Friday, June 2, 2017

Sgt. Pepper - Side One

Paul McCartney's "salt and pepper"* concept of recording an entire album as the fictional Sgt. Pepper Band allowed the group to explore more experimental musical choices under the guise of alter egos that dabbled in vaudeville, Indian tablas, Western classical music, Broadway (West End more accurately) and the avant-garde, effectively blurring the lines between popular and "high" art and expanding the notion of what was possible in rock music.

The iconic cover itself dabbles in the eclectic: In the crowd (top row, fifth from the left), you'll find avant-garde classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen nestled between comedian Lenny Bruce and vaudeville pioneer W.C. Fields. There you go. Stockhausen, known for experiments in electronic and aleatoric music, was an influence on both McCartney — who named Gesang der J√ľnglinge as his favorite Stockhausen piece — and Lennon, who later used the composer’s work as inspiration for the 1968 song "Revolution 9" (my least favorite Beatles experimental track). An urgent telegram was sent to the composer requesting his permission for inclusion in the cover.

The Beatles, Martin and Emerick (oh yeah, and about 100 others), in a time frame of some 300 hours (the 700 hour mark unnecessary hyperbole) have led to our still celebrating the LP 50 years on. This writer, btw, is dancing in the streets. That's my bottom line review, but for those who just can't get enough, here is my song by song analysis and ephemera.

Side One

"Intro/Sgt. Pepper" and "With a Little Help From My Friends"

The first ten seconds of the album transport listeners to a buzzing concert hall, in which the tuning of instruments can be heard over the murmur of a live audience. Not long after the launch into the song's famous opening guitar riff, a contrapuntal horn interlude brings in another classical touch. Following the line "So may I introduce to you the act you've known for all these years, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the horns give a regal welcome to the fictional band and a nod to the Edwardian-era military band concept that inspired the album. The intro leads into Ringo's classic Billy Shears performance, a song that punctuates the eclectic nature of "the band." And how more lonely-hearted can one get than Ringo (I think back to A Hard Day’s Night and the lonely walk)? Hearing the remix is like playing the LP for the first time, but this time, not on a Sears Silvertone record player.

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"

As the story goes, one day in 1966 John Lennon's son, Julian, came home from nursery school with a drawing he said was of a classmate, Lucy. Showing the artwork to his father, young Julian described the picture as "Lucy - in the sky with diamonds." Despite all the LSD insinuations, that's the story, morning glory. John, using the imagery created by Julian and interpolating Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, would write the song over the next few weeks, if not months.

The first day of recording for the song, February 28th, 1967 in EMI Studio Two, was actually used entirely for rehearsals, no known takes put to tape.  Eight hours of rehearsals, from 7pm to 3am, is practically unheard of today.  Indeed, with EMI recording The Beatles and owning the studios at Abbey Road, the expense of studio time was merely an internal paper transaction, which didn't affect The Beatles' royalty payments.  No budget restraints were put on the group, nor onto George Martin, no longer an EMI employee.  As George Martin explained: "I can only presume that EMI realized it was onto a good thing." By then, you think?

Having the bugs worked out, the group filed back into EMI Studio Two the next day for proper recording of the rhythm track.  The session began as usual at 7 pm, the first order of business being recording a piano overdub for the previously mixed "A Day In The Life," the overdub never being used. Next, the rhythm track for "Lucy" was laid down with Paul playing a Lowery organ, John the acoustic guitar, Ringo on drums, George on maracas and George Martin on piano – Paul and Ringo's playing being the only elements specifically noticeable in the finished product. John sang a lead vocal on the verses during these rhythm tracks, merely perfunctory and performed solely for the purpose of guiding the musicians. Analyzing John's vocal performance shows the evolution of delivery and feel the vocals went through as the song took shape in the studio. Geoff Emerick Pepper sound engineer, stated that, "During the early part of the session, he was singing the words 'Cellophane flowers of yellow and green' in such a way that each was enunciated slowly, separately and precisely.  Paul can be heard suggesting he sing them quicker, in one flowing sentence, to which John replied 'OK' and did just that." It is that kind of Yin and Yang that constituted the Lennon/McCartney tag more than any other aspect of their writing.

Design by The Fool
The true lead vocals to the song weren't recorded until the next day, but one other element was added before the day was done. "Take seven" saw George Harrison put down his maracas and instead play a droning tamboura. "I particularly liked the sounds on it where I managed to superimpose some Indian instruments onto Western music," Harrison related.  "Under normal circumstances that wouldn't work on a Western song like 'Lucy,' which has chord changes and modulations whereas tambouras and sitars stay in the same key forever."
While spending nearly a total of twenty-four hours of studio time, divided up between three consecutive days may sound like a lot, it was actually one of the quickest Pepper recordings.  Compared to "A Day In The Life" or "Penny Lane," for instance, "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” was a breeze!

"Fixing a Hole" and "Getting Better"

Taking cues from classical orchestration, both "Fixin' a Hole" and "Penny Lane" defy traditional rock instrumentation. Beatles' producer George Martin plays the harpsichord prominently featured on "Fixing a Hole." In "Penny Lane," baroque piccolo-trumpet solos are sprinkled throughout. The idea for featuring the unusual instrumentation for both came to McCartney after he saw a televised performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2. This was pure pop and classic old school Beatles. 

"Getting Better" was the simplest song on the LP (with one slight codicil), traditional Beatles with George Martin plucking the strings of a piano. The next day's session had Harrison once again adding the Tambura. Shortly into the session, Lennon stated that he was feeling sick... (tune in tomorrow for the LSD stoRy).  

"She's Leaving Home"

Can You Imagine?
Like the string-driven "Eleanor Rigby" a few years prior, "She's Leaving Home" is one of the few songs in which the Beatles didn't play any instruments on the recording. Instead, a harp and small string orchestra (arranged by Mike Leander and conducted by George Martin) provide the song's accompaniment. This beautiful two-sided story was based on a newspaper story Paul McCartney read about a runaway girl. On February 27th, 1967 the London Daily Mail's headline read: "A-level Girl Dumps Car and Vanishes." That girl was 17-year old Melanie Coe, who had run away from home leaving everything behind. Her father was quoted as saying, "I cannot imagine why she should run away, she has everything here." McCartney said, "We'd seen that story and it was my inspiration. There was a lot of these at the time and that was enough to give us the storyline. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and the parents wake up, it was rather poignant. I like it as a song and when I showed it to John, he added the Greek chorus and long sustained notes. One of the nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly" (interestingly juxtaposing George's statement about Western music). The song brilliantly captures the emotions, the sympathy and even the empathy of a troubled family at a time when the "young girls [were] coming to the canyon." It really hit home for many, and for the rest of us was merely stellar storytelling.

"For the Benefit of Mr. Kite"

The track (featured in the post below) is just plain sideshow fun. George Harrison and Ringo Starr played harmonicas along with Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall. It also featured a steam organ, which was taken from old tapes, though "rearranged." George Martin told engineer, Geoff Emerick to cut up old tapes of organ music, throw them in the air and reassemble them at random, running the new sounds concurrent with the song's main organ melody. Paul states that to date, the "Kite" bass-line is the most difficult he ever played.

Side One of Sgt. Pepper is so monumental in scope, one is hard-pressed to want to play the flip side.  Let’s listen to Side One again; we’ll flip it over tomorrow.
*McCartney was a fabulous wordsmith, indeed, the working title for "Yesterday" was "Scrambled Eggs," so Paul's interpolating Sgt. Pepper from out of salt and pepper fits right in.