Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (2)

Usually when you look at the tracklist of the most famous album by a very famous artist, you see a clutch of their most famous songs. Bringing It All Back Home has ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. Ziggy Stardust has the title track, ‘Starman’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ’N’ Roll Suicide’. Parklife has the title track, ‘Girls & Boys’ and ‘This Is A Low’. And The Joshua Tree probably has some of the most famous U2 songs on it but I don’t know which ones on account of I hate U2.

The surprising thing about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is that it’s not really like that at all. When I started to become interested in The Beatles, I decided to get Sgt. Pepper first because I reasoned you probably couldn’t go far wrong with that. But on looking at the back of the slightly rubbish cardboard slipcase the album used to come in, I was surprised by the lack of famous songs. The title track is famous because the album is. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ was better known in versions by other people (at least it was to me – the Wet Wet Wet charity Xerox and the Joe Cocker one which I knew because it was the theme from The Wonder Years). ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ is notorious, but hardly among The Beatles’ best.

In fact, if you look at most polls of The Best Ever Beatles Songs Ever In The World Ever, there’s a pretty good chance ‘A Day In The Life’ will be sitting at the top (an excellent song, and a politically expedient choice given that Lennon and McCartney each wrote a bit of it), but nothing else from Sgt. Pepper will trouble the top ten. Rolling Stone’s laughably poor new list (seriously, #8-10 are utter bollocks and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ is #2 for purely sentimental reasons) follows this pattern. In fact, you probably won’t find anything else from Pepper in the top twenty and very little in the top fifty. Look! Here’s a top forty which just has the one track from Pepper, but four each from Help! and Rubber Soul.

That’s quite strange, if you think about it.

One reason why this is the case is The Beatles’ policy of not putting singles on their albums, a policy which they observed very strictly except when they didn’t. (You often hear it said that The Beatles didn’t put singles on their albums, but six of their eleven albums have singles on them. Which is more than half, as you were probably capable of working out for yourself.) This did apply to Pepper, famously, with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ both intended for the album but pulled off to make a new single in order to stop everyone saying The Beatles had lost it/were going to split up/were dead etc. (I often look at the modern two-to-three year album/tour cycle and wish it was still like the 1960s where bands got told to pull their fingers out if they failed to release anything for six months.) So the album entirely lacks any hits: you’ll find nothing from Pepper on the 1 album, for example.

Perhaps a slightly deeper reason, however, is that Sgt. Pepper was celebrated for ushering in a new approach to the album. Yes, as has been said many times, it’s not much of a concept album due to the ‘concept’ being ‘Hello, we are a band: here are some songs’. Also, the caricature of it all taking place in ‘Pepperland’, a candyfloss world of whimsy, doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny: for every ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ or ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, there’s a ‘She’s Leaving Home’ or a ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ which have a very different perspective. Yet it does have a certain unity to it.

This is partly due to the way McCartney took the creative lead on this record: Lennon, in a psychedelic haze, dropped his workrate (only three tracks on the album are mostly his work, with a further two being co-writes), whilst Harrison hadn’t entirely got over his irritation with being a Beatle and found the new studio-based method of working isolated him (he spent seven hours working on a guitar solo for the title track only for McCartney to dump it and perform a new one himself, and on ‘A Day In The Life’ – widely considered the group’s masterpiece – Harrison’s only contribution was to play maracas). Ringo found himself sitting around for hours on end whilst tracks were developed. The concept behind the album was McCartney’s and its layered, kaleidoscopic, eclectic style is clearly more his than anyone else’s. It’s also very mid-paced – this is the first Beatles record to feature nothing that would work in a club (‘Lovely Rita’ comes closest) – and certainly feels different from any other Beatles album.

But it’s perhaps more the reputation of the album as an album which means individual tracks have difficulty standing out for a modern audience. Sgt. Pepper was such a phenomenon, and holds such a legendary status today, that its tracks are bound up with the whole in people’s minds. This is to the benefit of some, like ‘Fixing A Hole’ or ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’ – lovely productions, but relatively lightweight songs – which would be less renowned if they’d been held over to Magical Mystery Tour. It’s to the detriment of others: ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ is as good a song as Lennon ever wrote, with a vivid lyric and extraordinary unorthodox tempo changes, but is rarely ranked alongside ‘In My Life’ or ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is transparently better than ‘Yesterday’, but one is on all the Beatles Best Of albums and the other isn’t. These tracks are subsumed into the cultural monolith that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The success of ‘A Day In The Life’ in polls perhaps stands in for the album as a whole – pretentious as it sounds, the record is a single piece.

1 comment:

  1. Response to this over on my blog.