1.06.2009

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Okay. We all know the deal with Sgt. Pepper's: five-star record, revolutionary recording process, best rock album ever, yada yada yada.

I'm listening to Sgt. Pepper's from start to finish for the first time, which hopefully gives me a somewhat unique perspective on the record. My goal is not to slaughter a sacred cow, nor is it to blindly celebrate an album just because I've been told it's great. I'm merely reviewing Sgt. Pepper's as a guy who loves rock music but is very late in getting around to a really important album.

Music: 4.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
Sgt. Pepper's only major flaw is that most of the songs don't rock. The experiments on this record forever changed the face of rock music, but hardly anything here possesses the excitement or energy of the earlier Beatles recordings. This album planted the seeds of great musical creativity, but it also planted seeds that grew into flaccid musical genres like Adult Alternative. For that alone, it's flawed.

With that said, I loved listening to Sgt. Pepper's. I heard new things in songs I've known for years, and I fell in love with songs that are new to me. "A Day in the Life" is amazing, and "Within You Without You" blew me away. "Fixing a Hole" and "She's Leaving Home" are very touching and emotional, and it's hard to believe they came from the mind of a 24-year-old rock star. I'd always dismissed "When I'm Sixty Four" as being just another silly love song, but it's actually a wonderfully poignant sentiment about two people sharing a life together.

On the down side, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is stupid, "Lovely Rita" is trite, and "With a Little Help from My Friends" is annoying. The occasional cultural references date the music far more than the production does, and the drug references sprinkled throughout the record reek of cheap rebellion.

Packaging: 5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover of Sgt. Pepper's is almost as influential as the music. It's nice that this CD release includes additional information about how both the record and the jacket were created. For instance, I never knew that this was the first record to include printed lyrics, that Mae West initially refused to be included in a "lonely hearts club," or that John Lennon requested an extremely high-pitched noise be put at the end of "A Day in the Life" to annoy people's dogs. (This last bit of info makes me suspect that Mr. Lennon was a bit of a douchebag.) This was a superb package the first time around, and despite the reduced size of the CD jacket, the additional information makes this a great package on CD also.

Listen if you like: Any music from the past 40 years. It reflects poorly on me that I'm just now listening to this record for the first time.

If it were food, it'd be: water.

10 comments:

Jeff said...

I think taken out of its historical context, Sgt. Pepper is no better than any other Beatles record dating past Rubber Soul, which certainly isn't a bad thing. It has some amazing moments, such as the ones you mentioned, and I would include "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" on that list too, but also some pretty annoying ones, namely, "With a Little Help From My Friends". The album is amazing, it's importance is incredible, but on that same note, every Beatles album is incredible...

Master Cianan said...

Man, you really hit the nail on the head with this one. I guffawed at you fixing the blame for "adult alternative" on this one, but I see where you're coming from.

bob_vinyl said...

I think your point about its inability to actually rock is good. Sure, there are some great moments (you forgot to mention how much the title tracks does flat out rock), but the price of experimentation is often that the work is calculated and Sgt Pepper is no exception. The year before, they found a much healthier mix between experiment and emotion on Revolver.

Still, they did keep the album free of actual stinkers. "With a Little Help from My Friends" is emotionally impotent (at least here, but Joe Cocker makes good on it) and "Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite" is silly, but none of the songs are out and out bad.

The importance of Sgt Peppers cannot be overstated, but I do think the goodness of it often is. This and Magical Mystery Tour both suffer from the same problem and it may have been as much a product of the time as anything else. The Summer of Love itself was the product of nice ideas that grew quicker than the substance needed to support them. This was also the period where the Beatles were forming Apple with grand visions that would soon prove to be drug-addled delusions as the company struggled despite the band's continuing ability to sell records like no one else. Despite the strengths of both, the Beatles made more complete records that actually did have teeth prior to and after Sgt Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour. However, Sgt Pepper may be one of the only records that could score a ten without scoring a ten in soul.

Master Cianan said...

Wait, Bob... Joe Cocker makes good? Yuck, dude! He's not emotive, he's just overwrought! Don't be fooled!
God only knows how he stumbled into a career. Perhaps my next "hate it" will be about him.

bob_vinyl said...

I'm not a Joe Cocker fan, but his rendition of "A Little Help From My Friends" is done the way it should have been done in the first place. He kills on that one.

Master Cianan said...

Well, he sure kills... me, that is. Have you heard him do "everybody hurts"? He should be in prison after that one.

bob_vinyl said...

Like I said, I'm not making a case for his greatness, I'm just saying he did justice to that one song.

Master Cianan said...

It's appropriate, since the incessant propping up by his friends in the industry is the only thing that's kept him off the dole for the last 40 years.

Professor Rosseforp said...

This LP is fantastic, for sure. But as you have stated, it's not necessarily because of the fantastic songs.
Having said that, most bands wouldn't mind having tracks like "Lovely Rita" and "Good morning" which I believe are absolute stinkers -- the equivalent of "Good day, Sunshine" on Revolver, with their mis-placed use of brassy arrangements.
Imagine if Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane had been left on there.
My favourite, is the much put-down "Within you, without you", which for me, incorporates a nice dose of Eastern mysticism with some very clever ensemble playing from western and eastern musos.
The reprise of Sergeant Pepper on side 2 is pointless.
Speaking of cover versions, I only recently heard Jose Feliciano's cover of "A Day in the life" -- it's a live version and he does the orchestral ascent on the guitar. It doesn't quite work, but as they say in Fargo, "with Jose you got no complaints".
I would also cite Elton John as one of the worst covers ever, for "Lucy in the Sky", perhaps only exceeded by his own cover of "Pinball wizard" which was a million-selling mish-mash and a mockery -- perhaps Pete Townsend could have smashed his guitar over Elton -- although maybe the royalties were nice.
On Joe Cocker -- at his best with The Grease Band, at his worst with "Leave your hat on", which sounds like an updated "High time we went", i.e. a song that goes nowhere.
As much as anything else, the production sound on Sgt Pepper really announced that pop music can be art music.
Imagine if the Left Banke had the production skills put into Sgt Pepper!

M. Thomas said...

It was nice to see someone "blown away" by "Within You Without You", sweet! I've owned this lp since I was 8 years old in 1971 and got it for a birthday present.I just recently played it for the umpteenth time, and actually listened to the lyrics of this Harrison song. A truly beautiful and succinct expression of a lovely, humanistic life philosophy. I'm still stunned.