Friday, June 1, 2012

We Hope You Will Enjoy The Show: The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper turns 45

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

For many, 1967 was the summer of love. For the most part, it was all happening in San Francisco. For the Beatles, they fit right in with what was going on. On June 1, 1967 the Beatles released an album that surprised and astounded fans and critics alike. That album was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. At the time of its release, it was strange for a band like the Beatles to release something like this. The band had come far from the days of Beatlemania as four suit-wearing, mop-topped boys from Liverpool. The release of Sgt. Pepper saw a more mature approach to the music, as the band experimented with different genres of music. For some people, Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album of all time. For me, Sgt. Pepper is my third favorite album of all time (right behind Let It Bleed by the Rolling Stones and Abbey Road). With that, I’ll give this amazing album a song-by-song review treatment.
            1966 had been a rough year for the Beatles. They had released Revolver but they had grown tired of touring as they couldn’t hear themselves play. They were also getting death threats, especially after the US had heard John Lennon’s out-of-context quote about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus. After the band’s last show at Candlestick Park in August 1966, the band took a break up until November 1966 when the band returned to the studio. The band had all grown mustaches, which wasn’t anything they had planned. It just so happened that when the four Beatles entered the studio, they had all grown out of the image that had made them famous. The band then began work on their next two songs, which was released as a double A side 45 single. Those songs were Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul McCartney’s “Penny Lane”. Released in February 1967, the two songs introduced people for what was to come for the band’s next album. According to the band and various other sources, it was McCartney who came up with the idea for a fictional band while on a plane with Mal Evans. In an interview with Gayle King in 2011, McCartney admitted that he came up with the name “Sgt.Pepper” after hearing it come from Mal Evans, who was really saying “salt and pepper”.

            The band went along with McCartney’s idea and recorded the self-titled track and “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The whole idea for the rest of the album was for the band to perform as this fictional band. However, the idea was scrapped. Aside from the two aforementioned tracks and the reprise, all of the other songs had nothing to do with the concept. They could’ve ended up on any other album but for some reason, every song on Sgt. Pepper fits with all the other tracks.  The album was recorded from December 6, 1966 till April 21, 1967, a grand total of 129 days.

Song-by-song review

1.      “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”- As with any album, the first song is the one that’s going to reel you in right from the start. The self-titled track is no different. What you hear in the beginning are the sounds of an audience getting ready to see a show while they tune their instruments. The band does a great job at mashing the sounds of a rock band with the sounds of an orchestra. The lyrics tell the story about a band who have been playing for twenty years and are ready to perform an audience again. The song took only four days to record. Another interesting fact: the screams that go into “With a Little Help from My Friends” are the screams of the audience from the band’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965. We are then introduced to the one and only Billy Shears…

2.      “With a Little Help from My Friends”- Ringo takes over lead vocals for this classic track. The song began life as a tune that Lennon had written while playing on the piano. He called the piece “Bad Finger Boogie”, as he had hurt his forefinger before writing the song. This working title for the song would end up helping Apple Records signed band, the Iveys, with a new name for their band (Badfinger). Paul also helped with writing the song, as he and John knew that this would be Ringo’s song to sing for the album. However, Ringo says in the Anthology book that he suggest for the beginning lyrics to be changed. Originally, it was supposed to be “What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?” Ringo told them that there was no chance in hell that he’d sing that. The sound of the song is a little bit vaudeville like and it does sound like a song you’d hear someone perform at a bar. According to one source, the band finished up recording the track the day before they shot the legendary cover of the album. “With a Little Help from My Friends” would be covered by several artists over the years, Joe Cocker’s being the most famous.

3.      “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”- At the time of Sgt. Pepper’s release, there were many accounts to what “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was really about. The BBC banned the track as they thought the song stood for LSD, which was totally bogus. Decades later, we all know that this song was based on a drawing that John’s son Julian had made. John remembers that one day, Julian had come home from school. Julian then showed his father something that he had drawn in school that day. When John asked what it was, Julian said “It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds.” Lucy O’Donnell was one of Julian’s friends at school and according to Julian in later interviews, he admits that he must’ve had some sort of affection for Lucy at that age (3-4 years old).

Whatever the case was, the drawing inspired John to write this song. The lyrics don’t seem to have anything to do with the actual picture but what John wrote was what sounds like a psychedelic dream of sorts. Despite visiting John’s house, seeing the picture and helping write the song, McCartney was later quoted to saying that the song is an acid song. There is no doubt that during the making of the album, all of the band were experimenting with drugs. Whatever the case might be, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a classic.

4.      “Getting Better”- We now arrive to yet another great track off the album. “Getting Better” could be thought of as a deep track but then again, perhaps not. The song was written by Paul mostly, who said he wrote it in his music room on a piano. Although the song’s title and feel is positive and upbeat, there are some negatives in the lyrics. The lyrics talk about an angry young man, who didn’t listen to his teachers in school and even abused women. Still, the man says that things are changing and things are getting better. There is some sort of black comedy in this song, much like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, but has some sort of hopeful feel like “We Can Work It Out”. The title for the song is said to have come from temporary drummer, Jimmie Nicol. Nicol toured with the Beatles in 1964 during an Australian tour. While Ringo was having his tonsils taken out. Beatlemania was at its height and things were crazy. When Nicol was asked how things were, he would say that they were getting better. Personally, this is one of my favorite songs off of the album.

5.      “Fixing a Hole”- Paul takes over for this psychedelic number. Personally, this has always been one of my favorite songs off of Sgt. Pepper. The song is believed to have been written while Paul was mending a hole that was in the roof of his home in Scotland. This is not true.  According to Paul, he said he didn’t “ever got round to fixing the roof on the Scottish Farm; I never did any of that until I met Linda”. The song is really another ode to marijuana, much like “Got to Get You into My Life”.  According to Paul, the song is about being free from being told what to do and how one’s mind might wonder while on drugs. While psychedelic, there are elements of jazz in the song. Indeed, “Fixing a Hole” is a highlight off of the album.

6.      “She’s Leaving Home”- This classical-riddled track was inspired by a story Paul read in the Daily Mail. The article was about 17-year-old Melanie Coe, a schoolgirl from London who went missing without her car or anything. Her parents, of course, were in shock. They were puzzled by why Coe would run away when everything is at home. According to one source, Coe ended up renting a flat in Paddington but ended up coming back home about ten days after the article was published. Ironically enough, the Beatles had met Coe before on the music TV show Ready Steady Go when she won a miming contest. McCartney presented her with an award. The music for the song was written by McCartney. McCartney did write some of the lyrics but Lennon later helped complete them. Believe it or not, Coe is still around. In Steve Turner’s A Hard Day’s Write, Coe was quoted to saying that she was amazed at how accurate the song was. When Coe first heard the song, she related to it but never thought the song was specifically about her. McCartney went through a lot of trouble trying to get the song recorded according to various sources. Still, “She’s Leaving Home” is an amazing song.

7.      “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”- The Beatles, of all people, dabble in circus music! The story goes that John Lennon was in a antique shop during the promo video shoot for “Strawberry Fields Forever” bought this 19th century circus poster. It was a poster for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal and listed all the acts that would be there: Mr. Henderson and Horse Zanthus (though his  name was changed to Henry in the song). John based this entire song on the poster and this is what came out of it. For the middle section, Lennon and George Martin decided that they had to do something with the fairground organ and calliope bits. Martin told engineer Geoff Emerick to take the tape of the middle eight, cut it with scissors, throw them in the air, and then insert them randomly during the middle eight. This created the “whooshing” sound in the song and it worked perfectly.

8.      “Within You Without You”- George Harrison gets to have one song on Sgt. Pepper. In the early sessions for the album, there was another song by George that was meant for the album called “Only A Northern Song”. The song was scraped and saved for the Yellow Submarine album in 1969. Of the 13 songs on the album, “Within You Without You” might be my least favorite song on the album but I still like it very much. George wrote this on a harmonium while at a dinner party in London home of Klaus Voorman. Just like “Norwegian Wood” and “Love You To”, you can hear George playing sitar. Believe it or not, George is the only Beatle that is on the track. The lyrics were definitely inspired by George’s growing interest in India. There are references to spiritual philosophy and perhaps one or two drug references. John Lennon was later quoted to saying that “Within You Without You” is one of George’s best songs.

9.      “When I’m Sixty-Four”- The Beatles go vaudeville in this McCartney-penned song. While “When I’m Sixty-Four” does appear on this album, the song was actually written when Paul was only 16. In his interview with Playboy in 1980, John Lennon said that the song did indeed come from the Cavern days. According to several sources, the band would play this in the early days of the Beatles when the amplifiers broke or when the electricity went out. The song is about a man who wonders if his lover will still love him when he gets older. It’s a jazzy sounding song and it does sound like something you’d hear back in the day. “When I’m Sixty-Four” was the first song recorded for the album (which didn’t have a title yet), which is a little hard to believe. It doesn’t sound like the first song you would write for an album but nevertheless, “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a classic.

10.  “Lovely Rita”- “Lovely Rita” is a great pop-music hall sounding song. Paul wrote this song about a man who falls for a meter-maid, who he calls Rita. The recording of the song is quite interesting: John, Paul, and George are all playing music on a comb and paper. This can best be heard right before the lyric of “When it gets dark I tow your heart away”. George Martin is quoted to saying that “Lovely Rita” isn’t a favorite of his but I think most Beatles fans love the song.

11.  “Good Morning Good Morning”- Along with “Within You Without You”, “Good Morning Good Morning” is a pretty deep track off the album. The sound of the song could be towards the lines of hard rock. This song was written by John. He was inspired to write this song after remembering a commercial he had seen for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. He liked the jingle in the commercial so he used that as a template almost. Paul was later quoted to saying that he thinks John wrote the song about becoming bored of living at home. John and his wife, Cynthia, were going through some problems. John didn’t like sitting at home, watching TV soaps. He wanted to go out. The animal sounds at the end were put together by Geoff Emerick.

12.  “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”- As the album comes to an end, the Beatles perform a shorter reprise version of the self-titled track. This makes a perfect book end to the album: “We hope you have enjoyed the show”. Still, there’s one more song the album so this is a perfect transition to the last song.

13.  “A Day in the Life”- We now come upon a song that many people consider to be the best song the Beatles ever made: “A Day in the Life”. The song was an example of how far one could experiment with pop music. The song was mainly written by John Lennon. According to Lennon, he was sitting at a piano reading the 17 January 1967 issue of The Daily Mail. There was a story about Tara Browne’s death. Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune, was killed in a car accident. The article in the paper was the coroner’s verdict. From that story alone, Lennon had the first two verses. The next verse is a reference to the film How I Won The War, a Richard Lester picture that Lennon had starred in during the three month break.

McCartney also had a piece that he wanted to put into the song but didn’t fit in musically. Martin arranged for a whole orchestra to play on the track. The idea was to have an “orgasm of sound”, an alarm clock would go off to tell them to stop, and then McCartney’s bit would begin. According to McCartney, his part in the song could’ve been its own song but it fit with the song as sort of a daydream. McCartney’s bit was autobiographical in a way: he sings about how he would get to school when he was younger. This then goes back into the beginning of song. Next, Lennon sings about another article from The Daily Mail in their Far and Near column. There was a story about there being 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire. After the second “orgasm of sound”, the song ends with a slowly fading crashing piano sound. This was done by taking three pianos. Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and Mal Evans also hit the same keys at the same time. The ninth take is the one you hear and the end result is phenomenal.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1, 1967 in the UK and the following day in the US. Although McCartney had an interest in touring again, the Beatles decided to never perform live again. When the album was released, it received very positive reviews. Critics and fans alike were impressed by the album. In some ways, it gave the Beatles a bit of a comeback. The album had a big effect on some musicians, such as Brian Wilson. Once Wilson had heard “A Day in the Life” and the rest of the album, he decided to abandon the album the Beach Boys were working on called Smile (Wilson would later complete the project in 2004 and the Beach Boys version finally saw the light of day in 2011).

For me, Sgt. Pepper is one of my all time favorite album. I have it ranked at #3 on my list of favorite albums. It’s an amazing album that showed the Beatles could play just about anything. Sadly, it was also the beginning of the end for the Beatles but it was also the beginning of the band’s experimental years, with albums like The White Album and Abbey Road. Sgt. Pepper was the first of them. Forty five years later, it still sounds good.

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