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.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1)

Ah, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – that most feted, mythologised and sentimentalised of all Beatles albums. This seems a good moment for some dry statistics, doesn’t it?

Early on in this blog, I talked about how easy it is to look at The Beatles’ career and see a steady progression, certainly as far as Sgt. Pepper, where each album is an advance on the previous one. Certainly this is true, creatively speaking: whilst I don’t think every album betters its predecessor, there isn’t a backward step on any of those first eight albums – and this path led to them making Revolver and Pepper, therefore the process was a successful one. However, this was by no means the only way it could have gone – and viewed in terms of their commercial impact, in late 1966 The Beatles were an act who had passed their peak in the UK three years ago. That’s a long time in pop music, and considering the mayfly lifespans of 1960s pop careers it was an eternity.

The Beatles had managed their decline very smartly – they were still the only act whose every single and album topped the charts, and they had lately tested that loyalty with some changes of direction – but the fact remained that their biggest-selling single was ‘She Loves You’. This is hardly surprising when you consider the saturation coverage the group had received in the summer of 1963, and the fact that any pop phenomenon only gets one shot at being the hot new thing. Generating a second groundswell of excitement like the one which shifted over a million copies of ‘She Loves You’ and kept Please Please Me at the top of the LP charts for thirty weeks (only knocked off by With The Beatles, which stayed for 21 weeks – one week shy of a full year at the top for the group) was basically inconceivable. Other acts would always be newer and, although The Beatles were still the biggest band around, they were not as big as they were. They couldn’t be.

A Hard Day’s Night also managed 21 weeks at the top, but after that Beatles records were less dominant than they had been. Beatles For Sale managed eleven in total (over three spells), Help! nine, Rubber Soul eight, Revolver seven. There are a lot of factors involved there: the LP charts became more competitive with the emergence of The Rolling Stones in 1964 and Bob Dylan in 1965, both artists who sold very well in album form (between May 1963 and January 1968, only five artists held the top spot in the UK album charts: The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Monkees and the cast of The Sound of Music). There’s also the simple fact that once The Beatles were established, it became more likely that people already knew whether they wanted to buy the group’s record or not and did so fairly swiftly after release. (I’d be very interested to see contemporary sales figures if anyone can point me towards them, listing numbers of copies sold per week – all you can find these days are the total sales up to the present day, which are useless. Was Please Please Me still the group’s best-selling album in 1966, for instance?)

This gradual decline may have been a contributing factor to the serious consideration the group gave to splitting up after Revolver – in addition to their well-documented frustration with the punishing tour and promotional regime, being vilified in America and so on. Had they split up at that point, I suspect that the Beatles of 1963/4 would be the version of the group that dominated in the popular imagination. It would generally be recognised that their last couple of albums featured their best work, but by splitting in 1966 they would have ensured that everyone forever remembered them as the mop-tops.

It was probably the case in 1966 that a lot of people still chiefly thought of them as the mop-tops – that early success could well have become a millstone, something they could surely never surpass. Their many fans would be well aware that their music was moving on, but could they convince those who’d gone off them, or never liked them in the first place, to see them as something new again? When even their name, The Beatles, spoke of an earlier pop era whose stars had already fallen by the wayside? They needed to pitch themselves almost as if they were a whole new act. Adopting a new name seems a facile method of achieving this, and of course there were may other aspects to the success of Sgt. Pepper – but it’s more than a curious coincidence that the record did indeed take The Beatles to new heights of success at a time when that should have been almost impossible.

Now for the dry statistics I promised earlier. Earlier in this blog I asked when it was that The Beatles stopped being chiefly the preserve of screaming teenage girls and became the preserve of chin-stroking musos. The chart performance of Sgt. Pepper suggests an answer. Where its predecessor managed to top the UK charts for seven weeks, Pepper managed an initial 23 weeks, then returned to the top three times – including Christmas and, amazingly, another week in February 1968, eight months after it came out. With a total of 27 weeks it almost outdid Please Please Me – impressive considering the general boom in album sales in the intervening years.

As noted earlier, by the time Revolver came out people generally knew whether they wanted the new Beatles album or not. The fact that, eight months after Sgt. Pepper came out, people were suddenly deciding to buy it in enough quantities to get it back to number one, strongly suggests that the album had won the group new fans in droves. It was selling to people who’d never bought a Beatles album before. Though it has undoubtedly been sentimentalised in retrospect, Sgt. Pepper was a genuine phenomenon.