Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sgt. Pepper at 44

June 1 marked the 44th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' landmark album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hailed by many as the first concept album, it was based on the seed of an idea that Sgt. Pepper's band, as the doppelgänger Beatles, could be sent out on tour instead of the Beatles as a way around the problem of their not touring anymore. At least that's the way producer George Martin remembers it in his book, With a Little Help from My Friends.

But it didn't quite turn out that way, as the Sgt. Pepper concept was soon abandoned after the title song (and its reprise) and the introduction of Billy Shears. As Ringo Starr said in a TV interview, "It was going to be a whole show, but after two tracks everybody started getting fed up and doing their own songs again."

I think the concept is a bit deeper than that: with Pepper, we are being invited into the fantasy that there is a band there at all—after all, it begins with the sounds of an expectant audience at a live performance. But Pepper is anything but live.

The Beatles invited us to imagine this band playing, then offered up all sorts of other imaginings, some more literal than others: "Picture yourself in a boat on a river"...Or that there is a 41-piece orchestra accompanying the band.

In 1967, the practice of overdubbing wasn't new, but what was new was the idea of replacing one of the most exciting live four-piece bands ever to take the stage with this time-shifted collection of takes and other sounds, and then offering the whole thing up as a performance, complete with introduction of a "band" (albeit a tongue-in-cheek fictitious one).

This was the revolutionary idea of Sgt. Pepper: the concept of the album as performance rather than the live show as performance, something the Beatles themselves no longer wanted anything to do with.

With Pepper, performance occurs at the moment of hearing, rather than the moment of execution. Indeed, in multitrack recording there is no single moment of execution. The work is time-shifted—in some cases even place-shifted—for every contributor and comped track.

By extension, the concept is also that there is a "band" there at all. In fact, the band—two guitars, bass, drums and four guys singing—had been winding down for some time. As George Harrison said on a plane back to London after their last concert in San Francisco a year earlier, "Well that's it, I'm not a Beatle any more."

Multitracking allowed the Beatles to perpetuate the fantasy of the band's continued existence. Multitracking on their albums wasn't new. It was there in the double-tracked vocals on their earliest albums, the addition of strings in Yesterday, and George Martin's keyboard contributions to Rubber Soul. But it began in earnest on Tomorrow Never Knows, the first track recorded for Revolver in the months just before they quit touring for good: "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream..."

George Martin has said that this is one track that could never be reproduced live, or even mixed the same way, because of all the random movements of the faders made by 10 people during mixing and the relative positions of multiple tape loops all playing at the same time. And even though they were still touring at the time, "Revolver was the first album from which no song was ever performed...they couldn't do them on stage," Martin said.

But with Sgt. Pepper, the fantasy was made explicit, and the enthusiastic reception the album received immediately on its release showed that the world was more than willing to accept this revolutionary new model.

Sgt. Pepper ushered in a new paradigm of musical creativity along with a new era in rock, and helped launch an industry to bring this recording technology first to the studios and later to our homes, so that we could all participate in the conceptual fantasy of the recording-as-performance.

Forty-plus years later, the pendulum is finally swinging back in the other direction, as the bottom continues to fall out of the record industry and money drains away from recordings as articles of perceived value in and of themselves, and back toward live shows. The concept of the live show as the real moment of performance appears to be regaining centre stage.

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