What does it sound like?:
This isn’t a review of the fiftieth anniversary edition (due next month).
That edition is going to be a full remix job. Presumably they’ve tamed the hard stereo separation (drums in one ear, vocals in another, etc), tidied up some of the vocal fluffs and replaced the EMI Studio echo chamber with some surround-sound digital reverb. I’m excited, but I’m also a little sad as it feels a bit like losing an old friend. (Nothing sounds as majestic as that EMI Studio echo chamber – skip to the line “… in his way, Mr K will challenge the world!” on “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” to hear it in all its glory).
Anyway, I felt it was time to prepare my ears by giving the trusty old original edition another spin. Please excuse my indulgence as I try to put this experience into words.
The first thing to say is, naysayers be damned. Pepper is a fine, fine piece of art.
It forms the point where pop music grew up, started taking itself seriously and forming an actual legacy instead of assuming it would fizzle out any day. There’s a horrific bitter-sweetness to that notion. We’re talking about the death of the vibrant, ephemeral, 45rpm “sixties” and the doors opening for concept albums and lifetime achievement awards.
Strange to say, then, that although Pepper probably did open a lot of doors, I actually find it a bit of an artistic dead end. It’s great, yes, but there’s only so much music-hall jolliness and kitchen sink surrealism you can take. This is why I find much of the pop world’s response to Pepper so tedious (The Incredible String Band and The Kinks being rare exceptions – two acts who managed to successfully hit that weird ley line of English through-the-looking-glass darkness Pepper scratches at). Pepper was more of a statement of intent than a creative manifesto.
I always think a good cover for an LP is critical, and Pepper has an absolute doozy. In fact, it might just be The First Great LP Cover In Rock. A pop art collage masterpiece, it’s as recognisable as Warhol’s Marilyn. It was also a sly way for the Beatles to place themselves in the pantheon of the good and the great. So it’s just perfect – the same balance of disarming cheekiness and casual genius that got the Beatles to this world-conquering stage in the first place. (I wish Lennon’s suggestion to add Hitler to the crowd hadn’t been vetoed, because that would only have added to the anarchy and arrogance).
The genesis of the album’s concept is a well-worn tale, the band’s feeling of being trapped and wanting to escape into a whole other persona. Let’s pretend we’re another band, putting on a variety show! This concept barely lasts five minutes, however. (They either got bored or had the savvy to realise how a much looser thematic connection would create a more satisfying whole). So after the opening title track and a little turn from Ringo as the doleful Billy Shears (“With A Little Help From My Friends”), both utterly charming and utterly harmless, we head into the unknown on track three with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”.
I find “Lucy” a bewitching piece, the euphoria of the chorus never quite overcoming the haunting, descending chords of the verses (same chord sequence as “Dear Prudence”, fact fans: one of Lennon’s signature tricks from his relatively limited bag).
A few things really start to hit you as you move through this first side of music. For a start, it’s clear that Paul is utterly dominating things here. As well as having by far the most tracks, his voice is omnipresent and his thematic guiding hand is unmistakable. It certainly sounds like the rest of the band are playing along to his tune, popping up for their star turns, then disappearing into the Pepper-y ether.
Paul definitely hit a rich vibe in early 1967, the kind of wistful, depressive poetry reminiscent of Paul Simon at his best. “Getting Better” and “Fixing A Hole”, while lyrically opaque, have an unmistakable melancholy and maturity to them. He sings about being a wife-beater and you shudder in horror.
“She’s Leaving Home” is his masterpiece, however – “Daddy, our baby’s gone” being one of those killer lines that punch you in the stomach. (By the way, I don’t get the hate for the Mike Leander string arrangement on this song. It’s the perfect balance of syrup and poignancy. I can only assume the hatred comes from a pro-George Martin conspiracy that got out of hand).
Sonically speaking, Paul’s bass playing is also a dominating factor on Pepper. Playing that signature Hofner, with a thuddy, bouncing, toy-like tone, and generally working by overdubbing rather than locking in with the drums by playing eye-to-eye, he dances all over the fretboard, going full Mozart with his counterpointing (on the rare occasions he settles on a root note, he makes it sound like he’s lowering himself to some obnoxious breach of etiquette). The thing is, despite being just about the most arrogant and attention-seeking bass performance ever committed to vinyl, it’s just magnificent. It’s also mixed LOUD as well, which helps a lot.
Coupled with Ringo’s drums (oh, those glorious thunderous rolls and fills – Ringo, will you marry me?), there’s a looseness, a lightness to the bottom end that makes this just about the whitest, unfunkiest rhythm section you’ll ever hear. James Brown, it’s safe to say, would have been baffled – a cream tea with jam and scones would have more groove in it.
But here’s the thing. That’s where the CHARM comes from. (Yep, I went there. Pepper has CHARM). So much of pop music since (particularly since the mid-seventies) has been about a driving, danceable beat. On the whole, we’ve forgotten how to be charming and whimsical like the world of Pepper.
(The lack of rhythmic drive on the LP is matched by a lack of sex. What little sex there is (“Lovely Rita” and the horny flirting in “Good Morning, Good Morning”) sounds more Benny Hill than Ben E King).
Side Two is the meat of the feast. Kicking off with “Within You, Without You” is a brave move. This is Pepper’s “Revolution No 9” moment – the track everyone pretends to hate, but actually enriches the overall palette immeasurably. I can’t imagine Pepper without this dreamy, droning piece of didactism. It feels strange to have 24-year old millionaire George Harrison lecturing you about the illusions of the material world, but for five minutes I believe him. It’s also fantastic proof of George Martin’s magic, his string arrangement, almost invisible to the ear, utterly complimenting and lifting the Indian instruments.
I can do without “When I’m Sixty Four” (the closest Pepper ever gets to proper fluff), but the aforementioned “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” are the band on overdrive. What I find amazing about the latter track is how close Lennon’s muse was to Syd Barrett’s at this time. Unfettered by the constraints of technical ability or an awareness of the “proper” way to do things, “Good Morning, Good Morning” rivals Barrett’s “See Emily Play” or “Bike” for sheer maniacal, all-over-the-place energy.
For all Paul’s dominance, Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” and “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” are critical to Pepper’s success. What they bring to the table is the notion of mayhem and cacophony. Technically speaking, it’s mostly the tape-loop aspects of these productions that do it – the seaside organ medley underpinning “Kite”, and the crazy animal sounds of “Good Morning”.
It helps to know that “Good Morning” came from a particularly insistent Kellog’s Cornflakes TV advert. Not since the Stones’ “Satisfaction” had a pop writer so perfectly lampooned the nagging malaise at the heart of the 9 to 5 lifestyle and the new consumer lifestyle. Here’s a glimpse into an alternative universe Lennon, born at the just the wrong time to surf on the success of the new teen culture, a school drop-out tamed by national service and damned to a life of suburban obscurity and domestic madness. What strikes me in this song is the repeated use of the word “nothing” – it takes the comforting, nostalgic void of “Strawberry Fields Forever” (“Nothing is real”) and turns it into a nihilistic nightmare (“nothing to do”, “nothing to say”, “nothing has changed”).
In this context, the animal noises make sense. Roger Waters certainly understood it, with his farmyard-themed concept album a decade later. We are animals and life is meaningless. We run and eat and copulate and defecate and make loud noises but nothing ever changes. I don’t think I’m reading too much into the animal sound collage to see the fox-chaser horns at the end as being symbolic of the Great British Empire, that ridiculous, bloated beast that thinks it rules the whole animal kingdom.
Just before this all gets too George Orwell, suddenly Pepper remembers it’s meant to be the swinging sixties and we’re back into a reprise of the title track. I said Pepper had no groove. I lied. With the reprise, we’re suddenly back in the Cavern with a rocking four-four beat. Lennon and McCartney sing a vocal harmony so close it’s hard to tell them apart, and for a minute and a half we’re with a group of young rockers again, the finest white R’n’B combo in the world heading for the toppermost of the poppermost.
I can’t really find the words to describe the closing track, “A Day In The Life”, probably my favourite ever Beatles song. It saddened me that the dear departed Ian MacDonald scoffed at the notion of it being described as the “Wasteland” of pop. Comparing it to T S Eliot’s masterpiece seems to me to be a good way of summing up its mighty power.
What is little more than two contrasting Lennon and McCartney compositions stitched together becomes a very sinister dream-world compression of all the themes we’ve witnessed in the last 35 minutes: the melancholy (“I heard the news today, oh boy”), the gruelling 9 to 5 life (“made the bus in seconds flat”) and the druggy escapism (“I’d love to turn you on”).
The central sonic motif of the piece, however, is that great orchestral crescendo (twice repeated, of course, for effect). We’re back in the world of cacophony here, and all that music hall charm is cast to the winds. It sounds like nothing less than the universe being sucked out from under you.
And then, of course, we end. On that glorious and unmistakable C major chord played on about ten pianos at the same time. Duuuuummmmmmmmmm.
Follow THAT, say the Beatles. (Cue everyone else in the world trying to, and failing).
What does it all *mean*?
The pinnacle of pop music. Yeah, I do believe that for the thirty five minutes it takes for the Pepper trip.
Just a year or so before this, even the Beatles themselves thought they were riding a wave that was going to end soon. Until this point, they acted and sounded like they were creating music for the moment, for a generation of teenagers who would move onto something else soon. I find it astonishing that fifty years later this record still has such power and longevity.
Goes well with…
A good pair of headphones to hear the little subtle details and get the full trippy effect.
Might suit people who like…
… em, people who like music? I don’t know. I’m been in love with this record for so long that appreciating it is like breathing. Probably not healthy, no….