7th Favorite Beatles Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1967, Parlophone. Producer: George Martin.
Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album that is inescapable in rock, a cultural touchstone truly unlike any other. Its importance as a work of art has probably overshadowed the actual songs on the record, which are diverse and strange and layered with studio effects and tricks. It can be hard to get past the sheer brilliance of the production, but if you can, I think you’ll find that the songs themselves are actually very good, too! Some call it the best ever – but for me it’s middle-of-the-pack Beatles.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.

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I will try to write this first section with a minimum of creepiness. I’m nearly 53 years old, so there’s a possibility this story sounds really gross. If it ends up sounding gross I’ll trash the whole thing. But assuming I can make it through, I want to immediately acknowledge three things I intend to discuss: 1) I was once a teenager attracted to teenaged girls; 2) my friends and I had ignorant, immature and inappropriate discussions about teenaged girls; and 3) I can recall both numbers 1 and 2.

But I intend to not be creepy. Let’s give it a try.

I entered high school in the fall of 1981, 14 years old and awkward and chubby and unsure of myself. Upon arrival, I was struck (as were my friends) by the fact that the senior girls around us were unlike any girls with whom we’d ever shared a school. I’m sure freshman girls noticed the same thing about the older boys. There were now students in our midst that looked more like attractive adults than any students we’d ever seen before.

As a younger student, I remember being enamored of some schoolmates. At Ebenezer Elementary School from kindergarten (Angie L.) through fifth grade (Juli Z.). At Cedar Crest Middle School from sixth through eighth grades (Jana C.). These crushes were very sweet, in retrospect, and never reciprocated. They were based mostly on the fact that these girls had cute faces and they laughed at my jokes. If there was any sort of physical attraction beyond a pretty face, I have no memory of it. Getting a laugh was the main thing.

However, at high school there were suddenly girls in the hallways walking to class who looked more like women – attractive women like I’d seen in movies or on TV – than girls. My friends and I had never been around so many people like this. Senior girls became a regular topic of conversation at my lunch table that freshman year. Sharon, Kathy, Pam, Lisa, Kelly … we discussed these popular seniors as if they were Hollywood celebrities. From our vantage as ninth grade nerds trying to get through the day unnoticed and unbeaten, they seemed just as remote.

My freshman year was also the first semester at school for a young, male art teacher. I don’t remember his name, but he had long (for a 1981 teacher) wavy hair and wore preppy clothes, like those woolen ties with a square bottom that I only saw on rich people and, once in a while, Detective Arthur Dietrich. It was also the only semester that art teacher was at the school, as a few months into the school year he was no longer employed there. Word soon got around the students that the reason he was gone was because he’d asked one of those popular senior girls, Kathy, out on a date. Even in 1981 this was frowned upon.

This situation, of course, was THE HOT TOPIC at our lunch table for several days, perhaps a week. We were all newly-arrived 14 year olds with varying levels of dating experience – ranging from “too scared to ever think of asking out a girl” to “have thought about it and rejected the idea as too scary,” plus one guy who claimed to have actually been intimate with several girls, but who everyone knew was a bullshitter. The question we aimed to resolve at these daily summits was this: “Was an opportunity to date Kathy worth giving up a job, and possibly a career, and perhaps even an arrest and criminal record?” In other words, did Mr. Wavy-hair Art Teacher make the right choice in asking Kathy on a date?

After considerable discussion, the consensus among the group of us five or six boys was this: he made the right choice. It was probably worth it.

Of course, now, as an adult with experience and an understanding of power dynamics and the patriarchal system that continues to cause inequities in our society, along with a clear understanding of professional boundaries and criminal law, I recognize that this was a ridiculous position for us to take. Still, in my memory (I’ve retold this story countless times), the Kathy character in this vignette is a goddess, an angel, a pure distillation of feminine beauty such that I, as a youth, believed men should risk everything just for an opportunity to share a slice of pizza with her at Special Pizza City.

My sister, Liz, was also a senior that year, and she was an average kid with lots of friends. She knew, and had classes with, the popular girls, Kathy and Sharon and Pam and all the others. But she and her friends were not part of that crowd. Recently I got to hang out with Liz, and talk turned, as it often does, to our high school years. We looked through her senior yearbook, and I recounted the above story. As we flipped through and looked at all the kids, I noticed something. Kathy didn’t really seem like the unbelievable beauty I’d always remembered. She was a cute kid, but there were lots of cute kids in the book.

Clearly my friends and I were swayed by the idea of Kathy as much as the actual appearance of Kathy. We’d been shaken by our entrance that fall into an arena unlike anything we’d ever experienced. We were overwhelmed by it, and it put us off balance. And all these names of senior girls became images in our heads that didn’t even have a basis in reality. Before I went back and looked at that yearbook, I couldn’t even conjure an image of any of them in my head. I knew that Sharon was tall and blonde and Kathy was shorter with brown hair. The others were only names. “Really?” I thought. “What was all the fuss about?”

I have similar feelings these days when I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since becoming a rock music fan – about six months before entering high school – I’ve heard Sgt. Pepper’s called the greatest album ever. It’s seemingly been on the top of every “Best Album” list. Story after story have been written and produced about its ground-breaking production, its cultural impact, its uniqueness and power and legacy. It is the most inescapable record in the history of rock.

And you know what?

It’s really good! There’s no denying that the songs are great. But the production – especially considering the technology available in 1967 – is truly astounding. The band’s instruments don’t take center stage (well, McCartney’s bass often does), but instead the recording studio does. That was a novel idea in 1967, and people were blown away by it. I was blown away by it when I first heard it – a feeling not unlike being a 14-year-old entering high school and seeing attractive young men and women roaming the halls. It’s a feeling that can skew one’s perceptions. Now that I’m older I can reflect on the situation, take a fresh listen, and conclude … “It’s a really good album.” I don’t think it’s the best album ever. It doesn’t even crack my Beatles Top Five. But it’s damned good.

I first heard the opening pair of Sgt. Pepper’s tracks on my oldest sister Anne’s 8-track of 1967-1970, often called “The Blue Album.” It was a 1973 greatest-hits compilation released with 1962-1966, or “The Red Album,” and both were quite popular. I was probably 10, and hearing the audience sounds, I thought the title track was recorded live. I tried to imagine what the band was doing on-stage during the horn interlude, beginning at 0:44 on “Sgt. Pepper’s,” that was making the audience laugh so heartily.

I’ll say up front that one of the reasons the album isn’t higher on my list is because there’s not enough guitar on it. However, the guitar on this song, particularly in the first 0:20, is actually pretty cool. It’s McCartney playing lead, with George adding cool rhythm chords underneath, and on headphones you can hear them dueling throughout the whole song1. It’s a great intro to the concept album2, with great vocals, and it leads into one of my favorite Beatles’ songs ever.

“With a Little Help From my Friends” is a perfect Lennon/McCartney song for Ringo to sing3, and he sings it (as Billy Shears!) perfectly. Paul’s bass is front and center, with its swooping ranginess. The band’s harmonies, and call-and-response vocals, perfectly support Starr’s limited range, and really make the lyrics, about the precious value of friendship, come alive. Harrison gets a few opportunities to throw in some signature guitar riffs, but throughout the album, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for him. After this song, the album becomes very studio-focused.

For example, the wonderful and weird “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which is one of the band’s most well-known songs. With instrumentation including a tambura and electric guitars made to sound like other instruments, McCartney’s bass is the only rock instrument that stands out. In a great BBC documentary on the album, composer Howard Goodall explains why Paul’s bass is so great on the song – all technical music terms and such. But the point is it sounds cool. And all the instrumentation make John’s wild imagery4 sound particularly strange.

One song on which Harrison’s guitar gets to shine is the terrific “Getting Better.”

It shines in the way George’s playing always does – with subtlety, and warranting repeated listens to fully appreciate it. His ringing chords throughout the chorus make the song. It’s a Paul song, but John famously contributed the “couldn’t get no worse” lyrics. It’s a fun piece, and my favorite of the three McCartney tracks that have always run together a bit in my mind. “Fixing a Hole,” although a music-hall song instead of a rock song, also features Harrison’s guitar genius, for example, from 0:38 to 1:00 and his solo beginning at 1:16. The lyrics are definitely upbeat-Paul. Which is different from the next song, “She’s Leaving Home,” which features maudlin-Paul lyrics.

“She’s Leaving Home” is a lovely song, but it’s one that I’ve liked less and less over the years. I’ve grown tired of the song’s lush orchestration, which may have been the inspiration for Phil Spector’s overdone Let It Be production. When I first heard the album I was impressed by this style of song coming from a rock band. In the same way, I was very impressed by Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” a show-tune style of song about a Victorian acrobat, of sorts, with impressive studio tricks and sounds. I liked the song because it was unexpected and represented what I thought the album represented. It’s sort of how I was impressed by those senior girls when I was a freshman.

The song on Sgt. Pepper’s that is the equivalent of an overlooked student – someone with different hair and different clothes that, back in the day, my friends and I thought was just a weirdo – but who, in viewing a yearbook 40 years later might have caused me to ask “why didn’t I know this cute person?” is Harrison’s “Within You, Without You.”

For many years I’d skip over this song. Then, at some point in the past 20 years or so, I began to allow myself to be enveloped by its strange (to my ears) sounds and insightful lyrics and now it might be my favorite on the record. It’s actually got a great melody that sticks in my head, and the line “life goes on/ within you/ and without you” is a stroke of genius, and a timeless lesson that has helped me greatly in dealing with all the ups and downs of being a human. I no longer skip the song, I look forward to its strangeness.

Which isn’t to say I don’t also love the timelessness of a great Western pop song like McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a song which would have been a hit at any time since about 1840.

This is one of my earliest favorite Beatles’ songs5. I grew up hearing (and enjoying) my mom’s show-tunes and my dad’s brass music, and this song sounds like an incorporation of both of those styles. It’s true that, as John Lennon described it, it is “Granny Music,” and the part of me that loves The New York Dolls and Sonic Youth HATES this song. But it’s so catchy, and has sweet lyrics that get better as I approach 64 years old. And with Paul’s melodic bass once again front-and-center, carrying the piece, it’s hard for me not to love it.

I love all the songs on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and by pointing out some that I’m less-enthused about than others, I don’t mean to denigrate the entire album. Whenever the album is in the news, typically on -0 and -5 anniversaries of its release, there are many pieces written that go out of their way to say the album is garbage. I’m all for people expressing dislike for popular artists based on their own tastes (I’ve written before that I just don’t get the appeal of Bob Dylan) but sometimes people just want to stir shit up. I’m not saying I dislike songs like “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning Good Morning,” they’re just not strong favorites of mine.

Lovely Rita” has great bass (of course), cool harmony vocals throughout and a catchy piano solo, played by producer George Martin. It’s about a meter maid, a real one6 who gave Paul a parking ticket at Abbey Road Studios. My favorite part is the end, after 2:10, with all its weird sounds and voices. “Good Morning Good Morning” has an awesome guitar solo played by McCartney at 1:17, and strange time signature changes. A brass band backs Lennon on lyrics about a day in the life … It also features cool animal sounds at the end, each animal capable of frightening the preceding one.

Next Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band comes back, with more electric guitar from George this time, to thank the audience for coming to the show, which leads into one of the all-time great Beatle songs: “A Day in the Life.”

It’s a true Lennon/McCartney collaboration, each of them bringing the best of their talents to the song and combining them into a masterpiece. John mostly wrote the beginning and end, and Paul mostly wrote the middle. I haven’t mentioned Ringo much yet, but he really shines on this song, heightening the tension in Lennon’s sections with his fills and rolls. He plays like an orchestral percussionist. The crazy orchestra crescendo after Lennon’s section (1:45) is thrilling, especially as it explodes into Paul’s jaunty wakeup section (2:16). The transition back to John, at 2:49, with its dreamlike sounds, is perfect, and once again Ringo is brilliant on John’s final verse. The crazy orchestral crescendo occurs again7 leading to that epic piano note – four Beatles on four pianos all playing the same chord. Astounding. And be sure to stick around for 5:11, where nonsense gibberish and a pitch only dogs can hear await!

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album unlike any other. It stands out in a line of popular musical development, a touchstone for Western civilization. But don’t let that fact overwhelm you. There are many other pretty faces in the crowd, and just because everyone tells you who the best are, you should decide for yourself which ones are the superstars.

TRACK LISTING:
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
“With a Little Help from My Friends”
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
“Getting Better”
“Fixing a Hole”
“She’s Leaving Home”
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
“Within You Without You”
“When I’m Sixty-Four”
“Lovely Rita”
“Good Morning Good Morning”
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
“A Day in the Life”

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