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REVIEW: THE BEATLES’ ‘SGT. PEPPERs’ ANNIVERSARY EDITIONS REVEAL WONDERS

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This authorized reconsideration of a major canonical work may be how it was always meant to be heard

 In 2006, the Beatles coaxed producer George Martin out of retirement to remix and rearrange several of their iconic songs for Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas stage production Love. Martin, though, had a worry: At age 80 his hearing had turned difficult, and so he brought in a collaborator: his son Giles. The younger Martin had produced classical music, as well as recordings by Kula Shaker, Jeff Beck, Elvis Costello and Kate Bush. “He’s my ears,” George Martin said. What ears they turned out to be: Giles recombined parts of many of the Beatles’ songs into a mash-up of the band’s audio history, sometimes encapsulating much of it in a single song. “Get Back” opened with George Harrison’s memorable thrum from “A Hard Day’s Night” and Ringo Starr’s drum prologue from “The End,” caught sight of an overpassing jet from “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” pulled in part of the audience’s expectant murmur from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and borrowed a bit of the orchestral swell from “A Day in the Life,” landing on John Lennon’s “Glass Onion.”
Additionally, Sgt. Pepper‘s groundbreaking sonics – its mix of pioneering textures, complex composition and inventive recording techniques –also won the album standing as a legitimate art form that revised and extended classical music’s archetypes. (This achievement also imbued much of rock itself with a new prestige and aspiration.) In part, the unprecedented acclaim resulted from Paul McCartney’s insistence on the album as a conceptual song cycle that existed as a whole entity: The Beatles, posed in ornate Victorian brass-band military costumery on the cover, were playing a fictional band, singing from perspectives free of any indebtedness to their prior musical sensibility and well-established images. (Ringo Starr later described it as “a bunch of songs and you stick two bits of ‘Pepper’ on it and it’s a concept album. It worked because we said it worked.”)
But that was 50 years ago. A lot changed – including the Beatles, who ended acrimoniously in 1970. What can we learn now from Sgt. Pepper‘s new incarnation? As it turns out, Giles Martin reveals considerable new wonders – particularly in his stereo remix of the original album (which appears in all the new editions, and as a standalone disc and digital download). The remix, in fact, provides a long overdue epiphany. Martin observes in his liner notes: “The original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was primarily mixed as a mono album. All care and attention were applied to the mono LP, with the Beatles present for all the mixes. … Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without the Beatles at the sessions. Yet it is the stereo album that most people listen to today.” In other words, popular music’s most elaborate and intricate creation – and one that helped end the mono era – wasn’t made to be heard in stereo.
Perhaps that’s been Sgt. Pepper‘s unlikeliest secret, though for those who compared the original mixes over the years the difference was noteworthy: The mono version hit harder, sounded fuller, whereas the stereo soundstage diffused that force. You hear it from the start: The mono version of the title track jolted full-force, particularly in the collusion of Paul McCartney’s bass and Ringo Starr’s storming drums. Martin has said that in attending to the new album’s mix he was aiming for a “3-D mono” rendition – and he has achieved it. The titular opening track finally jumps out of the speakers in a more centralized stereo: It’s sharp, vivid, forward leaning – the sound of a big band doing very big things and not fucking around about it one bit. Indeed, everything here is more vibrant and forceful; it’s for the ears of today. Ringo’s three-beat drum salvo that launches the chorus in “Lucy in the Sky” now gives new gravity to the song’s hallucinogenic imagery and chimerical whirl; “Getting Better” has an aggression that belies the song’s title claim, making clearer the idea that this is a song about a fucked-up man contending to overcome himself and confessing his flaws and confusion; “Good Morning Good Morning”‘s horns and relentless rhythms propel the distress implicit in John Lennon’s vocal (Lennon later said he was going through a personal hell as the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, and this song reflects that); and “A Day in the Life” acquires even more frighteningly palpable depth. The song has always stood outside of Sgt. Pepper‘s phantasmagoria. It was a vision of dreams, death, chaos, revelation, and it held and scared us as it faded into a final oceanic piano chord, reverberating around a room of keyboards. That moment now holds and scares even more; its finality sounds boundless.
Extra discs in the various Pepper packages consist mostly of the album’s tracks in development (the fourth of the six-disc box showcases mono versions). It’s particularly fascinating to hear the simple and spare origins of John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” (recorded for the album but released earlier in February 1967 as a single, along with “Penny Lane”) and “A Day in the Life.” Both songs sound abstracted and simple at their outset, then grow otherworldly; they are mesmerizing transfigurations, and they transmute right before our ears. Some songs arguably benefit from their fundamental, pre-effects treatment: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is spookier in its Take 4 version, and much warmer in Take 7, with McCartney’s pumping bass steps and Ringo’s razor-sharp cymbal accents. Similarly, newly released takes of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Lovely Rita” and “Fixing a Hole” demonstrate that before curlicues and overdubs were added there was still a quartet sensibility at the heart of most of this music (The Beatles never would have made this music had they kept touring, but contrary any claims, they could have effectively played almost everything here live and stripped.) You especially feel the band as a tight unit in “Getting Better,” “Good Morning Good Morning” and the blazing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise).”
By contrast, “She’s Leaving Home” which featured Paul and John’s voices accompanied by a string nonet but none of the other Beatles. (The song’s writing credit now appears solely as Paul McCartney’s. Several other credits have shifted as well: the title track, along with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “When I’m 64,” “Good Morning Good Morning,” “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Getting Better” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” appear as McCartney-Lennon creations, rather than the more familiar Lennon-McCartney attribution. “A Day in the Life” shows as Lennon composition, while “Lovely Rita,” “Fixing a Hole” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” appear under the original Lennon-McCartney arrangement.) George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” stands outside the Beatles. Harrison set aside his guitar, instead playing sitar and conducting Indian classical musicians while George Martin conducted a conventional classical string section. “Within You Without You” was derided by some as tedious and preachy, but it has weathered beautifully. Sgt. Pepper has often been characterized as a gestalt: a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. But Harrison’s Hindustani song and Lennon’s “A Day in the Life” proved the exceptions. “Within You Without You”‘s message of transcendence and unity – and of haughty judgement – was, as one critic observed, the conscience of Sgt. Pepper. “A Day in the Life,” the album’s closer, dispelled the whole fantasia that had come before. It was haunted – the ghost that outlasted the dream.
Sgt. Pepper‘s moment – its glimpse of a Garden of Eden, its florid sensibility, its depiction of “Cellophane flowers of yellow and green/Towering over your head” – could not hold. Bob Dylan moved back to folk music late that same year with John Wesley Harding – never once touching psychedelia – and the Rolling Stones reasserted rock & roll as a gritty, edgy, blues-based vocation with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” in April 1968. The Beatles were chagrined. The year following Sgt. Pepper‘s release, Lennon himself deprecated it as “the biggest load of shit we’ve ever done.” By 1969 the Beatles had adopted a new motto: “Get back to where you once belonged,” and proceeded accordingly, until they fell apart. Even so, the album itself never fell from its pedestal. It has always been seen as an unsurpassed milestone. Not so much for its psychedelic vision, rather for what it set loose in form, cohesion, texture, layers, adventurism, technology and utter boldness. Those possibilities bore fruit across the breadth of popular music, in Born to Run, Around the World in a Day, OK Computer, Yeezus, Lemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly, among countless others. Also, George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” opened ears not only to Indian sounds but to widening vistas of world music. We live in soundscapes now that Sgt. Pepper helped lay the groundwork for.
Above all, though, the album represented accord and imagination as means to enlightenment – a last bulwark of agreement before the dark set in. We have lost a lot since the summer of 1967, including any more chance of being naïve. But now, thanks to Giles Martin, we can hear the Beatles’ apogee as it was always meant to be heard. That won’t save the world, but it can still beguile us, and that remains a generous miracle.

HOW OLD CIRCUS POSTER LED TO “… MR. KITE!”

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The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Rolling Stone named as the best album of all time, turns 50 on June 1st. In honor of the anniversary, and coinciding with a new deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper, we present a series of in-depth pieces – one for each of the album’s tracks, excluding the brief “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” reprise on Side Two – that explore the background of this revolutionary and beloved record. Today’s installment tells the story of the Victorian circus poster immortalized in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

For a man who would famously imagine no possessions, John Lennon
had amassed an impressive volume of unusual objects by 1967. Kenwood,
his mock-Tudor estate in the London suburb of Weybridge, was packed with
what friend and Beatles associate Tony Bramwell describes as
“bric-a-brac.” Or, put another way, “a load of junk! Oddities and things
he’d pick up in a junk shop,” he tells Rolling Stone. “You’d pick it up and wonder what it was – he’d just buy it, take it home and stick it on the shelf.”

Guests arriving at chez Lennon were greeted in the entrance hall by a suit of armor christened “Sidney,” a World War I recruitment poster proclaiming “Your Country Needs YOU” and, occasionally, a lifelike gorilla costume. Elsewhere were vintage enamel advertising signs, an ornate Victorian wheelchair and an altar-sized Roman Catholic crucifix with an enormous Bible to match. “Cartoons, film posters, knitted dolls,” Bramwell adds to the list. “Things that Beatles fans had sent him and he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ll keep that one.’ Stuff like that. Lots of books, odd instruments that he never learned how to play – cellos and tubas and brass horns – and strange electronic things.” In his 2006 memoir, Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles, Bramwell also describes a number of empty boxes, produced by the band’s electronics guru “Magic Alex” Madas, purported to contain a light ray that warded off negative energy. These were about as useful as the legendary “Nothing Boxes,” metallic cubes with eight lights that flashed in random order until the battery died. There were also more functional items, like a slot machine, pinball table, 40-disc KB Discomatic jukebox and an entire room filled with Scalextric toy racing cars (“That’s a hobby I had for about a week,” Lennon told profiler Maureen Cleave).

Lennon made a significant addition to his collection on January 31st, 1967, when the Beatles were filming the promotional video for “Strawberry Fields Forever” at Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent. Bramwell, on hand to produce the segment, accompanied Lennon when the shoot broke for lunch. “John wanted to go for a drink, so we walked onto the High Street and about three doors along from our hotel was an antique shop,” he recalls. “He went and fussed around in there and saw a poster stuck on the wall.” It was a framed Victorian circus advertisement, breathlessly hawking the “Grandest Night of the Season” – February 14th, 1843, a Tuesday – more than a century after the applause had died away. “Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, Town Meadows, Rochdale, and Positively the Last Night but Three!” the verbose headline trumpeted. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, (Late of Wells’s Circus) and Mr. J. Henderson, the Celebrated Somerset Thrower! Wire Dancer, Vaulter, Rider, Etc.”

The poster was dripping with arcane language and comical illustrations, and Lennon had to have it. “He thought it was amusing because of the drawing of the acrobat on it,” says Bramwell. “And he bought it for 10 shillings – about half a dollar.” Once back at Kenwood, it took pride of place in his den, not far from his piano, where it drew smiles from visitors. “It was just a funny poster,” Bramwell remembers. “It read old English. You’d wonder what some of the acts were supposed to be doing!” Indeed, the colorful language is not easy to decipher. The “somersets” undertaken by Mr. J. Henderson (on “solid ground,” no less) refer to somersaults, while the “garters” he was due to leap over were large banners held aloft by two pairs of hands. The “hogshead of real fire” was a colloquial term for a barrel set alight.
Though Lennon likely wasn’t aware of it, the billing featured some of the biggest stars of the Victorian age. Pablo Fanque, born William Darby, earned fame as a talented performer and the first black circus impresario in England, helming one of the country’s most popular shows for three decades. The headlining Mr. Kite was in fact William Kite, depicted on the poster playing a bugle while balancing his head on top of a pole, and Henderson – famous as a gifted tightrope walker, clown and acrobat – often performed an act with his wife, Agnes. It’s pure coincidence that these bygone celebrities, all long forgotten by 1967, wound up on the wall of a modern luminary.
As the Beatles dove headlong into sessions for what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that February, Lennon found himself short on new material. A glance at the poster provided a welcomed dose of inspiration. “I had all the words staring me in the face one day when I was looking for a song,” he told biographer Hunter Davies. Keeping the archaic syntax intact, he borrowed a title: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”

Having found a starting point, the rest came quickly. “Everything in the song is from that poster, except the horse wasn’t called Henry,” he explained to Playboy in 1980. There were a few other minor alterations – the scene was moved from Rochdale to Bishopsgate, and Henderson was actually “late of Wells’s Circus” – but the majority was taken down nearly verbatim, with a degree of haste. “I wrote that as a pure poetic job. I had to write it because it was time to write and I had to write it quick because otherwise I wouldn’t have been on the album,” he admitted to Rolling Stone in 1970. For George Harrison, the process was a testament to his bandmate’s attentive eye for creative possibility. “That’s how you do it. You hear people say stuff, you hear a phrase that sounds good and you write it down and remember it,” he said in a 1992 episode of The South Bank Show. “I think he was just advanced for those days in his awareness that everything could be put into a song.”

Paul McCartney, based in London, made the drive out to Kenwood and together they assembled the lyrics. “We sat in his room and said, ‘OK, what are we going to write?’ And we noticed he had this old circus poster,” McCartney tells Rolling Stone. “So we said, ‘OK!’ We pulled most of the words directly off the poster, and then filled it in together. It had Pablo Fanque’s Fair, the Hendersons and Mr. Kite, a hog’s head of real fire – all those phrases were directly lifted off the poster.”

The serendipitous composition fell perfectly in line with the antique-chic aesthetic that imbued some of the band’s most recent recordings, particularly McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The latter was tinged with the vintage militaria becoming fashionable with London’s hipster elite. “Around that time there were places like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and that brought back into vogue a lot of those old Victorian things and the nice way of putting things – ‘this night’s production will be one of the most splendid ever!’ That attracted us,” McCartney later explained to biographer Barry Miles in Many Years from Now.
Bolstered by the evocative arrangement courtesy of producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is an enthralling finale to Sgt. Pepper‘s first side. But Lennon, his own harshest critic, voiced his dissatisfaction with the song soon after its release in an interview with Hunter Davies. “I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really. I wasn’t very proud of that. There was no real work. I was just going through the motions because we needed a new song for Sgt. Pepper at that moment.”
Lennon often cited his most personal songs as his favorite works. It’s possible that “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” veered too far into fiction territory for his liking. “I’m not interested in third party songs,” he told Playboy just before his death, “I like to write about me because I know me.” But in the same interview, he admitted that his opinion of the track had improved. “The song is pure, like a painting, a pure watercolor.”

SGT PEPPER AT 50: MAGS

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Rolling Stone, Germany

Classic Rock, Germany

Doc Ville, Greece

Mojo Magazine

Music Icons

Rock & Folks Magazine

Rockaxis

Goldmine

PAUL, RINGO DINE WITH FELLOW MUSIC LEGENDS

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Days before the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” The Beatles’ remaining members were spotted celebrating with some fellow legends in Hollywood.
Spies said that on Friday night, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were sitting at a corner table at LA Italian eatery the Ponte with Eagles rocker Joe Walsh, country star Vince Gill and Jack Nicholson. Paul and Ringo were next to each other in the group.
The Ponte is the new hot spot opened by NYC chef Scott Conant.The album’s 50th anniversary is June 1.

 

Paul said last week on his Web site of creating the classic, “What really happened was, I was coming back from a trip abroad with our roadie . . . and we were eating and he mumbled to me, asked me to pass the salt and pepper. And I misheard him. He said, ‘[mumbles] saltandpepper.’ I go, ‘Sgt. Pepper?’ I thought he said, ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ I went, ‘Oh! Wait a minute, that’s a great idea!’ So we had a laugh about it, then I started thinking about Sgt. Pepper as a character. I thought it would be a very interesting idea for us to assume alter egos for this album we were about to make.”
As far as which historical faces made the iconic cover, Macca revealed, “Someone brought [up] Hitler. And that was vetoed immediately.”