December 8, 2020 –
It’s forty years since John Lennon was shot dead. I will never forget the feeling of hearing that news. I was stuck in London traffic, the December rain pouring. It was cold and I was lonely. I’m grateful for the forty years of life I have had since that moment. I have had experiences that would never have occurred to me to desire were it not for John. Sometimes it bothers me, why some of us survive, and others, who often seem the better person, don’t. We do not get to choose. I try to do the best with the gifts I have, and I carry a little of John with me into every creative situation.
“Sometimes it bothers me, why some of us survive, and others, who often seem the better person, don’t.”
My friend Leonard (editor/publisher of the eBulletin) thought this was an appropriate moment for me to contribute something to this rag, perhaps a few words on the subject of the ‘Sgt. Peppers’ album?
Well, alrighty then.
Take the record off the shelf! It is perhaps the most iconic record of all time with the greatest cover of all time. By Britain’s greatest ‘pop’ artist, Peter Blake, working with photographer Michael Cooper. All those ‘icons’: Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Fred Astaire, Shirley Temple intermingled with wax models of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. At the center of the album the men themselves, John, Paul, George, Ringo, The Beatles, because this is their work, their sleeve containing their music. What an exceptional milieu.
‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ sits above the group name, which is spelled out in flowers. The entire thing is explosive, wondrous, decadent.
These men have learned a lot during their time in the spotlight. It’s hard to imagine the ‘Love Me Do’ era Beatles putting Aleister Crowley or Karl Heinz Stockhausen on a record cover, but they haven’t forgotten anything either. Diana Dors, Stuart Sutcliffe, comic Tommy Handley, you can find many relics of the adolescent Beatles here too. The marching drum with the logo, ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ sits above the group name, which is spelled out in flowers. High and Low, Smart and Final, sets the bar. Beat this, motherfuckers!
Turn it over for titles, ‘A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A Day in the Life’. It’s hard to imagine a time when these were just songs, not icons in their own right. Lyrics. The Parlophone logo and another band pic, where Paul has his back to the camera. That’s confidence for you! Doesn’t matter because when you open the shiny gatefold you have the fabbest, vividest band portrait ever. 24’ x 12’, a first. Sincere, shy and humorous. Uniform but not really. Theatrical. Meta.
My boys, my lovely, lovely boys…
Thumb into the slit for the disc itself. What’s this? ‘Sgt. Pepper Cut Outs’. Kewl!! Not sure I will ever cut these out. Wonder who did at the time? Bet they wish they hadn’t. And here it is, the album. Dark, mysterious, powerful; black grooved vinyl. Two-sided. That Parlophone logo again, twice, Thirty-Three and One-Third RPM.
Amplifier to PHONO. Disc onto turntable. Speed on, needle to groove.
Audience sounds. Band in. They sound HEAVY. Heavy drum and bass, heavy guitars, vocals in. It’s Paul. A quick verse followed by a cutesy horn break. Kind of vaudeville, with the band vocalists singing all in together on the chorus. Damn that snare is loud!
The moment two-minutes are up the singer introduces “the singer … Billy Shears!” And the intro track pulls itself up, segueing into a plaintive ballad, sung by drummer Ringo, with very present supporting vocals from the group’s real singers, the titular ‘friends’. It’s a lovely, lonely and vulnerable lead vocal. I want somebody to love. Who doesn’t? The lyric was fresh off the Lennon & McCartney typewriter, less than a few hours old, when Ringo sang it. With a Little Help from my Friends.
This is a mystic river. Spooky sounds and vocals, weird words and a sense of displacement, otherworldliness.
Next song. Whoa … hold on! This is a mystic river. Then McCartney’s voice appears and we have the chorus to a Beatles song. But not for long, Lennon has the reins again and it’s almost making me want to get high again, sixties style… “Newspaper Taxis appear on the shore waiting to take you away…” Oh right,
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. LSD. He’s singing about having a psychedelic drug experience. Great vamp out. Now I’m ready for anything.
Getting Better. This is more like The Beatles we were used to. Great sounds, choppy guitars, warm, roving bass with perfect vocal balance. I’m ready to believe that it is, in fact, “getting so much better, every day”. More mysticism at the bridge with George’s sitar, but it’s short and now we are back to the song. Pure pop for now, people. Pure nonsense.
Fixing a Hole. This is Paul’s psychedelic drug experience song. I’m painting a room in a colorful way… Nice solo, is that George, or is it Paul? Paul was doing a bit of everything in the studio by now. God forbid you were late for a session, Paul would have already played your part.
Another Paul song, is it Eleanor Rigby? Oh no, that was an earlier album. Similar mood, like he had thought to himself, ‘I should write something like Eleanor Rigby’. This is called She’s Leaving Home. The song is evocative of bourgeois suburbia. John is behaving himself, dutifully singing the contrapuntal chorus part. These guys were always so generous when they contributed to the other’s songs. Like Queen. “We struggled all of our lives to get by…” If ever a song nailed the generation gap between the baby boomers and the war survivors that bore them, this is it. Lovely. A three-minute masterclass in songwriting and arranging.
But hold on, because John has the reins now and the band sounds like an entirely different beast. Love the bass and drums on this. More faux-vaudeville but it’s tough and dark. Way out there bridge with Calliope … brought back by da da da dadada, the tack piano brings us back to order as if to say, don’t get carried away, this is only a pop song. But then we are off again into a weird crevice of the singers mind and it’s a fairground.
Suddenly the needle is doing that repetitive ‘ohm/crick’ that tells me the side is over. Side A put forth a lot of ideas in a short time.
Within You Without You. Second side starts out with the sounds of India. This is how George’s psychedelic trip goes. And it’s very trippy, perhaps the trippiest Beatles trip track ever. George has built an Indian ensemble to support his lyrics of Indian philosophy. For most first-time listeners this would have been their first experience of what would become known as ‘World Music’, although not really, because it’s a Beatles song. However they are using their logo as a showcase for music from another world than theirs, which is cool. Having said that I bet it is the most skipped song on the CD version of the album. It’s quite didactic, which I find a bit annoying, the singer keeps telling me what is going to happen to me if I … do what exactly? Join the transcendence club.
Time for Paul to bring us back to a sense of normalcy? More faux-vintage, beautifully rendered of course. “And if you say the word, I could stay with you…” He makes the idea of late-life marriage sound so appealing. The Rolling Stones would have all of the 70s to blow up that myth. “Vera, Chuck and Dave…” Nick Rhodes’ most hated lyric of all time. When I’m Sixty-Four. I’ll get back to you on that.
The next song, Lovely Rita starts out like a Stones song. Then Paul is in, and it’s all a little too cute and cuddly for my taste. When they first came along The Beatles had the knack of making music that appealed to kids and their parents, especially mothers. Lots of Moms and daughters bonded over them; like Juicy Couture. Lovely, of course, perfectly rendered. These guys had amazing taste. Great bass and drums, they’re often underrated in that department, although, could the Beatles ever really be considered under-rated? John leads us out in a super-cool take-out that made me think of The Cure. His voice sounds permanently frosted, as if he got stuck on his last trip. It’s just effects of course but it sounds great, and the ending is, well, weird.
Next song. Farmyard sound effects, Good Morning Good Morning. Great song. “I’ve got nothing to say but that’s ok, Good morning …” John cut us all a break here, if he has days like this then I guess it’s ok that we all do, too. Great guitar break deserved of the adjective BLISTERING. More farmyard sounds to fade.
Paul counts in a stomping drum track, which reminds me of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band reprise, telling us we are nearly at the end. I had quite forgotten about that, is this a concept? Fade to…
David Bowie? “I read the news today oh boy…” A Day in the Life. Is this the greatest song I have ever heard? It’s definitely one of them. The perfect synthesis of lyric and singer and supporting ensemble, “I’d love to turn you on …” An orchestra winds up (Bet that was expensive) and suddenly it’s a Paul song. Ironic in the context. Meta again, a Beatles song within a bigger-than-a-Beatles-song. Sugar with the salt. John takes it back. “Ahhhhhh…” an ever-circling, growing vortex back to “ I read the news today oh boy…Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall… I’d love to turn you on” and the band is circling lower and higher with the orchestra… Hold on! A crashing Bb chord turns off the power. The End.
Wow. The entire listening experience was so quick I could barely type this in real-time. Amazing with so much creativity. A rather annoying loop catches on the run-out groove, like Steve Reich’s ‘It’s Gonna Rain’. Let me get that needle. The disc has stopped turning. The birds are singing and the sun is shining. I guess, I have to admit things are definitely getting better. I’m still breathing within the halo of great art. It will pass.
Is there a more towering edifice in the history of 20th Century popular music?
This is an album built of confidence, wealth and yes, talent. Give a man a fish he will eat today, teach him to fish he will eat forever. The Beatles were taught to fish. Because they were so loved, they got the keys to the kingdom. In truth, by the time they were working on the songs that would make up this album, they were (mostly) serving their own songwriting agendas, but at least they still knew how to best use their talents to support those (other) agendas. The White Album would be next, which really is four solo albums mashed together with a band name on the cover. But that is a whole other listening experience, one that cannot ever be taken lightly.
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