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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

15 Minutes of Beatledom

It was 50 years ago today:  On June 1, 1967, the Beatles released  their eighth record album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and its last note is still echoing. Today, "Sgt. Pepper" has its place in history -- considered by many the greatest record album ever made, and mistakenly identified (initially, by me) as the work that turned the record album into an art form.

And that was my 15 minutes of fame!

In June 1967, "Sgt. Pepper" caused a stir unlike anything before in popular music. It was undoubtedly a Major Event -- every Beatles album was a major event, especially since the masterwork of "Rubber Soul" in 1966.  Still, though "Sgt. Pepper" seemed different from everything they had done, no one at first could explain what the difference was.  Enter Richard Goldstein, the reigning rock critic of New York, who covered the beat for the hip Village Voice.  For this major event, however, he was recruited by The New York Times to write its first-ever review of a rock album.

Perhaps awed by the eminence of the Times, Goldstein chose to trash the record, and the Beatles, accusing them of abandoning their rock and roll roots and turning to "conservatory" music -- "an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent." (Goldstein was plugged in to the counter-culture, but when it came to music he trusted only what he'd heard before -- Jimi Hendrix was likewise an offense to his ears.)

At the time I was writing radio newscasts for WQXR, the radio station of the Times -- working in the Times newsroom, less than a stone's throw from the arts desk.  With a little help from my friends (mainly my then-wife, Mary Jo) I composed an article refuting Goldstein, and considered walking it over to the culture editors.  But I didn't know anyone there, and no one of any consequence at the Times knew me.  I didn't think they'd print it. They'd already run their review, on a subject they knew little about. So I pulled a reverse on Goldstein and called up the Village Voice.

They said they'd be happy to look at an alternative view.  I grabbed a cab from Times Square to Sheridan Square, handed it in, and the next day they printed it, under the headline "The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, the Album as Art Form."  They reprinted it in 2010.  (To read the piece, click here)

Fifty years later, we know "Sgt. Pepper" was a unique achievement, but it wasn't the first to treat the album as an art form. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had made that leap a year earlier, with "Pet Sounds," which was badly packaged and barely promoted by Capitol Records, and consequently passed over by most of the world. "Pet Sounds" is a masterpiece of sound- and style-mixing, a forest of aural delights with an overarching theme of post-adolescent despair.

Not coincidentally, it came out of Wilson's dialogue with the Beatles. By his own account he was trying to top "Rubber Soul," the precursor of the concept album, which owed its integrity not just to the Beatles -- all they did was churn out a string of irrestistible pop songs --  but to the vision of their producer, George Martin, who introduced classical elements to the rock lexicon. It was Martin who brought "In my Life" to life with a harpsichord, just as he later elevated "Eleanor Rigby" with a string quartet. (Wilson similarly expanded the lexicon, but without the benefit of a conservatory education -- improvising with train whistles, bike bells, barking dogs and early electronic instruments.)  In "Sgt. Pepper" Martin brought the Beatles to their ultimate density and destiny - layering laughter, gasps, and yes, special effects, with an encyclopedia of musical styles, gathering it all together in an astonishing crescendo that swept a world of sounds into a single note at the end.  

That note, in the words of Buddy Holly, will "not fade away." But the art form it supposedly invented was short-lived.  The advent of Itunes etc. was fatal to the form -- songs are no long set in a sequence, but sold piecemeal, fragmented and cast to the winds.  Today you can make your own albums, but who will hear them?

"Sgt. Pepper" lives, in a special niche of recorded history, along with a handful of LPs and CDs that similarly leave you with a feeling of having experienced something whole. This was the symphonic, or operatic, age of rock and roll -- beginning with "Pet Sounds," reaching a sudden peak in "Sgt. Pepper," then Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," the Who's "Tommy," and so on, until the death of the album form, some time after the Bee Gees' seamless 1997 CD, "Still Waters."

Please add your own faves in the comment box.  Beatles, RIP.

-- Copyright 2017 by Tom Phillips

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