>Off the Beaten Path>It was 40, err, 46 years ago today...
I've got a fever...
It was 40 years ago today that the Beatles landmark album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It was a watershed moment for popular music. At a time when pop and rock music was dismissed as "lightweight" and "kid's music", Pepper came along and redefined what popular art could be. Even classical music critics took notice, almost universally. In The London Times prominent critic Kenneth Tynan described Sgt. Pepper as "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization." Others including Richard Poirier, and Geoffrey Stokes were similarly expansive in their praise, Stokes noting, "listening to the Sgt. Pepper album one thinks not simply of the history of popular music but the history of this century." [Wikipedia]
Forty years later, it's easy to wonder what the fuss was about. You see Pepper appearing all the time at the top of "Greatest albums of all time." Was it the greatest album ever? I'm not even sure it was the Beatles' greatest album. Revolver was nearly as innovative, and a better collection of songs. Soundwise, Rubber Soul had a more unifed, organic feel to it. Abbey Road showed the band at the peak of its musicianship, and it featured the emergence of George Harrison from out of the shadows of Lennon/McCartney as a true songwriting peer. And the sprawling excess of the "White Album" seemed to cover everything from 1920's music hall to heavy metal and all points in between.
And yet... And yet when you listen to Pepper, you can't help but feel like you're listening to an album that transcends popular music. Some critics say that Pepper hasn't aged well, and that the late 60's psychedelia sounds dated. I disagree -- this album not only doesn't date itself to 1967, it doesn't seem to sound like it's really from any time.
It's billed as the first rock and roll concept album, and while this may or may not be true, the concept is simple. You're listening to a concert performance by some entity called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. They're introduced at the beginning of the album, they take a bow at the end and do one encore. And in between, they produce an amazing collage of sounds, a symphony of whimsy, fun, and madness.
The Beatles and producer George Martin spent an amazing 700 hours working on this album (as compared to about 10 hours on their debut, Please Please Me). They went out of their way to make everything sound as different and unique as possible. Sounds were played backwards, compressed, and played forwards again. Tape recordings of circus organs were cut into one-inch pieces, thrown into the air, and spliced back together again at random. Martin, as always, was a perfect match for the band. When John Lennon told Martin that he wanted his voice to sound like oranges, Martin somehow managed to do it, on "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." I have no idea what oranges sound like, but I have to admit, every time I listen to that song, I hear them. And they did it all using only 4-track recording technology.
Almost as notable is what didn't make the album. Needing to issue an early 1967 single, the band released "Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane", probably the most amazing two sides ever put on a 45rpm record (kids, ask your parents what a record is). In those days, singes were singles, albums were albums, and the twain did not meet; once they became a single, they couldn't be on the album.
Listening to the album, you're struck by the unique character of the songs. The intro, with the crowd noises and orchestra tuning in the background. The screams of Beatlemania as it segues into the self-deprecating Ringo on "With a Little Help from My Friends." The orange-ish "Lucy." The Lennon/McCartney counterpoint on "Getting Better:" Paul: I have admit it's getting better..a little better all the time John: It can't get no worse.The lazy melancholy of "Fixing a Hole." The soap operatic "She's Leaving Home." The twisted circus psychedelia of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."
[Flip your album over to Side B] The dreamy trance of George's Indian-influenced "Within You Without You." The dance hall whimsy of "When I'm 64" (written by Paul when he was only 16, and intentionally sped up to make him sound younger). The sly sexual innuendo of "Lovely Rita." The jarring poly-rhythms of "Good Morning Good Morning," complete with the aural montage of animal sounds that ends with a clucking chicken that somehow morphs into the guitar of the "Sgt. Pepper (reprise)."
And it all ends with the most amazing song of all, "A Day In The Life." It was mostly John's song, and Paul supplied the middle section and the idea for the massive swelling orchestral crescendos. It concludes with a thunderous E-major chord, played simultaneously on three pianos, and recorded until the very last bit of sound disappeared, about 45 seconds later. That's followed by an 18kHz sound (John wanted something to annoy your dog), and a random collage of sounds meant to play on ad infinitum, intended for folks whose record player arms just stuck at the end of the record and didn't automatically retract. Legend has it that if you play this snippet backwards, it says something very obscene, but I haven't verified that.
The album, like the band itself, is far greater than the sum of its parts. If you don't own it, buy it. If you do own it, try to find 40 spare minutes today to put on a pair of headphones and take another journey through Pepperland. You won't be disappointed. Or as the Beatles put it, "a splendid time is guaranteed for all."
On your deathbed, you won't wish that you'd spent more time at the office. But you will wish that you'd spent more time running. Because if you had, you wouldn't be on your deathbed.
If you do own it, try to find 40 spare minutes today to put on a pair of headphones and take another journey through Pepperland. You won't be disappointed. Or as the Beatles put it, "a splendid time is guaranteed for all."
Jeff, I was no aware that it has been 40 years. I still own my dad's original LP that he bought at Woolworth's in Sault Ste. Marie, ON - his hometown, on the day the album came out. I am going to cut and paste your note into a separate email and send it to him. I know he will appreciate reading it. As, of course, did I. There is program director by the name of Allan Cross that does a show called the History of New Music on CFNY (102.1 FM) in Toronto which offers the same type of insightful introspection into a myriad of different styles of music such as you've provided here on the Beatles. You could give him a run for his money...
but I have to admit that when it comes to the Beatles, I wish I could have lived it.
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I was study abroad in England a few years ago when I came across an old Sgt Peppers album and bought it for about $10. It's original and still has all the cut-outs figures intact and beeeutyful.
Ricky —our ability to perform up to our physiological potential in a race is determined by whether or not we truly psychologically believe that what we are attempting is realistic. Anton Krupicka
bump (a day early and 6 years later)...
Funny, it was actually "20 years ago today" when I was graduating college. I remember it being on the news everywhere. 46 years ago, damn.
Great thread, Jeff. HUGE Beatles fan here.
It's hard to imagine the impact it had then, now. As a fan of their whole collection, and having been only 6 years old when Sgt. Pepper came out, the album still stands out as a one of the most unique, cohesive parts of it. It was one of the first concept albums, and would start a wave that led to such albums as Dark Side Of The Moon and Tommy.
Most importantly, it's a great collection of great songs with interesting melodies.
The Beatles showed bands what evolving means. Listen to their studio records from first to last (last one recorded was Abbey Road), and you'll hear life. Growing and changing so much from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, and then disbanding at their peak.
When I was a boy, I grew up on the Blue Album 1967-1970 compilation. So, for many years, I was more into that period. Eventually, I started to delve into their early albums, and they're fantastic. Amazing melodies and energy. Please Please Me is basically their live act on stage, recorded in just 10 hours—tight band. I knew a guy who was in the sound booth when they played at Forest Hills, and he said they were the tightest band he'd ever heard at the time.
Another thing lost today is the impact of their early stuff—how new and alive it was at the time. Producer George Martin had a great pair of ears, and managed to release records that sizzled off the speakers. If you listen to Rubber Soul, you don't hear much of that early reverb so in use back then. Very dry tracks, which sort of pulls them out of time.
What's my favorite album? Don't have one. Though some I prefer more than others. There's a Beatle's record for any mood, really. If you want to try something interesting, listen to the White Album, then watch Apocalypse Now. Makes for an interesting afternoon.
p.s. The Beatles recorded "Strawberry Fields" during the Pepper sessions, but it ended up on Magical Mystery Tour. If "Strawberry Fields" would have been on Pepper in place of "Lovely Rita", the record would have been mind-blowing.
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I have Abbey Road in the rig today. I'll give Pepper a spin tonight under the headphones. Thanks for the bump!
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~ H.G. Bohn
I usually listen to Sgt Pepper at least one per week....
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