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A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for Sound Engineers
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles
Member Name: cheffrey
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles
Advantages: Showed what could be done with a recording studio
Disadvantages: Of its time, some people would call it 'over-produced'
I wasn't going to bother reviewing this, simply because I thought there was absolutely nothing else that could be said about this album that hasn't been said hundreds, if not thousands, of times already. Opinions range from total extremes, with critics pouring praise on it for being the bestest bunch of soundwaves ever assmbled, to being dismissed as an irrelevant lightweight relic of its time. Furthermore, the same things have been said about the Beatles as a band; I've read and heard some utterly ridiculous plaudits stating that they "invented every type of music ever" (no, they didn't), to that they were a bunch of illiterate devil-worshippers. Uh, sure, whatever. However, doing some research into the technical aspects of sound engineering, it struck me that there's a side of the Beatles that has been overlooked in favour of all the useless, hyperbolic rubbish spouted by journalists over the years. While Sgt. Pepper has often been cited as the most influential album ever recorded, I've come to the conclusion that it might just be, though for some very different reasons.
Unusally for a music album review, I'm not going to delve too deeply into its content, mainly because the world and his dog have heard this record and there's not much new to say about the styles of the songs or lyrics. It is largely a foray into wide-eyed psychedelia, childlike innocence and other quintessentially British things. Although it's often been called 'the first concept album', this isn't really true, as there is not real overarching concept to tie the songs together. And even if there were, The Pretty Things had already done it on 'SF Sorrow'. This is an album where McCartney dominates, with Lennon taking a back seat as songwriter. This isn't a good thing really, as I often preferred the edge of Lennon's songs over McCartney's which often got too close to being twee (especially during his career afterwards, yuck). Newly fashionable overdriven wah-wah guitars abound on the title track and its reprise, which was later revved up to 3000rpm by an impressed Hendrix. 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' and 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite' are playful bits of Lennon, and Harrison exposes his fascination with all things Indian on 'Within You Without You', sharing some of his newly-found Hindu philosophy to the twang of his sitar. In many ways this album is a whimsical look at the people around them - 'Lovely Rita' the girl who works as a parking attendant, 'She's Leaving Home', the girl who runs away with a car salesman, and 'Good Morning, Good Morning', which excellently describes the banality of everyday life. Even better is closing track 'A Day in the Life' is a tour-de-force, an existential run through both the mundane and the daydreams that punctuate it, culminating in an almost suicidal cacophony of sawed stings and atonal piano chords. As a soundtrack to the social upheaval of mid-60s Britain, it is a wry smile to the Beatles' own generation as the post-war baby-boomers make their own way and try to work out what the world is all about.
Anyway, where things get really interesting is in the techniques used and developed during these sessions to create the finished piece. Sgt. Pepper is a technological achievement that has its innovations stamped on almost every piece of popular music ever since, whether recorded or live. A bold statement perhaps, but I think it rings true.
By 1966, the Beatles vanished into the ivory towers of their recording studios, and I can see why. Looking at the footage of them playing live at Shea Stadium, it's a wonder they didn't all come back from the States with tinnitus from 50,000 shrieking girls drowning out their PA system. And their performances were so lousy (out of time AND out of key), the studio was the last refuge for them. Victims of their own success, they started becoming a bit insular and weird, at least as far as their recordings went. 1966's 'Revolver' had shown some peculiar and intriguing ideas on 'Tomorrow Never Knows', replete with manipulated sound effects and looped tapes and drum beats, and b-side 'Rain' had some more bizarre backwards effects and echoed vocals. With Sgt. Pepper they continued this theme of sonic experimenation, pulling amps and speakers apart, multi-tracking instruments and consulting with producer George Martin and engineers Geoff Emerick and Ken Townsend.
Sgt. Pepper was all recorded on a 4-track tape, which was the norm for most pop recordings of the day, as it was seen as unnecessary to have any more (one track for vocals, one for guitar, one for drums etc.) and for the recordings to be mixed from there. With a desire to do more, techniques were developed to wring ever last bit of potential out of those tracks to create the lavish, multi-layered aural experience that the album became. Double-tracking was developed, mainly because the band found it so tedious, as were methods for reverb, delay, echo and flange - all of which have become staple effects in modern music. In fact, if you walk into any pro-music shop and pick up a mixing unit, no matter how small, they nearly all come with these effects as standard. Even the word 'flange' entered the vocabulary of soundwave manipulation during these sessions, as Lennon threw off a typical Lennon-ism as he requested his voice sounded 'more, err, flangey' for 'Lucy in the Sky'. Given that almost every live performer will run their equipment through a mixer, as will every band in the recording studio, Sgt. Pepper's mark is a long-reaching one.
This album is one of a band turning the recording studio into their playground, unwittingly creating the template for so many different sonic effects that would become standard options for tweaking an artist's sound for the rest of pop music history. Although digital recording would come into being in the 1980s, their inventive use of multi-tracking on such a basic bit of machinery proved to be an inspiration for so many other bands wishing to break beyond the constraints of a four-piece band. This may have led directly to what some might call over-production and pomposity, chucking brass sections and strings and sound effects and tape collages into the mix, so whether that's a good thing or not depends entirely on taste. I for one think it's great, as it opened the door to a whole new arsenal of tools for artist's to play with until 16 track tapes came into existence. Less is often more though, and somebody perhaps should have told Emerson, Lake and Palmer this; the Beatles somehow manage to get away with it though, as although they have chucked everything from sitars and inaudible dog-whsitles into the mix here, they still know the importance of brevity - the songs don't meander too much beyond their welcome. Indeed they show a great deal of self-discipline for a band with the freedom to do whatever they wanted; listen to the Rolling Stones' psychedelic effort 'Satanic Majesties Request' to hear what can happen to a band locked in a studio with no guidance.
This is a technical achievement of a staggering magnitude, and like the majority of such works are collaborative efforts. I doubt very much that the Beatles would have been able to create this without the technical knowledge of George Martin and EMI's brilliant sound engineering crew. It also ended the incredibly irritating practice of record labels releasing different versions of the same album for UK and overseas markets, as the band insisted it be released in the same running order, with the same artwork.
Summary: A milestone in recorded music, for various reasons