Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) is one of those albums. It was the first CD I ever bought, because somehow through osmosis I learned that it would sound “amazing.” This was back when classic albums were still only coming out on CD for the first time. No one talked about compression then, only clarity. We were neck deep in the middle of a powerful all-consuming phase in the march forward of digital music. Anyway, it was this way that I first heard “She’s Leaving Home.” Not the kind of song you find on those “Best of.. .” collections and up to then that was the only kind of Beatles albums I owned.
“She’s Leaving Home” is a weird song. I thought it back then when I first heard it, and I still think it now. Weird song. Not even really a rock song. I thought it was mad corny, but I listened to that album a lot and I grew to love it. And I still do, now that I’ve realized it’s really camp.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that what made Sgt Pepper’s a great record was its admission of artifice. It’s breaking the fourth wall, in a way, to admitting how identity is performed both on stage and off, by inventing another version of the Beatles—a cheesy hyper-artificial band-uniform-wearing cheery lonely hearts club band. It may feel pretty obvious now—there they are on the cover amid wax statues of various luminaries and celebrities, including themselves!—but I am told that at the time not so much.
It’s like, hey look we’re the Beatles behind the Beatles. We used to play those other people playing at being the Beatles and now we are showing you how we can pretend to be some other people in hopes of eventually becoming ourselves. But who then, are the Beatles behind those Beatles? “Beatles” becomes an empty signifier. A sign inside a sign inside a sign
To this end, to me, the weird corniness of “She’s Leaving Home” comes from its perfect ability to stand for its own artifice. It is melodramatic. The strings—arching sharply when McCartney’s give the sorrowfully flat line “Our baby’s gone. .”—are certainly excessive. It’s got a harp lilting like some little kid’s image of heaven, for fuck’s sake! The girl is “clutching her handkerchief. . .” The mother breaks down at the top of the stairs. It is the realm of deep cliché. But still, the multi-vocality of the song gives is another dimension.. The voice of the parents in the refrain, “We gave her most of our lives / Sacrificed most of ours lives” etc. . . juxtaposed with the “She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years” when the girl clearly lives with parents captures an unfathomable generation gap. The earnestness with which the plaintive lines of the parents are sung removes any authoritarian sting they may have had considering the source. Instead, the song conveys a deep inability to communicate between generations, a profound misunderstanding that might never be overcome. The parents’ concern and bewilderment feels genuine and not played to mock their “squareness.” The mournful way McCartney delivers “How could she do this to me?” goes a long way in carrying that too.
The song speaks of a counter-culture moment of kids leaving home not by couching it in the rebellious rock garb of feedback guitars, but with a retro-number, a song that some classical music guy once said was equal to anything Schubert wrote. It is almost reactionary, though I like to think of it as transgressive, daring audiences to call it inauthentic.
There is something about the way John Lennon does that first “mmm-mm-mmm” right before the guitar solo on “I Feel Fine” that has long struck me as the perfectly rehearsed spontaneity. The point being that whether he planned it or it just popped out of his mouth in recording, the difference cannot be told in the listening. He sold it. “She’s Leaving Home” is the opposite of that. It flaunts its ornateness. It is otherworldly. Exaggerated. Campy. It may not be frivolous, but it plunges winkingly into an unselfconscious middle-class drama.