Saturday, October 15, 2011
The Beatles -- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Man, 44 years can create some dissonance. Maybe you've heard a cover of The Beatles' song, "It's Getting Better" at the end of certain commercials. This song is from their Sgt. Pepper album, and the lyric the commercials use is "I have to admit, it's getting better/it's getting better all the time." People smile as they interact with the product the commercial is promoting, and everyone is happy. So on the actual, original recording, what is the back up vocal after this line?
It can't get no worse!
The song also features the line, "I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man, I was mean, but I'm changing my scene/And I'm doing the best that I can." This would have been the perfect line to sell cars and TV's, and I really don't know why they cut it out of the commercials, too.
Anyway, my point is that after 44 years of people calling Sgt. Pepper "the greatest album ever made" and "a psychodelic masterpiece," what the heck is it? Is it what everyone remembers it as? Has it made history, or is it what history has made it to be?
Well lets talk about what I think this album's strongest point is first:
There is always a lot going on. The Beatles and "fifth Beatle," producer George Martin, put a ton of work in recording and adding odd sounds, cutting up and splicing tape, and generally being as different as possible whenever appropriate. This was a pretty original approach 44 years ago, and most pop music these days is just a keyboard, a beat, maybe a sample, and some vocals, so in a way the Sgt. Pepper approach is still original. I've only given three "10's" in this review series, and two of those were given to what is essentially a double album, The Appleseed Cast's Low Level Owl. The Appleseed Cast follow a similar approach in creating a full sound, except instead of whimsy, which The Beatles employ on Sgt. Pepper, The Appleseed Cast employ a type of dramatic ephemerality. The lyrics:
"Sowed a broken blue ocean with old wire hands/found in vacant lots, the lonely shells of flowered plans/outside there for nothing/wives and lovers in ageless sorrow/on now to the wasted rooms and gardens and stricken yards" are a bit different from "Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain/ Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies/ Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers/ That grow so incredibly high," but does the seriousness really best the surrealness, or are these lyrics really incredibly close? What the heck am I talking about?
Trippy music is trippy music, I guess. The crux is, can you keep a cohesive feeling throughout your trippy album, and does it actually sound like something somebody will want to listen to? And will this review only be composed of introductory paragraphs?
Sgt. Pepper kicks off with a cool introductory track, getting the listener pumped for the rest of the album with a bunch of horns and clapping and fanfare. I bashed Paul for being a step back from the rest of the band on my Revolver review, but he really takes charge here, writing and singing most of the songs, throwing himself into the craziness, and doing things differently than he ever has before. He came up with this crazy Sgt. Pepper concept himself, and he never wavers from it. Even his token cheesiness gets subverted wonderfully...but I'll get to that. Track one ends with Paul shouting "Let me introduce to you, the one and only, Billy Shears!" Billy Shears turns out to be Ringo, as Ringo takes lead vocal on the second song, "With a Little Help from My Friends." It's a fun little song that gels perfectly with the feeling of the album, but there's a problem if you were born in the late 70's, or early 80's...
You heard Joe Cocker belt the hell out of this song every week before The Wonder Years, and by the time you got around to hearing The Beatles song, it just sounded like a jokey cover of the one that preceded Kevin Arnold's emotional journey every Wednesday night of your childhood.
Yeah, go ahead, listen to the Billy Shears one:
Anyway, if there is an album to bunny trail on, I guess this is it. "With a Little Help" flows into Lennon's awesomely trippy, (and aforequoted song that involves pies made of a popular confection) "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." This track might fit the album cover better than any of the others, and this is largely thanks to the creepy old fantasy organ played in the background (thanks Paul!) and the lyrics. Of course, now I can't hear this song without thinking of a bunch of hippie scientists dancing to it around an Australopithecus skeleton and a campfire in the African night. Thanks a lot, Professor Manheim! If I link to your book, can I get a cut?
And then that song from the commercials comes on. "Getting Better" is far...better than it's been given credit for in its pop-culture raping. The reason is, of course, the excellent subversion found throughout the song. It could be just a slightly trippy (thanks tambura!(thanks George!) version of one of Paul's cheesy pop-songs, but his lyrics are beautifully black. He sings about how wonderful things are now that he's basically found a girl he can't beat anymore...because...how could things really be worse? Beating women, and beating anyone really, isn't funny or beautiful in the least, but writing a pop song about it that promotional companies will brainlessly institute into advertisements for their products is. And afterall...he doesn't beat the new girl, does he? And then the next song, "Fixing a Hole"...
"I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in/ and stops my mind from wandering/ where it will go" and there's a trippy harpsichord and electic guitar, and a steady beat. Sounds good to me. Somehow no one's ruined this one yet. Sounds just like you would think this album should sound.
Then there's "She's Leaving Home", a weird sort of call-and-response between a sort of Greek chorus singing about a girl running away from her parents to shack up with a guy, and the baffled parents themselves. Oh, and the band doesn't play, just a string section and a harp. It's weird, kind of wonderful, and not something even the most innovative ad man could push a car with...and I'll probably eat these words before Sgt. Pepper turns fifty.
The weirdness continues with the almost frighteningly carnivalistic "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," featuring John barking circus-related terminology over a variety of circus instruments and the rest of the band. Nothing could really follow this except for a weird sitar track from George, so "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is followed on side two by a weird sitar track from George. "Within You Without You" actually features George, a sitar, and a BUNCH of Indian instruments, and it's a pretty hypnotic earbug, which almost makes it easy to understand how it was originally a thirty-minute song, and not the five minute track it was culled down to...wait, a five-minute track?! From the Beatles?! Yes, the Beatles actually get out of the three-minute pop-hit time range on Sgt. Pepper, and that in itself is awesome.
Of course, a five-minute sitar-jam from George can only be followed by a two-minute cheesy love song from Paul, so...actually, "When I'm Sixty-Four" is all shiny whimsy on the surface, but pretty bleak under a microscope, as the protagonist is still wasting away, waiting for an answer from his love at the end of the song. The mood and sound also fit the rest of the album. Past the halfway point, we still have cohesion.
Paul posits another goofy love song that's secretly kind of twisted in "Lovely Rita," about a female parking ticket-giver he is quite clearly taunting. Also, "Lovely Rita" has a killer outro that I wish lasted three minutes instead of 30 seconds, but that just makes me want to listen to the song again.
"Good Morning" follows in a sort of annoying fashion. John's cadence is a little irritating, and the horns are a bit much, but all the ridiculous animal sound effects are fun, and the mood of the album never drops. Plus, George gets a raging guitar solo (I assume it's him). Then we get a reprise outro of the first track, and the album could be over, and just a pretty decent one, but as the sound of applause fades we get Sgt. Pepper's best song, and maybe the best one The Beatles ever recorded.
I think people have probably written entire books about "A Day in the Life," and this review is already reaching novella length, so I'll try to be brief by just making a list of reasons this song works so well:
1. The actual song:
2. It's placement on the album: Sgt. Pepper feels like a closed experience with the intro/outro, and a cohesive feeling throughout. "A Day in the Life" is like finding out you have a secret present waiting behind the tree after you've already opened all the others and thought you were done. It's a Red Ryder BB Gun called "A Day in the Life," and it's better than all the other pretty excellent presents you've received.
3. "A Day in the Life" holds you hostage. The three big orchestral buildups ratchet up the tension so high throughout the song that the final, resounding, releasing chord sounds like the most beautiful sound humans have ever created in the known universe.
4. The lyrics. The first and third verses, John's, sound timely, but have nothing to do with each other. The second verse, Paul's, is a nostalgic look at a day he had as a schoolboy. The combination of outer world and inner experience makes it feel like the song is somehow about everything.
5. That melody John sings in the bridge. People have been ripping it off ever since.
6. Nothing can follow it.
So there you have it. A great song to end a great album. But is Sgt. Pepper pefect?
No, it's not. I'd love to give it a "10" and say it's perfect in its imperfections, but a perfect album doesn't have as many weak moments as this one does (and shockingly, they are Lennon's fault this time). Groundbreaking doesn't mean perfect, and this album is only the former. Even so, it's a great listen--after 44 years of noise have dulled its impact, there's still only one Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (and where would Joe Cocker be without it?).
1967 Apple Corps
1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 2:02
2. With a Little Help from My Friends 2:44
3. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds 3:28
4. Getting Better 2:48
5. Fixing a Hole 2:36
6. She's Leaving Home 3:35
7. Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite! 2:37
8. Within You Without You 5:04
9. When I'm Sixty-Four 2:37
10. Lovely Rita 2:42
11. Good Morning Good Morning 2:41
12. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) 1:19
13. A Day in the Life 5:39