvary” sequence, that doleful theme music (by composer Miklós Rózsa) becomes, in actuality, a minor-key inversion of the manly four-note “Ben-Hur” motif heard at the beginning of and throughout the film. It implies that Jesus and Judah’s situations have been reversed.

The women depart towards the center of the frame. They can no longer be of any assistance, nor can they seek assistance for that matter. Esther berates herself for dragging Tirzah and Miriam to witness such a tragedy. But Miriam is more consoling. “You haven’t failed,” she informs her. It’s not Esther’s fault that men continue to treat each other so cruelly. Why, look at Judah and Messala. Once they were bosom companions, as close as brothers, sharing an unbroken bond of fealty and love. Then, they turned on one another: Messala for needing Judah’s help in fingering the Jewish resistance leaders; and Judah for refusing to betray his own people. Their clash was over politics and religion, ideology over practicality.

The Center of Attention

We come to the center of the square. One observer shouts, with his hand raised mockingly in the air, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Between the crosses of the other two prisoners we can spot Judah, still mingling with the crowd, looking for an opportunity to come to this man’s aid, but why? What does Judah owe this miserable human being? He keeps moving forward, as Christ, who is at the extreme left of the screen, also does.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ burden begins to take a toll on his broken body. He stumbles badly, with the cross falling directly on top of him. He is on the ground, his arms splayed in a posture that will be replicated at the Crucifixion, with Christ hanging from this same cross. Judah is finally able to break through the crowd. He’s about to reach the fallen victim when a foot soldier sideswipes him back into the crowd. Judah crashes into a well (which resembles an ancient water trough).

Simon the Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross to the Crucifixion, as Judah (in the background) crashes into a well

Meanwhile, one of the soldiers coaxes a passerby — Simon the Cyrene — into carrying Jesus’ cross so that the procession can continue on its dolorous way. As Christ struggles to get back to his feet, Judah quickly snatches a ladle and, filling it with fresh water, tries to deliver its contents. They are both in the exact center of the screen: Christ positioned at center-left and Judah at center-right; a complete turnaround from their previous encounter where Judah was in Christ’s position on the ground and Christ came to his rescue from the right.

As Judah bends down to offer him a thirst-quenching drink, he suddenly remembers their former meeting. The expression on Judah’s face changes from compassion to utter shock and recognition. The music also recalls their initial encounter, with the Christ theme gently stirring on the soundtrack. How their situations have changed; how their circumstances over the years have conspired to reverse their fortunes. Just as Jesus is about to drink, a soldier interrupts their reunion (without the need for the phrase, “No water for him!”) by kicking the ladle from Judah’s outstretched arms, thus spilling the refreshment onto the street.

Judah recognizes the fallen Christ as the one who saved his life

Throughout this continuous sequence, director William Wyler has positioned both Judah and Jesus in long view, that is, until the camera crouches down to eye level, just as the two men confront each other in close up. Intruding on the pair, the soldiers manhandle Judah out of their way. Both men stumble to the ground, the symbolism here being unmistakable: each has stooped so low in life — Judah, a prince of his people, turned a slave aboard a Roman galley, now restored to his former station; Jesus, a simple carpenter’s son, hailed as the long-awaited Messiah, now about to be crucified between two criminals.

From this personal abyss, there comes a reaffirmation. In Christ’s case, his death and glorious resurrection; in Judah’s, a reassessment of his life’s work, one dedicated to family and charity toward others. Deprived of the merest hint of sustenance (the screenplay ignores Christ’s injunction to his disciples at the Last Supper: that he would not eat or drink until his task was complete), Jesus marches wearily to his fate.

Similarly, Judah stands at the center of the storm. As he did in the earlier sequence, Judah rises to his full height at far left — the opposite of where Christ Jesus had stood upon quenching Judah’s thirst. In Judah’s right hand we see that he holds the ladle, emblematic of the one that revived him the last time the two men had met. Their positions are mirror images of where they once stood so many years before. Only here, Jesus does not look back, as Judah had done. Christ has left his past behind. He can only march solemnly ahead to a future he knows he must confront.

The sequence ends with the shadow of a Roman soldier cast across Judah’s backside. Two soldiers enter the scene, each on opposite sides of the frame, wearing flowing red capes (the blood of Christ on their shoulders?). Judah is obstructed from view, whereas Jesus is dressed all in white; he remains visible at the center, the image getting progressively smaller and smaller with each step, trudging incessantly to his end.

The next scene takes us to Calvary; a short while later, Christ is no more. A terrible rainstorm breaks out, but in a cave nearby a miracle has occurred: Tirzah and Miriam are cured of their leprosy. Esther is overjoyed. As rain begins to fall, we switch back to the cross where Christ’s limp body hangs. His blood flows down from the cross to a stream below. The stream then becomes a raging torrent, as Christ’s blood, mixed with the water and rain, washes man’s sins away.

Rain falls on the crucified Christ

In the final scene, Judah returns to his ancestral home. He confesses to an expectant Esther that Jesus’ last words were of forgiveness for mankind. Those same words, a comfort in our own hard times, took the sword of vengeance from his hand. A lifetime of rage and hatred has been replaced with absolution and understanding.

Judah is reunited with his newfound family (he marvels at their smoothened complexions). They embrace. The bonds of love and faith have been reaffirmed. In the end, the Christ theme blazes forth, blending with Judah’s theme as well as his and Esther’s love music.

Close-up of the “Creation of Adam” panel, used in Ben-Hur

A heavenly choir proclaims the “Alleluia,” as a portion of the “Creation of Adam” panel reappears. Only Adam’s hand and God’s life-giving touch are visible, a reaffirmation in kind of the bond that exists between man and his maker.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Monsters, John! Monsters from the Id’ — The Brave New World of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (Part Two): Confrontations with Oneself

Scene from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) – the Big Machine

Complications, Complications — Always Complications

It is night at United Planets Space Cruiser C-57D’s base camp. Wary crewmen Strong (James Drury) and Grey (Bob Dix) hear the sound of heavy breathing around them. Slipping by the two sentries, the unseen threat surreptitiously boards the craft. Opening one of the heavy-duty hatches, the invisible being enters the communications area where, it is soon learned, the cruiser’s Klystron frequency monitor has sustained enough damage as to be inoperable.

The next day Commander Adams chews out the two crewmen who inadvertently allowed the menace to invade their ship. He raises his voice at Youngerford (Jimmy Thompson), the poor fellow asleep in his bunk, for having had a dream. “A dream!” the incensed commander incredulously repeats. Yes, indeed, one that will eventually turn into a nightmare. Chief Quinn comes over to inform the commander that, if he skips breakfast, he can repair the Klystron frequency monitor in due course. Adams’ mood lightens at this jocular jibe.

Meanwhile, Lt. Jerry Farman is ordered to stay with the ship while Adams and Doc board the tractor for Morbius’ abode. Farman doesn’t take too kindly to being left behind (especially since he’s certain that Adams will pay a call on the attractive young Altaira), but he obeys his superior’s directive. Both Adams and Doc believe that Robby the Robot may have been behind the break in, although the artificial being’s presence was never reported. That leaves one other suspect to grill.

No sooner do the two officers ride off, when we cut to a shot of Robby playing housemaid. The robotic servant hits a meddling monkey with one of his laser beams, which drives the pest away. Upon the officers’ arrival, Robby alerts them that Morbius is in his study, “never to be disturbed.” The skipper tells Ostrow to wait for Morbius in the living room while he goes to meet Altaira at the pool near the back of her home.

Altaira, or Alta for short, is swimming in something, but it isn’t your typical bathing gear. We can tell she’s wearing a skimpy see-through outfit, with just enough material to cover some strategic body parts. There was no way a major movie studio like MGM, in mid-20th-century America, could get away with having a woman swim in the raw. Again, there’s a mindless 1950s mentality to this sequence (call it false modesty) of an obviously “embarrassed” Commander Adams forced to deal with an attractive young lady in the altogether.

Altaira (Anne Francis) dresses herself behind a red bush

Thinking that she’s dressed only in her birthday suit, Adams is coy about his intrusion and evades looking directly at this vision of loveliness. Alta rises from the pool to get dressed behind a patently fake red-colored bush. Adams takes advantage of the situation by apologizing for his brashness of the previous day. He turns around to find her in a ravishing white gown (the “virgin bride”) with a stunning emerald necklace wrapped about her neck.

Adams finally makes his move as they engage in a deeply satisfying embrace topped by prolonged kissing, certainly a more fulfilling encounter than the one Alta experienced with the overeager (and over-sexed) Lt. Farman.

Out of the blue, Adams and Alta are interrupted by the roar of a ferocious feline (a nice segue to MGM’s logo, Leo the Lion). Not to worry, it’s only her pet Bengal tiger, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting couple. Adams is forced to vaporize the leaping carnivore with his trusty blaster (with animation provided by Disney’s Joshua Meador). Alta is oblivious to the tiger’s reaction. She honestly has no idea why it was about to attack them. Adams takes her in his arms to protect her from further harm. He instinctively senses, as many in the viewing audience do, that the tiger saw him (and now her) as a threat to the peace and tranquility of its world.

Adams (Leslie Nielsen) repels the Bengal tiger attack (animated by Joshua Meador)

In the spring 1979 double issue of Cinéfantastique, devoted almost entirely to the making of Forbidden Planet, authors Frederick S. Clarke and Steve Rubin cite several sources for Irving Block and Allen Adler’s original story treatment (adapted by Cyril Hume for his screenplay). Among them is the legend of the guiltless damsel — in this instance, “the chaste and pure Altaira” who “enjoys an Edenic rapport with the transplanted Earth creatures who roam the lush, forested grounds of [her father’s] home, yet when she kisses Commander Adams for the first time, a change transpires in her relationship with the beasts and her pet tiger nearly kills her.”

This goes back to the fable of the maiden and the unicorn, “which states that only a pure virgin can tame a unicorn” — represented here by a savage tiger (or maybe, in the long run, by the Id monster itself!).

In the early going, when Adams, Ostrow and Farman first visit Morbius in the comfort of his home, the cagey Professor claimed immunity from the destructive forces that once threatened Altair-IV’s surface. Later on, Alta will claim to Adams the same impervious ability to the fiendish creature that still lurks about. Adams doesn’t believe it, and rightly so. For the simple reason that, from here on end, Alta has lost that golden glow of purity, no thanks to him.

Alien Nation

When he re-enters the house, Adams admits to Ostrow that he is quite taken with the girl. Who wouldn’t be in his position? Hmm, this complicates their assignment somewhat. After he and Doc are caught snooping around the Professor’s study by the philologist himself, they report a sabotage of their communication equipment — with Morbius as their prime suspect.

Caught in his own maze of deceit and denial, Morbius finally comes clean about the Krell, the race of intellectually superior beings that once inhabited the planet two thousand centuries before man. He plays a sample of their music and shows the visitors an example of their architecture, i.e. the characteristic doorway and arch. He also informs them that this “all but divine race perished in a single night” to causes still unknown.

Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) in his study, explains the origins of the Krell

The Krell once visited the Earth, he tells them, and brought back many biological specimens, which clarifies the existence of the tiger, deer and monkey. But what were they like? “No record of their physical nature has survived,” Morbius comments, which is just as well. Better to imagine what the Krell might have been like than try to recreate the unimaginable.

This is one of the picture’s finest aspects, the fact that the screenwriters left it to the audience’s imagination to fill in the missing portions of the narrative. It also saved MGM studios some beaucoup bucks, since Morbius maintains that nothing of the Krell’s architecture or industry has survived on the planet’s surface. “Even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair-IV and nothing, absolutely nothing remains above ground.”

Morbius takes the two officers inside one of the Krell laboratories (just one of their remaining artifacts), and introduces them to a teaching tool, the so-called “plastic educator,” a futuristic contraption once used to instruct their young (the atomic-age equivalent of “finger-painting,” as he describes it). Morbius delves into the incredible depth of knowledge the Krell had in their possession, which led to his tinkering together of a cultivated companion, Robby the gregarious Robot. He demonstrates the capabilities of the educator by creating a three-dimensional image of his daughter — “Aladdin’s lamp in a physics laboratory,” in Doc Ostrow’s words.

Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) creating a 3-D image of Altaira, with Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) & Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen) by his side

Today’s digital technology would be easily employed in carrying out the above process, what with the availability of such modeling software as Maya®, Autodesk®, Cinema 4D®, and others. However, back at the dawn of big-screen, science-fiction moviemaking the techniques used to visualize the 3-D description of Altaira (Ostrow’s “Aladdin’s lamp” analogy) was cumbersome and time-consuming in the extreme. “What you see on the screen, as far as the horizontal effect, is only a bare outline of what we could have done,” grieved draftsman Bob Kinoshita in the 1979 Cinéfantastique article. “It was very frustrating.”

Morbius nonchalantly invites the officers to take the Krell test of their intelligence. Of course, the men have no idea that Morbius’ own intellectual capacity has been doubled as a result of his taking the test a second time (his first attempt knocked him out for a day and a night). Doc is surprised that he is unable to raise the machine’s indicator above the halfway mark, despite his relatively high IQ.

Adams meets the same fate, to which Morbius inartfully observes that a “commanding officer doesn’t need brains, just a good loud voice” (which comes to mind when we recall that Adams became angry with Altaira for her revealing attire, and when he chewed out his men for allowing an intruder into their ship). When Adams endeavors to create an image, Morbius stops him dead in his tracks, insisting he’d never survive the ordeal.

Sensing their mistrust of his motives, Morbius changes tactics somewhat. He discloses that he has recently “turned up some rather puzzling indications that in those final days before their annihilation, the Krell had been applying their entire racial energies to a new project, one which they actually seemed to hope might somehow free them once and for all from any dependence on physical instrumentalities.” What this meant is that they would no longer be reliant solely on their machines in seeking further knowledge of the universe.

To movie-goers of the 1950s, Morbius’ disclosure might have seemed as incredulous and earth-shattering as it sounded, a giant leap of the imagination — maybe even more so. But in our time, with the arrival of Web-based systems and the daily usage of wireless products and myriad forms of satellite communication, it leaves modern-day audiences with the impression of quaintness and dull routine.

Morbius now draws their attention to the gauges, whose calibrations “are set in decimal series,” with ten times as many amperes as those preceding them; in other words, “the number ten raised almost literally to the power of infinity.” Seeing his visitors’ startled reaction to this bit of information, Morbius casually inquires if they’d like to see more of the Krell “wonders.” Silly question! Of course they would. Wouldn’t you? It’s what us kids, enamored in our youth of the marvels of good science fiction writing, looked forward to.

Matte painting of Krell ventilator shaft from Forbidden
Planet (1956)

Stepping into a claustrophobic shuttle car with Adams and Ostrow, Morbius suggests they prepare their minds for a mind-boggling “new scale of physical scientific values.” He takes them on a guided tour of such breathtaking wonderment and unimaginable complexity that it must have impressed the hell out of George Lucas, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg, to name but a handful of well-known future filmmakers, to new heights of science fiction fancy.

“A single machine, a cube 20 miles on each side,” he adds, emphasizing the opening and closing of nonstop circuitry, along with their immensely impressive ventilator shafts. Adams asks what the big machine’s intended use was. Morbius avoids a direct answer. Instead, he shows them a section of one of the power units, “the harnessed power of an exploding planetary system” — the face of the Gorgon, another reference to Greek mythology.

The enormity of the sets (mostly airbrushed matte paintings, cycloramas, double exposures onto meticulously detailed miniatures and painstaking optical effects) and the dazzling display of gee-whiz gizmos, circuits and doodads, all tuned to Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic tonalities must have left audiences aghast at the vastness of the proportions on CinemaScope’s wide-screen.

We cut to the men setting up and testing the force field around the perimeter of their base. Cookie approaches Lt. Farman. He’s itching to get out into the boondocks, in search of “wild radishes or something.” In truth, all he wants is to pick up his order of hooch, all 60 gallons of the stuff. In no time, Cookie gets smashed on the booze. “Genuine Kansas City bourbon!” he raves. Fortunately for him, Robby is standing guard close by.

Robby the Robot & Cookie (Earl Holliman) examining the 60 gallons of bourbon

The Robot is alert to a presence nearby, but does not raise alarm bells. It’s the Id monster on the prowl, crossing the freshly activated force field. We can make out the blue outline of a massive form as it traverses the beams. As the monster gets closer and closer to the space cruiser, it leaves some horrific footprints in the ground, coupled by those eerie electronic tonalities. Slinking up the gangplank and onto the ship itself, the Id monster’s bulk makes the stair steps bend and groan under its weight.

Without warning, a deathlike scream pierces the nighttime silence. Lt. Farman immediately reports in to the skipper that Chief Quinn has been murdered; his body splattered all over the communications area. (Yuck, shades of an interplanetary Jack the Ripper!)

Prior to Farman’s call, Adams has been arguing with Professor Morbius about his refusal to divulge any of the Krell’s secrets to the more “responsible” inhabitants of Earth. Morbius feels, as the keeper of the Krell flame, that “mankind is unfit to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power,” which only he is capable of administering (in dribs and drabs, of course). He’s the watchdog, the self-appointed family retainer and the executor of what’s left of the Krell estate. Doc Ostrow sarcastically seconds Morbius’ claim. Only Morbius, with his “artificially expanded intellect … is ideally suited” to the task at hand. The irony of Doc’s crack is not lost on either Adams or Morbius. Indeed, the officers get no argument from Morbius. He is his own judge and jury, in that order, which makes him a most formidable opponent.

Upon receiving the news of Quinn’s slaying, a dark shadow falls over Morbius’ features. At this stage in the story’s outline, about the only thing the philologist can muster is a stifled “It’s started again,” a muted reference to the mass murder of his Bellerophon colleagues two decades prior. His words are seconded by the same eerie tonalities that accompanied the Id monster’s attack on Chief Quinn.

Altaira stands in the doorway, looking intently at her father. What must she be thinking! Is there any truth to the rumor that her lover, Commander John J. Adams, suspects dear ole dad of slaughtering his former shipmates? Could he be at it again?

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Old Rockers Never Die, They Just Flail Away: ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ the Beatles, and the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction (Part Three)

Mind Blowing!

Producer George Martin surrounded by the Beatles in Abbey Road Studios, ca. 1967

From the modal beauty and formality of “She’s Leaving Home,” to the purity and simplicity of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” we come to Side Two of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

If anyone at the time of the album’s June 1967 release entertained such far-flung notions that the Fab Four had run out of inspiration, they were in for quite a jolt. It’s almost considered a cliché that critics and adherents alike held Sgt. Pepper up as a benchmark achievement in the pop-music field. True, the album had a considerable following among listeners and record buyers. In retrospect, many of these same folks looked at this release as not up to the standard set by the group’s earlier efforts, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Many also fell into the trap of reading way too much into its lyrics.

There may be some truth to these assertions. Be that as it may, once we get to the B Side, that illusory “drop in quality” disappears with the next items on the list: George Harrison’s mesmerizingly hypnotic, five-minute-and-three-second “Within You, Without You,” and the rollickingly jaunty “When I’m Sixty-Four” by Paul McCartney. These two numbers are as different from one another as, say, “Eleanor Rigby” was from “Yellow Submarine.” Yet, the words and music for both “Within You, Without You” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” helped sustain the image of the Beatles as modern-day pop purveyors working at their whimsical best.

A lot has been written about the droning, Indian-derived sonic textures for “Within You, Without You.” There’s a quantifiable, trance-inducing aspect to it, a mystical call-to-the-spirit-world ambiance unlike anything that had come before. Harrison, known to fans as the “quiet Beatle,” was speaking out and finally coming into his own as a songwriter. “One of George’s best songs,” John Lennon maintained in the Playboy Interviews. “One of my favorites, too. He’s clear in that song. His mind and his music are clear. There is his innate talent; he brought that sound together.”

Prior to this, George had tinkered with Indian music in his “Love You To” (also written as “Love You Too”) on Revolver, playing the exotic-sounding sitar on that cut, and on Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from Rubber Soul.  At the time of “Norwegian Wood,” George was far from a proficient sitar player. According to Lennon, reported in the Rolling Stone Interviews (1970), “it took some doing to work it in. The instrument was still unfamiliar to George, and John had thought up an accompaniment that challenged his new skill. Trying and failing repeatedly to get the version they wanted frustrated John, but Harrison kept at it, mastered the part, and it was dubbed in later.”

Inspired by his own studies into the music of India, in addition to Moroccan soundscapes, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones experimented with the sitar’s capacity to hold one’s rapt attention in their classic “Paint It Black,” recorded on March 8, 1966 and released as a 7-inch single two months later — over a year before Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” began to take shape.

The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones playing the sitar in “Paint It Black”

With the exception of boyhood chum and former roadie Neil Aspinall, Harrison was the only Beatle present when he recorded the number. On it, he played the tamboura, along with Indian and other session musicians, who provided the dilruba, additional tamboura, the tabla, the swordmandel (a zither-like instrument, reputed to have been played by George as well), eight violins, and three cellos.

Producer George Martin worked closely with Harrison “on the scoring of it, using a string orchestra, and he brought some friends from the Indian Music Association to play special instruments. I was introduced to the dilruba, an Indian violin, in playing which a lot of sliding techniques are used. This meant that in scoring for that track I had to make the string players play very much like Indian musicians, bending the notes, and with slurs between one note and the next” (All You Need is Ears, 1979).

The origin for the piece came from a conversation George had with German-born artist and musician Klaus Voormann, the fellow responsible for the psychedelic cover art for Revolver and other albums. “Klaus had a harmonium in his house,” George recalled in The Beatles: A Celebration (1986), “which I hadn’t played before. I was doodling on it, playing to amuse myself, when ‘Within You, Without You’ started to come. The tune came initially, and then I got the first line [‘We were talking’]. It came out of what we’d been discussing that evening.”

George Harrison taking sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar

 

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

 

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

 

Try to realize it’s all within yourself

No one else can make the change

And to see you’re really only very small

And life flows on within you and without you

 

That’s deep stuff, Georgie Boy! And he was the type to deliver it, too.

The previous fall, in September 1966, George and his wife Pattie had gone to India to study with Ravi Shankar, whom he met in June of that year. “The press had been trying to put me and him together since I used the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ” Harrison described in The Beatles Anthology. “They started thinking: ‘A photo opportunity — a Beatle with an Indian.’ So they kept trying to put us together, and I said ‘no,’ because I knew I’d meet him under the proper circumstances, which I did …. So in September, after touring, I went to India for about six weeks … Ravi would give me lessons, and he’d also have one of his students sit with me. My hips were killing me from sitting on the floor, and so Ravi brought a yoga teacher to start showing me the physical yoga exercises.”

Sitar master Ravi Shankar & George Harrison

“It was a fantastic time,” he went on to explain. “I would go out and look at temples and go shopping. We travelled all over and eventually went up to Kashmir and stayed on a houseboat in the middle of the Himalayas. It was incredible. I’d wake up in the morning and a little Kashmiri fellow, Mr. Butt, would bring me tea and biscuits and I could hear Ravi in the next room, practicing … It was the first feeling I’d ever had of being liberated from being a Beatle or a number … I saw all kinds of groups of people, a lot of them chanting, and it was a mixture of unbelievable things, with the Maharajah coming through the crowd on the back of an elephant, with the dust rising. It gave me a great buzz.”

Consequently, we would expect to get a “great buzz” from listening to this seminal track, the only one on Sgt. Pepper written by the quiet Beatle. George expanded his contacts with Indian personalities, and his knowledge of their music and culture, when he and Pattie, along with Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, flew to New Delhi in February 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Age Before Beauty…

19th May 1967: The Beatles celebrate the completion of their new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, at a press conference held at the west London home of their manager Brian Epstein. The LP is released on June 1st. (Photo by John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

Following on the heels of “Within You, Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” gives the appearance at first glance of being an inoffensive pop confection with an entirely innocent tone and hurdy-gurdy backdrop to match. The quartet of Paul, John, George and Ringo are back, along with session musicians on bass clarinet and two normal-sounding clarinets (that “tooty” accompaniment was composed by producer George Martin).

By all reports, Paul wrote the tune when he was about fifteen or sixteen, and to different lyrics. He claimed that the later lyrics were in honor of his father’s sixty-fourth birthday. “So many of my things, like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and those, they’re tongue-in-cheek! But they get taken for real!” Paul told Playboy magazine in December 1986. “Paul says, ‘Will you love me when I’m sixty-four?’ But I say, ‘Will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?’ That’s the tongue-in-cheek bit.” Oh, right!

Seemingly innocuous at the time, today the words have taken on a darker, dour context, an unintentionally prophetic message about old age creeping up on people and overtaking them in the so-called prime of life:

 

When I get older losing my hair

Many years from now

Will you still be sending me a valentine?

Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

  

If I’d been out till quarter to three

Would you lock the door?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

You’ll be older too

And if you say the word

I could stay with you

 

Will you want a divorce because I can’t (ahem) “perform” in bed as I used to? Could you stand my presence, now that I’m no longer handsome and svelte as I was in my youth? Hey, you’re getting older yourself! So the shoe can be on the other foot! To save money, we could shack up together! Good questions, all! But wait! There’s more:

 

I could be handy mending a fuse

When your lights have gone

You can knit a sweater by the fireside

Sunday mornings go for a ride

 

Doing the garden, digging the weeds,

Who could ask for more?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

Here are my arguments, both pro and con, about the ravages of old age. Why, look at all the wonderful things we can do together, the narrator tells us. We can fix the lighting or knit ourselves some sweaters by that warm fireplace. How about taking a stroll in the park? Trimming the hedges, doing the wash, something, anything? Hey, please don’t abandon me! I’m still useful, even if my back aches like hell from pulling out those nasty weeds. And then, there are all those retirement perks:

 

Every summer we can rent a cottage

In the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear

We shall scrimp and save

Grandchildren on your knee

Vera, Chuck, and Dave

 

Oh, yeah, about those perks….

 

Send me a postcard, drop me a line

Stating point of view

Indicate precisely what you mean to say

Yours sincerely, wasting away

 

Now you’ve done it! You’ve locked me up in a damn nursing home! On the Isle of Wight, of all places! And you’ve thrown away the key! Thanks a lot! I’m here, all by myself, “wasting away,” in body and mind — waiting for you to call, to visit me, to bring our grandkids. But so far, nothing! Nada! Zilch!

As Mick Jagger would claim (in the July 1966 song, “Mother’s Little Helper”), “What a drag it is getting old.”

 

Give me your answer, fill in a form

Mine for evermore

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

When I’m sixty-four?

 

The music’s whimsy stands in barbed contrast to the lyrics’ light-hearted sentiments. This modest ditty makes for a fine companion piece to the A Side’s “She’s Leaving Home,” about a girl who seemingly had everything she could want (according to her parents) — everything, that is, except love.

The next number, “Lovely Rita,” also written by the mop-topped Paul, is about a beautiful meter maid. What is a meter maid? In England, they’re called parking-meter attendants. In our country, a meter maid is a public functionary who works for the city or municipality. This individual is in charge of handing out tickets to car owners who park too long in the street. If the owners neglect to pay the parking fee, and the meter’s internal clock runs out (indicating the time the owner has left to move his car), a fine would be levied.

Traffic warden (parking-meter maid) in London ca. the early 1970s

In McCartney’s view, it’s the same logic he used in conceiving “When I’m Sixty-Four”: “The idea of a parking-meter attendant’s being sexy was tongue-in-cheek at the time.” George Martin served once again as the arranger. He’s also credited with playing the honky-tonk piano. And three of the Beatles scrounged around Abbey Road Studio’s restrooms for the right consistency of toilet tissue in order to play the tissue paper and combs used in the song.

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Moving on to “Good Morning, Good Morning,” this was a one-hundred-percent John Lennon effort. “Effort” is an extraordinarily exaggerated claim when used in connection with John’s compositional acumen. “I often sit at the piano,” he told Beatles in Their Own Words, “working at songs, with the telly on low in the background. If I’m a bit low and not getting much done then the words on the telly come through. That’s when I heard ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’….. it was a cornflakes advertisement.”

A commercial for breakfast cereal as inspiration? Well, why not, but the barnyard noises and sound effects, to include a fox hunt, bleating sheep, a mooing cow, and a cock crowing? Overkill perhaps? No, not really. The chicken clucking at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” segues perfectly into the next to last number, a reprise (at one minute and twenty seconds) of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

No horns are present, as in the opening number. Instead, a Liverpudlian brass ensemble, known as Sound Incorporated, was employed for “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Here, an acoustic guitar and clanging piano lead directly into the album’s pièce de résistance, a highlight to end all highlights: the Beatles’ masterly “A Day in the Life.”

Entire chapters, if not whole treatises, have been devoted to this one song, so controversial and ground-breaking it became in its day and in our own time. Although “A Day in the Life” is the last number on the album, it was also one of the first to be recorded (after “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” in December 1966). Instead of being incorporated into Sgt. Pepper, the studio decided to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” separately, in February 1967, as the A and B sides of a single. After Christmas break, recording picked up in earnest on January 19 with “A Day in the Life,” and continued on until early April. Final overdubs and such lasted until May, just before its June 1 release date.

John Lennon listening to playback, with George Martin at center, Abbey Road Studios, 1967

Because they were recorded early on in the process, “Penny Lane,” a nostalgic refrain based on the lads’ reminiscences of childhood in postwar Liverpool, and the spellbinding “Strawberry Fields,” the name of a Salvation Army home in the neighborhood where John grew up, set the path as to where Sgt. Pepper would tread — with “A Day in the Life” serving as the encore and summation of all that went on before.

News reports gleaned from actual headlines figure prominently in the construction of the initial song. The first story involved the death at age 21 of the Guinness heir, Tara Browne, known to the Beatles personally. “He died in London in a car crash,” John remarked in that 1980 Playboy interview. The other story was “about four thousand potholes in the streets of Backburn, Lancashire that needed to be filled. Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song, ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ that he’d had floating around in his head and couldn’t use. I thought it was damn good piece of work.”

It sure was. Paul’s “little lick” served as the bridge between John’s two verses. Astonishingly, the numbers combined to form a unified whole. In The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record, Geoff Emerick was quoted as stating, “The need for a middle section became apparent. [Paul] offered some lyrics that he was intending for another song. After discussion, they were accepted, as long as the connecting part was very rhythmic. George Martin suggested the connecting passages have a definite length.”

George Martin added that “In order to keep time, we got [roadie and friend] Mal Evans to count each bar, and on the record you can still hear his voice as he stood by the piano counting ‘one, two, three, four ….’ For a joke, Mal set an alarm clock to go off at the end of twenty-four bars, and you can hear that too. We left it in because we couldn’t get it off!”

Emerick continued: “Martin then asked what should be used in those long connecting passages. McCartney answered that he wanted a symphony orchestra to ‘freak out’ during them. Martin disagreed, but McCartney persisted. They compromised on a smaller, forty-one piece orchestra.”

In another account, it was John Lennon who suggested the use of an orchestra. “Lennon’s only instruction to George Martin was that the sound must rise up to ‘a sound like the end of the world.’ ”

Very aptly put!

Paul McCartney conducting the 41-piece orchestra for the climax to “A Day in the Life,” at the Abbey Road Studios, January 1967

Some technical sleight-of-hand was utilized throughout the recording process. You can read about the equipment that was used, the tape splices and editing loops, the laborious electronic and echo effects surrounding John’s voice, the various feeds and feedback employed — all of them fascinating for sound engineers. But all that “tech talk” tends to bog the average reader down and can be stimulating only to those interested in the subject.

For us laypeople, the lyrics are what make this piece stand out from the rest: the way John, as he speaks the words he himself wrote, delivers them in his typically cutting, matter-of-fact manner; Paul, as he introduces his contribution into the framework, imparts a passing sense of relief from the gloominess of the main story line; then John, acting out the dream sequence implied in Paul’s narration, goes off into a wordless “Ah, ah, ah, ah,” his voice rising and falling as it goes up and down the scale, interrupted at length by the rising brass section; John picks up the thread about those potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire; he then makes that notorious crack about how we know how many holes (“assholes,” in many people’s opinion) it takes to fill the snooty Royal Albert Hall:

The Beatles in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, 1963

John:

I read the news today, oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade

And though the news was rather sad

Well I just had to laugh

I saw a photograph

 

He blew his mind out in a car

He didn’t notice that the lights had changed

A crowd of people stood and stared

They’d seen his face before

But nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords

 

I saw a film today, oh boy

The English Army had just won the war

A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look

Having read the book

I’d love to turn you on….

 

Paul:

Woke up, fell out of bed

Dragged a comb across my head

Found my way downstairs and drank a cup

And looking up I noticed I was late

Found my coat and grabbed my hat

Made the bus in seconds flat

Found my way upstairs and had a smoke

And somebody spoke and I went into a dream

 

John:

I read the news today, oh boy

4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

And though the holes were rather small

They had to count them all

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

I’d love to turn you on

 

The cacophonous crescendo (orchestrated, arranged and conducted by George Martin, with an assist from Paul McCartney) shatters the eardrums. The noise continues to mount, rising higher and higher in pitch, louder and louder in volume. It reaches an incredible din, until the final climactic masterstroke sounds: three pianos pounding at the same time; they’re played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans (in some versions, by Martin; in other accounts, by George Harrison) who strike the chords as loud as they can. Here’s where the facts become legend.

“The final bunched chords came from all four Beatles,” confirmed journalist and author Derek Taylor in It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, “and George Martin in the studio, playing three pianos. All of them hit the chord simultaneously, as hard as possible, with the engineer pushing the volume-input faders way down on the moment of impact. Then, as the noise gradually diminished, the faders were pushed slowly up to the top. It took forty-five seconds, and it was done three or four times, piling on a huge sound — one piano after another, all doing the same thing.”

John Lennon’s forty-five second “sound like the end of the world” idea brought to completion one of the most innovative and significant pieces of pop-music ever created by four (no, five … or maybe more) endlessly inventive artists known collectively as the Beatles.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes