Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sgt. Pepper: Forty Years On

June 1 will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. If ever there was a landmark moment in the history of rock music or should I say the history of music as a whole, the release of Sgt. Pepper definitely fits the bill. No album before had contained such radical sounds, exotic arrangements in instrumentation, ground-breaking lyricism, alternative forms of musical production, and new revolutionary concepts in album cover design. Sgt. Pepper did all that and more.

When the album debuted on radio stations throughout the world on June 1 it became a signature moment in the 1960s. I have read several literary and periodical accounts about where people were and what were they were doing when they first heard Sgt. Pepper being played. Although some critics today feel that Sgt. Pepper has become dated and that the Beatles Abbey Road album surpasses Sgt. Pepper I beg to differ. The musical content of Sgt. Pepper has not lost its vitality despite the critics need for revisionism. Even if the album reflected the Beatles interpretation of the psychedelic movement in music it still, unlike other classic psychedelic albums, endures mightily as a paradigm of that hallucinogenic era.

The album was a result of seven hundred hours of recording sessions spanning from late November 1966 to early April 1967. The Beatles, freed from the vicissitudes of live performing; secure in their status as the greatest rock and roll band in the world; and able to demand total control of their musical work and unlimited time in the recording studio, harnessed their collective musical energies and produced this magnum opus. What other rock band at the time would have the courage to hire a 41-piece orchestra to perform in full costume dress without a score, merely asking them to go from their lowest to their highest notes on their respective instruments in only 24 bars as the Beatles did in the song A Day in the Life? What other rock band could write a song based solely on the written content of a 19th-century poster as the Beatles did in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite? What other rock band could keep studio personnel waiting for interminable hours as they argued and scratched their heads about what exotic instruments to use in each song they recorded for Sgt. Pepper?

Before Sgt. Pepper recording sessions were done discreetly and seldom attracted notice (after all the audience didn’t want to know about the labor pains, all it wanted to see was the baby). The Beatles changed that. Sgt. Pepper was the first rock and roll album where the recording session was the event, drawing celebrity audiences and involving various and sundry personalities to add color, humor, and inspiration to the proceedings. Now such events are commonplace but the Beatles set the precedent. Not only that recording artists were never allowed to record at their leisure. The Beatles altered the equation. They could record whenever they so desired and it was up to the recording company to accommodate their schedule.

Before Sgt. Pepper albums were compendiums of twelve to fourteen songs hastily thrown together and put forth as mere product. The Beatles changed that. Now albums could be coherent, singular statements issued as manifestos to a public dying for The Word.

Before Sgt. Pepper album covers were mundane forms of packaging. The Beatles changed that. Even to this day the Sgt. Pepper album cover remains the most daring and memorable of its kind in musical history, spawning several imitations, parodies, and the like in the forty years since its release. (EMI, the Beatles recording company, was afraid of lawsuits because of the album cover content and briefly considered releasing the album in brown paper bags as if it were pornography).

All four Beatles shined brightly in Sgt. Pepper. John Lennon’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a masterpiece which combines a lush sound with shimmering lyrics and an astonishing economy of instrumentation. Paul McCartney’s bass guitar playing in Lucy, It’s Getting Better, Fixing a Hole, and Lovely Rita is audaciously magnificent and represents some of the greatest bass lines in rock and roll history. George Harrison’s lead guitar solos in Fixing a Hole and Good Morning, Good Morning are tight and expressive and his sole composition, the raga-like Within You, Without You, is one of his finest lyrical efforts. Ringo Starr’s lead vocal in With a Little Help from my Friends is the finest one in all his Beatles work. His drumming in A Day in the Life provides a dark punctuation to John and Paul’s lyrics and his subtle, delicately innovative use of hi-hat kicks in Fixing a Hole reveals Ringo at his very best.

Today, with the advent of compact discs and downloading of music on the internet, albums no longer possess their singular appeal and have lost all meaning as coherent artistic statements. The musical world will never experience a moment like it did when Sgt. Pepper graced the airwaves and filled musical stores worldwide. No other album has sparked such a revolution in how music is recorded, produced, and presented to the public. So let us remember a time when the world was still young (relatively speaking) and there was still hope for the future and there was even a hope that the world could be changed for the better where everyone could live as one under tangerine trees and marmalade skies while riding inside newspaper taxis appearing on the shore waiting to take us away, all the while looking for the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

Like John Lennon wrote forty years ago, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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