I listened to my first full Beatles’ album last year.
I began at Abbey Road and Let It Be and moved backward, skipping over Yellow Submarine (…though “Hey Bulldog” is a badass tune…), eventually arriving at Please, Please, Me. I spent as much time as my brain deemed necessary with each album on the way backwards.
I then listened all the way back up again.
I was absolutely hooked.
I listened with headphones, in my car, in front of the computer with those speakers and in my living room with that system. I ran with them, I hiked with them, and I sat with them.
And very recently (…see Rolling Stone article…) Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was re-released in “deluxe,” “super deluxe,” and “Jesus Christ you have that much money to waste super duper deluxxxe” boxes. I decided to listen to the two discs included in the paupers’ deluxe version.
And I opened Microsoft Word.
And I wrote.
The first portion of this, just below, is my stream of consciousness as I listened through the remastered album.
The second, also a stream of consciousness, this time after having listened to new stereo mixes of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. (BTW, I loved those so much that now I’m quite interested in the stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper’s. That only comes with the third tier deluxxxe version. So if you have that, lend it to me, will ya?!)
And third is a collection of thoughts after I listened to the various takes on the second disc as well as the 2017.
Okay, here goes.
Part 1: I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band through high quality headphones is a unique trip.
Paul is hot and heavy in my right ear, panning center to left as the harmonies kick in, the applause whispers in the left then grows almost uncomfortably loud, panning and then splitting to stereo as Ringo’s simple, beautiful vocals smooth things out on, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” But in my left ear. All vocals in my left ear. Bass, centered. Percussion fully right. It’s all disorienting, not fully enjoyable…but I’m sticking around.
Picture yourself in a boat on a river…with tangerine trees…and marmalade skies…
John scares me. We know his violent past. We know he’s moving in a direction toward Buddhist pacifism, seeking forgiveness and internal homeostasis. We know he will die tragically. But on this track…fuck…the menace is so present in his voice.
Picture yourself in a train in a station…with plasticine porters with looking glass ties…
If I weren’t in broad daylight right now, I’d be scared. Like, watching, “The Shining” home alone in the dark with anxiety coursing through my blood scared.
Lucy fades out.
Ahh…those choppy guitar chords. Getting Better…all the time. Paul, always there to pat me on the head, rub my back, and let me know that the scary monster in the closet of John’s mind is nothing to worry about. Nothing to worry about. Got to admit…it’s getting better. And everything is centered here. Nobody creeping up on me from the left, or right, or behind. The balance is calming, even with that high pitched guitar chop. (There’s tension there, though, George. Where’s that tension coming from?) Oh right, and we end on that…immediately opposing Paul’s lyric. That choppy, high-pitched, mildly dissonant, almost out of Psycho (…the shower scene…) syncopation.
Oh, Fixing a Hole. Perhaps Getting Better was precisely that…the transition from John’s menace to Paul’s frivolity. No, not really frivolous though, right? Paul’s still a serious dude. A romantic, though. With a cheeky side. John has no cheek. He’s all brain and anger and struggle and…I really identify with John. I hear Paul, and I love Paul, but I’m like, “Jesus, man! How to you remain so damn happy all the time?! Balanced. Like shit doesn’t really matter.”
This song fades out too. I don’t love the fade.
Oh, that harpsicord. Yay! Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins.
Here Paul tells me, “Fuck you. I’m deep. There’s such depth here. Such sadness.” She’s leaving home is pure melancholy. It’s like a thick wool blanket and I want to wrap myself in it…in all the tears and grief. There’s no danger, though. If John had written this, there would be danger. Not a wool blanket but rather a spool of barbed wire. But Paul? Our baby’s gone. There’s a tear in my eye. How could she do this to me. She….is leaving…home. Christ, when he hits that note on, “Home,” I could just melt into so many years of tears. What did we do that was wrong? We didn’t know it was wrong. Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy. Something inside that was always denied for so many years. Christ…this song is fucking beautiful. Bye-Bye.
This is John being frivolous. It’s like a carnival in some episode of The Twilight Zone. The camera spinning a lot, colors bursting, occasionally a brief scene of something quite horrible flashes by. A face with no eyes, perhaps. Blood pouring out of the elevators. See? John’s got me back at “The Shining.” That waltz. So creepy. John is like Lemony Snicket. A carnival barker to the freak show of all freak shows. American Horror Story: Sgt. Pepper. Run, little girl, if you can.
The fucking sitar song.
I hate the sitar song. Sorry, people. This song almost ruins the entire album for me. There are songs like, “Norweigian Wood,” in which George doesn’t shoehorn the damn thing in. Beautiful. Here, it doesn’t work for me. The tabla. It’s boring. Tabla isn’t supposed to be boring. This is a man out of his element emulating Ravi Shankar, et al. Emulating badly. Within you without you. Well, without this song…
Imagine if Strawberry Fields actually made its way onto this album and this song slunk off like an embarrassed teenager who knows he doesn’t really belong.**
**(I’m inserting myself here, today, on 6/7/17. Not when I wrote this, which was back on 6/3/17. There will be growth with Within You Without You. I will spend more time with it. Research it a bit. No worries people, I’ve come almost fully around on this song, and I never would have anticipated that happening. Okay, back to your regularly schedule program…)
I love this tune. A “granny song” as John called these pieces by Paul. Hell, even Paul apparently referred to them as “fruity old songs.” I love this. Both of them hold the same opinion, but John cuts with menacing sarcasm; Paul infuses playful cheekiness.
It’s totally frivolous, though. There’s that word again. But it is. It serves no purpose…but to bring me joy. And what greater purpose is there on this earth than to bring joy to another and, in the process, oneself? None, I’d argue. The brass. The bassline. Just perfect. Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? (We shall scrimp and saaaaaaaaaave.) I’m dancing. In coffee shop. As I write and listen. But I get John. Paul with that stupid smile, the shaky head at the mic. You know? The Paul shaky head as he moves up to the mic? That. And Paul…and me sometimes…just wanting to slap the smile right away.
Lovely Rita. Paul right in the middle of my head. Bass and vocal percussion to the right. Vocal percussion! Chick-a-chick-a-chick-a. I’d never noticed that before. Drums on the left. Now that saloon style piano solo. And there’s the vocal percussion again. Like a train on the tracks. Oh…lots of vocal percussion at the end. Shit, How’d I miss all of this?! Who’s beat boxing here?**
**(Today, again. It’s John. Of course it’s John on the VP. Also the comb-and-tissue-paper kazoo. Because, of course they have one of those.)
I’ve always thought, “Did they add these animal sounds as a direct call to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds?”
Oh shit, I love it when the straightforward feel changes. It feels 4/4 but then Ringo throws in like…what is that?…6/8? It gets so damn funky. Odd. Playful. All Ringo. Playing around with the feel. Brilliant.
**(Apparently it’s even more complex, and differently complex, than I’m explaining above.)
But anyway, I always thought that about those animal sounds…thinking about all the stories I’ve heard and read re: Wilson loving Rubber Soul and then the Beatles loving Pet Sounds.
I don’t love the use of animal sounds in this. I get it. Just don’t like it. It feels like George Martin is just showing off at this point. What? 400 hours or so they spent on this record.
Oh fuck YES!
The Sgt. Pepper’s reprise.
Here is where I contend Ringo is the first hip-hop drummer. This beat, the feel, is pure hip-hop. The Beastie Boys actually sample it within Paul’s Boutique. But this tune is Ringo’s boutique. Now I’m all hyped up.
And what do they do?
Just slide the knife in…
…A Day in The Life.
I heard the news today, oh boy.
This composition really is the perfect melding of John and Paul. The feel is menacing. Deep. Gorgeous. He didn’t notice that the lights had changed. They’d seen his face before. It’s like a glimpse of John with the anger completely washed out. Still a crank. Still a skeptic. Still never quite happy.
And then…WOKE UP! And we’re bouncing around the world with Paul. Happy as a fucking clam, they say. But his voice is so muted. I never realized that. John was crystal clear in his portion. And Paul sounds like he’s singing through a thick wool collar.
And now…back to John’s piece, but with Paul’s energy.
I know, I’m completely leaving Ringo and George out. One should not do this. However, this composition is like Paul and John’s Frankenstein monster. The seams nearly flawless, but obvious still. And the orchestral chaos.
It rings out for like 30 seconds. Like ripples in the water.**
**(45 seconds, actually.)
But wait, there’s now silence.
And here comes that fucking creepy ending. Never goose me any other way…never goose me any other way…never goose me any other way.
(Is that what they’re saying?)
The song’s a fucking masterpiece among masterpieces.
So there it is…my thoughts moving through Sgt. Pepper’s, remastered.
Now, go listen…perhaps with new ears, new eyes, a different pair of glasses. Have a drink or two. And then write down what you feel, think. I’m interested.
Part 2: I listen to Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane
Okay, I’m going to dive in to the 2017 stereo mixes of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, both recorded in the Sgt. Pepper’s session. Think about that? These two songs could have, perhaps should have been on that record. Anyway, I’m going to dive in to these mixes which are included on the bonus material of the updated Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniversary deluxe edition.
Oh that mellotron. Fuck me, right?
And John’s voice. Ringo’s percussion immediately stands out more than I remember. It’s all so much clearer. It’s as if the original recording is coming through an aural fog. This is truly cleaner. All of the backwards percussion looping just pops. It’s like a trippy hippie hip-hop tune. (Sorry about that alliteration, but not really sorry.) Anyway…this is the kind of shit modern hip-hop artists are doing. Even the effects on John’s voice. The sitar. The horn hits. Buh-dup! Buh-dup! Bah-Bah-Bah-Dahhhh! Oh man, that reverse looping is absolutely amazing sounding. It’s almost fresh. This was recorded in 1967 and if you played this for a young person who had no idea, they’d believe you if you told them it’s new. Here’s the fade in to the, “I buried Paul” bit. Awesome.
Penny Lane. Paul’s voice. It’s like a hot knife through butter. (“Buttuh, I tell ya.”) The piano chords really pop here. I just love the stereo. Bassline is really driving the song. The horn arrangement, wow. I can barely contain my smile here. Fuck it. I’m smiling like I just won the lottery. Hitting the 2 minute mark here. The Barber shaves another customer. (ou can hear the Liverpool there. Sooooo much! The vowel in “cuh” rhymes with “could” and not “cud.” I love it.) John’s high harmony. Like a soprano descant. So gorgeous. Oh shit, that key change. YASSS! And here’s the harmony again. Ringo ends it with a flourish on the high hat. Perfection. Fucking perfection.
Part 3: I listen to the second disc of the deluxe edition and have some thoughts afterward.
Some thoughts after having listened to the minimally produced takes included on the second disc. So what we’re getting access to here are various takes of the Sgt. Pepper’s session, including several first takes. Like, Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds. Take 1. It’s access to the process. The process of revolutionary genius. And all the while Ringo is just holding that mother fucker down. Because that’s what Ringo does. He holds down the fort no matter what. No matter what.
Perhaps I need to relax into Within You Without You and experience it for the piece of revolutionary aural novelty that it was in 1967. It’s tough, though, as a 42 year old, who has heard classical Indian music played by virtuosos. However, listening to take 1 on this deluxe edition…wow. With the headphones in. The sitar flourishes are beautiful. The percussion is really quite good. The whole piece has a lovely feel. And I do like the melody. Here’s what sucks, though. Looking at the Wikipedia page at the Personnel section. George is singing, playing tambura, sitar, and acoustic guitar. Great, right. Then, the western musicians are all credited. All. By name. Then, we get a bullet point:
- Uncredited Indian musicians – dilrubas, table, swarmandal, tambura
So once I settle and listen to the musicianship on take one, without the western artists…just these uncredited Indian musicians and presumably George doing something. There’s not even much sitar going on here. Is this just George with a little tambura action and an Indian ensemble? I think. And…entirely uncredited. The height of cultural inclusion, or so you’d think, and then not even giving the musicians credit. How much did they get paid, I wonder. Shit, now this kind of ruins the song again, and certainly puts a dent in George and the Beatles for me. But the tune is lovely…as a first take. In India I bet. Pre-production. (Does anybody out there know the story?)
Okay…so, I listened to Sgt. Peppers an additional time beyond what I wrote above…but this time in my car and turned up loud rather through headphones. And really, that’s the ticket. When you plug one speaker in the right ear and one in the left, the whole experience is a bit jarring. However, when you place yourself in the perfect spot between an array of speakers…well, THAT is what Martin intended me to hear, I think. It all works. The movements, the space, the aural experience is exquisite. So that’s a recommendation I have. (This is NOT true of the 2017 stereo updates of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever. They sound amazing on headphones.)
Back to these early takes of the various songs. It’s just amazing to hear them talk about things. Work shit out. Also, the fact that Ringo is simply always holding things down. I know I said it before, but it’s true. And there’s like zero production. In these recordings I’m hearing the band, perhaps playing over previous tracks, perhaps never with all 5 men in the same room at the same time, but nonetheless it’s the instruments and the musicians with absolutely none of the production that Sgt. Pepper’s would ultimately have…and STILL, this shit is genius. It’s so obvious how exceptionally talented they all are in any combination of together. Amazing, really.
I mean, Good Morning Good Morning take 8. Just John, Ringo, Paul, and George. That’s all I’m hearing. The song. It’s like The Beatles as a garage band. In the garage. And they would cause 100% of other garage bands to just hang it all up because they are THAT good.
Paul counting in Ringo on the Sgt. Pepper’s reprise. Shit! Again, this is a pure hip hop beat. Pure. One two three four…and Paul hits a nice, “hey, hey” on the three-and and four-and. So good. You hear Paul telling Ringo, “No man, more on the bass drum.” And then, “Yeah!” when he does it. Immediately. You hear George noodling around in there too…so maybe just John was missing here. They’re a fucking killer power pop trio too. Killer.
Much love to you. Thanks for hanging around. If you’re here, then I can confidently tell you that you should spend some time with these two albums. (If you have a paid streaming services like Apple Music or Google Play Music, they’re both available.) Also, let me know what you think. Shit, if you ever want to have a Beatles listening party, I’m all in. I’ll bring booze.