It was 50 years ago today…. Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.
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:
Getting 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 Beatles 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.
*Massive E chord*