Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Beatles 11: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It has become cliché to call Sgt. Pepper the greatest album of all time, or even the Beatles’ best album. Musically, it’s average and wincingly dated. However, as a cultural touchstone, it’s incredibly important, so the musicality is probably moot.
Case in point: soon after the start of 1967, the boys’ label got nervous, as there hadn’t been a single since the previous August, and both of those tunes had also been on Revolver. George Martin begrudgingly removed the completed tracks “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” from the running for the album the boys were in the process of recording, resulting in one of the greatest 45s ever.
It’s impossible to fathom how much different Sgt. Pepper would have turned out had those songs been left on; as a result, the rest of the album got some breathing room. But if you haven’t heard this album, you need to hear that rushed single first. It had appeared at a time when the moptops had been out of the public eye for what had been an incredibly long time for the era, and when they did emerge, it was with this weird single accompanied by images of the Fabs in—gasp!—mustaches. Once you hear the planet whence came “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”, it makes more sense that with this album they were trying to do something different.
And it’s true—the title track is definitely a jump from their usual sound, and then they turn the proceedings over to Ringo (“With A Little Help From My Friends”). Then they take us on a sped-up trip to Wonderland with Alice courtesy of the initials L, S and D, and deliver the one song that could be mistaken for a Beatles single (“Getting Better”). “Fixing A Hole” is one of the darker McCartney tunes, followed by the completely dour “She’s Leaving Home”. Just when you’ve forgotten you came to see a show, Lennon drags you back to the psychedelic circus with “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”
George gets to kick off the second act with an Indian lesson (“Within You Without You”), and then Paul gives a scary foreshadowing of his music hall tendencies (“When I’m Sixty-Four”). “Lovely Rita” is a wonderful exercise in making a song out of absolutely nothing, with a total disregard of a rhyme scheme, followed by another example (“Good Morning, Good Morning”). A reprise of the title track reminds us why we’re here, and it all comes down to the apocalyptic closer (“A Day In The Life”), which is still a stunner over forty years later.
None of their intended LP canon had made it over the pond intact until Sgt. Pepper, and even that was missing the dog tone and inner groove in the US. But henceforth, all of the British LPs and singles would survive the trip across the Atlantic for the rest of their recording career, though Capitol would still find a couple of ways to put more product in the stores.
Various elements aligned for the EMI marketing department to use “It was twenty years ago today” when Sgt. Pepper became available on CD, and three decades after that, it became the first album in the Beatles catalog to receive a deluxe, standalone upgrade. The album got a brand new stereo mix in 2017, and was packaged in a double-disc set with an “alternate” version of the album, based on early takes, plus new mixes (and outtakes) of “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields”. Those extras, however, were selected from two discs’ worth in the Deluxe Edition, which also included a fourth disc containing the original mono mix plus further rarities. And a DVD and Blu-ray with a 5.1 surround mix plus the 1992 Making Of Sgt. Pepper and promo clips. And a book. And a replica of the “Mr. Kite” poster. All packaged in a facsimile of an EMI tape box, inside a lenticular slipcover.
Even though Sgt. Pepper is not one of our go-to Beatle albums when we’re in the mood, the Deluxe Edition is indeed wonderful. The new stereo mix brings out the bass and drums, as well as elements that were more prominent in the mono mix, for a clearer audio picture. Paul’s voice is the correct speed on “She’s Leaving Home”, but John still sounds like a chipmunk. They were smart to avoid slipping “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” into the sequence, but more than make up for it by including four essential early takes of the former (making the single version sound very slow by comparison) and two of the latter. Unlike on Anthology 2, we hear complete original takes and mixes, not combinations of several. That means “A Day In The Life” without Paul’s bridge and no orchestra, “She’s Leaving Home” with extra flourishes between verses, “Within You Without You” before its orchestra was added, and so on. We even get to hear a few stabs at the proposed “hum” ending for “A Day In The Life”, which today sounds like an om chant. In most cases, they released the right mixes the first time around.
Unlike other “sessions” boxes, it doesn’t include every single take. It also omits “Only A Northern Song”, which was rejected early in the recording process, and the infamous “Carnival Of Light” track that’s supposed to be cacophonous and bizarre. And surely they could have found a version of “Penny Lane” with the extra trumpet coda that didn’t sound like a worn-out 45?
In hindsight, Paul emerges dominantly on the album, his keyboard skills having been well-honed, with John and particularly George not able (or allowed) to keep up. The influence of Pet Sounds is more obvious on the instrumental tracks, and by gosh, these guys were a good band, even on stuff they didn’t dream of playing onstage.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)—4
2017 50th Anniversary Edition: same as 1967, plus extra 18 tracks (Deluxe Edition adds another 34 tracks plus DVD and Blu-ray)

4 comments:

  1. What do you think of the idea/theory that "A Day in the Life" is sort of a commentary on or a negation of everything that had come before on the album? In other words, much of what comes before is sort of fanciful dream, and the ADITL is sort of like a bucket of cold water over the head to bring everything back to a stark reality.

    This is not my personal theory, btw, but I do think it's a pretty intiguing idea. Of course any way you slice it, it's still a great song.

    Vance

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  2. It's a nice idea, though I doubt they put that much thought into it. Granted, the song does come after the reprise of "Sgt. Pepper", where they're basically signing off, but think about it -- could "A Day In The Life" fit anywhere on that album but the end? (It was also one of the first tracks recorded for the album.)

    Of course, the concept of Sgt. Pepper (a performance by a band that wasn't the moptops) came from Paul, and John would be quick to say that he never bought into the concept.

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  3. Growing up I inherited a box full of records from a relative and one of the LP's was Sgt. Pepper. I must have been 6 or 7 at the time. I know that I've always like "Fixing a Hole", "With a Little Help", "Getting Better All the Time", "Lovely Rita" and "Good Morning". "She's Leaving" has always bored me to tears and as a child "Mr. Kite" frightened me, especially the calliope gone mad part. I remember being in my late teens and making the uniformed comment "I don't see what the big deal about the Beatles is", a remark which almost got me pummeled by a fan. Since then (and with the help of Ward) I've come to appreciate the writing, dig Paul's basslines and realize that the "Sgt. Pepper's Reprise" rocks pretty damn hard. I also believe it was Ward to hipped me to listening to the CD in the correct track order.

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  4. If Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were to have been on the album, where do you think they would have put them? I think Strawberry Fields would have fit nicely after With A little Help and Penny Lane maybe before the reprise?

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