Scott Freiman says he loves it when he reveals to people “tidbits” about the Beatles “and I hear that gasp from the audience because I’ve told them something they didn’t know.”
Freiman, an internationally recognized Beatles scholar, drew plenty of gasps in June at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas, where hundreds of knowledgeable Beatles fans filled the lecture hall at the Yale Center for British Art to hear his 90-minute “deconstruction” of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Most of those in the auditorium had grown up with the Beatles and vividly remember their first taste of them that night in February 1964 when they made their initial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. But that’s not true for the 55-year-old Freiman.
“My parents wouldn’t let me out of my crib!” he tells me over the phone from his home in Sleepy Hollow, New York. “I was 1½ years old.”
Even 10 years later, Freiman was not cool and not tuned into the Beatles. His first album was by the Partridge Family.
“I knew nothing about rock ‘n’ roll,” he confesses. “I was playing classical music. My parents were playing Broadway tunes and Herb Alpert.”
But one fateful day, when Freiman was 11, his hip uncle showed him Sgt. Pepper and what is commonly called The White Album. (That double album with the white cover is actually titled The Beatles.)
“I looked at the album cover art and the contrast between Sgt. Pepper and The White Album,” he recalls. “My uncle told me all the ‘Paul is dead’ clues and the drug references. I was fascinated. And then I started listening to the music.”
Freiman particularly remembers venturing onto the fourth and final side of The White Album, which includes the darkly experimental “Revolution 9.” “It scared the daylights out of me.” And yet overall he loved that album, which came out in 1968. “It had all these different styles of music. It was a great learning experience for me.”
But in 1967 the Beatles unleashed Sgt. Pepper and nothing would ever be quite the same. “It came out like an explosion,” Freiman told the audience in New Haven. “That summer everyone was listening to it. Sgt. Pepper changed popular music forever. It really did change the world.”
Freiman notes, “This was the first time an album was really considered an album and not just a collection of songs. It opened up progressive rock.”
But when I ask Freiman to name his favorite Beatles album, he pauses and states, “That’s like picking my favorite kid.” (He has three boys, all of them Beatles fans.)
However, Freiman also has great affection for the band’s early albums. “That’s how I learned about Chuck Berry and Little Richard,” he says, because the Beatles did cover versions of songs by those early rock ‘n’ roll icons. “They also could surprise you with interesting harmonies.”
“The unique thing about the Beatles is, every album was different. That’s what attracted me to them: there was this evolution.” Freiman adds: “What’s nice is seeing that transition from Liverpool punk rockers — which is what they really were — to learning and perfecting the craft of songwriting.” He also notes the message of their music: the lyrics and delivery often are joyous, “preaching love over hate.”
Freiman began giving his talks on “deconstructing the Beatles” in his living room for musicians, fans and his kids. This was long after he obtained his B.S. in computer science and music from Yale. In 2012 he returned to Yale to teach a course entitled The Beatles in the Studio.
He has given his multimedia “deconstructions” at many colleges and corporations, including Pixar, Google and Facebook. He always reminds his audiences to check out his website, deconstructingthebeatles.com. “One of the things I love about what I do,” he says, “is exposing this music to a new generation.”
There were a few of that age group sprinkled in the New Haven audience, but predominantly it was baby boomers and they were loving it: tapping their feet to the musical snippets, sometimes closing their eyes and nodding their heads.
Along with the Pepper music they got those “tidbits.” Example: Paul McCartney got the Sgt. Pepper title when he saw salt and pepper shakers on an airplane.
Here’s another: “When John (Lennon) and Paul showed Ringo (Starr) the song they had written for him to sing on the album, ‘A Little Help From My Friends,’ Ringo had two problems with it. The original first line was: ‘What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you throw tomatoes at me?’ The Beatles had been pelted with jellybeans on tour and Ringo said, ‘I don’t want to be pelted with tomatoes!’ So it became: ‘would you stand up and walk out on me?’ And the last note, with the word ‘friends’ being high; Ringo said, ‘There’s no way I can hit that note.’ Paul got up to the microphone with him, rooting him on, and Ringo nailed it. And so you can say: Ringo got high with a little help from his friends!”
As a longtime Beatlemaniac, I was hearing things I had never known. I did already know this tidbit which Freiman dropped during his show: “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is not about LSD. “It was about Lucy O’Donnell, the girl who sat next to John’s son, Julian, at school. One day Julian came home with a painting and John asked, ‘What is it?’ Julian said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds.’ ” (Freiman showed us the painting during his presentation.)
Freiman believes Beatles music will never become obsolete. “It will be like Bach and Beethoven and Coltrane and Gershwin. It won’t age.”