mystery sergeant

Continuing the Beatles listening doohickey…

A couple nights ago, I listened to Sgt. Pepper. A lot of reviews have noted that Pepper hasn’t aged as well as some other Beatles albums…and I’m not sure why they’re saying that. On the one hand, it’s clearly of 1967 – but because it’s been so enormously influential, it also has not dated, at least not any more than most other Beatles records, and for the same reasons. (The very earliest stuff, on the other hand, really has grown a bit musty.) Another common idea is that the much-heralded “concept” (which is, uh, what exactly?) has overshadowed the relative weakness of some of the songs. First, while the album was conceived programmatically, McCartney proposing that the band imagine themselves as an alter-ego band, the phrase “concept album” has come to mean “an album whose songs relate to a plot,” more or less…and Pepper is not that. (Some have stretched and tried to make it so – I don’t buy it.) Second, while it’s true that the segues make it harder to think of these songs in isolation from one another – which means that they get played less on their own, giving them weaker identities than the more separable songs of most Beatles albums – I think some of them are weaker only by comparison with the better Beatles songs of this era – which is to say, in comparison with some of the best songs of any era.

My breakdown: the title track and its reprise do tend to feel a bit more functional and overture-like than as standalone songs, but then, Jimi Hendrix evidently disagreed, covering it within days of the album’s release. It shows off Paul’s underrated talents as a rocker. “Friends” is a song for Ringo, and as such it doesn’t blow anything out of the water, but it’s one of his better vehicles. “Lucy” is pretty fantastic. “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” aren’t exactly the best Paul songs ever…but I think “Getting Better” is underrated (nice guitar solo too). “She’s Leaving Home” is one of Paul’s classics: I know some find it saccharine, and others dislike its arrangement (the only non-George Martin arrangement of outside instruments until Phil Spector murdered a handful of Let it Be tracks) – but I think it earns its emotionality, which isn’t particularly sentimental although it certainly does jerk at the tearducts. Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family fame noted that the radical aspect of this song was that in 1967, in the era when phrases like “the generation gap” and “don’t trust anyone over thirty” were coined, McCartney dared to examine the feelings and perspective of the parents in this song sympathetically, alongside those of the daughter. No one is a clueless buffoon or oppressive square in this song; it’s a tragedy because everyone involved genuinely does want the best…but they want different things. “…Mr. Kite!” is one of Lennon’s more intriguing tracks from this era, and the cutup circus collage background is actually far more complex and accomplished than that of the much-more heralded arrangement for “Tomorrow Never Knows.” (Even if parts of it were assembled randomly…)

I grew up with this as an album, so “Within You Without You” always sounds like the beginning of Side 2 to me: this is George’s most thoroughgoing fusion of Western songwriting and Indian influence. It’s a lovely, meandering melody, and the extended middle section (in 5/8 throughout, although parts shift the accents to obscure the meter) creates a tension-filled contrast with the becalmed feel of the rest of the track. “When I’m Sixty-Four”…well, it’s charming enough…but this is a relatively early example of McCartney’s weakness for old-style pastiche, a weakness which is probably responsible for utterly savaging his reputation as Mr. Silly Love Songs. (He has always been capable of much more, and continues to do so – I’m a conscientious objector in the John/Paul wars.) “Lovely Rita,” on the other hand, is fantastic – I love the arrangement, and the piano solo which has so much reverb it sounds doubled by a mellotron. Plus it’s responsible for the best line from Chuck Klosterman’s hilarious review in the Onion A.V. Club of the Beatles remasters: “‘Lovely Rita’ totally nails the experience of almost having sex with a city employee.” “Good Morning Good Morning” is one of my favorite Lennon songs: his metrical wildness here eclipses even that of “She Said She Said” (apparently, reduplicative titles made him rhythmically restless), and the saxes are deliriously noisy, preparing us for the black-comic barnyard parade that segues this track into the “Pepper” reprise. (Lennon purportedly arranged the animal noises such that each succeeding animal could eat its predecessor.) That reprise is wilder and looser than its initial appearance, rather harried in fact – and if any section of Pepper might be said to have a narrative, it’s these last few tracks: two tracks of mischievous, slightly furtive erotic engagement (“Rita” and “Morning”), a more frantic number pushing us toward both exhilaration and into fatigue, and the melancholy exhaustion (late night into early morning) of “A Day in the Life.” (An aside: Lennon is the great poet of exhaustion, on three albums running from “I’m Only Sleeping” to this track to “I’m So Tired” on the White Album – excluding Magical Mystery Tour as, in origin, a double EP.) A whole lot’s been written about this track – I have little to add, except the lyrical imagery remains odd yet compellingly apt, and the remastered version presents the orchestral sections in almost frightening intensity: it feels like an enormous wave or earthquake upending the song’s sonic foundations.

Magical Mystery Tour is really an assemblage of songs that didn’t have a home elsewhere (as was Yellow Submarine): some were singles, some slightly orphaned tracks put together to soundtrack this McCartney-conceived TV special. (Note: Although I realize I am guilty of violating the critical rule concerning this album, which is to always precede reference to the TV show with the words “ill-fated,” I believe I am in technical compliance by means of this parenthetical qualification.) Some of them are among the Beatles’ best; others…less so. I was surprised, listening to the remasters in headphones, to recall that our modern notions of stereo sound placement were still a bit unsettled when these songs were recorded: there’s still quite a bit of tucking away the drums in one corner or other, shoving the bass aside (even though its long wavelengths make that not matter much when played in an actual room), etc. For some reason in my mind once it became 1967 or so, stereo sound meant either a near-modern mix (with a bit more florid treatment of channel separation: pan hard right or hard left!) or showboating channel-flying. A couple of notes on the remastered sound: It’s very nice to hear the level of detail in these songs’ arrangements with more clarity. The Beatles were obviously in the midst of their most technicolor arranging ideas, and it’s good to be able to actually hear those ideas. The two violas in “Hello Goodbye” are audible throughout instead of just in between phrases (they seemed to disappear), and even the rather second-tier track “Flying” shows off some nicely recorded parts. It’s too bad the latter half of “I Am the Walrus” was fucked with by John in mono, putting the King Lear radio excerpts right on top of the other parts so a true stereo mix was impossible – but the weird disorientation that results from the track halfway through switching from stereo to faux-stereo (phasing and global panning between channels fooling your ears into imagining there’s a stereo mix going on) is at least apt with the mood of the song.

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One response to “mystery sergeant

  1. Gil Ray

    Nice, Jeff. I’m glad you mentioned “She’s Leaving Home” – Stacey and listened to a friend’s mono version the other night and when that song was playing, I realized I was almost in tears over the beauty of it. Then, Stacey said she was too (rare)! Just plain flat-out beautiful melody, sung by a beautiful voice, with a wonderful arrangement. I never really thought much of the song one way or another, but it sure clicked the other night.

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