Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Eight)

SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
 
Brian Wilson was blown away by Rubber Soul.  Although he had only heard the North American version (which excised three songs from the British track listing and added I’ve Just Seen A Face and It’s Only Love from Help!), Wilson was greatly impressed with what The Beatles had accomplished.  That album sparked something in him, a competitive spirit that inspired him to attempt to produce a better LP.
 
The result of his intense labours was Pet Sounds.  When Paul McCartney heard it, it immediately became one of his favourites.  Close to the end of the Revolver sessions, he only had time to write one Beach Boys-inspired number:  Here, There & Everywhere.  He would have all the time in the world for the next record.
 
By the summer of 1966, The Beatles were through with live performances.  The tours were a constant grind and artisically unsatisfying.  Already a proven success with staying power, the band confidently opted to go a different route.  For the rest of their time together, they found solace, for the most part, in the big, cavernous rooms at EMI Studios.  With an open-minded producer willing to go along with even their most outlandish ideas, The Beatles utilized their creative freedom in ways never possible at the start of their career.
 
McCartney was the architect of Revolver’s follow-up.  After mishearing something a trusted friend and employee had said on a flight one time, he had part of the title.  Then, he developed the concept.  He wondered what it would be like for The Beatles to pretend to be a fictional band.  How different would they sound?  What kinds of ideas would be expressed in their lyrics?  His bandmates were definitely onboard with this approach as they set out to come up with material worthy of this adventurous idea. 
 
When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band surfaced in the spring of 1967, some ten months after Revolver, it was met with universal acclaim.  Released during an exciting year for rock and roll (The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Doors and Are You Experienced? were three of the best LPs issued that year), it finally solidified the album as far more artistically and commercially important than the single.  Of all the albums The Beatles made, none were greater than this one.  In truth, McCartney’s concept didn’t really extend beyond four songs (the first two and the last two) but because of the brilliant realization of the material that was recorded, it didn’t matter.  43 years after its momentous release, this 39-minute and 55-second album remains an influential landmark.
 
It all begins with the title cut which sounds a little warped at the start creating an immediate sense of disorientation.  The audience is bustling as a few members of an orchestra briefly tune up before getting ready to perform.  12 seconds later, The Beatles take over.  George Harrison’s psychedelic guitar licks puncture the open spaces in the band’s spare, potent arrangement.  An uninhibited Paul McCartney excitably introduces this veteran, fictional group who despite not always being in fashion are “guaranteed to raise a smile” nonetheless.  John Lennon kisses up to the crowd (“You’re such a lovely audience/We’d like to take you home with us”) and McCartney finds a clever way to link the song to its successor.  In between there’s some applause, inexplicable laughter and some charming horns.  I love this one even more than I did in the mid-1990s.
 
Ringo Starr, or “Billy Shears”, as McCartney calls him at the tail end of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, earnestly sings With A Little Help From My Friends, the first song on the record to be overtly influenced by The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds LP.  (Listen closely to McCartney’s bass playing.)  When he’s not fretting about his own vocal limitations, Ringo worries about the absence of his woman (“What do I do when my love is away?”).  From the second verse onward, the song shifts to a call-and-answer approach as Ringo finds comfort in the company of his buddies especially at his loneliest, most vulnerable moments.  During the choruses, the band dramatically tightens up as Ringo’s confidence grows, especially in the dying seconds when he nails that high note.  A good song that was greatly improved by Joe Cocker, whose cover, I would argue, is the definitive version.
 
Next comes Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, one of the greatest songs in their entire catalogue.  Its vivid, dream-like imagery is easily matched by its surrealistic arrangement which mainly consists of a trippy organ, McCartney’s thumping, at times economical bassline and George Harrison’s fluidly atmospheric tambura.  In between the lyrical sections (an ironically traditional verse-prechorus-chorus set-up with no middle eight), Ringo tap-tap-taps his snare like a percussive conductor which ignites the song through several thoroughly enjoyable rock-outs.  Artficially raising John Lennon’s vocals to that of an awestruck child was a stroke of genius.  Just superb.
 
It’s Getting Better is actually better now even though I’ve long admired it, thanks to a deeper appreciation of its blunt lyrics and choppy chorded arrangement.  (Near the end, listen for George Harrison’s sitar which sounds more like a lathe slicing through wood than a musical instrument.)  McCartney assumes the persona of a once ruthless lower-class thug finding redemption through a new, loving relationship.  (He’s essentially singing about his songwriting partner.)  Before, he resented authority figures (“I used to get mad at my school/The teachers who taught me weren’t cool”), refused to listen to reason while enraged (“Me used to be angry young man/Me hiding me head in the sand”) and was a horrible boyfriend (“I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat her and kept her apart from the/Things that she loved”).  Now, thanks to his current squeeze, “It’s getting better since you’ve been mine/Getting so much better all the time”.  John Lennon subtly adds the line “It couldn’t get no worse” high in the background after the second line of every chorus, a sly contrast to the reformed optimism of McCartney’s protagonist.  A surprising, spiritual sequel of sorts to Run For Your Life.
 
Fixing A Hole really isn’t about heroin addiction.  Rather, it’s an innocuous album cut about a stubborn guy who refuses to accept that his residence is far from a pristine castle.  It shouldn’t be a surprise at all that McCartney, the eternal optimist, sings this one.  Even though there’s a hole in the roof “where the rain gets in” and there are “cracks that run through the door”, he insists “I’m right where I belong”.  I like how repairing his place gives him something to do when he’d much rather live within his own imagination.  It’s only when he paints his bedroom that he allows himself to zone out.  Beginning with producer George Martin’s lively playing of the harpsichord (which gives the song an old-fashioned feel), Ringo Starr slows down the tempo with his hi-hat as McCartney’s voice echos against the slower-paced rhythm of his bandmates.  Evoking Brian Wilson’s voice when he emphasizes his higher register, he delivers yet another good vocal performance.  Generally, the music is taken straight from the Pet Sounds playbook, especially the gently moving backing vocals.
 
McCartney’s superb Wilson imitation is given a more prominent showcase on the frightfully good She’s Leaving Home.  A song with roots in a British newspaper article, a teenage girl reaches her breaking point with her conservative parents.  One morning, she leaves behind a letter explaining her reasons for her departure.  Later on, when her mother finds it, she is deeply dismayed by what she reads, totally shocked at this sudden turn of events.  Two days later, the girl “is far away/Waiting to keep the appointment she made/Meeting a man from the motor trade”.  All the while, the thoughts of the panic-stricken parents, beautifully vocalized by John Lennon in the choruses, are heard against McCartney’s soaring read of the song’s title and its one variation.  I love how the song has just as much empathy for the girl, especially her eagerness to be an independent woman, as it does for her mom and dad, two loving, decent people who had no idea that all their sacrifice, wealth and lifelong care for her were not enough to keep her happy.  Wisely, no one is portrayed as a villain here.  If nothing else, She’s Leaving Home is an incredible parable about the timeless conflict between the generations.  Despite its more complex storyline, musically, it’s right up there with Eleanor Rigby, thanks to its extraordinary classical sensibility.  Another of the band’s all-time greatest numbers.
 
Who would’ve thought that an old poster advertising a 19th Century circus would inspire such a unique song?  Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! basically steals the gist of that antique document while providing an advertiser-friendly psychedelic soundtrack to go with it.  With Ringo’s hi-hat high in the mix, Lennon makes a  convincing sales pitch.  It sounds like Pablo Fanque knew how to put on a show.  Most of the tempo changes go smoothly except for the last one which is a bit clunky, the track’s only misstep.  The prominent sounds of organs, tape loops, a harmonium and a glockenspiel greatly establish the big top atmosphere the song needs to work.  For the first time since A Hard Day’s Night, the harmonica makes a surprising return.  Welcome back, old friend.  The song is even better now after all these years.
 
Two more great songs follow.  George Harrison’s Within You Without You might be his greatest songwriting achievement as a Beatle.   Surrounded by a mix of the airy sounds of East India and the collective swoon of soothing strings, it’s a more experimental and more spiritual All You Need Is Love.  The lyrics are cosmically compelling, the atmosphere supremely meditative.  I’m not sure what the giggling is all about at the end, though.  An outstanding contribution, nonethless.  Originally written in the late ’50s, When I’m Sixty Four is Paul McCartney’s loving tribute to the music of his father’s dance hall days.  (Only a few lyrical tweaks were needed before it was recorded for this album.)  Led by an old-school clarinet and lots of basstones, the song is a charmer from start to finish.  Unapologetically uncool, it still manages to win you over with its cheeky, clever lines and winning melody.  I’ve always had a soft spot for this one.
 
It’s too bad that the first two minutes of Lovely Rita aren’t nearly as fantastic as its ending.  After McCartney sings about his successful first date with a progressive meter maid he fancies (she pays for dinner), John Lennon starts rhythmically panting and orgasming while the band cooks up a delicious groove.  It’s so great you wish the jam lasted a lot longer.  Before then, McCartney observes his love interest for the first time while she’s on the job.  Thankfully, only one line of courtship ends up being corny:  “When it gets dark I tow your heart away”.  Sweet and quintessentially polite, Lovely Rita is a good song that could’ve been spectacular.
 
Immediately afterwards comes the rocking Good Morning Good Morning.  A cock’s crow signals the start of a new day as a sometimes croaking saxophone section and Ringo Starr’s booming cymbal crashes awaken a driftless Lennon.  Bored and bereft of interesting things to say, as well as “feeling low down”, he wanders around his city looking for something to perk him up.  Unfortunately, “Everything is closed it’s like a ruin”.  Shortly thereafter, though, he starts to feel better (“…you start to smile now you feel cool”).  With everybody else leaving work to return home, Lennon finds his rhythm with the ladies (“Watching the skirts you start to flirt now you’re in gear”).  George Harrison’s frenetic Middle Eastern guitar solo is as jolting as the cymbal crashes and the song’s constant but professionally smooth time signature changes.  By the end, as Ringo loosens up percussively, that rooster kicks off a succession of animal sounds which include birds, cats, dogs, horses, elephants and cows.
 
The final sound of a chicken clucking leads into the first note of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise).  Basically a sped-up version of the earlier track, the band thanks the appreciative audience for coming out and warns them that “it’s getting very near the end”.  Exceedingly tight, Paul McCartney hiccups and whoops early on, unable to contain his excitement.  This is even better than the opening number.
 
And that brings us to A Day In The Life.  With references to real-life news stories and his appearance in the film, How I Won The War, John Lennon delivers perhaps the finest vocal performance ever on a Beatles’ song.  It’s pitch perfect in tone and feel.  In between the words, Ringo Starr demonstrates his full potential as a drummer.  His fills are so exceptional, to remove them from the final mix would’ve made this an inferior number.  Ditto the maracas and that mesmerizing piano which kills me.  The absence of a major role for Harrison’s lead guitar is quite striking when you think about it.  There’s no need for it.  Where would it have fit in the arrangement?  During the orchestral sections, the music increases in emotional intensity.  (And yes, you can still hear someone counting in the measures in the background which I think sounds cool.)  It sounds like a swarm of killer bees invading a peaceful, unsuspecting landscape.  Back in the mid-90s, I used to find the McCartney section entertaining but intrusive and not nearly as great as Lennon’s contributions.  I was so wrong.  Thanks to the seamless editing of the arrangement, its inclusion not only provides a much needed middle eight section, it also perfectly explains the echoey, reference-heavy storytelling of Lennon.  When a hustling McCartney (exemplified by a briefly panting Lennon) finally gets on that double decker bus to try to make it to work on time and falls asleep again, Lennon returns and it’s just perfect.  After the final orchestral flourish, out of nowhere comes a piano with its pounded, haunting chords that linger like the remnants of a discordant dream.  This is easily one of the best Beatles tracks of all time. 
 
Early pressings include a brief documentary that you can only see on your computer.  (PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime to access it.  Consult the back cover for additional information.)  You’ll hear producer George Martin and all four Beatles offering bits of audio commentary regarding the making of the album.  As each of them speak, you’ll see lots of photos (including a couple of rare shots of Ringo Starr’s original Premier drum kit) interspersed with footage from the Yellow Submarine movie as well as short highlights of the night an orchestra was brought in to record its key parts for A Day In The Life.  (If you’ve seen The Beatles On Record, all this material will be familiar to you.)  George Harrison is seen playing the sitar with Ravi Shankar (Norah Jones’ estranged dad).  Ringo wryly notes that he learned how to play chess during the making of Sgt. Pepper.  A cocky Paul McCartney claims that The Beatles weren’t the leaders of their generation, just the spokesmen.  As always, there’s little here that wasn’t already known before. 
 
On the other hand, the expanded liner notes are spectacular, easily the best of any of these 2009 reissues (some of the material, like the number guide to all the objects on the cover and a photo of the original paper cut-outs, also appeared in the 1987 CD booklet).  Paul McCartney nicely summarizes the origin of the album’s loose concept.  Photographer Peter Blake explains how the famous album cover came together.  Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn solicits comments from producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick while offering his own insight.  Not only that, there’s plenty of enjoyable colour and black & white photography (Canadian fans will enjoy the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) patch on the left arm of McCartney’s blue Pepper costume), the usual Recording and Historical Notes sections, a tremendously helpful chronological overview of the recording sessions and mostly complete lyrics (“No I can’t complain” and “It couldn’t get no worse” from It’s Getting Better are the only lines not printed.)  All that’s missing are quotes from the other Beatles.
 
All in all, the flaws are few and far between and not terribly consequential.  For almost 40 minutes, listening to this album is a riveting experience, one you’ll want to partake in many, many more times.
 
Some will argue for Rubber Soul, others “The White Album”, Revolver or Abbey Road.  But for me, personally, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the essence of “the clever Beatles”, to borrow John Lennon’s phrase.  If you only purchase one of these fourteen 2009 reissues, this is the one to invest in.  To these ears, they never made a better album.     
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, February 8, 2010
12:05 a.m.  
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Published in: on February 8, 2010 at 12:05 am  Leave a Comment  

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