Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How Many Holes (Part One)

I believe it was Socrates who said that the unexamined record collection is not worth listening to. Those of you who caught this past weekend's Pop Culture America with John and Dave (featuring special guest co-host Marty Selgrad) know that I have been examining my record collection rather thoroughly of late, as I transfer album after album into my shiny new iPod. I'm about a tenth of the way through that project right now and my examinations reveal that this is a record collection mostly worth listening to. As I go, I thought I'd share a little of my trenchant insights with you (lucky you!). Starting with a teensy-weensy little collection of ditties by an obscure Liverpudlian outfit. You may not have heard of it. It's called ...

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (p. Sir George Martin)

This is not a review per se. What would be the point? No one needs me to tell them that Pepper is one of the swellest blah blah blah dee blah blah blah. For the record (pun!), 4 stars. Easy.

But why is it so darn impressive? It's been with us for almost 41 years and in that time, the conventional wisdom can become more conventional and less wise. Something gets repeated often enough, we stop questioning it and start mindlessly accepting it. That's no good. So as best as I'm able, I'm going to try and discuss Pepper as a fresh work, both in its time, and as it stands today.

First off, a few brief -- I promise -- notes about that time. Pepper was recorded from December 6, 1966 to April 14, 1967. The Beatles performed their last official concert in front of a paying crowd on August 29, 1966, so the sessions that produced Pepper (as well as the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" single) were the first major undertakings for the group after they had kissed the road goodbye. In their time as a touring entity, the Beatles had played primarily in front of screaming throngs. After the Mania hit in 1963, they were unable to hear a single note they were performing onstage, because the crowd was so loud and their equipment was inadequate. The music became richer and more complex all through that time, but no one was actually listening, at least, not in a concert setting.

Couple that frustration with the "Bigger than Jesus" flapdoodle and death threats in the Philippines, and you have four guys who were seriously disillusioned about the prospect of being a performing rock and roll band.

Then Paul McCartney had an idea.

What if they weren't the "famous Beatles?" What if they were another band entirely? Maybe then, someone would listen.

And so was eventually born the concept. And with a concept, you get a "concept album"; a term I've never liked. Shouldn't every album -- every work of art for that matter -- have a thought or two in it? But Concept Album it's been dubbed and Concept Album it is. Who am I to rail against conventional wisdom?

So Paul and company invented their alter egos, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. On the one hand, that name is a typical psychedelic mishmash, probably inspired by certain illicit substances. On the other hand, though, it's a fascinating choice. A "Lonely Hearts Club" was the precursor to today's escort services; a firm that paired paying gentlemen with available (often very young) ladies. The Clubs were routinely scrutinized by law enforcement as potential fronts for pimps and madams. The notion of a World War Two-era British Sergeant operating such an establishment is clearly part of the gag. The notion that as part of that establishment, he would employ a band is also bizarre and ludicrous.

Okay, the concept is in place. The songwriting is coming right along. Now let's jump to the album cover. It's one of the most famous bits of rock art ever. We've all seen it; all taken it for granted. But just what is it? Take another look.

That is a picture of a funeral, the crowd all gathered around the gravesite. And although there's no headstone, it's pretty clear who died. It's spelled out in red flowers. That legendary cover is the symbolic act of destroying and burying "The Beatles." Those four guys standing front and center in their day-glo military garb look nothing like the adorable moptops of a mere three years earlier. In case the contrast isn't clear enough, they've helpfully positioned their own wax likenesses from Madame Tussaud's immediately to their right. No need to scream or threaten or panic any more everybody; the Beatles are dead.
Now, let's listen to some marching band music.
And we will. Tomorrow. In Part Two. Dave tells me these blog entries are too long, so I'll examine the music itself next time. See you then. Aloha.

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