Most of the songs on Sgt. Pepper don’t really involve the original concept of a fictional band, but the concept works anyway because of the transformation the band was going through. They may not be the Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they’re not the Beatles anymore, either; at least, not as everyone knew them.
A good example of this is “Getting Better.” It starts off sounding a lot like Rubber Soul and Revolver-era Beatles, or most notably like the single “Penny Lane” which had been released earlier that year. But it also adds elements like a tambura and the strings of a pianet being struck with a mallet. There’s also some great interplay between the singers in the chorus. Paul sings “it’s getting better all the time,” to which John responds “it can’t get no worse.” That sums up the optimism/pessimism relationship that the two had quite concisely.
The Beatles are not without their foibles, though. “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home” are two missteps, slight though they are. I can feel Paul’s twee cutesiness creeping up again on “Hole.” I gotta give him credit for it not showing up at all thus far in the album, and “Hole” is mostly harmless in the full scope of things. “She’s Leaving Home” is another matter. It cranks up the melodrama to a groan-worthy level. Then there’s “When I’m Sixty Four.” I shake my head every time I hear it (and only occasionally bop along to the infectious melody). “64” was the first song recorded for Sgt. Pepper, and was actually written by Paul years earlier. The tape of Paul’s vocals is actually sped up a little in order for him to sound younger, which fits the youthful romanticism of the song.
John fares a lot better than Paul on this record. Gone were the days of glorious collaboration between the two that produced “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You.” Occasionally they make a song together with stupendous results (“One After 909” comes to mind), but for the most part they work independently.
“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is one of the things a great piece of art should be. It’s based on a very old carnival poster from the 1800s. The poster talks about somersets and hogsheads and other thing I can’t understand, meanwhile guaranteeing that their show will be the “grandest of the season!” The lyrics to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” are taken almost directly from the text of this poster. John bought it from an auction when the Beatles were filming a promo video for “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The song really goes over the top to evoke the entire carnival and county fair experience, employing harmonium, glockenspiel and some complex organ sound effects. The middle eight uses a vast collage of fairground organs and calliope music all jumbled together. All these recordings were literally chopped up with scissors and taped back together for the final master. The mangled remains of the tape are what we hear.
Amazingly, John once said he “wasn’t proud of that” and “was just going through the motions.” Even John’s apathy can create great songs. He’s like the best painter in the world who really wants to be an electrician.
In the same vein is “Good Morning Good Morning.” In both of these songs, I find John’s dissatisfaction with conventional instruments and ways of recording to be quite refreshing. “GMGM” features Sound Incorporated doing the distinctive brass parts, but brass instruments are just the beginning of John’s thinking outside the box. It also features animal noises at the beginning and end of the song, purposefully arranged so that each animal is able to “devour” the one before it. It ends up sounding like some demented farmyard. The song also shifts time signatures in a mad, constant rush that never lets you get comfortable.
On Friday: Hey, George writes songs, too!