#1 – The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
May 7, 2015
“It was twenty years ago today” are the famous opening words of this album. They have also, here at the very top of this list, served as something of an organizing principle of my thinking over the past three and a half years working through these five hundred (plus) albums. (The list revision mid-project tacked a few on.) The idea that motivated this project was, first and foremost, to fill in the gaps in my musical knowledge. And since I grew up favoring the music of an earlier era–the era of this album–a lot of the gaps I had to fill in had to do with the music of my own lifetime–the stuff I was supposed to have been attuned to in my youth, but which I managed to ignore. The passage of time is a funny thing, and never more so than through the lens of retrospection. And twenty years winds up being, at least at this stage of my life, a useful, if bewildering, yard stick.
This album, which came out ten years and two days before I was born, celebrated its twentieth anniversary right when I was at the height of my own personal Beatlemania. The anniversary–of the album and the “summer of love” it ushered in–was widely remarked upon in the press, always with the irresistible headline “IT WAS TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY!” Twenty years, being twice as long as I had been alive at the time, seemed like a very long time indeed–amply far enough away to explain how evidently different (and in my view better) the cultural landscape had been back then. It was all so technicolor and fun and free seeming, and the music was so, so much better than the contemporary options I saw before me. There were kids in sixth grade or so who made fun of me because I liked The Beatles more than Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi! And then thinking back from there–the twenty years ago The Beatles were singing about referred to 1947–another universe entirely! Black and white, the engines of post war prosperity gearing up for the march into the weird, repressive Eisenhower era. The constituent ingredients of rock ‘n roll–rhythm & blues and country music–were in full swing, but hadn’t yet coalesced into that world changing synthesis. Elvis was twelve, my mother two, and my father a year shy of being born. Twenty years, obviously, was effectively an eternity away from the bright, whirligig splendor of this album.
And yet, as it turns out, twenty years is nothing. I’ve been around long enough now that some of the most heightened golden memories of my youth are twenty years or more in the rear view, and though I’m old and fat and have children of my own, it really doesn’t seem all that long ago. It feels impossible to reconcile how alien the world of 1967 seemed to me in 1987 with the way I feel now about 1995–or even 1987. 9/11 happened, and there’s the internet and cell phones, but the world of 1995 doesn’t seem as radically different to me as the way the late 60s–the era of my parent’s adolescence–seemed to me then. Musically, things have continued to get worse as far as I can tell, but the devolution doesn’t seem quite as precipitous, if only because it hasn’t had as far to fall. When I was first getting into good music, almost thirty years ago now, twenty years ago meant Sgt. Pepper, Blonde on Blonde, Are You Experienced, Otis Blue. Now, twenty years ago is…Dookie. Much of the stuff I still reflexively think of as “contemporary swill” has itself been around long enough now to have somehow acquired the status of being “classic.” That awareness has been among the more demoralizing aspects of this project.
It hasn’t been all bad– Nevermind hit squarely in my early adolescence, as did the less well respected but still pretty good Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Both of those meant a lot to me at one time. And some of the gap filling this project has done for me has been edifying, and even occasionally gratifying–the earlier Radiohead albums have been worth hearing, and I legitimately really liked Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. It’s been good for me to have made a proper survey of rap, which was probably the most legitimately significant musical development of my life (not counting punk, whose big year–1977–was the year I was born). But generally, the project has left me fortified in my conviction that the music of my own lifetime has in the main been a pale shadow of the music of that of my parent’s generation. Indeed, the constitution of this list seems to back me up on this, with the great majority for the top 100 albums being from before my time, and the most recent album represented in the top ten having come out when I was two. Four of the top ten albums, and three of the top five, are by The Beatles, whereas Bon Jovi is nowhere to be found anywhere on the list. So suck it, former fellow sixth graders.
This album is number one. For much of the project, this has struck me a kind of unexciting inevitability. When people would hear about my project and ask me what the number one album on the list is, they mostly seem unsurprised by the answer, and fairly unenthused as well. Like, “yeah, that makes sense, I guess.” Then you get the “Beatles are overrated sacred cows” crowd, who fume at the unimaginative conservatism of a list that would include so many of their albums, and so many so densely at the very top (whereas the rest of us just wonder “where the hell is Magical Mystery Tour?”) But what else could be number one? Exile on Main Street is too raw and gritty for some, Pet Sounds too wimpy and vague for others. Anything by Dylan too polarizing to those unfortunates who could never get past his voice. And those who would nominate something outside of that general stylistic era–The Clash, The Smiths, Public Enemy–mistakenly conflate the personal significance of their particular favorite kind of music with the main stem history of twentieth century popular music. The 60s is the best and most important musical era not only for its density of great music, but because, to a large extent, everyone was on the same page–top forty radio was king, and things had not yet broken down so much into micro-preferential rivulets.
Even among real Beatle lovers, there’s a decided push toward regarding this album as their most self-consciously big album, but not really and truly their best. Generally, these folks will avow a preference for either Rubber Soul or Revolver. A smaller number will pick The White Album or Abbey Road. I myself recall feeling slightly underwhelmed when I first heard this record as a kid, not quite sure what the big hoopla was, and more or less settled on Rubber Soul as my favorite. So I went into this listening feeling that Sgt. Pepper was a good, consensusy choice–really the only thing that would work, and certainly one sturdy enough to wear the crown–but probably not actually many people’s personal favorite album.
So imagine my surprise to discover upon this listening that it might just be my favorite–or quite close to it, anyway. Just as with Pet Sounds before it, the combination of a better stereo, a better source, several years abstinence and, perhaps, a certain sentimentality around finally bringing this project to a close, I found myself connecting to this album–aesthetically and emotionally–in a much deeper way than I ever had before, or could have ever expected to. It sounds silly to say for an album I have heard so many times before, but it really was like hearing it anew this time.
It may require that I walk back my assertion that, on some long form quasi-classical level, Pet Sounds may be the better album. The point remains that Brian Wilson was the sole auteur of that album, while The Beatles had each other and George Martin to work with. But the assertion that the quality of orchestration, or its psychedelic-emotive capacity, is richer on Pet Sounds than on this album did not quite hold up under this listening. Smile, had Wilson finished it in 1967, may have been another story–at minimum, I’d say its palate of strange and delightful sounds strike deeper into the murky, gurgly heart of the psychedelic experience than this one. But of the records actually released at the time that relate to this particular conversation, my experience of listening to Sgt. Pepper this time around affirmed its place as the culminating and climactic moment of this conspicuously great chapter of pop music history.
One popular criticism of this album, a strategy by which people attempt to topple it from its elevated place in the critical consensus, is that its central conceit–that The Beatles were this other band putting on a show–is inconstantly and ineffectively applied, so that the “concept” of this “concept album” is not an unqualified success. This line of denigration originated, as far as I can tell, with John Lennon, who in the ugly wake of The Beatles’ breakup was eager to cast aspersion on Paul’s contributions to the group, which, in their later years, became tantamount to a kind of creative dominance. The Sgt. Pepper concept was Paul’s (of course it was), and thus, from John’s perspective, the concept was bullshit. I’m not one to overly indulge Paul’s sometimes grating cheekiness, nor one to whom the very idea of a “concept album” doesn’t inspire at least some basic potential for dread, but to me, the concept of this album works beautifully, both because it is essentially a musical concept, and because it doesn’t ingratiate itself with too consistent an application. As I see it, the fake band playing a fake concert conceit is an essence a context which allowed The Beatles to reach beyond themselves to new creative heights, and which provided a kind of textural unity that eluded them on their previous album Revolver.
Indeed, while Paul provided both the concept and the couple of songs at the outset that set it up, if the subtext of that concept is a kind of event that emphasizes the carnivalesque, kaleidoscopic-calliope aspect of the psychedelic zeitgeist, then that spirit is perhaps best captured–at least on side one–by John’s two contributions to the side–“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Their swirly brand of surrealism anticipates psychedelia at its most cliched extreme, and yet they are redeemed by their compositional excellence, their stunning originality within their own time, and the leavening sense of menace lurking beneath their fanciful exteriors. The production work on these tracks is particularly stunning, featuring some of the most spectacular effects on this (or any) album. The famous moment on “Mr. Kite” when George Martin chopped up the tape of an organ solo and tossed the pieces into the air to randomize them feels like a particularly inspired moment–some synergistic incidence of calculation and luck that produced one of the more legitimate moments of aural derangement on the album. If my estimation of this album’s verisimilitude at conveying the real quality of psychedelic experience has declined in recent years, especially since the official release of The Smile Sessions a few years back, this listening repaired much of that impression. And if the sounds one hears on this record list a little too much in the direction of cliche, it is only because they were so effective as to inspire a generation of imitators.
But really, the first side as a whole feels like an exceptionally unified piece of work, particularly as it represents the work of two more or less independently functioning songwriters. In the end, it is probably George Martin as much as anyone who deserves the credit for this, since the basic tenor of the production style is where the aesthetic unity of the album most strongly resides. Paul’s songs, like “Fixing a Hole” and “Getting Better” are more quotidian in spirit and subject matter than Lennon’s more emphatically psychedelic excursions, but the gracefully playful palate of textures and sounds they are adorned with tie them in to the festive spirit of the album. And of course his opening pair of tracks, the segue from the bracing title track into the disarming warmth of “With a Little Help from My Friends” do establish a tone that echoes throughout the album. If this album can be read as an invitation to the psychedelic experience, these songs do their best to ensure that the trip will be a good one. It should be noted, too, that for an album so steeped in belabored studio trickery, a lot of the good old fashioned musicianship on this album is exceptionally strong as well. George’s searing guitar part ushers in the album in an unforgettable way, and Paul in particular feels very nearly at his peak as a bassist on tracks like “Getting Better” and, on the other side, “A Day in the Life.”
If there is one song on the first side that doesn’t quite fit in, and which anticipates the comparative stylistic disunity of the second side, it is “She’s Leaving Home,” which finds Paul again exploring the idea of writing songs in an almost classical style in a pop music context. And it is a lovely, delicate piece of music, although I don’t think it’s the finest work he ever did in this vein–most would chose “Eleanor Rigby,” and I would vote for “For No One,” both from Revolver. Neither is it anywhere close to a high point of this album. Indeed, while Leonard Bernstein is said to have compared it favorably to Schubert, your average rock fan would probably regard it as one of the album’s lesser moments. Thematically, its only relationship to the presiding spirit of the album–that the “she” of the song is “having fun”–is a bit tangential (and doesn’t actually sound all that fun), although it seems likely that it probably helped inspire a lot of kids to runaway from home and out to San Francisco in the summer of 1967, for better or, more likely, for worse. (And what the hell is “the motor trade” anyway?) Musically, it’s not only out of place, but out of spiritual joint with the rest of the side. It’s one of the few songs of its type in the entire Beatles catalog not arranged by George Martin. Paul was apparently eager to get it done on a day when Martin wasn’t available, and, to Martin’s dismay, he farmed it out to another arranger. It’s also, of course, one of the few songs on the album on which no other Beatles play, making it feel a bit more like Paul’s own vanity project rather than something that figures into the idea of an imaginary band putting on a show.
The second side opens with another such (perhaps slightly ironic) vanity project–George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” which is played entirely by a group of Indian and Western classical musicians, and has no obvious relationship to the rest of the album. It’s one some people (including George Martin) tend to heap a lot of praise on, but which I have generally found a bit arid and didactic–not just humorless but joyless. There’s a kind of a fussy, sour disdain for the world, not really that far away from the outright misanthropy of George’s earlier songs, but cloaked in a (literally) holier than thou smugness. As a friend of mine put it, there’s a fine line between “life is suffering” and “this sucks,” and it feels like Harrison is cleaving toward the latter–the least appealing, most tiresomely world-abnegating interpretation of the spiritual teachings he was absorbed by. Like, what’s the point, at that point? “Come on, it’s such a joy!” is more like it, or ought to be.
That said, my anticipatory hostility toward this track eased up a bit as I found myself on some level actually enjoying it this time around. Musically, it is quite impressive (even if that has little do with the actual Beatles, let alone “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”), and its droney, spacious feeing winds up providing a unique and not unwelcome sort of textural variance. It has nothing to do with the stated concept of the album, but since the kind of eastern spirituality it espouses bears some relationship to the psychedelic experience (the Richard Alpert end of things), and since this kind of Indian influence on western pop was still something fresh and ear catchingly strange in its own time, it almost just about works. By the end of the song, I was feeing like it could go either way, and then, in a brilliant move, George Martin (I’m assuming) has the imaginary audience start laughing, as though it’s all been some strange, dreamlike trifle–a brief dip into the exotic before getting on with the show–and all, or almost all, feels forgiven.
That bit of laughter also serves as a timely mid-album invocation of the concert conceit just at the moment when it might otherwise be going decisively off the rails, and paves the way for what would otherwise be an impossible segue into “When I’m Sixty Four.” It’s another stylistic departure on the increasingly all over the place second side, but what it lacks in psychedelic flavor, it makes up for by being, really, the one song that actually sounds like a band called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” might have played. John was famously hostile to these sorts of cutesy, anachronistic numbers that Paul did from time to time, dismissing them as his “granny shit.” But at a rate of one per album or so, I find them mostly charming and harmless. They are sort of grandmotherly, actually, in a nice way–they provide a timeless sort of comfort and warmth. As with “Your Mother Should Know” on Magical Mystery Tour, that kind of old fashioned wholesomeness feels like a nice, calming note to rest on amidst the surrounding maelstrom of psychedelia. My mother and I danced to this one in a nice impromptu moment at my wedding, and whether for that reason or something more proximate and opaque, I found myself surprisingly moved by the song this time around. Its note of gentle sweetness felt so resonant and right as to give me chills. Perhaps in part it was attributable to the note perfect old-timey orchestration–all those wiggly little clarinet arpeggios and those great, shimmery Ellington effect horn parts. Capital work, George old boy.
“Lovely Rita” returns us in a general way to a more basic rock sound with pleasing psychedelic flourishes, and yet its a little too much of a lark to feel like the right song in the right place. It’s as though “When I’m Sixty Four” has exhausted the cutesiness allotment of this part of the record, and a dopey little song about a sexy meter maid is not what the record needs right at this moment, though its instrumental and vocal arrangements are quite pleasing. I’m a good deal more fond of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” which is one of John’s few contributions to side two. It’s always felt almost like a lost little gem of a song, back here near the end of the greatest album of all time. It’s a bit of a contradiction–one of the most straight ahead rockers on the album, and yet probably the only song in the entire Beatles catalog written in an asymmetrical time signature. And its big throaty horn section and cheery kind of melody consign it to feeling like a lighter kind of song, whereas the words have a kind of gravity to them–a melancholic reflectiveness and a kind of resignation in John’s voice that plays nicely off those chipper horn parts. I think it’s a really fine and consistently underrated song, one that harkens back to the earliest vision of the album as a kind of picture book remembrance of the band’s childhood–a premise that would have included “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Had those songs not been rushed out as a double sided single, they would have appeared on this record, making its creative dominance that much more indisputable. George Martin called their omission from this album the greatest mistake of his professional career.
Finally, after a structurally necessary but musical superfluous reprise of the “Sgt. Pepper” theme (peppier and less personable than the opening track), the album segues into “A Day in the Life,” its last and greatest moment, in which all the inconsistencies before it are forgiven, and a kind of gravitas sinks in that reaffirms the supremacy of the album and The Beatles as just about the best there ever was. It’s almost too grand a song to want to call it the best Beatles song–it seems too obvious, too calculated to be a high point. And yet there’s really nothing that can quite compare. It is the only true Lennon and McCartney song on the album, and among the last songs they ever collaborated on, though (as with “I’ve Got a Feeling” on Let it Be) their individual contributions are fairly discrete. The John part of the song–“I read the news today, oh boy”–is where the song’s substance most obviously resides. His verses are slightly abstract, but his enervated, quietly soulful performance of them underscores their gravity. It is though all of human history, its tragedy and folly, is filtered through the act of reading any given newspaper on any given day. Paul’s part–“woke up, fell out of bed”–has a jauntier, lighter feel, but its bounciness reflecting against the somberness of John’s part feels like a laying bare of our blinkered false optimism, the whistling by the graveyard by which we all get through our days. The two parts of the song, separately conceived, work perfectly together, and seem to sum up something of the character of its two authors. It is the perfect culmination of the ways in which their personal and artistic dispositions complemented each other, at least for awhile, forming a good part of the core what made The Beatles so great. John’s small, funny contribution to “Getting Better”–“it can’t get no worse!” does much the same, but here, that tension is expanded into a work of timeless grandeur.
If the two recitations of the chaotic orchestral swell give the song a kind of grand symphonic climax point (or points, I guess), the most emotionally arresting part must surely come right before the first one–John’s wordless, almost disembodied voice creating a trancelike spell leading out of Paul’s line “somebody spoke and I went into a dream.” I remember standing high on a hillside, just shy of twenty years ago, hearing Phish performing this song at the final concert of their summer tour. The year before, at the same venue, I was young and eager enough to elbow my way to the front row. But a year later, a little more seasoned, I permitted myself more freedom of movement near the back. On a whim, I started ascending the ski slope we were on all the way past the very rear of the crowd, and turned around just at the “went into a dream” part went off, looking down with benevolent, addled warmth on the backs of thousands of heads swaying in time, the spectacular, almost extraterrestrial looking light show on the distant stage below, and the sound of my favorite band in the world at the time doing quite a decent job at performing this complex and compelling song, never intended for live performance, written by my favorite band of all time. If this project has underscored anything, it is that I really was born a generation too late to experience the music that moves me most in its own time and context. But I did have my own version of twenty years ago too, and while it doesn’t begin to compare, or assuage the fundamental fracture of my anachronistic disposition, my own life and times brought with it a few such moments that I will recall fondly for the rest of my life.
Source: LP, of course. As planned, I listened to the 2014 Mono pressing, and it sounds every bit as great as advertised–truly the definitive version for our time. They even got the locking inner groove right! And I will say there is something about hearing that endless decaying piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” fading into inaudibility on an analog source–a kind of subtle, almost tangibility to the sound–that made me that much happier that I managed to hear a large percentage of these records in the format on which the world first heard and fell in love with them.