The Rip Post                                  Sgt. Lennon's Lonely Hearts Club Band

 Sgt. Lennon’s Lonely
Hearts Club Band

The Beatles at the listening party for
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," June 1967.

by Rip Rense*

Paul McCartney on the making of Sgt. Pepper:
"We were tinkering away with glee."

          It’s a Paul album.
          That’s the perception about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that’s taken hold through the decades among critics and biographers, and not without cause:
          *The glib band-within-a-band concept---which was almost an afterthought to the nearly five months of recording sessions---was Paul’s.
          *Paul was the principal writer of seven of the album’s 13 songs (okay, six if you don’t count “Sgt. Pepper---reprise” as a separate song) and he sings solo on eight, when you count his contribution to “A Day in the Life.”
          *Every song on “Pepper” is rife with McCartney at his musically brilliant best, from incandescent harmony vocals to manic, searing lead guitar lines (“Sgt. Pepper,” “Good Morning, Good Morning”) to bedrock keyboards and absolutely stellar bass-playing that might just be the most lyrical and exuberant in all pop music (really.)
          *Lennon, in a fit of anti-Beatles bitterness and artistic second-guessing, famously dismissed the album as "crap." (Really.)
          The bass playing alone indicates the degree of McCartney dedication to the "Pepper" project. I mean, we’re talking natural, unfettered, youthful genius here. These are not bass-lines, they are arrangements, counter-melodies, arched eyebrows, muttered asides, kinetic machinery, pure verve. John's “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” would feel limp without Paul’s bass pushing it along, launching the choruses and holding them aloft. The almost Wagnerian instrumental declaration just before the final verse of “A Day in the Life” turns out merely to be George Martin having the good sense to have orchestrated a McCartney bassline(!). Small wonder, as Geoff Emerick revealed in his indispensible memoir, “Here, There, and Everywhere,” Paul often stayed at the “Pepper” sessions long after the others had gone home, laboring through the night at perfecting the bass. Over and over, until his fingers literally bled.

          As for McCartney’s “Pepper” songs, many a critic has put the knock on them as decades passed, deriding them as fluffy, shallow, cloying, silly Beatles flower-power funsy-wunsy. These are usually the same critics, not incidentally, who have denigrated the album as well, calling it dated, of its time, corny, hardly the Beatles’ best (that honor generally is reserved by such persons for the indisputably less adventurous “Revolver.”) This is a case of critical over-analysis, of writers looking to leave their mark, and most of all, of evaluating the album against a standard that took hold in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s---one that prizes starkly confessional and otherwise self-indulgent lyrics (no matter how banal or puerile) and music that need not have any structural originality or melodic distinction, let alone inspiration. Take three chords: add shouting.
          Whatever the revisionist rap on “Pepper” might be, it is certainly not based on the lack of interesting lyrics, structural originality, or melodic distinction.
          Many critics, I think, have forgotten that “Pepper” was a kind of pinnacle of genre, a new sort of music that had never exactly existed before. You no more dismiss its importance and achievement than you dismiss Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because it’s 19th century orchestral music. Continuing that analogy, you don’t evaluate the Ninth Symphony as a collection of movements that have no particular relationship to one another, and you do not evaluate “Sgt. Pepper” as a bunch of songs that happened to appear together on a vinyl disc. This album is a piece. Though not conceived as a whole, it was executed as one---the product of a single gigantic and intense series of recording sessions. It also bears remembering that there were no hits from “Pepper,” no singles. The whole damn thing was a hit, and the biggest of its time, if not all time. In the summer of 1967, in many cities, you could not walk the length of a block without leaving earshot of this record. Humanity’s collective jaw was agape, its ears full of iridescent, irresistable sounds of a kind it had never experienced.
          Still, it’s quite true that Paul’s songs on the album---“Getting Better,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Lovely Rita,” and the “Pepper” intro and reprise---do not stand on their own as weighty artistic utterances---but they were not intended to. They were of the moment, springing from the fecund period of joyful discovery and runaway invention that marked The Beatles in studio, 1966-’67. They weren’t planned, contrived, plotted, forced---they happened. They were, to borrow a term from the time, happenings. (Well, with the exception of “When I’m 64,” which McCartney wrote as a kid and apparently decided to realize for its sweet, campy, music-hall-tradition infectiousness---a tribute to his dad, who led a jazzy dance band in the 1920’s.) And they are indispensable gems within the overall album context. “Pepper” without McCartney is like pepper without. . .

          Take “Getting Better,” generally dismissed by critics as a trifle, if not treacle. This is nothing less than a 24-karat sample of the twinkly, vivacious optimism that seemed to infuse the psychedelicized youth culture of the day---and stood, not incidentally, in stark opposition to the oppressive horrors of the nightly news. Taken alone, out of context, yes, it is lesser, frillier Beatles stuff. But stuck between the Magritte/Lewis Carroll-esque fabric of John’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and the musing of Paul’s uncharacteristically pensive “Fixing A Hole,” the song becomes absolutely thrilling for its unbridled joie d’vivre (and, thanks to John’s “can’t get no worse,” its winking bit of cynicism.) And one must remember, the world was especially in need of joie d'vivre in the Vietnam/draft-dreary summer of '67.
          For all their infectiousness and exuberance, though, it is true that the Paul “Pepper” songs do not stand alone as well as most other latter McCartney Beatles songs (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Fool on the Hill”), which is further testament to the take-it-a-whole nature of “Pepper.” These tunes find much of their value in creating the overarching power and charm of the album. They are members of a team. Perhaps this is one factor that has since contributed to critics’ slighting them. After all, the finest, most substantial McCartney work from the “Pepper” sessions did even not make the album: “Penny Lane.” (The band was induced by Brian Epstein to give it up, along with Lennon’s immortal “Strawberry Fields Forever,” for a single. A single!)
           Did McCartney do this by design? Hardly. As I said, his songs just happened, and he went with them. One could construe that he was so busy musically stoking the sessions and group (he was practically music director at the time, Emerick asserts) that his songwriting energies were compromised a bit during the project. The man was never more engaged or happy as a Beatle, without a doubt, than he was during “Pepper.” And well he should have been, as all his formidable talents as arranger, instrumentalist, songwriter, composer were in full play.
           In fact, absent McCartney’s obsessive work ethic, there would have been no “Pepper” at all. Paul was the guy pushing the others to come to the studio every day, especially John, who probably would otherwise have been content to stay home, tripping on LSD. Lennon acknowledged---complained, really---that Paul rang him up at home incessantly, exhorting him to come to the studio and compose, sing, record. Their opposing work dispositions were well in evidence: Paul the enthusiastic nine-to-five Beatle; free-spirited, spontaneous John reluctantly embracing any sort of disciplined schedule. (The fact that he was locked in an unhappy marriage reportedly had much to do with his willingness to go to work, and ensuing productivity. Lennon was the Lonely Heart in this band.) And show up John did, though he was also enticed by the creative potential afforded by unlimited studio time and hallucinogen-stoked sensibilities.
           Lennon, at least to an extent, subordinated his ambition and personality during “Pepper,” often deferring to McCartney’s fervor and natural musical leadership. As a result, there was a good give-and-take partnership between them, and it shows throughout the record, notably in their merging of songs that became “A Day in the Life,” shared lead vocals in “She’s Leaving Home,” and, famously, in Lennon’s “it can’t get no worse” parenthetical vocal in “Getting Better.” John, with no small assist from lysergic acid and a confining home life, checked his ego at the door. Or enough of it to indulge Paul’s.

John goes to work. Arriving at Abbey Road Studios, with
 rockinghorse people and marshmallow pies.

          This was, really, the last great period of Lennon-McCartney cooperation. Let it not be overlooked that the orchestral cataclysm in Lennon's "A Day in the Life" was entirely a Paul inspiration, as was the mellotron intro in the Pepper sessions song, "Strawberry Fields Forever." And one of the nicest, most telling aspects of this Lennon-McCartney give-and-take is revealed on “The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 2” version of John’s pet composition, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” On it, you hear him take a pass or two at the lead vocal, but he is clearly not pleased. There is some chatter, and then McCartney is heard to explain that the verses are sung by a barker who is very burned out on his job. Paul then half-sings, half-scats the first line or two, in the voice of someone bored from reciting the same stuff from show to show. Lennon takes the cue, and the vocal becomes the removed, vaguely interested narrative that we know and love today. Lennon-McCartney was hardly just a song credit, or a mere description of a mechanical writing partnership. These guys collaborated in many ways.
          So there is ample good evidence to accept the well-worn idea that “Pepper” is largely Paul’s album. It’s an easy argument to make, and one that has become pat through the years, yet I would submit that it is a disservice.
          “Pepper,” I believe, is as much, if not more of a John Lennon album. And I guess I must say this with apologies to Lennon, who characteristically slighted the record, as he did almost all his Beatles work at one time or another, in later interviews.
          Where McCartney’s six songs (not counting “Pepper Reprise”) tend to be “merely” lyrical, Lennon’s five (counting “With A Little Help From My Friends,” which was, depending on what you read, partly or largely his work) bring striking variety and dimension in terms of music and content: Alice-in-Wonderland poetry, melodies that are beguiling, unpredictable, novel, indelible. Is there a more haunted song and lyric in the entire Beatles canon than “A Day in the Life?” Where McCartney tends to be endearingly wistful, playful, occasionally reflective, as he is in “Fixing a Hole,” Lennon’s lightest whimsy always has bite, mystery, bonafide weirdness. “Rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies” is somewhere between Fellini and H.P. Lovecraft; “nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in” is eerie stuff for a daffy rocker called “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Who put the salacious orgasm noises in “Lovely Rita?”
          Lennon brings a great many qualities to the album that would otherwise be entirely absent. There is a journalism, a topicality, a world-weariness in the words to “A Day in the Life.” He blew his mind out in a car, as is well known, was inspired by an article in the morning paper about a young heir to a fortune, Tara Browne, killed in a car accident. What more suggests entropy, disassociation than the line, “I read the news today, oh boy. . .”, and is there a more wry comment on general human absurdity than his reaction to another news report about having found 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire: “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.” Many a Brit got a chuckle out of, “It’s time for ‘Tea and Meet the Wife,’” a reference to an English radio comedy that was lost on the States.

Making musical history, early '67.

          Lennon’s “Pepper” songs are implicitly and overtly autobiographical as well. The “psychedelic” qualities of “Lucy,” “Kite,” “Life,” very much reflected his own life and state of mind at the time, and as was often the case, there are bits of personal commentary thrown in where you’d least suspect them. “Lucy” is famously inspired by a drawing that his son, Julian, brought home from school. “Mr. Kite” comes from a poster in Lennon’s living room. “Going to work, don’t want to go, feeling low-down/ Headed for home, you start to roam, then you’re in town. . .” from “Good Morning” seems a direct chronicle of his life as reticent banker’s-hours Beatle-husband---and this song, which he also later laconically dismissed as a “load of crap,” can easily be read as a tale of an afternoon walk he might have taken. In fact, Lennon’s songs are all excursions, journeys. “Mr. Kite” takes the listener to a circus that is part Old England, part circus of the mind. “Life” transports one to buses, films, and sonic zones never visited again by any other musical group.
          There is, in fact, an almost measurable musical majesty in “Lucy” and “Life” that doesn’t exist elsewhere on the album---even, arguably, in The Beatles’ oeuvre---except possibly in the monument to mysticism that is George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You.” All McCartney’s “Pepper” songs combined do not really approach the power and weight of either Lennon (or Harrison’s) “Pepper” moments (though, to be fair, they were hardly meant to.)
          Then there are the light, whimsical touches, always stereotypically ascribed to Paul. This is as dangerous a supposition as saying that Lennon was "the serious Beatle." Let it be remembered that it was John who: wanted the childlike sound of the autoharp in “Day in the Life,” came up with the comb-and-paper harmonica flourishes in “Lovely Rita,” described the magical sounds in his head that George Martin translated into the madcap pastiche of broken calliopes in “Kite,” added the orgasmic panting in “Rita,” came up with the wacko, inspired conceit of smaller animals being gobbled up by progressively larger ones in the outro of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” and wrote the grand call-and-answer passages of “With A Little Help From My Friends”---with the hilarious lines, “What do you see when you turn out the light/ I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.
          Speaking of “A Little Help,” it must not be forgotten that this winning song---which had special meaning in the summer of '67, when a lot of kids were vagabonding---contained a significant amount of  Lennon work written at the last minute to give Ringo a vocal on the record. As he did with “All You Need is Love,” John contributed importantly to this bit of perfection, and there is not another song like it in all the Beatles’ output. Whether it was mostly a McCartney effort or mostly a Lennon effort differs according to which interviews you read, but either way, it was deliberately and lovingly written for Ringo, the person and personality. “What would you think if I sang out of tune?” would not have sounded as funny or sweet, sung by a voice less earthy, earnest, and lovable. In a late ‘60’s interview about the album, Ringo remarked of John’s writing in “A Little Help,” “He’s got a lot of soul, has John.”
          In a way, that sums it up. If McCartney was the music director, multi-tasker, and arranging/performing genius behind “Pepper,” Lennon brought the album a lot of its soul---as did Ringo’s grand vocal and Harrison’s philosophical soul-searching in the Hindu-drenched declamations of “Within You, Without You.” But it’s much more than that. Lennon’s "Pepper" songs, unlike Paul’s, stand on their own as among his greatest. They have weight, wit, and wonderment in music and lyric. They are hypnotic, transporting, sometimes deeply affecting---in ways that are still hard to identify, all these years later.
          When you combine this with the Lennon compositional flights-of-fancy realized with the help of Martin, Emerick, and the other Beatles, the album’s ultimate impact owes at least as much to John Lennon as it does Paul McCartney. And although Lennon would have great moments to come (“Revolution 1” and “Across The Universe” stand as two of the greatest unsung heroes in Lennon Beatles work), I not only think of “Pepper” as being, on balance, more of a Lennon album, but as Lennon’s last great Beatles album.
          Thanks, in no small measure, to those hectoring phone calls from Paul.

 It was 40 years ago today---June 1, 1967---that "Sgt. Pepper" was released. Sigh.

* This article was rejected by the San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, L.A. Weekly, and a couple of on-line magazines, just for good measure. Beatlefan, in its infinite wisdom and good judgment, published it.



The Youtube Pepper:

Ringo and George do it live:
Paul plays it live:
Paul plays it live:
9. WHEN I’M 64
13. A DAY IN THE LIFE (original Beatles film.)

Lucy, Annie all the way. . .

The Beatles at Youtube
The Beatles at Myspace

LISTEN: Remembering the Release of Pepper

JODY ROSEN: Everything You Know About 'Sgt. Pepper's' is Wrong
(This is the best 'Pepper' article of the summer---RR)
The backlash is based on the wide disdain for Paul McCartney among critics. The truism goes that Sgt. Pepper's is a McCartney album, a pop confection, full of cute noises and neo-music-hall pop, recorded while the drug-addled Lennon was lost in a half-conscious haze. But again, the myth disintegrates on inspection.

Beatles on the Brain,,2093594,00.html

The Secret of Sgt. Pepper's Medals

How The Album Might Have Been Even Better,21985,21833393-2902,00.html
The two omitted songs:
And the second George song recorded for the album, but didn't make the cut: (mono version) (stereo version)

Amazing and weird stuff about Pepper

Pepper, A to Z







NO ONE OUTRANKS SGT. PEPPER,0,2567579.story?track=rss



(And there always will be.)

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    © 2007 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.