Caelum et Terra Discussion on the "60/40" Post
Sunday Night Journal — August 12, 2007

Music of the Week — August 12, 2007

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

This year marking the fortieth anniversary of the release of this album, I thought it appropriate to listen to it for the first time in many, many years. I had made its acquaintance in 1967 via a soon-scratchy LP and a portable record player, and was curious to hear it in digital audio on a good system. I half-expected to be able to say that the experience was a revelation, that I heard things I’d never heard before. But that didn’t really happen. It was much as I remembered it, just fuller and richer.

I had decided long ago that the album was more important as a triumph of production and arrangement than as music per se, and that still seems true, too. There really aren’t that many great songs here, and apart from the reprise of the opening song the “concept album” aspect—the notion that the album is a unity with a definite theme—is mostly an illusion, no more present than on many other albums of the time, such as the Kinks’ Something Else—rather less so, actually, in that comparison.

It was a bit of a surprise to me to find that the arrangement and production on many of the songs—“Fixing a Hole,” and the title tune(s), for instance—are really not that elaborate; you’re just hearing a good (really good) rock band, well-produced. And because these songs are, by Beatles standards, not that great, they ended up being the less-interesting tracks. I found myself more interested in exactly the ones that I thought might sound most dated because they’re more gimmicky: “Lucy in the Sky,” “Mr. Kite,” “Within You Without You.” The latter in particular (George Harrison’s Indian piece) I was prepared to snicker at, but it strikes me now as quite lovely. And “A Day in the Life,” with the sole exception of the stupid “I’d love to turn you on” line, is as vivid and powerful and strange as it was forty years ago. “She’s Leaving Home” is a truly lovely song and arrangement, marred by what I would nominate as the worst line the Beatles ever wrote: “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy.”

The single most striking thing in my revisiting of the album was the brilliance and effectiveness of the rhythm section. McCartney’s bass in particular, prominent because of its bright, rubbery tone and avoidance of the lower range, often seems to be the engine of the music, both supporting and leading. If he’d been so inclined, he could have established himself as an independent virtuoso on that instrument alone, in the manner of Jack Bruce, and that was only one of his gifts.

All in all, I wouldn’t call this the Beatles’ greatest musical achievement, and I don’t even like it as much as I do the thrown-together Magical Mystery Tour, but it certainly remains interesting, and not just as a product of its times. What a monumental talent these guys collectively possessed!



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