52 Albums, Week 23: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles and George Martin)
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s I would like to say that I DO think that it is the greatest Beatles album, and I am also in agreement with Rolling Stone magazine that it is the number one and therefore greatest album in the history of mankind. So there. I always state, when asked, that The White Album is my personal favorite Beatles album, and it is; it is quirky and fun, and has four sides that are each different and fun to deal with. However, Sgt. Pepper’s is the greatest.
My parents divorced when I was 12, and my father initially rented a room from some guy down closer to the airport in Miami (he worked for Eastern Airlines). One day that guy gave me a bunch of record albums for some reason that I cannot remember. I don’t recall everything that was in that pile, but Sgt. Pepper’s and The White Album were amongst its treasures. Now, thirty-nine years later, I can only imagine what it was like to be 12 and listen to those albums for the first time. It is hard to get my mind around it. All of the Beatles are still alive at that point, and Sgt. Pepper’s has only been out for eleven years. Wow.
Who knows what I had been listening to previously? 12 is relatively young to be interested in music. I have watched stepchildren grow through that age and the boy had no interest in music (still doesn’t), while the girl at age 12 seemed to be interested in music as a reflection of teeny-bopper culture (first Justin Bieber, then One Direction). She and I would have these silly discussions where One Direction would be compared to The Beatles. “Let’s wait fifty years and see what happens”, I would reply to this nonsense game. I will most likely not be around in fifty years, but I feel confident in my position.
Just owning the album back then, now I have a smaller CD, and the current generation would only have an even smaller picture on their phone, was a treasure. The cover montage with all of the famous people, most of whom I had never heard of and did not recognize (I knew Marilyn Monroe!); the inserts of each member of the band, the bright colors…none of the other albums in my free pile could match it for a 12 year old’s studious inspection.
Then there is the music. Again, thirty-nine years is a long time to try and remember first impressions and memory becomes something that you partly recall and partly make up to suit your narrative, but it all seemed joyous, new, fun, odd, circus-like; there was nothing that I did not love. My favorite would still be where the opening track introduces Billy Shears (Ringo Starr) who then begins to sing “With a Little Help from My Friends”. I thought this ingenious and marvelous. But the next track was enchanting, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, and the next three were all good, and finally to end Side 1 “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” I was thrilled by. I had a friend whose last name was “Henderson” and still to this day I picture he, his brother, and mother all dancing and singing as mentioned in the song.
I feel like I need to stop here and comment on the fun it would have been to have to turn over the record now in order to hear the rest of the album. I know albums have made a little comeback, and I see them and enjoy looking at them in Books-a-Million, but they are no longer ubiquitous and all of mine are long gone and replaced by maybe 1200 or so CDs. So I turn over the album, place the arm onto the spinning disc and am rewarded with the strangest track of the record, “Within You Without You” by George Harrison. I don’t know what I thought of it, but as an adult it is simply marvelous and perfectly placed within the context of the rest of Sgt. Pepper’s. But what fun for (most likely) George Martin to make the decision to put George’s song in that spot. Now it occupies the middle spot in CD or download, but remember it used to begin Side 2, a much more interesting distinction.
Following Mr. Harrison’s contribution, we are back to normal, with “When I’m Sixty-Four”, “Lovely Rita”, “Good Morning Good Morning”, the reprise of the title track …. And for years I forget about what is probably the finest song of them all, “A Day in the Life”. For some reason I always feel like the album is ending with the reprise, and “A Day in the Life” is a sort of post-script. Most likely another intentional move by George Martin.
I don’t need to say very much more about this great album. More has been written about it than probably any other, to the point that fans and the general public most likely became sick of it at some point and will always shout out their favorite Beatles record, with it never being Sgt. Pepper’s. Nevertheless, it is still the gold standard, the album other great albums are measured up against, and I can certainly never forget the first time I sat down and listened to it as a small boy.
All of you know the songs, no need to embed any music with this post.
—Stu Moore is currently vacationing in Arizona and New Mexico, probably without any Internet at all, and will have to respond to comments at a later date.
I know I've said this somewhere here before, but I went to high school with the girl who made the striped T-shirt that the Shirley Temple doll on the right is wearing.
I like a lot of the songs on this album, but unfortunately "She's Leaving Home" is not fun when you have had that experience, even if it was only for a week, and that's the first thing I hear when I see that album cover.
I started to listen to music when I was 12-on the radio in my grandparents bedroom when we went over there on Sundays for lunch after Mass. It was my own little paradise.
Posted by: Janet | 06/08/2017 at 10:23 AM
Even before I was old enough to sympathize with the parents in "She's Leaving Home," I thought that last line was amazingly stupid: "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy." And the whole implication that "fun" was What It'S All About.
"Meeting a man from the motor trade." Yeah, we can guess how that will turn out.
But weren't you in high school when this came out? Or not far out? Your schoolmate moved into the big leagues awfully quickly.
Posted by: Mac | 06/08/2017 at 12:12 PM
When the Beatles came to Memphis, the local top 40 station, WMPS, had a contest for the best welcoming sign, and the winner got tickets to the concert. These two girls who were a year ahead of me in school. On the front of the T-shirt it says something like, the WMPS Good Guys Welcome the Beatles. I think she brought it to school and I saw it, but maybe not. Anyway, they won, and somehow when they were designing the album cover, the T-shirt came to light and they put it on the doll.
My father was an Oldsmobile dealer. ;-)
Posted by: Janet | 06/08/2017 at 01:09 PM
OH, the T-shirt was for the Rolling Stones, not the Beatles.
Posted by: Janet | 06/08/2017 at 01:13 PM
Odd, that. I also think SPLHCB is the best Beatles album, but my favorite is Rubber Soul, which I hope to review some time soon.
I agree about "She's Leaving Home," Mac. That line just ruins it for you.
I'm of the opinion that most of the time the Beatles were mediocre lyricists at best. They tend to be like adolescent. If only they had had a liberal arts education!
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/08/2017 at 02:02 PM
I'm pretty tied up today but will have more to say about this later. But, Janet, "man from the motor trade" always sounded to me like "used car salesman." :-)
Posted by: Mac | 06/08/2017 at 02:48 PM
As I said to Stuart, Sgt Pepper is so hugely praised that I can't help reacting a little bit. Greatest album of all time? Well, it's a bit silly to say that about any one album, but things like that bring out the contrarian in me, and make me want to take it down a peg. Resisting that, I certainly agree that it's a great album. It just never meant to me what it seems to for a lot of people.
I was in college when it came out, and I guess I'm probably one of a very few people reading this who were that old at the time. It certainly made a huge impression because it was so different from anything else. Thinking about that brings back the times, which were full of expectation. In the cold light of day, years later, just taking it purely as music...well, it's not my favorite. Some of the songs almost seem like throwaways, although they add up to an impressive whole.
I actually like Magical Mystery Tour better. I've always said that that's just my personal quirk, but I was pleased the other day to find someone actually making a serious argument for it:
Posted by: Mac | 06/08/2017 at 07:57 PM
The addition of George Martin to the credits, btw, is just my bit of mischief. Stu didn't include it. I'm actually not sure whether it's justified but I've always heard that he was very important to the album.
Beatles as lyricists: I wouldn't say they're bad, their best songs are at least interesting and well-crafted in that respect. Profound guru-prophet stuff, no.
And that brings me to another reason for the take-them-down-a-peg impulse in me. Too many people made them into profound thinkes, which they aren't. I have friends who still credit them with some kind of breakthrough in consciousness, or something--it's not real clear to me.
Posted by: Mac | 06/08/2017 at 08:01 PM
Terry Gross interviewed Giles Martin (George's son, who is responsible for the remix) here.. I thought it was really interesting.
Posted by: Janet | 06/08/2017 at 08:50 PM
I hesitated to say I would listen to it, because I'm not usually willing to spend that much time listening to an interview. But I see there is a transcript, so I'll read it.
Posted by: Mac | 06/09/2017 at 09:01 AM
Thanks for the link, Janet; really a lot of interesting stuff in that discussion.
This from Terry Gross is what I remember most about what it was like at the time of the album's release in 1967:
Posted by: Marianne | 06/09/2017 at 04:22 PM
No kidding! It was THE psychedelic album. One criticism of it has always been that that aspect of it covered up the weakness of some of the songs.
Posted by: Mac | 06/09/2017 at 06:40 PM
As a child and a young teenager, but particularly when I heard it as a child in New York, I loved 'She's leaving home.' I had a whole fantasy about running away from home which it fed into! I loved the idea of meeting a man from the motor trade. Of course that meant a second hand car dealer. In general, I always liked the Beatle songs that had a bit of a narrative or story, from 'Michelle' onwards.
Posted by: Quite Grumpy | 06/09/2017 at 07:26 PM
Not surprising that a young girl would think that.
I think I'm going to listen to the album right now.
Posted by: Mac | 06/09/2017 at 08:45 PM
Ok, it's a great album. It's a little like some great artistic landmark, Hamlet or the Mona Lisa--sort of heard to just hear it for itself, trying to put aside its status and reputation and everything that's been said about it.
Posted by: Mac | 06/09/2017 at 09:39 PM
One or two further comments:
"I'd love to turn you on" is an unfortunate trivializing period to the most impressive piece on the album.
Whatever else you want to say about "She's Leaving Home," the string arrangement is really gorgeous. Martin's work, I guess.
I agree with Stu about the "sidedness" of LPs. I always liked it, too, and the break between sides is very effective on this album.
Posted by: Mac | 06/10/2017 at 07:58 PM
I don't think it is the best album ever, just the best Beatles album. And there is some dead wood on the second side, esp. "Good Morning, Good Morning."
As for there lyrics, yes, sometimes, esp. Paul, can tell a good story, although he often has to add something a little twisted or some kind of sexual innuendo in an adolescent way. E.g. "Lovely Rita," "Ob-la-di, ob-la da," John does it, too ("Norwegian Wood." I guess "Eleanor Rigby" is pretty serious, although the message in the end is vapid. The "I'd love to turn you on" line is also an example. It is like saying, "life is empty; smoke this (or let's have sex)."
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/11/2017 at 08:41 PM
Both John and Paul had a tendency to become trivial and even nonsensical, so there's just really nothing much to the lyrics. It always felt to me like they got to a point where they just didn't much want to bother, because they were certainly capable of great lyrics (I mean, in the pop context.)
To my taste "Ob-la-di" is an example. The tendency really took off on the white album. I'd say roughly half of its lyrics are forgettable or worse. For that matter I'd say half of it, period, is forgettable or worse. I do disagree strongly with Stu about its merits. I listened to it a few months ago for the first time in years, to see if my opinion would change, and it didn't. Much or most of it just seems cold and empty to me. I could probably pick out a single LP's worth of songs and enjoy it.
Posted by: Mac | 06/11/2017 at 10:56 PM
I read the Giles Martin interview and now I'm going to have to listen to it so I can hear those samples of the remixed versions. I don't really expect to hear much difference. I sort of hope I don't so I won't be tempted to buy it.
Posted by: Mac | 06/11/2017 at 11:00 PM
I thought that might happen. You can hear the difference even on a car radio.
Posted by: Janet Cupo | 06/12/2017 at 05:07 AM
I really wasn't expecting much difference, partly because I don't have that good an ear, and partly because a friend of mine who has a much better ear doesn't seems to find the differences all that noticeable.
Posted by: Mac | 06/12/2017 at 07:29 AM
I think if you've listened to the original a billion times, you'll notice.
Posted by: Robert Gotcher | 06/12/2017 at 09:20 AM
Greetings from Silver City, New Mexico everyone. I don't really have anything further to add except that every woman named "Rita" I have ever met has forced me to sing those lyrics in my head.
After I quickly wrote the blog post I thought more about the George Harrison song and how I probably was annoyed by it as a child and felt it slowed down the fun I was having with the other songs - a weird interlude. Now I love it. But it remains a very interesting start to "Side 2".
Posted by: Stu | 06/12/2017 at 09:50 PM
How sad about The White Album, Mac! I just love it, all of it, and find it to be great fun. What about "Martha My Dear"? And O-bla-di is wonderfully fun - with that song it is all about the melody. I can already guess your reaction to "Why Don't We Do It in the Road"! :)
Posted by: Stu | 06/12/2017 at 09:53 PM
I'm tempted to go off on what I don't like about the white album, but it's too close to bedtime. I'll just stick with what I said earlier--cold and empty, at least half of it.
I can't remember who it was now, but somebody who was involved in the L.A. rock scene in the late '60s and knew Charles Manson said that if Abbey Road had come out six months (or some number) earlier, "Sharon Tate would still be alive." That's probably not true, but it made a kind of sense to me.
Posted by: Mac | 06/12/2017 at 10:47 PM
On the other hand, though, I like Sgt Pepper more today than I did a week ago. I listened to the music bits in the Giles Martin interview, and yeah, there is a difference. Like a layer of dirt has been wiped off. I don't know if that first bit is from the remix or not, but my immediate reaction was that it's much heavier than what I hear on my cd.
Posted by: Mac | 06/12/2017 at 10:49 PM
My father explained to us what synchopation is by 'air piano' playing Lovely Rita, Metre Maid.' Its such a great song.
Posted by: Grumpy | 06/22/2017 at 09:42 AM
I've never truly understood what syncopation is. Either it's fairly obvious or it's over my head.
Posted by: Mac | 06/22/2017 at 10:35 AM