Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall (Huge Fllms/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Los Angeles Times announced that their local PBS station (not the one in L.A., which left the network, but one in Orange County) would be showing yet another documentary on the making of the Beatles’ classic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed by a blues program featuring singer-guitarist Joe Bonamossa (whom I quite like, even though his whole career seems to have been a deliberate attempt to fill the void in the white blues singer-guitarist virtuoso niche left vacant by the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1990), but instead our local station, KPBS, showed the Sgt. Pepper documentary and then a remastered version of a 30-year-old music special, Roy Orbison: A Black & White Night. The Beatles’ documentary had the full title (according to Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall, Howard Goodall (any relation to Jane?) having been the host. Goodall also showed up in certain sequences with an electric keyboard and actually sang bits of the Sgt. Pepper songs to illustrate the differences between the final versions and how the Beatles either did sing them earlier on the alternate takes or might have sung them if they’d been willing to settle for the artistic “easy outs” available to them instead of pushing themselves in fresh new directions. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the Beatles’ career in general and Sgt. Pepper in particular is how far out the Beatles went in pushing themselves artistically; where most pop groups, then and since, looked for a salable sound and then stuck to it once they found one, the Beatles kept making radical changes and essentially daring their audience to follow them. 

 Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution begins with the last formal concert the Beatles ever played as a live band — in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966 — and the disgust with which the Beatles greeted the entire insanity of touring. There’s a clip from a November 1966 interview with Paul McCartney in which he complained that they couldn’t hear each other, the audience couldn’t hear them because they were screaming too loudly (in a later interview Paul said it was like trying to perform a rock concert on an airport runway with a jet airliner just behind you readying its engines for takeoff) and the whole strain of doing concert tours was setting them back creatively and keeping them from doing what they really wanted to do by then, which was make great records whether or not the sounds on them could be duplicated in live performance. The break had actually happened on the Beatles’ album immediately preceding Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, which generated one of their biggest hit singles (“Yellow Submarine” b/w “Eleanor Rigby”) but for the most part consisted of wildly experimental songs that anticipated much of Pepper, including one of George Harrison’s exercises in raga-rock (“Love You To”), experiments in mind-bending sound effects (John Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” and “She Said She Said” — for the latter Lennon actually asked if he could be hoisted to the ceiling of EMI’s Abbey Road studios and swung around to get the “phased” effect he wanted on his vocal; fortunately engineer Geoff Emerick thought of a less potentially lethal way to get the effect Lennon wanted; he ran the vocal through a Leslie organ speaker and miked the speaker, whose rotating horns created an artificial vibrato and “faded” the vocal in and out the way Lennon desired) and an awesome final track, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” for which Lennon wanted a Gregorian-chant effect of a chorus of monks but which was created electronically instead. 

As I’ve said before in previous posts about the Beatles, one of the great things about their career that enabled them to accomplish so much is that they did not fall into the hands of conventional managers and producers who would have steered them into the commercially reproducible formulae: their manager, Brian Epstein, and their producer, George Martin, had both come from the world of classical music, and Martin had additionally recorded comedy albums with groups like the Goon Squad (a popular BBC radio program featuring Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe), Flanders and Swann and Beyond the Fringe, antecedents of Monty Python, whose records required elaborate sound effects and manipulations most producers recording pop singers didn’t know how to do and wouldn’t have cared about anyway. Of course, some of the Beatles’ techniques had been used on pop records in the 1940’s and even more in the 1950’s, as the development of tape recording made it possible to record different parts of a record at different times — if your singer was having a bad day vocally, as Frank Sinatra was when he came into the Columbia studio in 1950 to record the album Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra, you could just turn off the vocal mike, get good backing tracks from the orchestra, and call him in to add his vocals when his voice was in better condition. Also one of the basic recording tricks that subsequently became nearly universal was double-tracking, which had been done as early as 1941 by jazz musician Sidney Bechet but first reached the general record-buying public with the records of Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1950 (he played guitar, she sang, and they put out records that sounded like they had multiple guitarists and singers — only it was just them, recording themselves over and over and sometimes altering the speed of the recording so you could hear them singing and playing twice as fast as they actually were) and then with the double-tracked vocals of Patti Page on a lot of her 1950’s sides for Mercury Records. 

When the Beatles first started recording for George Martin at EMI’s smallest and least prestigious label, Parlophone, in 1962 EMI’s best equipment was a two-track tape recorder, which allowed Martin to record the Beatles’ vocals on one track and their instrumental parts on the other. By 1967 EMI had upgraded to four tracks, which were then mixed down to a two-track recording for a stereo record release, and in creating the orchestral phantasmagoria of Sgt. Pepper the Beatles and Martin did the only thing they could: record four tracks, mix them down to one or two, then copy (“bounce”) them to one or two tracks of another four-track machine and add additional parts, including extra vocals and instruments played by the Beatles, parts played by studio musicians to add horns, strings or other instruments the Beatles themselves could not play, and special effects. Instead of attempting to crowd the entire making of Sgt. Pepper into one hour of documentary film, Howard Goodall chose to emphasize seven particular songs, five of which were on Sgt. Pepper itself (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “Within You Without You” and “A Day in the Life”) and two which weren’t but were integral to the overall Sgt. Pepper project even though the Beatles and Brian Epstein pulled them off the album at an early stage so they could have a single ready for release in February 1967: “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Indeed, the entire Sgt. Pepper project was first conceived as a concept album about the Beatles’ childhoods in Liverpool; Strawberry Field (singular) was an outdoor children’s park maintained by the Salvation Army and Penny Lane was a street in Liverpool which contained a “roundabout,” essentially a circular traffic island where a number of Liverpool’s bus lines stopped, so you could transfer from one to another — as the Beatles often did when they were making their way around Liverpool as kids. 

Goodall tried to present the information in his show as if it had never been published before, but most of the basic stories have been known since George Martin published his autobiography All You Need Is Ears (a valuable book not only for his accounts of working with the Beatles but his in-depth reports on the comedy records he’d made earlier and their importance in teaching him how to do unusual sound effects on records that stood him in good stead when the Beatles became more experimental) in 1979, and most of the film clips from the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions have been in circulation at least since 1995, when the surviving Beatles collaborated on a documentary project called The Beatles’ Anthology that included a three-part TV series as well as three two-CD boxed sets containing alternative takes of Beatles’ songs as well as a few previously unissued tracks (like their lovely early Buddy Holly pastiche, “I’ll Be On My Way,” and a slower, funkier and better version of their early song “The One After 909” than the one we eventually got on the last released Beatles’ album, Let It Be). What’s most missing from Goodall’s run-through of Sgt. Pepper is the historical context and in particular what other rock artists were doing when it was made; when the Beatles started Sgt. Pepper a number of the San Francisco “psychedelic” bands had already recorded — the Jefferson Airplane had put out their second album, Surrealistic Pillow (their first with Grace Slick as their female singer and their commercial breakthrough that included the hits “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”) and the Grateful Dead had put out their first — and recording historian Roland Gelatt suggested in the revision of his book The Fabulous Phonograph that the Beatles were feeling the hot breath of American competition behind them and wanted to make an album that would catch up with and surpass what their rival U.S. bands were doing. There was another American band that the Beatles themselves regarded as rivals: the Beach Boys, who had put out their Pet Sounds album in 1966. Paul McCartney instantly proclaimed Pet Sounds as the greatest rock album yet made and demanded that the Beatles produce something that would surpass it. 

The “concept album” — an LP that would contain not just a loosely connected group of songs but would express a story or theme that would unfold continuously from beginning to end — had been around since 1955, when Frank Sinatra had responded to the breakup of his marriage to Ava Gardner by recording a whole set of songs about lost love and heartbreak, In the Wee Small Hours, meticulously picking the songs and working with his arranger, Nelson Riddle, to sustain the bittersweet mood throughout the disc. With Pet Sounds, Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson set out to make the first rock concept album — a story of a relationship from its ecstatic opening (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”) to the more mature emotions of “God Only Knows” and the final heartbreak of “Caroline, No.” The Beach Boys suffered from Brian Wilson’s mental breakdown (which I’ve long suspected at least in part because of the huge creative burden he was carrying: he was both the principal songwriter and the record producer for his band, while the Beatles had three people to do those jobs: John Lennon and Paul McCartney as songwriters and George Martin as producer) and their eventual retreat to a sun ’n’ fun nostalgia presentation based on their earliest and least ground-breaking songs, but at the time a lot of fans, not only in the U.S. but in the U.K. (where in the late 1960’s the Beach Boys’ records were consistently charting higher than they were in the States!), regarded the Beach Boys as serious artistic rivals to the Beatles. Their first attempt to outdo Pet Sounds was Revolver, which as mentioned above anticipated Sgt. Pepper in its sonic experimentation and use of both studio musicians and alternative instruments to extend the Beatles’ sound past its rock roots — and it’s indicative of how the Beatles felt playing live was holding them back artistically that though Revolver had already been released when they did their final tour, they played nothing from it in their tour sets. (Today it would be unheard of for a hot rock or pop act not to promote their current album on their tour.) 

Brian Wilson heard Revolver and was as determined to top it as Paul McCartney has been determined to top Pet Sounds, and the result was the ill-fated Smile project which overlapped the creation of Sgt. Pepper and which Wilson abruptly abandoned when he heard a tape of the final track on Sgt. Pepper, “A Day in the Life,” before its official release (Paul had visited him in California and brought the tape as a sort of friendly “Here’s what we’re doing” gesture), and Brian was flabbergasted that the Beatles had already created the ultimate rock album and even if he finished Smile it would be seen as merely “the Beach Boys’ Sgt. Pepper” instead of the new and unique breakthrough he was hoping for. Meanwhile, Sgt. Pepper evolved into a semi-concept album drawing on various influences, including the original inspiration in the Beatles’ Liverpool childhoods as well as even earlier forms of entertainment (the entire song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was based on a poster for a circus performance John Lennon had picked up in an antique store — the performance it advertised had taken place in 1843 — and that wasn’t the only song John wrote for Sgt. Pepper that was based on an ad: “Good Morning, Good Morning” was based on the famous Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial), the generation gap embodied in the song “She’s Leaving Home” (in which, as Goodall points out, the Beatles include not only the yearnings of the runaway girl but the heartbreak of her parents), the East Indian influence on George Harrison that produced “Within You Without You” (which sounds like a Harrison vocal grafted on to a raga performance but is really, as Goodall shows, a fusion of East and West; he even brought along an Indian singer to show how an Indian would have ornamented the vocal line George sings “straight,” and he seems to spend forever on melismatic extensions of the word “talking”) and the final triumph of “A Day in the Life,” fused together from song fragments by John (the chorus) and Paul (the release) and built into an impressive soundscape. 

One of the best moments in All You Need Is Ears is George Martin’s recollection of how the famous orchestral glissando heard twice in “A Day in the Life,” once at the transition point between John’s and Paul’s portions and again at the end, was created: he wrote a score for a 40-piece orchestra that began with the lowest note that could be played on each instrument, ended with the highest and instructed the musicians gradually to go from the lowest to the highest, and to break the most sacred rule of orchestral playing: they were not to listen to each other as they performed the score. Goodall compares it to the chance-based “aleatoric” music of John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen (though Cage, who said he wanted to create entirely new forms of music that would not be determined by the composer, rejected the term “aleatoric” for his music because he thought he’d gone beyond that, just as Jackson Pollock didn’t like being called an abstract painter because he thought his work had gone beyond abstraction), an artistic horizon John Lennon had been introduced to by Yoko Ono (whom he’d already started to see in 1966 even though they kept their relationship secret until 1968), who also turned him on to musique concréte, a pioneering style of recording ordinary sounds on tape, manipulating and splicing them to create entirely artificial performances, that was created by French composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry in 1948 and is essentially the basis of all “sampling” today. (The Beatles did all-out musique concréte in 1968 with “Revolution #9” on the “White Album.”) 

Though hampered by Goodall’s narration and in particular his annoying pretense of presenting new information when he’s really pretty much rehashing what the late George Martin had been saying about Sgt. Pepper for decades, Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution is a serviceable documentary on an extraordinary work of phonographic history, which despite its antecedents did serve to break the rock world from the formula of the three-minute single song and lead bands to seek to create entire albums in which the songs would relate to each other and form a continuous work of art. It was also, more than any other, the album that asserted once and for all that rock ’n’ roll music was art, and it deserved to be taken as seriously as any other musical form. It’s fascinating that not only does Sgt. Pepper hold up as an album today, it and the Beatles’ other recordings are still making new fans and passing the test of time. The show was presented as part of a commemoration of Sgt. Pepper on the 50th anniversary of its initial release (June 1, 1967) that includes no fewer than three CD packages — a bare-bones single disc, a two-disc set with a second disc of alternates and unreleased material, and a big box with a six-CD set, a remastered DVD of The Beatles’ #1’s documentary, a hardback book and other goodies. The new presentation is based on a new stereo mix of the album created by George Martin’s son Giles, which has caused a certain degree of controversy — the “official” reason from Universal Music (who absorbed EMI’s pop catalog, while rival Warner Music got their classical recordings, in a corporate consolidation that reduced the number of the world’s major record companies from four to three) and what’s left of the Beatles’ organization was because the mono mix was the one the Beatles and George Martin worked on for a month and a half after the sessions were completed, while the original stereo release was thrown together by the engineers in about a day and a half without either the Beatles’ or George Martin’s direct involvement, just to have a stereo version for the U.S. market (where stereo had made a much bigger market penetration than it had in Britain). But there’ve been some kvetchy letters to the editor of the Los Angeles Times and other outlets wondering why Giles Martin and the current owners of Universal Music have dared monkey with a masterpiece!