Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)


(Parlophone/Capitol)

!!! 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.]

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