Counterbalance No. 5: The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'
Number five on the list is practically synonymous with Great Artistic Statements. But was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band really the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper"? A splendid time is guaranteed for all as Counterbalance figures it out.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
26 May 1967
Klinger: Well, we've been told that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important album ever and that it's over-primped, over-cooked, and over-rated. It's an insubstantial tea-and-crumpets trifle that changed the face of rock forever.
Here's an illustrative example: In 1974, the UK magazine NME ranked Sgt. Pepper at number one on its Greatest Albums of All-Time. When they published a similar poll in 1985, the album didn't make the Top 100. Such is the duality of Sgt. Pepper.
Mendelsohn: I understand the duality. Sometimes I would listen to Sgt. Pepper and be blown away. Other times it would be a bit of a ho-hum affair. Listening to it again for this project, I'm slightly underwhelmed (on the upside, I'm listening to the remastered mono version of the album, and it sounds completely different than I remember). But where did all the rock go?
Klinger: I picked up the stereo remaster a while back, so I did recently experience a Pepper epiphany. It is one album, though, that I've so fully internalized that it took something as dramatic as the remastering to kick me out of my comfort zone.
But you can't find the rock? This is a statement that I find to be a bafflement.
Mendelsohn: Of course, there's rock. It's a rock album. iTunes makes that painfully clear whenever I look at the genre pane whilstSgt. Pepper plays. My question was more of a rhetorical, philosophical inquiry. Where's the rock, man? This record has lots of swaying and bopping at the knees but no rock. You know, the rock that made Revolver number two on the list. The rock with a sense of urgency and abandon. The rock that makes teenagers grow their hair long and question authority. That rock. Sgt. Pepper doesn't have a lot of that rock. And no, Billy Shears doesn't count. I know it's just Ringo and that ruins it.
Klinger: Oh, that rock... Rockin' rock... not the rock with the French horns... rock rock. Noisy, big, vaguely bad-smelling rock that makes you want to run down the streets, tipping over park benches and occasionally pausing to raise your fists and shout rude things at the sky. Sure, I know what you mean by rock. Yeah, no, there's not much of that on the Pepper record.
But you know, now that I think about it, it is in there (the rock, I mean). It's in the title track (and its beat-heavy reprise--good enough for the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique). It's in the quite-nearly-a-freakout guitar solo on "Good Morning Good Morning". Maybe repeated listenings have sanded down the rougher edges in our memories, to the point where we're not really leaning forward to listen the way we did at first.
Mendelsohn: I think that may be the one thing that I love so much about music yet find so utterly depressing. Those moments, the ones we can never recapture, where we are drawn toward the speaker by the force of some invisible hand. It almost seems like pure luck with the randomness at which it strikes.
Have I heard Sgt. Pepper so much that I've actually stopped listening to Sgt. Pepper?
Klinger: It's quite possible, and a lot of it has to do with how much music is available to us, more or less on demand. Nowadays, I have something like 1,500 CDs, around 2,500 LPs, plus whatever I have on my hard drive (that's not boasting so much as it is a cry for help). Throw in the easy access of something like YouTube and music is as readily available as a municipal utility.
But Sgt. Pepper was the first grown-up record I owned, and I listened to it nearly every day until I got another grown-up record (Abbey Road, as it happens). When music was a rare commodity, I took the time to pore over the minutiae of a record, and with its packaging full of faces and lyrics and cut-out mustaches, Sgt. Pepper offered minutiae in spades. I'd lie on the couch and stare at the liner notes, puzzling over each little mystery. With a folder of computer files, there's no mystery, and the further you get from that mystery, the harder it is to really listen.
Not that that'll stop me from feeding this crippling, crippling addiction, of course.
Mendelsohn: If that's the case, I stopped hearing the music I was listening to a long time ago. The mystery is gone, and so is the required work when you buy a new album. I no longer pore over the lyrics or memorize the tracklist like I once did. Reading liner notes is a novelty these days. Buying an album used to be a commitment. By making that purchase, you were saying, in effect, "I will take this album and give it my full attention. If it isn't as great as I hoped right away, I'll stick it out, and maybe it will grow on me." These days, if I don't like the first 30 seconds of the first song, I'll just delete the entire album. No skin off my back—it's just a bunch of ones and zeros taking up space in the digital ether. It's kind of sick when you think about how far we've fallen.
I'll make you a deal. If you stage an intervention for me, I'll stage an intervention for you. We can kick this digital habit. We can hear music like we used to!
Klinger: Like on A&E? "Mendelsohn, your addiction has affected your life negatively in the following ways...uh..."
No man, I can't do it. An addict has to hit bottom, and I'm not there yet. I'm pretty sure I can quit anytime I want to. Sure, I might have downloaded the Clash's Cut the Crap off of eMusic, and yes, I'd have to live to be 183 years old to get through all these live Springsteen bootlegs. But it's not like I'm out there downloading Twisted Sister reunion albums from sketchy Latvian websites or anything. That's just sick.
I guess that even though the high I get these days from hearing something new will never be the same as that first high, it can still be pretty good. Maybe someday you and I can have Dr. Drew detox the rockin' out of us, but I think I just have to learn to take time out to listen again. After nearly 30 years of listening to it, Sgt. Pepper showed me again how important that is.
Mendelsohn: If I close my eyes and really listen I can almost reach that high. Sometimes I'm overcome, and I start to smile involuntarily. I'm the guy you see at concerts standing absolutely still in the middle of the crowd, eyes closed, wearing a big dumb smile because the music is setting off a chemical reaction in my brain.
Back to the task at hand, the other thing that occurs to me is that Sgt. Pepper marked a fairly noticeable change in the Beatles' music. I was complaining earlier that Sgt. Pepper didn't really rock like Revolver, but I think this was simply a consequence of the band's evolution as songwriters and willingness to explore beyond the confines of staid rock and R&B music. On top of that, there was a lot of new technology, in both recording and effects, being used that shaped a new Beatles sound.
Klinger: That's all true, but one thing I've decided on this latest Pepper binge is that the album is further evidence of competitiveness on the Beatles' part that bordered on ruthlessness. For a few years, there had been a friendly rivalry between the Beatles and a few other groups, most notably the Beach Boys, to up their games. The Beach Boys Today/Rubber Soul/Pet Sounds/Revolver skirmish had been fun and all, but the Beatles, especially McCartney, knew this had to end. Paul had crunched some celery on "Vegetables", so he knew Brian Wilson's Smile album was a threat, and our Macca wasn't about to take it lying down.
Although Lennon was, to hear some tell it, meandering around in a 24/7 acid fog, Harrison was busy learning the sitar for some reason, and Ringo was eating a sandwich, Paulie and George Martin knew drastic measures needed to be taken. So over 700 studio hours, they pushed the group to create the most polished, intricate album pop music was capable of. And it worked. Wilson was never the same again, and all of a sudden other groups were going back to roots music. "In your face," said the Beatles.
Also, I suspect the mustaches they grew held some sort of magical powers.
Mendelsohn: I like that. 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. And people say the 1960s was the decade of love. Try explaining that to the Beatles and their power mustaches.
Klinger: Oh, the 'staches bring the love, but it's a tough love. They don't want to turn the 'stache power on you, but they will. And when they do, you'll be sitting there in your sandbox, wearing your fuzzy blue bathrobe, wondering where it all went wrong. And then the Beatles will turn their mustaches toward one another and float away to their hidden lair, ready to fight the battle all over again.
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Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.
This article was originally published on 14 October 2010.
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