What do The Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper", David Bowie, Punk Rock's year of 1977 and Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" have in common?
Well, they all had their anniversaries in this year of 2017.
But there's more. They can tell us something about how important it is in life to be able to overcome obstacles in your own creative way, and to pursue new challenges...
1. "Sergeant Pepper" and "The Chain"
Let’s start off with the Beatles‘ „Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, celebrating this year its 50th anniversary since its release in Summer 1967. At this occasion, numerous publications revisited the album’s supposed secret messages and its indeed massive impact on Rock and Pop, as well as on the graphic design and the sheer conceptual design of music albums in general.
An interesting aspect that’s sometimes overlooked is the very idea of creating a fake military band and putting them at the front line of attention, having them sing the opening and (near-)closing tracks of the album. Maybe the Beatles needed a break from being the legends they’d become? Having experienced a considerable exposure to the stress and pressure of music business, it must have seem appealing for the Beatles to put up a barrier between their creative process and the expectations of the outside world. The typical Rock & Roll attitudes and gestures, which had been a force of liberation some years ago, were now becoming clichés. Why not leave it up to another band to the fulfill those standard tasks (like a Sergeant would fulfill his duty), while leaving the expression of true artistry to the Beatles? What better way to make a statement about the dilemma of “authenticity versus accessibility” than to frame this album with a (fake) recorded live concert from an imaginary band?
In some aspects, a similar creative process may have been applied when Fleetwood Mac recorded their song “The Chain”, which was released in early 1977, marking its 40th anniversary this year. It is the only song of the album credited to all five band members and is an assembly of different individual musical contributions that initially didn’t seem to fit together.
The songs’ meaning can be interpreted in many ways, for example as a love song. But it is also quite interesting to see the track as a reflection about the band itself. After all, the etymology of the word “band” refers to something that holds things together, so why shouldn’t we translate “The Chain” by “The Band” in this case? Many personal and emotional tensions had built up among the band’s members and yet they tried to make things work, to stay true to the commitment they had made to themselves and to each other… for the sake of their music. That is why after initial part full of reproach and hurt feelings (“Damn your love, damn your lies / And if you don’t love me now / You will never love me again”) they can, at the end of the process, renew their unity as artists, despite having to acknowledge that everybody also has their darker side (“Chain, keep us together! / Running in the shadows”). And indeed in this case, the chain really does hold all those different pieces together… at least for the duration of this powerful track.
Standing up against pressure of expectations may not always be easy, but it can help you to find out what really matters to you and foster it. Whether excessive pressure arises from the outside world (as described for Sgt. Pepper) or from within (as described for The Chain), it does not necessarily have to be the end for your endeavors. Overcoming it can even spark your creativity.
2) Punk Rock and David Bowie
What does Punk Rock’s eruption in 1977 have to do with all of this? Well, some might argue that it was a similar revolution against a society that, despite its proclaimed liberalism, put an excessive amount of pressure on the individual, in the form of social and economic expectations. Others might have questioned whether the radicalism and obscenity of 1977 Punk Rock were really necessary.
Regardless of these questions: It is interesting to note that despite Punk Rock’s refuse of traditions and norms, and despite its emphasis on anarchy and anti-intellectualism, it always had very strong connections to art genres such as Expressionism and Dadaism (which in their time were, in a way, provocative youth movements of their own). Maybe there is such a thing as a constant generational need to seek a complete rupture from tradition?
After all, and despite its negative connotations, “Punk” is about to become a term that also designates anything or anyone who does things differently, who seeks disruption rather than tradition. This trend can for example be illustrated by the term "Business Punk", which is the title of a book about disrupting the beer industry, and which is also the name of a German business magazine and an online fashion store.
While it became clear that his cancer progressed to a very serious and final stage, Bowie put many efforts into the creation of a piece of art that would outlast his death or at least give a meaning to his death that could help him go in piece. This is particularly explicit in “Lazarus”, the album’s first single (and also the title of a musical Bowie was working on simultaneously). As a matter of fact, in “Lazarus”, the lyrics start with “Look up here / I’m in heaven” and the video ends with Bowie disappearing in a closet. But we also see Bowie being productive as an artist in this video, and the song’s title refers to the biblical story of Lazarus who was brought back to life by Jesus. So is it the artist being who we see vanishing here or the human being? And is it a goodbye forever? In “Blackstar”, the title track and other single of the album, one central part of the lyrics quotes “Something happened on the day he died / […] Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried / I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”. Many discussions tried to decipher the meaning of the album's “Blackstar” metaphor, but in this particular lyric context, couldn’t it just refer to something that shines despite the darkness… just like Bowie was an artist who did not pretend that the dark sides of life didn’t exist, but who tried to overcome his demons as well as society’s expectations and achieve greatness nevertheless?
Maybe the legacy of an artist is just like the clothes in a closet that others may still try on, reinterpret and carry on? Maybe Bowie took some comfort in believing that his art would be a part of him that will live on? In any case, the posthumously released track „No Plan“ (also written for the “Lazarus” musical) offers a comforting yet honest vision of hereafter: even though it is the great unknown, it must not necessarily be terrifying. It’s just the “no place” (as Bowie calls it in the song), where all our plans become “no plans”… yet they may live on in future generations.
When facing his own mortality, what mattered most to Bowie was to accomplish this last work of artistry… rather than any kind of wild experience of parties, luxury or vacation. This shows how important it is for us as human beings to be able to love what we do. While pursuing this, it can be a heavy burden when systems, roles and norms become too rigid for any truly personal expression, too narrow for any bandwidth between the individual and the social norm. But facing some pressure of expectations and conventions is not necessarily a final obstacle; finding your own way to get over it and focusing on what you really want to do can even stir your creativity.