My Two Favorite Beatles Songs: Celebrating 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper

It was 50 years ago today…. Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. sgtpeppersessions

I couldn’t avoid it guys, had to say it.

Yes, the Citizen Kane of all rock albums was released exactly fifty years ago today. 01 June 1967. In honor of the great album’s milestone anniversary, there is a truly amazing remix of the album by Giles Martin that was just released, a documentary film airing on PBS tomorrow, and celebrations the world over for “Sgt. Pepper Day.”

The album has been examined, celebrated, critically lauded, listened to, written on, and debated about by thousands of people fifty years since it came out. Just how great is Sgt. Pepper? As objectively as possible in art, pretty phenomenally great. It’s a high mark of the entire enterprise of rock and pop music. If a few albums were placed in a capsule for aliens to hear, it would be there.

With that being said, it is my personal favorite album of all time. I’ve listened to it countless times, been thrilled with every listen, and read all those things about it and pored over every detail and word. It is a true tragedy to me that a camera wasn’t running to capture some of the studio performances. I try to transport my mind to that little room in 1967 where Paul chants some background vocals fifty times into the mike while Ringo plays chess and John asks Geoff Emerick and George Martin to do impossible sonic stunts.

So I would love to write a full appreciation of just how much this album has influenced me, how much it means to my life, how I think it is the most consummately perfect statement a rock album can achieve. The problem? Time. I would love to do a track by track dissection of it, maybe some other time. You can always go and read the literature about why this album is so culturally important, musically genius, full of great stories in every track, etc. I just want to talk a little about my two favorite Beatles songs that are on the album.

I mean, the statement is kind of ludicrous to start. My two favorite Beatles songs? What are you thinking? How could I possibly choose such a thing? Strawberry Fields Forever may be one of my top three tracks they did, but some days I’m just madly in love with a scratchy early recording they did that is nowhere near such a pinnacle sonic production/songwriting masterpiece. Something like In Spite of all the Danger or Hello Little Girl.

Anyway, these are two tracks I always go back to and that speak a lot to me.

Doing the Best That I Can:

sgtpepper2Getting better all the time. Is there nothing so without doubt a Paul McCartney composition? Is there nothing so clearly a collaboration that benefited from John Lennon’s presence? Just one line by John gives the song a whole new flavour. Paul says it’s getting better all the time. John says it can’t get no worse. Beatle magic right there my friends. I’ll never forget being first aware of this song, even though I may have forgotten hearing Sgt. Pepper for the first time.
I was still quite young, and to hear that tug of war within such an upbeat song’s psychology was incredible to me. The song was so jubilant and sounded like happiness got put on wax. It had a surprisingly dark side to it though. “I used to be cruel to my woman I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. Man, I was mean but I’m changing my scene and I’m doing the best that I can.” That’s a bold line for anybody to put on a song, let alone the kings of the music world.

That’s part of what I love about Pepper. It’s got a lot of pomp and flair that is exhilarating to listen to; a visual feast in decibels. It’s not just showbiz though. That’s part of the theme of the album. The Beatles had been wearing masks for too long, and now they had donned the mask of another band as a sort of meta-joke, but it gave them the first complete freedom they ever had. John had never been shy opening up his heart to people even if they didn’t know it, but to hear Paul talking about abusive tendencies in a song that sounded like a sure-fire pop hit is just incredible in any era of music.

The song means a great deal to me because it sort of captures the dual personalities at play in my own heart. My general state is that of joy, optimism, and acknowledgement of past mistakes with a repentant intention to push forward into a better future. Also at play is the John side. The fear of knowing that you’re capable of ruining yourself. That you can frolic around in tulips and say things are getting better but you know you’re down as you can get. Not to insult John, but John’s voice is the devil in Getting Better. Yeah, you think things are alright but you know you’re trash and this is going nowhere.

The recording is just astonishing too. The background vocals, the tone on George’s guitar, Paul’s elastic Pepper-era bass playing, that weird keyboard sounding thing that closes the song out. It’s prime pop music production craft.

Anyway, that’s enough of that. It’s a mantra I would rather live by than a lot of people’s favorite Beatle slogan songs. In my mind, it is getting better all the time.

Hey, it can’t get no worse right?

Woke Up, Fell Out of Bed:

It’s been my consistent answer to the ever asked rubbish question “What’s your favorite johnpepperBeatles song?” “A Day in the Life” I always say. I know what you’re thinking. Pepper, Day in the Life. I’m way too predictable and sound like Rolling Stone magazine right? But I’m not kidding. It was my “favorite” Beatles song before I ever read Rolling Stones’ equally rubbish rankings. Why is it my favorite? Well first of all it’s obviously a grand experiment, and there’s nothing that excites me like a risky experiment that pays off better than you could have ever imagined. A Day In the Life didn’t seem to have a lot going for it, I bet. John had a song singing a newspaper and Paul had a song about his dull sounding day.  Neither one enough to stand on its own. Together? There’s an idea.

Much like Getting Better, the reason why I really love A Day In the Life is contained in the contrast that it provides. John begins singing in a voice that made the hairs on George Martin’s arm stand on end about some things he probably read in the Evening Standard or something (I forget which paper it really was, where’s my Steve Turner book??), and reports the lives and deaths of people as if he were a disenchanted witness of all the events himself. The stories range from tragic to what would be the equivalent to Buzzfeed headlines now. How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall??? You won’t believe the answer!!

This section sort of represents a greater whole of London, or life as a whole. The grand scheme of things through a floating newsreel camera. John drifts through it like none of it touches him, but happens all around him. He wishes he could turn everyone on to what he sees. Many took this as a drug reference, which it probably is in a way. But I think of it more as being turned on to a new way of viewing life.

An avant-garde orchestra bit leads to Paul’s section. The staccato piano suggests a busy morning while Paul’s alarm rings. He goes about his normal existence on his way to work and has an epiphany as he smokes and somebody speaks. He goes into a dream, and seems to fly away into the distance. This section is about the mundane side of life, and escaping it even as you partake in repetitious activities like smoking and hearing someone speak.

The song briefly flies back to John’s Albert Hall bit, before ending in the orchestral freak out and most famous ending chord in all of musical history. It’s the longest sustained sound on record. You can even hear the AC unit if you listen close enough because the mikes are turned up so loud!

So there you have it. The song that challenged a whole generation of music fans and pushed the art form into another dimension. There’s a lot of little things to appreciate about it too. Ringo’s drumming is perfect, John’s vocal is transcendental, the mix is flawless to my ears, the piano licks are spot on. My favorite little bit is Paul’s soaring wordless vocal that closes out his section. Many assumed that was John because it does sound like him, but it was definitely Paul (according to the man himself). John couldn’t have hit those notes either. It is the sound of drifting into one’s mind, looking inward. The sound that is in your mind as you hop the Trafalgar Square bus and look out the window at all the people rushing by in yet another day in the life.

I wish I could write so much more on this record. It brings unspeakable joy to my life and even thinking of it makes me happy. It was the perfect time, perfect place, and perfect band to make such a crowning achievement.

Cheers to Sgt. Pepper on its 50th birthday. It gets better all the time.

sgtpepperparty

*Massive E chord*

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Hung Up On A Dream: Remembering The Forgotten Optimism of 1967

The world was a different place in 1967.
The social revolution had been building swiftly for the past three or four years after a cycle of flowergirlturbulence rocked the culture of the western world in an unprecedented way.
The JFK assassination, Vietnam, swinging London, rock music, drugs, free love, all of these elements were pieces of an enormous board of influences that were shifting everything anyone had known for decades. You most likely know this already because you either lived it or read about it in school sometime.

What is often forgotten however, is one of the key ingredients that made the 60’s such a distinctive and exciting time: the overwhelming prevalence of optimism.

Last November, I had the privilege of seeing one of the most powerful temporary museum exhibits I’ve ever seen. It was called “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was an exhilarating experience that I’m truly disappointed was only temporary. What was so unique about the exhibit was not only how brilliantly it was designed, but how incredibly relevant the late 60’s was made to the modern era. It felt like the 60’s was alive and breathing, that it hadn’t receded in the past, but that its vision was so advanced that we were only now catching up with it.

hapshash
Hapshash and the Coloured Coat

The exhibit focused strongly on the music, as one would expect considering the time is considered one of the greatest eras in musical history. Music was not the only field being revolutionized in the late 60’s though. Forward-thinking fashion designed by prominent designers like Mary Quant and Nigel Weymouth were displayed. Psychedelic graphic art like that made by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat was featured along with photographs by swinging epoch-capturing photographers like David Bailey and Terence Donovan.  Everything down to the design of furniture, telephones, magazines, cans, and other basic utilitarian things were being engineered with a whole new enthusiasm. You could smell the coming of a new world all around. On the radio, on television, in the clothes, in the stores, even in the chairs you sat on.

The sudden popularity of LSD had an enormous influence on this new freedom of design and childlike hope for a new world. Within about a three-year span, nearly all of the influential rock musicians of the time had taken trips. Many of them described their trips in terms that made it sound as if they had discovered the key to solving the underlying problems of disharmony in humanity. Steve Turner called LSD the “Damascus Road tablet,” turning hard-nosed materialist rock stars into starry-eyed mystics.

God isn’t in a pill, but LSD explained the mystery of life. It was a religious experience.” – Paul McCartney 

To again quote Turner, “LSD was the perfect religious experience for the consumer-boom 1960’s. It could be bought, it was fun, it required no sacrifice, you made up your own commandments, and it was in color.”
LSD was seen by many rockers as being the key to a new world. The recognition that we are all God coupled with the loss of ego would ultimately destroy alienation and conflict. This idea was taken so seriously at the time that there were suggestions made to spike the water systems of major cities with hallucinogens to spread the message.

Timothy Leary, high priest of acid in 1967, encouraged the view that LSD could allow humanity to make an evolutionary leap to a near-perfect state. The drug was seen as a cleansing agent. It could break down all the junk loaded on your mind by society and modern civilization and bring you back to the innocence of childhood. Being childlike was incredibly hip. Festival goers would blow bubbles and frolic about in painted bodies. Brian Wilson was writing a song utilizing the Wordsworth line that the “child is the father to the man.”

What was the great message that LSD brought which revealed the “answer” to the mystery of beatles-all-you-need-is-lovelife? Love was the answer. Masters and Houston reported one of the effects of LSD was that “this idea emerges… that a universal or brotherly love is possible and constitutes man’s best if not only hope.” Paul McCartney heartily concurred. In 1967 he claimed, “The need today is for people to come to their senses and my point is that LSD can help them. We all know what we would like to see in the world today–peace. We want to be able to get on with each other. I believe the drug could heal the world…. I now believe the answer to everything is love.”

“Love became the buzzword of 1967 rock ‘n’ roll culture. It gave rise to a huge wave of optimism. The Beatles sang, ‘With our love, we could change the world,’ and millions of young people, for a few months, truly believed they were right.”
                                                                                  – Steve Turner

The_Trip
The Trip (1967) A cult classic Roger Corman film that depicts Peter Fonda going on a nightmare LSD trip.

A few months was right. The LSD religion craze came crashing down almost as soon as it started. The idea was destined to be short-lived in reality. Once you saw the possibilities, where would you go from there? A LSD “religious experience” offered no ground to stand upon whatsoever. There was no guiding light, no worship, and no discipline. The central question was “now what?”
To make matters worse, LSD ended up not just being less than what experimenters looked for. It ended up destroying people’s lives and minds. Stories spread of “acid casualties,” people who had gone on trips and whose minds had never returned. There were also some who, truly believing all to be one, saw no harm in jumping out of an upstairs window. Many experienced “bad trips.” Nightmares that made the user feel terror, fear, and loss of control. The Beatles themselves soon abandoned the drug. Lennon called Timothy Leary’s book “stupid” and blamed the drug for harming his confidence. George Harrison had a bad experience with San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippies. Thinking the city was going to be a utopian paradise of love and friendliness, he instead found a ghetto of “dirty people” and addicts. Harrison was quickly telling the press that “LSD isn’t a real answer. It doesn’t give you anything.”

“I was experimenting with LSD. I had done some trips and it was terrible. I’d wake up having nightmares…I had ‘Peace’ written on my wall and I went around giving the peace sign, but I didn’t experience peace in my life. I didn’t know what peace really meant; it was just a cliché.” – Phil Keaggy (Glass Harp)

Allen Y. Cohen, one of the original disciples of Timothy Leary, became disenchanted as well. He explained,
“The use of psychedelic chemicals did not lead to a social utopia. Our attempts failed not because of the quality of the people but because these results do not accrue from chemical-induced experiences. You can’t carry over even the most profound experiences you have. You can feel very loving under LSD, but can you exert that love to someone who previously you didn’t like? The long-range answer is no.”

Thus the dream for a new world of peace, love, innocence, and oneness under LSD was recognized to be a sham. If LSD couldn’t make you love your enemies, then it ultimately could change nothing. Rock stars sought more grounded answers in eastern religions and transcendental meditation, but this was quickly dismissed as well. John Lennon claimed that “The dream is over…. We’ve got to get down to so-called reality.” This summed up the closing of the 60’s; the closing of hope for a different, better world.

The utopian vision of the counterculture had good intentions, so where did it go wrong? The hope had permeated all things. It was a time filled with magic. New-comer counterculture films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde were getting recognized by Hollywood as having a massive impact, ushering in an era called the “New Hollywood.” Pop music reached artistic heights it had never before achieved. There was an excitement for all that was new and different and better that replaced the stale consumer-driven world that had been long dominant since the end of WWII. It seemed that the world could really continuously involve into a greater place.

It is clear with hindsight that the means of 1967 which were thought to be world-changing ended up being a dream that didn’t reflect reality. War continued because not everyone would take LSD, and even those who did had mixed experiences and disillusion. Drugs, free sex, rock music, Eastern religion, marches, etc. all didn’t have the long-term effect that was hoped for. Despite this, the 60’s has had an undeniable mark on the world at large. We are living in a post-60’s society. Things that were still out of the ordinary at that time have passed into the mainstream. Everything from experimental pop music to conservation efforts and vegetarian eating are products of movements that found their start in the 60’s. While the societal goals envisioned at this time were out of reach, having such lofty visions led to a great deal of change despite the loss of the ultimate “dream” of peace and universal love.

I want to close with a song that I feel like encapsulates the year of 1967 as a whole, and indeed the dream of the 60’s itself.

In 1967, The Zombies went into Abbey Road Studios and recorded an album that is nowodesseyandoracle considered one of the greatest of all time, Odessey and Oracle. The album would mostly not see the light of day until “Time of the Season” became a radio hit two years too late in 1969, but now the album is considered to be a masterpiece. One of the songs on the album is a psychedelic swirl that writer Rod Argent says wasn’t even influenced by drugs, since he had never been interested in them. The song captured the spirit of the times with great poetry in music and words.
You can listen to the song here:  The Zombies – Hung Up On a Dream

Check out these lyrics:

Well I remember yesterday
Just drifting slowly through a crowded street
With neon darkness shimmering through the haze
A sea of faces rippling in the heat

And from that nameless changing crowd
A sweet vibration seemed to fill the air
I stood astounded, staring hard
At men with flowers resting in their hair

A sweet confusion filled my mind
Until I woke up only finding
Everything was just a dream
A dream unusual of its kind
That gave me peace and blew my mind
And now I’m hung up on a dream

They spoke with soft persuading words
About a living creed of gentle love
And turned me on to sounds unheard
And showed me strangest clouded sights above

Which gently touched my aching mind
And soothed the wonderings of my troubled brain
Sometimes I think I’ll never find
Such purity and peace of mind again

“‘Hung Up on a Dream’ is one of my favorite Rod Argent songs. It was written at the time of the Summer of Love. We had great hopes that the movement would develop into something more. It was a time when it was possible to envision that the power of universal love might be extended to all. It wasn’t. It didn’t. It crashed in a fog of drugs and exploitation. Maybe it will happen one day”
 – Chris White (Zombies)

The dream of 1967 may have crashed, but that doesn’t mean hope still can’t be alive fifty years later in 2017. The dream that hope can lead to great change that betters all humanity. Perhaps there is a love that is grounded in truth, that leads one to loving even your enemies, that gives a real answer. A love that leads to you thirsting to really change, to always push towards the new, the better, all in childlike joy.

That’s a love and hope and peace to look for.

Thanks to Steve Turner, whose fantastic book Hungry For Heaven: Rock ‘N’ Roll & the Search for Redemption provided the bulk of information for this piece. For more on these issues of spiritual issues in musical movements I can’t recommend that book enough.