Tuesday, September 18, 2018
The first major Beatles project initiated entirely without the involvement of their late manager Brian Epstein, and the first seen at the time as a complete misstep by critics and the few fans that witnessed it (though time has been relatively kind to it, less because of its actual quality than because it is Beatles product) was the TV special-cum-midnight movie Magical Mystery Tour, an aimless sixty-minute avant garde road film of sorts "written" and "directed" by the Beatles themselves. It's unimaginably odd, and in a more labored fashion than something more professionally constructed and similarly anarchic like the Monkees' feature Head, or for that matter the Beatles' own manic comedy Help!, because Richard Lester and Bob Rafelson were actual filmmakers and the Beatles were not. Handicapped further by its initial broadcast in black and white when its psychedelic textures are intensely reliant on color, the film was immediately decried by the British press and only saw the light of day in America in the following decade when it enjoyed an El Topo-like second life as a stoner cult fixture. Like most films that earn such a distinction, it's bemusing for a time and is certainly something hardcore Beatles fans should see, but in the end it really isn't very good at all, and the band probably deserved some blowback for it.
The music that accompanied MMT was another matter; while far from their most inspired material, the six new songs were generally an enjoyable sort of Sgt. Pepper burlesque or companion. Apart from one modestly brilliant contribution each from John and Paul, it's coasting Beatles, but still solidly good and entertaining Beatles, and the songs found their ideal release in the UK as an exclusive double EP, their second proper EP of original material after the exquisite Long Tall Sally three years earlier. In 1967 and today, the EP release is the ideal way to hear this material, but over in America, where Capitol and United Artists had made a habit of filling out Beatles soundtracks with instrumental scoring of little interest to teenage fans, consumer advocacy abruptly became the order of the day. Capitol ended up piling all of the new soundtrack songs on Side One of a "new" LP and neatly rounding out the rest with everything else the Beatles had released in the calendar year of 1967, meaning the three singles that were neither on Sgt. Pepper nor part of the Magical Mystery Tour TV project. (This amounted to five songs because the b-side of "Hello Goodbye" was MMT's "I Am the Walrus.") In the years that followed, the resulting package became popular enough as an import in the UK that it eventually became the definitive, "canonical" release of these songs in the standardized Beatles catalog... but it's revisionist history to regard it as an actual studio album, situated between Pepper and the White Album.
Yet according to Apple Records, revisionist history wins the day; the Beatles' own label now views this release as part of the "core catalog," which is unfortunate because as an album it's a woefully inadequate experience that does no favors to the better material it contains, and comes off as a grab bag; much like the rest of the U.S.-only Beatles albums like Beatles VI and Hey Jude, its primary function now is nostalgia for listeners who are either old enough to have grown up with these configurations or grew up cheap enough (a la yours truly) to be stuck with yard sale LPs rather than compact discs. In order to conform with the Beatles' own specifically ordained status quo and for the ease of cataloging their main releases, I'm listing this as a studio album, but it should be noted that -- in 1967, in Great Britain -- it was originally no such thing by either planning or happenstance. And the crudeness is obvious when you compare the album's sequencing, construction and logic to any of the LPs the Beatles and George Martin actually crafted (solely excluding Yellow Submarine).
All that said, as I write this and for the past thirty-odd years, the Magical Mystery Tour album is the way most listeners come to know this music, so it's the most logical place to tackle the songs therein. Four of the six cuts from the film would be middle-tier Beatles filler in any other context, but collectively they do function well as a kind of sardonic rebuke to the psychedelic period, and George Martin as usual uses them as a springboard for some engagingly neat tricks and genuine experimentation. Written by the entire band, the elevator music instrumental "Flying" is the most significant, and successful, of the record's disorienting mood pieces, designed for a discolored travelogue montage in the film and cresting along with choral melodies and unusual organ sounds before closing with a mellotron drone likely too oppressive for the easy-listening set.
Moodier yet, and also scarier, is George's repetitive, hypnotic "Blue Jay Way," a pure-atmosphere song that's actually about something as mundane as friends getting misdirected while trying to find the house, but treated with actively terrifying effects on the backing vocals, disruptive phasing on the drums and the "Flying" organ converted to a funeral setting. Harrison also sings it exceptionally well, gradually locating a pleading and despair in his voice that would seldom find vent until much later in his solo career. The song has none of the philosophical heft of "Within You, Without You" or even "Taxman" and it doesn't give much evidence that Harrison took the Magical Mystery Tour project all that seriously, but it's a damn sight better than "Only a Northern Song," and few Beatles recordings are creepier... though one of its strongest competitors is trailing just two cuts behind. Buried under its spectacular procession of effects and chaotic embellishments, Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" is something like a passage from In His Own Write set to a hard rock backing, a brilliantly playful succession of surrealist images that serves as a semi-sequel to "Strawberry Fields Forever" in its wildly ambitious production as well as its harking back to its composer's childhood (via his fixation on the works of Lewis Carroll) while also providing some of the first evidence of John's gradual emergence out of his two-year funk, and a return to writing meaningful material for the Beatles. It's the best of the film songs, nearly by default, and one of the Beatles' most challenging and multifaceted recordings. And it too, whispers and buried vocals and deathly chanting and all, is magnificently eerie.
Eerie, too, is Paul's remarkably dark character sketch "The Fool on the Hill," a song too smart and uncharacteristic to have gotten itself buried in such an obscure spot in the Beatles' discography. Away from the comfortable scholarship of "Eleanor Rigby" or the self-deprecation of Lennon's similar outcast in "Nowhere Man," McCartney casts a pall over this stark, mysterious portrait of an inexplicable menace with an unforgiving circular melody. The hero, or villain, of this song has no great power beyond his ability to unnerve by his mere solitary presence, and Paul skillfully weaves a narrative of a weakness that the Fool exposes like the silent Holy Man in Black Narcissus: "they can tell what he wants to do." The lyric does stumble toward the end by making its imagery unnecessarily concrete: "they don't like him," or worse yet, "he knows that they're the fools." Nevertheless, its unresolved darkness, and Paul's obvious belief in the song's depth and beauty, give it a spiritual essence and enigma that make it stand out far beyond anything else here save the very different but equally provocative "Walrus."
Apart from "The Fool on the Hill," Paul's contributions aren't quite up to his efforts on the last two albums, even though he almost single-handedly initiated the TV project, but his strange newfound vindictiveness can chill you a bit, especially as he seems to be openly rejecting the personage he'd just embraced on Pepper with songs like "Lovely Rita" and "When I'm Sixty-Four." Such pleasantness is temporarily behind us; "Fool," of course, is not a friendly song despite its oblique, almost stubborn loveliness. And while a very superficial glance at "Your Mother Should Know" or "Magical Mystery Tour" may remind someone of Paul's typical pro-granny BBC gregariousness, both are in fact among his most steely-eyed, nasty little compositions, carrying forward perhaps from the more pointed humor of "Paperback Writer"; had he spent a bit more time fleshing them out they could conjure up the upended kiddie sarcasm of Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein. "Your Mother Should Know" is, in the end, a bit lazy and bored-sounding (though the corresponding sequence in the film, with the Beatles doing a very stilted MGM-style cabaret dance number, is amusing) though it's arranged with aplomb and is ruthlessly catchy. You need only read the lyric as prose to get the idea of how completely over itself and hipper-than-thou it means to be, and somehow despite the context the title continues to sound like an insult: "Let's all get up and dance to a song that was a hit before your mother was born, though she was born a long long time ago. Your mother should know." We're a long way from the pleasing, even moving textures of "When I'm Sixty-Four," which despite being a verbose joke really got at something about the passage of time; a song like "Your Mother Should Know" isn't reaching for that, or for perhaps anything beyond the audience's recognition that the Beatles are in on the "joke." There's no sense of discovery or fun because discovery and fun are, in essence, being mocked.
The title cut seems instantly disposable by design, molded by Paul's bombastic lampooning and a suggestion of menace -- "coming to take you away" -- that locates the dark side of the "we'd like to take you home with us" declaration on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Indeed, this song is thematically a rewrite of that one, albeit considerably less cuddly; one thing that runs through the entire Magical Mystery Tour project is a pointed absence of the Beatles' usual warmth, as if they're bent on becoming ruthless satirists of their own boredom. The work doesn't seem drug-addled at all, like Revolver sometimes did, and the frequently snotty tone would end up serving them well on their next major project. In music and film both, it's frequently hard to understand what tone the Beatles are actually driving at, which is unsettling; a full-on glimpse in their collective psyches seems to suggest that they are not really figures for us to trust with our hearts and minds at this point. This emotional aloofness has its place but it certainly undercuts the content of the second half of the record, which despite all dating from slightly earlier in the same year comes off as virtually incompatible.
Capitol opens Side Two with what was then the newest Beatles hit and all but inarguably the worst single they ever released, "Hello Goodbye." You wonder how it existed on the other side of a 45 with "I Am the Walrus" without causing some sort of a combustion. This is a song even less carefully thought-out than "Your Mother Should Know," although the band and Martin play and produce the living shit out of it, enough for it to practically strong-arm its way to the top of the charts. McCartney seems to have composed the song explicitly just to get the Beatles back on the radio (Sgt. Pepper had no singles and "All You Need Is Love" was already getting long in the tooth) and it is indeed the most nakedly dull kind of empty flexing of pop hook-muscles, matched by an egregiously stupid lyric worse than anything on the band's early puppy-love singles like "She Loves You." But even if it wasn't, producing "She Loves You" as if it were a track from Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have worked, would in fact have removed every ounce of energy from the record; and at least the relationship in "She Loves You" was more complex than an aimless argument over a greeting. As it stands, this is kid's stuff, and awful kid's stuff at that, hollow and soulless (a shameless promo film had the Beatles, with no apparent irony, performing the song in their Sgt. Pepper outfits while hula dancers paraded around behind them). It's essentially a prediction of some of McCartney's worst post-Beatles singles, the kind of material he pushed when he just wanted to demonstrate he could get something catchy and insipid on the radio with a wave of his hand. (The similarly infuriating "All Together Now" was consigned to throwaway status, but they probably could've made that one a hit too.)
In its fashion, "Hello Goodbye" is calculated enough to call the sneering tone of much of Magical Mystery Tour into question, but it has nothing on what Capitol programs next. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" absolutely don't belong here. They are both sides of quite possibly the greatest 7" rock single ever pressed. It feels like a strange indignity to review them as a part of this album, where they are surrounded on one side by a frivolous embarrassment and on the other by an innocuous b-side. But this is the official "home" now for these songs, which rightfully should be heard as a stopgap between Revolver and Pepper while also being a cut above nearly everything on either album. The single marks the specific moment in the Beatles' catalog when their restless experimentation, George Martin's bottomless skills, and their genius as composers of rock & roll came together to create something of a distinct and undeniable piece. John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" is confusing, ponderous, rambling, surreal, and insanely beautiful. Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane" is simply a work of irresistible, sophisticated pop genius which captures childhood in glorious full color and is in its own way as personal as the flipside. The abilities of the two men are laid out perfectly here -- neither ever sang with such freedom and passion again -- with the band dynamic and their relationship with Martin firmly in place. These breathtaking songs and recordings are the essence of who the Beatles were, what they were capable of, and arguably the absolute apex of the heights they climbed. Having them share a record with songs recorded much later, when so much had happened and changed, causes two things to happen: it trivializes them, robs them of their singular entity in the same way that putting the EP songs on the first half of an album violates their essence; and it makes everything else on either side of the record, including even "I Am the Walrus," sound thin and dumb.
Capitol's Frankenstein creation under the Magical Mystery Tour title concludes with the Beatles' big Summer of Love single, the last record they released before Epstein's death, before their India adventure began, before the wheels began to come off their once infallible enterprise. We start with its amusing if inconsequential b-side "Baby You're a Rich Man," a novelty number with lyrics about a man who keeps money in "a big brown bag inside a zoo" that is both the only song on Side Two of this album that fits tonally with the songs from the MMT film and is a clear carryover from John's bewildering run of half-assed lyrics from the Revolver-Pepper era. (His moments of real focus in these years came either when he was focused on something besides being a Beatle, as with "Strawberry Fields," or when he had considerable help and enthusiasm from Paul, as with "A Day in the Life.") In mono, at least, the song is another magical dreamlike George Martin creation, for which it deserves some notice, and John's opening line at the very least is profoundly evocative (just ask Vincent Bugliosi and David Fincher): "how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?"
Martin also deserves the lion's share of credit for making the A-side happen; "All You Need Is Love" was written by Lennon specifically for the Beatles' entry in Our World, the first global live television broadcast, in which they and their producer were tapped to represent the UK and chose to mark the occasion by recording their new single live in front of the entire world. The logistics of pulling this off were nightmarish in expanse, and the Beatles and Martin deserve credit for going all-in with it. Heard outside the context of the Our World telecast, the song seems terribly insubstantial and its awful, wacky title speaks for itself (where are all the people who complain endlessly about "imagine no possessions" for this one?), but one saving grace it has that "Hello Goodbye" doesn't is that it was intentionally written to have the simplest possible language and message for the sake of its worldwide audience... which doesn't make it any more appealing as a song or a record rather than just a bravura achievement. Hell, "Yellow Submarine" was a better novelty song; but what's worse is that a slightly younger or older Lennon could have written a song that would have been worth the whole world tuning in for. What we get in the end is one of Lennon's weakest songs, within or without the Beatles; without the ironic subtext or pot-stoked enthusiasm of "The Word," it's John in preaching philosopher mode with an empty-headed slogan at his side, and the fact that "Baby You're a Rich Man" seems to make fun of the same thing doesn't really help him make his point.
That same sort of directionless contradiction mars this package as a whole. Looking just at the hodgepodge of three A's and one b-side on the second half, the Beatles sound like too many different bands, and not in a great way, cynically coasting then later stumbling over their sincerity but also sending themselves up and then, when the curtains part for "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields," finally revealing a truth and grace that are alien even to the relatively strong EP/film songs on the other side, all of which are -- it must be said -- intentionally serving a narrative and tone that has nothing to do with any of these singles, and shouldn't be considered alongside them. But this problem of identity does seem to be something that temporarily throttled the Beatles just after Pepper; Mark Lewisohn's books document how their recording sessions in the summer of 1967 seemed to completely lose purpose and focus. The garish cover design on both EP and LP says something about how confusing it all must have felt. Are they just being weird? Are they making fun of themselves? Are they being themselves? It seems miles away from the sweet weirdness and ambitious depth of Pepper, which had given them a social status that should by now had still been fresh to them. Were they just that restless? It's as if they are out to sabotage themselves, a condition that Capitol's plundering around and tinker-toying their masters obviously irritates.
Like the film, then, Magical Mystery Tour as an EP and this grab bag of songs from the last half of 1967 -- the pre-Pepper single excluded -- come off as rather cold and forced, if still often engaging. Sonically, at least, you can still count on them; George Martin's production is a delight from start to finish, consistently surprising and entertaining. But that's the kind of thing you expect from a TV series, not a rock album, and in terms of their direct emotional connection to the listener, this is a moment when the Beatles are, to quote another icon from 1967, drifting.
[Contains some extracts from a review posted in 2003.]
Monday, September 17, 2018
The Purple Chick volume dedicated to Sgt. Pepper is the most extensive yet, chronologically, with five full discs dedicated to the album and supplemental content; but it's also arguably -- in 2018 -- the most superfluous, since Pepper is the only Beatles album so far to get a deluxe treatment officially, as of the record's fiftieth anniversary last year. And with that said, genuine Beatles outtakes from 1967 are already thin on the ground because of the changes in the Beatles' working methods. Still, not everything saw an official release in 2017, so from an archival perspective it's still nice to have this material all gathered in one place. In this entry I will do my best to lay out what is still unique to the bootlegs, and what you can hear more clearly on the official boxed set.
There aren't many sources of bickering more iconic in Beatles fandom than the discussion of which classic mix of Sgt. Pepper one prefers: the band-sanctioned mono mix or the somewhat slicker stereo version? There's plenty to be said for each of them, truthfully. I like how much rawer and more immediate the album sounds in mono, but some of its effects lose a bit of their punch without multiple channels to play with; the more robust rock songs, like "Getting Better" and "Fixing a Hole" and the title cut, sound fuller and healthier in mono, but then again, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" -- a song I never fully "got" outside of its reconfigured context in Yellow Submarine -- acquires more spacey magic than it ever demonstrated in the form I grew up with. Speaking of that, for those of us reared on the CD masters, the mono is notable for providing a new way to hear music we otherwise know back to front. I wouldn't go so far as to say I strongly prefer either mix; I lean toward stereo, but I'm glad to have both. The same goes for the attendant single, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane"; both songs sound terrific in mono and stereo, but mono is more accurate in the sense that those are the mixes that became hits at the time.
Among other genuine remixes from the master tapes, we're provided the relevant songs from the 1999 remaster of the Yellow Submarine film, this and that from the Anthology videos, and several available mix variations for "Only a Nothern Song" (none of which make it good), plus a couple of complete variants on "A Day in the Life" providing us with the unedited acoustic guitar intro. The mono disc adds the U.S. promo of "Penny Lane" that adds the closing trumpet solo, a touch (first widely available on the American Rarities album) that I always liked, though others feel it makes the track a bit too cute. Speaking of cute, there's inexplicably a version of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" made apparently for Yellow Submarine and then discarded, with alternate lyrics sung by actor Dick Emery as Jeremy Hillary Boob in the film. Its deletion was probably wise.
Moving on the outtakes, Purple Chick divides them into an outtakes disc for the single, an outtakes disc for the album, and a disc of monitor mixes and other fragments. Most everything on that last disc is only for the most obsessive of obsessives, like the painstakingly extensive documentation of every attempt at a stereo mix for "A Day in the Life" and some out-of-context extracts of George Martin fiddling with the knobs for a TV documentary.
PC covers the entirety of the evolution of "Strawberry Fields Forever," a complex and brilliant record constructed -- though it wasn't really planned as such -- in increments. Unlike the official Pepper box, PC has all of the known takes, including false starts, and like the released version, it restores the beautiful backing vocal overdub to the eerily beautiful take 1, which had been strangely excluded from the same track's appearance on Anthology 2. The slow, lethargic take 4 is the next complete take, and take 6 is a PC exclusive, but it's really just the more widely available take 7 without a few overdubs. PC also separates the drum track used to make the coda and edit piece at the end of the single, and dissects the "fast" version a bit more completely. That same "fast" version -- take 26, in the final analysis -- is an absolute wonder, and was my favorite unreleased Beatles track until it found its way out to the public in 2017. It's amazingly kinetic and now stands as, along with "It's All Too Much" and "Tomorrow Never Knows," the truest piece of psychedelic rock the Beatles recorded. The PC cuts frequently have additional count-in or studio chatter, but for the most part you can now get the essential parts of the "Strawberry Fields" sessions from the 50th Anniversary release.
The creation of "Penny Lane" was a bit more conventional. PC duplicates Anthology 2's offering of take 9 with a different horn section and also has fourteen minutes of the overdub session for said horns, plus yet another alternate mono mix (RM8) with different supplemental instrumentation overdubbed; this did not make it to any official release. "A Day in the Life," the first album track undertaken, is enhanced on the official Apple release -- PC's versions of takes one and two are shorter, though PC adds take 4, a false start, and an early mono mixdown plus an isolated piece of the closing piano chord. Take 9 of the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is the same as the released version except with no overdubs and a longer, awkward ending; this ended up being used on the 2017 discs as well. Neither this song nor "Good Morning, Good Morning" offers us anything here that the official discs don't have. And so it goes for the rest of the outtakes, with PC really just consolidating what was made available on Anthology 2, periodically adding some isolated bits of chatter, sound effects or other ephemera.
The monitor mixes dip into a lot of very minor variants that, again, won't be of interest to most listeners except those who want to research a day in the life of George Martin at the board in the studio. So ultimately, the only thing you're gaining by seeking out the bootlegs of Pepper material is the chance to hear an even more extensive rundown of all of the many speed and performance variations "Strawberry Fields Forever" went through on its way to the final release, and even that distinction is now dubious. But this isn't PC's fault; there just wasn't very much significant material recorded at these sessions that was radically different from the actual releases. And what did exist was mined quite adequately in 2017.
One interesting exception is that, sometime in the late 2000s, several four-track masters of songs from the Pepper album leaked out, which gave the opportunity for straight transfers of the individual multitracks. These are quite fascinating, and not likely candidates for official release, and they will be examined separately on our page of bootleg capsules.
Sunday, September 2, 2018
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
The art of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is not really in the LP itself, it's in the Beatles' ability to turn their eighth album -- their first after their retreat from touring -- into an "event." The publicity generated, reviews exploding with hyperbole and generations raised on the idea that this was unquestionably the crowning moment of pop music, seems as orchestrated as the strings on "She's Leaving Home," because what seemed revolutionary and daring in 1967 can now come across as positively quaint. It's hard to know how to tackle a record with its level of notoriety, and with a legendary status that embodies as much pushback against its pedestal as in favor of it; in contrast the other great '60s touchstone, Pet Sounds, it can be tricky to find yourself in this record.
My first exposure to Pepper (on headphones, at least, which made all the difference) was on cassette in the early 1990s, and while I already knew the most culturally ubiquitous songs from the Blue Album and from the film Yellow Submarine, I recall being genuinely dazzled by how adventurous and ambitious an experience it was, as exciting in its fashion as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" yet in such a different, seemingly more studied and intellectual manner. As I grew older, the record took an almost inevitable backseat to Rubber Soul and the White Album, but it still impressed me, arguably more than it actually moved me. And I was hearing it more than two decades after the fact, with a slew of contemporary references diluting it, which indicates that much of its central appeal is intact when divorced of its original context. There was a time when the cult around the Beatles' particular kind of cute psychedelia in their 1966-67 work grew so noxious to me that it was tempting to puncture the Pepper myth (and indeed, it felt important to do so), and yet the album's charm is inescapable, its joy absolute, its status as a totem and a kind of peak in the Beatles' story undeniable. And after fifty years its sonic vitality, humor and amusement-park eclecticism remain deeply engaging.
Perhaps the simple, earnest nature of the music underneath the fancy wrapping is the reason it feels necessary at times, even for a hardcore Beatles fanatic, to kick back against Pepper's mythos. I tend to think, however, that the stronger discomfort comes from the impact the album had on the industry as a whole and the rock LP specifically, in large part because nearly all of its influence was negative. Laid against earlier Beatles albums, other albums of the mid-'60s (especially soul albums), and other examples of the psychedelic magnum opus that have stronger, riskier ideas that go beyond the superficial dressing-up of a relatively innocuous set of songs, it can be downright frustrating that this record -- fun and ceaselessly entertaining as it is -- is the one that convinced the stuffy larger world that Rock was now Art, in the process pointing the way to the ponderous world of prog rock and emptying out a nation full of crude garage practice spaces in a heartbeat, celebrating the confines of the studio as the inarguable essence of rock. It sounds strange to consider Pepper a masterpiece, which it arguably is, and also be maddened by the fact that A Hard Day's Night (or I Could Never Love a Man the Way I Love You or Forever Changes, if you prefer) isn't self-evidently superior to everyone who hears them both. If you're presently in this mindset -- and hey, I sympathize, as I've gone back and forth on this matter many times in my life -- then maybe it would be helpful to place the record in a more intimate context, to look at it in terms of who and where the Beatles were at the end of 1966.
Beatlemania had hit an ugly dead end in the summer of 1966; between a disastrous tour of the Far East and John Lennon being ostracized in the U.S. by redneck dullards over his mild comments about Christianity, to say nothing of tension with management over the group's airing of opinions about Vietnam, the wealth of success and the terrifying scale of it had led them to exhaustion. At their insistence, then, their calendar was cleared out in the months following their final concert, in San Francisco on August 29th. In the interim, George continued his search for wealthy enlightenment, Paul delved further into the London avant garde scene, Ringo into the beginnings of family life, and John, for his part, actually was prolific in life events during the downtime: he met Yoko Ono on November 9th, went to Spain for his lone non-Beatles acting role in Richard Lester's How I Won the War, and wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever." When the Beatles reconvened on the 24th of November it was to begin work on recording this song and its future flipside, Paul's "Penny Lane," for a prospective album about the band members' collective childhoods. Both songs were lopped off for a single -- probably the Beatles' most remarkable -- and the childhood concept only survived in the ensuing sessions in the form of faint memories of the songs their parents had played had loved, Paul's dad having been a jazz musician, John's mother having been a lover and singer of "old songs." Nevertheless, in both the aborted notion of a childhood album and in the eventual album's loose attempt at establishing an alternative persona for the Beatles, there's no mistaking a feeling of angst among them, a need to escape the image they had spent the early part of their career set up.
Needless to say, they had already accomplished this to some extent with the stark, often foreboding content on Revolver; and you could even read something into the fact that both that album and its equally sophisticated predecessor, Rubber Soul, omitted the Beatles' name on their front covers, as though the band as it was known was something they all desperately wished to escape. And yet when Revolver was released, there was still the humdrum work to be done: the slavish American tour (with only the old moptop numbers in the setlist, save an errant "Paperback Writer"), the attendant PR, the making nice with the mainstream public. When "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were released on February 17, 1967, the Beatles had been quiet and absent from the public eye for six months, a startling lapse in comparison to the breakneck pace they'd been exhibiting since "Love Me Do" four years earlier. And when they appeared on camera for those songs' promo films with mustaches, a commanding maturity and an unapologetic sense of forward-looking weirdness, they managed to instill shock, to become a story on their terms rather than the public's. (See 1966's flood of controversies, from the Philippines disaster to the Capitol Records "butcher cover.")
The response was magnified with the appearance of the LP on the first of June. By taking on the costume of a second, nonexistent band playing old-timey music and vaguely hinting at a long, storied history mostly left to the audience's imagination apart from scattered and cleverly interpolated details, by exorcising their need to be someone else, they were in fact re-taking control of their own lives and careers, and the contrast was stark: no more touring, a greatly slowed pace of recording and releasing, no more silly movies (well, none like Help!, anyway), and a furthering of their legendary stranglehold on quality control and therefore on their own mystique. It seems to have mostly been a coincidence that, by appearing when it did and from whom, Sgt. Pepper wound up serving as the central soundtrack of the Summer of Love, a temporarily world-stopping moment of adolescent peace and celebration, erotic and drugged and, more than anything, liberated. Pepper didn't harness the energy of the moment on purpose, and some could accuse it of unknowingly riding the coattails of the more directly sympathetic achievements of other bands (there's very little "peace and love" or flower power on any Beatles record aside from the responsive "All You Need Is Love," and essentially none on Pepper), but it defined its cultural moment more than any other Beatles album -- perhaps because its acid-tinged wit and meandering philosophies suggested, as the moment itself did, that the future was limitless. The Beatles didn't appear or play a note at the Monterey Pop Festival, two weeks after the album's release, but in the footage that exists, somehow their existence as teen idols-cum-artistic masters seems to float through the entire event, because with the largest global audience any rock band had ever enjoyed, they had shown what kind of expression and invention was possible.
Despite its PR-encouraged reputation as an effortless flowing creation of one wonderful tune after another, Sgt. Pepper is substantially less cohesive and consistent than Revolver or Rubber Soul, not to mention contemporary albums by the Byrds, Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and even the typically schizophrenic Beach Boys. (Brian Wilson claimed at times that one reason his looser, esoteric Smile was abandoned was that, on hearing Pepper, he felt the Beatles "got there first." But where, exactly?) It also isn't really a "concept album," thankfully; the concept is "there" because, as Lennon later pointed out, they said it was. The songs are tough and smartly fleshed-out, hence the inclusion of a lyric sheet, but there's no more of a unifying theme than there is on Beatles for Sale. Also, virtually every book about the Beatles points out the lack of space between songs. This is patently false: the first song fades into the second song, connected by fake audience noise. Then they drop that... and on Side Two, the last three songs segue. And as noted, while the record is certainly imaginative, flirting with gimmicks without falling head-first into them, it can't properly be called "psychedelic"; albums stretching back to 1966 and even late 1965 display the drugged-up, charmingly dime-store imagination of the times, and by this point, a few bands (the Velvet Underground and Love in particular, and the Zombies soon enough) were making art of it in a way the Beatles never attempted. Following a trend would have short-circuited their energy and intelligence, at any rate, and with subsequent work in 1967 they'd come dangerously close anyway.
So what makes Pepper so special and different, then? If you separate it from all the critical bliss and the reputation it's procured, and from such inevitably wanting comparisons, it could be argued that the pseudonym, the throwback quality of the music, and the intense reliance on production techniques were an expression of a need for renewal, a new beginning, or if you're less generous, a lack of confidence. The complete leap of faith into the arms of producer George Martin indicates a feeling that the current crop of songs would work better with more going for them, creating something intended more as entertainment than as the personal, enthused communication of the Beatles' earlier work. Underneath the surface, though, that lack of confidence is the story, and is self-deprecating and moving. Despite everything, Pepper ends up revealing a lot about the Beatles, or at least about Paul McCartney and George Harrison. This is a second relatively lackluster album in a row for John Lennon, locked away in a cloud of weed and acid, though he does offer a couple of touchstones and some worthwhile prompts for Martin to go to town. His inescapably grand "With a Little Help from My Friends" is a brilliantly written sheepish confession of shyness, sung by Ringo -- whose wavering lends it meaning, Joe Cocker be damned -- in the album's most charming, human moment.
It's all calculated, of course; there's none of the kitchen sink surrealism of some other rock albums from the lofty days of '67, and while you could argue its faux-highbrow sensibility (a sort of lyrical carryover from "Paperback Writer") and a lack of compositional playfulness makes it seem cold and impersonal, it would be short-sighted to pretend that the band's sense of celebration and fun doesn't shine through more than ever, set free by Martin's tinkering and by the act of freeform creation, by the shaky but agreeable notion that they see themselves as operating in a new form rather than just rock & roll, which isn't totally true but may have been necessary for them at this point. No Beatles album surpasses this one for sheer immediacy, for fun, for humor, or for the feeling that they would have exploded if they hadn't gotten it out of their systems.
If Martin functioned as a catalyst for Revolver in its eventual form, he's absolutely integral to Sgt. Pepper; Paul's jingle-like ditty used as the album's theme song launches the producer in the establishment of an ingeniously complete world, with crowd sounds and an echoing dance hall completing the illusion. The Beatles continue as a functional rock band but Martin takes them off on a cloud somewhere. It's impossible to imagine Lennon's strained "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" without him; the thin, fanciful song could easily be cloying, illustrating the limitations of lofty rock-band artiness and of Lennon's depressingly shallow mindset at this point, but Martin needs no persuasion to transform it into another "Strawberry Fields"-like soundscape, even if the contrast with the earlier song remains obvious and stark. Later on, it's not so much that "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" are bad, they're just far better recordings than they are songs, and listlessly sung to boot (as is "Lucy"): respectively a lazy collection of rock chords and day-to-day clichés, and a generic lampoon of circus music with words lifted verbatim from an antique poster, both of which might be clever ideas coming from someone who hadn't written "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Help!", but both of them transforming into breathtaking works of crafty production. The collage of tape loops and steam organ tidbits that closes "Mr. Kite!" is a vivid nightmare, a painting caught on tape, and a triumph for the producer.
Paul and George's songs need less help than John's. McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" is a literal oldie -- one of the first songs he ever wrote, revised with new, jokey but witty lyrics -- and Martin rises to the occasion of attempting to approximate the cabaret-like sound suggested by the album's wildly busy cover by Peter Brown. While they don't stand up to McCartney's opus of classics on Revolver, "Getting Better," "Fixing a Hole" and "Lovely Rita" are all delightful. "Better" continues his adaptation, audible in "Here, There and Everywhere" and "For No One," to a kind of hard-won adulthood in his songwriting; you can't picture the teenager of "I Saw Her Standing There" writing something so mature, unsympathetic and uplifting (with the help of John's brutal confessional bridge about wife-beating and his "it can't get no worse" rebuke to the title phrase). "Hole" is Paul at his most eccentric and gregarious, beefed up by one of Harrison's greatest guitar solos. And while "Rita" is a throwaway love song with gag lyrics and a gag porno conclusion that predicts "Polythene Pam" in the Beatles' song cycle of crushes on androgynous figures, Paul brings it in for a landing with one of his best, most winning vocals on record, approaching it with the same urgency he lent to "Got to Get You into My Life" and enlivening particularly at the fadeout, when he seems, for whatever reason, to look up at the same infinite sky he sees at the end of "Penny Lane." Similarly, a sweet and simplistic number like "When I'm Sixty-Four" abruptly becomes sad and gorgeous when the Beatles and Martin know just how to perform and record a disarming moment like the 4/4 takeover on "you'll be older too...", when suddenly a fairly silly tune aches with love and loss.
All that said, for the first and only time, George Harrison steals the record from either of the two main composers in the Beatles. The five-minute Indian dirge "Within You, Without You" is the album's greatest triumph and George's finest song ever, solo work included. Its lyrical concepts are weighty and abstract but impressively eloquent, criticizing the same stick-in-the-mud complacency that puts a fire under "A Day in the Life" at the end of the record. Usually a mediocre singer, George here is marvelously controlled and intense. More to the point, the crew of Indian session players craft an irresistible performance that's fascinating, soulful and rhythmically tricky -- and, of course, sublimely played -- while remaining accessible and perfectly in sync with the Beatles' own sound. (It's somehow much less jarring than "Love You To.") There may be no moment in their discography more purely beautiful than the lengthy instrumental break. Harrison's experiments with traditional Indian music could be indulgent and even vaguely exploitative, but here he strikes the note perfectly, and the presence of this brilliant, remarkable song on a Beatles album is something for all of them to view and recall with pride -- and George's taste for experimentation is, as of now, more radical than his bandmates', which adds to the record's overall legitimacy and progressive vision.
In the end, two songs illustrate the best and worst sides of Pepper's approach, for the way that it blows up the Beatles' magnetism and emotional depth to the point that they are more explicit and bombastic than ever. A sad song called "She's Leaving Home" is attempted and is probably the most atrocious cut on any of the group's eleven proper studio albums. It's so saccharine as to be nearly unlistenable -- Martin's strings for "Yesterday" are comparatively subtle; the "Leaving Home" musicians were arranged and conducted by Mike Leander -- and the sort of thing you hoped they'd never do, but it fits in with the thinking-man's approach to their work because it allows easy interpretation without ambivalence or anger. It's just a sad story told in a direct fashion with no disagreeable "rock music" elements to distract from the weepy violins and projectile-vomit-worthy vocal execution. This is the kind of pop the stuffy elder statesmen could appreciate. Not for them the navel-gazing openness of "I'm a Loser" or the irony-free, powerful declarations of "Here, There, and Everywhere." They prefer an overblown song about a runaway that takes the side of the parents until opining bizarrely that "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy."
Yet at the end of the day, all is forgiven via "A Day in the Life," which snaps John Lennon back into focus at last -- though it's a collaboration, with its bridge written entirely by Paul -- and, while it isn't comparable to either "Strawberry Fields" or "Penny Lane" by a longshot, finds the Beatles taking the opportunity for some kind of a satiric, all-encompassing statement of purpose and rebuke of the very mainstream culture Brian Epstein had once meant the Beatles to infiltrate. It's a chilling critique of "modern life," sung from the same outsider perspective via John as "She Said, She Said" and his other recent drug songs. Paul, meanwhile, mockingly interjects with a depressing portrait of the meaninglessly bustling life of the everyday worker, something from which all four Beatles had narrowly escaped and to which, through their upbringing, they still held much sympathy. Like the closing songs on the last two Beatles albums, it feels like a glare into the void, one without the easy respite of a simple answer aside from the hope of being, somehow, "turned on"; Lennon's wish to provide this to the listener is the subject of the ghostliest moment in his incalculably gorgeous lead vocal, and Martin's stroke of genius of dramatizing the song's mixture of despair and mystery with a harsh, building crescendo of monstrous strings (not once but twice) provides its narrative thrust, even if it fails to make Lennon's vague wishes for escape (not just for him but for everyone) any more conclusive. And Lennon and/or McCartney's famous vocal on the bridge tells the same story in a way, but without words, without even the explicit lamenting of the band's thematically similar "Eleanor Rigby." This is a moment when the curtains part briefly and we're permitted a glimpse of what the Beatles really think about the world they float above and survey, and it's an unsettling and powerful picture indeed... and the sort of thing no other band, no other producer, nearly no other artist, could accomplish. "Tomorrow Never Knows" might have been more jarring and violent, but "A Day in the Life" is simultaneously as beautiful and as disturbing as any song ever laid down in the rock idiom.
The best way to describe the whole of Sgt. Pepper, rather than its bravura conclusion, is as an album of moments. A new listener may latch on to the curious thrill of hearing canned people applaud an unheard singer, or to the flanging on "Lucy," or to the amusing march of animal sounds at the end of "Good Morning, Good Morning," but with time it's the strange asides that you carry with you, the bits and pieces when the Beatles are free and unguarded. "A Day in the Life," "Lovely Rita," "When I'm Sixty-Four," "Within You, Without You" and "Getting Better" all are enlivened by such seemingly trivial bits and pieces, those that make them spirited and human; and it's here also that you can hear why and how the record, from so unexpected a source, infected the entire world for a time, and still in some small way continues to do so. It doesn't present the Beatles as they were at their best, no, but it was created with love of a different kind, with a different purpose at a different time in their lives, almost an antidote to everything they'd been through over the preceding decade. The sad epilogue is that it would be, though not their last great album, their last truly focused, harmonious project: a send-off of sorts to the enterprise they had built. The victory was immense and absolute; the record was beloved, championed, taken seriously as a musical event and a communal experience. By the end of the summer, Brian Epstein -- whose influence on Pepper was admittedly far from great -- would be dead and the Beatles would be flailing.
It seems today that Sgt. Pepper, thanks to its its self-contained day-glo artistry and its effect on the misguided notion of the album itself as the essence of pop music's power of expression, is never judged fairly. It's viewed as either a disgraceful, bloated tombstone for rock & roll or as some sort of impeccable statement that can never be duplicated or improved upon. There is some truth to both arguments, and say this much: nothing else like it exists. Such strong reactions have led to a firestorm of emotions from Beatles fans and it's easy to condemn the people with negative viewpoints both as making too much of a mere pop LP and, again, looking at the album through the blurred glasses of retrospect, their opinions therefore rejected and ignored. More realistically, Sgt. Pepper does not allow itself to be viewed in terms of any other time period, for the same reason that the inflated, cultural "legend" of the Beatles has less meaning outside the '60s, a context that is central to fully understanding them. Pepper is a snapshot of its times and is less rich than other Beatles albums in the elements that produce the music we, in our heart of hearts, adore and return to time and time again. But to beat it down is to stubbornly deny its sense of life and the smiles and thrills it can still generate. It's a classic album, a masterpiece of its form, an entity... but it is, resentment aside, an engaging document of a moment -- cultural nostalgia, maybe by design as nostalgia is what prompted its existence -- and in the end it never claimed to be anything more.
[Incorporates some extracts from a review posted in 2003.]