The Rolling Stones: Dirty Work

The Rolling Stones Dirty WorkSomewhere out there in this big beautiful world, there is a person whose favorite album of all time, the album that he or she considers the greatest album ever recorded, is Dirty Work.

That person is not me.

The Stones nearly imploded in the years following Undercover. Mick Jagger announced his intention to launch a solo career, much to the indignation of Keith Richards. The two band leaders feuded openly and bitterly in the press. Jagger’s solo album She’s The Boss, a truly lamentable slice of mid-80s pop rock was released in 1985 and spawned a couple of hits. Later that year Jagger teamed up with David Bowie for a truly embarrassing video for “Dancing In The Streets” which premiered during the Live Aid global broadcast. Jagger himself appeared at Live Aid, singing with Tina Turner. Keith Richards and Ron Wood showed up at Live Aid, as well, backing an almost incoherent Bob Dylan. All of this time, they were dogged with questions about the Stones: what’s next for the band? The reactions from both Mick and Keith were disheartening to any Stones fan. The anger was real between them, and boiling over.

The band managed to drag themselves into the studio in mid-1985 to begin work on Undercover‘s successor, but the bad vibes between Mick and Keith continued. Jagger wasn’t particularly interested in the project, and wanted to spend the time promoting his solo album. This led to several songs being credited to Jagger-Richards-Wood, as Ronnie picked up the slack from Jagger’s disinterest. Credits to the contrary, none of the songs were actual Jagger/Richards collaborations.

The result was an album that was full of inchoate passion. It’s unquestionably the angriest album in the Stones canon, from the opening “One Hit (To The Body)” and “Fight” to “Had It With You” and “Dirty Work”. Dirty Work is certainly the effort of a band that was being riven by animosity.

That could have worked for the band if the songs themselves hadn’t been so lackluster. There’s a feeling you get when listening to the album that the band spent most of the time in the studio thinking, “Let’s get this over with.” The result is a largely unlikeable listening experience.

To be fair, there are a few true gems buried on the album. “One Hit (To The Body)” features some slashing guitar work from guest Jimmy Page. Jagger roars his way through “Fight”. “Dirty Work” and “Had It With You” straddle the line between pissed off and funny. “Sleep Tonight” is a nice Keith ballad that ends the album on a quiet note. There’s a brief coda by Ian Stewart.

And then there’s the rest of the album.

Dirty Work is mercifully short, with only ten songs clocking in at 40 minutes, and as dysfunctional as the band may have been at this point they were at least savvy enough to start strong and finish strong. “One Hit (To The Body)” starts the album in a welter of slashing electric and acoustic guitar chords from Richards and Wood. Charlie Watts plays one of the most uninteresting drum parts of his career while Jagger shouts the lyrics, backed by a chorus of guest stars (including Bobby Womack, Bruce Springsteen’s then backup singer, now wife, Patti Scialfa, and Kirsty MacColl). There’s a sloppy guitar solo played by Jimmy Page, at the time wasting his career with Paul Rodgers in The Firm. The song, along with the one that follows it, is an attack. The experimentation of Undercover is gone here, replaced by an in-your-face production that sounded raw on a first listen but still retains the overly bright sheen that hid the rough edges of rock music in the mid-80s. “One Hit” is good, but not great. It is the hardest rocking Stones song in many years (in some ways, Dirty Work is their hardest rocking effort since Some Girls), but it doesn’t sound like the work of a real band. There’s no real sense of interplay in the music, and Jagger’s “So help me God!” lyric is embarrassing. The anger behind the song was clearly real, but this song also marks the first time the Stones don’t sound like a real group. “One Hit”, like the rest of Dirty Work, is faceless.

If anything, “Fight” takes it up a notch. “Gonna pulp you to a mass of bruises/Is that what you’re looking for?” shouts Jagger. “Got to get into a fight/Gonna put the boot in.” The song rocks relentlessly hard, putting even “One Hit” to shame. Like the earlier song, this one is credited to Jagger/Richards/Wood, meaning that the music was written by the two guitar players and represents their anger at the singer, who reciprocated with his lyrics and abrasive performance. At first listen, it’s thrilling. But then you listen closely. Charlie’s keeping a steady beat as he always did, but he sounds like a metronome. There’s a very good, raw, guitar solo and God knows the chords are hit like anvils, but the only thing the song really convinces you of is that it’s played by angry musicians. The band members were all at odds and, amazingly, the components of the music sound the same way.

Perhaps sensing that they were overdoing it, the third song completely retrenched. It’s a cover of Bob and Earl’s R&B classic “Harlem Shuffle” and, surprisingly, is one of the most cohesive songs on the album. It’s not a great cover. Their versions of R&B chestnuts from “Pain In My Heart” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” up to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Just My Imagination” throw the weakness of “Harlem Shuffle” into sharp relief. It’s not helped by Steve Lillywhite’s neon production. The fact that “Harlem Shuffle” was the leadoff single for the album is testament to how both the band and the record company felt about the original songs. This was the first time the Stones had released a studio-recorded cover song as a single since “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” in 1974, and only the second time they’d done this since 1965, when they were still learning to write originals. Once again Charlie hits a metronomic beat that drags the song down. The beat on these songs is steady, but Charlie Watts is never boring and the drum tracks on these songs is flat and lifeless. What Stones fans didn’t know at the time was that Charlie, long considered the “straight” member of the band, was deep into a nasty heroin addiction at this time (Jagger later said he didn’t want to tour after Dirty Work because he was concerned about how it would affect Charlie). Chalk it up as yet another source of tension within the band and in the record’s grooves.

“Harlem Shuffle” was one of the more musical numbers on the album. It still had that disconnected feel between the instruments, but at least Jagger was singing. On “Hold Back” Jagger is angry, my friends, like an old man sending back soup in a deli. Over a tuneless musical accompaniment, Jagger offers words of wisdom that sound an awful lot like he’s lecturing Keith about his reasons for putting out a solo album. But who knows? You can’t actually understand the lyrics because Jagger shouts them without any regard for melody or rhythm. Jagger bellows like he’s been brushing his teeth with an X-acto knife. “Hold Back” is a full-on assault that will leave the listener cowering in a corner…and not in a good way. By the time its interminable four minutes have ended you feel like you’ve just gotten life advice from some pilled-up lunatic who spends his days screaming about chemtrails and his nights hitting himself in the groin with a plank of wood.

After this sensory overload, the Stones again step back to a cover song. “Too Rude” is the first of Keith’s spotlight moments on the album. Jagger is nowhere to be found. The song is another attempt at reggae from the band, who really hadn’t done a particularly good job at this style since “Luxury” in 1974. “Too Rude” is no exception. Drums with heavy echo can’t disguise another flat beat, and unlike their previous attempts at reggae “Too Rude” sounds nothing like the Stones. It’s clearly a Keith solo song, slapped on the album as filler to close out side one of the record. And yet, despite that, it towers above the two songs that opened the second side of the record.

“Winning Ugly” was the second single, and is almost certainly the worst single the Stones have ever released. Astoundingly, it received an enormous amount of radio exposure in the spring and summer of 1986, reaching number 10 on the rock charts. Once again, Mick’s angry. This time he’s mad at people who will do anything to come out on top. The most obvious targets of the lyrics are the Wall Street fund managers (this was the ’80s, after all) and politicians, though nobody specific is named. Still, a listener could easily think that this is another swipe at Keith with lyrics like

I wanna win that cup and get my money, baby
But, back in the dressing room
the other side is weeping

It’s another largely incoherent rant lyrically speaking but what really kills the song is the production that’s brighter than the pants Jagger’s wearing on the album cover. If “Too Rude” was a solo Keith number, “Winning Ugly” has all the hallmarks of a mid-80s Jagger solo song: the heavy use of female backup singers, the shiny keyboard sound, the prominent disco funk bass (by John Regan, not Bill Wyman). Ever-so-slightly better is “Back To Zero”, another in an endless parade of 80s pop and rock songs about impending nuclear annihilation. Credited to Jagger, Richards and Chuck Leavell, it’s another faux funk track that simply screams “solo Mick”. Listening to it, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that the Rolling Stones are playing on the track (in fact, the guitar is being played by Bobby Womack). Once again Charlie Watts sounds like he was propped up behind the drums with an elaborate pulley system to raise and lower his hands as he held the drumsticks. Dirty Work is like the musical equivalent of Weekend At Bernie’s, with Charlie taking the place of the movie’s titular character.

But all is not lost. Dirty Work concludes with the three best songs on the album. The title track is another broadside at an unnamed person that could easily be about Keith’s abdication of responsibility during his heroin addiction and his Jagger’s subsequent unwillingness to turn the reins of power back over to his band mate. But damn if “Dirty Work” doesn’t swing like a prime slice of vintage Stones. Even Charlie sounds like he’s been roused from his torpor, though most of the swing comes from the guitars. Jagger’s vocals are again shouty and harsh. By this time almost all evidence of the guy who once sang, really sang, ballads like “Wild Horses” or “Love In Vain” is gone in a storm of affectations. But “Dirty Work”, unlike the songs the precede it, has a sense of humor: “You let somebody do the dirty work/Find some loser, find some jerk/Find some greaseball.” The song sounds like the band is once again an actual unit. The tension between Jagger’s vocals and Keith and Ronnie’s guitar is palpable, more than in “One Hit” or “Fight” certainly.

This sudden and dramatic increase in quality gets even steeper with the next cut. “Had It With You” got a bit of radio play in the week leading up to the album’s release because it was the far superior flipside of “Harlem Shuffle”. Then the album came out, with a lyric sheet, and “Had It With You” would never be played on commercial radio again. “I love you dirty fucker/Sister and a brother/Moaning in the moonlight” sings Jagger over a Chuck Berry-style guitar riff. Lyrically it’s the culmination of the entire album. All of the anger that was fuelling Jagger and Richards erupts here: “Loved you in the lean years/Loved you in the fat ones/You’re a mean mistreater/You’re a dirty, dirty rat scum/I’ve had it with you.” Yet, oddly, there’s almost joy in the music. It’s the sound of the Stones playing to all their strengths and sounding, ironically, like they’re having fun. Even Jagger delivers the closest thing to a traditional Mick vocal on the track. His voice is still raspy and filled with odd growls, as if he was chewing sandpaper, but at least he’s not shouting like someone hit his toes with a hammer, like he is on the rest of the album.

The last song on the album is “Sleep Tonight”, a lovely Keith Richards piano ballad that is a bit too long, but still endures. Keith’s been rewriting this song ever since, but never as well as he did here. The production hurts the song as it does the entire album. The drums are too loud and clean (played by Ron Wood, who shows more verve here than Charlie Watts has shown through the rest of the album), and the backing vocals are too prominent. However, it’s a fine ballad that would have fit perfectly on Keith’s later solo album Talk Is Cheap. The song is followed by a raw, bluesy boogie-woogie piano for 30 seconds, a brief excerpt from “Key To The Highway”. Sadly, it’s easy to imagine this being the only thing on the album on which the band could all agree: a brief tribute to Ian Stewart, the straight arrow blues master and sixth Stone who had kept them in line for over 20 years before dying of a heart attack in December of 1985. Dirty Work is dedicated to Stewart, and his piano coda is a genuinely touching moment on an album not known for sentimentality.

Dirty Work was not an interesting experiment gone awry, like Their Satanic Majesties Request. It wasn’t a freeform guitarist audition like Black and Blue. It wasn’t a disinterested filler album like Emotional Rescue. Dirty Work was a bitter, invective-filled divorce-in-progress that left an acid taste in people’s mouths, including the band themselves. It was easy to dismiss Majesties, Black and Blue, or Rescue as anomalies in the band’s storied career. It was much harder to dismiss this album because for the first time it seemed that the Stones were trying really hard to be the Stones, but that they didn’t know what that meant any more. Dirty Work is the album where they lost their identity and ended up sounding almost like a parody of themselves. Afterwards, Jagger went right back to work on his second solo album, and Keith eventually followed that route with far better results. For all practical purposes, the band split up. When asked about the band, they took turns ripping each other and shrugging off the possibility of a future. But the band did have a future, although it would be markedly different from the past it had shared. This was a good thing because it meant that the nadir of their recording career would not be their last gasp.

Grade: D+

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Elegies To A Monument: Smashing Pumpkins, Expectations, and the Trap of Nostalgia

monumentsLate last year the musical entity that is called Smashing Pumpkins released their latest album, Monuments to An Elegy. The Pumpkins were never really more than a band in name only. During their heyday the “band” consisted of guitarist/singer/songwriter Billy Corgan, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and guitarist James Iha, but that was really just the public perception. Smashing Pumpkins was always a mask for Billy Corgan’s musical ambitions and it’s the worst kept secret in alternative rock that their classic albums were written and performed almost entirely by Corgan and Chamberlain. D’Arcy and Iha were trotted out for live shows, and had the odd vocal or songwriting credit that furthered the illusion that this was more than a band in name only.

But Smashing Pumpkins is Billy Corgan. Now, even Jimmy Chamberlain is gone (as is his replacement, a 20-year-old prodigy named Mike Byrne), and his presence is sorely missed. Chamberlain is one of the greatest drummers who ever held a pair of sticks. He’s the Ginger Baker of alternative rock, a jazz drummer who plays rock with an intensity that can not be believed or duplicated. Unlike other great drummers like Dave Grohl or John Bonham, Chamberlain had swing. On Monuments to an Elegy the drumming is handled by former Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee who is as far removed from swing as he is from Pluto. Lee’s a basher, whose style fit his former band but who sounds woefully inept with Corgan’s more intricate music. Where Chamberlain added texture to his rock-solid beats with intricate, rapid-fire fills, Lee thuds with hands like hams. It’s as if he spent more time rehearsing his drumstick twirls than his paradiddles.

Lee’s iron-fisted drumming is not the only problem with Monuments. Hey Billy, 1985 called…they want their synthesizer sound back. The synthesizer sound on the album is atrocious. Corgan’s always been an unabashed fan of synth-bands like Depeche Mode, but here the sound is closer to the synth pop of the 80s. I recently saw the video for ABC’s “The Look of Love” and thought, “Same sound as the new Pumpkins record”.  The song “Run2Me” sounds as if the last thirty years never happened, with one of the most obnoxious synth riffs since “The Final Countdown” polluted the airwaves. Yes, there’s an ocean of guitars on Monuments to an Elegy, but they’re an undifferentiated mass. There are no riffs that truly stand out (like, say, Mellon Collie and the infinite Sadness‘s “Zero”) and there are no solos that burn the grooves off the vinyl (like, say, Gish‘s “I Am One”). This is a shame because Corgan is one of the greatest guitarists of the past thirty years.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t some good songs on the record. The first two, “Tiberius” and “Being Beige”, and the last song, “Anti-Hero” are very good. “Drum + Fife” captures some of the old Pumpkins vibe. “One and All” is excellent, and the only song that sounds like it could have fit on Mellon Collie. The rest of the album is a goop of uninteresting synth rock. Which begs the real question: whatever happened to the Smashing Pumpkins we knew and loved? Where’s the “Cherub Rock”, “Zero”, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Bury Me”? Hell, where’s “Ava Adore”? What happened to Billy Corgan?

The answer is unsettling. Nothing happened to him. Corgan is now twenty years older than the snarling, rage-filled, angst-ridden songwriter who spit out lines like “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage” over a crushing musical background that made most heavy metal acts (like, say, Tommy Lee’s old outfit) sound like the Bay City Rollers. What happened to him is that he grew up, mellowed, and hopefully got a bit wiser. The music is still heavy, but the rage is gone. Corgan sings now, he doesn’t snarl. His melodies are poppy, almost upbeat. He’s writing love songs. Maybe he’s happy. I certainly hope he is.

The problem with this is the expectations. Corgan famously broke up the Pumpkins and formed a new band called Zwan, whose sound was closer to the more recent Pumpkins. When Zwan crashed and burned, he went solo while simultaneously saying he wanted his old band back. But he didn’t want Smashing Pumpkins back. He wanted the name. D’Arcy and James Iha were not invited to the reunion and the resulting album, Zeitgeist, was a noisy, headache-inducing affair. It was as if Corgan was telling his fans, “You didn’t like my synthesizer-driven solo album? You want guitars? Here. Have a billion of them.”

The Smashing Pumpkins is a brand name, and what fans expect from that brand is very different from what they are hearing in the 21st century. That’s really unfair, but it’s a result of nostalgia. People don’t mind when a band grows organically as the Beatles or R.E.M. did, but that’s not what happened here. Corgan made a huge show of getting the band back together but he kept the sound of his later projects. Pumpkins fans who had skipped Zwan and Corgan’s solo The Future Embrace were disoriented, and Monuments to An Elegy has already slipped into some cyber discount bin.

But is that Corgan’s fault? Yes, and no. What many of the fans of his band don’t realize is that even if it were still the original four members on the latest album it would still sound the same (except for the drums, which would be a billion times better). Because Corgan is the Pumpkins. Musically, lyrically, emotionally, psychologically…Monuments is where the guy is in 2015. What fans are expecting (and I’m as guilty as anyone, and maybe more guilty than most) is not the Smashing Pumpkins. They’re expecting to feel the same way they did the first time they heard Siamese Dream. There is almost nothing Billy Corgan can do at this stage of his career to appease the people who heard “Cherub Rock” on the radio and saw “1979” on MTV and who expected more of the same in 2014. So yes, it’s Corgan’s fault because of the hype he built up surrounding his reignition of the Smashing Pumpkins brand. He created a set of expectations for his new music without any sort of acknowledgement that his new music wouldn’t be the same. It’s possible he wasn’t even aware of the change because to him it was completely organic.

But no, it’s not Corgan’s fault. The Smashing Pumpkins are now, and always have been, Billy Corgan. They were his vessel. He’s grown up and matured. His attitudes have shifted and the music has shifted accordingly. That doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you. Monuments to an Elegy is a pretty lousy album no matter who did it. But it does mean that Corgan is writing the music he’s capable of writing at this point (which doesn’t mean he won’t write better music in the future). The fact that the fans expect something different is a trap. Corgan is trapped by expectations, and the fans are trapped by nostalgia. It is easier for Corgan to escape: as long as he likes his music, that’s all that truly matters. But the trap means he’ll probably never sell millions of records or sell out stadiums again.

It appears Corgan has seen the writing on the wall. A recent article in Rolling Stone finds the singer sounding as if he knows the end is near. A new album is projected for September, but after that? Only time will tell. Corgan is right to think about hanging up the band name and striking out on his own again. The Pumpkins were a band that was extremely popular (and great) twenty years ago. Today it’s just a monument to that band. The new album by William Corgan may not generate as much publicity or hype as a new album by the Smashing Pumpkins, but it’s far more likely to be accepted for what it is: the work of an artist still plying his trade.

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

TheBeatlesMagicalMysteryTouralbumcover

Released less than six months after the glory of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour is not really an album. At least, it wasn’t at the time. It was never released in England until the compact disc era. In truth, it was another money-grabbing effort from Capitol Records to milk a little more cash out of the audience. Ah, but what an effort…

In England, Magical Mystery Tour was released as an EP consisting of six songs on two slabs of vinyl. The songs were the soundtrack to a new movie made by, and starring, the Beatles. Since the EP market didn’t exist in America, Capitol Records took the six songs and added three recent singles, including the pre-Pepper “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” single, the post-Pepper “All You Need Is Love/Baby You’re A Rich Man” single, and “Hello Goodbye” the A-side of the current single. But in this case, the desire for more sales accidentally created a masterpiece. There’s really no comparison: the American version of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack is so much better than the officially released EP that even the Beatles were forced to acknowledge it by making the American version the official version in 1987.

U.S. Edition U.K. Edition
1. Magical Mystery Tour
2. The Fool on the Hill
3. Flying
4. Blue Jay Way
5. Your Mother Should Know
6. I Am The Walrus
7. Hello Goodbye
8. Strawberry Fields Forever
9. Penny Lane
10. Baby You’re A Rich Man
11. All You Need Is Love
1. Magical Mystery Tour
2. Your Mother Should Know
3. I Am The Walrus
4. The Fool On The Hill
5. Flying
6. Blue Jay Way

Everything about the American version works better. Even the sequencing of the six soundtrack songs has a far better flow and pace than the double EP version. The packaging of the album, a gatefold with a 24-page booklet featuring a bizarre Beatles cartoon story and a series of extremely odd photographs, also benefits from being the larger LP size. It should be remembered how strange this must have seemed to the American audience. The Magical Mystery Tour movie was made specifically for the BBC and was never shown in America (lucky us), which means that the photographs and cartoon story had no real context outside of the album art. Why is there a photo of John Lennon dressed as a waiter shoveling mounds of spaghetti and what look like rags onto the plate of a large woman? Why is Paul McCartney in a military uniform? Why are there cartoons of the Beatles dressed as wizards? Who the hell is Little Nicola and why is she so adamant that I am not, in fact, the Walrus? Why are the Beatles, if it’s really them, dressed up like animals on the front cover?

The answer, of course, is that it was all part of a trippy mess of a movie, but the Americans didn’t know any of that, aside from a brief mention in the gatefold. What they knew was the music, most of which was sublime.

The title track serves much the same purpose as the title track of Sgt. Pepper. It’s a grand fanfare and an introduction. Separated from the movie, the song still works as an album intro, promising a journey to lands unknown in the songs that follow. It’s a loud, brassy song with simple lyrics that can be read two ways: the literal interpretation of a magical tour, and the metaphorical reading that reveals the drug references. “Magical Mystery Tour” is a drug song, starting with John Lennon’s carnival barker shout of “Roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour!”, a line that uses a common English phrase as code for the act of rolling a joint. The entire concept of the song, written by Paul McCartney, is based on the notion of tripping, taking the common British bus tour and using it as a metaphor for a journey to magical lands. But it is, in the end, still just a fanfare. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, saved from banality by the McCartney’s lead vocal and by the driving, propulsive music. Lyrically it’s even simpler than Sgt. Pepper‘s opening salvo, though the song itself is longer. Removed from its context it’s not a great song, but it’s a world-class album opener. It’s short enough that it doesn’t wear on the listener, punchy enough to force you to pay attention, and catchy enough to leave it stuck in your head. “Magical Mystery Tour” is less a song and more a mission statement. As such, it’s the perfect introduction to the songs that follow.

“The Fool On The Hill” is the first Beatles song to reflect their newfound admiration for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a short, bearded guru with a girlish giggle who turned the Beatles on to Transcendental Meditation. At this point, the band was still enthralled with the diminutive Indian and McCartney’s “The Fool On The Hill” is a loving tribute, portraying the Maharishi as a misunderstood wise man while playing with the imagery of the man with the answers to life’s questions being seated at the top of a mountain. It hearkens back to the literary convention, used most famously by William Shakespeare, of having the Fool be the only person who can speak the truth that others don’t want to hear. The powerful brass of the preceding song is here replaced with flutes and woodwind instruments that float throughout the song, lending an airiness and a baroque sense of sophistication to the music that perfectly complements the naïve lyrics.

This is followed by a song that is one-of-a-kind in Beatles history. “Flying” is the only song credited to all four Beatles, and is the only instrumental they ever officially released. In the film, “Flying” is the soundtrack to a collection of unused footage that had been filmed for the trippy “stargate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s one of the few parts of the movie that genuinely works well. On record, distanced from the visuals, “Flying” still manages to achieve its desired effect. The title clues the listener in to what to expect, and the music doesn’t disappoint. The music glides and swirls. Keep the title in mind and close your eyes and you will see landscapes below you and clouds ahead. It’s very brief, just a bit over two minutes and the last thirty seconds or so is some Mellotron  squealing and backwards tapes that provides a perfect segue into George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way”.

One of the key elements to Beatles music has always been humor. All four of the them were very, very funny. “Blue Jay Way” sounds mysterious and dark, psychedelic and moody. But the lyrics are actually typical Harrison humor. The song was composed when Harrison was waiting for Derek Taylor to arrive at a house he had rented in Los Angeles. Taylor was late, and had gotten lost. Harrison, at the point of exhaustion, passed the time by playing a Hammond organ and making up lyrics about his friends. The mysterious, atonal, psychedelia of the music is paired with lyrics that could have come from a Monty Python song:

There’s a fog upon L.A.
And my friends have lost their way
They’ll be over soon, they said
Now they’ve lost themselves instead
Please don’t be long

It’s the “they’ve lost themselves” that makes it, a wonderfully eccentric turn of phrase. The music on “Blue Jay Way” is probably the most psychedelic the Beatles ever got, which makes the next song on the album all the more jarring. “Your Mother Should Know” is a McCartney soft-shoe shuffle that harkens back to English music hall. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable trifle, as good as or better than most of McCartney’s similar excursions (“When I’m 64”, “Honey Pie”). It’s the kind of track that would never be approved by a record company today because it doesn’t sound like the other songs on the album, but the Beatles never felt constrained by the need to stick to a formula. They were restless in their creativity and went wherever the song happened to take them. In the case of “Your Mother Should Know” that creativity took them to a time before Elvis shook their worlds, a sound that may have opened the ears of some of their fans.

It was the last song on side one, the final song that appeared in the Magical Mystery Tour movie that really opened ears. John Lennon had heard that there was a course that analyzed Beatles lyrics being offered at his old high school in Liverpool, something he considered absolutely absurd. “I Am The Walrus” was his response, a series of images and lyrics that seemed to make sense in a Jabberwocky kind of way but were, in the end, meaningless. This was Lennon playing with words and having a grand time doing it. The images were sometimes shocking (“pornographic priestess”, “yellow-matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye”), sometimes funny (“crabalocker fishwife”, “I am the eggman”), and sometimes coded (“elementary penguins” were Hare Krishnas, “semolina pilchard” was a reference to Norman Pilcher, a British police officer who was notorious for busting rock stars for drugs and even more notorious for bringing his own just to be sure the charges stuck). “Lucy in the sky” gets a shoutout, and the opening couplet came to Lennon on separate acid trips, and it was all punctuated with the refrain “Goo goo g’joob!” The ending includes dialogue taken from a radio production of King Lear and a chanting chorus that repeats the phrase “everybody’s got one” and “oompah oompah stick it up your jumper”. Musically, the song stands with “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as one of the band’s crowning achievements, largely due to producer George Martin’s ability to interpret the desires of his unschooled musicians. There is a rock band of guitar, bass, drums, and piano at the heart of “I Am The Walrus” but it’s the churning orchestration led by violins and cellos, with brass punctuation marks, that make the song stand out. The orchestration adds a veneer of sophistication and respectability. The song seems to be an important statement because the music is so serious. Ironically, a song written to mock the people who took Lennon’s lyrics too seriously sent people into a tizzy as they tried to figure out the meaning of this word jumble. Absent the orchestration, it’s likely that Lennon’s words would have been taken for what they were: a joke. But by adding the hallmarks of so-called “serious” music the Beatles made the joke all that much funnier. “I Am the Walrus” is the greatest musical practical joke ever played.

And it was a B-side of a single. Not even deemed worthy of being the A-side, much to Lennon’s annoyance.

The song that was the A-side of that single led off the second side of the album. “Hello Goodbye” is certainly a better single than “I Am the Walrus” even if it falls far short as a musical innovation. “Hello Goodbye” is insanely catchy, perhaps the catchiest thing Paul McCartney ever wrote (and that’s saying something). One listen and it’s hooked into your brain forever. The simple yin/yang lyrics are easily remembered and the melody is unforgettable. It may not be the achievement that “Walrus” was, but it was unquestionably a more marketable single. “I Am the Walrus” was a brilliantly disorienting slice of surrealism and wordplay. “Hello Goodbye” was a markedly less brilliant solid gold radio-ready hit.

What’s ironic about this is that the two songs that follow “Hello Goodbye” were the two sides of a double A-side single that had been released in February of 1967, months before Sgt. Pepper changed the musical landscape. That single, considered one of the greatest singles ever released, was also the first Beatles single to fail to make the top of the charts. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were a huge leap forward when they were released as the first Beatles single after Revolver. Perhaps it was too far a leap, because the single stalled at number two in the charts, held back by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me”. That doesn’t change that both sides of the single were masterpieces. The songs had been recorded for Sgt. Pepper but rush released as a single when that album was delayed. They became the centerpiece of the second side of Magical Mystery Tour instead, and their inclusion elevates the entire album. There is a slight difference in tone between these songs and the rest of the tracks on the album…they’re not a perfect fit as they would have been on Pepper, but one would have to be a long-faced, humorless scold to care. When an LP is blessed to have both sides of what may be the greatest single in rock history (all votes for “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” will be counted), the idea that the songs sound like they were recorded at a different time and mindset is the lowest form of nitpicking.

If there is a fly in the ointment of the LP it’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man”. Comprised of two songs blended together (Lennon’s “One of the Beautiful People” and McCartney’s “Baby You’re A Rich Man”), the music features a discordant and harsh clavioline, not entirely pleasing to the ear. Lennon’s vocal melody is excellent though the vocal itself isn’t his strongest, and McCartney’s chorus is loud and brash, but both are somewhat undercut by the willfully defiant music. Rolling Stone Brian Jones pops up tooting on an oboe throughout the song, and Mick Jagger is rumored to be a backing voice in the finale. The song was thought to be about Beatles manager Brian Epstein (allegedly Lennon sings “baby you’re a rich fag Jew” at one point, but I’ve never heard it), but Lennon insisted that the song was a message to people to quit whining about their status in life, that we were all “rich”. Unfortunately, the lyrics are something of a mess (“You keep all your money in a big brown bag/Inside a zoo/What a thing to do”, contributed by McCartney, may be one of the dumbest lyrics ever written), so Lennon’s theme never becomes clear.

The lyrics of Magical Mystery Tour‘s final track are also something of a mess. The chorus made the song the anthem of the so-called “Summer of Love” when it was released as a single a month after Sgt. Pepper, but the verses are a circular mash of word soup. How do you parse “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done” or “Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung”? At first glance, the lyrics seem like a “You can do it!” affirmation but what Lennon is really saying throughout the song is that you can’t do it. If it can’t be done, you can do nothing; if it can’t be sung, you can sing nothing; if it can’t be known, you can know nothing; if it isn’t shown, you can see nothing. This is reinforced by the one exception: “There nothing you can say/But you can learn how to play the game”. The chorus seems like a non-sequitur: “All you need is love/Love is all you need”. Lyrically, “All You Need is Love” takes a somewhat darker and more cynical tone than it is ever given credit for. “Love is all you need,” Lennon sings in the chorus, while the verses hammer home the message “because you don’t/can’t have anything else.” You  can learn how to play the game, but if it’s not already being done you can’t do it. “All You Need Is Love” is Lennon’s message to the voiceless, powerless masses that they don’t need the trappings of modern life as long as they have love. It’s a childlike message but, as he did later with the even more naïve “Imagine”,  he uses the music to sell the message. “All You Need Is Love” is a beautiful song, from the opening bars of “Le Marseillaise” to the winding close that incorporates musical themes from “Greensleeves” and “In The Mood” and lyrical shoutouts to “Yesterday” and “She Loves You”. The chorus is simple, making it perfect for singalongs and sloganeering (much like the vastly inferior song “Give Peace A Chance”), and the verses are melodic and sung beautifully by Lennon.

Magical Mystery Tour is not an album, but it is a magnificent LP record. Some of the best songs the Beatles ever did grace its grooves and even the songs that don’t rise to that level are excellent. The Beatles canon is improved by its inclusion.

Grade: A+

The Rolling Stones: Undercover

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In 1983, the Rolling Stones released yet another album that polarized fans. Undercover was their last blending of dance music and rock, and it was buried in “contemporary” production techniques that sound almost impossibly dated today. The music of the 1980s was blighted by these production standards: drums that sounded like machines (even when they weren’t), a clean, bright sound that smoothed over any and all rough edges, an over-reliance on synthesizers and sound effects, a shrill keyboard sound. Much of the music on Undercover, and even the album cover, was garish and brightly lit: like the decade itself. It’s hard to describe a sound of production techniques but the sound of the 1980s is all right there on side one, track one of Undercover.

“Undercover of the Night” is an almost perfect example of a song from the 1980s: the lyrics are about revolution in Central America, it was a rock song that had a dance groove, the drums sound like they were played on a computer, the bass is very prominent, the guitars slash but don’t really sound like guitars until the terrific solo, there is a wash of synthesizers over everything. But “Undercover” works, as so many other songs from this era failed to do. The production techniques of the time wrapped songs in a gauzy haze. The sound was pristine, but indistinct at the same time. There was no hint of musical interplay. For too many songs, there was no sense of real musicians playing instruments. Everything sounded processed by machines. Many great songs from this era are still difficult to listen to because they sound so bad. The quality of the writing, playing, and singing needed to be extraordinarily good to rise above the production values. Some albums succeeded despite their production (e.g., XTC’s Skylarking is a perfect example of an album where the songs were so good they rose above the neon shininess of the production), but most mainstream albums were suffocated before they had a chance to breathe.

“Undercover of the Night” is an exception. Perhaps it’s because the Stones embraced the new production values that they sound refreshed throughout most of the album. They were no longer even attempting to sound like the band that recorded Exile on Main Street. Instead, they sounded like the most vicious New Wave band on the planet. They brought their trademark aggression and encased it in a sound better suited for Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet. The final results were admittedly spotty, but that had more to do with the material than the production. “Undercover of the Night” is a great song, full of tension and violence. The video, featuring Keith Richards as a skull-masked assassin looking to kill Mick Jagger’s stuffed shirt diplomat, solidifies the impact. Taking a cue from dance music, Bill Wyman’s thick, rubbery bass is the lead instrument, swapping lines with the guitar over Charlie’s mechanized, effects-enhanced drums. Over the backing Jagger barks his lyrics about Communist insurgency in Central America, wisely avoiding choosing sides (there were no good guys in those conflicts). This being the Stones, Jagger makes even revolution sexual as he sings about the prostitutes “done up in lace, done up in rubber” servicing “jerky little GI Joes/On R&R from Cuba and Russia”. It’s a kitchen sink production, with the backwards loops, dub-influenced echo, and phased drums, but still leaves space for a ferocious guitar solo from Ron Wood. “Undercover of the Night” was the first single released from the album and was shocking in a way that the Stones hadn’t achieved since “Miss You”, and for the same reason. The song was the Stones wading into the production values of New Wave and dance music, and emerging with a tough rocker that you could dance to, and a video violent enough to be banned from MTV until it was edited. You can change the sound, but the Stones were still the Stones.

This was proven by “She Was Hot”, a comic sex-romp about groupies who are so steamy they leave even Mick Jagger burnt out. The effects of the previous song are gone here, leaving the band to sound natural again. Charlie Watts and Keith Richards benefit the most from this. Charlie lays down a steady beat and Keith plays a distorted, thick solo. Jagger shouts the funny lyrics, a vocal style that he would use more often as he got older. Undercover has a lot of great singing from Jagger, but also marks the point where his voice started to change into what you hear today: over-enunciated, shouting. The man who sang “Wild Horses” is still there, but time and life were conspiring to change the timbre of his voice.

This vocal style is even more pronounced on “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love)”, Jagger’s nod-and-a-wink song about S&M. In a way it’s a companion piece to “She Was Hot”, just another experience pulled from Jagger’s bottomless well of libertine decadence, but you never get the feeling that Jagger actually means it. When it came to sex, the Stones were always a little cartoonish, and this song fits right in to the milieu. Indeed, Keith has said that the song was something of a joke meant to annoy “mouthy little feminists” who had given the band a difficult time over their perceived misogyny since the days of “Under My Thumb”. Bill Wyman is again the real star of the song, which is a straight rocker with one foot in dance rhythms. There’s also a completely unnecessary conga break that adds nothing but a distraction.

Those dance rhythms are gone in “Wanna Hold You”, another winner in Keith’s string of rockers that dated back to Some Girls‘s “Before They Make Me Run”. From a technical perspective, “Wanna Hold You” is a mess. The backing vocals are all over the place, the lyrics are a throwaway, and Keith slurs the lead vocal. But Charlie Watts once again rides the beat like the old pro he is, and Ron Wood plays a solid bass line. It’s sloppy, but effective, a throwback to a time when the band was more concerned with the feeling of a song and not the perfection of a recording. Four songs in, and Undercover is firing on almost all cylinders. It won’t make anyone forget Sticky Fingers, but it’s clearly their best album since Some Girls.

All of which makes “Feel On Baby” even more disappointing. To call it a half-hearted stab at reggae would be overestimating it. Musically it’s a dull, phony dub/reggae tune mired in awful production values, electronic drums, shrill harmonica, and a go-through-the-motions lyric about hooking up with a girl while on the road. It’s one of the worst songs in the Stones canon.

The nadir of “Feel On Baby” is all the more unfortunate because it’s the one song on the album that’s truly bad. “Tie You Up” isn’t great, but otherwise Undercover is a strong album, more interesting and inspired than the overly praised Tattoo You. The second half picks up with “Too Much Blood”, another love-it-or-hate-it song that comes from the dance world. Once again the drums are processed beyond recognition, leaving the listener baffled as to why the Stones would put the great Charlie Watts in an electronic box. The guitars are barely noticeable, but offer a constant plucking and picking that drives the song. Once again, it’s Bill Wyman’s show, though he’s assisted by a punchy horn part. Over it all is a superficial lyric about just wanting to dance in a world that’s gone crazy. What makes the song different, however, is Jagger’s two extended raps. The first is a straight telling of a true murder story from Paris, about a Japanese man who murdered and ate his girlfriend. The second is, to me at least, an hilarious rap about the then-current trend of slasher movies. “You ever see the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? ‘Orrible, wasn’t it?” Jagger asks. “Oh no, don’t saw off me leg…don’t saw off me arm…When I go to the movies I like to see something more romantic. You know, like Officer and A Gentleman‘”. Both of the raps were off-the-cuff vocals, and they make the song. “Too Much Blood” succeeds because it has a great bass line, and because it’s funny. The video, with a campy, scared Jagger running away from chainsaw-wielding Keith and Woody, is even more amusing (in an admittedly dark way).

In a way, it’s easy to see why many fans dismissed Undercover. The middle of the album is a three song sequence that starts with the awful “Feel On Baby”, continues to the dance/rap hybrid of “Too Much Blood”, and culminates in the funk of “Pretty Beat Up”. If the Black and Blue album is what funky dance music sounded like in 1976, then “Pretty Beat Up” is what it sounded like in 1983. It’s a junk lyric, but it’s got a solid groove and a good sax solo from David Sanborn. Still, it’s the third song in a row that can’t really be classified as rock and roll or blues, so it’s the Stones playing outside of their strengths. “Pretty Beat Up” is good. It’s closer in spirit to Tattoo You‘s “Black Limousine” than Black and Blue‘s “Hot Stuff”, which makes it one of the band’s better excursions into funk.

The fans who stuck with the album through these three songs were paid off with “Too Tough”, “All The Way Down”, and “It Must Be Hell”. Jagger plays the strutting macho man of “Too Tough”, a riposte to an aggressive, possibly psychotic, woman who tried (and failed) to put the singer under her thumb. It’s the flip to “She Was Hot” with Jagger boasting of his victory over his female adversary. It’s a thoroughly convincing rocker, with Charlie once again on target and Ron Wood tearing into a quasi-heavy metal guitar solo.

Even better is “All The Way Down”, a sleazy rocker about a youthful affair. Jagger has commented that the song was based on an old relationship and the opening lyric, “I was 21, naïve/Not cynical, I tried to please” would seem to indicate that the girl in question may be Marianne Faithfull who, in 1983 when Undercover was released, was deep in the throes of drug addiction. “Still I play the fool and strut,” Jagger sings in a proto-rap style before shouting “Still you’re a slut!” It’s a harsh, angry song but there’s an undercurrent of lost affection in the bridge as Jagger croons “She’s there when I close my eyes” and also a real sense of lost time, innocence, and youth. “Still the years rush on by/Birthdays, kids, and suicides…Was every minute just a waste? Was every hour a foolish chase?” With Keith and Woody lending strong support, the chorus line of “She went all the way/All the way down” can serve as the obvious sexual reference it is but, assuming the song is about Faithfull, also a judgement about her life, now that the beautiful songbird of Swingin’ London had become a croaking, haggard junkie (she has, fortunately, cleaned up her act).

“It Must Be Hell” ends the album as it began, with another foray into politics. In this case, Jagger compares his life in the West with the one lived by those on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Lyrically, it’s a little sloppy. Jagger has admitted that the words weren’t as clear as he would have liked, especially in the first two verses. The closing summation makes his point, though, that as troubled as the West may have been, things were far worse under Communist rule:

Keep in a straight line, stay in tune

No need to worry, only fools

End up in prison or conscience cells

Or in asylums they help to build

We’re free to worship, free to speak

We’re free to kill, it’s guaranteed

We’ve got our problems, that’s for sure

Clean up the backyard, don’t lock the door

Musically, “It Must Be Hell” draws on a more unlikely source: the Stones themselves. The main guitar riff is a slightly altered variation of the chorus riff on Exile on Main Street‘s “Soul Survivor”. (Hey, it’s a great riff…Slash ripped it off for Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, too.) At just over five minutes, “It Must Be Hell” overstays its welcome a little, but it’s a fine, propulsive rocker with scorched earth guitar work from Ron Wood.

Undercover was an experiment, an attempt to sound very contemporary. It was the last time the Stones would be this daring on an album. Experiments would be few over the rest of their career, which is unfortunate. Soon after this album the band would settle into workmanlike songwriting and playing that provided lots of good material, almost none of which were as memorable as their best music. In 1983 the Stones were fracturing. Keith and Mick were at each other’s throats, which is clearly evident in the lyrics on Undercover. It’s an album where the songs are steeped in violent metaphors and allusions. Even sex, Jagger’s leitmotif, has become violent. Nearly every song carries this theme: “Pretty Beat Up”, “Tie You Up”, “Too Tough”, “It Must Be Hell”, and that doesn’t even include the themes as shown in songs with more innocent titles: revolution, recrimination, bitterness, anger. What you’ve got with Undercover is an album where the band was working as a unit, but where the two songwriters and leaders were filled with passion. The anger would be even more pronounced later, but by then the unity was gone. By the time the unity returned, the passion was lost to an uneasy détente. That makes Undercover the last album made by the Rolling Stones as a vibrant, intense rock group. From here on they would be a working band, driven by habit, finance, and professionalism. Undercover has its flaws, but is a largely underrated album in the Stones discography. It’s the last album where the Stones sound like they were really trying, and that has to count for something.

Grade: B

Jack Bruce, RIP

In my Junior year of high school, way back in 1980, my Spanish class had a Secret Santa for Christmas. We were all supposed to write our names on a slip of paper, put them in a box, and then draw names out of the box. Fortunately, my best friend and partner in all things music, Joe, sat next to me in that class. We had the slips of paper with our names but, rather than put them in the hopper, simply handed them to each other and then pretended to draw from the box. Neither of us wanted the obligatory bottle of cologne that would be presented by a girl, or whatever token gift one high school boy would give another. So when the time came, we exchanged presents. I gave him the LP Rainbow Bridge, by Jimi Hendrix. Joe gave me Cream’s Disraeli Gears. I can still vividly remember another of my friends complaining about the gift he’d gotten (of course, a bottle of cheap cologne). I’m sure he forgot about that gift long ago, but those two LPs Joe and I exchanged served us well for decades. I listened to Disraeli Gears until the grooves on the record were gone, and the album had to be replaced. I taped it and listened to it on a boombox whenever I had to do yard work the following summer. It became part of my DNA. I knew every note, every nuance. In May of 1982, Joe threw a beer bash at his house while his parents were away. We discovered that the day of the party also happened to be Cream bassist Jack Bruce’s birthday, so we posted up signs saying “Happy birthday Jack Bruce” and made sure that both Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire made it on to the turntable that night.

The soundtrack of my life during those years was huge, and varied, but Cream was one of the major players. I had all the albums, and went so far as to buy the huge poster that came with the first edition of the Goodbye album from my local record store, where it was stapled to the ceiling. Many years later, in 2005, Joe called me at work. He was talking to me in a very distracted way, mumbling and repeating, “Hold on…” before finally bursting out with “Got it! We’re going to see Cream at the Garden!” He’d been sitting at home, with two computers going, trying to get tickets. The concert was one of the best we’d ever been to, somewhat to our surprise. The band didn’t sound like three guys playing the music of Cream. They sounded like Cream. The three of them stretched out, with songs routinely crossing the eight-, nine-, or ten-minute mark. They played with the fluidity of the best jazz musicians and the fury of the best rock musicians. They were as locked in as any band I’ve ever seen, and they were louder than bombs. Nobody in the band had done anything as good as Cream in the 30+ years since the band’s breakup, but on this night it was like no time had passed. Eric Clapton was being forced to break a sweat for the first time in decades. Ginger Baker was a revelation, as good as he’d ever been, if not better.

The night, however, belonged to Jack Bruce. Two years earlier Bruce had a liver transplant, which meant that there were moments in the show where he sat down to rest. But his voice was as elegant as ever, a resonant tenor that added pathos to “We’re Going Wrong” and a withering intensity to “White Room.” His bass playing was equally remarkable. He played lightning fast runs on the bass, going toe-to-toe with one of rock’s greatest drummers and one of rock’s greatest guitarists.

Cream was a band of equals. Equal in skill, equal in ego, equal in ambition. It was a band that was never going to last because it was far too combustible. Bruce and Baker hated each other, though they were in awe of each other’s musicianship. All three members were also far too mercurial. Much like Jeff Beck or Neil Young, they were journeymen, too restless to ever be tied down for a long time. In many ways it’s a miracle Cream lasted as long as it did.

After the band split, Jack Bruce began an erratic solo career. He played free jazz with John McLaughlin on Things We Like and joined Tony Williams’s jazz fusion-oriented Lifetime. He released solo albums, and played with everyone from Frank Zappa and Lou Reed to Robin Trower and Leslie West. His jazz-influenced rock album I’ve Always Wanted To Do This paired him with the great jazz drummer Billy Cobham. It was released around the time I first got Disraeli Gears, and I bought it almost immediately.

Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were jazz musicians. They played blues and rock, as well, but at the end of the day it was all about jazz for both of them. The intensity they brought to their extended musical improvisations when Cream performed live were revolutionary. They brought a level of musicianship to rock that demanded attention and respect.

Jack Bruce never matched what he did with Cream. He didn’t have to. He, along with the Who’s John Entwistle, changed the way bass players handled their instruments. Every jazz or rock bass player since Jack Bruce reflects his influence, consciously or unconsciously. He wrote some of the classic songs of the rock era: “Sunshine Of Your Love”, “White Room”, “Theme From An Imaginary Western”, among others. He was one of the greatest musicians in jazz, blues, or rock, a true virtuoso on his chosen instrument (and others he played equally well, like cello and piano), known for the complexity and speed he brought to his bass lines. He was an extraordinary singer, a difficult personality to deal with, too obstinate for his own good, too restless for his own career. He was a titan of the era of rock music. RIP.

Paul Revere, RIP

In the summer of 2013, my closest friend and partner in all things music-related gave me a parting gift. It was a bag full of music magazines from the 1960s and early 1970s. It included everything from an issue of Time with The Band on the cover to issues of Teenset and Hit Parade. Those magazines were directly aimed at the teenybopper crowds. The issues were full of articles with titles like “What Kind of Girl Does Davy Jones Like?” and “Will Mickey Dolenz Ever Find the Girl of His Dreams?” (The implication, of course, was maybe it was you.) Clearly the Monkees were the band. The Beatles figured prominently as well, but they were written about almost as if they existed on another plane.

The second most popular band in those magazines, with enormous amounts of ink spilled in slavish devotion, was the now largely forgotten Paul Revere and the Raiders. It’s kind of a shame that few people know them or remember them now. Sure, they looked ridiculous in their tri-corner hats and Revolutionary War-era garb. Paul Revere (yes, that was his real name), like Manfred Mann and Dave Clark, was not the focus of attention in his own band. Revere stayed in the back, playing keyboards while singer Mark Lindsay was the public face in all those teenybopper magazines. There was nothing hip about them at all, and hip was an important consideration in the music industry then, just as it is today.

But hip or not, the band released a handful of great singles. “Just Like Me” is a flat out mid-60s classic, as is “Kicks”, a song that took a strong anti-drug stance in an era where drugs were being celebrated in music. “Him Or Me, What’s It Gonna Be?” and “Good Thing” were all tough rockers whose energy and attitude belied the gimmick of the band’s dress code.

The band scored one hit in the 1970s, the cheeseball AM-radio standard “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)” and then sank into obscurity before hitting the Oldies tour circuit.

Now Paul Revere has died at the age of 76. Like his namesake, he represented America when the British were invading. He played a small part in rock history, but that handful of singles still shine as brightly now as they did almost fifty years ago, long after songs by more well-known bands have become dated relics of a bygone era. RIP.

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 concept 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 where the stereo mix being better than the mono. Both the mono and stereo mixes have their selling points and despite Lennon’s insistence that mono was the best way to hear the album, the stereo mix is far superior to that of any pre-Pepper Beatles album. 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+