Saturday, March 13, 2010
A few months ago, I bought the remastered edition of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at a Starbucks.
I was listening to it again this evening on the drive home and it's a bit of a revelation: not just the vocals and music but that great swelling orchestrated blend of bells, whistles, animal sounds and whatnot -- all brought to the fore so that the whole record sounds spectacularly new and fresh, and makes for one very compelling listening experience, even if you've heard the record hundreds of times. From the organized cacophony of the opening track to the lush strings of "She's Leaving Home" to the immaculate whimsy of "When I'm Sixty-Four" to the multi-tracked existential masterpiece that is "A Day in the Life," here is a recording that truly lets you sit back and let the evening go.
As you and I both know, this is a legendary record for innumerable reasons, but mainly because like a lot of great works of art it showed the sheer power of ambition. Here was the band most people regarded as the greatest in the world, trying to create the greatest album imaginable, pushing their form of pop music as far as they could. Most, if not all, of the songs were excellent, and George Martin's production maximizes the potential of even the weaker ones ("Fixing a Hole," "Good Morning, Good Morning," et al.)
Is it the greatest album ever? For years it had that sort of general reputation and I guess in many minds still does, if annual best-of lists have any meaning. But I'd suggest there are probably just as many if not more people who are ready to argue against it as for it.
One who comes to mind: Frank Zappa, who made a famously anti-Sgt. Pepper record titled We're Only In It For the Money.
Also, Lou Reed, who has said his own first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, was better in every way.
Before I could say "Oh, Lou, shut up," I realized he was probably right. I mean, I've listened to the Velvets album a lot more than I've ever listened to any Beatles album. Their songs are more interesting, more layered, and over all they probably tell better stories. I somehow suspect that the same sentiment will be shared by most rock fans who own both albums.
Lots of records are better than Sgt. Pepper, when you get right down to it -- even the Beatles made better ones, although probably not a more influential one.
That's always been one of the interesting aspects of the 1960s, to me: the competition was extremely high, and it kept a lot of people working at the top of their game. There would have been no Sgt. Pepper had there not been a Pet Sounds or a Bob Dylan. And without Sgt. Pepper, there would have not been so many imitators, all trying to either catch that singular sound or, in Zappa's case, reacting against it.