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Notes about the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper

Wednesday 9/6/23

Listened to the mono version of Sgt. Pepper recently. It makes the record more of a rock and roll concern than the stereo version. You're hearing a rock band with the mono mix.

I can see why Sgt. Pepper had the impact it did and more so than Rubber Soul and Revolver, albums that people now often say are better than it. I'm not so sure. The esteem for those records comes from the songs. There aren't really great songs--in terms of written works--on Sgt. Pepper. Nor is it a continuous piece of music or a sustained concept. But it is a record that feels like it's more than songs and also doesn't need a concept. It's a new kind of music as the whole of whatever it is. Post-song, post-concept, post-continuous piece. A totally different experience. They found somewhere else to go on that one.

The voice McCartney uses on the opening title track is the same robust, brassy voice he uses on "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey." McCartney's voice was well-suited for showing off, songs about showing off, and songs touting showmanship. The MC or barker voice.

John Lennon is almost always in the background of that record to the point that his backing vocals are more prominent than anywhere else. Other times the group's backing vocals blended; on Sgt. Pepper, backing vocals are more of a pronounced (title track) or lone ("She's Leaving Home") Lennon affair.

I can see why he didn't like the record. His role isn't close to what it was at other times. Then he sat through all of these sessions and often he was only a background presence. He may have been doubting himself.

The Lennon song--in terms of sole authorship--that Sgt. Pepper is know for is "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." What richness the song has is in its verses, which even now resonate as novel. You also feel like you're experiencing something verboten. It's the sonic LSD contact high and it has not lost its illicitness, nor its reassuring beckoning quality. You feel like you're coming of age with those verses. But the chorus is undeveloped; it's just the song's title being shouted, essentially, like with Primal Scream's "Rise." You feel like shouting back, "Okay, we get it, it's the title and the chorus."

The Beatles were an energy band. The more energy a work of art has, the better it is. Likewise the more life it contains. Energy is not a matter of rapid motion or greater volume. A somber air may have energy. There's considerable energy in Josquez's masses. The reprise of the Sgt. Pepper title track is an unheralded number of pronounced energy from the Beatles. You won't find more energy in a rock and roll song than in "She Loves You" or "A Hard Day's Night," both of which sound like they could power an electric train and bring the Frankenstein monster to life like harnessed lightning, and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" isn't far off. The energy quotient is immediate right away when it's just Starr--you can feel everyone else just about exploding to jump in and get going.

Here at the end of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles were Reeperbahn Beatles once more. It's a similar energy to their performance of "From Me to You" at the Washington Coliseum show--their first in America--on February 11, 1964. Harrison sings the opening "Roll Over Beethoven"--no doubt chosen because they thought beginning with an American number would help them go over better--and then Lennon and McCartney finally have their chance to do their things, and you hear that energy bubbling over on the performance of "From Me to You" that follows.

The Beatles don't happen as the Beatles without Ringo Starr. As Keith Moon was to the Who--no one else could have been their drummer the way he was their drummer--so was Starr to the Beatles. He was their most important player. There is no drumming in all of rock--that is, no one approached drumming this way--like Starr's drumming on "A Day in the Life."

As a piece of writing, the song is curious in that Lennon had a part of something, and McCartney had a stray fragment of something else, and the two were made to go together, though neither was initially designed to do so. Art can be a process of daring trust. You find something, and you turn it into something else. You are able to control chance, in a sense. Accidents are turned into controlled statements of intention. But neither man spoke often of the song as this great work of art, for the reason that neither really wrote it--it just kind of happened, you could say.

As for energy--it's present with Lennon's acoustic guitar, the appearance of the piano, the bass, Lennon's opening words, and with the first take, it's present right from the count-in.

But the song doesn't happen as it did minus Starr's contribution, about which little is ever made, though it's downright shocking in its originality. He enters at :47 and he never plays the beat. He plays the pulse. The tone of Starr's kit suggests that of a classical percussionist, but his manner of execution is much more in the vein of a free jazz drummer. This is drumming as painting and as writing; he's both coloring the canvas and accentuating narrative, which means he's making choices as to how to play as he plays.

This isn't "just" some timekeeper, albeit the best rock has known. This is drumming art. No one else in popular music would have thought to play this way, and on this song of all songs.

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