Monday, March 24, 2008

167. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Do you remember that awful 1978 movie starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees? Well, it turns out that was based on an album by a little-known rock group called The Beatles! Who knew? I'm in the process of reviewing all of their albums, so here's we go...
For an obscure band with only a modicum of success, The Beatles were kind of full of themselves. Just look at the company they're keeping on the cover of their 8th album: Peter Lorre, Marilyn Monroe, W.C. Fields, Robert Zimmerman, etc. Obviously they had an inflated view of their own significance. The music on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band suits that sense of grandeur.

Even the evolution of sound that was evident on Revolver cannot prepare the listener for the kitchen sink approach of this record. It's there right from the start, on the title track, which features an orchestra tuning up, horns, canned laughter, a searing lead guitar from George Harrison and a raspy Paul McCartney vocal. What's more, The Beatles showed they were making an ALBUM, meant to be heard as one piece. That's clear when the opening tune segues right into the singalong With A Little Help From My Friends.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds cements the anything goes vibe. If John Lennon sounded like he was on a distant mountaintop on Tomorrow Never Knows, here he sounds like he's on another planet. And I have to point this out: The initials of the song spell out LITSWD. Do you think that was intentional?

The handful of experts who have studied The Beatles often generalize by saying that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were yin and yang, rhythm and melody respectively. Truth is, musically, they crossed over quite regularly. It was in outlook and sensibility that they differed most, and there are some prime examples on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

At this point, the band's two main songwriters were participating far less in collaborative writing, instead composing independently. The optimistic Getting Better is a Paul song, but John makes his mark by adding a brutally honest bridge ("I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved") and in the sly background responses to the chorus: "I have to admit it's getting better / Getting better all the time (It couldn't get no worse)".

The album's crowning achievement, A Day In The Life, also marks clear differences. Lennon's spooky verses tell depressing and obtuse tales straight out of the headlines, while McCartney's boppy bridge details a breezy morning routine.

Even Sgt. Pepper's "lesser" songs are no less strange or innovative. Tracks like Lennon's carnivalesque Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite and McCartney's whimsical When I'm Sixty-Four are leagues away from the pop music of the time. George Harrison adds one song, Within You Without You, a continuation and culmination of the Eastern fascination started on Love You To.

She's Leaving Home is a heartbreaking, string-laden tale of a teen runaway, and her parents' shocked reactions. McCartney's lyrics do a great job of showing both sides of the story. And I've always found Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) to be underrated. Rarely are reprises more exciting than their non-reprise forebears. I think it's the guitar and harmony that does it for me. Because they're both McCartney compositions primarily, these highlights point to another storyline brewing in The Beatles' saga. After seven albums clearly dominated by John Lennon, this one is Paul McCartney's show.

It's also producer George Martin's show. To have orchestrated (sometimes literally) all of the sounds that the band wanted to create, and to have done it so cleverly, is a huge achievement. In fact, mark it down in those terms for everyone involved.

Grade: A+
Fave Song: When I'm Sixty-Four

No comments: