Wednesday, October 14, 2009

REASSESSING THE CLASSICS: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles

Monday, May 28, 2007

Each issue Tog CD reviewer Andy Hazel will take a look at a so-called 'classic' album and, with the benefit of hindsight, draw your attention to some overlooked aspects. This issue, it's The Beatles 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'...

Ah. "The best". According to most modern rock historians this is the greatest album ever released (give or take the odd Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of The Moon, or, if last year's BBC poll is to be believed, Oasis's Definitely Maybe). Genre-redefining, archetypal, seminal, analysed to death and hyped to maniacal lengths by fans and writers; anybody who wonders where modern rock begins is told to start here. Sgt. Peppers has been long-heralded as the last example of the band working like a team, as the pinnacle of The Beatles' musical talents, song-writing abilities and the last example of unclouded communication between the members. It's the supreme model of analogue recording by pioneering producer / genius / fifth member George Martin and an album still mined by bands claiming to be representative of today's youth - if you want to be a musical success, start studying here. This is it, the first and best 'concept album' and the greatest collection of songs ever committed to vinyl or etched into disc, end of story.


This overblown testament to pomposity and slackly-edited grandiosity is a mockery of music and self-indulgence almost without exception. With George Martin at your side, a record label kowtowing to any whim, tens of millions of people agreeing with every grunt and suggestion you make and Abbey Road at your disposal, how could you blow it? Even The Beatles themselves realised how far up their own arses they had crawled by going back to basics for their following, untitled and infinitely superior album (later called The White Album). Take, for example, the ridiculously egotistical cover in which they place themselves amongst and ahead of Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Marlon Brando in some visual assessment of the 20th Century they had to be talked into doing (McCartney preferring an acid-drenched picture by Dutch art collective The Fool). It wasn't for nothing that one of their manager's last requests was "brown paper bags for Seargent Peppers".

Let's look at the music. A Day In The Life ("one of the most ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking works in music history" according to biographer Allen W. Pollack) is sub-Larkin free-form poetry and it's "genius" is an idea any idiot who's been stoned in India could have come up with: "I know," *inhales* "Let's get, orchestra right, *exhales* and just get them to go mad for a bit, then...then, right...*inhales* we get some grand pianos and five guys to play E-major at the same time!" *exhales* "That would be like...totally amazing." *falls into fit of giggles*.
The only thing The Beatles have over that guy is the tenacity, money, and leverage to actually DO it. Not only that, but then record themselves saying "there will never be another" backwards and putting it on the run-out groove of the record. Man, Lennon is probably still laughing at how we all fell for it.

She's Leaving Home aside, misogyny lingers through this album in a way only The Troggs and The Stones can match. Lovely Rita is a Carry-On ode to a working woman who may or may not be up for some hot threesome action after dinner; "I got the bill, Rita paid it / Took her home, I nearly made it / Sitting on the sofa with a sister or two...give us a wink and make me think of you" is clearly some harmless fun, and her character not worth developing any further. Only four woman make it to the album cover of 70-odd people (Diana Dors, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple and Mae West - hardly inspirational feminist material) and it's not until now, when harp player Sheila Bromberg is used, that we see a female involved with a Beatles record at all. With girls such a regular subject and even previously used for point-of-view songs, it's ironic. the irony too of Lennon expecting us to believe "Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle Of Wight - if it's not too dear / We shall scrimp and save", seems to have been lost on people at the time.

What the Beatles fans were given was one giant fabrication of blinding colours and "more is more" theory. Only She's Leaving Home and Harrison's much-maligned Within You And Without You are in possession of any humanity or warmth. The rest is, at best, an exercise in excess and trickery, and at worst, an act of thinly-disguised disdain for an audience who would shortly be given a more obvious picture of the bollocks of John Lennon on the cover of the Two Virgins album.
This was the first album to be termed a 'concept album' (i.e: the album is unified by a theme, in this case playing the part of a club band), no singles (making any listener have to purchase the album if they liked a song), and marks the beginning of bands avoiding contact with their audience and making music for a loftier intent than several minutes of fun. One of Sgt. Peppers' more notable achievements is to almost single-handedly be responsible for legitimising unbridled egotism in artists, patronising and expensive 'event' performances and gargantuan recording budgets that effectively ruined popular music for the following decade, until punk grabbed it by it's over-sized lapels and brought it back to earth with a Glasgow kiss.
While it's true the Beatles couldn't be blamed for who followed through the door they opened, they can be seen as the instigators of record companies handing over huge amounts of money to artists and (more often than not) managers using arguments along the lines of "well the Beatles needed 129 days and 10 times the usual budget to make a number one record, so do we." The nadir of 1970s self-indulgence was, in fact, a misguided reinterpretation of this album in film and soundtrack form featuring The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and, mysteriously, George Martin. This was, deservedly, an unmitigated flop.

What it did entail was an army of musicians seeing it for what it was and going back to the grassroots. The Band, country music and folk all experienced a resurgence, and many great albums were brought to people's attention once they tired of empty psychedelia or formed part of the masses who 'just said no'.
Finally, the record industry as we know it - the multi-armed conglomerate record label - was born with their Apple Corps company, set up by them and much-sued manager Allen Klein in the wake of Sgt. Peppers' success. Even now there are still arguments over to how to more exploit us listeners when this album eventually becomes available for download. No, really, thanks guys.

Next month, Radiohead's OK Computer.

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