The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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With Revolver the Beatles were openly flouting the pop music rule book. They were sending an early notice that they wouldn’t be bound by convention. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ripped up the rule book, burned it, buried it, and sowed the earth with salt. It’s really not too big a statement to say that Sgt. Pepper redefined the musical landscape almost completely…for good and for bad. The significance of the album’s release in the rock music firmament can not be overstated.

But Sgt. Pepper didn’t come entirely out of the blue. In February of 1967 the Beatles released a double A-sided single of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”. These songs were such a radical departure for the band that they might as well have been recorded on Mars. Swirling Mellotrons, horns, strings, seemingly cryptic lyrics (which aren’t that cryptic if you know the back story)…this single was as great a departure from Revolver as that album had been from Help! Musically, lyrically, and stylistically, it was a huge leap forward (or backwards, I suppose, if you liked your Beatles as four lovable Mop Tops).

That single had originally been recorded for inclusion on the project that would become Sgt. Pepper. It was released early under pressure from the record label who had not released a new Beatles track in months. It seems odd to think about now, when bands routinely take years between releases, but in 1967 if a band didn’t release a new single every few months they were considered washed up. Rumors were circulating that the Beatles, holed up in EMI Studios, were out of ideas and probably going to break up. They’d quit touring in 1966, which is something bands never considered doing until that time, to focus on recording. But the recording process for the new album was taking months, an almost unprecedented amount of time in the history of rock music. Reporters routinely staked out the studio, ready to ask the Beatles “Are you finished?” whenever the band arrived at EMI’s door. The band even looked different. All four had grown moustaches.

The Beatles were not out of ideas. Sgt. Pepper was part of an extraordinarily creative period for the band and was, in many ways, the apex of that creativity.

When the album was released in June of 1967 it became the soundtrack for what was called the “Summer of Love”. It was as if an earthquake had shaken the musical world to its core. It was the first Beatles album that Capitol Records released without removing tracks and substituting others. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, crafting Smile, his band’s response to Revolver, heard Sgt. Pepper and had a nervous breakdown. Paul Kantner has talked about how you could hear Sgt. Pepper blasting out of every window at Haight-Ashbury. Even the Monkees paid tribute: in one of the musical sequences on the show, when the band is seen running around in an Old West town, Davy Jones has a copy of Sgt. Pepper tucked under his arm.

The album dominated the charts for the entire summer and sent other bands reeling. The Rolling Stones responded with Their Satanic Majesties Request, a drugged out, bleary copy of Pepper. Less well-known, Arthur Lee’s Love responded with Forever Changes, an album that nearly matches Pepper on every level and surpasses it on some. The Doors heard an early acetate of the album before its release and were similarly floored by the notion that they could do anything they wanted in the studio. Frank Zappa brilliantly parodied the cover on his We’re Only It It For The Money. Jimi Hendrix opened his show by playing the title track, only 48 hours after the album was released. The rule book was gone and every band in the land suddenly realized they could go wherever their talents and muses would take them. This created the unfortunate idea in every songwriter that they needed to release “their Sgt. Pepper“. But these other bands were not the Beatles, and the result was usually an awful, overindulged, mess.

So much has been said of the album that it’s almost easy to overlook the music. The first album to have the lyrics printed on the back sleeve; the first to have a design on the inner record sleeve; the first to come with a sheet of cutouts; one of the first single album gatefold releases (maybe the first); the first to have a “legitimate”, well-known artist, Peter Blake, design the cover. The splashy, colorful cover that seems to be a graveside service, features wax figures of the “old” Mop Tops standing next to the latest incarnation of the band, who are dressed in brightly colored pseudo-military uniforms. Behind them, arranged in a crowd of life-size cutouts, are the band’s personal choices for heroes and influences. Tucked away on one side is Stuart Sutcliffe. Right up front is a doll wearing a shirt that says “Welcome The Rolling Stones Good Guys”. (The Stones repaid the compliment by hiding the Beatles’s heads in the 3-D cover of Majesties.) The album title is spelled out on a bass drum, and the name “Beatles” appears as a floral arrangement…right in front of a row of marijuana plants.

So yes, it’s easy to forget that this is an album of songs. And as an album of songs, Sgt. Pepper is not the greatest rock record ever released. It’s extraordinarily good; great even. But the songs are so decked out in their psychedelic finery that it’s easy to miss the fact that they’re not the band’s best songs. It was certainly thought so at the time, but Sgt. Pepper succeeds mainly because of its innovation, its playfulness, its experimentation, and its ruthless rule-breaking. As recordings, this is the best the Beatles, or any other band, got. As songs, on the other hand…a case could easily be made that Pepper doesn’t compare with Rubber Soul, Revolver, the best of the White Album, or even Abbey Road.

Paul McCartney’s conceit for the album was that the band could pretend to be another band. That way they could do whatever they wanted without being hemmed in by whatever was expected of the Beatles. This “concept” lasted all of two songs. The opening, eponymous, track and the introduction of “Billy Shears” to sing “With A Little Help From My Friends”. But Billy Shears sounded a lot like Ringo Starr, and the idea of the Beatles pretending to be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band quickly fell apart, only to be briefly revived on side two with a reprise of the title track.

So what of the music? The title track, clocking in a barely two minutes, is a brief introduction to the concept. It’s not so much a song as it is a fanfare, but it does have a great vocal from McCartney and some searing guitar work on both the stinging lead and the thick, heavy rhythm riffs. It ends with applause and the introduction of “the one and only Billy Shears” before blending into “Friends”. The song is Ringo’s finest performance on a Beatles album. He gives the lyric a warmth and bonhomie the elevates the entire recording. Sung by Lennon or McCartney, “With A Little Help From My Friends” wouldn’t work as well. (Sung by Joe Cocker, it worked even better.) For the first time, Ringo was given a song to sing that was neither throwaway (“I Wanna Be Your Man”) or novelty (“Yellow Submarine”). “A Little Help” is one of the crown jewels of Pepper.

The next track, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is even better, and the album is off to a roaring start. John’s acid-drenched lyrics and nasal vocal provide the musical equivalent of an LSD trip. John would, of course, deny that “Lucy” “Sky” and “Diamonds” were intended as code for LSD. The claim was that it was based on a drawing his son Julian had done of his classmate, Lucy, flying through the air with diamonds drawn as stars. When John asked his son what the picture was called, Julian told him that it was “Lucy, in the sky, with diamonds”. It’s possible. I’ve seen pictures of the drawing. But Julian was only three years old when John wrote the song, and it’s entirely possible that the title was grafted onto a drawing made at a later date (the drawing itself seems more the work of a precocious five-year-old than a three-year-old).

Could you draw this when you were three?

Could you draw this when you were three?

Lennon stuck with the story of the song’s origin until his dying day, long past the point when anybody cared if he was winking at the audience with the title. And regardless of the title’s beginnings, the lyrics themselves were unmistakably about acid. Lennon later said that at this point in time he was taking LSD “like candy”. George and Ringo were also enthusiastic takers and McCartney was starting to dabble in the drug, though his drug of choice was always pot. “Newspaper taxis”, “tangerine trees and marmalade skies”, “rocking horse people” eating “marshmallow pies”…it’s all a trip in a psychedelic wonderland, led by your tour guide John Winston Lennon. McCartney’s bass is amazing throughout and Ringo’s pounding that leads into the chorus tether Lennon to the earth even as his phased and echoed vocal takes him higher and higher.

Pepper is McCartney’s album. The concept was his idea, and it was his work ethic that kept John focused. But after Lennon’s journey into Acidland, McCartney responds with three straight songs that are fairly conventional. “Getting Better” is a good song that is saved from its faceless optimism by John’s sarcastic “it can’t get no worse” backing vocal and George’s tamboura in the last verse. “Fixing A Hole” is better, but similarly faceless. Like many of the songs on this album, if it had not been on Sgt. Pepper it would likely be considered a second-tier Beatles song.

“She’s Leaving Home” is the third McCartney song in a row (Lennon helped in the writing). His output at this point was outpacing John, who was consumed with consuming drugs and was besotted by a Japanese avant-garde artist he’d met in late 1966. “Home” is a magnificent track, with a sensitive but not cloying string section orchestrated by Mike Leander. It’s a story song, telling a tale that was all too common in 1967. Tom Wolfe told the same story in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in what became known as “the Beautiful People letter”:

“Dear Mother,
I meant to write to you before this and I hope you haven’t been worried. I am in [San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Arizona, a Hopi Indian Reservation!!! New York, Ajijic, San miguel de Allende, mazatlan, Mexico!!!!] and it is really beautiful here. It is a beautiful scene. We’ve been here a week. I won’t bore you with the whole thing, how it happened, but I really tried, because I know you wanted me to, but it just didn’t work out with [school, college, my job, me and Danny] and so I have come here and it is a really beautiful scene. I don’t want you to worry about me. I have met some BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE and …”

But even on “She’s Leaving Home” it is the production and the performance that sells the song. McCartney’s lyrics are sentimental without being precious and the string section fits the mood perfectly. But the hidden star of the song is John Lennon. Lennon and McCartney are the only two Beatles on the track, and neither plays an instrument, but Lennon’s vocal steals the show. In the tale of a runaway girl, John plays the role of the parents, underpinning McCartney’s high chorus vocal. “What did we do that was wrong? We didn’t know it was wrong,” John sings in the same nasal tone he used on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. The vocal slices through McCartney’s lead and adds a perfect amount of pathos to the song. The dueling lead vocals of Lennon and McCartney on the chorus are a primer on how to sing a counter-melody.

Lennon’s “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” closes the first side of the album. The lyrics were taken, almost verbatim, from an old-time circus poster John had hanging in his home. In the context of Pepper the song was assumed to be psychedelic, along the lines of “Lucy”. In fact, it was banned by the BBC who mistakenly believed “Henry the Horse” was a heroin reference. It’s not that, however. Hogsheads of fire, hoops, garters, somersets, the Hendersons, Mr. Kite…they’re all there in the poster. There’s an atmosphere that matches the lyric perfectly; steam organs, calliope sounds, tape loops, and various harmonicas fill out the piano/bass/drums musical accompaniment (there are no guitars on the track). After many failed attempts to achieve the desired results through conventional recording, the carnival sequence in the break was achieved by cutting the tapes into small sections, throwing them in the air, and then putting them back together in random order (some backwards). It worked beautifully, with the carnival sounding out of control. The effect was of being on the fairway with your senses radically altered. Nearly the whole of the album was an aural manifestation of disordered senses.

The second side of the album begins with George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”. In the context of the kaleidoscopic Pepper, it works. Out of context, the song is an Indian drone with ponderous lyrics. It’s George’s longest Indian-style song, and far less effective than Revolver‘s “Love You To” or the Indian/psychedelic mashups “Blue Jay Way” and “Only A Northern Song”. As the song ends, there is a break of laughter. It shows good sense on the band’s part that they would follow the track with a laugh to lighten the oh-so-serious tone of the song. George’s heavy-handed mysticism is followed by one of McCartney’s lightest tracks. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a staple at weddings now, but was written when McCartney was just fifteen years old. It displays both his overly sentimental side and his love for English music hall. What saves the song from being treacle is that descending line “You’ll be older, too” followed by Lennon’s wordless backing vocal that adds just a bit of edge to the song. Lennon and Harrison’s backing vocal of “We shall scrimp and save”, modulating the last vowel are the perfect complement to Paul McCharmley’s happy vocal. The backing adds just the right touch, reminding the listener that “scrimping and saving” isn’t necessarily easy or fun.

Fortunately, the song is followed by “Lovely Rita”, Paul’s ode to hooking up with a meter maid. The piano-driven track is an old-style rocker, but even here the Beatles were playing with the recording. The piano purposely slips in and out of tune, John’s backing vocals are once again very prominent, and the song ends with a not-very-subtle simulated orgasm, the music and a breathy, wordless, moaning vocal rising and getting more intense until the piano suddenly drops off and John is heard saying “Believe it.”

“Good Morning Good Morning” continues the rebound on side two. It’s a heavy rocker with a punchy brass section, scorched earth guitar fills by McCartney, and lyrics inspired by a commercial for corn flakes. The lyrics would have fit in perfectly with the original concept for Pepper’s songs. The original idea, represented by the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single, was that the songs be a nostalgic look at their childhoods in Liverpool. “Good Morning Good Morning” plays on that theme with its tale of a man’s day, not wanting to get up and go to work, taking a walk by his old school, heading home to watch television (“Meet the Wife” was a British TV show). Lennon captures the frustration of everyday living with typical Lennon bile in the lines “Everybody knows there’s nothing doing/Everything is closed it’s like a ruin/Everyone you see is half asleep/And you’re on your own you’re in the street”. Only when the sun starts to set does the song’s protagonist start to come alive, flirting with the girls and acknowledging the people around him as “full of life”. In many ways, it’s the sequel to Revolver‘s “I’m Only Sleeping”, taking that song’s character and seeing how the rest of his day plays out. It’s a straightforward track, but still has some of the Pepper artifice. Aside from the horns and multiple time signatures there’s the ending, where a series of animal noises are heard, each sound representing an animal that could kill or frighten the animal before it.

On the stereo version of the album, the last of the animal sounds is a two-note guitar lick that mimics a clucking chicken. In reality, that was added in later to cover a terribly bad edit between “Good Morning Good Morning” and the following song, a reprise of the title track. The original, bad edit is heard in the mono version of the album, and is a clear example of the stereo mix being better than the mono. In truth, comparing the two versions is largely a wash. Both mixes have their selling points and despite Lennon’s insistence that mono was the best way to hear the album, the stereo mix is equally good. The “Sgt. Pepper” reprise is brief, a reminder that there was once a concept behind the album. Its inclusion still leads people to believe that Pepper has a unified theme. Like the title track, it’s a fine rave up, but there’s really nothing much to be said about it. It’s main purpose is to serve as the gateway to “A Day In The Life”.

The last track on Sgt. Pepper is also the best. It is, to my ears, the best song the Beatles ever did, and arguably the best song of the rock era. With a finale like this, it’s easy to forgive the superficiality of any of the preceding tracks. It is this song that sticks with the listener more than any of the others, and elevates Pepper to the top of critical lists. “A Day In The Life” is essential listening. For this song alone, Sgt. Pepper is a necessary addition to the collection of any serious fan of rock music.

Here the Beatles transcend rock music. The song has all the conventions of rock, but the recording is something else entirely. The verses are simple: a lightly strummed acoustic guitar, a stately, near classical piano, and Ringo Starr’s brilliant drum fills. Anyone who says that Ringo is not a world-class drummer needs to listen to this, and then forever shut up about it. Floating over it all is Lennon’s voice. In the first two verses he tells the story of the car crash that killed the Guinness heir Tara Browne, in the third he pays tribute to the movie How I Won The War, in which he had taken a supporting role in 1966. But it’s at the end of the third verse that the song takes off. As Lennon sings a line written by McCartney, “I’d love to turn you on”, the music swells underneath, an orchestral rush that rises and rises until it seems like it will explode out of the speakers. The orchestra, recorded with the musicians wearing fake noses and various costume parts to get them in the right frame of mind, had been instructed that they had 24 bars to go from the lowest note on their instruments to the highest, and how they did it was up to them. The sensation one gets listening to it is the same as taking off in an airplane. There’s a rush and a feeling of inexorable rising…until the 24th bar when the orchestral orgasm abruptly ends with the sound of an alarm clock and McCartney’s voice taking over the lead from Lennon. This section by McCartney was part of a song he’d been writing for the “childhood” concept of the album. It recounts his days riding on the top of the bus, smoking cigarettes, and daydreaming. In the context of the song, though, it is from the perspective of an adult, probably running late for work. Still, the lines “found my way upstairs and had a smoke/Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” was enough to get the song banned by the BBC for referring to drugs.

It’s hard to argue that those lines are not about drugs. At the moment McCartney finishes the word “dream” the music again shifts from the rock piano to a brass section that sounds impossibly deep. The brass builds from the bottom, becoming more prominent before ending in a five-note flourish that transitions back into the music of the first three verses. Overriding the brass is Lennon’s wordless wail, providing another melody on top. His voice on that elongated “Ahhhhhh” modulates and turns, drifting from speaker to speaker, before fading. And just like that we’re back to softly strummed acoustic, stately piano, and Ringo’s ever-changing fills. The last verse is nothing more than a poetic retelling of a news story about the number of potholes in the road (“four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”). But as Lennon ends the verse he circles back to that infamous line “I’d love to turn you on” and the orchestral rush begins again. This time the surge ends not with an alarm clock, but with what is probably the most famous chord in the history of 20th century music. It’s a simple E Major chord, played simultaneously on three different pianos by Lennon, McCartney, Starr, and roadie Mal Evans and on a harmonium by George Martin. As the sound of the chord started to dissipate the engineers in the studio turned up the recording levels until they were capturing not only the resonance of the chord but the ambient studio sounds. like the squeaking of a chair. The result is a massively rich chord that sustains for over 40 seconds before finally disappearing. Buried in the fade is a dog whistle, undetectable to human ears (and probably undetectable to recording devices, so who knows if it’s really on there or not).

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ends with a snippet of studio dialogue and noise, sped up, backwards, and on an endless loop for record players that do not have an automatic return on the stylus. It’s the last touch on the album, a hidden nonsense track less than 5 seconds long that continued playing on a loop until the listener lifted the needle off the groove.

Sgt. Pepper changed the musical world. It opened the doors for musicians to be more creative and take more chances. It also led to the mistaken belief that brass and strings were enough to turn a pop song into an artistic statement. We still listen to music in the world that Pepper created but the fact is that, with some exceptions, the songs on the album simply aren’t as good as the ones on Revolver, or even Rubber Soul. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock album ever released, and my grade reflects that. But is it The Greatest Album Ever Made as so many claim? No. It’s not even the best Beatles album.

Grade: A+

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How Jack Bauer Can Save Television

Fans of the television show 24 could be excused for taking a pass on the recent short season that brought Jack Bauer back to TV screens. The show was always hit or miss, but the last season in particular was essentially a repudiation of all that had gone before it. For seven seasons, Jack Bauer had dodged terrorists, nuclear bombs, deadly plagues, assassins, drug addiction, kidnappers, torturers, automatic weapons fire, spies, sleep, and normal relationships. He did all of this because it was a job that had to be done. He did it because he loved his country and wanted to defend it from the worst actors on the world stage. Even after the hardships he endured over those seven seasons, including the deaths of his wife, many friends (some by his reluctant hand), and himself (he got better), and despite 18 months of imprisonment and torture by the Chinese government, his estrangement from his annoying daughter, and countless other hardships that would make Job wince, Bauer kept on plugging away. He was the Energizer Bunny of national defense, single-minded in his determination to preserve the American way of life and protect the country.

At least until the last season when he became a killing machine, hell-bent on revenge for the murder of a borderline psychotic woman he’d known for less than two days. Maybe it was all cumulative, but it didn’t come across that way. At the time it seemed that Jack Bauer snapped and, in the process, nearly started World War III. I reviewed the entire season here.

That’s what made 24: Live Another Day such a welcome addition to the canon. It takes place four years after the events of the last full season. Jack is on the run, a wanted man hiding in London, pursued by the CIA. Chloë O’Brien is the oldest Goth in the world, spilling national security secrets with a Wikileaks-type organization because she believes the government killed her husband and child in an attempt to assassinate her. The President is James Heller, the former Secretary of Defense for whom Jack worked and the father of Audrey Heller, Jack’s love interest. We learn that Jack has spent the past four years working on his own, infiltrating crime rings and bringing them down from within. He’s been doing the work he was born to do, without any help or approval from the government. Essentially he’s Batman.

Live Another Day turned out to be one of the best seasons of the show and it accomplished this by scaling it all down. The gimmick of the show was also its Achilles heel. 24 took place in real time, over the course of a single day. That’s a lot of hours for the writers to fill, so the show always relied on subplots to fill the void. Invariably, the subplots were the weakest elements in the show. Whether it was Jack’s wife getting amnesia, Jack’s daughter being threatened by a cougar, or David Palmer’s son being accused of murder, the subplots took up hours of time and were rarely more than distractions from the plot. Frequently, they were ludicrous distractions. But Live Another Day was only 13 hours long. Subplots were mostly thrown overboard, and the few that remained (the Wikileaks story, a CIA agent who can’t forgive herself for missing her husband’s treason, and the awkward love triangle between Jack, Audrey, and Audrey’s husband) all tie in directly to the main plot. The viewer is gratefully spared from having to see Kim Bauer’s expressionless face as she confronts one danger after another.

There’s a lesson here for all of television. Short seasons work. The most compelling shows on television are the ones with seasons that run anywhere from 10-13 episodes. The BBC is even stingier. A season of Sherlock is only three 90-minute episodes, and Luther ranges from 4-6 episodes. Downton Abbey usually runs for about nine episodes. Consider all the cable shows, from the premium channel shows like Game of Thrones to the basic cable of The Walking Dead and Justified. Shorter seasons for all.

The problem with the old paradigm of a 22-24 show season is the demand it puts on the writers. How do you write 24 episodes of a show like Elementary, Bones, NCIS, or CSI? You create a formula and stick to it. Some of the character names may change, but each of these shows is presenting essentially identical episodes week after week. There may be only three episodes of Sherlock in a season, but each of those episodes is better written, smarter, funnier, and better acted than a full season’s worth of Elementary. Elementary, a show I do enjoy as mindless fluff, is really nothing more than CSI without the forensics. Or compare FX’s Justified to any network cop show that features one main character. There’s simply no comparison in terms of quality. On Justified the writers can stretch out, telling one main story over the course of 13 hours. They’re not concerned with setting up this week’s victim and this week’s twist and this week’s happy resolution. The actors, most notably Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and International Film and Television Star Nick Searcy dive into their roles and get an opportunity to truly act because they’re not repeating the same formula from last week’s episode. Shows like Justified or HBO’s brilliant The Wire unspool like novels, deep in characterization and complex in plot. Ironically, the shorter seasons give the writers more time to play with, and allow them to create more subtlety and nuance. They’re not under pressure to crank out 24 scripts a year, so they don’t have to fall back on formulaic situations.

24: Live Another Day is proof again that the old network system of September–May seasons are no longer necessary. Give Agent Seely Booth and Dr. Temperance Brennan one victim and let them investigate for ten episodes of Bones. Give the profilers of Criminal Minds one serial killer per season and thirteen episodes to catch him. It will give the writers more of an opportunity to do something different and allow the actors a chance to add some more dimension to their roles.

When the original run of 24 ended, I was glad to see it go. The new, short season reboot/sequel left me wanting more. As I look at the network schedules I can’t help but wonder how many shows, having sailed over the shark long ago, could be saved from total banality by ditching the formulas and following the path laid out for them by shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. There is some sense that the networks are catching on. Shows like Under the Dome (before it outlived its plot device), The Following (before the producers forgot what the show was about), and Hannibal are unlike any before on network television. They take their time and let the audience lose themselves in the plot, the atmosphere, the writing, and the acting. 24 proved that one plot stretched over 24 hours is far too much. Most of the shows on network TV prove that self-contained episodes stretched over 24 episodes engenders lazy writing and by-the-numbers acting. There will always be a place for episodic television. Comedy works particularly well in that format. I wouldn’t trade a single half hour of Seinfeld for the complete series of Mad Men. For dramas, the networks would improve the quality of their shows by cutting down the episodes, letting the writers tell real stories, and giving the actors the chance to portray real characters.

The producers of 24 took a dead property and breathed new life into it by streamlining it. Jack Bauer showed that he can not only save the world, but he knows how to save television, too.

The Original (And Still Best) Princes of Pop

When I was ten or eleven years old and just discovering the Beatles, my attention was briefly diverted by the syndicated exploits of another group of boys with long hair and catchy songs. The Monkees was in repeats on one of the local stations and I enjoyed what I heard enough to look through my brother’s record collection to see if he had anything. This collection included the LPs that had been owned by all three of my brothers, and was large enough to encompass a lot of stuff I’d never heard. And there it was: The Monkees’ first, eponymous LP. I put it on, and loved it.

Not long after that, I went to my brother who had first turned me on to the original Fab Four. I asked him about The Monkees.

“The Monkees are the second worst band in the world,” he replied.

“Who’s the worst band in the world?” I asked.

“The Grateful Dead.”

My brother was half-right. The Grateful Dead were the worst band in the world and their stench still emanates from jam bands everywhere, but nearly fifty years later the music of the Monkees stands up with the best pop of the 1960s.

I get it. The Monkees were the Pre-Fab Four, a collection of actors who responded to a casting call and then were thrust together and told to act like a band. Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones could sing, but couldn’t play anything. Mike Nesmith fancied himself a musician and had a collection of songs to back him up. Peter Tork was an itinerant folkie who could play a little. As musicians go, they were lacking in almost all areas.

But here’s the thing: the songs they were given to record were extraordinarily good pop songs. Forget the dumb TV theme. “Last Train To Clarksville”, “Saturday’s Child”, “I Wanna Be Free”, “Sweet Young Thing” and “Take A Giant Step” graced the first album by the group. All of them are near-perfect slices of pop music. Add in Nesmith’s original “Papa Gene’s Blues” and you’re suddenly looking at an album that has stood the test of time far better than a lot of their more “serious” competitors. It may sound superficial and light compared to Blonde on Blonde or Revolver but it holds up as well or better than albums by The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas And The Papas, both of whom were riding high in 1966 and are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Go ahead. Listen to the first Monkees album and then listen to Daydream or If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears and tell me which album you enjoyed the most. And More of The Monkees, Headquarters, and especially Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd are even better.

The simple fact is that the Monkees were blessed. Their impressario, Don Kirschner, may have been a pompous buffoon and an insufferable gasbag in a lot of ways, but he understood that “I’m A Believer” was a smash hit single when Mike Nesmith was convinced it was a lousy song that would never be a hit. The group had people picking songs by some of the best pop songwriters of the time: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and Neil Diamond among others. They also were lucky to have a gifted songwriter in their own ranks. Mike Nesmith was a country boy at heart, but had an instinct for blending country and pop that served him well. In fact, months before the Monkees appeared on TV screens and radios, none other than the truly heavyweight Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded Nesmith’s “Mary Mary” on their landmark East-West album. A few years later The Stone Poneys, featuring a very young Linda Ronstadt on vocals, had a huge, well-deserved hit with “Different Drum” a song Nesmith had written before the Monkees. (Funnily enough, in an early episode of the TV show Nesmith pretended to be a bad folk singer and strummed his way through a sped up version of “Different Drum”.) Today Nesmith is considered one of the pioneers of country rock and is also thought by many to be the father of modern music videos due to his work setting up the fledgling MTV.

The group’s blessings continued with the people who really did play the instruments. Most of their music was provided by L.A.’s famous “Wrecking Crew”, a group of studio musicians who were considered the best in the business. In 1968, post-Buffalo Springfield and pre-legend Neil Young played on some tracks.

But the greatest blessing the Monkees had was that their main singers, Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones are two of the most listenable singers of their, or any other, era. Dolenz’s crystal clear tenor and Jones’s Manchester-by-way-of-Broadway tones were so easy on the ears that you can listen to them for hours and not grow tired of their voices. Jones is often considered the “lead” singer because in the show Dolenz was sitting awkwardly behind a drum kit he couldn’t play, but really the voice of the group is Mickey’s. Davy Jones had several fantastic songs that he voiced, but was also given every saccharine sweet “romantic” ballad they did. This left Dolenz with the lion’s share of the classic pop hits.

The backlash against the Monkees started when Mike Nesmith told the press that they didn’t play their own instruments. In fact, with the exceptions of Nesmith and Tork, they couldn’t play their instruments. It was an age where “credibility” was considered very important among the hip crowd. The growing numbers of rock fans disdained the Monkees for their artificiality (likely the reason my brother hated them way back when). Nobody from the “In Crowd” would admit to liking the pseudo-band that was built especially for pre-teen girls to swoon over.

But the Monkees did have some highly placed fans. The Beatles loved them. John Lennon said they were “the new Marx Brothers” and Dolenz and Nesmith were both invited to hang out with the Beatles on various occasions. Nesmith even makes a cameo in the video for “A Day In The Life”; he was an invited guest to the studio when the Beatles recorded (and filmed) the orchestral surge. This puts Nesmith in the company of not only the Beatles but also Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Donovan. Peter Tork introduced Buffalo Springfield on stage at the Monterey Pop Festival at the request of his friend Stephen Stills. It must be remembered that the four Monkees were still young men of their time. They may have been actors and itinerant musicians but they had more in common with their peers at the Love-In than they did with the screaming girls in their audience. They bristled at being told what to do and began to believe in their own myth: that they were a band. This led to some remarkably good music and some delightfully subversive moments. One doesn’t usually think of the Monkees as being subversive, but examples abound.

The Monkees

Do these guys really look that clean cut?

  • They selected The Jimi Hendrix Experience to be the opening act on their first tour (Hendrix was pulled quickly)
  • In one episode, Peter is setting up a row of dominoes, standing them on end. “What’s that game called?” asks Mickey. “Southeast Asia,” replies Tork as the dominoes fall.
  • The song “Last Train to Clarksville” is about a soldier going off to Viet Nam. “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home,” he tells his girl.
  • Mickey’s song “Randy Scouse Git” tells the true story of a druggy party with groupies and the Beatles (“the four kings of EMI”). The title also translates to “Horny Liverpudlian Idiot”. Both “Star Collector” and “Cuddly Toy” are about groupies (the former featuring one of the first ever uses of a Moog synthesizer on a pop/rock song. The first was “Daily Nightly” by…the Monkees).
  • The second-to-last episode of the show features a hilarious appearance by Frank Zappa, destroying a car while the song “Mother People” plays and Nesmith acts as a conductor.
  • The last episode, directed by Dolenz, shows Tim Buckley singing an acoustic version of “Song To The Siren” while sitting on the hood of the car Zappa destroyed. The episode, called “The Frodis Caper”, is such a blatant advertisement for marijuana that it might as well have been produced by NORML. The word “Frodis” was the group’s slang term for pot, and it appears a few times during the show’s run.
  • The song “Mommy and Daddy” features Dolenz instructing the group’s very young audience to ask their parents questions like “What happened to the Indians?” “Who really killed JFK?”, “Why doesn’t that soldier care who he kills?” and “Would it matter if the bullet went through my head?” before the climax of Dolenz wailing “It’s all a lie.” Considering who their audience was, that one song is more subversive than anything Marilyn Manson ever did.
  • And then…there’s Head.

The one movie the Monkees did, Head, was a psychedelic mashup of scenes, skits, bits, and some of the best songs the band ever did. The title refers both to oral sex and marijuana. It begins with the group committing suicide and gets progressively stranger from there. It’s a terrible movie. It’s so bad it makes Magical Mystery Tour look like Citizen Kane. Okay, maybe not that bad.

The music, on the other hand, is fantastic.

Nesmith’s brutal “Circle Sky” (performed live by the band) is as heavy as anything coming out of San Francisco in 1968. “As We Go Along”, sung beautifully by Dolenz, may be the best ballad they ever did. Best of all is “Porpoise Song”, the seemingly nonsensical lyrics actually telling the audience that the band was leaving their image behind them. Written by Carole King and played over the opening scene as the Monkees jump off a bridge, the lyrics are a coded suicide note and tell the story of the band and why they’re doing what they’re doing. They are nothing but “a face, a voice”, but “an overdub has no choice/And it cannot rejoice”. The old Monkees are gone. “Riding the backs of giraffes for a laugh is all right for awhile” but now they’re free to pursue their own agenda.

The problem with believing your own myth is that it’s a fatal flaw. It turns out they had no agenda. After Head and with the TV show over, the band splintered. Tork left first, leaving the rest to carry on as a trio. Then Nesmith left and suddenly the Monkees were just Dolenz and Jones. But there was nothing there. A few good songs pop up from this era when the band was fracturing, but there was nothing approaching the quality of their first five LPs and the songs they did for Head. They ended with a whimper; a last-gasp television special as a trio was the lowest-rated TV show in history (and it’s worse than Head).

They tour occasionally now, minus Jones who died of a heart attack in 2012. I met Jones once in the mid-90s at my local pub after he’d played a show nearby. He was gracious and very nice, a true class act. But even without the warm blanket of nostalgia, those songs they did in their prime are as rock solid today as they were in the sixties. Now that the issues of “credibility” are behind them (and people know that other famous bands, notably the Mamas and Papas and even, to a degree, the Beach Boys didn’t play their own instruments either), all that’s left is the music in the grooves. And that music is overwhelmingly good, largely great, and sometimes stone cold brilliant. As a teenager and in my twenties I considered the Monkees a guilty pleasure. Now they’re just a pleasure. They may not have been a real band until the very end, but the Monkees were a truly great group.

The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You

tattooyou_cover

The Rolling Stones had almost nowhere to go but up after Emotional Rescue. With the exception of Some Girls, the band had spent nearly a decade floundering. Five studio albums of varying quality and a mediocre live album had tarnished the reputation of what had once been considered The Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band In The World. Their singles could still be counted on to chart, and their albums were still selling, but Emotional Rescue proved to be the final nail in the coffin for many fans who were put off by the icy disco and rote rockers. For the next record, the Stones needed to recapture what made them so good.

They succeeded. Partially.

The first single, and leadoff track, was a return to full-on rock, led by a choppy Keith Richards riff, Charlie Watts in full swing, and a Mick Jagger vocal that combined humor and raunch. “Start Me Up” was such a refreshing change after Emotional Rescue that it instantly became a Stones classic. The band, it seemed, was back with three and a half minutes of reckless abandon. To my ears the song hasn’t held up as well, over 30 years later. The lyric is repetitive, the riff a bit too simple. At the time, the song was a cause for celebration for Stones fans everywhere. It’s now a staple of their concerts, along with “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash” but it doesn’t belong in that category.

“Hang Fire”, the song that follows, is better. It’s shorter, punchier, with a better lyric, and better guitar interplay between Richards and Ron Wood. The wordless backing vocal provides the real hook in the song. Both “Hang Fire” and “Start Me Up” rock with total abandon, like the best of Some Girls did. And there’s a good reason for that.

Tattoo You, it turns out, was not a real album at all, in the sense that it was not a collection of new songs. Tattoo You was compiled by Chris Kimsey, the engineer, from the Stones’s musical vault. In most cases, the songs were incomplete. Jagger had to write lyrics and record vocals and some overdubs were added, but the basic recordings on the album go all the way pack to 1972. That’s Mick Taylor playing guitar on “Tops” and “Waiting On A Friend”, both originally cut during the Goats Head Soup sessions. Wayne Perkins, who played the extraordinary solo on Black and Blue‘s “Hand Of Fate” is the guitarist on “Worried About You”, originally recorded in 1975. “Slave” was also cut during those sessions. Other songs were from the Some Girls sessions, and even the Emotional Rescue sessions.

It didn’t matter. The instrumental tracks from those sessions were given new life by Jagger in 1980 and 1981, as the band prepared a massive tour. Tattoo You‘s sole reason for existing is the 1981 tour. The shows were booked and the band felt they had no time to write and record new material, so the vaults were plundered. Chris Kimsey chose wisely for the most part.

Side one of the album is one of the best sustained slices of music the Stones have released post-Exile. There simply isn’t a bum track. From “Start Me Up” through “Neighbours”, Tattoo You sounds like the World’s Greatest Band having fun again. “Slave” is a mostly instrumental groove piece (you can tell it’s from the Black and Blue sessions), but the groove is irresistible and the minimal vocals that are there (including backing vocals from the Who’s Pete Townshend) are a hoot. There’s also a sax solo from jazz legend Sonny Rollins as the cherry on top. There’s nothing much to the lyrics; it’s basically a chant of “Do it! Don’t wanna be your slave!” with a funny mini-rap from Jagger thrown in, but in this case the song stands on the music, which is terrific.

The obligatory Keith Richards-sung track, “Little T&A” is another superior rocker with what may be Keith’s best vocal since “Happy”. What would have easily been the best song on Emotional Rescue was, strangely, left off that album. The lyrics keep the song from being as good as “Before They Make Me Run” or “Happy” but it’s still very close to that standard, and features a throbbing bass line (played by Keith). It’s followed by “Black Limousine” a blues powered by Ian Stewart’s masterful boogie-woogie piano, a terrific guitar solo, and Jagger’s harmonica. It’s often overlooked, but Mick Jagger is one of the premier blues harmonica players, as his playing here proves.

That great side of music ends with “Neighbours”, a Some Girls-style rocker that’s one of the band’s fastest songs. Jagger’s vocal is wonderfully hammy and fun while the band plays as if they’re careening down a curvy road at ninety miles per hour. Side one ends in crashing chords and howled vocals and it was clear that the Stones were back after the misstep that was Emotional Rescue.

Then, there’s side two.

Tattoo You was released in 1981, but in some ways it’s a perfect summation of the post-Exile Stones in the 1970s. With the exception of Some Girls, the Seventies Stones swung wildly between moments of greatness and uninspired banality. Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Black and Blue, and Emotional Rescue all had high points worth hearing and low points worth ignoring. Tattoo You has the same issues, but in this case the highs and lows are equally divided and split into different halves of the album.

Not everything on side two of Tattoo You is bad, and none of it is truly awful. “Waiting On A Friend” is considered a Stones classic ballad, with another sax break from Sonny Rollins, but nobody is ever going to confuse it with “Wild Horses” or even “Angie”. As Stones “classics” go, “Waiting On A Friend” is strictly second rate. It’s good, but not much more.

Probably the best song on the side is the opener. “Worried About You”, which dates back to the Black and Blue sessions, has the same keyboard sound (played by Billy Preston) as the songs from that earlier album, and a mostly falsetto vocal from Jagger. It also has a fiery lead guitar solo from Wayne Perkins. And in the final two minutes Jagger mostly drops the falsetto and brings it all home. It’s a far better song and performance than the hit single “Waiting On A Friend”, but the song clearly harkens back to an earlier time. It’s also better than everything on Black and Blue except the mighty “Hand Of Fate”.

“Tops” goes all the way back to 1972 and has Mick Taylor on guitar, but stylistically it sounds more like mid-70s Stones. There’s an undeniable dance groove and the falsetto (again) vocals recall the Seventies Soul pastiches that featured on Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll. Again, it’s not a bad song but it sounded dated in 1981 and sounds even more dated today. The same goes for “Heaven”, recorded right after the Emotional Rescue sessions and featuring yet another falsetto vocal from Jagger over an admittedly slinky reggae/dance groove. The only Stones on the song are Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, but the main sound you hear is the high vocals awash in Wyman’s synthesizer. “Heaven” could have been better with a full band backing and the vocals less processed. As it stands, it sounds like the drugged homecoming from a night at Studio 54.

Before “Waiting On A Friend” ends the album on a high note, “No Use In Crying” is another ballad from the Emotional Rescue sessions. For the fourth song in a row Jagger breaks out the falsetto, though sparingly this time. I guess even Jagger probably didn’t think the song was worth straining to hit those high notes. It’s no wonder after this that “Waiting On A Friend” sounded so good: it shuffles where the earlier songs lay there, the falsetto is relegated to a few “doo doo doo” backing vocals, and there’s Rollins’s terrific sax solo.

The second half of Tattoo You doesn’t ruin the album. Of the five songs, two are very good and the other three are not as bad as almost anything on Emotional Rescue. But Jagger’s overuse of the falsetto and a reliance on keyboards and dance ballads to close the album can certainly leave the listener feeling disappointed. Side one is fantastic; side two is mediocre. The only other album I can think of that is this evenly divided between wheat and chaff is John Lennon’s Double Fantasy, and that’s because half of those songs are Yoko’s. Tattoo You would probably have been served better by nixing “No Use In Crying” and “Heaven”, adding two more rockers (they had plenty of great ones in the can from the Some Girls sessions), and mixing the album up to blend rockers and ballads. As it stands, it brings the Stones back, and drops them down again.

Grade: B