The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)

Following up on Eddie’s post about Sergeant Pepper, and his point that the album doesn’t really contain famous songs or standout tracks.

I think Sergeant Pepper is regarded as a significant step forward for two reasons. Firstly, it’s the first pop album which the main musical instrument is not the guitar, or the piano, but the recording studio itself. It’s about hearing songs that could never be recreated live. Of course, ever since the first time John Lennon double-tracked a lead vocal the recordings were never exact representations of a live performance, and with Revolver several of the songs, such as Tomorrow Never Knows and Yellow Submarine, are clearly ‘synthetic’ recordings. But Pepper takes that a step further; it’s not merely using studio trickery to enhance the songs by adding effects and instruments, but it is celebrating the synthetic and artificial –songs that sound like they come from another world, deliberately made to sound as far away from conventional studio recordings as possible. With Revolver you have the band using the studio to overdub string quartets, trumpet solos, but still striving to sound ‘real’, to mimic a genuine recording; Pepper is revelling in its own studio fakery.

Which of course builds on albums like the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, where despite the fact that most of the backing instrumental tracks were ‘live’ recordings, because of the way they were arranged, and instruments were combined and mixed, don’t sound like a conventional band at all. And that’s part of the appeal of Pepper, I think – the sense that ‘you haven’t heard these noises before’.

It would not be particularly original to describe Pepper as a triumph of style over substance, but the point is, it is a triumph and that is more because of what the songs sound like rather than the strength of the individual songs. Each song is a trip into an atmosphere, a colourful fairground ride, but tune-wise songs like Getting Better, Fixing A Hole and particularly Lovely Rita are conspicuously lacking. But that was the great thing about the psychedelic era; the idea that songs were journeys into strange places and magical kingdoms, of Victoriana and childhood whimsy, or even acid-eyed distorted perspectives on real life – like Good Morning, Good Morning and A Day In The Life.

Of course, this all started on Revolver, as did the second thing that’s significant about Pepper is that for the first time, more or less, the Beatles were setting out to record an Album with a capital A rather than a collection of songs which might be released as singles. They would be freed of the pressure to come up with upbeat, commercial, catchy tunes, and could indulge wilder flights of fancy, try out different styles, because each song would be part of an album, and it would be the album that would be the product, not the individual songs. Never mind if song A is a bit weird, or that song B is barely more than an advertising jingle – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

McCartney says in interviews about this album that the concept was that he and Lennon would be freed of the obligation to write songs that sounded like the Beatles. Not songs that sound like a specific other band – some of the songs fit the idea of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being a sort of 1920’s vaudeville troupe, but most of them don’t – but simply to not sound like the Beatles any more. Because I think maybe it was important for them to dissociate themselves with the suddenly-sounding-very-out-of-date mop-top style of song-writing and performance that was the Beatles up until to 1966 (a dissociation that begins with them releasing a greatest hits album in 1966 but calling it A Collection Of Beatles Oldies. Hence also why the waxworks of the old Beatles are on the cover of Sergeant Pepper – to make the distinction – that was us then, but this is us now.

You could also link this with them taking LSD and the idea of destroying your own ego i.e. freeing oneself from one’s own identity. But then the Beatles would face the problem that, having moved on from being ‘The Fab Four’, there no longer was a cohesive ‘Beatles’ identity, and they became not so much a group as four individuals doing their own thing with the backing of three very good session men.