Friday, June 2, 2017

To Have and to Hold: The Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Edition

Dreaming Pepper: The Beatles in costume.

                                                                          I.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in North America exactly 50 years ago today. Among the many things that were possible then and are impossible now is the unanimity that welcomed The Beatles’ eighth album as a culminating event in cultural history – if not History. “The closest that Western civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815,” critic Langdon Winner famously wrote at the time, “was the week that the Sgt. Pepper album was released.” An assertion so sweeping wouldn’t survive an hour in the social-media wind tunnel of today: experts both bona fide and instant would descend on it with annotated lists of other, far more unifying events. (Thus missing, as experts often do, the rhetorical value of overstatement: there’s a reason those words are still being quoted today.) But one unity Sgt. Pepper undoubtedly did effect was a new fusion of High and Low, of marketplace and ivory tower. It was embraced not only by pop fans, who kept it at #1 throughout the Summer of Love, but also highbrows previously dismissive of popular taste. Composer Ned Rorem believed the album announced “a new and glorious renaissance of song,” while literary scholar Richard Poirier called it “an eruption … for which no one could have been wholly prepared.” Wagner and Eliot, Monteverdi and Joyce were invoked for comparison.

Much of the initial reaction, from inarticulate fans or lettered academics, scans today as hype: enthusiasm magnified by mass response and deprived of long reflection. It’s become almost axiomatic that Pepper is not The Beatles’ best album. It’s been further asserted that it was not even the best album of 1967, which also saw groundbreaking LPs from Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, The Velvet Underground, James Brown, Cream, The Doors, The Byrds, The Mothers of Invention, Procol Harum, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Sly and the Family Stone, Buffalo Springfield, Love, The Kinks, Jefferson Airplane, Leonard Cohen, The Moody Blues, The Chambers Brothers, Pink Floyd, Moby Grape, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and, just before the year ended, Bob Dylan. Pepper may have lacked the raw and radical punch of some of those albums, but it can still stand beside any of them – while standing taller, it seems to me, than most. The best songs are top-drawer in anyone’s bureau: “Lovely Rita,” irresistibly sexy and funny; “Getting Better,” convincingly optimistic, eerily dissonant; “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the song Ringo Starr was born to sing. And of course “A Day in the Life,” with its dazed and damaged Lennon vocal, minimal imagery, deadly drum fills, and atonal crescendos: a modernist masterpiece, a visionary Everest before which most other songs are foothills.

Yet most of the rest is, by Beatle standards, average. That’s half the album’s abiding weakness, while the other half consists in those very ingenuities of performance and production that sustain and uplift both its great and its less-than-great songs. Which is to say, the gloss is evenly applied, but the vision is not. “Fixing a Hole” is delightful to hear, yet if taken a few steps further into the dark, it could have rivaled “Strawberry Fields.” “Good Morning, Good Morning” is clever, and its rhythm crunches like hell, but its alienation is shallow. “When I’m Sixty-Four” has only one level, and if that level isn’t yours, it has nothing. “Within You Without You” and “She’s Leaving Home” and “Mr. Kite!” depend on your mood – while the top-drawer songs above never fail to create their mood. Still, that delight, that crunch, that nonstop swirl and swoop would be more than enough if only the album weren’t surrounded by two others that never got the Congress of Vienna treatment but have arguably lived stronger, stranger lives than Pepper. Those are of course Revolver (1966), so penetrating, so alarmingly fixated on 14 interlaced visions of death and dreaming; and The Beatles (1968), aka The White Album, so oceanic and all-encompassing that even its worst songs are, like the dull passages in Tolstoy, merely the price one pays to know greatness. Where those albums (both of them nearly as complex, musically and technically, as Pepper, though less famously so) loom large as you listen, and expand as you dream, Pepper, so dazzling on the stereo, in memory takes on the glassine smoothness and finite size of an emerald city constructed in a snow-dome.

Creating Pepper: The Beatles and George Martin in Studio Two.

This, I believe, has been the longstanding critical (if not popular) consensus. But now, with the arrival of Pepper’s 50th anniversary, and the elaborately outfitted material released to mark it, the consensus may shift back. That’s nothing to regret or resist. For one thing, critical consensus isn’t terribly important, except to critics – people will always eventually like or dislike what they please – and for another, popular works are not just what they are; they’re also what they’re perceived to be. Pepper remains a touchstone for how it was welcomed at the time, and for the backlashes and reassessments that have followed it through five decades. Hype or not, that early praise expressed the feelings of millions of conscious individuals who were caught up in what Norman Mailer called “an extremely apocalyptic time,” and who found in Pepper an affirmation both effortless and unexpected. And it’s eminently understandable why, ten years on from the Summer of Love, those whose rebel need was now being fed by punk rock and whose thirtysomething anxieties were being soothed by Jackson Browne would dismiss the froth and fantasy-mongering of Pepper (along with every psychedelicism it spawned) as “dated.”

Anyone who grew up reading the first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, published in 1979, will remember that, in the critical nomenclature of that book, there were few worse things for a record to be called than “dated”; and that almost invariably, the records so marked were from the psychedelic era. But that was simply the myopic hype of 1967 turned back on itself. I accepted datedness as a legitimate critical construct for many years. Then I got old enough to realize that no, music doesn’t date – we do. It’s we who get older, who cease to be the relative innocents we were when sounds first got into our minds and bodies. The degree to which those sounds age along with us, reveal their corners and crevices as we return to them with different intellectual and emotional needs, is one of the best questions we can ask of musical art. But in many cases, a decade’s distance – particularly a decade packing as much heartbreak, collapse, stagnation, retrenchment, and generational self-doubt as 1967-1977 – simply isn’t sufficient. How do we assess an artwork’s growth if we’re not yet old enough to assess our own, except insofar as we know what many erstwhile Pepper lovers knew about themselves in 1977 – that we are dissatisfied, disappointed, eager to grow up, and eager to forget?

But there are now on the earth two generations which, when it comes to Pepper and its contemporaries, are all but clean of the “datedness” germ. For them the album lacks any baggage attached to a cultural and social history they weren’t around to experience, or even to envy. It was made long before they were born, though perhaps their parents had it in their “record collection”; they’ve seen it trumpeted on magazine covers as THE GREATEST ALBUM OF ALL TIME, and probably couldn’t care less. Yet Pepper is still in the media bloodstream, still a visible part of the culture – in album cover parodies, abundant Simpsons references, Rock Band showdowns, even the moans of millennials who are sick of hearing about it already. (Cf. Amanda Marcotte’s attempted take-down at Salon.) The Beatles have always been uniquely attractive to children, adolescents, and post-adolescents, and that won’t change any time soon: in the academic library where I work, with a clientele of undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 22, I see kids in Beatle T-shirts all the time. Perhaps these younger listeners can come closer than any of us sixties or seventies or eighties people to taking Sgt. Pepper on its intrinsic merits, here at the half-century mark.

Packaging Pepper: The Super Deluxe Edition, spread out.

                                                                              II.

All such musings aside, there’s a large, colorful, fiendishly alluring box before us: the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band “Super Deluxe” Edition, comprising four CDs, one DVD, one Blu-Ray, a coffee-table book, and several paper toys. On the box’s outer sleeve is the Pepper cover shot, recreated in 3D, with The Beatles’ eyes following you around (a backward wink, as my colleague Kevin Courrier points out, to the 3D cover of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request – itself a backward wink, or sneer, at Pepper). The box inside the sleeve replicates a tape box from EMI, The Beatles’ record company; and inside that is a collection of recordings, writings, photos, and facsimiles that for anyone remotely interested in The Beatles, the cultural history of the sixties, or the imaginative life of twentieth-century pop music will be like an archive of magic crossed with a candy store.

Giles Martin, son and professional heir to George Martin, The Beatles’ producer – a man so instrumental to the creation of Pepper as to be virtually its co-author – has created, from the original four-track master tapes, a new stereo mix of the album. (The 50th Anniversary Edition is being issued in four permutations: a single CD featuring the remixed album; a two-CD Deluxe Edition containing the new mix plus 18 other tracks, both outtakes and additional remixes; a 2-LP vinyl version of same; and the Super Deluxe Edition, discussed here.) There are many previous Pepper mixes to compare the new one to: the original mono and stereo vinyl; the early-eighties “Blue Box” and Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs remasters; the first official CD release, from 1987; the 2009 stereo and mono remasters; “virgin vinyl”-to-CD bootlegger Dr. Ebbetts’s transcriptions of the UK and US mono LPs (the latter upgraded in 2005-06, if that matters, and I’m sure it does). Having made judicious if not comprehensive comparisons between each of these, I can say that this new mix, especially on 180-gram vinyl, is truly the one. The sound brings The Beatles’ bodies closer to us than they’ve ever been – their voices (John on “Lucy in the Sky”), their skin (the hand-claps on “Getting Better”), their fricatives and plosives (the champagne cork on “Lovely Rita”). Instruments feel newly defined and assertive, to the degree that the “Good Morning” horns come across with more personality, more honk and harrumph than before, and the smack of the snare on “Rita” is even wetter and wilder. There’s no more shrilling on the high vocals. And was there always that slight cross-fade between “Within You Without You” and “When I’m Sixty-Four”? Little curiosities abound. (Here’s another: “Penny Lane” is included in a unique mono mix released only to radio stations in the US and Canada, and distinguished by a lovely trumpet figure at the fade. Though clean versions of this have always been in circulation, the one here is from a rather dirty vinyl source. Why? For the sake of the dirt? I’d buy that.)

For some of us, the real excitement is the two discs’ worth of session outtakes contained in the deluxe box (and boiled down to complete alternate takes for Record 2 of the vinyl version). Only a few of these have ever been bootlegged, even as decontextualized fragments; and it matters only a little that they’re essentially just sloppier, sketchier attempts at songs that were well-established at the outset as to sound, feel, and instrumentation, if not always flash and filigree. There are plenty of fresh delights and ephemeral amazements. “With a Little Help from My Friends” (two takes, one a false start, the other a complete backing track) has a great McCartney piano flourish. There’s a particularly intense synchronicity of bass and drum on the Take 1 backing track of “Getting Better.” “Fixing a Hole” (Take 3) includes a long fade-out coda with a typically impressive and imaginative vocal improvisation from Paul. “She’s Leaving Home” (Take 1, backing only) gives a clear view of Mike Leander’s string arrangement, its delicacy and logic. An alternate version of the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise is preceded by Paul’s mystifying commentary on the “bubbles and bumps” that cover the walls of Abbey Road’s Studio Two. (Longtime Beatles scholar Kevin Howlett’s meticulous liner notes demystify that.) “Lovely Rita” is, even in a work version (Take 9), one of the greatest things ever written, played, or sung by anyone anywhere, with a beat that more than ever suggests a bare hand banging on a linoleum table laden with silverware and teapots. (Forgive me, I just love that song so much.) A gratifyingly lengthy track features George Harrison going over the “Within You Without You” arrangement with Indian musicians, talking knowledgeably in Indian classical terms. Take 1 of “A Day in the Life” – a complete run-through with vocal, lacking drums, bass, and Paul’s middle section – is a chilling though unassuming road sign to an unforeseeable destination. (John’s “sugar plum fairy” count-in is one of the few bits we’ve heard before, as is the fleshed-out Take 2, which is memorable in its own right for Paul’s flubbed lyric, followed by a genial “Oh, shit.”) We hear several attempts at the choral humming originally meant to end “A Day in the Life” but discarded in favor of the famous last chord, itself represented by several abortive takes and accompanying chatter. (When the right take finally happens, you recognize it instantly.)

The earliest (November-December 1966) session outtakes encompass a quick course in the evolution of “Strawberry Fields Forever” from larval modesty to full wingspan, a mutant butterfly both gruesome and beautiful. Take 6 of “Penny Lane” is sans vocal, with a more dramatic, even strident arrangement than the finished version. It sounds remarkably like the backings Brian Wilson had constructed for Pet Sounds several months earlier – demonstrating more clearly than anything we’ve heard before the influence of that album on Pepper. (“Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” are present, in both outtake and never-sounded-better stereo remix forms, because they would have been on the album had not George Martin been compelled by Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, to pull a single for stop-gap release. Martin later called that concession the worst mistake of his career.) Take 2 of “When I’m Sixty-Four” is, for this listener, the thing nearest to revelation in the whole set. I understand those who love the Pepper recording for its humor, cleanliness, jollity, twee-spiritedness. Yet those are the very things about it that make me groan. This early take, recorded with “Strawberry Fields” still in the air, is free of all that smarm and charm, and doesn’t try so infernally hard to be adored. It retains the same soft-shoe rhythm, and there’s still plenty of jazz in Paul’s delivery. But there are no clarinets, and no backing vocals; the bass is thicker, and Ringo leans on his brushes for a smoky rhythm that darkens the pleasure. The whole effect is dry, ironic, a bit mysterious, both an elegant thing and its hunchback shadow. Like “Strawberry Fields,” it’s an apposite transition from the honed, cutting sound of Revolver to something more playful, fantastical; and in this case, they might have left well enough alone.

Unleashing Pepper: The pre-release listening party, London, May 19, 1967.

The DVD and Blu-Ray both contain the Beatles’ contemporaneous promo films for “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane,” and “A Day in the Life” (redundant, given the 2015 release of 1+, which collected these along with all of the band’s other music videos; but consolidation is always a good thing), as well as the 25th anniversary documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper (1992). Though it’s well-known to Beatles fans, I’d never seen this film before, and it’s a good job. Many pleasing passages focus on George Martin at the control board, running Pepper four-tracks. Manipulating faders with his long, authoritative fingers, he reveals the delicious intricacy of the tape layering, and never tries to hide his delight and pride in what he and The Beatles created. There is also, most unexpectedly, a terrific panoramic shot from the roof of Abbey Road studios – a spot notorious from the March 21, 1967, session in which John Lennon, dosed with LSD, was taken up by Martin for a breath of fresh air and left alone, then hurriedly retrieved, lest he reach for the stars and plunge to his death. (“He took an aspirin,” George Harrison says in voice-over. “Turned out to be something else.”)

The book that comes with the deluxe box is no mere souvenir program, but a substantial addition to Beatle literature. Commissioned essays by distinguished fans from divergent fields shoot the album through various lenses – none entirely new, but all nudging out the record’s historical and aesthetic boundaries. Joe Boyd, legendary producer of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention, tells of listening to an advance tape of Pepper in a closet in Wimbledon with Sandy Denny. British war correspondent Ed Vulliamy, writing about “The World in 1967,” gives good insight on the album’s “two threads – visionary and vernacular,” and the underground nature of The Beatles’ revolt against tradition: “subliminal, not rhetorical.” Classical composer Howard Goodall rigorously argues for Pepper as a compositional watershed, “47 minutes of unstoppable invention, discovery and surprise that profoundly altered the parameters of popular music.” (In Magic Circles, I wrote that Pepper was “largely unimportant musically.” I still claim the rhetorical value of overstatement.) Kevin Howlett handles the technical minutiae – such things as tape speed and semitones, Artificial Double Tracking and how the drums were miked. (It’s interesting to compare his notes against Mark Lewisohn’s definitive 1988 sessionography The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: here and there, they disagree.) Howlett also relates an incredible story, previously unknown to me, of how in 1963 Paul McCartney met the very girl upon whom “She’s Leaving Home” would be based four years later.

The book features superb reproductions of session ledgers, tape labels, handwritten lyrics, and other such coffee-stained documents. (In his “Within You Without You” lyrics, after “when they pass away,” George Harrison has drawn a little coffin and cross; the weird phrases “LONG THIN HEART” and “Double Beduoin,” also on the sheet, stir one’s speculative juices.) We’re shown Paul’s extraordinary sketch of an early cover concept – The Beatles holding instruments and wearing the familiar military getup, but standing in a middle-class parlor, beneath the disembodied head of a grimacing, mutton-chopped Edwardian who vomits forth a Ringo doppelgänger. (It seems like a twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but what is the twist?) An entire section documents the photo session for the Pepper cover; most arresting are the Surrealist shots of Sonny Liston’s wax head in a box, and of a grinning, Bellmeresque girl-doll stuffed in a basket. I’d forgotten or never known that Shirley Temple is represented not once on the cover but three times, and that cutouts of Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I and Timothy Carey as the racetrack sniper of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing are actually present in the crowd – though hidden, because George is standing in front of them.

Lastly, there are the paper toys, the giveaways. These include a vintage promo poster; a reproduction of the Victorian circus bill that provided John Lennon with the lyrics for “Mr. Kite!”; and the cardboard cutout sheet slipped into the original Pepper package, with badges, postcard, desktop standee, sergeant’s stripes, and mustache. I find it touching that the packagers of this golden-anniversary cornucopia thought to provide not one but two copies of the cutout sheet – one for saving, one for actually cutting out. What a novel capture of The Beatles’ spirit: they always were, and still remain, something to have and to hold, to cherish and to use, to dream on and to live with.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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