Friday, June 2, 2017

It Was 50 Years Ago Today.

On June 2, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

From the moment Sgt. Pepper came out, it was hailed a watershed moment in rock history, with the London Times famously declaring it "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization."

It has long since become the default answer to The Greatest Album Of All Time, much the way Citizen Kane is the default Greatest Film Of All Time. Pretty much every major critical rock poll from the World Critic Lists of 1978 & 1987 on down has ranked it on top, with the epicenter of rock criticism Rolling Stone declaring the greatest album of the last 20 years in 1987 & then as the greatest album of all-time in their much-celebrated list of the 500 greatest albums in 2003.

& yet, in recent years, its stature has fallen greatly. Just as it was once automatic to put it on top of any album list, it has now become fashionable to let it tumble 20 or 50 spots, or to leave it off completely. In the last 20 years, The Beatles' own Revolver has often kicked it off its throne, but other candidates have ranged from The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds to Nirvana's Nevermind to Radiohead's OK Computer.

So which one is it? Is Sgt. Pepper a major cultural landmark or an overrated psychedelic relic?

The answer is as simple as it is complex--it is both.

Part 1: Sgt. Pepper Is Genius.

Sgt. Pepper began in the heady late days of 1966, some six months after The Beatles released Revolver. For the first time in The Beatles' short recording history, there was no new album of material ready for the Christmas season. Their UK label filled the gap with A Collection Of Beatles Oldies--a compilation of hits that itself was never really much of a hit itself, probably because fans already owned most of the material.

Come February 1967, three songs were completed, two of which ranked as their finest work to date: John Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" & Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane." The third song, McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" was fine, but not even close to the standards of the other two. Faced with pressure from their label, producer George Martin was tasked to release a single of new material. In what he later called the biggest regret of his professional career, he chose the two best songs, "Strawberry Fields Forever" & "Penny Lane," & released them as a single. While the long-term has proven it to be literally the greatest single of all-time, the short-term upshot was that The Beatles were back to square one for their new album (this still being the era when singles & LPs were largely treated as separate entities).

With their finest work taken from them, they could have gone into a frustrated stupor; instead, as the story is told, they turned around & began work on the song that many believe to be their masterpiece: "A Day In The Life."

Months of studio time followed. As The Beatles locked themselves into the studio world, the outside world raged on, wondering at their silence. Having retired from touring the previous year, there was little evidence that they were a band, let alone the greatest one in the world.

But when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club's Band came out on June 2, 1967 (& May 26, 1967, in the UK), The Beatles got the last laugh.

They were reborn as a new band--Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--& now the album was the concert. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was the opening theme; "With A Little Help From My Friends" was the call to community (sung by "Billy Shears"); "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" was a trip-within-a-trip; "Getting Better" was their version of The Great Society; "Fixing A Hole" was their retreat into solitary contemplation; "She's Leaving Home" was the generation gap; "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" was the psychedelic carnival fairground; "Within You Without You" was the philosophy lesson; "When I'm Sixty-Four" was the invocation of the elderly; "Lovely Rita" was the celebration of the proletariat; "Good Morning Good Morning" was the agricultural frontier; "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" was the close of the show; & "A Day In The Life" was the epic finale as state-of-the-art Lennon/McCartney rock & roll. Theirs was a complete world that included all & excluded no one.

Sgt. Pepper was NOT the first concept album, but it was the first to be universally recognized as one, given its obvious structure (Sgt. Pepper & his band) & all-for-one spirit. For the first time, a rock album was treated as a single work, played in entirety on radio & studied over headphones, as one would listen to a symphony.

Part of the shock of its quality came from the fact that, for the first time, The Beatles were given control over their US releases such that they could release the same version of an album on both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to this, the American Beatles albums truncated & mixed up The Beatles' music in a cheap ploy to get more albums out of them. Just look at their previous album, Revolver, which was missing three whole songs--"I'm Only Sleeping," "And Your Bird Can Sing," & "Doctor Robert"--all of which were Lennon's, which meant that the album had a completely different (& less effective) shape. Furthermore, with no singles culled from Sgt. Pepper (whereas Revolver contained the tracks of the double-sided single "Yellow Submarine" & "Eleanor Rigby"), it felt more like a single work, with all tracks contributing to a single make-believe concert.

& all of this was reinforced by the packaging. For the first time, full lyrics were printed in an album, encouraging closer readings of the music. The LP pressings also contained little Sgt. Pepper novelty cut-outs that reinforced the carnival feel. & then of course there was the cover, designed by pop artist Peter Blake, which remains the finest album cover in history.

Blake asked The Beatles to makes lists of who they most would want to attend a Beatles show & then took their answers & made the now-famous crowd behind them. Most striking are the wax models of the Beatlemania-era Beatles, looking down at THE BEATLES written out in the flowers below the Sgt. Pepper bass drum. It is with them that the show goes from a concert to a funeral, as The Beatles are reborn as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Sgt. Pepper didn't so much change rock history as much as it broke it in half, perfectly capturing a peace-&-love era right at the moment of its formation, & closing it off into a utopian bubble. Almost all of the albums that tried to respond to on its own terms failed miserably--check out The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request (better yet, don't)--& only further reinforced how special The Beatles really were. The Beatles themselves never fully recovered from it either. Their next project, Magical Mystery Tour, was their first grand failure, while The Beatles (A.K.A. "The White Album") began the long splintering of the group that would continue through the ill-fated "Get Back" project (later released as Let It Be) & the swan-song Abbey Road. Glimmers of unity remained, but they were usually isolated exceptions to the rule.

Not that you can blame The Beatles. With Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles elevated rock music to the level of Art, which was to be enjoyed, ingested, studied, & even revered.

It showed that something as seemingly ephemeral & disposable as rock music could create something that was meant to last.

Or did it?

Part 2: Sgt. Pepper Sucks.

As the definitive Beatles wall-to-wall masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band began falling out of favor around 1987, when The Beatles' catalog was first released on CD. The living ex-Beatles insisted on issuing the albums in their UK formats only, which meant that American audiences were hearing the way they were supposed to sound for the first time. It quickly became apparent that a little album called Revolver could give Sgt. Pepper a run for its money.

That can (& will & is) debated elsewhere, but I've always defaulted to the mystic Beatles' chronologer Ian MacDonald whose must-read analysis of The Beatles (& their music & the '60s) Revolution In The Head posited that song-for-song, Revolver is their finest album, but where Sgt. Pepper beats it is in spirit.

This has always made sense to me. When you listen to Sgt. Pepper as an isolated entity, it works, it comes around, it feels united--as evidenced by when the title song's reprise collapses into "A Day In The Life." But this is as a stand-alone piece. Time has shown the '60s dream-land of Sgt. Pepper itself collapsed into the '70s wasteland of punk & the postpunk music that would follow. In capturing the '60s spirit, it has become a spirit in a different sense of the word: A ghost that is dead-on-arrival in the modern age.

When you try to dissect it, it falls apart. The only songs about Sgt. Pepper & his band are evidenced in the title track, "With A Little Help From My Friends," the reprise, & "A Day In The Life." Otherwise, the songs simply don't hold together. Also, the album suffers from a lot of Paul McCartney. The Side 1 stretch of "Getting Better" to "Fixing A Hole" to "She's Leaving Home" has always bored me, even when I know I'm intellectually supposed to love it. George Harrison's sole contribution, "Within You Without You," also bores me, even though recent criticism has elevated its quality substantially. (I would have preferred Harrison's first song recorded in the sessions, the cynical "Only A Northern Song," which was shelved & finally released on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack in 1969.) What makes the album for me, then, is the Lennon parts: The free vibe of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," the haunting atmosphere of "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!," the anything-goes merriment of "Good Morning Good Morning." The rest of the album I could take or leave.

& that includes "A Day In The Life." I've always found that song boring too--too long, too pretentious, too filled with things I don't care about. It works as a capper, but I'd never want to listen to it by itself. I'd much rather hear the allusion to it in David Bowie's "Young Americans."

& I get it. I was born over a decade after Sgt. Pepper came out, so I wasn't there. But what good is art if it can't be universally understood & appreciated? Furthermore, there's psychedelic music I love, such as The Beach Boys' SMiLE outtakes, The Rolling Stones' 1966-era work, & the early Pink Floyd singles, all of which hold up with the greatest rock ever recorded. I just feel that Sgt. Pepper itself is a brilliant, but ultimately hollow, shell.

Which brings us back to my two favorite psychedelic songs, the vibrant & timeless "Strawberry Fields Forever" & "Penny Lane." If The Beatles had only included those over say, "Fixing A Hole" & "Lovely Rita," then I could see a strong argument for The Greatest Album Ever Made.

But then again, what do I know?

I think that The Beach Boys should've waited & put "Good Vibrations" on Pet Sounds.

Part 3: Sgt. Pepper Remade.

So where does that leave us? Well, appropriately everywhere & nowhere. I would like to close with my own take on Sgt. Pepper, which I like to call "Sgt. Better," which I think of as the album that should've been had The Beatles not been so strict about albums & singles:

Side 1

1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
2. With A Little Help From My Friends
3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
4. Getting Better
5. Only A Northern Song
6. She's Leaving Home
7. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!

Side 2

1. Strawberry Fields Forever
2. Penny Lane
3. When I'm Sixty-Four
4. Good Morning Good Morning
5. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
6. A Day In The Life

With all due respect to The Beatles' official Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, THIS is the masterpiece I'd want to hear.

After all, if Sgt. Pepper's is ultimately a make-believe show, then it's only keeping with its original spirit to make your own make-believe show out of it.

So to quote Sgt. Pepper's band themselves, we hope you will enjoy the show.

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