Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Sgt. Pepper and the Summer of Love

Jay and the Americans begins in 1963, the year of Kennedy and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The memoir is a fictionalized account of Jay Wicks (me, really), set amidst mid-century Los Angeles. L.A. essentially becomes a character in the novel, and so does the music. Interestingly, despite its magnitude, the scenes that include Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band ended up on the cutting room floor. That was purposeful in design in that this year we are and will be inundated with Pepper. Tomorrow, of course, is 50 years ago today. 

Look up "Sgt. Pepper 50" on Google and you’ll get 1,320,000 results. For Jay and the Americans, and for AM, my intent was not to inundate, but to recollect, to hit the reader [softly] over the head with Sgt. Pepper. Sgt. Pepper did just that, hit one over the head with subtlety, the exception being "Within You, Without You," which is about as over the top as The Beatles got. (Indeed, I wrote a short story about a woman during a psychotic episode who says at a dinner party: "'Within You, Without You' is by far the best song on Sgt. Pepper. I don’t even want to talk about it." Of course her guests and her husband are incensed; her husband realizing that she needs psychological attention. Funny that Mashable writer, Chris Taylor, insists that it's "Fixin' a Hole" that’s the LPs worst song and not Harrison's long-winded contribution: "If this song were a guest at your dinner party, you'd be yawning and looking at your watch. But this song will never be a guest at your dinner party, because you disagree and never win, and won't get past its door.") Anyway, 50 years on, Sgt. Pepper still hits one over the head, though with the remix, it's not so subtle. (I, btw, would skip "Withing You, Without You" when I was eight years old – today it's one of my favorite Beatles tracks.)

AM will spend this week buying into the hype like everyone else, but let's first clear something up (I do teach English, after all): The original cover art famously omits an apostrophe on the drum kit. This leads many to ponder whether Sgt. Pepper was the name of a person or simply the band. Jann Haworth, who together with Peter Blake was responsible for the LP's famous artwork, is on record as saying they simply forgot. "Sgt. Pepper is the man and the band belongs to him." So there you go. Henceforth, I will no longer punctuate the LP erroneously and I too will omit the apostrophe. (Ah, but who is Sgt. Pepper? We do know that Ringo is Billy Shears.)

(It all began, by the way, on a BOAC jetliner in 1966. Paul dreamt of escaping "all that boy band shit" by reinventing The Beatles as their alter egos. By the time the in-flight meal arrived, he settled on a suitably "stupid-sounding" bandleader. "They had those little packets marked S and P. So I said, 'Sergeant Pepper,' just to vary it. 'Sergeant Pepper, salt and pepper.' an aural pun, just playing with the words.")

I read the news today (oh, boy) and learned that they've kept Studio 2 at Abbey Road looking much the way it did in 1967. I'm thrilled. The walls and movable screens are still covered with the sort of perforated acoustic pasteboard once found in record-shop listening booths and Los Angeles classrooms. I took a tour of the studio on my Honeymoon in 1994 and I remember looking at the window high in the wall through which George Martin looked down from the control room on "the boys." At the time it didn't hit me that it was dumb luck or neglect that kept the studio from renovation. I was glad to read that it remains unchanged to date. Funny how some things become sacred.

Interestingly, when the LP first dropped on June 1, 1967 (I wonder what the phrase would have been in 1967), there was no lead single for radio stations to play. As such, radio DJs were at a loss which track to play upon its release. Many simply opted to play the album in its entirety over the next few weeks and months, which was evidently what The Beatles wanted their fans to hear. It was a work of art as a whole, not to be split up. It was a marketing coup; if you wanted to own one song, you’d have to but the whole thing or go without! Of course, that was more EMI's deal than The Beatles. It was Beatle/EMI policy in Britain not to double release tracks on LP and 45. That policy led to the omission of the double-A sided smash, "Strawberry Fields"/"Penny Lane." It is the only Beatles LP, therefore, not to have a No. 1 single.

50th Anniversary Taxis
The album defies all the rules in another aspect as well. It did not have the universal appeal in 1967 that it shares today (most of us rank it today somewhere between the Mona Lisa and the Shroud of Turin); indeed the New York Times panned the LP. Richard Goldstein was a 22-year old freelance writer who happened upon the opportunity of a lifetime: reviewing the eagerly awaited new Beatles album. Remember, though, this was a time before music criticism as we know it today. There was no Rolling Stone and certainly no full time writer reviewing the latest LPs for the Times, yet despite the numerous great reviews the LP received, Goldstein described the album as 'busy, hip and cluttered.' Awkward. That being said, he did enjoy "A Day in the Life," noting that it was "a historic pop event." Oh, duh.

Anyway, it was fifty years ago [tomorrow] that The Beatles astonished and delighted the world, ushering in the Summer of Love with Sgt. Peppers [no apostrophe] Lonely Hearts Club Band, a groundbreaking masterwork that became popular music's most universally acclaimed album. To salute the occasion, The Beatles have released a suite of lavishly presented Sgt. Pepper Anniversary Edition packages. The album is newly mixed by Giles Martin and Sam Okell in stereo and 5.1 surround audio and expanded with early takes from the studio sessions, including no fewer than 34 previously unreleased recordings. Says McCartney in his introduction to the anniversary edition: "It's crazy to think that 50 years later we are looking back on this project with such fondness and a little bit of amazement at how four guys, a great producer and his engineers could make such a lasting piece of art."

At its centerpiece is Giles Martin and Sam Okell’s new stereo mix of the original 1967 album produced by Giles' father, George Martin, and engineered by Geoff Emerick. Martin the younger explains his remix mission in an introductory note: "Why even attempt it?  The original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was primarily mixed as a mono album.  All care and attention to detail were applied to the mono LP, with The Beatles present for all the mixes…Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without The Beatles at the sessions.  Yet it is the stereo album that most people listen to today."  So, Martin set out to recreate the feel and ambiance of the mono version, paying homage to its balances and imaging, while adapting them for a stereo soundscape.  He's succeeded mightily in adding new dimension to Sgt. Pepper without changing anything fundamental about John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Sir George’s sprawling, experimental, eclectic, conceptual collection of songs that run the gamut from pop, rock, and psychedelia, to art songs, vintage music hall, and back again. 

Released in a year that also offered The Doors, Surrealistic Pillow, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Are You Experienced, Forever Changes, and Axis: Bold as Love, The Beatles' masterwork has been considered in some quarters to be "soft,  a "pop" record, first and foremost (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but one listen to the new remix should prove that Sgt. Pepper not only isn't "soft," but is a benchmark of melodic rock.  This Pepper is "heavy," as if a veil of gloss has been removed from both the drums and bass.  The mighty McCartney/Starr rhythm section's instruments have gained newfound clarity and presence throughout the remix, resulting in a bolder rock sound that's nonetheless completely faithful to The Beatles' playing and the punchy attack of George Martin's mono mix.  (No new elements whatsoever have been added to the original recordings.) The muscular remix doesn't let one forget that, for all the studio wizardry, this album was played by four bandmates. That said, after 50 years of listening to the original, it is at times disconcerting to hear the new mix.

On a personal note, and with Jay and the Americans in mind, my grandmother gave me 50¢ a week for washing the dishes. I saved up seven weeks for Pepper, but never anticipated California's 5% sales tax, which brought the total of my purchase to $3.68. I put the LP aside and combed the alleys and the parking lots of liquor stores searching for deposit bottles. 3¢ apiece for soda bottles, a penny for the little Coors stubbies. I found six soda and three beer bottles, redeemed them at Al's Liquor, got a Bazooka bubble gum and still had a penny to spare. I was a slave to rock 'n' roll then; still am.