Monday, 7 November 2011

1967, part two: Sgt Pepper’s Sinister Summer of Love (Side One).

The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, having been in fermentation since the last days of 1966, burst like a cork from a colourful carboy onto the public on June 1st, 1967. It was instantly hailed unanimously as a masterpiece, almost certainly the single most outstanding artistic contribution to the collective idea, in pop culture terms, that the summer of ’67 was the ‘Summer Of Love.’

From the outset, I’d like to assert how much I find this expression irritating. Such a tiresome, oft-used term, frequently employed with no thought as to its accuracy. I’ll come back to that later, but while I’m on the subject of things that annoy me, all too often do I find people adopting an automatic, contrary stance when confronted with lists of time-honoured exemplars in popular culture: The 50 Greatest Albums Of All Time, 100 Films You Must See Before You Die, and so on. OK, it’s often true that these lists are lazily compiled, with opinion canvassed from people with short memories and dubious quality control — not the likes of you of I, of course, dear reader — and consequently consist, particularly among the highest-ranking nominees, of the usual suspects: tediously inevitable mentions of say, The Godfather, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Casablanca, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, and Sgt Pepper itself. How easy it is to knock these sacred cows when they have been so visibly hoist by their own petards onto ever higher pedestals, if you’ll allow me my hideous head-on collision of metaphor (and I fully understand if you won’t).

Nonetheless, I do believe that some things recur on these lists for a good reason; that they may actually be rated so highly because they truly contain the necessary elements to move the soul, animate the feet, lift the spirit and have the legs to do so time and again — and their widespread mainstream acceptance shouldn’t always be taken to indicate appeal of the lowest common denominator. In other words, some things are so good, everyone can see it. Subsequently, I share the general critical consensus of 1967 and beyond in believing Sgt Pepper to be a significant work, not just in pop music, the Beatles’ career or even the Sixties, but as an outstanding cultural artefact of all time. Furthermore, it’s not even my favourite Beatles album — I oscillate wildly between the consistently heavier, snappier Revolver of 1966 and 1968’s luxuriant, eclectic variety on the ‘White Album‘ — but it captures a certain spirit quite like no other.

The album had a long gestation by any standards of pop music working practices now as then. August 1966 saw The Beatles release Revolver and play their final live shows as a touring band. George Harrison famously said at the time of that last concert, in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, ‘That’s it — I’m not a Beatle any more,‘ — and while the group seemed happy enough to continue recording together, their suggestions for what would become their next album, their first as a studio-based band, implied that some distance had already set in regarding how they saw themselves as an ongoing concern. Initially, they conceived of an album that would revisit their childhoods in Liverpool. Secondly, they could record under a pseudonym, affording them the freedom perhaps to explore different musical styles and personae. As it turned out, the album became an amalgam of both ideas, but either direction promised to place the music somewhere else other than ‘now’, in a way The Beatles had never quite tried before on this scale.

Instantly, one can hear a difference. Sgt Pepper is a triumph of composition and artifice artfully piled upon artifice. Sound effects dominate: audience ambience, animal cries, hunting horns, steam organs and alarm clocks punctuate the record at regular intervals. Session musicians provide a richer template of backing than ever before, with half the songs featuring string, brass or woodwind arrangements — or all three. It’s a far cry from the punchy, 1-2-3-4 garage-rock sound of Revolver. Even Tomorrow Never Knows on that album, for all its spaced-out acid sprawl and technical wizardry, has an edgy, exciting live quality to it — as well it might; even the tape loops were ‘played’ live, with each Beatle manning faders and piping the repeated sounds up and down in takes every bit as instant as a guitar solo. The first sounds heard on Pepper, in direct contrast to Revolver’s audio verité cough’n’count-in opening, are of an expectant theatre audience cribbed from a Beyond The Fringe LP (another George Martin production) and the overdubbed sound of an orchestra tuning up. It creates a marvellously anticipatory atmosphere. Time to start the show:

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — a brilliantly pitched song, being one that conveys enough swagger and excitement in of itself, yet promises greater things to come. McCartney dominates proceedings, a high-falutin’ huckster talking up the fictional band and the show, in a manner reminiscent of the Edwardian music hall style that so many groups of the mid-Sixties would come to admire. McCartney’s truly remarkable contribution to the song is a stinging lead guitar that evokes Jimi Hendrix — a compliment acknowledged and reciprocated within two days of the album’s release when Hendrix opened a live set with a suitably ‘Experienced’ cover version. Elsewhere, it’s business as usual for The Beatles, with their familiar, close-knit three-part harmonies in the choruses — even as they claim to be another band entirely — and some droll interjections from a mock-pompous parping brass section arranged skillfully as ever by George Martin. The song segues into the next one, as Sgt Pepper’s band introduce a new singer — the one and only Billy Shears...

With A Little Help From My Friends — the by-now obligatory Ringo number on Beatles records tended to be something of a little novelty nestled in among weightier material, such as the mildly dated-sounding, simplistic rock’n’roll of Boys, What Goes On, I Wanna Be Your Man and Matchbox. Anything, it would seem, to suit his somewhat gruff and unfashionably mature-sounding baritone. On Revolver and Sgt Pepper, things start to change. Yellow Submarine on the former album, while a lightweight piece often likened to a nursery rhyme, has the remarkable distinction of sounding like it has been around forever — and as any writer of children’s novels will tell you, that’s not easy to achieve. With A Little Help From My Friends is a gentle, straight-ahead, but credible pop-rock song, sung and played with an engaging insouciance and slightly mocking doo-wop-style backing vocals. It’s probably the first song written specially for Ringo that sounds like the kind of music Starr would find solo success with on albums such as Ringo in 1973 or 1974‘s Goodnight Vienna — not just in execution but in semi-autobiographical sentiment as well.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds — it’s time to get a little grimy, sonically speaking. We need to talk about reproduction — stereo versus mono. Studio recording, mastering and cutting procedures in the Sixties tended to favour mono mixing; most households owned mono playback sets at the time. Like quadrophonic sound some ten years hence, the new dual speaker systems were viewed as expensive, indulgent audiophile follies and the public, much as they have done with CDs over vinyl, Laserdiscs over VHS or Blu-ray over HD Discs, displayed initial consumer resistance to the brave new format. They knew what they liked, liked what they had and held onto it as long as they could. Consequently, all work on a single or album was in service to the best sound in mono playback — a stereo mix was often done as an afterthought, and not usually carried out with a quarter of the time or effort.

I mention all of this because the mono version of Lucy is not only markedly different, but arguably superior. It’s probably fair to say that the stereo recording of Lucy is the more widespread version of the song year-on-year, played most likely on the radio and in pubs via the medium of CD: until recently, it was almost certainly the only way I had heard it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song any way it comes. Starting with the beautifully spidery organ intro leading into a kind of waltz-stepping minuet of a verse, Lennon clearly delineates his surreal, colour-strewn landscapes with a plaintive, high-register vocal. The song grows darker with Harrison’s sinister metallic shimmering drone on tambura, phased cymbal washes from Starr and Lennon’s increasingly icy delivery. Come the chorus, we hit what George Martin happily describes as a ‘clutchless gear change’ into a straightahead 4/4 rock groove, replete with tight vocal harmonies, organ quips and a curiously ‘squidgy’ sounding guitar part achieved by feeding the output through a Leslie speaker cabinet (normally used to create the skirling growl of the Hammond Organ). However, straightahead is how it sounds: the mono version is the whole story, swamping the song, the chorus especially, in numerous phasing effects that render the song ethereal and indefinable in a way that was clearly left off the stereo mix. Now this is the version that would have provided the soundtrack to a million Sixties bedsits, households and parties. Whoa, The Beatles, man. I could explain the process of phasing that creates the difference, but really, just find a mono recording and play it, then the stereo. You’ll thank me for it.

Getting Better — what a bright, chirpy sound we have to start this song, with the chipper guitar stabs and the friendly warmth of an electric piano to accompany yet more harmony vocals. There’s a lazy groove to the tune, aided by Ringo’s laidback bongo part, McCartney’s eternally breezy vocals and that piano/guitar chime that feels no need to do anything but play the same note throughout to such brilliant effect. However, not for the first time on a Beatles record, we find a ghost at the feast. It apparates in the middle of the song, riding on the returning tambura drone in the sonic equivalent of a sudden drop in temperature:

I used to be cruel to my woman; I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.

Seriously, consider this lyric. It’s simply not funny. If it was a spoken confession on a police interview tape it’d be stark, brutal and scary. It’s also sung by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in bright two-part harmony. I’m amazed they got away with this — it’s not exactly I Want To Hold Your Hand now, is it? Nor is it even as ambiguous as Lennon’s threat to ‘let you down and leave you flat’ on 1964’s You Can’t Do That, The Beatles’ previous song alluding to violence against women (previous!) in which the menace is mostly implied through Starr’s relentless wife-beater cowbell, a sound that conjures up the comically inappropriate image of the drummer sat at the kit in a gravy-stained string vest. In any event, the moment on Getting Better takes itself at its word and literally gets better, our protagonist moving along, pledging to change his ‘scene’ and improve himself. The juxtaposition of upbeat music melody and harsh lyrical subject matter is both artless and oddly effortless, as if the lyrics were written first and the melody wedded to it later in a glassy-eyed moment of stoned acceptance. It could be a one-off on the album, an ambiguous detour, except that the song that follows on its heels is...

Fixing A Hole — Dig that harpsichord that splays out in decadent fashion at the start. Notice also how the harpsichord relies on the same on-beat, repetitive quality as the guitar/piano in Getting Better — this particular technique manifests itself on many subsequent Beatles songs and is one of the quintessential elements that constitutes whatever nebulous, intangible, but instantly identifiable ingredients come together, right now, to make music ‘Beatlesque’. It’s interesting that these songs are placed together when they betray such similar songwriting traits. I remember reading somewhere that this song has been interpreted as about heroin — the ‘fix’ of the title, filling the ‘hole’ made in an addict’s vein. What a visceral notion. Given what we know about Paul McCartney, his state of mind at this point in The Beatles and his usual lyrical style, I’d be inclined to discard this theory outright. Lyrically, the song’s meandering, literally wandering sentiment and mental equanimity (it really doesn’t matter, if I’m wrong, I’m right) suggest to me a kind of stoned bliss state, our hero evaluating everything with holistic, evened-out judgement and coming to calm conclusions. Therefore I do think the song is a drug song, but obliquely so, wrapped up in a brisk bit of classy psych pop and being drug-induced rather than explicitly about mind-altering substances in itself.

She’s Leaving Home — here, we find melodic beauty colliding with the lyrical seriousness of kitchen sink drama. The story was based on a real newspaper report about the heiress to a respectable family business upping sticks to find adventure with new friends. The words in the chorus have the gritty, terse quality of panicked, parental quotes bodily lifted from the newspaper copy (“We gave her most of our lives, sacrificed most of our lives. We struggled hard all our lives to get by”) while McCartney’s vocal brings compassion and empathy, adroitly avoiding mawkishness. A beautiful, extended melody underscored by strings: like Yesterday, or Eleanor Rigby before it, it would usually be the work of Paul McCartney and George Martin — except in this case. McCartney was keen for Martin to get down to the studio and block out a string score, but found Martin unable to pull out of another producing obligation. Piqued by rejection and allegedly feeling so hot-to-trot with his new song, McCartney contacted arranger Mike Leander, who effectively created an angelic arrangement that wouldn’t disgrace George Martin. Martin was upset at McCartney’s offhand willingness to usurp and replace him momentarily, but graciously conducted the score in any event, conceding that his old friend Leander had indeed done a good job. And so he had, creating a witty arrangement wholly reminiscent of Martin’s trademark fussy, Edwardian parlour-room sound, complete with morse-tapping emergency strings and a serene, plagal ending. Nonetheless, recent interviews reveal Martin clearly still feels the slight McCartney gave him that day. As for Mike Leander, he would later find fortune as the musical force behind most of Gary Glitter’s greatest hits. We’ll have to forgive him for that — he knew not what Gary was doing.

Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! — it’s well documented how John Lennon created his kaleidoscopic carnivalesque lyrics from an antique poster advertising “the last night but three!” of a successful run of the great 19th century showman Pablo Fanque and his Circus. Having had his imagination fired by the playbill, and being a chap of occasional laziness, Lennon must have been delighted to find the majority of his lyrics waltzing clean onto the page by themselves with little need to alter them from the original. Nonetheless the alterations he makes are witty, in keeping not only with the spirit of the billing but also Lennon’s own time — “what a scene!” Again, we find the Beatles leading a vanguard of musicians in the mid-Sixties in a psychedelicised preoccupation with the style and attitude of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was Hendrix in his little drummer boy military jacket, boutiques such as I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and The Beatles themselves in their day-glo marching Pepper Band outfits and matching ‘taches, reaching back farther than the Teds had in the Fifties to something…frillier, more arch, stylised and dressy — and boy, didn’t it catch on in Swinging London. Lennon’s triumph on Mr Kite is not just his eye for a snazzy poster, but the lugubrious, almost comedic music he constructed to fit the song like a bespoke Crimean artillery jacket. The push-pull wheeze of the tune appealed to George Martin who found it easy to grant Lennon’s request that the listener be able to ‘smell the sawdust’ in the score. Enter a calliope,  a steam-powered organ favoured by fairgrounds. Martin instantly aced his own idea by cutting up the recording of the organ into sections that ran randomly backwards and forwards, creating a giddy, ambient whirl with a suitably lysergic twist to proceedings. It wasn’t just Lennon who had the Sixties ‘found idea’ ethos coursing thrillingly through his veins. The mono version, for featuring George Martin’s magical musical melange to the fore, trumps the stereo version for this reason alone.

So there you have it: a rocking intro to usher in the show, a legitimately good song for the drummer, tangerine trees and marmalade skies, allusions to dark, terrible violence and the promise of redemption, contradictory, blissful insouciance, hand-wringing domestic drama and Victorian cirque-a-delia — and we’re only halfway through, nineteen-odd minutes. Nineteen really odd minutes.

End of Side One and already it’s shaping up into something varied, unusual, compelling. Seriously, who knows what the second side will bring?


Currently watching:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
Kingdom Of Heaven: Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott, 2005)
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2009)

Currently listening:
Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Edition (Jethro Tull, 1971, 2011)
The Dark Side Of The Moon: Immersion Edition (Pink Floyd, 1973, 2011)

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