It was twenty years ago today…

SgtPeppers

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – The Beatles

Not the first album I ever owned (that would more likely be something Sesame Street related – the one I recall most now is their Sesame Street Fever disco album), but one of the first, grownup (mostly) collection of songs I ever obsessed over. I doubtless discovered the Beatles via my older sister, a confirmed Beatlemaniac a full decade or so after they’d broken up, which shows their wide-spanning influence over youth culture. I can even recall going as a family to see a double-feature of Yellow Submarine (which I loved), and Let it Be (which bored me to tears, although I did get a kick out of the audience hissing every time Yoko was onscreen, a fact I now view as troublesome).

I’m sure I was first drawn in by their more toddler-friendly fare (“Yellow Submarine,” and, on this album, “When I’m Sixty-Four”). Only later did I learn to fully appreciate the acid-tinged eclecticism of their later recordings. But even their most sophisticated material spoke to my child-mind with its candy-colored innocence (e.g. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds “tangerine trees and marmalade skies…).  Later in life, I never fully bought John Lennon’s statement that the “Lucy” title was just the name of a picture his son drew. That may be true, but did they really never think of the parallels with LSD…? When they were apparently taking loads of it? And writing lines like “kaleidoscope eyes…!?” “so incredibly high?” (Though I admit I always thought the full line was “the girl so incredibly high,” while the actual line connects it to the flowers that “grow so incredibly high.”)

Over the years, the album’s relevance waned for me, while its critical reception also seems to have also wavered, from initial accolades to later accusations of being “overrated,” and eventually earning more nuanced, discerning reviews. Today, I see it as a pioneering recording of uneven material.

I’m honestly not sure if the album I now possess is the same one I had as a kid (the one that I probably inherited from my sister), or one I bought later in life. It’s definitely well-worn. It’s got someone else’s name written on the cover, but that could mean a lot of things. I do recall the prominent skip in “Lovely Rita” almost as if it were a permanent part of the song, so I’ve probably had this one for a while, anyway.

All the songs are so embedded in my psyche that I find it difficult to feel moved by any of the material now. Even its masterpiece, “A Day in the Life,” fails to rouse me the way it once did. I’m most struck by how compact the songs are: the title song is less than two minutes, its more rocking reprise clocking in at a mere 1:29. The first few bars of that second version might be one of my few new discoveries on a recent listen. The chugging guitars and pounding drums might be the earliest example of a metal riff, and actually has a lot in common with the opening to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” Seriously, do the Robert Plant wailing part over the intro and you’ll see what I mean.

Besides the brevity of the material, the other surprising aspect is the depth of Ringo’s drumming. Often shat upon by public and press, musicians in-the-know are aware that he’s really the band’s secret weapon. His drumming style manages to be intricate, precise, and un-showy, full of fills that fit in the right pockets and never sound flashy or excessive. On this album and others, it sounds as though he’s tuned each drum to tonally match the other instruments being played. And those cymbal crashes on songs like “Good Morning”– they swell loudly and evaporate quickly, probably more the result of George Martin’s production than anything else, but still… RINGO.

As far as the songs themselves go, it’s hardly a showcase for all their best material. Paul had better ballads on nearly every other Beatles album, and George only contributed one song, the Ravi Shankar rip-off “Within You, Without You,” a fine tune, but not his best. Actually, the most preposterous moment on the album is going from that very spiritual raga directly into the toe-tappin’, “grandma-music” sound of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It’s like you’re listening to a compilation more than a cohesive band.

Yet none of that used to matter to me. In a way, my appreciation for the Beatles evolved in direct accordance with my growing up as a person. As a child, I was aware that there were Beatles and that they were a band, but which one was singing and which one was playing guitar, all of that went over my head. They all sounded like the same singer to me, and I frankly didn’t care who was singing, I just sang and bounced along and enjoyed the music. As I got older, I learned to appreciate the different talents they brought to the group, and began to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses: Ringo wasn’t much of a songwriter. George was the most improved over time. Lennon was the deep one and McCartney was the fluff, though both were capable of switching sides. By high school, I’d mostly stopped listening to them altogether as I discovered soul, jazz, new-wave, metal, prog, punk, and just about every other genre besides the Beatles. I’d return every so often, for nostalgia’s sake, but by then I’d pick and choose from my favorite material, most of which was not found on Sgt. Pepper’s.

A few interesting factoids: originally, Sgt. Pepper’s was meant to be a concept album, following the fictional band of the title, along with Billy Shears, and all that other stuff, but then they dropped it after one song. Also, both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were recorded for the album, but in the rush to get new material out, they released them as a single instead. In those days, record companies wanted people to feel they were getting their monies worth, so they opted not to put the recent releases on the final album. Now, I could easily see replacing some of the inferior songs (“When I’m Sixty-Four” and “She’s Leaving Home” perhaps…?), and edging Sgt. Pepper’s closer to the masterpiece it wants to be.

Allow me to indulge one more memory: In junior high, I made a friend who was from a much more “bohemian” family than mine: his step-dad played jazz and his mother was an artist and was rarely seen without a wine glass in her hand (including, I believe, in the car). They invited my parents and I to a “reading party” in the Haight-Ashbury (oh yeah, I grew up in San Francisco in the 70s & 80s). Everyone was to bring a short piece of something to read. My friend and I chose to read Beatles lyrics, selecting the songs “Taxman,” and “A Day in the Life.” I knew little about taxes at the time and doubt I understood the song was more or less about a wealthy man wailing about all the money the government took from him. To me, it just read as “railing against the MAN,” a concept I was already all-in for even at that ripe young age. Although I didn’t fully understand the lyrics to “A Day in the Life,” I could tell they were kind of poetic, symbolic of something, enigmatic and open to interpretation. I knew the most-repeated line, “I’d love to turn you on,” was kind of dirty and kind of druggy, and that was fine by me.

My friend and I arrived to the party early, before my parents and most of the guests had shown. As the hostess prepared, she did lines of coke off her bureau right in front of us. It was that kind of party. As the other hippies and artists began showing up, I realized my parents were going to be way too square for this event. Hell, even The Beatles were a little too edgy for them. But once they arrived and took their place in the circle, they didn’t seem too uncomfortable, even when a joint was passed around the room. None of the Layers partook, but just to have the drug in our collective presence was a milestone in and of itself.

Our reading was a hit. We’d partitioned the song off in parts: he read a line, then I did, and so on, and occasionally we’d say them together. For example:

   Me: I read the news today

            Both: Oh boy

We got a lot of laughs, especially when we spoke all the oohs and ahhs in monotone. But, in addition to our delivery, I think the lyrics reminded the room of its roots, the flawed album that nevertheless provided a bridge from the innocent adolescence of the 50s to the mature experimentalism of the 60s. And there we were, two examples of the next wave, riding our shared history into the unknown future.

And you know what? I’d still love to turn you on.

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