Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

Actually, this is easier than I thought it would be. There are some albums (and a few songs) that it feels like I heard before I heard anything else, if that makes sense. I know I listened to this record on vinyl, which was also how I learned to play records on a turntable. So, unlike the White Album, which I got when I was about 12, or Beatles for Sale, which I didn't even buy until high school, I have trouble putting Sgt. Pepper into context. I don't think I understood the difference between pop music and other kinds of music when I first began listening to this record. Actually, music wasn't even a very big part of my life when I played Sgt Pepper for the first time, so it took me a very long time to even think of "Fixing a Hole" and "Lovely Rita" as songs instead of, I guess, toys? Novelties? Fictional characters?

Anyway, sometimes I wish I had actually heard this record from the standpoint of a music fan, instead of returning to it as one. That's why I thought it would be difficult to evaluate -- who wants to refer to their beloved stuffed bear as "overrated?" Can your first pair of rollerblades, which skated you right to second base, ever be "underrated?"

But it turns out that there's no limit to the callous, clinical disinterest of a Beatles snob. See below:

Most overrated: "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." John Lennon was a master of using unusual juxtapositions to bring tension and truth to his songs. But I think sometimes (or, often), he just pasted two song ideas together and hoped they would both prove likeable. Now, the production and the performances are flawless...but is this song really profound? It's meaningless and fun to sing, which means it belongs with "Yellow Submarine" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide..." in the category of great Beatles road-trip singalongs. It's has the feel of "I'm Only Sleeping" without any of the depth, and the wonderful imagery of "I Am the Walrus" without any of the bitter pathos. Maybe this comes from familiarity, but I don't really need to listen to this song, I just need to remember it. Kind of like early Pink Floyd. Great to know, but how badly do you need to hear it?

Most underrated: Everything on Sgt. Pepper is probably overrated in some sense, just by inclusion on what can only ever be an overrated album. (Quick rule-of-thumb: If your choppy, haphazard concept album with a bunch of great songs becomes a signpost for an entire revolution of thought and behavior, it's probably overrated...Nevermind, 36 Chambers, etc.). But "Getting Better" is really a masterpiece that feels like a throwaway, so it gets underrated as filler between the grand drug statements, the concept pieces, and the groundbreaking experimental pop. "Getting Better" falls right in with the sonically and structurally perfect singles of the same era -- "Penny Lane," "Hello Goodbye," "Paperback Writer" -- in that it builds remarkable rhythmic and harmonic textures for a fairly straightforward song structure, and lyrically it's more than it seems in the best way. Drones, Motown bounce, sparkling clusters of notes, deceptively difficult lead and background syncopations (try playing it on piano to see what I mean), and all with that exuberant Beatles feel that gets a little hard to find the deeper you get into the album.

5 comments:

Annie said...

alek! awesome blog. i have no idea how to contact you besides through this. i thought of you on MLK day, and have something i need to ask you.

call me when you can at 773-272-6691.

annie sanders

(portland, OR, LCV EVP summer '04!)

Not a Flaneur, I Just Walk A lot said...

I want Revolver.

alek said...

Not only did I already do Revolver, but YOU ALREADY CRITICIZED MY CHOICES.

Zach said...

really? It was so long ago. I have trouble remembering. I'm very opld. Almost as old as you.

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