|Release date||Label||Producer||Genre||Length||More info|
|1967.06.01||Parlophone / Capitol||George Martin||Art Pop||39:52|
Okay, so who let frickin' Shirley Temple into the Lonely Hearts Club?
Clearly the most important circumstance that separates Sgt. Pepper from Revolver is the Beatles' decision to quit touring - probably the most famous decision to quit touring in history, even if they were preceded in this by Glenn Gould and Brian Wilson (both at the end of 1964). And although both Gould and Wilson had already announced the Era of the Recording Studio as a revolutionary breakdown of traditional standards, neither of them was really in a position to match the resonance of the Beatles following suit: Gould was appealing to the still large, but rapidly dwindling classical market, and Brian was way too saddled with his "surfing" past to be taken seriously by all categories of record buyers and music critics alike. Pop music had matured immensely over 1965-66, yes, but what was still lacking in the public conscience by early 1967 was a complex, pre-written, unpredictable, multi-layered musical statement that would fully demonstrate the potential of the recording studio and establish pop/rock as a fully "validated" genre. And so maybe Sgt. Pepper isn't perfect - but even if it isn't, that did not, and will not, stop many people from thinking about it as perfect, because in 1967, the world was in sore need of a new kind of perfection, and who to expect this kind of perfection from if not the Beatles?
Of course, by late 1966 the Beatles had plenty of competition when it came to talent and innovation. The underground scenes of London and New York were well established; the Mothers of Invention were mixing pop, jazz, and all sorts of avantgarde into a terrifying melee; Hendrix had played his first UK shows; and even without Sgt. Pepper, we'd probably still have all those many masterpieces of 1967-69, because there was definitely something in the air that did not necessarily have to have the Lennon/McCartney seal of approval. But one thing most of these artists and albums did not have was universal appeal - the ability to somehow satisfy the tastes and demands of every potential target audience, but without making the music seem too calculated and publicity-oriented. Highbrows and lowbrows, kids and parents, girls and boys, traditionalists and innovators - be it Bob Dylan or Brian Wilson, the Doors or the Monkeys, they all charmed parts of their audiences at the expense of... other parts. And indeed, the task of writing something in the "pop" format that could please, amaze, and convince anybody (not "everybody" - of course, all sorts of people had their reservations about Sgt. Pepper even in 1967, but they were pretty much negligible in comparison to the amalgamated general positive response), that particular task was pretty damn hard to accomplish. Go too light and easy on it, like the Hollies, and you won't be taken seriously by the "thinking" audience. Go too hard and heavy, like Zappa or Barrett-era Floyd, and the masses will write you off as a whacko. Try to compromise without properly understanding how, and there's a risk of falling under fire from both camps. But the Beatles, as it turned out, did it just right.Some basic facts
As most people know, the sessions for Sgt. Pepper began after all four Beatles took an extended break that each of them spent in accordance with his spiritual preferences (starring in How I Won The War, writing music for The Family Way, taking a six-week sitar course with Ravi Shankar, and spending some leisure time with wife and son - you probably don't even have to read any biographies to match the activity to the person). All of that, to some extent, got reflected in Sgt. Pepper, which altogether took about five months to record; as a taster of things to come, we had the ʻStrawberry Fields Forever / Penny Laneʼ single released in February 1967, but the big baby was delivered only by the end of April. In addition to the standard lineup (here we go again: John Lennon - horseshoe moustache, glasses, yellow uniform; Paul McCartney, O.P.D. - painter's brush moustache, blue uniform; George Harrison - Mexican moustache, red uniform; Ringo Starr - styleless moustache, pink uniform), there was a large amount of extra musicians in the studio, but, interestingly enough, most were specifically brought in for only one particular track: thus, we have The Asian Music Circle contributing Indian instrumentation to ʻWithin You Without Youʼ , a clarinet trio on ʻWhen I'm Sixty Fourʼ, Sounds Incorporated blowing their instruments on ʻGood Morning Good Morningʼ, a French horn section on the title track, etc. etc.
Much has been said and written on the topic of 4-track recording for the entirety of Sgt. Pepper and the amount of invention and hard work it took - work that still pays off, because it is this boundless creativity and perfectionism in the face of technical odds that continues, half a century on, to give the record its unique flavor; although, to be fair, many other people were wildly and diligently tapping studio potential at the time as well, and contemporary records by Hendrix or even Pink Floyd are not any less stunning in their artistic decisions and attention to detail. What made those sessions special was the equal involvement in studio wizardry of the Beatles themselves and producer George Martin, who was always on site to offer his classically-trained ear and expertise. On the other hand, there was a downside, too, as these were the first sessions where the Beatles barely functioned as a "band" - Ringo, as he himself complained later, spent most of his time playing chess, and neither John nor George had any real fun in the studio: McCartney and George Martin were, in fact, having more of a ball in between the two of them than any actual "Beatles" (actually, despite all the internal hostilities of 1968, even the sessions for The Beatles had more authentic group interplay than the ones for Pepper).
In the end, McCartney's proposed concept - that the band temporarily disguise its identity behind that of the fictitious "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" - somehow worked, as Sgt. Pepper ends up being the least "Beatlesque" of all Beatles albums, sort of an intentionally faceless celebration of the opening of new frontiers in popular music (and the fact that so many vocal parts are flanged, sped up/down, or otherwise "disguised" on the record, only contributes further to that impression). It may be argued that, although this fact also pisses off some fans of the "raw", "collective", "rock guitar" etc. approach, this is what helped Sgt. Pepper acquire such a strong halo - its being somewhat "impersonal" and, consequently, enigmatic, as opposed to Revolver that still had plenty of elements pigeonholing it into the "boy band" category. The inevitable critical backlash that occurred later (and led to the fact that most "hip" people today would rather accept Frank Sinatra as their favorite singer than Sgt. Pepper as their favorite Beatles record) still did not prevent Sgt. Pepper from holding the position of the band's best-selling album of all time (as of now, lovingly accosted by Celine Dion on the left and Adele on the right), although the silly Beatles 1 compilation is hot on its tail because people love the scent of yellow on red.
For the defense
Most of the good things that can be said by one person about Sgt. Pepper were already written by me in no less than three different reviews, but hey, it's the Beatles, and with the Beatles you know there's always more. So this time around, let's concentrate on the little things - let's call it "the search for the cherry", that one special moment that defines and encapsulates the charm of each of these songs (naturally, the charm will never be exhausted by that one moment, but it's hardly worth debating that the Beatles were masters of "the special hook", and these don't always get the proper attention they deserve). Here goes:
ʻSgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bandʼ - Paul's "it was twenty years ago today..." MC entrance, preceded by his own shrill guitar lead (for a record that is often accused of not having enough electric rock guitar, it's somewhat ironic that it opens with the most rocking electric guitar part of the day). He somehow manages to make a parody of / pay tribute to the Grand Announcement style while at the same time making it sound like that particular appearance really matters, by adding a note of hysterical emergency to the vocals. I mean, usually you get bored by Grand Announcements, or ignore them altogether - this one actually makes you sit up and listen.
ʻWith A Little Help From My Friendsʼ - the "dialog" between Ringo and his alter ego, or perhaps those odd little friends of his that naughty people like to associate with chemical substances. When his "what do I do when my love is away?" is echoed by the Lennon-tinged "does it worry you to be alone?" bit, it's like the protagonist is going mental right before our eyes, and the whole thing takes on a fairly disturbing character, if you ask me. (I could easily think of an accompanying video where Ringo would spend most of the time in a straightjacket). Honorable musical mentions: McCartney's bass tone, with those warm zoops particularly attractive on the first, still under-arranged, verse... and those eight bars of "drum soloing" that link the first chorus to the second verse. Who said they needed to be there at all? I'm still trying to figure that out, but until I do, they just sound awesome.
ʻLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ - okay, no single moment here, but how about not a single melodic instrument on this track playing the way that instrument is supposed to play? Allegedly, that's an electric organ that opens the song, but how do they make it sound like a harpsichord? Well, okay, we know they used all sorts of special effects (like Leslie cabinets, etc.) and dicked around with tape speed, but still, how come not a single other song in the world has anything like that sound going on? Come to think of it, the defining moment is probably when that sound joins up with lyrics about "tangerine trees and marmalade skies" - because the music sounds precisely like "tangerine trees and marmalade skies". In fact, I propose that the term "marmalade sky rock" be respected and used in reference to this particular song. What can be more awesome than a one-song genre?
ʻGetting Betterʼ - although this song is lighter and shallower than most of the rest, George Martin's mallet-on-the-pianet thing still gives it the feel of a ringing alarm that keeps you on your toes throughout... but defining moment? Probably the "get-ting-so-much-bet-ter-all-the-time!" resolution, of which you get a preview midway through the song, then spend the other half of the song wondering if they are going to use it once again, after all, as the perfect conclusion, and of course theyare.
ʻFixing A Holeʼ - unquestionably the coolest thing, to my ears, is the couple of Paul's "hey, heeeey"'s that lead into the brief solo: it's his mind wandering, you know, and "there he goes", taking a break from talking Zen-gibberish to us and actually engaging in some mind travel for a few seconds. Some people make the mistake of thinking about this song as "fluffy", just like its predecessor, but I'd say it shows McCartney capable of doing the "amateur transcendental experience" thing at least as good as George (not to mention catchier). He's got plenty of homey-cozy moments on this record, for sure, but he is also quite the master of the flashy psychedelic gesture.
ʻShe's Leaving Homeʼ - don't know about you, but I always unwillingly crack down at the "why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?" bit. McCartney's the astute one - making a song that would equally appeal to the rebellious kid and the conservative (but loving) parents, and the most disgusting thing is, he makes it all totally convincing on both sides (as a one-time rebellious kid and a one-time conservative-but-loving parent, I can sure relate to both).
ʻBeing For The Benefit Of Mr. Kiteʼ - I'm pretty certain that when I was a kid, the "and of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz!" line, with the actual waltz that follows sounding not unlike something that could take place on Walpurgis Night, scared the crap out of me, although I don't properly remember having subsequent nightmares about Henry the Horse, whom I have always pictured as some horse-headed monstrosity rather than a real horse (for that matter, the one thing that the poster from which Lennon drew the lyrics did not mention was Henry the Horse). What other song points out the obvious similarities between a circus show and Satan's Ball so well?
ʻWithin You Without Youʼ - talk about the wonders of good timing: my favorite moment is at 3:40, when all the excitement of the agitated solo break has finally died down, and the unnamed Indian player, having waited long enough (but not longer than necessary), starts hitting the tabla, quite violently at that, preparing to get into the groove. It's like a triumphant "we're not over yet, bitches!" for all those who thought 3:40 might be enough for all those sitars, you know? But we haven't given you the final bit of morale, not yet!
ʻWhen I'm Sixty-Fourʼ - not a moment as such, but just the gradual rise of tension in McCartney's voice is important here. It's just another funny fluffy song, you think? Uh-uh, more like a frightened man's plea for survival. His voice is downright quaking with fear and confusion at the end of the song: that very last "oh will you still need me, will you still feed me" is far higher and far more bitter than whatever it was when we began the song. If you ever think about covering the tune live with your high school band, remember that bit - sing it like you mean it, not just because you are a fan of corny retro vaudeville tunes.
ʻLovely Ritaʼ - oh, that triumphant cry of "RITA!" leading into the piano solo break. It's one of McCartney's most Pythonesque numbers ever, a hilarious send-up of, let's say, "traditional British values", and the exuberant piano chords of the break are the climactic peak. Although the weird tacked-on psychedelic coda, which, honestly, has more in common with ʻStrawberry Fields Foreverʼ or ʻFlyingʼ than with meter maids with little white books, should probably get an honorable mention as well.
ʻGood Morning Good Morningʼ - it's one of those Lennon anthems to stone-cold boredom that he does so well (and boy can I relate!), so I think the best moment here is simply when he starts singing in that tired, cynical, sneery tone of his: "Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in..." Although I'm really a big fan of Ringo's drumming on here: he seems to have locked on to John's bitterness and gives a fairly mean-spirited performance to match.
ʻSgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Ban (Reprise)ʼ - okay, the guitar entry at 0:12 has got to be the motherfuckin' guitar entry of all time. It's as if for the big finale, the Lonely Hearts Club Band are reentering the stage riding a huge Panzer tank. Vaudeville? Not with those chords and tones, friends. There's more than a passable similarity of that passage to the hammering onslaught of Led Zeppelin's ʻImmigrant Songʼ, and that's really saying something: at the very least, it is impossible not to notice how much the ʻRepriseʼ is in contrast with the opening, much "softer", version of the title track. It might be just a warning, a prelude to the big universal statement that closes the album, but whatever be, it's easily the heaviest lick ever played by the band - in spirit, at least, it seems far heavier than the somewhat "cartoonish" heaviness of ʻHelter Skelterʼ. Bizarre. I wouldn't even be surprised to see the Band temporarily changing into Nazi uniforms for this one.
ʻA Day In The Lifeʼ - well, trying to define this song through any one moment is pointless, but the probable consensus would be to cling on to the "I'd love to turn you on" bit, whatever its literal or figurative meaning might have been, or, even more predictably, the orchestral crescendos. Actually, the two are related - the crescendos are a way of turning us on, and the resigned sadness with which Lennon pronounces the words means that he is too well aware himself that not even an orchestral crescendo of such magnitude will be enough to properly turn on most of humanity, who will quickly go back to reading the news about four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, like nothing ever happened. Who knows, though... maybe it's all for the better, in the long run.
For the prosecution
I do agree that Sgt. Pepper could probably be better than it is. My problem is that I don't know how it could be better. So, for all purposes, it might as well be perfect. 'Nuff said.
(Sidenote: there was a time when I used to think that ʻWithin You Without Youʼ could be dropped or at least shortened by a couple of minutes. That time is over, thank God. There was never a time, though, when I'd think that there was too much "McCartney fluff" on the album, and that we should have had more sneery Lennon rockers in place of vaudevilles and orchestrated ballads - but apparently, some people still like to entertain that way of thinking. They just worry Paul, and never ask him why they don't get past his door).
Sgt. Pepper is not the kind of experience that will lead one to discover the meaning of life (which is sometimes viewed as a surprising discovery on the part of the unsuspecting first-time experiencer, who then rates the album a 1 out of 10 out of disappointment). In order to discover the meaning of life, you'd do much better by beginning with a little basic calculus and Hegelian dialectics. Rather, Sgt. Pepper is a study in the construction of an alternate reality, one that would not be too far removed from real life, yet would also differ from it ever so slightly in almost every aspect, like a typical impressionist masterpiece. There's no other Beatles album quite like this one; there's no other album, period, quite like this one, that would construct such an alternate reality with such a great balance of whimsy and seriousness, experimentation and traditionalism, humor and sadness, catchy hooks and tonal atmosphere. In short, it's still a beaut, and if you are somehow offended by the fact that many people still commonly refer to it as "the greatest album of all time", don't, really - the only "negative" consequence of that is that for many people, it will go on to be their first introduction into the world of "serious pop music", and there's absolutely no harm in that.
|Melody||Voice||Mood||Production||Innovation/Influence||Where it belongs||RYM preference|
(May 01, 2016)
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