Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Review: Sgt. Pepper at Fifty
Many months later while I was still in the thralls of Beatlemania, my brother-in-law recommended that my husband and I watch a BBC documentary called Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution. We did so one night during the Christmas holidays. The three of us sat in a darkened living room after everyone else had gone to bed and spent a delightful hour with Howard Goddall, a musicologist and composer, who highlighted several of the songs on Sgt. Pepper for how unique and ground-breaking they were for the time. I have since rewatched the program and may do so again. It is so good and illuminating. As I watched it the realization dawned on me as to how little I know about the craft of song-writing and of producing music. The program captivated me just like the album did when I first got it back in the late 1960s.
With this in mind, I finally got back to the book, Sgt Pepper at Fifty: the Mood, the Look, the Sound, the Legacy of the Beatles' Great Masterpiece. Each of the four sections sheds a light on a different aspect of the creation of the album, lovingly called LPs in those days. (I think LP was short for Long Playing. Not to be confused with EP, or Extended Play records, which were longer than singles, which were really doubles because they were double sided. Weird, huh? But I digress.)
The Mood dealt not so much with the Beatles but what was happening in the world and in London during the time of the Beatles. The art scene, the poetry scene, the people who were making the news, how psychedelic concepts were taking root due to drugs like LSD, were all highlighted. One reviewer said that this part of the book was "ho-hum" because it was old news. Well, I thought it was ho-hum for another reason. It wasn't particularly well written and it seemed to me to just a list of a hundred names of people dropped as if to impress. I found this section, taken as a whole, to be revealing as to how an album as unique as Sgt. Pepper could emerge and the Beatles as a product of the times, but taken in parts to be rather tedious.
The Look dealt with the album cover. How it was decided to use so many life-size photos of famous people and how they made it happen. Though I was fascinated by the process and the evolution of the project, I had a really hard time understanding all the details because of the tangled, unclear writing. But ultimately, I came to understand what a huge project it was to not only create the cover using so many images, but to get approval to do so by all the people who were currently living. Eventually they didn't get approval from everyone but not a single person made a legal claim, apparently "a splendid time was guaranteed for all." On one six-page pull out, all of the people on the cover are highlighted with a brief note about why they were selected. The Beatles only selected about half the list, the artists, Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, selected the rest. Ultimately there were over 80 people and items on the cover with the life Beatles, including wax works of the Fab Four which they borrowed from a wax museum. The cover was so popular, it was immediately copied by many other bands and rock groups. In addition, Sgt. Pepper was the first, the very first to include the lyrics to all the songs on the album. It was such standard fare on subsequent albums by all types of bands and groups, it didn't occur to me to even wonder who did it first. The Beatles, of course. What is the saying? Imitation is the best form of flattery.
The Sound section covered the making of the music: the inspirations, the songwriting, the technical aspects of the studio work. The first two songs that were produced during this time period weren't even included on the album: "Strawberry Fields Forever" by John and "Penny Lane" by Paul. Both were about memories and experiences the lads had in Liverpool. It was decided to release these songs as a double A-side single in February just to keep the fans happy. Throughout this section are explanations of how each of the pieces were written and produced, mentioning who played what instruments and maybe what the various group members thought of it. The most elaborate description of the pieces goes to the masterpiece, "A Day in the Life", thought by many to be the Beatles' creme de la creme. For the section of the song right before the bridge portion a fifteen person orchestra is assembled in the largest room in the recording studio. With Paul and George Martin conducting, each orchestra member is given the instruction to go "from the lowest note they could play on their instrument to the highest, taking care to not play in unison, over the course of twenty-four bars." The result is the cacophony of sound like has never been recorded before. And then that last chord. Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and Evens played the E-major chord simultaneously on three pianos and George Martin played it on the harmonium. By holding down the delay pedals and by Geoff Emerick, the recording engineer, slowly turning up the volume, the note was sustained longer than it would seem possible. In another pullout, the debate over recording in mono or stereo is explained. Sgt Pepper was the last of The Beatles albums to be recorded in both. After Pepper they mostly recorded in stereo but from the explanations, the mono versions are quite different than the stereo versions and it would be interesting to get a hold of both and listen for the differences.
The Legacy. "Sgt Pepper was a commercial and critical success straight out of the gate. In the UK, the album was released in June 1967, and it entered the charts at No. 1 in Melody Maker (where it stayed for twenty-two weeks) and the NME." It topped the charts in the USA, Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, and West Germany. It went on to win four Grammy awards for Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Album, Best Engineered Album (non-Classical), and Best Album Cover. "Tom Phillips, writing for the Village Voice, called Sgt. Pepper 'a breakthrough...specifically, I think, they've turned the record-album itself into an art form.'" It certainly boosted the profile of the concept album and many other groups copied the idea from the Beatles.
But, as with all good things, there was a downside. "Sgt Pepper", NME critic Nick Kent observed, "was such an achievement that nothing could possibly follow it." Indeed after Sgt Pepper ushered in the Summer of Love, by autumn things were already starting to go wrong. Brian Epstein, their manager died of an accidental overdose, and their next project, "A Magical Mystery Tour", actually got some bad reviews. By the end of 1967, the Fab Four were starting to drift apart though they maintained a public facade for a few more years.
As the 1970s rolled on Sgt Pepper was largely looked upon as a period piece and later it was met with a Sgt. Pepper backlash by punk rockers. Poor Pepper suffered greatly in the words of the critics for years until the advent of the CD. Finally in 1987 an excellent documentary, It Was Twenty Years Ago Today accompanied by a book, put Sgt Pepper into its context, covering not just the making of the album but the events of 1967 - 'the rosy high point of the sixties'" Sgt. Pepper was back in vogue.
Charles Shaar Murray, writing for Q, reviewed the album at this time and said, "Sgt. Pepper has been both hailed as rock's definitive masterpiece and attacked as the incarnation of the moment when music went off the rails almost for good." But he went on to recognize its historical importance, "The sheer sonic ingenuity deployed on these sessions taught everybody, for better or worse, to hear music differently...Like it or not, it was the record which changed the rules."
And now? Where does Sgt. Pepper stand? On the 2012 Rolling Stones's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list, Sgt. Pepper took top billing. The magazine hailed Sgt. Pepper as "the most important rock and roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art, and studio technology by the greatest rock and roll group of all time." I guess, to answer my own question, I'd say it landed on top!
Though I was pretty critical of the book, especially the uneven writing, I really did learn a lot from reading it and I'm glad that I own Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: the Mood, the Look, the Sound, the Legacy of the Beatles' Great Masterpiece. Now I have a reference source I can refer to in future years when my next bout of Beatlemania crops up!