Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band


What You Need to Know: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is The Beatles’ first post-touring record – from this point on, the band stays in the studio. While it lasted, it was an immensely productive and creative period for the band. However, seeds sown during the making of this album would eventually contribute to the band’s implosion three years later.

The album began life as a Paul McCartney musing, the idea of this fictional Sgt. Pepper and his dance hall band – all the songs would flow together creating the feel of a performance by this band and its associates. While parts of this idea were scrapped by the time the album was pressed, it is still safe to say that The Beatles are responsible for the idea of the “concept album” – whether this is a good thing or not probably depends on your personal taste in music.

The Album: Since this is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for crying out loud, I’ll be eschewing my normal format and writing a more straightforward post about it.

It can be hard to find a decent, middle-of-the-road viewpoint on Sgt. Pepper – fans claim it’s the Greatest Album of All Time, a Game Changer, own a debt by anyone who has made an album since. Revisionists and contrarians dismiss it out of hand as dated, a product of its time, a “psychedelic curio.” The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.

Sgt. Pepper is vitally important to the development of the album as an entity. Entries like Rubber Soul, Revolver, or the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds began the trend of making albums with songs that all belonged, that were stylistically or thematically linked in some way, albums without the cover songs and filler tracks of the past. Pepper was the first to elevate the entire package, though – the songs, the art, the liner notes, every aspect was carefully considered and attended to. No longer a simple picture of the band, album art has the opportunity to make a statement just as strong as the music did.

But the music. Oh, the music. Things start off strong with the iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends” combo, the latter of which is (1) extremely touching when you sing it with your friends in The Beatles: Rock Band and (2) another excellent Ringo Starr showcase that paves the way toward his better and more successful solo albums.

Next up is the fantastic “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” a strong contender for My Favorite Song, and one of the first experiments in the nonsense wordplay that John Lennon used in his books (In His Own Write, A Spaniard In The Words) and would later perfect on “I Am the Walrus.” Follow that with the infectious melody and cautious optimism of “Getting Better.” So far so good.

And then the middle of the album hits, and everything goes off the tracks. Most of these are Paul’s self-indulgences (the meticulously constructed “Fixing a Hole,” the dull plod of “She’s Leaving Home,” the too-precious “When I’m Sixty-Four”), though it isn’t all his fault - all the critics of George’s sole contribution to the album, “Within You Without You,” are completely correct in labeling this a dated period piece. Similarly, John’s “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is little more than a throwaway sound collage - “I was just going through the motions,” he later said of it.

Just as the beginning of the album becomes a distant, pleasant memory, salvation comes in the jangly guitar and bouncy bassline of “Lovely Rita,” and the raucous fun of “Good Morning Good Morning” leads us into the bookend reprise of “Sgt. Pepper” and then, finally, the five-and-a-half-minute bliss of “A Day in the Life,” one of the last true Lennon/McCartney collaborations. The cacophonous crescendo leading up to the final chord just about makes up for the underwhelming middle part of this album.

And that’s the breakdown – Sgt. Pepper is a damn solid album, but it’s far from perfect. It gave albums that came after a blueprint, an example to look back to, but it’s hardly the best album ever. It’s not even the best Beatles album ever. It could be that some of its impact is lost on listeners who weren’t alive in 1967, but so many of The Beatles’ tracks that came before and after still sound fresh and relevant today – why shouldn’t we hold Pepper to that same standard?

In the end, you have to be able to separate Sgt. Pepper the concept from Sgt. Pepper the album – the former is the one with the myth, the game-changing superalbum that transformed the way the world looked at pop music and provided the soundtrack for the Summer of Love. The latter is, like much music, great but not perfect, sometimes inspiring but often flawed.

Desert Island Tracks:With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “A Day In the Life