Thursday, 23 February 2012

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

My apologies, this has been some time in coming. Here’s parts one and two if you need reminding. 

Before I begin in earnest, let’s consider the importance of the vinyl album format. In many ways the rise of CD has simplified the running order of albums considerably — all you have to do is write a consistently brilliant set of songs and hope they play out in any order they may be shuffled. Things were different on vinyl — and in the late Sixties, when the album began to supplant the single as the primary text for any student of popular music, the running order issue became one of vociferous contention.

The most obvious formula for writing a successful long player is to assemble it much like a typical sitcom on ITV. By this I don’t mean ‘make the tea-making session between parts the funniest bit of the show.’ No, I’m reliably informed that the dramatic curve of a sitcom for commercial television can be expressed on a graph in a W-shape: you start with a bang, settle down for a while, but bring things simmering back up at the End Of Part One. Then, pick up the thread where you were after the ad break, explore the ongoing scenario, and continue rising until you end on such a big laugh you have to end. 23 minutes’ worth of classic comedy. Roll credits over rapturous canned applause.

Hmm. They also say that nothing kills a good joke quite like having to explain it, and it’s possible that charting {laughs [x]} over {audience expectation [y]}, or whatever, is not the way to get big woofs out of the general public and everyone out there in TV land. No wonder ITV haven’t had a unqualifiably brilliant sitcom since Man About The House and Rising Damp. Think about it. Yes, ask your parents if need be.

All that said, the theory at least is workable and has some merit — and since rock’n’roll is not the new comedy, we can safely apply this to many rock albums (though not all. How dull that would be). So, assuming an album has, say, five or six songs per side, you had to start with a strong opener. Obvious of course, but crucially this gambit must not necessarily be your best song, as you risk rendering anything that comes after it, no matter how brilliant, as merely second best or worse. The mood has to move sideways for the second song: something as bright, or something as interesting, but you can’t afford to take the mood down too early. By the third or fourth song, you can start to take the listener to different places if you have them, and the final song on Side One has to end the first half on enough of an intriguing high to induce an instant desire to flip the record and crack on with Side Two.

Play out this entire scenario in reverse, as it were, on Side Two and you had a balanced album with a bit of light and shade, some ecstatic highs and absorbing lows. Devising this made musicians play harder. It wasn’t enough simply to turn in good performances on record — suddenly you had to assemble apposite juxtapositions and create a seamless musical package that sold your artistic ‘vision’ as much as the songs alone. Some of the greatest musical moments on albums have often been down to imaginative associative planning as much as the songs in of themselves. A good album, needless to say, is a rollercoaster of emotion based on this agony of decision, especially if those involved have worked too well and produced an embarrassment of songwriting riches to cherry-pick.

With all this in mind…

Within You Without You — a song which could not have been placed anywhere else on Sgt Pepper than where it is, starting Side Two with a lush, opulent fade-up on tambura drones (see Getting Better on Side One) and a sinuous, ululating line from a marvellous bowed lute called a dilruba. George Harrison had of course experimented with sitar on Lennon’s Norwegian Wood in 1965, and created a raga-rock coalition in Love You To on Revolver a year later — but here he ventures into fully Extreme Indian Territory and we are like, so not in St John’s Wood any more, Toto. How delightfully alien it must have seemed to so many first-time listeners — after all, it’s a moot point just how turned-on and tuned-in the 1967 generation were as a whole. Don’t let extant Top Of The Pops footage of Carnaby-clad hipsters and leggy dollybirds fool you: outside the Swinging epicentre of London, much of the nation’s youth ticked along — short-back-and-sided, twin-setted and A-lined — as it had for years. Doubtless young people’s awareness of Eastern mysticism jumped exponentially in the Sixties, but the Raj had been over for a generation; I’d argue an average English person’s experience of Indian culture up till then began and ended with curry — or worse, Coronation Chicken.

With this in mind, it’s perhaps understandable that George Martin admitted feeling rather ambivalent, diffident even, at the time of recording, perhaps being unsure what to do with Hari’s epic sonic creation — but being Sir George, he rose to the occasion spectacularly. Working closely with the Indian musicians whom Harrison had hand-picked from a London Asian Music circle, Martin wove a Western string section into their web, painstakingly scoring and schooling the seasoned Brit session musicians to handle the microtonal slides and swoops that came so easily to their Indian counterparts. The combination creates a slyly enchanting haze of backing instrumentation that makes all other Sixties artists attempts at co-opting the Indian sound seem lumpen, ill-informed, gratuitous and touristy by comparison. The sitar on The Rolling Stones ‘Paint It Black.’ Dave Mason’s one on Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe.’ Everything by Donovan — all splendid pop, but really…there’s no need.

Critical opinion has vacillated over George Harrison’s sole composition for Sgt Pepper for many years. I have seen Within You Without You on ‘Worst Songs By Great Bands’ lists. This is clearly wrong. Sure, the lyrics are a little preachy, as Harrison’s tended to be when his otherwise fine-tuned sense of humour deserted him, but the music is challenging, spacious, luxuriant and beguiling. The laughter that punctures the final seconds of the song has even been cited as a necessary apology for the song — as if Harrison played it to the other chaps and asked them how they rated it out of ten. Oh, tush. Given the cheerful, evident daftness of the next track, I think it’s there to let you know that the spaceship has landed back on Earth and it’s time to get a bit silly.

When I’m Sixty-Four — a brilliant piece of programming places this domestic vaudevillian pastiche after the cosmic exoticism of Within You Without You without so much as a key change. This has to be Paul McCartney’s goofiest song at this point in his career. How easy it is to knock, so closely is it identified with the questionable aspects of its creator: the breezy, instant ease of the melody, its sentimentality and palpably overweening need to please the listener. If McCartney’s assertion that he wrote it aged 16 is true then it’s also a sickeningly precocious ditty. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant song, with a sympathetic, gently wry lyric, a Light Programme-style score from George Martin and even a brief detour into minor key unease in the middle eights. It doesn’t even have a chorus as such, more of a perky musical punchline. It’s not pop, rock or indeed anything by anyone else in the same field — but what it most certainly is, is a credible part of the ongoing Sixties pop preoccupation with an idyllic English past. As such, it’s as valid and essential to the overall psychedelic experience as anything with big, backwards, phased electric guitars. By the time he’s trying for cheerful, chirpy, flyaway fun the following year on The Beatles (The White Album), McCartney’s sense of spontaneity has worn away and we’re left with the forced jollity of Wild Honey Pie and Rocky Raccoon. By 1969, he’s writing Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. Bear that in mind and be thankful for what we have here in ’67.

Lovely Rita — McCartney returns to less questionable pop grounds with a song — as is reasonably well known — originating from his amiable encounter with a local traffic warden named Meta. The eponymous association with her tools of her trade tickled McCartney and he was sufficiently inspired to write a song. Deviating from the facts of the encounter in an instant, his initial lyric held ‘Rita’ in a negative light until he realised that a declaration of love for this much-misunderstood street stalker might be more fitting for the times. The lyric is sung with a kind of slightly breathless, lightly Scouse insouciance (“fillin’ inna tickhet in a li’l white booook”) that renders the whole tune sun-filled and bouncy. Throw in some potty interjections on comb-and-paper kazoo, chugging scat-backing vocals and a suavely casual piano solo from — Ladies And Gentlemen — Mr George Martin, and it’s the kind of music that makes you glad you live in London in the summer. But hark, what’s this? Yet again, McCartney can’t quite let the light shine directly on his world as the song threatens to venture into bluesy minor-ish territory with an instrumental coda which drops the key by a full fifth. The lads, bereft of lyrics, chip in with numerous grunts and groans, mostly silly, but providing ample scope for imaginative misinterpretation. Even on such a cheerily flippant number, The Beatles seem to access the subconscious demi-world between the audible, the comfortably familiar — and the sinister, half-heard and mysterious. Not for the last time, either.

Good Morning Good Morning — John Lennon bought Kenwood, a mansion in Weybridge, on financial advice and peer pressure in 1964. Having never really known accommodation outside of suburban semis and flats, the Lennons inevitably found themselves rattling around Kenwood’s 22 rooms before eventually retreating to make home in a handful of smaller rooms to the rear of the property. John’s favourite spot was the sunroom. There’s a famous photo of him there, reading, recumbent, copy of International Times in hand and feet crossed upon the yellow couch. The walls were decorated with framed postcards, magazine clippings and stickers just like any art student’s digs. Out of shot, one can readily imagine the television set he’d installed in the fireplace — sound turned down but picture constantly on. All other information about the outside world came from newspapers. John Lennon would have been an enthusiastic proponent of the Internet, of that I have no doubt. Back in ‘67, with no need to tour, and no great pressure to produce any work, Lennon would survey his parvenu empire in this supremely supine state and eventually conclude that he was a deeply discontented man. Success had knocked the wind out of his ambition and the consequent idleness, married to free hours of experimentation with ego-destroying drugs, bred excessive self-regard, surrender — and ultimately — depression.

Fortunately, Lennon knew himself well enough to administer a kick up the arse sooner rather than later and he weighs in for the first time on Side Two of Pepper with exactly the kind of thing people love about his best work in The Beatles. A full-blooded cock crow and a sax broadside announce a punchy, pacy song with a mildly tricksy, restless metre and sly, knowing lyrics delivered with trademark cool. Absolutely brilliant. There’s a lot crammed into these tart, crisply worded lines; collected thoughts almost lifted bodily from a diary at points, it seems. Essentially the song concerns Lennon’s idleness, the need to address it and the (mostly sexual) things he does about it, but all couched in sufficiently vague enough terms so as not to arouse overt personal scrutiny — or worse, wifely suspicion. This was a tactic he’d previously employed, most notably when describing his incipient paranoia about celebrity in Help!, existential fear in Nowhere Man and an ignominious one-night stand in Norwegian Wood. All this and another superb McCartney guitar solo — stinging, flowing, dutifully obliging Harrison’s taste for something Indian, but inadvertently acing the younger man in the process. And for the five of you out there who don’t know — yes, the animal parade that takes the song to fadeout consists of beasts, sequenced at Lennon’s request, each capable of hounding the next: cockerel, cat, dog, elephant, huntsmen…until all that’s left are the hens in the farmyard.

At this point one last, daft bit of fun happens: one of the roosters morphs, sonically speaking, into a guitar and suddenly we’re back in the concert hall of Side One. This effect has been described with a small degree of rapture in some quarters, but it never really convinced me…until I heard the mono version. For some reason, the stereo edit makes the transition blunt, clumsy; the mono renders a closer, more satisfying execution of cluck into pluck. Once again I can only say: listen to both versions in quick succession and you’ll hear exactly what I mean.

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise) — the return of Sgt Pepper’s Band and their signature song was suggested by Beatles personal assistant Neil Aspinall when his charges found themselves stuck for an effective way to round off the album. It was an idea so self-evident, so elegantly simple that it was seized upon by the Beatles with instant zeal, Lennon quipping, ‘no-one likes a smart-arse, Neil!’ Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to imagine the album without it, and Pepper’s enviable reputation as a seminal ‘concept album’ pretty much rests upon this conceit.

A simple solution requires economic execution and here, perhaps for the first — certainly the last — time on the album do we get “THE BEATLES” as rock band, playing pretty much live in the studio like they could have done had they found a way to take the album out on tour. And as Paul McCartney has often — far too often — said, The Beatles were a pretty good little live band. So it shows in the recording, the last thing committed to tape in the Pepper sessions, made in half a day and featuring the band essaying their ‘traditional’ group roles: Lennon on rhythm guitar, punchy, almost loop-like drums from Starr, some stinging lead lines from Harrison, bass from McCartney — and all four on vocals. Notwithstanding the discreetly overdubbed organ stabs by McCartney to punctuate the song, it’s a palpably live and exciting recording, with the concert hall ambience only adding to the effect. The harmony is particularly arresting, consisting mainly of a held note enunciating the lyric line a fifth above the root of the melody — a simple, even lazy, tactic that  brilliantly contrasts with the scalar, rollercoaster movement of the main melody.

Even among the fun here, though, shadowy, half-heard things can be found: check out Lennon’s cheeky ‘bye!’ in between McCartney’s brisk count-in and the bizarre, smothered, hectoring vocal that fights to be heard over the song’s exit — an effect heard more clearly, but no less mysteriously, on the mono version of the LP. And then, of course, there’s the encore...

A Day In The Life — many words have been written on this song alone — up there with Strawberry Fields Forever among the most dissected and debated songs in the Beatle canon. There’s little to add to the words and voices of people more stylish, accomplished and eminent than I in this matter — or as Ian MacDonald put it in his sublime Revolution In The Head: ‘more nonsense has been written about this recording than anything else The Beatles produced,’ — but hey, I’ve come this far and nothing is going to stop me now.

Elsewhere, Albert Goldman in his ridiculous The Lives Of John Lennon, described the crossfade from the Pepper reprise to A Day In The Life as like a ghost ship with an ice-encrusted bowsprit, looming up through a freezing fog. It pains me to say that on this one poetic point alone do I agree wholeheartedly with the otherwise contentious and contemptible Dr Goldman and his astonishing, shocking and ultimately pitiful hack job on Dr Winston O’Boogie. Again we see the importance, the impact, of astute running order arrangement as the showbiz applause and curtain-closing finality of the reprise fades away to leave but a single pale shade on stage (the mono recording does this segue with more grace and less pace than the stereo version). It’s one of the most effective and chilling ‘and now we’re gonna bring the mood down a little’ moments in all pop music — the equivalent of ending a TV sitcom with a credits caption saying the lead actor has since died.

Has John Lennon’s vocal ever sounded so epically desolate, so glacial? Never happy with the sound of his voice on record (ironically for the rest of us), Lennon was so impressed with the quality George Martin invested in his vocal here — achieved through short, slap-back echo and a soupçon of reverb — that he seems to have used it on virtually everything he sang upon until his death. The idea was certainly not original — Lennon was no doubt pleased that Martin had made him sound as Elvis did on ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ or Gene Vincent generally — but here the effect was pressed into service on a song described by some as a pop version of The Waste Land. The analogy is debatable, but there’s certainly something of the lofty Greek chorus about Lennon’s journey as he carefully unfolds his lyric — and what lyrics.

The opening verse seems to concern the death of Lennon’s friend, Tara Browne, a swinging socialite of landed gentry stock who had befriended various members of the Sixties pop aristocracy. Browne had met a tragic end in a car crash in December 1966, believed to have occurred while he was tripping on acid (no other people were involved). 

Consider Lennon’s stunning delivery, particularly as he observes “he blew his mind out in a car. He didn’t notice that the lights had changed,” combining head-shaking regret with enough glassy-eyed detachment to throw away the evident head trauma/acid trip pun. It’s a dark moment in one of the scariest, yet most eloquent and attractive things Lennon ever wrote.

But it’s not all John’s show. During the first half of the song, McCartney never palls and Starr shines brightly. McCartney lays down a lightly bouncing, perversely perky bass part that somehow never jars with Lennon’s epic sprawl. He also provides the eerie, Satie-esque piano part whose beauty lies in its distance — as if someone was playing a piece in another room entirely that just happens to fit (when we get to Magical Mystery Tour later in ’67, we’ll hear a full-blown rendering of this amazing idea). Starr’s drumming is dramatic, with a sure awareness of dynamics and the value of occasional silence — again played with such acoustic reverberance as to make it seem like an artefact from a previous recording that’s only been partly wiped off the master tape. Oddly, Harrison’s contribution throughout is almost nonexistent, providing only the persistent, if distinctive, maracas.

“I’d love to turn you on…”

For the final, scintillating time, George Martin brings an orchestral arrangement to the table that is arguably the pièce de résistance on Pepper. Here’s the biggest band on the planet, the most popular and populist — the band, as a result, in greatest danger of becoming so familiar as to be safe and unremarkable — bringing you, through Martin’s incredible orchestral orgasm possibly the most vividly alien, disturbing, psychedelic moment not only on the album, but in all Sixties pop. Other bands have pulled off some weird shit in their time, so to speak, but I can think of nothing that manages to convey such narcotic rush and dislocation, yet remain so studied, so (literally) orchestrated. No-one in that orchestra does anything unless Big Uncle George says it’s OK. What a turned-on, quietly hip cat that Sir George Martin is.

I use the term ‘breezy’ a lot when I consider McCartney’s output but it’s never more appropriate on A Day In The Life, with his melody at the bright centre of the song (‘woke up, fell out of bed…’) literally blowing aside the brooding dread of Lennon’s first segment. His piano playing here is funny, fleet-fingered and virtuoso — and never has McCartney’s winsome tone (recounting his memories of riding buses in childhood) been so welcome and comforting in its no-nonsense briskness. So completely does it do the job of cloudbusting Lennon’s gloom that even when Lennon returns with a wordless, lyrical vocal transition back to his section of music, the tempo retains an element of McCartney’s energy, with the piano part playing up and the drums now keeping rhythm rather than than mood. It’s a breathless sprint to the finishing line of ‘nowtheyknowhowmanyholesittakestofilltheAlbertHall…’, time for one last turn-on, an orchestral tune up and — thanks to eight hands overdubbed several times on the same grand piano — the ultimate drop out: a piano chord so massive and recorded with such sensitive attenuation by Abbey Road’s mics that by the time it fades entirely it is competing with the whirr of the studio’s air-conditioning system.

It’s not quite the end though. Those of you with dogs may notice their reaction just before the record ceases spinning. A brief high-frequency tone burst was added, at the outer periphery of human hearing, but well within canine range, guaranteeing a splendid time for Man’s Best Friend too. Straight after this — and replicated faithfully on CD — a section of conversational gibberish was cut into the runout groove, creating an instant mantra for anyone too stoned to get up and take the record off the turntable. Rumours abounded as to what this ‘message’ meant, either played forwards or backwards. In all probability it was randomly snipped, but it all added to the mystique of those smiling, sinister, shining Beatles.

So, it’s none too shabby, all told. Pepper persists in packing a cumulative punch that few other contemporaneous albums can boast. Its legendary tagline, A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For All, evokes hip, Edwardian playbill-style frippery with delightful accuracy. While some songs are light in tone, nothing is makeweight; there are no filler tracks — if anything, it’s really quite surprising how short the album is, clocking in at under 40 minutes, yet feeling far more substantial and satisfying. An epic psychedelic voyage of variety tastefully pared down to its leanest, if not meanest. Touching on every age of human existence from childhood, youth, dotage and death, with lyrics ranging from the blissfully concise, the lysergically opulent, some half-heard, others semi-misunderstood…and all wrapped in Peter Blakes wonderful cover collage of mysterious, delightful, disturbing and sexy images — it is, to use the vernacular, quite a trip.

Nonetheless, between the sunny, primary-coloured and blissfully groovy grooves, the year 1967 — as Bob Dylan would probably put it — was the one when the shit really starts to go down for The Beatles. I’ll discuss that next time.

But first, a drink.


Currently watching:
A Fistful Of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)
For A Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965)
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976)
Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood, 1985)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1991)
Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

I seem to have plenty of time for Clint Eastwood at the moment.

Currently listening:
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles, 1967) — well, what else, silly?

1 comment:

  1. Brilliantly insightful and thought provoking analysis. When I get older, not so many years from now, I will place the needle on Side One of your exemplary exegesis and press to play. Thanks for the pepperoni.