Like many of the Beatles' more experimental works, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" isn't only a visual but also an auditory wonder.
First of all, it's written in three different keys with two different beats (meters). And if that isn't enough, it also puts forth some sound techniques that at the time were totally revolutionary. Alan W. Pollack, our go-to guy for Beatles music analysis, has a lot to say about the song's melodic texture. He says, "The music is certainly as mercurial and elusive as the imagery of the words, especially in terms of the constantly shifting key structure and the rhythmic alternation of 3/4 and 4/4 meters." (Source) The rest of his thoughts, alas, are too full of music theory jargon to bring in here (if, however, you're well-versed in music theory, click through and read on.)
The basic case-in-point is that the song jogs around between three different distantly related keys yet manages to maintain a coherent sound without jarring our ears. It starts out in A Major in the verses, merges into B-flat Major in the bridge, and rounds out in G Major in the chorus. Usually, a song stays within one key, possibly two to provide a dramatic shift towards the end, but three is unusual. Not to mention the fact that a symphony of instruments do their part to back up the basic bass, guitar, and drums played by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. According to the Beatles Online:
The Beatles used several effects in the recording studio to create the dream-like, surrealistic atmosphere that surrounds "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." First, Lennon's child-like, high-pitched voice was created by recording him at slow speed before playing the track back at normal speed... In addition, his microphone was put through a Leslie amplifier inside a Hammond organ (Beatles had used the same technique on "Tomorrow Never Knows" from 1966's Revolver). George Harrison played the Indian tambura on the song, an Indian, guitar-like instrument which makes a drone sound. Together with McCartney's delightful bass line and Ringo's timely use of cymbals it all sounded weird and wonderful at the same time. It was McCartney who played the song's distinctive opening passage on a Hammond organ (other sources claim it was a Lowry organ, but the two are very similar). The organ was taped with a special organ stop to create the celeste-like sound. (Source)
The whole song is musically designed to sound dreamlike and psychedelic. While we are totally used to this kind of vocal distortion today—just listen to the synthesized voices of Kanye West or Britney Spears if you want to know what we're talking about—in 1967, this technique was brand new. Back in the day, they made Lennon's voice high-pitched and childlike by using the exact same technique they used on Alvin & the Chipmunks, recording it slow then playing it back fast. This is totally appropriate for "Lucy," since both an acid trip and Lewis Carroll are capable of invoking surreal fantasies of childhood and worlds that only exist in our imaginations.
Lennon's biography says, "Filtered through yet another of George Martin's electronic strainers, John's voice took on an almost childlike quality, as if the seven-year-old who had first followed Alice into the White Rabbit's burrow were speaking through him." (Source)
When you think of the Beatles, what springs to mind? John, Paul, George, and Ringo? The mop-topped British boys who changed music forever? The greatest rock group of all time? A shiny, winged insect?
Let's take a guess: The Beatles are the band that you probably decided you were never going to ever like when you were about eight years old, simply because your parents loved them and anything your parents loved was deathly uncool. And then, one day, you actually decided to pop in a CD—you know, see what all the hype was about—and boom, you were hooked.
Yoko Ono once said of the group, "I am sure there are people whose lives were affected because they heard Indian music or Mozart or Bach. More than anything, it was the time and the place when the Beatles came up. Something did happen there. It was a kind of chemical. It was as if several people gathered around a table and a ghost appeared. It was that kind of communication. So they were like mediums, in a way. It's not something you can force. It was the people, the time, their youth and enthusiasm." (Source)
The Beatles changed music as we know it. They and their '60s contemporaries, like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, wanted to shake things up. The Beatles were many things: pretty boys, trendsetters, socially and politically volatile, thoughtful and profound, catchy and entertaining. They experimented with drugs, played psychedelic rock, made ladies swoon, and became perhaps the most commercially and critically successful band of all time. They sold over one billion records internationally.
After their messy breakup in 1970, all four went on to successful solo careers. To explain the entire Beatles saga would take about 800 pages.
When Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club was released, it came with an innovation that was still quite rare in the music world: full lyrics of each song printed in a booklet. This decision made it possible to think of the Beatles' lyrics as literature. The band members were huge celebrities at this point, and their lyrics-as-poetry were guaranteed to reach a massive audience.
As biographer Phillip Norman points out, "Lennon and McCartney's words would therefore be read and reread by more millions of people than any modern author, certainly any poet could hope to reach in a dozen lifetimes."
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," like we have said, is a feast for the senses. The lyrics are so drenched in imagery and metaphor that you can't help but "picture" yourself right alongside John and the rest of the Beatles in this magical land. Lennon, like Lewis Carroll, was an adept wordsmith, and drew his inspiration from Through the Looking Glass, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and his own personal experiences (most likely some involving psychedelic drugs).
To see just how closely Lennon channeled Carroll, take a look at his lyrics set against the closing poem of Through the Looking Glass (we put the parallel phrases in bold so you can see the connection):
Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she's gone. And she's gone.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain,
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies.
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high.
Newspaper taxis appear on the shore,
Waiting to take you away.
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds,
And you're gone.
A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—
Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—
Long had paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.
Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.
Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.
In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:
Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?
In both the poem and the lyrics we have a boat that is drifting, a magical dreamscape of Wonderland, a phantom-like girl who haunts the writer's visions (Alice moving under skies/Girl with kaleidoscope eyes). There's sun glinting off the slow-moving water, the lazy summer skies, the dreamer nestled in the boat slowly taking it all in. Lennon's "flowers" are Carroll's "children," and all is golden and warm and trance-like.
We hate to bang you over the head with poetry connections (okay, we lied, we enjoy it), but the beats in this song nicely mimic some common poetic meters. To begin with, the verses of the song ("Picture yourself…") are in 3/4 meter, while the chorus ("Lucy in the sky with diamonds…") is 4/4.
What does this mean exactly? Well you just have to break it down into two pieces. In music theory, the numerator (or top number, sorry to bring up fractions, it couldn't be helped) signifies the number of beats per measure (divided from one another by big vertical lines). So, for the verses, each measure, or group of notes, gets three beats. The denominator (again, we apologize for the math) explains what note value is assigned a "beat." An eighth note (8) is held for one-eighth of a second, a quarter note (4) is held for one-fourth of a second, a half note (2) is held for one-half of a second, and a whole note (1) is held for one entire second. The time signature for the verses of "Lucy," therefore, tell us that there will be three beats in each measure, and a quarter note will receive one beat, so basically, there will be three quarter notes per measure.
Speak it out loud to yourself if you're still confused, making sure to emphasize the stresses (the vertical bars divide the measures): PIC-ture your | SELF on a | BOAT on a | RI-ver with | TAN-ger-ine |TREES and MAR |-ma-lade SKIES.
See how that works? In poetry, oddly enough, there is a term that goes with this lilting, DA-da-da, pattern: it's called a dactyl.
The lyrics of "Lucy" follow a roughly dactylic trimeter (or three dactylic feet per line). Intriguing. Well, John was a poet, though he may not have known it. If you need more examples of dactylic verse, check out a poem by Thomas Hood, called "The Bridge of Sighs." Yes, it's about a dejected prostitute who drowned herself in the Thames River of London. Cheery.
Back to "Lucy." The brilliance of the lyrics lies in their ability to conjure up fantastical and real images at the same time. What we mean by this is, for instance, tangerine trees are real world objects. If we saw one, we would most likely recognize it or at least know that it was some kind of citrus-bearing tree.
Likewise, marmalade is a bright orange color, so once again we can "see" the marmalade skies that he describes. Yet we know instinctively that the picture Lennon is trying to create in our minds is a little brighter, a little more surreal than simply staring at a tree under a sunset. Most of us have looked through a kaleidoscope before, so it's probably not too hard to visualize a girl with swirling multi-colored eyes. And you may have never eaten a marshmallow pie before, but we bet you can imagine how it tastes. And then there's that line about the "newspaper taxis," which creates a strong visual image by conjuring two separate visual ideas at the same time.
The product of all these ultra-vivid images is a scene more real than real, someplace a little bit brighter and more compelling than the real world we know so well.