Oh, it’s far from a bad album – I’d go so far as to say it was ‘quite good’ – but it’s infinitely inferior to the albums on either side of it (though it’s not helped by the fact that Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane end up on the next album ‘canonically’). For any other band it’d be a triumph, but after Revolver, it’s a bit of a let-down, frankly. And it’s the most over-rated album on earth.
Which is, of course, to somewhat miss the point. Sgt Pepper, uniquely in the Beatles’ catalogue, wasn’t conceived as music as much as a STATEMENT – this is where the world is, Summer 1967, come and join the show. As such, it was probably horribly dated as early as January 1968. Which is fine as it goes – these albums weren’t recorded with the expectation of being listened to decades later, but more like newspapers – but it makes it difficult for someone whose mum was only eight when it was released.
So I have to judge it on the music, and the music, frankly, isn’t the Beatles’ best – possibly because many of the band weren’t particularly interested. Harrison says in the Anthology DVD series that he would rather have been in India, Ringo’s most vivid memory of the album is famously that he learned to play chess while the others got on with it, and John… well, the fact that John wrote three and a half songs (albeit some of the best on the album) to Paul’s eight and a half speaks volumes.
So this is the only Beatles album other than A Hard Day’s Night to have an obvious leader, and McCartney wasn’t really ready for the challenge. All the production tricks in the world (and they are astonishing) can’t hide the paucity of good songs on the album.
That said, there is still a lot to say about the album, and the mono mix is one that differs more than any other from the frankly appaling stereo mix, so here we go…
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the title track, must have sounded strangely familiar even when it first came out. After the opening sounds of an orchestra tuning up (taken from the A Day In the Life sessions) and crowd noises (from the Beyond The Fringe live album, which Martin produced and which was as important to comedy as the Beatles’ music was to music), we go into a Hendrix-esque riff (played by McCartney, but the chord sequence is strangely familiar.
That’s because the verse of Sgt Pepper is just a straight rewrite of You Won’t See Me, at double-speed – and You Won’t See Me was itself a rewrite of Eight Days A Week (all sharing the same I-II-IV-I chord progression). What differentiates this song from the earlier one is the odd combination of styles – the juxtaposition of the brass band (the first time one would be used on a Beatles record, but far from the last) with the screaming electric guitar.
The brass band acts as a pointer to the feel of the whole album – unlike American psychedelia, which came out of a sense of rebellion against a society that was sending people off to fight a pointless war while denying basic human rights to many of its citizens, British psychedelia came about at a time of national prosperity under one of the more progressive (relatively) governments of the last cenury, and while it’s anti-authoritarian, it’s more about puncturing pomposity than crying out for injustice. As the Kinks would put it, “Preserving the old ways from being abused, protecting the new ways for me and for you”.
So the choice of a brass band, the music of Northern industrial towns during the time when McCartney’s father would have grown up, is one of several pointers in Pepper which suggest it’s aimed at everybody – this is a fundamentally welcoming album, and everyone’s invited to join the party. The instrumental choice itself may well have come from McCartney and Martin’s project immediately prior to Pepper, the score for the minor British film The Family Way, which used a lot of this kind of instrumentation. Brass bands would continue to pop up in McCartney’s music for the next few years.
With A Little Help From My Friends has, frankly, little of interest, in either its mono or stereo versions.
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds is Lennon’s first song on the album, and also his first instrumental performance on the record (unless you count an alleged cowbell on the previous track that I can’t hear). Even though it’s Lennon’s song, though, much of the arrangement (including the lowry organ countermelody which is the most distinctive feature of the track) comes from McCartney. An interesting thing about this album is that while Lennon & McCartney were no longer collaborating as much as they used to, almost all the interesting songwriting ideas in McCartney’s songs come from Lennon, while most of the arrangement in Lennon’s comes from McCartney.
Van Dyke Parks has often claimed that Sgt Pepper was in some way ‘ripped off’ from the then-unreleased Smile album he was working on with Brian Wilson, after McCartney visited the sessions and heard recordings. While the two albums are very different, this song is one where I could believe such a relationship, at least in the production – the combination of a gentle 6/8 verse with elliptical lyrics and a pounding, uptempo chorus with one line of lyric repeated is one I’ve not heard anywhere else before these two tracks, and the timing is about right. That said, it’s still probably a coincidence.
Either way, Lucy is absolutely marvellous, and all the more so in the mono version, which is properly mixed. In particular, there are swathes of phasing all over Lennon’s verse vocal, and over the final ‘aaah’ in the chorus. In fact almost every instrument seems to have some sort of recording trickery in the mono mix that isn’t there on the stereo one. The organ in the chorus sounds ‘swampy’, as does the guitar/bass on the bridge, and the tambura is more prominent, and McCartney’s bass is no longer the absolute centre of attention.
The bass part is extraordinary though, especially the way on each repetition of each section he plays a more complex variation of the same part – it’s almost a through-composed part of its own, rather than just accompaniment. Somewhat buried in the thicker, meatier mono mix, it’s still a highlight.
And we move from a Lennon song vastly improved by McCartney to a McCartney song vastly improved by Lennon – Getting Better. While the arrangement is musically fascinating – in particular the way there’s a held G octave on rhythm guitar and piano everywhere except the verses, no matter what chords the rest of the band are playing (creating a drone-like effect which is presumably the reason for the tamboura on the last verse – the music is fairly simplistic, never leaving its home key. (But there are some wonderful embellishments in the arrangement – listen especially for the variation in the drumming between sections).
Those parts of the lyric that were part of McCartney’s original conception appear to have been fairly bland; inspired by a saying of Jimmy Nicol, the song was originally a purely optimistic one. It was only when Lennon added the sarcastic rejoinders (‘no I can’t complain’ and ‘couldn’t get much worse’) and finished off the lyrics, turning them into something far more personal. It’s probably Lennon’s first undisguised confessional lyric, probably aided by the fact that he was putting the words into McCartney’s voice rather than his own, and was just ‘finishing’ his friend’s song – but even so, it’s notable that he harmonises on the lines “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”.
The mono mix of this is not noticeably different from the stereo, apart from the obvious differences (no separation of guitars into left and right channels on the intro). The one difference I have noticed is that the almost-inaudible “four, five, six” countin on the stereo mix during the intro is less audible in mono – so much less that I have trouble convincing myself that I’m not just imagining it because I’m used to hearing it there.
Fixing A Hole isn’t a song I have a great deal to say about. It’s filler, albeit very pleasant filler with a nice harpsichord part. The mono mix has a much more organic sound than the stereo – the subtle reverb makes it sound like it’s being played live in a room (which apparently it largely was, with the vocal and rhythm track cut together), with only the fairly sloppily double-tracked lead vocal sounding slightly out of place.
She’s Leaving Home is another McCartney song that’s hugely improved by Lennon’s additions. On their own, McCartney’s verses would be rather simplistic – the girl is leaving, so she can have fun, and the concern of the parents is presented as selfish (“How could she treat us so thoughtlessly/How could she do this to me?”).
Lennon’s lines (and he apparently came up with the chorus melody as well as the chorus lyrics) add several extra layers to this. Apparently made up of phrases that Lennon’s aunt Mimi used to say, the voice of the parents in the choruses turns these monsters into fully-rounded people while at one and the same time also adding a comic layer – these people are clearly oblivious, if well-meaning, and one can see exactly why the daughter would want to leave. Particularly wonderful, and worth the existence of the song itself, is the way “How could she treat us so thoughtlessly/How could she do this to me?” goes straight into “We never thought of ourselves/Never a thought for ourselves”. Hilarious, and yet genuinely touching.
Of course, unlike other McCartney ballads, this one has a couple of flaws. First and most obvious is the ending – “She is having fun (fun is the one thing that money can’t buy)”. Fun – as opposed to love (which the Beatles did, after all, previously claim money couldn’t buy…) , or fulfillment, or freedom – seems like a remarkably petty reason to do anything. It may be a more realistic reason, but it seems bathetic in the extreme.
Almost as bad is Mike (“Gary Glitter’s producer”) Leander’s frankly sickly orchestration – the only time while the Beatles were together that anyone other than George Martin arranged parts for outside musicians, because Martin was busy and McCartney didn’t want to wait around. How McCartney could let this pseudo-romantic fairy tinkling all over one of his best songs, and yet complain at the comparatively restrained (comparatively is a relative term…) orchestrations Phil Spector had added to the awful The Long And Winding Road I simply can’t understand. The annoying thing is that there are some good ideas in the arrangement – the cellos are nice – but they’re just swamped with tinkling.
The mono version is a huge improvement on the stereo, thanks largely to being a semitone higher (that’s a half-step to Americans) – it plays in F rather than E, and is consequently faster and bouncier (though not as bouncy as this version, which I hope will get an official release somewhere), making the track seem less final, and more hopeful.
(Personally I always think the Beach Boys’ Wonderful (spotify link) functions as a more mature, intelligent sequel to this song…)
She’s Leaving Home is a flawed masterpiece, but is – just – a masterpiece nonetheless.
Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite is a song that Lennon later dismissed – but one suspects more out of ideological purity than anything else. He later tried to exaggerate the differences between McCartney and himself, saying of this album “Paul said ‘come and see the show’, while I said ‘I read the news today, oh boy’” – but in fact, McCartney’s song merely hopes you’ll enjoy a show you’re already attending, while Lennon’s lyrics here (taken in large part from this poster for a circus performance in Rochdale in the mid 19th century) are actually exhorting you to come to a show you’re not at yet. On the other hand, the previous track, McCartney’s She’s Leaving Home was based on a story McCartney read in the newspaper…
(This also puts the lie to Lennon’s other big claim, that the idea of the album as a show was all McCartney’s idea, and other than the opening two tracks and the reprise they ‘just did tracks’. Notions of performance pervade the album, whether the ‘go to a show’ in Good Morning, Good Morning, or the implicit performance in When I’m 64, a stylistic pastiche…)
There isn’t a huge amount to choose between the mono and stereo mixes of this witty, clever little song, except that in the mono mix the efects are more prominent at the end.
Within You, Without You is the most controversial song on the album. Personally, I think it’s quite a gorgeous song, and while George is preachy and superior in it, as he so often was, it gives the album a conscience that was otherwise lacking.
And just take a moment to think of this – this astonishingly complex piece, which is as far as I can tell a very accurate rendition of Indian classical style, with in parts an almost freeform rhythm, is by the man who less than two years earlier was writing uninspiring filler like I Need You. Just in terms of the amount of growth in Harrison’s compositional ability, it’s an astonishing achievement, even if it’s not to your taste.
It’s also a LONG song. While the Beatles had only previously gone one or two seconds over the three minute mark, here side two of the album is bookended by two songs that last more than five minutes.
And compare the imaginative string arrangement here by George Martin, with its microtonal shifts and subtle accomodations to the Western ear (listen to those incredibly low ‘cellos under ‘try to see beyond yourself’, grounding the track almost inaudibly). Given that Martin at the time didn’t like the song, it’s astonishing how he managed to avoid Hollywood Orientalism here, and actually provide something that made the most difficult song on the album more listenable to the casual audience *without* at any time watering down its difficulty. Just compare the arrangement here to that of She’s Leaving Home (the only other track with essentially no Beatle instrumental participation) – Martin’s score is sparse, thoughtful and intelligent. The man deserves *another* knighthood, frankly.
The main difference between the mono and stereo mixes here is that the laugh at the end of the track, which to my mind is an absolutely essential part of the song, showing Harrison recognised his own pomposity and was able to make fun of it himself (MOJO magazine once described him as ‘the world’s only witty Hari Krishna’, which I think is about right), is much more prominent and longer on the mono mix.
The big difference between the mono and stereo versions of When I’m Sixty-Four is that the mono version is listenable with headphones – the vocal not being panned entirely to one side makes a *big* difference.
When I’m Sixty-Four is supposedly one of McCartney’s first songs, written when he was sixteen, but I suspect that at the very least it was reworked at the time. While overall it’s quite a simplistic song (except for the seventeen bar bridge), the second half of the verse has all the fingerprints of McCartney’s style around this time, from the same I-II-IV pattern I mentioned in the title track (under ‘if I stay out til quarter to three, would you lock the door?’ ) which never appeared in any of his songs prior to late 64 as far as I’m aware, to the diminished seventh in the next line.
While the Beatles used diminished sevenths all the time later on, we’re talking about someone who had supposedly only just written I Lost My Little Girl (chords – G, G7, C), and who has talked about taking the bus across Liverpool around that time to find someone who knew how to play B7. I very much doubt that the same person was casually playing Ebdim7 chords (it’s JUST possible that he wrote the song on the piano and came across the chord in a different inversion, as Cdim7, but unlikely). (The chord sounds here as Edim7, incidentally, but that’s because the song was varispeeded a semitone, partly to make McCartney sound younger (as if 24 wasn’t young enough, jammy sod) and partly so it would be the same key (Db) as Within You, Without You.) So I suspect it was originally written with a much more limited set of chords (probably just C, F and G originally, given that it’s played in C) and only later were the passing chords added. I’m sure the bridge was added later too…
The arrangement is actually more inventive than people give it credit for – the song was originally written in a Sinatra-esque style, but the rooty-toot clarinets transport it into a completely different idiom, and then you have Lennon playing country-blues acoustic guitar under that. We also have one of McCartney’s best vocal performances on the album, grinning and winking through – listen to him laughing at the last ‘will you still need me’ – and playing up his Liverpool vowels. “Berthday greetings”, “say the werd”, “grrandchildren on yurr knee” – this all ties in with the general Northern-childhood-nostalgia that runs throughout the band’s work at this time, and which I’ll touch on more in my review of the next album.
Lovely Rita is the second McCartney filler song in a row, and while it’s quite witty (if cruel – ‘made her look a little like a military man’ and so on) it’s inessential, and much like on side one with Getting Better going into Fixing A Hole, the sequencing of two filler McCartney songs back to back makes both sound less interesting than they would placed further apart. There are some nice touches in the arrangement, though, particularly the electronically-processed comb-and-toilet-paper playing. The orgasmic sounds at the end are nice, too.
Good Morning, Good Morning is one of Lennon’s strongest pieces. I always like Lennon best when he’s being aggressively psychedelic – I much prefer this or I Am The Walrus or Hey Bulldog to Lucy or Across The Universe. Inspired by a cornflake commercial, this is in many ways a rewrite of She Said, She Said, with the same disjointed metre and with a similarly quined title, and would really have fit better on Revolver, especially given Paul’s extraordinary Taxman-esque guitar solo.
But the whole track is just extraordinary, and packs far more of a punch on this CD – I’m not sure whether because of the clarity of the remastering (though I’ve now heard the stereo remasters of Let It Be and Abbey Road and the difference isn’t that great) or because the mono mix is punchier. But either way, listen to the way Ringo and Paul manage to guide the band through these almost-impossible time-signature changes.
The more I listen closely to this music, the angrier I get at the people who claim Ringo was a bad drummer. The man was quite possibly the best rock drummer of his generation, and effectively invented modern rock drumming. The fact that the Beatles’ music sounds so catchy and simple is entirely down to him. The Beatles’ music has a groove to it, and that’s despite the fact that something like a quarter of Lennon’s songs (and several of McCartney and Harrison’s) feature all sorts of metrical irregularities. Most drummers would have immense difficulty even keeping time at all through this song. The fact that Starr manages to actually play fills and make the song one you can tap your foot to, that’s impressive.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) is of course a reprise of the opener. The main differences in the mono version are that the transition from Good Morning, Good Morning isn’t as smooth, the intro is a few beats longer, there’s more audience noise, you can hear Lennon mumbling something *before* ‘goodbye’, and Paul’s scatting over the end is MUCH more prominent. On the whole it’s a much more successful mix, but I do prefer the smoother chicken-cluck-to-guitar transition in the stereo mix…
A Day In The Life is, of course, one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever recorded, and frankly nothing I say about it can do it true justice, certainly not in the confines of this article. My friend Tilt suggested, after I made a similar comment about Tomorrow Never Knows, that I write an entire post on that one song. I may do that for both that song and this one, if enough people think it a good idea. For now, all I shall say is that this track is the crowning glory of the Beatles’ career, and despite Pepper being a flabby album it manages to bring together enough of the themes of the album (completely serendipitously – it was recorded second, after When I’m Sixty-Four) that it makes it feel like a cohesive whole. Newspapers, passively watching a spectacle unfold around you, workaday life, recollections of childhood, invitations to an unspecified ‘you’, the North of England – all of these have been either the topics of, or the inspiration for, multiple songs on the album (even traffic laws turn up multiple times – ‘he didn’t notice that the lights had changed’ and the meter maid…)
In many ways, Pepper could have been cut down to three songs – the title track, Within You, Without You and A Day In The Life – with everything else on the album essentially functioning as a comment on or elaboration of the themes of those three songs. It’s very easy to see why the album was so hugely popular when it came out – nothing like this had ever been attempted before. But it’s also easy to see why the album’s critical stock has fallen even while those before it have become more popular. The framing of a ‘live performance’ and the constant references to the news show that this is an album that was created in a specific time, as a comment on that time, and ultimately the very fact that it has a greater ambition – to be relevant to 1967 – makes it less relevant to 2010 than its less ambitious predecessors.