Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It was 50 years ago today!

The Beatles released their seminal concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on June 1, 1967. (Well, that's what many sources say, although Wikipedia says it was released on May 26 in the UK and June 2 in the US.)

Comments on some of my favorite songs from the album:

With a Little Help From My Friends” has one of my favorite bass lines ever. Part of what’s great about it is that it’s so simple, so easy to play. This band wasn’t about showing off the individual members' ability to play their instruments; it was about them coming together to bring us a seemingly endless stream of ideas (musical and otherwise), and allowing us to bring our minds in tune with theirs. Ringo Starr gave what many would call his finest vocal performances on this song; his usually modest baritone suddenly switches to a triumphantly soaring tenor high note at the end. One nice thing about Beatles songs sung by Ringo is that he had great backing vocalists in John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

She’s Leaving Home” might seem overly sentimental or corny, but I don't mind that. The lyrics are wonderfully detailed; someone (I forget who) remarked that you don't normally hear the word "clutching" on a rock album. I love the interaction between Paul and John in the chorus, representing the main character's mother and father, respectively: Paul sings the title in falsetto, while John adds his distraught questions/comments in a lower register. I also love how a line that would seem prosaic on paper, “Waiting to keep the appointment she made,” becomes wound up with an exciting sense of possibilities as a result of the quivering vibrato of the strings. (Unusually for the Beatles, the orchestral instrumentation was arranged not by George Martin but by Mike Leander.) The wordplay of the father's hapless line, "We gave her everything money could buy/Bye bye," brings back the theme of the early Beatles hit "Can't Buy Me Love," while showing how much the band has matured.

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is a strange John song based on a 19th-century poster, which switches midway into a waltz overlaid with kaleidoscopic calliope music, thanks to George Martin carrying out John's instructions to conjure up a circus so vividly you can “smell the sawdust.”

The album's only song by George Harrison, “Within You Without You," is the spiritual centerpiece of the album — a beautiful merger of Indian and Western classical music. (Cultural appropriation? Yes please!)

After the reprise of the album's title song, which would feel to someone hearing the album for the first time like it must be the last song, the sound of the audience fades out as the band starts playing an encore, "A Day in the Life" — the artistic pinnacle of this album if not the whole band. It starts in a dream-like state as John sings about disconcerting imagery (with outstanding drumming by Ringo), before being interrupted by an orchestra with each instrument chaotically sliding from a low, quiet note to a high, loud note.

That crescendo segues into a more relaxed, upbeat section in which Paul sings about his everyday actions with a melody that has some resemblance to John’s but in a different key and more choppy (staccato) and repetitive, which fits the mundane lyrics (“woke up . . . drank a cup . . .”). In contrast, John’s melody has a legato, drawn-out quality more evocative of dreaming.

A seemingly mundane detail in Paul's section is that he “had a smoke,” which at first calls to mind a man having his first cigarette of the day as he sets out in the morning, but then takes on a druggy meaning when he says he “went into a dream.” At that point, Paul sings in a more legato, John-like style over a disorienting sequence of chords, during which we have a hard time telling what key we're in (this is effective regardless of whether the listener knows music theory), eventually leading to John repeating the first line of the song ("I read the news today . . ." — which now feels like one more detail about the ordinary morning from Paul's section).

After John's last line (one of the defining statements of '60s rock: "I'd love to turn you on"), the orchestral crescendo happens again, and the song abruptly ends on a loud, sustained piano chord in the same key as Paul’s section, seemingly closing the album by bringing us firmly back to reality. There's one more surprise . . . before we're left to contemplate the genius we've just heard.