Friday, June 01, 2007
I was 7 years old in 1967, so frankly, I have no real recollection of when I first became aware of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band. I knew the Beatles, sure- you may recall me writing, at some point or another, about how one of my earliest childhood memories was seeing the Fabs on Ed Sullivan, and my parents' bemused reaction, and that fabled copy of Meet the Beatles that my Aunt Lavana owned, but didn't like nearly as much as I did, and she wound up giving it to me because I was constantly playing it on her record player when she wasn't at home. Both my parents worked, y'see, so I stayed days with my father's parents before I started school, and my Aunt lived at home with them for a while. Beatles merchandise was everywhere; mostly in the form of bubblegum cards, which I bought as often as possible, and while I didn't own any records myself (save for that Meet the Beatles), I always loved hearing their songs on the radio or at older neighborhood kids' houses, and seeing the occasional TV appearance, including the Saturday morning cartoon series, which I never missed. Looking back, I'm amazed that Lennon's "More popular than Jesus" remark didn't become a sore point with my parents, especially my devout Baptist father; but then again, they always encouraged me (mostly) to read all kinds of things and listen to all types of music, so perhaps they got the gist of what John was saying, if they even thought about it all that much.
Anyway, I digress.
I believe it was sometime early in 1968 when I got my first copy of Sgt. Pepper; I had read things here and there in the newspaper, and had read a long article in the World Book Year Book about the Summer of Love, especially the music, and of course Pepper's was a big part of the piece. I was very curious by then, and had already had a few LPs bought for me, mostly of the kids' stories variety- I recall a spoken-word Legend of Sleepy Hollow-Tell-Tale Heart album, as well as a Jonny Quest LP and a few music 45s. So one day, when I was in Bowling Green shopping with my Mom at a Big K store, I made my move, and asked her to buy it for me. When I got it home, I listened to it constantly- at eight, of course I couldn't really judge it like I would now or compare it to what I had heard before, but I could tell that it was just different than the likes of "Eight Days a Week", "She Loves You", or "I Feel Fine"- it was operating in a different dimension, a more imaginative and more visual one which I thought was very exciting. I remember spending hours playing with another recent acquisition, a Frustration Ball, and listening to Pepper's, trying to pop the little balls in the little cups while Indian sitars and music hall clarinets played in the background.
But of course, I grew up, and as I got older I got a progressively better grip on just what exactly the Four Lads were all about...and even though I was too young to be affected by the Summer of Love and the impact it made, my fandom was cemented throughout the late 60's and 70's, when they went their own ways and made their own individual sounds. While I came to love all their albums, from Magical Mystery Tour to the great Revolver to Abbey Road and beyond, Pepper's still maintained a special place in my listening routine. I owned it on 8-track, eventually acquired a new vinyl copy, and when CDs became easily available in the 1980's, I made Pepper's the very first compact disc I ever bought on its 20th anniversary, 1987.
So to make a long post longer, I thought that here on the 40th anniversary (since I still can't legally download the mp3's), I'd take Pepper's track-by-track and share my opinions and comments on each of its songs.
And I hope I don't sing out of key.
SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND: The opener establishes the feel and connective thread of this not-quite concept album; it's not like all these songs are related per se, but the concept is a group of tunes performed by a fictional band. I've always liked the chunky guitar riff (probably McCartney) and the funky rhythm that Ringo plays in this song; sometimes it's a shame that the sound effects and cute conceits take over, but the song is so cheerful that it doesn't matter. Jimi Hendrix did a decent cover of this song live, and if I'm not mistaken a version came out on one of his posthumous LP releases.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS: Ringo's genial showcase, with its almost-mock humility, plays perfectly into Mr. Starkey's strengths. Some classic lines ("What do you see when you turn out the light/I can't tell you but I know it's mine") and a strong melody. Cocker's slowed-down blues version was good, but it didn't eclipse this.
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS: At 8, of course I had no idea about the LSD rumor, which was convincingly shot down by Lennon over twenty years ago. I responded to the wonderful Lennonesque wordplay more than I did the meandering melody, as I recall, and that remains true today. This song had a really nice showcase in Yellow Submarine. That said, if you ask me, of all the Pepper songs this one has dated the least gracefully.
GETTING BETTER: Of course, I didn't know it at the time, but of all the Pepper tracks this one sounds the most like it would have fit on Revolver seamlessly. The bopping, cheerful melody belies the self-hating Lennon lyrics. British roots-rock band Gomez did a really nice cover of this, some of which was used by GE in commercials for a year or so.
FIXING A HOLE: This one probably would have fit in on Revolver, too, but its jazzy shuffle might not have set easy. This is a track which I didn't care for so much at first, but years and years later I've begun to enjoy it more and more, especially the middle section where a guitar riffs over a Macca-sung "hey-hey heyyyy".
SHE'S LEAVING HOME: Probably my least favorite track on the album, but it's still very strong melodically and the "Sheee-ee...is leeeeea-ving....hooo-ooome" interludes are touching. Harry Nilsson did a decent cover, and I think I sometimes prefer Bryan Ferry's take on the mostly forgettable All This and World War II 2-LP set to the original. Go here to see the trailer for that bizarre, and little-seen film. I didn't know until just a couple of weeks ago that George Martin didn't score the strings! Apparently he wasn't very happy about it either...
BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR. KITE: Another one in which I liked Lennon's wordplay, mostly copied verbatim from a circus poster. Catchy melody and imaginative aural collages make this one unforgettable. Took on a whole new dimension years later when I watched George Martin sitting at the mixing board and pushing sliders up and down to demonstrate how many sounds were in the mix while listening to the backing tracks they put together on a FOUR TRACK RECORDER in a documentary made to coincide with the 20th anniversary. It aired on Disney Channel, believe it or not.
WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU: George's sole songwriting contribution is very misunderstood, and often gets dismissed when considering this album. Sure, it's full of the then-trendy Indian instrumentation, and as such is very dated as well...but you don't forget the melody easily, the lyrics are among the best, and certainly among the truest, that George ever wrote, and the middle instrumental section, where symphonic strings glide in and among the tablas and sitars, is made of genius. It's become one of my absolute favorite Pepper tracks.
WHEN I'M 64: More twee McCartneyisms; litle did we know he would make a solo career out of this sort of thing. Still, it's a nice tune, 8-year-old me got a kick out of hearing the "Vera, Chuck and Dave" part, and it's still very catchy. It also got a clever showcase in Yellow Submarine, and on a personal note, I'll never forget one evening at the Baker Street Cafe, back when I used to play guitar on open stage nights there, in which someone sat down at the piano and started to play this song...and I was the only one who knew all the words so I got to sing it. It got me and the piano player a nice hand and I got a couple of beers bought for me out of the deal. Good times.
LOVELY RITA: This is probably the most overlooked track on Pepper, probably for good reason; it doesn't really sound finished to my ears. The extended heavy-breathing fadeout that takes up the last minute or so of the song would seem to bear this out. Still, the lyrics are clever, and it's catchy in that way that only Macca can do catchy. The great Roy Wood did a disappointing cover on the aforementioned WWII album.
GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING: Lennon typically denigrated this one (and another favorite Fab cut of mine, "Cry Baby Cry") as "gobbledygook" in interviews later in his life, but I've always thought that he was dead wrong and was too self-depricating in this case. Inspired by TV commercials, and ostensibly about being self-absorbed as well as the communication gap that often exists between people, it benefits from a wicked McCartney guitar lick in the middle. Again, like "Rita", the animal sound effects at the end would seem to signify that they didn't know how to end it otherwise, but it serves as a great segue to...
SGT. PEPPER'S REPRISE: Which is just a short-and-sweet rock-out return to the opener, and I've always loved how they run the "SgtPeppersOneandOnlyLonelyHeartsClubBand" line together towards the end. The Beastie Boys sampled the Ringo drum lick which begins this on Paul's Boutique, to great effect.
A DAY IN THE LIFE: Lots and lots of brilliance going on here, possibly the most seamlessly stitched-together of all the songs that Lennon and McCartney wrote in piecemeal fashion together...or if the stitches show, the garment as a whole is impeccable. So influential, you still catch writers and musicians using several of the lines and ideas put forth here. For the comics fans among you, it was either Steve Gerber or Mike Friedrich, I forget, which worked the "4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" into a Son of Satan story in Marvel Spotlight in the 70's. Again, in that documentary I mentioned earlier, I was greatly amused to find out that when they were recording the part where they come back in after the classic ascending orchestra section, they had the late Mal Evans counting down to keep the musicians on cue, and then an alarm clock rang to let them know when the time had come. The clock stayed in, Mal didn't. One of Lennon's best vocal performances.
FEW SECONDS OF GOBBLEDYGOOK AT THE END: This wasn't on the US LP release, so I didn't hear it until I got the CD. Don't know how I ever made it without experiencing it.
And that's it. I think Pepper's is certainly a landmark album, and deserves (mostly) the praise it's received over the decades. Personally, I don't think it's the best Beatle album- for my money, Revolver remains their creative apex. Pepper's is perhaps just a little too self-consciously arty to be perfect, and the weakest cuts on Revolver are better than "Lovely Rita" or "She's Leaving Home", which gets cut by "For No One" if nothing else. Still, it's a great record just the same, and will hopefully sound as good forty years from now as it did four decades ago.