Fifty years is a long time for almost anything so it is fitting that we would celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important pop music albums ever – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I re-listened to the record just the other day and was amazed at its staying power. This got me thinking about the longevity of The Beatles themselves. I won’t bore you with the numbers, you can look them up for yourself. But it’s safe to say that The Beatles amassed a record number of number ones and top tens over the relatively short time they existed. During their less than a decade run, they blew the charts away.
I know that many people have written about The Beatles and will continue to do so. I’m certainly not an ‘expert’ although I might know more than the average fan. I’m just going to look briefly at three areas that, I think, The Beatles excelled in; three areas that, quite frankly, we could use more of in contemporary music – melody, variety, and execution.
Melody is the one characteristic of music that is sorely lacking these days. To my ears, if a piece of music is lacking any melodic content, it ceases to be music. It’s sort of like a car without a steering wheel. What good is that?
The three Beatle composers (Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison) all understood melody; Paul still does. They understood key note. They understood contrast. They understood rise and fall and cadence. Listen again to the Sgt. Pepper playlist and focus on each melody – gold!
The next area is, to my mind, the one area that sets this group apart from all others: variety. All four members had vocal chops and they didn’t fear using them. Add to this the variety from song to song in chord structure and instrumentation and it is simply astounding. Brass horns on the opening number, a solo clarinet on When I’m Sixty-Four, the sitar and tabla on Within You, Without You. And those are just Sgt. Pepper songs. Consider for a moment any other album.
Listen to any other group from the same period and the lack of variety is obvious. With The Beatles, you were never sure what you were going to get when you dropped the needle. But you knew it would be amazing. Which brings me to the third area.
Every single song on every single album is executed to near perfection, or as close as flawed humanity would allow. Here there is no auto-tune, no band-in-a-box, no electronic orchestra. Listen again to any track off of the Sgt. Pepper playlist and remind yourself of the now archaic means with which they were produced: Reel-to-reel tapes; Manual over-dubbing with limited tracks; and four principal musicians who could not read a lick of printed music.
Is it any wonder why, after fifty years, this album still works? Would it that more so-called pop stars focus back on the melody, add variety to their corpus of works, and rely more on their own abilities to execute their art apart from electronic gimmicks and trickery.
What do you think? Have you given it a re-listen? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
P.S.: Please refrain from telling me of the contributions of Sir George Martin. We all know how important he was to all the areas above. But the relationship between producer and artist in this case was a cooperative one. It was The Beatles who created, who sang, who imagined. Martin guided and polished, yes. But the name on the cover is theirs. -M