Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: 'Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, The Look, The Sound, The Legacy of The Beatles’ Great Masterpiece'


Like 1955, 1977, and 1991, 1967 was a pivotal year for Rock & Roll. There was now a permanent place for ART in the raw and raucous genre, and critics and older people started taking it seriously. The LP replaced the single as Rock’s main medium. Pop bands were no longer limited to guitars, bass, and drums. All of this is tightly tied to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and when you’re on the 50th Anniversary of such watershed events, a lot of retrospectives naturally follow.

So far we’ve seen a month-by-month examination of the year’s music and a run down of key psychedelic albums, most of which were released in that most psychedelic of years, and Pepper’s was a major player in both of these books. There’s also that big 50th Anniversary Pepper’s box set, which includes an excellent and thorough book examining the album’s creation and artistry, as well as the scene that helped germinate it.

Mike McInnerney, Bill DeMain, & Gillian G. Gaar’s Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, The Look, The Sound, The Legacy of The Beatles’ Great Masterpiece can’t help but feel a bit like another book for the pile amidst all of this retrospecticizing. It contains a lot of the same information as the other books I’ve mentioned, as well as the innumerable other Beatles books published over the past four or five decades. The glut of recent information also reveals some flaws in this latest book, as when it assumes an erroneous reason for why the run-out groove gibberish was left off of Capitols pressing of Sgt. Pepper’s.

Sgt. Pepper’s at Fifty does manage to go off the usual track in fresh and interesting ways that distinguish it. The book is basically organized as four long essays on each of the topics in its lengthy title. These essays are where the expected details live. The two or three-page tangents scattered throughout the book are where the fun is. This is where we get spotlights on such less-discussed subtopics as the creation of the iconic bass drum skin on the album cover, mini-bios of every character who populates it, a run down of all the “Paul is Dead” clues on the cover, a discussion of the significance of mustaches in the Pepper’s legend, and most fascinating of all, a short history of the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave for which The Beatles created the ultra-rare avant garde epic “Carnival of Light”. The piece was written by Dudley Edwards, one of the producers of the event. These inserts are informative, quirky, and written with more humor than the textbook-like main-feature chapters. They made me wish that the whole book adopted that less reverent tone.

Another selling point is that unlike the other recent books, Sgt. Pepper at Fifty sees the story beyond the sixties to get into such lingering fumes as the rising opinion that Revolver is actually the best Beatles LP and the infamously dreadful Frampton/Bee Gees cinematic vehicle named after The Beatles album. And then theres the books rainbow design and plethora of pictures, including such artifacts as a scan of the article about a teen runaway that inspired Paul to write “She’s Leaving Home” (and isn’t the girl a dead ringer for Pattie Boyd?), a terrifying close up of the doll in the Rolling Stones T-shirt included on the album cover, and a cool shot of George Harrison chatting with Mike Nesmith at the “A Day in the Life” session that I’d never seen before. Sgt. Pepper’s at Fifty may not always be wildly fun reading but it most definitely looks fun.
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