Tuesday, February 24, 2015

1 Sgt Peppers (1967) The Beatles

Well here we are then. The greatest album of all time and the least surprising entry on the countdown. If you were expecting to find a Polka album or your favourite 10CC release I'm sorry to disappoint you. The number one spot is, and was always going to be, the most famous album in the history of albums. It's the yardstick by which all other LP's are judged and every genre that isn't rock and pop has an album that people like to describe as Rap/funk/metal etc's Sgt Peppers. Its name is a synonym for musical revolution and no other album comes close to rivaling it for impact and power.

Sgt Peppers is a work of art and was created by four guys who wanted to take the album to a new level it had never enjoyed before. Their break with touring had freed them from the need to produce music that could be replicated onstage. Their previous experimental outings on Revolver had liberated them from the public's expectations. They were confident to go into the studio and spend as much time, money and effort getting the sounds they heard in their head onto the page. They didn't need to worry about any of the other trappings of Beatledom, this is what they did and this is who they were: artists who made music.

Sgt Pepper made such a massive impact on the music scene primarily because it was the first Beatles album which stood alone as a single work of art released to the entire world at the same time. Since their career began, the United States was issuing strange bastardised versions of the UK albums and releasing them at odd times. But Sgt Peppers was released all over the world in the same format on the same day. The world was able to anticipate the build up of the new Beatles album and then enjoy it together. People all over the planet queued up to get their copy and the release felt like a communal experience that the world enjoyed together. Sgt Peppers was playing wherever you went and it felt like it unified everyone together for a glorious summer.

None of which means a damn thing to those of us who were either too young to remember or weren't there for the summer of love. It's all very well for people to recall those heady days but the rest of us just have to to try and appreciate the album on its own terms. We weren't part of the world it transformed so we have to take it on its own merits.

Even separated from its era by almost fifty years, it's fair to say that Sgt Peppers has a huge impact. There really is something special about it that's hard to pin down and put your finger on. I think it might have something to do with the iconic (an overused word but appropriate here) cover art. There are other covers that are as famous (Abbey Road, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Sticky Fingers) but none that required so much damn effort. Sgt Peppers wasn't just a lucky photograph, it was 3,000 pounds worth of flowers, specially made costumes, props and cardboard cut outs. It's a huge work of art in itself which took weeks to prepare. It's not just a quick snap that is thwacked on the cover so you can tell it apart from the other Beatles albums, it's something you can sit and admire for ages and still find new things in. It's fantastic and it does make the album more special somehow.

Of course a nice cover is nothing if the music inside doesn't justify the expense. All the pretty pictures in the world aren't going to save an album whose music kind of sucks. Thankfully even after four decades, Peppers still sounds timeless and joyous. It's a brilliant collection of some of the Beatles finest music and as close to perfect as any album can hope to get.

Sgt Peppers isn't my own personal pick for number one and it's not even my favourite Beatles album, but I can fully understand what it's doing here on top of this list where it belongs.

Sgt Peppers

The title track is a great rock and Roll number the likes of which Paul could simply crank out whenever the mood took him. It's just over two minutes of fiery guitar with tricky interjections and some of Paul's trademark shrieking. It's a huge amount of fun and you want it to come back again which is why you're so glad when it does.

With a little help from my friends

Let's get Ringo's contribution out of the way early I say. Friends is his most famous song but not my favourite. It's just a bit to hokey for my liking, although if I have to hear it I prefer to hear the original and not the overblown and self indulgent covers of the likes of Joe Cocker who I think turned a passable but light song into something heavy and turgid.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds

Is the title a reference to LSD? Who cares? Who really gives a stuff? The point is that for whatever reason John paints a wonderful dreamscape in which fantastic images wander around in an enchanting kind of universe. It's a bit like Dylan's stream of conscious imagery only Dylan's world is often dark and scary but this is really cute. You can imagine enjoying yourself in Lucy's world which brings out the child in every one.

Getting Better

Any attempt at a concept album has been thrown out the window by this point and replaced with a new concept which was basically just the old one: here's some songs we wrote. Getting Better is more enjoyable than it could be in part because it sounds like a band working together. Part of the charm of Sgt Peppers is the idea of the Beatles really working as a team to produce their greatest work. While the White Album is notorious for being recorded by a fractured group more concerned about their own work than the final product, Peppers is the result of five creative guys dizzy with possibilities firing each other up and Getting Better sounds like that ideal in its purest form. I love the fact that George comes in at the end with a tanpura (which is a kind of sitar in batter I think) as if he had one lying around the studio and just rushed in at the end because it sounded right. And it does.

Fixing a Hole

It might be a minor track in the context of the album but Fixing a Hole is a great number. It's full of perfect harmonies and is one of the most fun songs on the album to sing along too. It's usually at this point of the album when I shake my head in wonder at the fact that five years earlier the Beatles had never set foot in a studio before and were writing songs about holding hands.

She's Leaving Home

This is one of those narrative songs by Paul but lyrically not one of his most successful. Paul wants you to feel wistfully sad and while he succeeded with Eleanor Rigby, he fails her with a set of words which just don't evoke the same emotion. It probably doesn't help that the rest of the album doesn't have lyrics that the listener feels hugely attached to. We're fixing holes! We're in the sky with diamonds! We're reading lyrics off a circus poster! The words are almost immaterial but in this instance they bog the track down a bit. The tune is great though.

Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite

John had a poster he liked. John read the poster. John started to turn the words he read into a tune because that's what John does. John came into the studio and said: "I've got a song about an old circus" and the band said "Great!" because that's the prevailing mood of Sgt Peppers. John said: "We need organs and calliopes and harmoniums and glockenspiels and weird percussion" and the band said "Yes, yes we do." So they did. That's one of the reasons I love Sgt Peppers. That can-do attitude is just great and while it could well have produced the biggest load of self indulgent waffle it actually produced a song as fantastic as this.

Within you or Without You

George's sole contribution to Sgt Peppers is Within you or without You, a track he recorded without any contribution from the other Beatles. While Love you To sounded like a traditional pop composition played on Indian instruments, Within you or Without You sounds like an attempt to write Indian music. At five minutes it's the longest song on the album but definitely worth persisting with. I used to hate Within you or Without you but it definitely grows on you if you give it time. If you sit down and actually enjoy it there's a lot of charm in it and I can't imagine the album without it.

When I'm sixty four

A staple of old people's radio where it's enjoyed primarily by people who see 64 as a memory and not a destination. I know there are those who love it and good luck to them but it is a bit too twee for me. It's had the exact reverse effect on me as the previous track. While Within You or Without you has grown on me, When I'm sixty Four has ebbed away and gone from something I find passable to something I skip. If this and A little Help from my friends had been lifted off the album and replaced with Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields, I'd rarely stop listening to Sgt Peppers.

Lovely Rita

Possibly the most simple song on the album. While the rest of the tracks called for all manner of exotica and technical complications, Lovely Rita could have been done much earlier in their career. It's as complicated as it needs to be however and a great song.

Good Morning Good Morning

John complicates things again with a song that crams all manner of trickery and overdubs into it's 2 minutes 40 seconds running time. But while Rita was a simple tune, Good Morning Good Morning is a complicated piece of songwriting as Lennon's demos reveal. It could easily fall in under the weight of its own trickery but slides along happily and in the end is a brilliantly catchy and accessible song.

Sgt Peppers reprise.

Remember how the title track left you with a desire to hear more of it? Well here's your chance. A quick 79 second reminder of how much fun you were having at the start before you had a lot of other fun.

A day in the life

This is the sort of song that only the Beatles could pull off, as the unsuccessful results of many of their contemporaries have proved. The strength of the song is the fact that the two disparate pieces work so well when they get smooshed together. John wrote a fairly sombre piece of music about a car accident and Paul wrote a jaunty little thing about someone getting ready for work. They two shouldn't meet and shouldn't accompany each other. Another band would have come up with a sombre middle section for John's tune and worked Paul's into a cheery tale in which the protagonist falls in love with a passing girl. The Beatles saw that somehow Paul's jaunt and John's somb could work together to create a bold new track. All they really needed then was a full orchestra, a harp and a whole lot of pianos playing in unison. But they didn't want them to perform a conventional score they wanted them to improvise, something orchestras just didn't do. This should not work. This should be a total disaster. Instead it's one of the most powerful tracks recorded in the sixties and a fitting conclusion to the Beatles finest hour and rock's greatest achievement and a fitting end to this list, because you just can't imagine anything else coming after it.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Perfect."


So should this have been number one or has something else been robbed of it's rightful place? Let me know below (it's your last chance).

1 comment:

  1. Perfect. Good call. Even if you were not there for its release you must see that this album is huge. I almost have a time line that in lots of aspects of history I simply think is it pre Sgt Peppers or post Sgt Peppers. Not just in music but lots of things. Great stuff.