Sgt. Pepper at 50

(Originally published at Treble)

For a long time The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was not just the most-favored long-player in the Fab Four’s catalog; it was the greatest rock album ever made. Arguments against that accolade were almost treasonous. In some parts of the world whose gross national product relies on manual butter-churning and letterpress printing, they may still be.


In 1967 rock and roll, barely in its teens, hadn’t quite seen anything like Sgt. Pepper on the mainstream level: an album intended to be heard strictly as an album (no singles were released from it until 1978). The Beatles had enough leverage to quit touring, which was virtually ineffective for them anyway, and focus squarely on producing studio records. Pop society was waxing a sea change that was massive but probably couldn’t last, boundaries to the Eastern world and other cultures were breaking down, and the drugs were still relatively good.

Sgt. Pepper came out just before the Summer Of Love, an Aquarian coincidence of the calendar that placed the album in the newsfeed of the time alongside other albums to which it bore nearly no resemblance and compared favorably. Really favorably. If you didn’t have money for both Sgt. Pepper and the 5th Dimension’s Up, Up and Away, lucky you, the decision was pretty much made in your absence.

If I sound catty about it—well, part of it’s because we don’t have things like Sgt. Pepper anymore and I’m probably trying to laugh off my disappointment about that. In reality I believe The Beatles were the greatest band that ever existed, a viewpoint I’m fairly staunch about and have no time for counter-opinions. (Seriously. Disagreements about this have actually resulted in personal friction in my life. Trust has been eroded. My orthodoxy might be a bit too unforgiving. I apologize to those I’ve clashed with about The Beatles, and hope you’re only dreadfully wrong about this one thing.)

But at the same time, I often kept Sgt. Pepper at arm’s length. I prefer the two albums before it (Rubber Soul and Revolver, my favorite) and a couple after (The White Album and Abbey Road). At my brattiest I thought it was overstuffed and remote. At best I thought it was a landmark achievement, but mainly because of its placement in the timeline.

However, I’ve purchased Sgt. Pepper at least four different times, along with every other album they made. So it’s clearly not something I wish to omit. I did, though, wonder if the new remix of the album, released last week, would change my mind or reveal something heretofore unperceived by me. It did.

***

Sgt. Pepper owes a stated debt to Brian Wilson’s unified and detailed Pet Sounds (and, it turns out, the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out, according to Paul McCartney). But its most immediate jump-off point was the last single the Beatles put out before it, probably the most important 45 they ever put out, and a very neat capsule summary of the differences and relationship of McCartney and John Lennon.

Lennon had written “Strawberry Fields Forever” in late 1966, drawing from childhood recollections from Liverpool to lead himself through melancholy self-assessment. It was an intricate portrait with a knotty atmosphere far more subtle than much psychedelia at the time. “I was too shy and self-doubting,” Lennon said shortly before his death in 1980. “Nobody seems to be as hip as me is what I was saying. Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius – ‘I mean it must be high or low.’” He called “Strawberry Fields” “psychoanalysis set to music.” Even with previous self-portraits such as “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Norwegian Wood,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” felt like a new cut beneath the surface Lennon had never done before.

“Penny Lane,” on the other side, was McCartney’s own Liverpool flashback, and it’s hard to think it was just a coincidental response conceived apart from “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It is a perfect complement to Lennon’s elliptical introspection, and while it’s evocative on its own, McCartney’s approach was more journalistic: characters, light action, a couple of jokes and the resolution that it’s all “very strange.” He went for the perceptible details. And while the closest thing to confession was that “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes,” it’s such a strong composition that it’s a perfect counterpoint to the song on the other side, saying just as much about another type of reflection.

So what we had here were two of the greatest songwriters of all time, who happened to share office space, taking a similar piece of information—childhood memories of a specific sector in a certain metropolis—and emerging with completely different results. Neither approach was exclusive to either of them, of course, but for our purposes it’s an acceptable dichotomy to start from: Lennon as abstraction, McCartney as new Rococo.

And then they jumped into Sgt. Pepper, which has never really been considered a songwriter’s album. Not as much as other Beatles records, anyway. Its effect was too cumulative, too overwhelming, for a lot of sober deconstruction. But the new remix changes that. The individual parts—all originally recorded, it must be restated, on four-track machines—are clearer, their mightiness more discernible. (Especially Ringo Starr’s unfairly undervalued drumming.) The elements are properly drawn out without taking away from the mix. The actual structures of the songs are easier to ascertain.

It would seem that what we got here is a songwriter’s album after all. With The Beatles off the road and eager to advance artistically, McCartney had the idea to record an album in character as another band: an alter ego. That wasn’t unheard of at the time (country had Hank Williams as Luke The Drifter), but it was a novel way to shed the baggage of Beatlemania.

That concept is actually the least compelling part of Sgt. Pepper, only because it fizzles out after the second song, and doesn’t present itself again until the reprise of the title cut near the end. The Beatles have admitted as much; McCartney didn’t come up with the framing device until the sessions had already been underway for about a month.

Listening to the remix, the differences between Lennon’s and McCartney’s approaches are clearer than before, as is the potent alchemy they supplied each other in collaboration. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was Lennon conjuring up a new Carrollian Wonderland (with an assist from his son Julian’s drawing), in the dreamlike state he was always, sometimes heartbreakingly, trying to achieve. Lennon started the landscape, and even though McCartney added a few one-line images of his own, “Lucy” is consummate dream-state John.


None of Lennon’s primary songs on Sgt. Pepper are quite as questioning as “Strawberry Fields,” but they all aim for a similar kind of out-of-body experience. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is a word-for-word recap of a 19th century circus advert Lennon found in an antique shop, and atmospherically he goes for creepy derangement with a middle section full of manipulated organ sounds. “Good Morning, Good Morning” is a fractured Motown stomp that unfolds like McCartney journalism, with John describing routine commoners he sees every day. They seem a little edgier than the Penny Lane crowd, and maybe that’s what Lennon’s saying here, along with a grandly stated ambivalence: “Nothing has changed, it’s still the same/I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay.”

McCartney still watches, observes and fixates on visuals and narrative—but he also picks up on Lennon’s ruminations, albeit lightly. “Fixing a Hole” is a batch of resolutions given in home-improvement metaphors, and its moment of clarity (“And it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong I’m right/Where I belong I’m right/Where I belong”) is structured more for its musical value than its wisdom. The narrative of “Lovely Rita” is so feather-light it nearly tips over, and Ringo clearly beats its path home. “When I’m Sixty-Four,” composed by a teenage McCartney, is straight music-hall mugging with more crafted data.

In songs where Lennon and McCartney’s trade-offs are more obvious, the effects are impossible to miss. “She’s Leaving Home” is all McCartney storytelling, based on an actual missing-daughter story that thankfully ended benignly. His verses are straight narrative, as calm as an anchorperson’s. But Lennon’s Greek choruses (“We gave her most of our lives,” etc.) convey the parents’ curious, not entirely-earned dismay beautifully.

“Getting Better” plays off McCartney’s uprightness and brightness to great effect. But a verse Lennon contributed—regrettably, autobiographical—stops the song midstream, shadowed by George Harrison’s Indian tambura: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved/Man I was mean, but I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.” It’s a sudden depth charge that’s terrifying, and the single-note guitar drone that carries through the song gives off the feel of a personal pattern that needs some adjustment. It almost infers some level of denial. One left turn rewrites any preconception a listener might have had toward the song.

Then there’s “A Day in the Life,” the second song (after “Sixty-Four”) recorded for Sgt. Pepper that spun off Lennon’s use of psychedelics, darkly rendered current events and the influence of another Brian Wilson composition, “Good Vibrations.” It’s pretty much all McCartney-esque narrative; lyrically there’s no moment of Lennon-style revelation except “I’d love to turn you on,” which was Paul’s line anyway.

The way Lennon delivers his news reports is wearied and drenched in dejection, as resigned and gutting as a foregone conclusion. That’s a John move. It gets activated with the famous philharmonic swell, in which individual members of an orchestra were basically told they were on their own, except for the final peak note they had to play together. That segues straight into McCartney’s broad, upbeat middle part where he just gets up and goes to work, part of a song he was working on separately.

Paul’s sudden interjection might be the most obvious tell about his productive, creative tension with John. At the risk of rehashing the tired role assignments of John as dreamer and Paul as practitioner, the sudden break depicts how the dream state will never be able to quell the mechanics of daily routine, and vice versa. Paul hurries through a hectic business morning, stops and sings, “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream,” and guess whose voice wordlessly sings out that dream? The final verse combines John’s lyricism with Paul’s rhythm, and it’s a fantastic example of how to manipulate an awkward coupling into a great artistic moment. They can’t be more opposite and they belong together. Then the song crashes into a long decay, after which dogs all over the world freak out.

***

We used to take event albums like Sgt. Pepper at face value, because there was so much to of it to be had. Rock was still newish and folks like to unify around people and works of great heft. I think it’s fairly common to want to poke a little bit at what might seem sacred cows (Lennon did it all the time), and that tendency probably influenced my occasional dubiety about Sgt. Pepper. “It’s a strong achievement,” I’d say, “but they took their eyes off the basics. You always have to get back to the basics.” Then I’d finish my patty melt in relative silence.

But Sgt. Pepper came out of a truly unique set of circumstances and preparations, from a signaled change in the Beatles’ M.O. toward more experimentation, to alterations in their personal lives and belief systems, and the germination of the factors that led to their untimely dissolution. There probably was no way it couldn’t be an event. Sgt. Pepper cemented the album as rock music’s primary unit of creation, and very shortly afterward, consumption. It took the breadth of classical music, jazz and long-form conceptualists like mid-period Sinatra and made it work for rock. The album remained the standard unit for decades afterwards, and I’m not convinced its demise is close to imminent. It’s still how a lot of current musicians think.

Now with this remix, it’s easier to hear Sgt. Pepper’s heartbeat than ever. Even when the fissures between Lennon and McCartney were at their deepest, each partner knew themselves and how to support the other’s creative instincts. They understood each other at that moment of creation, and kept that intuition throughout the process to make it real.

I used to think Sgt. Pepper cloaked all that, but I was wrong. It’s getting better all the time.

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