As you may have heard if you were living on Earth this past week, it was in fact 50 years ago today (last week). A half-century ago a bunch of guys and no women got together in London to record some music and unleash it upon what could hardly be described as an unsuspecting public. The Beatles were unable to order a pizza without some kind of scrutiny and it had been, after all, an eternity (seven months) since they'd made any new music.
And yes, the ensuing hysteria upon its release was justified; the music was wonderful. The recording techniques crafted sounds that had literally never been heard before. The songwriting was at a level the musicians had been building toward for a couple of years now, but rose above what had come before in complexity and in some places honesty. Where Rubber Soul and Revolver had seen the four Moptops (please) evolve musically, Pepper busted the door down and insisted rather stridently that this was now Art.
With the half-century mark being reached it was not just inevitable but necessary that the Beatles marketing machine, still very much alive and well after all these years, note the occasion with some perspective. And a bunch of products to be bought. As it turned out, there was a four-disc reconsideration of Pepper that included a remixed stereo version, the original mono version and two discs worth of outtakes and alternate versions (which, in contrast to alternative facts, actually exist).
As it happens this year also marks--as I have noted here before--the 30th anniversary of my wife having made a foolish error in marrying me. Knowing that I am a dedicated Beatles lunatic she decided very generously to make a gift of the Pepper mega-set (which also includes Blu-Ray and DVD versions of a Making of Sgt. Pepper documentary made in the innocent days of 1992 when the album was only 25 years old, although I'm sure it seemed older at the time.
So through a series of circumstances that included sending the enormous box set (it also comes with a book I haven't even looked at yet that must weigh 20 pounds) back because of defects and receiving a working copy, I have been listening nonstop to Pepper for a week now.
I have to tell you, I'm a little sick of it.
This may seem blasphemous to the Beatles maniacs within the sound of my keyboard, but Pepper has never been my favorite of the canon. I lean toward the aforementioned Rubber Soul and Abbey Road as high water marks. Yes, Pepper was incredibly innovative and interesting and I'm not saying I don't like it, but it's an arm's-length kind of album that doesn't care if you like it or not and I was nine years old when it came out. It was, to be honest, a little scary for someone of that age, although it certainly isn't now. I have the American government to be afraid of these days.
The songs themselves, on extremely close examination (which this set surely invites) are mostly pretty conventional. Lovely Rita or Fixing a Hole could have appeared on the Beatles album immediately preceding or following Pepper. Something like When I'm Sixty-Four (which doesn't seem all that amusing anymore) harkens back to the British music halls. The opening medley of the title song and A Little Help From My Friends is a lot of fun and promises a sort of concept album that doesn't really materialize.
The album's masterpieces come, not surprisingly, from John Lennon. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (and you can believe the story about the initials or not) is surreal in a way the Beatles hadn't been before. A Day in the Life is mundane and terrifying at the same time, which isn't easy to do. Lennon's voice is intentional eerie. Nobody did that better than he did.
All the hoopla and fanfare that have come with the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper are justified. It was a turning point in popular culture and bands have now spend a half a century trying to catch up. Bravo. As a work of art, it is to be admired and applauded, but it does not wish to be loved. That's okay, but there are others these unmatched musicians made that connect emotionally more completely.
Oh, and She's Leaving Home is about a young woman moving out and getting her own apartment. The melodrama, effective as it is, is a bit much.