Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the big kahuna, the one music critics fawn over and write books about and blah blah blah. So much has been written about this album it seems almost a waste to spit out more words so I'll try to keep this brief.

Back in 1967 bands didn't have massive walls of amps. The biggest, baddest, most powerful amp at their disposal was specially designed "super-loud" 100 watt Vox amps*. Sure, they had a dozen or so on the stage with them but with all the screaming teens they still couldn't hear themselves play. And so the decision was made to send a virtual band on the road in their place, hence the imaginary Sgt. Pepper.

So into the studio they went, freed to create music they didn't have to recreate live. The band was also involved in a kind of music arms race with The Beach Boys and their album Pet Sounds, a remarkable album and incidentally the only Beach Boys album I enjoy. I found that in making notes for writing this review I kept writing "great bass line" on almost every song. Then I discovered that the session bass player on Pet Sounds, Carol Kaye, spurred McCartney to expand the melodic nature of his bass parts.

Without the constraints of live performance the band includes horns, lots of keyboard instruments, non-western instruments, harps, string orchestras and sound effects. Oh, and a kazoo. The result is a massive leap in tone colors, like going from black and white to modern color digital "film." Nowhere is this more evident than in "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." As a child I would marvel at the odd, magical words like "plasticine" and "looking glass eyes", only later finding out that this was clay and mirrors.

I suppose I could gush about every song but I'll hit the highlights, at least for me. "Getting Better" is made all the better by Lennon's foil of "It couldn't get no worse" to McCartney's saccharine optimism. "She's Leaving Home" is so horribly hopeless and depressing, a far cry from the simple love pop songs of just a few years earlier. The harpsichord and sparse sound of "Fixing A Hole" and the mesmerizing, swirling carnival sounds of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" are also strong childhood memories. With CDs and digital music, it's so much easier to hit the skip button on "Within You and Without You" whereas before I'd have to move the record arm to "When I'm Sixty-Four." I also loved the rough rhythm of "Good Morning Good Morning", which is written in a variety of time signatures. Apparently it was so unique in its time that the session horn players had a difficult time following along, hence the sloppy playing. And who can forget the lilting piano solo on Lovely Rita? Not I, said the fly.

And then there's "A Day in the Life." If ever there is an epic song on an epic album, it's "A Day in the Life." It's a great song, though my young mind couldn't really wrap around it, instead just basking in the rich vocal reverb, the orchestral build up, the many different turns the songs takes and the resounding final piano chord.

Also recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions are the amazing "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever", stupendous songs which were included on the American version of Magical Mystery Tour.

* For great info on the bands state of the art period gear as well as what guitars each used, etc. see Beatles Gear.

No comments: