Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band June 1967

“The biggest influence on Sgt. Pepper was Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys,” said Paul McCartney in 1980. “That album just flipped me. When I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh dear, this is the album of all time. What the hell are we going to do?’ My ideas took off from that standard. I had this idea that it was going to be an album of another band that wasn’t us — we’d just imagine all the time that it wasn’t us playing. It was just a nice little device to give us some distance on the album. The cover was going to be us dressed as this other band in crazy gear; but it was all stuff that we’d always wanted to wear. And we were going to have photos on the wall of all our heroes.”

That’s the standard view of Sgt. Pepper, from the man who almost single-handedly created the album, and its legend. In this reading, Pepper is the best pop record of all time — the album that customarily wins critics’ polls, the masterpiece that first persuaded “serious” musical critics that pop was worth their consideration.

There’s a rival view of the whole affair, however, and it was put forward most cogently by McCartney’s supposed partner, John Lennon. “Paul said ‘come and see the show’ on that album,” he moaned a few years after its release. “I didn’t. I had to knock off a few songs so I knocked off ‘A Day In The Life’, or my section of it, and ‘Mr Kite’. I was very paranoid in those days. I could hardly move.”

More than any other Beatles album bar Abbey Road, Sgt. Pepper was a Paul McCartney creation. It was he who dreamed up the concept, the title, the idea behind Peter Blake’s remarkable cover, the orchestrations, and the device of pretending that the entire LP was the work of another band entirely — which in turn became one of the major themes of the Yellow Submarine movie, then in its pre-production stages.

Meanwhile, John Lennon was deep in a creative trough. For the first time, Lennon and McCartney appeared — to Lennon, at least — to be in competition rather than on the same side. Since the Beatles had played their final live shows in August, McCartney had been composing — first the musical themes for the film The Family Way, then the songs that would appear on the next Beatles album. Lennon had also been involved in film work, but as an actor, in Dick Lester’s How I Won The War. Required for the part to shed his Beatle locks, he adopted the granny specs that soon became his trademark, stared into the mirror, and wondered what the future might bring for an unemployed Beatle. Back in England at the end of filming, Lennon regarded McCartney’s enthusiasm to get into the studio as a threat. Aware that he was likely to be outnumbered in the songwriting stakes, he raised the emotional barriers and took against the Pepper album from the start.

In the end, Lennon came up with the requisite number of songs for the album, but he never warmed to the concept. On Revolver, and again on the majestic ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, cut early in the sessions, he’d experienced the relief and satisfaction of writing from the heart. For Pepper, he was back where he’d been in 1964, writing songs to order. Hence the sarcastic, dismissive comments he reserved for this album throughout the rest of his life.

Whatever else Sgt. Pepper may or may not have been, it was certainly an event. It unified British pop culture in a way no other occasion could match. Maybe in hindsight it wasn’t The Beatles’ strongest album, but it had an impact unlike any record before or since. It literally revolutionised the direction of pop, helping to divide it between those who were prepared to follow the group along the path of experimentation (thus creating “rock”) and those who mourned the loss of the less significant Beatles of yore (the champions of “pop”). After Pepper, nothing was ever the same again — within or without The Beatles.

(All songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney unless otherwise indicated.)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Complete with the appropriate sound effects, the album’s uptempo title track introduced the record, the concept and the Club Band. It performed the function of an overture in an opera, preparing the audience for what was to follow, and introducing the themes that supposedly unified the piece.

With A Little Help From My Friends
The Beatles’ official biographer, Hunter Davies, watched Lennon, McCartney and their associates completing work on Paul McCartney’s original idea, aware from the start that this would be a vehicle for Ringo Starr — or “Billy Shears”, as he was billed in the opening seconds of the song. Though the song’s theme was tailored towards Ringo’s warm public image (right down to the line, “What would you think if I sang out of tune?” a real possibility), at least one observer saw a hidden meaning. Speaking in 1970, US Vice-President Spiro Agnew told an audience that he had recently been informed that the song was a tribute to the power of illegal drugs — news to its composers, perhaps.

Not often did other performers outclass The Beatles with cover versions of their songs, but Joe Cocker’s gut-wrenching version of ‘Friends’ in 1968 left Ringo floundering.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
The minor furore over the meaning of ‘Friends’ had nothing on the frenzied response to this piece of whimsy from the pen of John Lennon. “I was consciously writing poetry,” he admitted, shifting blame for the line about “newspaper taxis” to his nominal co-writer. But the Alice In Wonderland style imagery, supposedly inspired by a drawing John’s son Julian had brought home from nursery school, was widely believed to be a description of an acid trip. As soon as someone noticed the initials of the song’s title (LSD), that seemed to clinch the story — except that Lennon continued to deny it until his dying day. Having owned up to so much else down the years, there was no reason for him to lie — especially over a song which he always felt was “so badly recorded”.

Getting Better
Based on a favourite saying of Beatles’ stand-in drummer Jimmy Nicol (who briefly deputised for Ringo on tour in 1964), ‘Getting Better’ was a McCartney song augmented by Lennon, who contributed the self-accusing verse that began, “I used to be cruel to my woman”. Ever since Lennon’s death, McCartney has bemoaned his inability to find a co-writer who, like John, would answer a line like, “It’s getting better all the time” with, “Couldn’t get much worse”. Even in the midst of what was intended to be a concept album, McCartney could turn out a song that was clever, melodic, memorable and universal in its application.

Fixing A Hole
For the first time in England, The Beatles left Abbey Road studios for the session that provided the basic track for this fine McCartney song, often overlooked by critics and fans alike. EMI’s studio was fully booked for the night, so the group moved to Regent Sound on the West End’s Tottenham Court Road.

While John Lennon’s writing veered between fantasy and obvious self-revelation, McCartney’s skirted from the romantic to the delightfully oblique. This song definitely fell into the latter category, with lyrics that unveiled as many mysteries as they solved. Instrumentally, too, ‘Fixing A Hole’ was a minor classic, from McCartney’s opening trills on the harpsichord to the lyrical guitar solo.

She’s Leaving Home
“Paul had the basic theme for this song,” said John Lennon, “but all those lines like, ‘We sacrificed most of our life… We gave her everything money could buy’, those were the things Mimi used to say to me. It was easy to write.”

Paul’s rather precious piece of fictional writing wasn’t helped by Mike Leander’s ornate score for the song, one of the few occasions when The Beatles were left sounding pretentious. It took the realism of Lennon’s answer-lines to cut through the sweetness of the piece.

Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite
A masterpiece of ingenuity rather than inspiration, ‘Mr. Kite’ was written when John transcribed the wording from a vintage circus poster into verse form, and recorded with the help of scores of small segments of fairground organ tape, tossed into the air and then stuck back together to produce the eerie noise that dominates the instrumental sections. Lennon dismissed it as a throwaway — which, when you remember how it was made, is pretty apt.

Within You, Without You (George Harrison)
Though it was John Lennon who resented Paul McCartney’s domination of the Pepper sessions, George Harrison probably had more cause to be aggrieved. He was restricted to just one number on the LP, his other contribution (’Only A Northern Song’) being rejected.

Like ‘Love You To’, ‘Within You, Without You’ blatantly displayed Harrison’s infatuation with Indian culture. Recorded with the assistance of several Indian musicians, plus Beatles aide Neil Aspinall on tamboura, the song required no help from any other member of the group. “It was written at Klaus Voorman’s house in Hampstead, one night after dinner,” George explained a decade later. “I was playing a pedal harmonium when it came, the tune first, then the first sentence.” Some thought it a masterpiece, some a prime example of mock-philosophical babble. Either way, it was pure Harrison.

When I’m Sixty Four
Paul began writing this song when he was a teenager, needing only to add the middle sections for this revival of a 10-year-old melody. Within the concept of the album, it fitted the image of the Edwardian Pepper band, whereas it would have seemed mawkish on any of the group’s earlier LPs. The addition of clarinets to the mix heightened the pre-First World War feel.

Lovely Rita
The anthem for traffic wardens (“meter maids”) everywhere, ‘Lovely Rita’ was a glorious throwaway, full of musical jokes and brimming with self-confidence. Nothing on the record expressed that as fully as the piano solo, ironically played by keyboard maestro George Martin.

Good Morning, Good Morning
Using a TV commercial for Kellogg’s cereal as his starting point, John Lennon concocted a wonderfully dry satire on contemporary urban life. Several points to watch out for here: the reference to the popular BBC TV sitcom, Meet The Wife; the ultra-compressed brass sound provided by members of Sounds Incorporated; a stinging McCartney guitar solo; and the cavalcade of animals, in ascending order of ferocity, which segues into a reprise of the title track.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
For the first but definitely not last time, Paul McCartney topped and tailed a set of songs by reprising the opening melody, in true Hollywood musical fashion.

A Day In The Life
Delete ‘A Day In The Life’ from Sgt. Pepper and you’d have an elegant, playful album of pop songs. With it, the LP assumes some kind of greatness. Some might vote for ‘Hey Jude’ or ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as the finest Beatles recording, but ‘A Day In The Life’ would run anything close — and it’s certainly the best collaborative effort between Lennon and McCartney.

Lennon wrote the basic song, its verses a snapshot from his own life and the world around him — the death of a friend in a car crash, a newspaper cutting about the state of the roads in Blackburn, Lancashire. The tag line, “I’d love to turn you on”, brought a broadcasting ban by the BBC in Britain: more importantly, it led twice into an overwhelming orchestral assault, with 40 musicians headed helter-skelter up the scales towards a crescendo of silence. First time around, the barrage leads into McCartney’s stoned middle-eight, another day in another life; second time, there’s a pause, and then a piano chord that resounds for almost a minute. Then bathos: a whistle only dogs could hear, followed by the locked-groove gibberish that brought the side to a close and is sampled briefly at the end of the CD. Stunning, magnificent, awesome: there’s nothing in rock to match it.

Author: Peter Doggett

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