Saturday, April 2, 2011

You Know the Name: The Music of the Beatles, Pt. 8--Cycles, Uni and Otherwise

6/1/1967

"This is a mono recording. A splendid time is guaranteed for all."

Certain artworks are praised beyond reason. Inevitably, they will go through a perpetual cycle of judgment. First, the piece--be it album, book, film, or even an artist themselves--will be on the receiving end of praise so effusive as to be suffocating. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band galvanized pop music; which doesn't make it any good, or any bad. For so long, it was held up to the light as the pop record, the alpha and omega, a sprawling baroque masterpiece, the first-ever concept album, a counterculture celebration, a reinvention from safe and hoaky to fresh and unsettling. Dissenting opinion was regarded as ignorance.

People can only be told for so long (and so vehemently) that something is beyond dispute. Rumbles began. Paul McCartney acknowledged the influence of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds (released a year prior) on the album, and suddenly certain circles began touting that as the revelatory pop-psych record of the age. I noticed this in 1996, when Pet Sounds was digitally remastered and refoisted onto the world. It was no longer blasphemy to accuse the Beatles of reaching beyond their grasp and producing an album so bloated you could hear each excruciatingly tinkered with instrumental passage gasping.

So yeah, Sgt Peppers broke the rules. So do most baseball players. So what, Sgt. Peppers defied convention. So does an ugly beagle.

But...it's their masterpiece! Isn't it? And if not, then...what is?

Revolver has a lot of fans, especially as it's a clear creative leap that eschews ostentatious preening. The White Album has people who are unabashedly ready to kill for it.

If the Pet Sounds reissue opened up a lot of minds and ears previously sealed, the 1987 reissue of this album did the Beatles no favors. It's like The Wizard of Oz: tinny, no heart, and the record company had to be missing its collective Mother Brain to think it was a good product for any discerning listener. Pardon me for asking, but...where's the friggin' pageantry?

That's what box sets are for. Now, heard as it is meant to be heard, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is no longer overrated, no longer underrated, but perfectly rated.

And dated. Oh I imagine it was that after 1970 or so. But "dated" doesn't translate to "insipid," at least not automatically. For the last 25 years, metal bands the globe 'round have taken the stark raving madness of Slayer's Reign in Blood and exceeded its graphic lyrics and limb-pulverizing speed, but being the "most" of anything is not the same as "best." That's why Reign in Blood can be played in this day and age and still crack skulls like the Axeman of New Orleans.

The imagery of the album doesn't interest me. The boys in satin faux-military get-ups that glow in the night as well as the day, the collage of cardboard celebs surrounding them, flowers flowers everywhere but not a petal to be ravished upon--so Sixties. It makes my eyes cross. The music is the thing, and while the Beatles aimed high, they hit most of their targets (if not square between the eyes, then in other equally lethal spots). They did miss a few birdies: concept album but doesn't adhere to the concept, intended musical montage that loses the plot after song number two.

Writing about an album so deeply embedded in cultural consciousness seems like an exercise in futility. Well, I could always use the exercise.

"Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band"--"It was twenty years ago today/Sergeant Pepper told the band to play." Was it? What's that actually mean? I'll tell ya; it means every ten, twenty, thirty, forty years, a lazy-ass journalist has the first line of their Beatles anniversary story.

Funny how a band so dead-set on bending the steel rods that held up the music industry couldn't shake old traditions. Good lads, then. A brass band? Samples of pleasantly amused people?

Paul is to blame. Or credit. It was he who got hung up on re-inventing the Beatles: try a new name, a new persona, a new look, a new sound, a new message. "They've been going in and out of style/But they're guaranteed to raise a smile." Bell-bottoms, he means? Certainly, let's huzzah Macca for the lead guitar here.

Uh oh, they're about to introduce the singular Billy Shears! Billy Preston with scissors?

"With a Little Help From My Friends"--Oh, it's just Ringo. No scissors either. This song was originally called "Badfinger Boogie." Nice foreshadowing, there.

This is the best song Ringo has sung, ever. And he had some killing solo singles. But this? Yeah. He's not the main reason though, it's the Q and A with him and his bandmates that makes this track so timeless.

Faux controversy with the "I get high with a little help from my friends" (which basically just tells me Ringo never bought drugs in his life, ya leech) and my favorite, "What do you see when you turn out the lights/I can't tell you but I know it's mine." Hee hee snicker snort, he's referring to a bit of the old pocket pool. I always thought it was just a reference to nocturnal dreams and fantasies in general, ranging from lurid to longing to hopeful.

And could that intro lick be more George? Yeesh.

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"--I used to like this one a lot more. It's hard to sit through anymore. I'd rather read Alice in Wonderland buzzed off caffeine. But then I'd have a panic attack. Then the Snoopys in my house would come to life. Two things that I can assure you are going to happen to me at some time before I shuffle off to where the buffalo roam, but I'd rather not expedite the processes, if it can be helped.

Too psychedelic for it's own good, a lysergic convergence that ends up turgid. I believe the story Lennon told--supported by Paul and their close pal Pete Shotton--that the title came from a painting by his son. I mean it's just that banal. What the hell is with John's vocals? It's like listening to butter being smeared on train tracks with a steak knife.

Ringo's transition into the chorus is the best thing here. Yessir.

"Getting Better"--Less a guitar, more the sound of those buttery tracks being removed. Some nice Paul optimism offset by John's old boy cynicism ("It's getting better/It couldn't get much worse"). The verses set the super mood, giving the listener room to breathe and stretch, something that you won't get much of elsewhere on here.

John also contributed the repentant woman-beater portion of the song, a welcome display of one maturing man's quest for absolution. It's a long way from "Run For Your Life."

"Fixing a Hole"--Alternately concerns obsessive, yet passive fans content to gaze and wonder at their idols and--wait for it--marijuana. Not heroin. The bass is remedy plenty. Straight up, no white dude has ever played the bass guitar better or wiser than J. P. McCartney.

There is a warmth to "Fixing a Hole" mono version that the stereo is missing. Makes the difference between a song I want to lay back and enjoy with headphones clamped to my ears and a song I can't remember listening to mere seconds after it's finished.

"She's Leaving Home"--The well-crafted heartbreak inspired by the true story of 17-year-old Melanie Coe of north London running away from a well-to-do home and her indulgent parents. Paul handles the verses like England's most riveting news reporter, while John voices the oblivious mum and dad during the chorus. (No George or Ringo needed.)

"The Great Fairy Fountain" from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has always reminded me of the intro here. Or at least since 1998.

Of all the mono/stereo discrepancies across both box sets, "She's Leaving Home" contains what is to me the most outstanding: the mono recording is sped up one half-step (allegedly to "tighten" the track and add some youth to Macca's vocals). The effect is enormous. In stere-ere-ereo, "She's Leaving Home" sounds like a brilliant idea, stunted. McCartney really does sound stuffy, and the strings are staid. This reflects on how I interpret the story in the song. With the slightly faster mix, I feel that while the young girl has made a huge decision, she is "free" now, and it's for the best. She'll be okay. But at its original speed, I just foresee disaster, doom, and yes, death for everyone. She'll not be okay. She'll be a prostitute destined to be found a few pounds lighter in a hotel room unfit for man, beast, or ghost.

"Being For the Benefit Of Mr. Kite"--When asked about this album by an interviewer clearly gagging for some controversy, Lou Reed spat, "'Mr. Kite? What the hell is that?" To which my knee-jerk reaction is, "Your output since New York? What the hell is that?"

But!

This is one of my favorites on the entire album. John told Mr. Martin that he wanted a musical backdrop that evoked the sawdust and elephant pao paos of a genuine one of a kind big show under the big top, and slap a Scot stupid, that's exactly how it happened! You don't have to have the imagination of a novelist to listen and conjure up visions of high wires, stilts, and waltzing horses. A Wurlitzer organ and no less than four people playing harmonica goes a real long way.

Lennon jacked the lyrics straight off a poster from an antique shop. You do not need drugs when other people are perfectly willing and able to write your songs for you under the guise of advertising their not-quite freak show. His delivery may come off as underwhelming (I often wonder how it would have come across if he'd utilized Macca's "Magical Mystery Tour" bellow) but that can be charming. Like he's selling us on a zombie circus or something.

Rhythm section deserves top billing, honestly. The bass casts a pachydermic shadow and the percussion is truly distinctive. Bass drum to hi-hats for the verse, then a brief tittering in-between.

The stereo features a more prominent organ drone in the left channel, but it's not overkill. I actually prefer it.

"Within You Without You"--The Beatles didn't waste time. Songs longer than three minutes were rare birds indeed. On this album, however, they offer up not one but two songs that exceed 300 seconds in length. One is a masterpiece; the other one is "Within You Without You."

Like "Yesterday," this song features only one Beatle--in this case, George. But whereas "Yesterday" was a simply conceived and rendered ballad, "WYWY" is what happens when hippies get high and talk about their feelings on themselves and other people in maddening generalizations that stunt progress whilst professing to do otherwise.

The Indian track bores me like the most dispassionate sex, and Harrison's words veer from mediocre to wretched to one memorable line ("And life flows on within you and without you.") Stephen Stills had the words to this song carved on a stone monument which stood in his back yard. I guess, when your paramount lyrical achievement is "If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with."

Now, I identify myself as a spiritualist. If pressed, I mean. Normally I just identify myself as Jennifer Benningfield, my friends call me Jenn. So the essence of what George is saying not only here but in many of his songs throughout his recording career--recognize your place as a small fish in the massive ocean, an electron/proton/neutron, one life that touches another life that touches yet another life--is something I get. I'm not rolling my eyes at what he's saying, but rather, he couldn't say it in a more interesting way? A way that would engage even the most jaded instead of encouraging their apathy? Give an example, tell a story. The ways that we as individuals impact the world is amazing. The most banal action can trigger a life or death scenario--and we would have no inkling. To consider that, shit, it makes my soul burn and freeze in equal measure. But this song? Tepid. No time for it.

"When I'm 64"--Written by Paul when he was sixteen. I guess it shows, heh. Goofy as mimes pretending clown wigs are cotton candy. This song makes me think of my folks.

My dad is the most singular human being I've ever been around. His beliefs were not progressive by any stretch. He was a staunch Republican, pro-life, pro-death penalty, anti-gay rights...but remember the Clarence Thomas sexual harrassment trial? He believed Anita Hill. Add in the fact he played guitar, and that's two things him and Thurston Moore had in common.

My dad drank. A lot. He was violent. He was crude and often cruel. He terrorized his wife whilst under the influence. He would berate her, demean her, so that the only thing she feared more than life with him was life without him. My dad would tell you all of this, were he alive still and you asked him. Yes, he would say, I got drunk. Spilled more alcohol than most people ever put in their bodies. Yes, he'd tell you, I was a fighter. I was a nasty son-of-a-bitch. If you wanted details, he'd indulge you. Whatever his faults--and they were legion--my old man did not lie. Which is why when he claimed he never once cheated on my mother...I believed him. And still do. All the wrong things he did to the people who loved him the dearest, he copped to them. My guess would be my father never had many dark nights of the soul where he scrutinized his actions and wondered why. I believe he was sincerely contrite. And that was that.

That was...enough. When my father was 65 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He lived two ambulatory years until the treatment rendered him invalid. My mother was there for him every day of the five additional years he insisted on living. Insisted. No nurses. No hospice. The woman who put up with his crap...who raised seven kids...she fed him, bathed him, did all sorts of things for him that I don't think, in her position, many women would.

Why? She loved him. He loved her. If I wasn't there to see it, to feel it, I wouldn't get it.

Some winter day in the year after my father's condition turned our living room into an infirmary, I was at work and my mom was in the kitchen cooking a ham. For reasons known only to her, she sliced off a hearty enough chunk that it became lodged in her throat when she tried to swallow it down. She and my dad were the only ones in the house. Just my mom, struggling for air...and a man who could not stand up.

She ran to the living room, face looking like it had been splashed with a bucket of blood, gesturing frantically. She was able to help her husband into a sitting position on his pressure mattress so that he could perform the Heimlich and save her life. With arms covered with bruises, welts and scabs, he squeezed death out of his wife.

He died the day before I turned 30. Fuck, I wish he was still here.

That's why "When I'm 64" makes me tear up. A lot of people hate it. I get why. When Pete Townshend called Sgt Peppers "incredibly non-physical" he meant songs like this. It's why some people prefer the Stones. That's music that gets hips moving in the instinctive rhythm of life. Yeah, I get that too. But there's always room for one more emotion.

"Lovely Rita"--The love that dare not ticket you! Macca's such a boss here, the pop song novelist emphatically pursuing and fucking meter maids like a superman. When you listen to this, listen to it in mono only, and turn it up. There's a hundred things happening in this song, and you'll want to catch them all. The rhythm section, again...if these box sets did nothing but increase appreciation for Paul's bass playing and Ringo's drumming, they were worth the price of production. Also, that's how you end a song.

"Good Morning, Good Morning"--Inspired by a Kellogg's Corn Flakes ad, this song is crisp and full of fun. The incorrigible meter reflects its creators domestic restlessness. Paul and Ringo and those horns are fixin' to get me the holy ghost.

Mono throws all these delectable elements together in a pleasant potpourri. Stereo makes all sides retreat to their separate corners. NO NO NO. That's like serving a slice of cheesecake with a bowl of cherries on the side. Think about it.

"Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"--That drumbeat's stupid. Those distorto guits need to ride the shortest bus.

It was nice of the guys to come back to the initial concept eventually. They're seeing us out here, and that's quite polite as well. An intermission would have been cool. Oh well.

For years all I knew was the stereo version, where Paul's yelling at the end is omitted and the transition to the final song is less than smooth. Mono definitely makes you appreciate it more when

"A Day in the Life"--glides in.

The reputation of this album may well be on this one song. It's absolutely wonderful. John read some stories in the paper, one about a car crash, another about pot holes needing to be fixed (and doesn't that tie in nicely with an earlier song), all over a piano that grows increasingly foreboding until "I'd love to turn you on" and then things go a tad haywire. Plans be gettin' waylaid. The orchestra comes in, building up to a Stockhausen-inspired crescendo and then--Paul! Piano back, bouncy this time, it's Paul's day now, and he's not got time to read. The stories in his head are too fascinating.

The most magnificent part of the entire track: "Somebody spoke and I went into a dream" followed immediately by the orchestral swells and Lennon's soaring "Ahhhhh"s. There are words to accurately describe the majesty of this section of the song, but, alas, they are only known and used on other planets. So, sucks for us here on Earth. Well not really, we get to hear this song. Take that, inhabitants of the planet Zexian!

Then, back to the verse and plateau. A bit different this time, there's the feeling inherent in the maelstrom of notes that there will be no alarm clock rousing a cheerful lad to face a day of coffee, buses, and reveries. And of course there is not. What there is in its place is one of the most famous endings to a song, and one of the best. A single piano chord played by four men--John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans--over three pianos, with George Martin joining in on harpischord. The E is so major. It's the end that seems like it never actually will.

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