Monday, June 1, 2009

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

I’m posting late again today because I got up early to once again head out to New York, catching a ride with my out-of-town friends as far as New Haven and taking the train from there. I’m using furlough time to go hang out with my parents for a couple days—as it happened, they were going to be in Manhattan, so why not? Anyway, between waking and packing and being in the car and yada yada there has not been the proper nexus of adequate-time + wi-fi-signal to post until now. Lately my whole schedule’s been thrown off, I swear. But this is not to say I’m not doing my daily Beatles listening like a good blogger.

Today starts off June, and June 1, 2009 is the 42nd anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an event inevitably associated with 1967's "summer of love" or whatever it was. Whatever was going on in the world, the album, of course, was a gigantic achievement for the Beatles (who had already achieved so much). Happy Sgt. Pepper day to all!

So after the Beatles had decided to give up touring entirely following their August 1966 Candlestick Park concert, they felt a little bit at a loss, and pursued projects on their own for a few months while trying to figure out what to do next. It was Paul who hit on the idea of doing an album that mimicked a live performance, so that the album could tour instead of the band. It was also Paul who came up with the idea of something so much a performance that the Beatles would actually play the role of a totally different band. The name they settled on was a parody of the very long band names that had begun to spring up in the latter half of the ‘60s. And to introduce the idea of this fake band, they decided they would need a musical introduction—hence the album’s title song.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is obviously an unbelievably good album, and has been heralded endlessly by more eloquent people than myself, to the point of (I think) almost a backlash—whereas Sgt. Pepper was once pretty much a lock for the title of Best Album of All Time in the popular ethos, my unscientific study of the online Beatles scene tells me that the average fan is maybe more likely now to argue that Revolver or Rubber Soul or even the White Album is better. Me, I’ll always have an intense affection for Sgt. Pepper, which was my very first exposure to the Beatles and the first CD I ever bought. Besides which, it is really THAT amazing, and deserves just about every word of praise ever given to it. I’m not sure how the album continues to sound so timeless, especially considering that the over-the-top production and florid excess of the whole thing had such a strong influence on the ‘60s in particular. But it really, really does sound pretty contemporary even now, at least to me. I enjoy a lot of ‘60s music, and I enjoy it for the very qualities that make it arguably sound dated. But Captain Beefheart and Love and the entire Nuggets collection sound like ‘60s music. Beatles’ music, even a piece of ‘60s iconography like Sgt. Pepper, still sounds like the gods are singing new and delicious mysteries to us.

But enough about the album already. What about the title song? “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” might not be about anything other than itself and the album it’s opening, but it totally works as a small rock and roll masterwork. You can hear it in the thunderous opening guitars, which sound so fiery and crazy that it’s clear something exciting is about to happen. This is freaking fabulous playing from George here, of course. The reverbed drum fill that leads us into Paul’s vocal shows that Ringo is having at least as much fun as George is. And this is all before Paul starts screaming at us about how something happened twenty years ago today. When the French horns enter, it’s almost a surprise in the thus-far hard-rocking context they’ve got going (though I know it’s almost impossible to imagine anything about this song being surprising—but bear with me). Clearly our canned audience likes it too, judging by the way they’re oohing and ahing and laughing uproariously at something we can’t see. I’m not sure how many horns are playing, but doesn’t it sound like a thousand horns? Probably something is being multitracked here—they did so much multitracking and layering of sound on this whole album that it’s hard for me to ever remember the pertinent details about how or where they did it. All I know that the horns sound like gold.

That thick, gigantic sound reaches its height in the chorus—it sounds like a bunch of the band members are singing, but that they mixed John’s voice to make it really prominent or something, because I mainly hear a lot of John. What I specifically hear is a hundred clones of John all singing in a hangar or something. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but they’ve clearly gone for as big a sound as they could get, and it’s working. If this is the first time you’re listening to this album (and, I know, who can even remember that?—but again, do try) you are probably over the moon at this point about how good this thing sounds. Right? The sheer energy, and the thick, loud bombasticness of the whole thing, has probably reeled you right in.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” doesn’t really end—we get a nudge from a screaming Paul that it’s time to cut to Billy Shears’s number, and then the backup singers introduce him and we’re suddenly into “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which I’m pretty sure is the first time the Beatles tried the medley thing. But even if it did end, can you imagine being bored enough here to lift the needle? Can you imagine not wanting to know what the heck Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had next up their sleeve? Of course not. The song makes it clear that you’re in for a pretty unforgettable musical experience, and then the album delivers. And for me, it’s as true the thousandth time you’re listening as it was the first. So happy 42nd birthday to this song, and to this album. It no doubt has many, many more birthdays in its future.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” released in the U.K. side A track 1 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, June 1, 1967; in the U.S. June 2, 1967.


  1. Well done. This song kind of epitomizes the anticipation of Sept. 9 for me. I got the Yellow Submarine DVD for my little guy for Chanukah, and when I heard Sgt. Pepper, I did a double-take. They mixed the rhythm guitar so much higher in the chorus, I can make out the chords for the first time. I am hoping the weeks after Sept. 9 have a lot of that in store for us.

  2. You know, it's true-- on my Yellow Submarine DVD the songs sounded different in a way that really caught my attention, but then I've never bothered to go back and read about how they mixed things differently, so I don't know any more details. But the experience was cool. Beatles songs made new again, and all that.

    By the way, your son sounds very, VERY cool.

  3. Well, as cool as a son of mine can be. But yeah, I totally brainwashed him. And he's got a crazy memory, so he'll be getting ready for a bath one night, and he'll ask me a question, I'll say "Yes," and he'll start singing "Yes it is, yes it is," even though he's only heard it once.

  4. Little footnote: first Beatles medley prize (on record anyway) would have to go to Kansas City/Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey; not Sgt. Pepper/With A Little Help...

    Otherwise, sweet.

  5. Technically true, but their "Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey" was a cover of the medley that Little Richard conceived. So this is the first time they conceived of one themselves. I think.