The Act You’ve Known for All These Years: Covering ‘Sgt. Pepper’

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may be the most overanalysed, overexposed album in history. In light of the Flaming Lips' affectionate reimagining, can the inescapable masterpiece ever be surpassed?

Once upon a time, a lot of things were less certain. A generation fueled by equal parts idealism, arrogance and naïveté, having cheerfully abandoned any hope of being understood by their predecessors, decided that a world drenched in the blood of Vietnam deserved a summer of ‘love’. Such conclusions were not always obvious.

Sgt. Pepper remains so astonishing partly because, in technological terms, it achieved space flight in the age of steam.

Now, with that same world stained by blood of a different vintage, from Ferguson to Gaza to Ukraine, the idea might seem laughable. Love is not the response inspired in most of us by many recent events, but rather anger, bitterness and grim determination. Contrary to the clichés of history, there was plenty of that in 1967, too, but love, as the Beatles demonstrated, had the better soundtrack.

Another certainty that had yet to solidify was the status of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as an indisputable masterpiece. That the Beatles could get away with pretty much anything was not a universally held belief, particularly within the band itself. At the time, the Beatles privately wondered if they had pushed their luck too far, and more than a few critics were happy to answer in the positive. For a while, controversies which now seem desperately quaint — Drug-Crazed Corruption of Youth™, etc, — threatened to overshadow the music itself. “The Beatles have given us an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent,” wrote Richard Goldstein in his infamous contemporary review for the New York Times. That pop music could be art was a bold proposition. That it could be great art was such a minority argument only pop music dared to make it.

A long time has passed since then, of course. In that passing time, many of us were born. As we grew up, we came to know Sgt. Pepper, conceived in an age of uncertainty, as a truth against which our own uncertainties could be measured. The short version is: it’s great. So great, you could, if you really tried, get bored, or even angry with it. We never stop talking about it, even once we appear to have run out of things to say.

Artist: The Flaming Lips

Album: With a Little Help From My Fwends

Label: Warner Bros.

US Release Date: 2014-10-28

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/f/fwends.jpgWith that in mind, it’s worth asking what exactly the Flaming Lips are trying to achieve. Having recently covered the album in its entirety — With a Little Help From My Fwends, an appropriate name for a project comprising a cosmic wealth of disparate collaborators — the band seemingly has no point to prove, other than what fun such an endeavour might be. To some, no other reason is required.

Why do it? Why not?

“To me, it’s all art.”

— Wayne Coyne,

AV Club interview, 3 November 2014

The cover version is a tricky beast, and always has been. Historically, the inherent artistic possibilities of a dramatic musical reimagining have been a happy accident, secondary to the obvious commercial benefits of rerecording songs for multiple audiences, with styles and singers changing to match the relevant demographic.

People have been covering Beatles songs for almost as long as there have been Beatles songs to cover. Prior to the Flaming Lips’ effort, the most recent attempt to tackle Sgt. Pepper in its entirety came on the album’s 40th anniversary in 2007. The BBC, in its drearily polite way, assembled an unadventurous array of performers — Bryan Adams, Stereophonics, Travis, the Kaiser Chiefs and, with crushing predictability, Oasis — who turned in exactly the kind of sanctimonious snoozefest a seasoned pessimist might expect. Some other attempts fared even worse: that the Bee Gee’s 1978 cinematic adaptation was an unforgivable atrocity will come as a surprise only to those unfamiliar with the Bee Gees.

The problem (and you’re welcome to disagree) is that everyone who tackles those songs knows, in their heart of hearts, they’re never going to outdo the Beatles, not in artistic terms, anyway (the spectacle of outselling the Beatles is, contrary to popular opinion, no big deal; the Spice Girls proved as much). This imposes some slight but important limits on what one can hope to achieve with a cover: either you believe you can do something new with an old song, unlocking inherent possibilities within it that have gone previously unexplored, or you play just for the sheer joy it brings you.

The Flaming Lips and their friends have self-evidently achieved the latter. Measuring their success by the former criteria is far more difficult.

Whether the band in aware of it or not, Sgt. Pepper provides an interesting reflection for the Flaming Lips, either sobering or inspiring, depending on your focus. For years, the lazy critical consensus has been that they are an oddball band, a bunch of unapologetic weirdos, and to be fair, that’s a perception they have either willfully encouraged or allowed to to go unchallenged. Sgt. Pepper, however, stands as proof that what was once considered strange and experimental may become deeply, even crushingly familiar. As a culture, our collective standard for what counts as ‘weird’ changes quickly, a fact that might eventually be to the detriment of the Flaming Lips’ career. It doesn’t look like it, though; anyone who puts their decades-long, beyond-cult success down to sheer novelty clearly has a poor understanding of recent pop history.

This is why Sgt. Pepper offers such an informative parallel for Coyne and his fellow merry pranksters: once the illusion of strangeness wears off, talent, should it exist, remains, regardless of changes in popular taste. That is as it should be.

Still, With a Little Help From My Fwends does not appear to be an attempt to settle any arguments about the place of the Flaming Lips (or for that matter, the Beatles) in the musical firmament. They have no lessons to teach, only songs they wish to sing. After all, what’s the alternative? You can’t outdo the Beatles by doing the Beatles.

Though Sgt. Pepper is arguably incomparable, tackling its reinvention is not entirely new territory for the Flaming Lips: the band has previously done full-album covers of both King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, possibly in an attempt to see whether or not it was possible to redeem two of Prog’s most tiresome sacred cows, with the results being no worse than the originals (though in the view of this critic, few things could be). It’s hardly necessary to state that Sgt. Pepper inhabits a different universe entirely.

Given that John Paul has already provided PopMatters with an excellent review of With a Little Help From My Fwends, I shall refrain from breaking the album down song-by-song. Similarly, though it may be journalistically incestuous to point out, there are sufficient retrospectives, appreciations and reconsiderations of Sgt. Pepper itself in the archives of PopMatters alone to give the average reader a fairly comprehensive history of the album’s genesis and influence. What interests me is whether the Flaming Lips sought to make Sgt. Pepper relevant for a new generation, or to confirm that it never stopped being relevant. The question is not as simple as it might appear.

“The closest Western Civilisation has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released.”

— Langdon Winner, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

One of the levels on which With a Little Help From My Fwends cannot hope to impress is technical: Sgt. Pepper remains so astonishing partly because, in technological terms, it achieved space flight in the age of steam. It was produced in an era without synthesisers or multi-track recording equipment worth the name, each of its psychedelic sound effects rendered by dint of sweat and ingenuity. As Geoff Emerick, Sgt. Pepper’s recording engineer, evocatively explained in the album’s CD liner notes: “We had microphones right down the bells of the brass instruments and headphones turned into microphones attached to violins. We plastered vast amounts of echo onto vocals, and sent them through the circuitry of the revolving Leslie speaker inside a Hammond organ. We used giant primitive oscillators to vary the speed of instruments and vocals and we had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way round.”

These days, the Flaming Lips can achieve their customary sonic demimonde at the turn of a few dials in any reasonably up-to-date studio. This is not to question the band’s talent or imagination, but merely to point out the disparity of labour involved. I’m no Rick Rubin, and obviously have no idea how a modern band might match the creativity of George Martin’s cave of radiophonic wonders. All I know is, With a Little Help From My Fwends does not provide the answer.

Nevertheless, the many collaborators the Flaming Lips have invited to take part in With a Little Help From My Fwends seem to indicate that on this project, the human element matters more than the technology surrounding it. That’s an appropriately hippie credo for the task at hand, but one that places a greater weight of responsibility upon performers who possibly never sought it.

The Flaming Lips have always been free and easy collaborators, but in this case, there may be more to it. For the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper was deeply personal. It’s one of the reasons its immediate imitators, like the Rolling Stones’ infamous damp squib Their Satanic Majesties Request, seem so tawdry and unconvincing by comparison. The Flaming Lips, by contrast, accept that beyond the four Liverpool boys who dreamt it up, no one can truly lay claim to Sgt. Pepper — it belongs to everyone who can appreciate it. To affirm that is as worthy a goal as any. It therefore makes sense that a cover album should be a collaborative free-for-all.

As a rule, I’m generally in favour of unexpected guest vocalists; artists given the chance to break from the drudgery of what is expected from them tend to give performances of unusual passion, whether the end results are successful or not. On the whole, With a Little Help From My Fwends bears out this belief, though once again, the results are not quite as surprising as one might hope.

Predictably, the inclusion of part-time controversialist Miley Cyrus has drawn the most attention from fans and critics alike. It would be easy to cynically assume that the purpose of Cyrus’s inclusion was simply to garner easy attention, particularly since her performance is largely unremarkable (which is not the same as being bad — it’s not her workhorse vocals that ruin the Flaming Lips’ version of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, but the time signature rejiggering that renders it irritating). As such, the presence of the unlikeliest twerker since Charles Xavier is benign, a status which she has not been accused of lately.

Coyne has made the reasonable point that, of all the artists featured on the record, Cyrus is actually the closest parallel to the Pepper-era Beatles; where once they were thought of as poppy and lightweight, both made moves to radically reinvent their style and image, with dramatic consequences. The comparison falls apart should you actually listen to Cyrus’s music — there is only so much critical generosity in the world — but it’s a compelling little theory nonetheless.

It’s also a mischievous prod at the fears of musical snobs: when so many have decided that Cyrus is artistically worthless, the idea that she might make some unexpected moves to prove otherwise gives certain cultural arbiters a bad case of nerves. It’s a smart career move in any case, lending credence to the long-standing suspicion that every move Cyrus makes is a lot more calculated than appearances might suggest.

The other guest stars are, as one might imagine given their variety, a mixed bag. Moby is as unthrilling as always; precisely nothing has ever been made worse by the inclusion of Tegan and Sara; and My Morning Jacket are always welcome on unusual projects, with the caveat that these projects are seldom as good or interesting as the albums the band produce when left to their own devices.

Collectively, they gel well together, and engage with the material with an appropriate but slightly underwhelming humility. There is no pretense that Sgt. Pepper can be replaced or improved upon, and listening to this new version therefore inevitably makes one think of the old.

“Oh, I get it. You don’t want to be cute anymore.”

— Bob Dylan to Paul McCartney, upon hearing Sgt. Pepper

No matter how (over)familiar some may find it years after the fact, the revolutionary nature of Sgt. Pepper cannot honestly be ignored. With a Little Help From My Fwends, by contrast, feels safe. Maybe it’s churlish and disingenuous to hold that against the Flaming Lips. If they were trying to match Sgt Pepper’s impact with new music in a new age, the band probably would have said so. Still, it prompts the question: What would the modern-day equivalent of Sgt. Pepper sound like? What would it take to produce a comparable reaction in an age every bit as confused and conflict-ridden as 1967?

The short answer is, I don’t know, and neither do you. Neither do any of the artists who might eventually produce it. They won’t know until they’ve done so. But, in the most general of terms, we might think about the following: at a time when the Beatles were the biggest thing in the entire world, they decided to run away from themselves, and found themselves running towards something incredible.

Nowadays, that practice has become as standard a means for megastars to blow off steam as checking into a spa: Beyoncé becomes Sasha Fierce, Nicki Minaj tries on a bizarre English accent, Alex Ebert becomes Edward Sharpe, and the pillars of heaven do not shake. The stakes would need to be raised, though it’s anyone’s guess as to how.

Famously, Sgt. Pepper was in many ways a response to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which was itself a response to the Beatles’ Revolver (it’s difficult to properly quantify just how much great art came out of a pissing contest between Brian Wilson and John Lennon). As Jason Mendelsohn said in his and Eric Klinger’s Counterbalance discussion of the album, “Sgt. Pepper wasn’t so much an artistic statement as it was an act of vengeful retribution against the other bands with the supposition to believe they were anywhere near the Beatles’ in either sheer talent or musical ruthlessness.”

That’s not an erroneous judgement, but too many have misinterpreted its consequences. As exceptional as the Beatles were, their arguable masterpiece was never meant to end anything, musically or otherwise. As unimpressed as I may sound in considering the Flaming Lips’ charming effort, it still stands as a reminder that Sgt. Pepper was the result of countless inspirations, and served to inspire countless new works in its wake. It marks a height that, should the stars align, may yet be surpassed.

Given the Beatles’ vaunted exceptionalism — and the equally persistent difficulty of explaining it, which has proven very profitable for generations of pop biographers — there are plenty who will argue that nothing can ever equal Sgt. Pepper’s impact, because the circumstances that give birth to it will never really be reproduced. Personally, I don’t buy it. Even when hippie clichés are dispensed with, those who believe the raising of consciousness on a mass-scale is no longer possible tend to be those who would prefer it that way. And so long as our way of thinking still has the potential to be transformed, there will be art capable of reflecting and assisting that transformation.

Artist: The Beatles

Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (remastered)

Label: EMI

US Release Date: 2009-09-09

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/p/printthelegend-sgtpeppers-cvr-200.jpgWhile Sgt. Pepper’s place in the pantheon of rock seems secure, safe from the sneers of its recurrent but usually-ignored detractors, it may have lost a different kind of battle: much of modern musical criticism still clings to a tiresome, intellectually vapid obsession with ill-defined ‘authenticity’, and regards the kind of maximalist innovations that typified Sgt. Pepper as decadent, pretentious, indulgent and fundamentally unnecessary. Should we have any hope of challenging such prejudice, any new work aiming to match or even outdo Sgt. Pepper in the modern age would need to reaffirm that innovation and may take any and all forms, from songwriting to production to performance. It would need to make no compromises in art or populism, but succeed in both. It would take inspiration from a thousand sources, and yet sound like nothing we had ever heard before.

If that sounds impossible, ignore the Flaming Lips’ worthy tribute, humbly enjoyable though it may be, and dig out your old copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was done once. Give me one good reason why it could not be done again.