Readers of this blog know the utter disdain I feel towards Rolling Stone, the magazine for self-important music reviewers and aging rock aficionados. Their 100 Greatest Guitarists List made me want to vomit, as did their cover, “The Genius of Eminem.”
Given my opinion of that rag’s agenda and its stable of pompous music critics, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I read their review of Sgt. Pepper. I actually agreed with it! Well, most of it, anyway.
As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The truly self-important and hip music reviewers tend to dis Sgt. Pepper. It’s much cooler to pick Revolver as the Beatles’ best album, just like it’s more politically correct to choose In Utero over Nevermind. I’ve seen some top 100 lists where Sgt. Pepper is down in the low 40’s due to this urge to be so above it all. Even George Martin liked Abbey Road better, no doubt because he felt guilty for pulling “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” from Sgt. Pepper to satisfy EMI’s demand for a single, and miffed that McCartney used someone else to arrange the strings on “She’s Leaving Home.”
Well, I’m here to set the record straight, return the Earth to its proper orbit and ensure that the opinions of the powerful and misguided do not obliterate the truth.
Sgt. Pepper isn’t the Beatles best album. It’s the best fucking album ever recorded, by anybody, ever.
I want readers to pay attention to the precision of that statement. It says, “ever recorded,” not “made” or “created.” Sgt. Pepper is the ultimate masterpiece of the recording arts, particularly given the near-impossibility of capturing all the sounds you hear on a positively primitive 4-track system. Sgt. Pepper is an aural delight, especially when heard in original analog stereo. The sounds the Beatles and the Martin-Emerick team wheedled out of ancient 4-track technology have never been matched for sheer originality, power to delight or warm beauty.
In terms of theme, Sgt. Pepper achieves what it set out to achieve. The structure is based on a “performance” by the fictional Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a device that allows the Beatles to divorce themselves from their moptop identities and experiment with new possibilities in music. Because they had quit touring, it was also a way to redefine “performance,” making studio performance a valid alternative to the concert hall or sports stadium. As a fundamental declaration of freedom from the restrictive insanity of Beatlemania, Sgt. Pepper was a conscious and deliberate effort by a group exceptionally gifted musicians to devote themselves primarily to music creation. Though not a concept album per se, few other works in rock musical history are so seamlessly unified. John Lennon said it best, albeit with his typical love of exaggeration: “Every other song could have been on any other album.” While it would be mental gymnastics of the highest order to imagine “Happiness is a Warm Gun” on Beatles for Sale, the songs on Sgt. Pepper do belong there and nowhere else.
However, when I look at the album’s content and consider the quality of the songs themselves, I can’t give the album the same unequivocal endorsement I give to the quality of its recording. The reason is somewhat ironic, for Sgt. Pepper is often dismissed by the more artistic types in rock music (such as David Bowie) as “Paul’s album.”
I wonder, “Were these people listening to the same record?” Paul may have had the idea for the Sgt. Pepper structure, but Paul’s songs are actually the weakest of the bunch. In terms of quality, Paul’s best album is clearly Revolver, where he consistently knocked it out of the park. The best songs on Sgt. Pepper are John Lennon’s. In the eighteen months following the release of Revolver up to the unfortunate journey to India, John was as hot as a songwriter can get. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life,” (with Paul’s assist in the middle) and “I Am the Walrus” all qualify as enduring masterpieces. I would rather have written just one of those songs than win the fucking lottery. Even his so-called lesser songs on Sgt. Pepper are compelling and absolutely delightful.
I love listening to Sgt. Pepper in a single sit-down, on vinyl. Its integrated wholeness is essential to appreciating the work, which may explain its loss of popularity in our hurried times. Sgt. Pepper is not your best choice if you’re looking for three-minute aural gratification or something to listen to while you perspire on the elliptical machine. Like Thick is a Brick or Wish You Were Here or Kid A, Sgt. Pepper is best appreciated by listening to in its entirety and giving it your full attention.
When the album begins, you’re surrounded by the sound of a concert hall filled with pre-performance chatter and a violinist warming up bow and fingers. We then hear the band kick in, but what’s interesting is what doesn’t happen before the Beatles get into gear. The band is already on stage, but the crowd pays no attention to them—there’s no welcoming applause. We know if this was a recording of the real Beatles in a real auditorium, the sound filling our ears would have been a thousand decibels of screaming girls. The fact that the band receives no welcome at all means the crowd hasn’t the slightest idea who these jokers are and probably assumes they’re just the warm-up act. Remember, the Beatles used Sgt. Pepper to escape the burden of expectations that came with being Beatles, and having the crowd completely ignore them reinforces their quest for an identity distinct from the brand.
I have to say I’ve never cared for George’s riff in the opening; it sounds a little ratty and substandard to me. That slight disappointment is soothed by the absolute commitment you hear in Paul’s opening vocal and the perfect insertion of applause, a crisp introduction from the horn section and the equally perfect placement of crowd laughter. They really hook me with the harmonies and rhythms of the verses, emphasizing the blue notes to add a little pzazz to the mix. The intensity is eased a bit when John steps to the mike for his bridge lines, but the horn-accompanied crescendo brings us to a new peak where Paul takes over. He really nails the last verse, sounding genuinely thrilled to announce “the one and only Billy Shears.” Then we hear the screams as Billy Shears arrives on stage to another thrilling crescendo.
After an understated lead-in, Ringo launches into “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the quintessential Ringo song. He is in exceptionally fine voice, singing with confidence and command. Paul’s bass part is both incredibly fluid and melodic, driving the song with superb punctuation. The use of call-and-response vocals reaffirms the presence of the Sgt. Pepper band while adding charm to the production. And isn’t it funny how often the Beatles’ most memorable lyrics make no sense at all?
What do you see when you turn out the light?
I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.
I love that couplet and I can’t begin to explain why. I want to give Ringo extra kudos for holding that note at the end, as I know it demanded every fiber of his body, soul and throat.
Now I imagine the stage light palette changing to one of gentle swirling pastels as the enchanting sound of an organ rigged to sound like a surreal celeste introduces “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” We’ll skip the stupid “the-song-title-stands-for-LSD” controversy, a piece of hoo-hah I find deeply offensive as it detracts from what is a truly magical song that captures the unbounded innocence of a child’s imagination (enhanced with a bit of Lewis Carroll). The evocative imagery is true to the workings of a mind uncontaminated by years of formal education:
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers
That grow so incredibly high
The soundscape painted by the Martin-Emerick team is the aural manifestation of magic. Despite the use of three different keys and two different time signatures, “Lucy” flows like a cool, clean stream with graduated intensity applied to each succeeding chorus. When we get to the final chorus, the harmonies and supporting instruments merge to bring the listener to a state of ecstasy and trigger the overwhelming urge to sing along, alternating between John’s melodic line and Paul’s high harmony. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a proudly triumphant and defiant song—defiant because it challenged the general perception of Lennon as the witty, cynical one. “Lucy in the Sky of Diamonds” allowed him to display his sensitive and sensuous side, one too often masked behind false bravado throughout his career.
We now get three Paul songs in a row, but it’s noteworthy that all three are placed in less-than-optimal slots on the album. And this was supposed to be Paul’s album? The first is “Getting Better,” with a sophisticated arrangement featuring an oomph-filled bass line from McCartney and perfectly-placed drone effects. It’s the one “Paul song” on the album that I unequivocally endorse, and I’m stunned that some have dismissed “Getting Better” as another happy-clappy Paul song rescued only by Lennon’s snarky insertion that “it can’t get much worse.” Do the people who propagate these myths actually listen to the songs they’re mythologizing? How on earth can anyone dismiss the lyrics on “Getting Better” as sunny side up when it contains lines like this?
I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept apart from the things that she loved
Man I was mean but I’m changing my scene
And I’m doing the best that I can
Only in a society in complete denial about domestic violence against women could someone categorize “Getting Better” as “cute.” Beating up a woman isn’t fucking cute.
Perceptive readers will conclude that if I only care for one “Paul song,” that means I don’t care much for “Fixing a Hole,” which is true. I admire the general soundscape and the subtle chord changes you hear in the opening lines of the verses (a series of variations on F and F minor), but the song itself goes nowhere (unless you characterize repairing a leak and bitching about fans camping outside your door as a spiritual journey). “Fixing a Hole” is the part of the program where I fidget in my seat and study the faces in the crowd around me.
“She’s Leaving Home” is the part of the program where I get up and go to the ladies room. Oh, how I loathe this fucking song. Running away from home was becoming a too common and frightening occurrence during the mid-60’s as bright teenagers figured out that suburban life was death covered in stucco. Rather than approach the song from the existential experience of the runaway in a first-person narrative—which might have been very interesting—McCartney gives us a predictable soap opera with stock characters mouthing cliché lines (Lennon “helped” with the lyrics, so shame on him, too). I was astonished to read Ned Rorem’s comment that “She’s Leaving Home” is “equal to any song that Schubert wrote.” As a Schubert aficionado who spent a good chunk of her teenage years practicing Schubert lieder on the piano, all I can say is “Ned, get your ears checked.”
I pop back in my seat just in time for Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Actually, I should say George Martin’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” for Lennon played the role of CEO telling his hired help, “George, I want to smell the sawdust on the floor” and George and Geoff took care of the rest. I love the swirling sounds and the breathy calliope, and the act of snipping up the tape with scissors, throwing the pieces in the air and reassembling them to achieve that sawdust smell is a great story that exemplifies the explorer’s spirit that pervades Sgt. Pepper.
Side two opens with the only one of George’s compositions to make it to the finals, “Within You, Without You.” The ultimate marriage of raga and rock, I wasn’t surprised when four decades later Liam Gallagher convinced brother Noel that “Within You, Without You” would make a great live rock song. Replace tambura and sitar with droning distortion and thumping drums and voilà! What I love about “Within You, Without You” is that it successfully captures the mysticism at its lyrical core while broadening and reinforcing the sound palette used on Sgt. Pepper. Its placement as the first track on side two was an inspired choice, as it soothes the senses after the intensity of “Mr. Kite” while opening new pathways in the “performance.”
Now we get to McCartney “cute.” First, let me admit that I do love the clarinet trio in “When I’m Sixty-Four,” and John and George’s backing vocals send chills of delight through my hyperactive spine. But really, this is a corny song spruced up from their Cavern days and seems too insignificant a piece to appear on Sgt. Pepper.
I also have to say I’m not much of a fan of Paul’s “Lovely Rita” either. I find the melody awkward, the story quaint and the sound effect fade rather tedious. I’m happy it’s on the album, if only to confirm my theory that no, Sgt. Pepper was not Paul’s album. Imagine what Sgt. Pepper could have been by replacing two out of three of Paul’s contributions (“Lovely Rita” and “Fixing a Hole”) with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” It certainly would have meant we never would have wasted time debating which album was the greatest album in history.
Lennon comes to the rescue with “Good Morning, Good Morning,” which features a beefy brass section, appropriately dry-and-droll Lennon lyrics and vocal, and a rhythmic pattern that can only be described as “intuitive,” with expected beats and bars dropping like flies. Musicologists have studied the song intensely, mapping out the beats and measures with precision, but let us remember that this was written by a guy who couldn’t tell 5/4 from 4/4 to save his life. I can do without the animal noises at the end, except for the closing sound of the chicken that cues the Sgt. Pepper reprise, a snappier version of the opener powered by Ringo’s steady beat and George’s driving guitar.
The reprise may be the shortest piece on the album, but one of the most important. Obviously, it brings things full circle from a musical perspective, giving us a sense of overall unity. Even more importantly, the return of the audience reminds us of the basic premise of Sgt. Pepper as a performance—a performance that would have been impossible in 1967 because of the ear-shattering cacophony of Beatlemania and the vast chasm between what was possible to reproduce on stage and the more expansive sonic possibilities within the studio. The Beatles wanted to show the world what they were really capable of beyond the limitations of hero-worship and stadium acoustics, and it is more than appropriate that they reprise the intro and take a final bow near the end of what has been a truly courageous effort.
The reprise also serves the necessary transition to the grand finale, one of The Beatles’ greatest contributions to the musical arts, a masterpiece quite unlike any other.
The sounds of the cheering crowd fade into the background while the spare sound of a single acoustic guitar rises to the foreground, soon to be joined by piano and bass. When Lennon sings the iconic opening line of “A Day in the Life,” he holds our undivided attention with a superbly detached vocal clearly separated from the piano and bass accompaniment in the sound field. Ringo doesn’t enter the picture until the second verse with an unobtrusive but remarkable descending progression from snare to toms that ends with a faint cymbal crash. Everything is designed to focus our attention on the lyrics and their interwoven theme of fame through death, always accompanied by the curious, faceless crowd and their mindless speculation:
I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph.
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn’t notice that the red lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords.
The laughter in the verse expresses the truth that we pay far more attention to people when they die than we do when they’re alive . . . the ultimate insult in the cycle of human depersonalization.
The second verse uses John’s acting gig in How I Won the War as the germ of the idea, but films about WWII were common fare in the two decades after the Japanese surrender. The pattern of glorifying a bloody past through film is coming to an end (even the crowds are tired of it), and new possibilities present themselves to those who choose to open their minds and “turn on.”
I saw a film today, oh boy
The English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
I’d love to turn you on.
At this point, the underlying madness of a society spinning out of control is depicted in the dissonant orchestral crescendo passage—the sound of life-as-we-know-it becoming unhinged, an ever-expanding accumulation of modern anxieties. We are surrounded by this force constantly, but choose to ignore it through the narcotic effects of the daily news, of films, of music . . . of what we believe constitutes “normal.” And while our daily routine reinforces the façade of predictability, the line between consciousness and the unconscious is both thin and fragile:
Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.
The last verse features greater syncopation through a more active piano and complementary percussion. You will rarely find a clearer expression of the absurdity of modern human activity than that depicted in the third verse of “A Day in the Life.” We seem to have become a species obsessed with the pursuit of useless knowledge, of faux wisdom passed on by an invisible “they”:
I read the news today oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
I’d love to turn you on.
One more maddening crescendo leads us to the crashing E-chord, extended for forty-five uncomfortable seconds as we attempt to process the meaning of it all—the words, the music, our lives. “A Day in the Life” simply had to end the performance, because really, what on earth could follow it?
While I have bemoaned the inclusion of a few tracks, Sgt. Pepper must be evaluated holistically. In that light, Sgt. Pepper is completely engaging, deeply satisfying and capable of amazing the listener again and again. I often talk about the necessity of commitment in the arts, and there is no question that the Beatles, George Martin and Geoff Emerick gave this everything they had—their hearts, their souls, their imaginations. Today, your average moke could probably do a fair approximation of Sgt. Pepper’s soundscape on Garage Band, but no one will ever be able to reproduce the feeling of ecstatic creative energy you hear in the Beatles’ masterwork.