Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"…Tell me that it’s evolution, well, you know…"

The 5 Removed Portraits
Sgt. Pepper was not the first concept album, an accolade the Beatles often receive in the same way that the Wright Bros. are credited with the invention of the airplane (which they did not - the first concept? Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours). Like the Wright Bros., The Beatles were the first to make the concept relevant, in this case creating an Edwardian Military Band cast into psychedelia. Their new persona, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, freed The Beatles from the confines of their immense popularity. By taking the stage, so to speak, as a completely different band, they were free from all the connotations of their name and brand, and could make the music they wanted to make as opposed to the music that people/labels wanted to hear. The idea that an artist could change directions was not new - Miles Davis had done it several times by that point and Pet Sounds was a far cry from "California Girls" - and today, changing directions and experimenting with genres and sounds are a hallmark of a great band. The Beatles were instrumental in developing that kind of creative atmosphere. One need only look at an artist like David Bowie to comprehend the impact. Sgt. Pepper made it clear that the album was an art form in itself. We now think of albums as being the ultimate expression of a popular artist, and Sgt. Pepper is why. 

The Beatles first album, Please Please Me was recorded in a single day. Piano was overdubbed later by George Martin, but no other musicians were utilized. The album's cover is simply The Beatles at the EMI offices. In essence, the Long Player of a rock quartet was no big deal. LP, cover, done and done; one day. An album was a vehicle to enhance sales, and a newish one at that. (The Beatles themselves didn't own albums when they were growing up. They bought singles which they played over and over again.) Indeed, LPs were so insignificant in 1963 that American labels altered them willy-nilly. Indeed, Please Please Me wasn't released in America, instead both Vee-Jay Records and Capital Records (ten days later), released Introducing the Beatles and Meet the Beatles, respectively. The albums competed at the top of the American charts throughout 1964. 

Conversely, Sgt. Pepper took months to record (November 24, 1966 to April 21, 1967). The band had Abbey Road booked for as long as they needed and each song on the album took longer to record than the entirety of Please Please Me. A huge number of sessions musicians were employed to capture the artists' vision and there were multiple takes and overdubs for every song. Additionally, the content was entirely original. 

Meanwhile, a team of artists worked to capture the cover's iconic image (original, non-photoshopped pics are included here). Unlike each previous Beatles' album, Sgt. Pepper was released in an identical format in America, in the U.K., and throughout the world. (Interestingly, the Beatles entire catalog was released on CD using the British releases – with the single exception of Magical Mystery Tour, while The Stones' CDs were the originally American issues). The transformation from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper shows an evolution that continued throughout The Beatles' catalog, setting a precedent for modern music. Bands from Steely Dan to Queen took the baton to elevate rock music into art. "Bohemian Rhapsody's" 180 voice chorus (Freddie Mercury's, Brian May's and Roger Taylor's voices stack on top of one other), took 7 12-hour production days. Steely Dan's Gaucho cost more than $1,000,000, took nearly two years to complete and utilized six studios in L.A. and New York to complete.