Saturday, 26 May 2018
The Beatles - Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Released May 1967
Recorded at EMI Studios, London
What do you say about an album that is regularly said to be the “greatest album of all time”? Not too much one can say, I guess, other than offer my probably irrelevant opinions.
This album is certainly not a “rock” album, just as The Beatles were often not a rock band. This album is a collection of songs - some monumental, some silly, some pleasant, some average. It is a veritable chocolate box of styles too - rock, ballad, music hall, Indian, whimsy and ground-breaking sonic experimentation, the like of which had never been heard before. Like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, its effect culturally, on the music industry and, in this case, the world, was far, far greater than the sum of its parts. Indeed, it may not even be the best album by The Beatles, but it is, undoubtedly, the most important.
Regarding the many re-issues of the album, my personal preference is for the 2017 remix/remaster. It allowed me to rediscover “Pepper” and find it exciting again after many years of over-familiarity. Oh and yes, I do own the mono edition too. I have to admit, also, that it sounds incredible played loud on a good system in mono. I enjoy listening to both.
The outtakes on the 2017 remaster are a most interesting listen, particularly the instrumental "Penny Lane" and the "Strawberry Fields" takes. It is great to hear these iconic tracks take shape and start wondering if they could have been improved upon. Probably not, is the answer, but it is fun wondering and debating it.
The introduction is memorable, from the "fade in" background noise, we get the album’s purest two minutes of “rock”. Proper guitar riff, great drum sound, excellent rasping vocals. An iconic introductory track. The it segues into "With A Little Help From My Friends" - Yes, Joe Cocker’s 1968 version took the song to new heights, but there is just something so comforting about Ringo Starr’s homely, touching vocal. Just a thoroughly appealing song. Great instrumentation too. Perfect. Oh and I forgot the beautiful, throbbing bass line. The wonderful bass is also present in "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", Lennon's wonderful, atmospheric drugged-up fantasia. Was it written while on something? Was it about LSD? Who really cares. It sounds dreamy, trippy and from another world. Of course he was on something. "Getting Better", McCartney's optimistic song written, apparently, while walking his dog on Hampstead Heath in London. It begins with a sharp, stabbing guitar riff and is another of the album's genuine rock moments. George Harrison inserts some Indian percussion instrumentation at 1.45-ish. An often ignored track from this album. I like it.
"Fixing A Hole" another under-mentioned track that sees McCartney taking lead vocal again. It is pleasant few minutes, but in a way it seems to finish before it had started. An impressive Harrison guitar solo near the end. "She's Leaving Home" was McCartney's sad tale of a young girl leaving home, orchestrated and sung in the same mournful style as "Eleanor Rigby". Not too many Beatles songs were sensitive human tales, or pertinent social comment, but this one certainly is, centring on the post-war, emerging lack of understanding between the younger and older generations. It was one of McCartney's "character" songs that Lennon so despised, apparently.
Talking of Lennon, "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" was his marvellously evocative piece of loveable nonsense derived from an old circus poster. You can't help but enjoy the sheer silliness of it and the odd noises, rare instruments and studio trickery involved in some of the sounds and the bizarre circus imagery of the lyrics. It is certainly a very odd track indeed, but nobody really dislikes it. Apart from, it is said, Lennon himself.
In typical style-changing from song to song, now we are treated to "Within You Without You". I love this. George Harrison's bold effort in introducing "world" music to the pop music market. Anyone other than The Beatles would have been condemned in intolerant 1960s Britain for recording such "foreign rubbish". Harrison got away with it, though and interest in music from further afield than Britain and the USA started to develop, largely because of the inclusion of tracks like this on Beatles albums. In many ways, it is musically the most interesting cut on the album. "Lovely Rita" was another McCartney of those afore-mentioned "character" songs written about someone in the third person. It is a credible enough rock song, actually, albeit with a slightly silly subject matter. "Good Morning Good Morning" was a bit of a mish-mash, to be honest. The kitchen sink being thrown in to this rather confused semi-song. A few animal noises at the end too. No real work of genius, this one, unfortunately, whatever way you choose to look at it.
After the short, possibly pointless, reprise of the title track comes "A Day In The Life". After two great contributions in "Lucy" and "Kite" and a bit of a throwaway in "Good Morning", Lennon saved the best until last. A track that belies analysis, yet has garnered probably millions of words written in trying to do just that. What was it about? Who knows? I certainly don't. Lennon probably didn't either. Alienation? Disillusion? Yeah yeah yeah. It was John Lennon's finest moment.