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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Between December, 1965 and December, 1966 The Beatles released Rubber Soul and Revolver to wild commercial and critical acclaim. They toured the world, playing stadiums for the first time in their career. John Lennon upset the Bible Belt of the United States with his “bigger than Jesus” comment, the whole band upset the Japanese by playing in the Buddakan*, and Ringo was becoming a bit paranoid about his safety after receiving several death threats. For all intents and purposes for those in the middle of it all Beatlemania was beginning to spiral out of control. The boys needed a break.

So in August of 1966 The Beatles played what would be their final show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco and then headed home for a much-needed holiday. When they reconvened in December it was to find a newly animated, and raving Paul McCartney who had this “really great idea for a new album”. Partly inspired by Elvis’ Gold Cadillac Tour of late-1966, and a mishearing of the term salt and pepper**, McCartney thought it would be a great idea for The Beatles to use their new record as an updated version of an old vaudeville revue, replete with lots of different bands, and then to sort of “send the record on tour” so The Beatles didn’t have to.

The new concept lasted all of two songs (“Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” and “With A Little Help From My Friends”) before the boys scrapped it, but the spirit of experimentation and willful loss of identity permeated the sessions. No idea was considered too weird; no avenue was left unwalked.

Building off the experimental momentum of Revolver, it became immediately obvious what direction the new sessions were headed when The Beatles started work on a couple of songs, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Individually the songs were brilliant, but taken as a pair they were transcendent. They both took as there inspiration childhood places from Liverpool that had been sticking in Paul’s and John’s minds***, and it is a testament to the songwriting duo’s cohesiveness at the time that they were both thinking about similar things as they sat down to write these two songs.

Released as a non-album single, “PennyLane/Strawberry Fields Forever” was the first Beatles single to not debut at #1 (it came in at #2) but the boys were undeterred, instead launching headlong into the sessions that would create, arguably, their most impressive work of all time.

Sergeant Pepper’s is a ragtag caravan of disparate influences. From psychedelia, to Near-Eastern, to camp and whimsy, the album flows surrealistically from one idea to the next without obvious cohesion, and yet on the whole there is a unifying spirit, the idea not of a fictional band playing different “standards” but of a very real band struggling to break free of every possible bond, a band that was as confident as they were talented, and who finally had the keys to the kingdom they’d built.

It’s clear that this is McCartney’s show. From the sheer number of songs he contributed to the over-arching use of his “concept”, Sergeant Pepper oozes McCartneyisms, and it is both a vindication that the most successful and influential Beatles album is largely a product of Paul’s creative will, but also a coming out party of sorts for the young songwriter. No longer would McCartney play second-fiddle to Lennon’s acerbic wit, for Paul McCartney was now steering the ship, and they were headed into some pretty far out waters, man.

And yet, for all Paul’s ambition and experimentation, and for all the critical acclaim lavished on Sergeant Pepper’s, it is still largely remembered as “the album with ‘Lucy In The Sky’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ on it”. The two standout tracks of the album were both penned by Lennon, who may have been writing less, but was in no way writing worse. “A Day In The Life” in particular stands as one of the greatest songs of all time, from its end-of-the-world orchestral crescendos, to its newspaper headline lyrics, the song haunts and charms in equal measure, capping off a perfect album with a perfect, final chord played on three pianos simultaneously. As the chord fades, one is left drifting, thinking, heartbroken and yet uplifted.

Sergeant Pepper’s is the high water mark for The Beatles' career, and it was released to instant fanfare around the world. It solidified The Beatles' place at the vanguard of rock, and smashed down any remaining studio barriers, opening the doors to the deluge of experimentation that would follow. But in Paul’s wrestling control of the group away from John some invisible line had been crossed and a crack in the fa├žade was beginning to show. By the end of 1967 The Beatles would release another landmark album but it would also mark the beginning of the long, slow death of the greatest band of all time.

*A venue traditionally reserved for martial arts. A British rock band playing here was considered very uncouth.
**According to legend someone asked Paul to pass the salt and pepper but what he heard was Sergeant Pepper.
***Penny Lane was a market district in Liverpool and Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army building near John’s childhood home.