Monday, 15 May 2017

SGT. PEPPER AT 50



As well as bests, Pepper collected firsts: the first so-called concept album, the first LP recorded on eight-track, the first cover to include the lyrics. It vies with The Velvet Underground & Nico, released three months earlier, for the title of the most influential album made by anybody. In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine, also born in 1967, declared it the winner: “Sgt. Pepper...is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time.”

George Harrison once paid tribute to a band he loved by saying, “No Shadows, no Beatles.” When Sgt. Pepper was complete, one of the first people invited to Abbey Road Studios to hear it was Pete Townshend of the Who, who went on to write the world’s first rock opera. No Pepper, no Tommy. Among the visitors during the recording were some earnest young wannabes who called themselves Pink Floyd. No Pepper, no The Dark Side of the Moon. When Bowie finally made the grade in 1972, it was by slipping into an alter ego, as the Beatles had in 1967. No Pepper, no Ziggy Stardust. When Freddie Mercury was an art student in London in 1968 and 1969, his friend Chris Smith said they used to “write little bits of songs which we linked together, like ‘A Day in the Life.’” No Pepper, no “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, had aroused feverish expectations. For 50 years now, it has been more than a record. It is a landmark in the history of music. It was the first rock record to capture album of the year at the Grammys, a bastion long held by the forces of easy listening. Its engineer, Geoff Emerick—won a Grammy too.
Sgt. Pepper is the best-selling studio album by the best-selling band of all, with sales estimated at 32 million. In Britain it’s the best-selling studio album by anyone (trailing only two compilations, Queen’s Greatest Hits and Abba Gold) and has gone platinum 17 times over, which is eight more than the Beatles’ other studio albums have managed between them. It last re-entered the British album chart as recently as April 7, at No. 62. It is the last album standing, and the global best-seller, from pop’s greatest era.

The new Pepper may be motivated less by money than by something else Emerick mentions: McCartney’s perfectionism. “Paul was like the musician’s musician,” he says. “Whereas John would accept 95 percent and say, ‘That’ll do,’ Paul would want 110 percent. There’d be one error somewhere, he’d hear it, and we’d do it again until we got it right.”
The first stereo mix of Pepper was rushed, done in “maybe three days,” Emerick once said, while the mono mix took three weeks. The case for the new mix is that it tries to correct that—fixing a whole host of tiny infidelities. “It’s like archaeology,” Giles Martin says.

Scenes from Beatlemania, including (far left) Ringo with engineer Geoff Emerick, who won a Grammy for Sgt. Pepper

In 1967, the press launch was a buffet given by the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, at his house in Belgravia, the grandest part of London, with nobody suspecting that Epstein would be dead within three months. (Among the guests was an American photographer, Linda Eastman, who had just met McCartney at a nightclub called the Bag o’ Nails. She later married him.) This time, the media are bidden to Studio Two, Abbey Road, where the Beatles made nearly all their music. Recording studios tend to be luxury bunkers, but this one is big and airy, a white cube with mustard stripes. There are a hundred chairs, and still it’s standing room only.
The Beatles’ talents always included a gift for PR, and it’s a touch of class to present the revised Pepper in the room where the original was created. Giles Martin—modest, gentlemanly, youthful, yet six years older than his dad was in 1967—gives an interview, cueing up some curios on his laptop, among them “A Day in the Life” (take eight), when the ending was not an orchestral apocalypse but a group hum. And then it’s time for Sgt. Pepper to play.


 



Everyone in the room knows it like the back of their phone, yet it’s still an event. It booms out of two speakers built like bodyguards and strikes you afresh. The backing vocals, those Beatle harmonies, are a sorrowful joy. The drums are big and boxy (they “had to be better than Revolver,” Emerick says). The basslines are brighter. Sgt. Pepper is almost funky, and formidably snappy—the title track is over in two minutes, the whole thing in 38. It took four months to make—no time at all by today’s standards, but to Emerick it felt as if “we had the luxury of time.”  








Is Sgt. Pepper the Beatles’ best album?
“It's about the music,” Giles Martin tells the invited audience back at Abbey Road, “and how it makes you feel.” Some of the highest praise has come from beyond the walls of pop. Theater critic Kenneth Tynan called Sgt. Pepper “a decisive moment in Western civilization.” Joe Orton, the playwright, so loved “A Day in the Life” that it was played at his funeral, only two months after its release. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say in speeches that the artist’s mission was “to make people appreciate being alive, at least a little bit.” He would then wait to be asked which artists had achieved that. And he would reply, “The Beatles did.”


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