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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"

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

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

There's a bit of pressure when you're writing a summary/critical essay on a well-known album. There's the pressure to tell readers something they don't know, but there's also the pressure not to anger them by defying their well-established notions on the subject. Such is the case for every Beatles album, but especially for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" because it routinely tops best-album lists. Tom Moon takes an intelligent (and easy) way out when describing the record in his book. Rather than issue any profound thoughts on the subject, he throws up his hands, declares that everything that can be said has been, and merely instructs the listeners to enjoy.

He's right. But for better or worse, I can't help but throw out my musings on the album.

"Sgt. Pepper's" takes over where "Revolver" leaves off. Many have argued that "Sgt. Pepper's" is actually the apex of The Beatles creativity, taking the range of musical styles highlighted on "Revolver" and then adding a storyline, placing it among the first "concept albums." The proposed "concept" of The Beatles existing as a secondary, virtually identical band (which shares a title with the album) is a farce. The title track (and its reprise) set the stage for a storyline, and Ringo Starr is even assigned an alias (Billy Shears) for his performance of "With A Little Help From My Friends," but the concept ends there. John Lennon was the most vocal opponent of the "concept" concept.

The diversity in musical style in just as rich as "Revolver," to the album's great benefit. George Harrison takes another shot at Indian classical with "Within You Without You" (which was originally a 30-minute track. Please contact me if you can find a recorded version), and spreads his tamboura playing to "Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds." The array of circus instruments sets the mood well for "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite," and any song that doesn't fit a "theme" gets orchestration written by George Martin.

Martin's arrangements save some of the subpar efforts from Paul McCartney. The bassist's back-to-back tracks "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Lovely Rita" simply don't stand the test of time, sounding cheesy next to Lennon and Harrison's work. Fortunately, clarinet backing lends credibility to the former and a lovely piano bridge saves the latter. Lennon stated that he "would never even dream of writing a song like that" about "Sixty-Four." Moon writes of the growing tension between McCartney and Lennon during his summation of "The Beatles" (spoiler alert: two posts from now), but the clash of styles is obvious within "Sgt. Pepper's," especially when comparing tracks like "Lucy in The Sky With Diamonds" and "When I'm Sixty-Four."

The issue comes to a head with "A Day in The Life," the masterpiece written by both members. Lennon opens and closes the song with a sad and moving lament. McCartney's portion shifts pace dramatically, moving from a dirge to another pop ditty, representing the dueling attitudes wrestling for control of the group.

Granted, with the rising orchestral crescendo, the adjustment makes "A Day in The Life" an almost prog-rock epic. A good deal of the renown given to "Sgt. Pepper's" is a result of the outgoing shot that is "A Day in The Life." This is a song that nearly drove Brian Wilson to madness and led him to shelf "Smile" because he felt that anything following "A Day in The Life" was moot. I'll let that speak for itself, but the triple-layered piano chord that closes the track is as definitive a conclusion as exists in music, and I do love a definitive conclusion.

This post may come across as a bash on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." I apologize, for that was never my goal. Undoubtedly, anything that is routinely listed as the world's greatest is probably a little overrated. In my opinion, "Revolver" is just as good an album. If you say that "Sgt. Pepper's" is a great album however, I would undoubtedly agree. You didn't need me to tell you that though. The moral: don't let my nonconformist approach defile a classic for you.

INTERESTING FACT: The album art, which is rivaled by few records (including "Abbey Road") for the most lasting image in music history, was also one of the most expensive. Photoshop wasn't quite in vogue yet, therefore the band had to pose before more than 70 cardboard cutouts of celebrities, totaling more than 38,000 modern British pounds. Some of Lennon's choices that didn't make the cover: Hitler and Christ.

"A Day in The Life" (The last minute or so is a loop that would play continually on the original LP. It's been attached as a "hidden track" on modern versions, and isn't worth sticking around for.)

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