2020 Album Draft- Round 3 Pick 5- Dave- A Sound Day selects- The Beatles- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Dave’s- A Sound Day blog can be found at – https://soundday.wordpress.com/
Well, time to pad the lead The Beatles have on the competition in this “album draft”! I’m happy to pick the legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as my third “desert island” selection. And for me, that’s no consolation prize despite Revolver , Rubber Soul , Magical Mystery Tour and the “white album” already being picked by others. They’re all good, no question, but to me, Sgt. Pepper is the one album that comes to mind when I think Beatles. The Four at their Fabbest.
This one is an obvious pick for me because it has personal and global significance. It is the very first album I “remember”… my brother or my mother had the album and whoever’s copy it was, it found its way into our living room. I remember looking at the colorful, almost cartoony cover and being mezmerized as a child. I remember hearing those songs when I was little and being in awe. To my delight, the carnival energy of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the clanging piano finale to “A Day in the Life” that were so endearing to little me still sound great to middle-aged me.
Of course, I’m not alone in that… Rolling Stone is joined by HMV Record shops in picking it consistently as their choice of “greatest album of all-time”, and at 30 million copies and counting, it’s one of the most commercially-successful albums ever too. It was the first rock title to win the Grammy as the year’s best album. But there’s far more to it than that.
First, let me start by addressing some of the naysayers and look at what the album is not . For starters, while to me it’s their best album, it’s not their top dozen songs in order. There are great songs on it, but everyone with ears can tell there were some great ones on Revolver , or Rubber Soul or Abbey Road or pretty much anything else they did too. “A Day in the Life” is outstanding and a contender for my choice for their very best song, but so too would be “Something” which came later, or “In My Life” which came before.
Likewise, it could have been even better had they included one or both of the sides of the single they issued simultaneously : “Penny Lane” with “Strawberry Fields”. Both brilliant works that were recorded around the same time but not on the album. At just a shade under 40”, the LP would have allowed for at least one of those to be added in. Nor is it, despite many people’s reaching explanations or an iffy movie adaptation, a real “concept” album. Yes, yes, Billy Shears is Paul’s alter-ego and it’s about some band, but the songs are as varied and unrelated as any other Beatles record. Which is fine by me. And last but not least…well, last and least, those who let the record or CD spin after the crashing piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” are rewarded with several seconds of backwards-masked nonsensical garble which very happily could have been edited out.
Wow! That’s a lot of things this record is not! Awful! LOL. Now let’s look at what Sgt. Pepper … is. An album showing the most respected rock or pop band of all-time at the peak of their creativity. An album which I’ve enjoyed since I was old enough to be conscious of recognizing music right through to this day. An album which shaped the Beatles future and the future of pop music. An album almost universal in appeal. An album which re-imagined what music could be.
Consider how it changed the way we thought about pop music. If you backtracked about two years before Sgt. Pepper , you found a world of simple little one-off pop ditties. Likeable enough little songs in many cases – “Stop in the Name of Love” or “Help Me Rhonda” are surefire earworms. But they were rather disposable as well as simple. Simple in form and message. Even the Beatles themselves were a different creature. Witness “Eight Days a Week” . “Eight days a week, is not enough to show I care”. Nice little song, nice little message. Easy to follow, probably easy to play if you had your own electric guitar and drums. But people bought the 7” single, danced to it, then put it away. Few bothered with LPs unless it was a soundtrack to a big Hollywood musical celebrating days and sounds of yore. Things began to change a little in ’66 with the Beach Boys Pet Sounds and Beatles Revolver , but 1967 was a full- blown metamorphisis with John, Paul, George and Ringo being first out of that cocoon spreading their newfound wings.
Sgt. Pepper was different because it was an album meant to be heard as a an entity… not a hit single or two thrown onto a bigger disc of vinyl with several other songs thrown on haphazardly that no one really expected people to listen to anyway. As such, not releasing a single off it was a stroke of genius. And yet, it was good enough, and the band popular enough, that radio decided to break its own cardinal rule and play parts of it anyway. It was the record that made people and radio stations think in terms of albums, not just singles. Soon we’d have FM rock stations playing obscure tracks and artists missing from the Top 40 and artists working hard on making full- fledged albums that had impact from start to finish.
It was also a work of art in every respect. Look at that cover. Thought went into that. It could look good on a coffee table. People would debate hidden meanings in it for decades. No disrespect to Bob or Elvis, but there’s not much to keep a conversation flowing about the cover of Blue Hawaii or Blonde on Blonde . After this, artists and record companies began to realize they had a square foot of real estate to decorate, so why not make it have some visual appeal to go with the aural appeal inside.
Mostly though, the album resonates so strongly because it reimagined what music could be. Up to then, rock was pretty straight-forward. So too, classical… at least in classifying it if not playing it. Jazz was jazz, things east of Eastbourne were mysteries no one took a magnifying glass to. The Beatles set out to change that. “We were not boys, we were men… we thought of ourselves as artists rather than performers,” Paul McCartney said about the time. He wanted to incorporate influences of music he loved from BB King to Ravi Shankar to the hot new California act The Doors. George was deep into eastern religions and philosophy and had just returned from time in India, dragging with him exotic instruments like sitars and dilrubas which he played to give the album a sound entirely unlike anything out of Jolly Ol’ England (or anywhere else in ‘The West’) before. Producer George Martin felt freer to add traditional orchestral bits than before – stop and listen to the violins and cellos that build the foundation to “She’s Leaving Home” for instance. Soon the Moody Blues would hire an entire orchestra to back their “rock” music. The Beatles were declaring that there was more to music than the 1964 Beatles, and more to life than just pictures of the queen and mashed potatoes. There was a whole world to explore! It and the music in it were both vast. Limitless.
All that wouldn’t count for much or get it become my third pick if the songs weren’t great. To me, like most great albums, the songs are good individually but rise to something greater when in the entity. They are varied as milk and frosted flakes, but together they form something special. From the spacey and introspective “Within You Without You” – I love the Indian instruments and lyrics like “people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion never glimpse the truth” – to the lovely, sad “She’s Leaving Home” to the carnie-fun “Mr Kite” to the pop-plus of “Fixing A Hole” and the epic ending, “A Day in the Life” they’re songs I love and which form a part of my cultural bedrock. I could write much more, but we don’t have all days and many writers have already written entire books on it so all I can do is sum it up by saying, I thought it was a great album I liked listening to in the 1970s. I think it’s a great album I still like listening to in the 2020s.