Re: Sgt Pepper album<BR>

Re: Sgt Pepper album

In article <demery.794834908@spcs2> demery@prl.philips.nl (David Demery) writes: >In <3jnoqq$mj8@efn.org> clarson@efn.org (Casey MacPherson) writes:
>
>>Does anyone know if the Sgt. Pepper album was the first concept album?
>
>This will probably give rise to many different answers, but the
>way I understand it, the credit either goes to Frank Sinatra,
>for his albums like Songs For Swinging Lovers, etc., in the 50's,
>or Frank Zappa for 1966's Freak Out. No doubt there are other
>contenders, but it seems unlikely that SPLHCB was the first.
>
>Fire away with your versions folks!

Thanks for the invitation. :-)

You can differentiate at least two separate approaches (though there are arguably an infinite number) to the Fabs' music. One is the way their *early* albums changed listening habits; the other is the way the concept of "Sgt. Pepper" itself changed listeners as well. Since the topic has been broached, we'll deal with the second one.

"Sgt. Pepper" *was* a unique type of revolution. Fans and appreciators had long since learned that Beatles music was eminently listenable, no matter what the album line-up might be. But this was the first time that listeners actually held more-or-less captive by the extraordinary innovative *format* of the package---not just the visuals but from between the grooves as well. Quick segues or outright lead-ins from one song to another made it virtually impossible for deejays to cut into a "suite" of songs (the opening "Sgt. Pepper/With A Little Help...", for instance) or disturb an apparent unity ("Good Morning..."/"Sgt. Pepper's Reprise"/"A Day In The Life").

The album presentation involved the listener in a new way; there were cut-outs to play with, and a montage of portraits to decipher. Also astonishing: the lyrics were printed inside the album. I haven't been able to track down a case where this was done previous to "Sgt. Pepper", though logic tells me that there surely must be an antecedent.

But the statement is a profoundly bold one: the lyrics appear in print, not accompanied by musical notation, as on commercial music sheets, but like *poetry*. This isn't dance music, not by a long shot! These words have meaning and existence outside their harmonic home, if you want to see them that way.

It's quite true that "Sgt. Pepper" doesn't hold up well in the category of a "concept" album, at least the way we're used to seeing that term. It wasn't even strictly the first. The Kinks' "Face To Face" (1966) has true thematic coherence, following the rise and fall of a rock-and-roll star (emblematic is the one hit from this album, "Sunny Afternoon"). And as you mention, there are predecessors from other musical genres as well.

But the central question remains: is the "Sgt. Pepper" LP really coherent? Is there a unity of theme? We know the Beatles intended at first to produce a work about their childhood in Liverpool, but that's not what "Sgt. Pepper" ended up being about. The two songs they wrote to express this nostalgia ("Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane") ended up on a single release, completely unattached to their once-intended conceptual home.

In fact, this thematic chaos seems curiously deliberate. The "voice" of the first two songs can be connected, but the Wonderland-persona of "Lucy In the Sky" is *not* a very close relation. Nor is he the same person who could sing the rationalizing "It's Getting Better"; nor the lovestruck working-class hero who ardently woos "Lovely Rita".

Whence, too, the strange Eastern mystic in "Within You, Without You"? And that posh young professional (a sort of proto-yuppie) of "Good Morning..." couldn't for the life of him step up to the bandstand to sing "Reprise." It's a gathering of many voices---Victorian, Mod, transcendental, tripping---but thematically, it seems, the creative coherence one would expect is lacking.

But is it, really? Or is the unified theme hidden entirely outside the music itself?

That, I think, is what tends to get lost in these latter-day analyses of the album. It's hard enough, coming to "Sgt. Pepper" as a new Beatles fan---perhaps someone not even born at the time of its release---to see what the fuss was about.

We've seen nearly thirty years of better production techniques, more sophisticated packaging, more innovative live presentation in the rock arena. And while intellectually one can appreciate the unique stamp of "Sgt. Pepper" in its time, emotionally it's awfully hard to see it sometimes. The impression remains that *maybe* it wasn't all that much a groundbreaker after all.

Macca has even said, long since its release, that the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and The Mothers of Invention's "Freak Out" were the pattern they were imitating. And John the Revisionist said "Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn't go anywhere. All my contributions to the album have nothing to do with this idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band; but it works 'cause we *said* it worked." Poor John---a victim of critical afterthought. :-)

Actually, the album *does* work as a "concept" album, but that term must be understood not as promising a unified lyrical narrative---the way we use the term here---but in its original sense as a thought, a notion, an idea, encompassing a multiple and complex musical personality...almost the birth of a tangible entity. One way the album communicates this is via its *apparent unity*---something those tight segues do much to impress upon the listener---while the actual thematic arrangement is bold in its dissimilarity.

The swift, unexpected transition from one dazzling musical world to another (even when one song doesn't strictly fade into the next) creates an ever-accelerating auditory momentum. The complexity of the cover montage is echoed in the shifting images-through-words of songs like "Lucy..." and "Mr. Kite". Ultimately, the major "concept" of the album---the transformation of one massively popular singing group into an obscure brass band, their pop-idol personalities subsumed into antiquated, anonymous players---is actually well-served by the shift in vocal persona from song to song.

Who are we listening to, really? Not Billy Shears' band? Is it a man who can really see marmalade skies, or is he really the pragmatic fellow of "Fixing A Hole"? The Indian sage or the existentialist whose most real world consists of remote events he reads in the newspaper? And where are the Beatles themselves?

That's the central question. Where, indeed, have they gone? What have they become? Will they ever come back in a form remotely recognizeable? Will we know them by their past or by their future?

Paul explained it much later as "a complete thing that you could make what you liked of---just a little magical presentation." It's a simple explanation but it goes far. It also seems evident that the Beatles themselves made what they liked of "Sgt. Pepper."

And they had time, at last, to make what they liked of their creative lives.

For the first time, they weren't touring. They had time to use the studio as their musical laboratory, experimenting with what were, for them, new equipment and techniques. They had time to experiment with words and sounds to express what was both within and without--- bold new drug dreams, vague ancient and remote histories, simple classless domestic tragedies...and an ardent wish to share it all with listeners, no matter who or in what era that listener might be found.

I can't think of a more miraculous "concept" than that!

--


"When you play the game of life/You've got trouble, you've got strife...."

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