Sunday, August 23, 2009
SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
According to the Python troupe, when we die, we pass into a glorious technicolor paradise where eternity is spent celebrating "Christmas in Heaven". For the Beatles, metaphorical death occurred with the release of Revolver and the decision to stop touring.
Sgt. Pepper represents their rebirth.
Look at the cover. Wax models of the “old Beatles” stand amongst the assembled crowd of faces, almost as if they are ushers at a memorial service. They appear to be paying their respects, yet somehow are eerily attending their own funeral.
Alongside them, in the flesh, a brand new incarnation of the group takes center stage. Proudly holding brass instruments, dressed in loud, bright uniforms, they stand around a logo that identifies them as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the duration of this groundbreaking collection, they take on the guise of this colorful aggregation.
Surely, the meaning wasn’t lost on the quartet when they looked at the final proofs and saw the crowd, the flower arrangements and the word BEATLES carefully spelled out in what looks to be freshly turned, loose dirt. It’s not hard to imagine them staring at Peter Blake’s work through thick a cloud of smoke and smiling at the result.
Strip away all of the pretentious dissections of the LP and the “meaning” behind its conception and you’ll find that it all comes down to one key element:
Lennon: "We have been Beatles as best we ever will be-those four jolly lads. But we're not those people anymore."
Only if the LP had been released at Easter could things have played out any better.
Did they really plan all of this? Not from the larger perspective that some fanatics imagined. The initial goal was to write a collection of songs that touched on their childhood in Liverpool. Each selection would be designed so that it would be impossible to reproduce live. Once completed, the album would be the object that went on a tour of the world as an ambassador for the group, letting the music communicate their ideas to a waiting audience. The "Pepper" character was not yet on the radar.
Before delving into the specifics of the whole “Pepper episode”, as George Martin referred to it, let's revisit the events that led to the creation of one of the most influential discs in rock music.
Transitory periods involving established contemporary artists can sometimes run several years. Generally, a live album or greatest hits package is designed so that contracts may be fulfilled and fans have something to throw their hard earned money at while they wait for the release of new material. Free at last to develop their “masterpiece”, the hiatus begins with an expectation that the next project will surpass all previous efforts. This is true for only a handful of bands these days, though.
In the sixties, there were precious little time that could be wasted without having something in front of the record buying public. If you waited too long, listeners moved on to the “next big thing.”
Consider, for a moment, the staggering output that the Beatles provided to EMI in just four years: Seven albums, each containing 14 songs, 13 singles and countless EPs, one of which ("Long Tall Sally") contained material not found on LP or 45. All except one ("Love Me Do" in the UK) went to number one and sold in the millions.
Imagine the corporate reaction as this seemingly perpetual money and hit making machine decided to down tools and actually take the time to create at their own pace.
The fighting unit that had accomplished so much in such a short time was temporarily disbanded. John’s commitment to a bit part in Richard Lester’s “How I Won the War” was the main cause for the break, although the others took the opportunity to indulge in extra curricular pursuits as well. (Ringo accompanied John to Spain to “hang out” during the movie shoot) Paul and George Martin cooked up music for the soundtrack to a British film called “The Family Way”, while Harrison went to India to study sitar with virtuoso Ravi Shankar.
For the first and only time, they missed having anything on store shelves for the lucrative Christmas buying frenzy. In the UK, EMI released "A Collection of Beatles Oldies (But Goldies!)", which amounted to a "best of" set. The only new song was "Bad Boy" another Larry Williams cover tune that had already been thrown on "Beatles VI" in the US. There was no "Beatles Greatest" equivalent in the States, as Brian Epstein put his foot down with Alan Livingston at Capitol, squashing that plan.
Returning to Abbey Road, the first sessions in November of 1966 were devoted to a Lennon song that would take up an unprecedented amount of studio time and several revisions before it was deemed as satisfactory by its author. (He later expressed a desire to redo it yet again)
John presented “Strawberry Fields Forever” to George Martin and the group by sitting and playing the song acoustically. Martin fell in love with it immediately and cursed himself for not taping that version. Setting to work, several takes were completed before they hit upon an acceptable arrangement. Earlier run throughs began with the verse (“Living is easy with eyes closed”) instead of the “let me take you down” intro that ended up on the final master. Originally envisioned as a “gentle dreaming song”, it is completely futile to even speculate on what the author meant when he was putting this together. Smoking a lot of Spanish dope and sitting on the beach with his guitar, memories of a favorite childhood haunt in Woolton provided the initial inspiration. (Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army Children's Home where he often played. They had even considered posing in Salvation Army uniforms for the LP cover.)
Once all of the ingredients were in place, Lennon listened to it a few times and asked Martin to score it for strings and brass. A drum heavy , orchestrated track was the result of this request. Indecision then dictated the next startling development, as Lennon liked elements of both finished products. He asked Martin to weld the two versions together, despite the fact that they were in completely different keys. When informed of the technical obstacles that made this nearly impossible, he simply replied, “You can fix it, George.”
Miraculously, by speeding up one half and slowing down the other, he was able to make it work. The engineers at Abbey Road prided themselves in the fact that they could edit tape within a quarter of a second with no detectable traces of manipulation present in the end product. Longtime fans know the exact point where Strawberry Fields changes. For those of you that don’t, the edit occurs at the 59 second mark. You'll catch it after the second "let me take you down" in the midst of the word "going". It sounds as if the speed of the recording increases, which it does as the orchestrated track takes over. (Don't blame me if you never hear this in the same way again)
Brilliant and unsettling, the remarkable technical and artistic leap forward continued.
To anyone who is interested, I would recommend checking out the many bootlegs of these sessions that are widely available. I have one that documents every take up to the final master, with an introductory comment by George Martin.
Similarly, "Penny Lane" taps all of the landmarks in a neighborhood well known to Liverpudlians for it's subject matter, albeit with a lysergic twist. Many surreal images go by, with a few inside jokes and sexual references. The hook in the chorus is one of the most uplifting in the entire recorded legacy of the group. McCartney's forte has always been his ability to channel his natural ebullience while marrying it to unforgettable melodies. "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes" not only scans well but sums up a number of emotions in one line. McCartney apparently hummed the high flying solo to Martin who then wrote out a chart, performed by David Mason of the LSO on a B-flat piccalo trumpet. The recording process was not as drawn out as that of "Strawberry Fields" as McCartney was much more effective in communicating his ideas. Another incredible work of art was now in the can for the upcoming album. Things were starting out rather well.
In January of 1967, reality closed in and Brian Epstein inquired about new material to provide to EMI. The removal of "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" from inclusion on the Sgt. Pepper album was one of Geroge Martin's greatest regrets. When the 45 was released in February, it was the first Beatle single not to reach number one since "Love Me Do" ("Penny Lane" did hit the top of the charts in the US) Their baby pictures on the sleeve bore out the original concept of childhood memories inspiring the music.
Once again, moving too fast for their public, they made promotional videos to accompany the new sounds.
Fan reaction to the changes was mixed and in some cases quite negative.
Ignorance, as these songs represent two very talented men at their respective songwriting peaks.
Robbed of two key songs for the LP, the idea of revisiting childhood themes was scrapped. Forging ahead with the plan to create music with elaborate augmentation, Lennon presented Paul with a new fragment that he was working on and the two went back to the drawing board.
Paul: 'It was a song that John brought over to me at Cavendish Avenue. It was his original idea. He'd been reading the Daily Mail and brought the newspaper with him to my house. We went upstairs to the music room and started to work on it. He had the first verse, he had the war, and a little bit of the second verse.'
John: "I was reading the paper one day and noticed two stories. I was writing 'A Day In The Life' with the Daily Mail propped in front of me on the piano. One was about the Guinness heir (Tara Browne) who killed himself in a car. That was the main headline story. He died in London in a car crash. On the next page was a story about four thousand potholes in the streets of Blackburn, Lancashire, that needed to be filled."
One of their most ingenious collaborative efforts took some time to come together, though right from the earliest attempts, Lennon's vocal sounded incredible. Drenched in tape echo in an effort to achieve the same sound that Elvis had on "Heartbreak Hotel", the final product was light years ahead of the curve. Two twenty-four bar gaps were left in the finished version, with an eye toward filling each with an enormous rush of noise. The segue from this into Paul's "woke up, fell out of bed" middle section was inspired. Ringo turns in an incredible performance, providing great feel in every fill. It almost amounts to a duet with the vocal in the verses. When it came time to fill the spaces, dutifully counted off by road manager Mal Evans, they settled on hiring 45 pieces from the London Symphony Orchestra. The brief was written out for the players by George Martin, who explained that everyone would be simultaneously be playing from the lowest to the highest note of a charted scale, conducted by McCartney and himself. Two four track machines were slaved together in an attempt to capture this tremendous wave of sound and then overdub it to give the impression of two full orchestras creating a blast wave. Engineer Ron Richards had one hell of a hard time trying to get the machines to run in sync, but the result was one of the most daring experiments carried out in a British recording facility to date. The massive E chord that slams the song shut was played on three separate grand pianos by John, Paul, Ringo, Mal Evans and George Martin.
I'd love to turn you on. Accusing the group of fanning clouds of pot smoke in the direction of their fans, the BBC deemed this fantastic song as unsuitable for airplay.
Again, though it was one of the first things they did for the LP, this incredibly ambitious piece was slotted to close the disc. Really, what choice did they have? Months of tracking would come before any sequencing decisions were made. This is where all the theories about "A Day in the Life" fall apart. Many writers have fallen into the trap of attaching great significance to this song as a destroyer of the happy vibe that runs through Pepper and a modern musical rewrite of "The Waste Land". It was certainly none of the above.
Far and away it does take honors as the best track.
Ultimately, the Pepper motto really boils down to “Any way you like it.” This would work well for a short period, though it would eventually disintegrate into chaos as the drugs began to do them.
Though I sincerely do like the record, I don’t rank it at the top of their discography. First off, their approach to recording radically changed. Only rarely would everyone perform together, eye to eye, when the red light went on in the studio. This meant less spark and spontaneity and many more takes where individuals built instrumental parts in a piecemeal fashion. On the plus side, McCartney overdubbed many of his most inventive bass lines via this method. Conversely, ensemble playing skills eroded as no one had to be particularly switched on to achieve the desired result on the first passes.
Soon, the recording industry would be awash in a “we can fix it later” attitude that would produce many soulless, homogenized albums by artists who would find the perfect balance between tedium and pretension.
Feeding ideas into a communal pool and working with the best ones was pretty much a tacit agreement amongst the group and their inner circle. With pot, pills, cocaine and LSD permeating all decisions made around this time, it was certain that few would be considered too far out to pursue. Paul and Mal Evans first hit upon the name Sgt. Pepper on the plane ride back to the UK following a quick trip to the States. Spotting the S and P stamps on the salt and pepper packets, Mal asked about the initials triggering the whole conversation. McCartney was exposed to a growing number of bands who were adopting outrageous names and seized upon these developments as an ideal way to allow the Beatles to adapt the name of a fictitious group and disconnect themselves from their perceived public image.
For these very stoned young men in their mid-twenties, humor had a great bonding effect and now it was time to have a laugh on their audience. Pepper is riddled with many inside jokes, though the balance of power was shifting due to matters that didn't quite leave everyone laughing.
McCartney, being a very ambitious lieutenant, saw his partner literally knocking himself out while binging on LSD and created a sense of urgency to push forward with recording, so that their enterprise didn't coast off the rails. Lennon was willing to go along with any suggestion at this point, his usual argumentative disposition softened by constant tripping. George remained indifferent to the whole plan as his interest in being part of the gang was seriously waning. Ringo remained on call, ready to contribute, but his role had diminished. The band wasn’t playing together much at this point. After laying down a bed track, it could be weeks before the others finished piling on additional instruments, leaving him with little to do.
None of this was evident or spoken about publicly at the time. Once they got further into the work and each piece took shape, everyone knew that the finished product would be vastly different than anything they had previously tackled.
The show begins with expectant crowd noise and the sound of an orchestra getting in tune. This atmosphere is shattered by the opening blast of Ringo’s remarkably present kit (with a great, gated snare sound and toms that are quite 3-D for that period). Lead guitar barks as McCartney turns in what is arguably the most rock oriented vocal performance of the set. Decorative French horns glide into the mix with appreciative bursts of laughter and applause fading in and out. Nice three parts hammer home the chorus. Introductions made, the title character hands things over to Billy Shears to deafening screams (sampled from a Hollywood Bowl recording) and a clever transition.
Ringo’s vocal turn (“With a Little Help From My Friends”) is one of the catchiest Lennon-McCartney specials on the disc. Quite a bit of care went into the mix as the bass and drums are especially prominent, with a patented tom fill after the first chorus that is extremely resonant. Starr’s alter-ego (Shears) really digs deep to sing that last, long note. Under Lennon’s original title, “Bad Finger Boogie”, the tune was knocked around by himself and Paul during a casual song writing session, attended by author Hunter Davies, who wrote a detailed account of the pair at work for inclusion in his book. Had any singles been picked for release from Pepper, this would have been an obvious choice.
Great lengths were taken to experiment. Clunky high hats, reversed cymbal sounds, overdriven instruments creating signal distortion, strings, brass and a host of other auditory oddities make up the dense soundscape found here. Tape operator Jerry Boys would later say that they achieved sounds that are impossible to reproduce even with today’s technology. Working within the limitations of a four track environment actually led to further innovation, as creative solutions were required at every turn to meet the growing sonic demands of the three songwriters. It’s a wonder that the board didn’t catch fire at times as Geoff Emerick and Richard Lush coaxed increasingly bizarre sounds out of it.
More importantly, aside from intending to produce music of a very high quality, it was also programmed specifically to be easy on the central nervous systems of very stoned listeners. The harsh, biting sound of Revolver now gave way to dreamier textures. Compare the stabbing string arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby” to that of the lush “She’s Leaving Home” or the feel of “A Day in the Life” in juxtaposition to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Stylistically, it was all over the map. Can you think of a more jarring transition than what occurs as “Within You, Without You” closes (with a snippet of laughter) and the clarinet intro of “When I’m Sixty Four” kicks in? The jokes continue with the bizarre ending to “Good Morning, Good Morning” that involves an array of animal noises, set up so that each one you hear has the capability of overtaking and devouring its predecessor.
Until you get to the lone chicken clucking at the end.
Even that moment brims with inspiration as it is cleverly turned into the guitar notes that precede the Sgt. Pepper reprise, during which you hear Lennon say “Bye!” over the count in.
Following a fair amount of effort spent trying to shape George’s “Only a Northern Song”, the apathetic track was rejected for inclusion and following a period of sullen disillusionment, he hired a group of London-based, East Indian musicians and set to work on the beautiful “Within You, Without You”. Much unfair criticism has been lobbed at this one over time, though I think it’s the most successful of his forays into that genre. Listen to the complex timings in the middle instrumental break and you’ll begin to fathom how much thought went into it. You can even hear Harrison softly counting everyone back in when it stops for the shift back to the verse.
McCartney was spending more time behind the board with the production team during these sessions. His desire to hear things back exactly as he had conceived them drove him to perfectionist tactics, which didn’t always sit well with the others. Arguably, without his whip hand, there would have been much less band activity after Pepper. Self-directed, he logged a great deal of work and turned in several excellent songs in addition to those co-written with Lennon. He was by far the group’s most adept all rounder, overdubbing a number of other instruments with a natural ease.
"Getting Better", Fixing a Hole" and "Lovely Rita" all bear his composing stamp, the last being a great example of the "comedy song" theme he had half-jokingly mentioned pursuing in an interview the previous year. Receiving a ticket from a traffic warden named Meta, he was quite annoyed, though in the lyric, he embraced the spirit of the age and figured that it was better to love her. The comb and paper effects and the echoed, improvised vocal noises in the outro just add to the surreal nature of the whole project. There's almost another song in this cool piano driven fragment.
Lennon’s contributions were all born out of mundane situations. “Smoking pot and watching telly” inspired a few brainwaves ("Good Morning, Good Morning" was the main thrust for an advert featuring his favorite breakfast snack, Kelloggs Corn Flakes) though it was his son Julian's painting that gave birth to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds". Lewis Carroll and a host of studio tricks helped with the rest. I find that this one sounds like it was rushed and the transition from the verse to the chorus doesn't really work that well. Still a great tune (the bass lines make it), though the jump to 4/4 time spoils a good set up.
"Mr. Kite" had lyrics that were copied almost verbatim from a Victorian era circus poster that he had picked up while filming the spots for "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" in Kent. Tons of work went into creating the fairground atmosphere that Lennon asked to achieve from a sonic perspective. George Martin collected tapes of steam and pipe organs, chopped them up and had them pieced back together at random. The loops are extremely spacey when heard in headphones. Apparently, Martin collapsed on the studio floor in exhaustion after repeatedly hand pumping a harmonium through endless takes. Shifting to 5/4 time for Henry the Horse's waltz is an arranging masterstroke. John disavowed this one in the early 70s, though before his death he had one of his customary changes of heart, stating that it was, "pure, like a painting, a pure watercolor."
Subjectively, I would count “She’s Leaving Home”, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Within You, Without You” as being the most inventive tunes on the LP, with “A Day in the Life” (of course) towering over the rest. The material is quite good, though the real brilliance was in sequencing a clutch of disparate tracks that bear no resemblance to one another. Seamless work on the part of the entire production team had DJs actually playing the record in its entirety when it first came out, flipping it over as if it were a two minute single.
The cast of characters selected to appear on this iconic cover were suggested by John, Paul, George and designer Peter Blake. McCartney offhandedly told EMI president Sir Joe Lockwood that he would contact everyone (living) to get their OK for inclusion and indemnify the company against any lawsuits. He didn't trouble himself to do either and no one sued.
Let's put names to the faces.
Top Row: Sri Yukteswar Giri (guru) / Aleister Crowley (astrologist) / Mae West (actress) / Lenny Bruce (comedian) / Karlheinz Stockhausen (composer) / W.C. Fields (comedian) / Carl Gustav Jung (psychologist) / Edgar Allen Poe (writer) / Fred Astaire (actor) / Richard Merkin (artist) / The Varga Girl / Huntz Hall (actor) / Simon Rodia (creator of Watts Towers) / Bob Dylan (musician)
Row 2: Aubrey Beardsley (illustrator) / Sir Robert Peel / Aldous Huxley (writer) / Dylan Thomas (poet) / Terry Southern (writer) / Dion (singer) / Tony Curtis (actor) / Wallace Berman (artist) / Tommy Handley (comedian) / Marilyn Monroe (actress) / William Burroughs (writer) / Sri Mahavatara Babaji (guru) / Stan Laurel (comedian) / Richard Lindner (artist) / Oliver Hardy (comedian) / Karl Marx (philosopher, socialist) / H.G. Wells (writer) / Sri Paramahansa Yagananda (guru) / wax hairdresser's dummy
row 3: Stuart Sutcliff (former Beatle) / wax hairdresser's dummy / Max Miller (comedian) / "The Petty Girl" / Marlon Brando (actor) / Tom Mix (actor) / Oscar Wilde (writer) / Tyrone Power (actor) / Larry Bell (artist) / Dr. David Livingstone (missionary, explorer) / Johnny Weismuller (swimmer, actor) / Stephen Crane (writer) / Issy Bonn (comedian) / George Bernard Shaw (writer) / H.C. Westermann (sculptor) / Albert Stubbins (soccer player) / Sri Lahiri Mahasaya (guru) / Lewis Carroll (writer) / T.E. Lawrence A.K.A. "Lawrence of Arabia" (actor)
Front row: Sonny Liston (boxer) / "The Petty Girl" / wax dummy of George Harrison / wax dummy of John Lennon / Shirley Temple (actress) / wax dummy of Ringo Starr / wax dummy of Paul McCartney / Albert Einstein (physicist) / John Lennon / Ringo Starr / Paul McCartney / George Harrison / Bobby Breen (singer) / Marlene Dietrich (actress) / Diana Dors (actress) / Shirley Temple (actress)
Hitler, Jesus and Ghandi were slated to appear but did not for understandably diverse and controversial reasons. Bowery Boys actor Leo Gorcey wanted to get paid and was painted out.
Critics fell over themselves in praise of the record. Years later, most of the very same writers savagely panned it, one calling it a "day-glo tombstone for the hippy era". This wildly misses the point. On one hand, Pepper is as redolent of 1967 and the so-called "Summer of Love" as tie dye, painted faces and flowery, spaced out young people, happily spinning and dancing in their own world. However, if you simply listen to the disc it is not inexorably tied to the trappings of this colorful period. There is no mention of Vietnam, political figures of the time or any other sociological phenomenon that was then current. Imagination fuels every cut, not rhetoric.
Long dissertations have been devoted to the fact that Pepper wasn't truly a concept album. From a lyrical standpoint, there was no attempt made to devise a plot line where Sgt. Pepper loses three of his senses and becomes a pinball playing, messianic figure. Curiously, the name is used only to introduce the proceedings and briefly say goodbye toward the end, which was a suggestion made by road manager Neil Aspinall.
Instead, the concept focused squarely on the band themselves and their assumption of an entirely different look and sound.
Hindsight reveals quite a few “firsts” as the lyrics were printed out on the back cover, bands of silence between songs were eliminated and the presentation was certainly the most elaborate, colorful and expensive that the rock world had ever witnessed. Looking at my own copy, it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that if they could have had inserted a trigger that produced insane laughter when you opened the gatefold, it would have been attempted. EMI auditors had to move in and put the proverbial foot down as time wore on, with ideas growing more outrageous at every turn. Roughly six months and one hundred thousand English pounds (in 1967 terms) went into making Pepper a reality.
Longtime fans know all of the stories, to be sure, though what has gone down as gospel isn’t even agreed upon by the band members themselves. The passage of time, coupled with the frequent substance intake which virtually permeated that era is primarily responsible. Complicating matters further was the new fanaticism that developed among devotees. Many seekers pored over the densely packed cover (through a cloud of smoke) searching for deeper meanings that they were certain just had to be placed there by their heroes.
Letting their imaginations steal a car amd drive it at high speed off of a cliff, the drug addled and deluded dreamed up a host of outrageous ideas about Sgt. Pepper. Rumors that the moustache featured on the cardboard cut-out insert was impregnated with LSD flew along with many other ridiculous theories. Some even tried to play the centre label in a desperate attempt to find hidden messages. (The gibberish that was deliberately placed as a joke in the run-out groove probably added more fuel to that fire.)
The only real message relayed was that the group had moved far beyond the realm of four wax figures put on display for little girls to scream at.
We're not those people anymore
This is where the Beatles saga crossed over into mythical territory.
Who wrote the charts and arranged the string octet on "She's Leaving Home"? What does that stoned little snippet of chat in the run-out groove say when you play it backward? Who's tripping in the gatefold photo?