It was fifty years ago today, or whenever it was, that this landmark album first came out, and the world is celebrating. I wish I remembered my first reaction to it. Since we lived in a small town, I am sure we didn't get around to buying it 'til maybe 1968. But there it was, and it was as if it had been part of our lives always.
Though it was indescribably weird, at the same time, there was something familiar about Sgt. Pepper, and it fast became a friend, an album you'd go back to again and again, maybe for the next. . . fifty years. I've started dipping into it again, though I find the Beatles so "dense" (no, not stupid, just musically thick and layered and emotionally laden, not to mention dizzyingly brilliant technically) that I have to take it a few songs at a time.
When I listen to Pepper now, I hear George Martin. His musicality and influence permeates every song. Along with the less-brilliant Magical Mystery Tour, Pepper is one of the Beatles' most highly-produced (some would say overproduced) albums, meaning that it is just thick with the bells and whistles that spawned the stoned, psychedelic, signature '60s sound. They could not have done this on their own. They were a gear group, man, and as they matured as songwriters, they could tear off a masterwork like Blackbird backed by a single guitar. But right there they were in an uncharted musical wilderness, breaking ground like crazy, and badly needed a guide.
I love finding snippets of interviews with George Martin. His love for the group is palpable, as is their trust of him and openhearted willingness to apply his complex arrangements to songs that, let's face it, were still pretty scouse around the edges. Though Ringo retained more skiffle than the rest of them, the fact that they remained working class lads probably kept them from flying off the edge of the world from the insane pressures of fame.
Please forgive these strange animations. I got making them today, and couldn't stop. What happened is, I decided to see if I could animate (if you can call it that) the legendary Sgt. Pepper album cover. Of course I could not go near the front. That would be plain foolish. So I tackled the back instead, though in its own way it is no less complex. All the song lyrics are superimposed on top of the four lads, creating an eerie 3D effect. (By the way, I used to be on the front cover myself: I clipped out my face from one of those godawful class photos - I was wearing a pink velvet dress with a ruffle down the front - and scotch-taped it next to Laurel and Hardy. Or was it Marilyn Monroe.)
As I poked around in all this 50th anniversary stuff, noticing the approximately ten billion YouTube videos on the subject, I inevitably ran into the stupidest conspiracy theory in human history: "Paul Is Dead" (as of 1966, when he was replaced by a double). I was amazed to see that the rumor, poisonous lie, or whatever it is, is still around and has so many viciously enthusiastic proponents. There are comparisons of eyes, noses, lips, even teeth, insisting that the Paul of today (indeed, the Paul of 1966 - God, I can't believe I just wrote "indeed") is a mere stand-in. Some even call him, inexplicably, Faul.
Apparently, the Beatles' music is rife with clues as to Paul's demise/replacement. Since he died in a car crash, John wrote, "He blew his mind out in a car/He didn't notice that the lights had changed." Never mind that John specifically stated that the song was about the death of Guinness heir Tara Browne.
I could go on. "Dying to take you away." "Turn me on, dead man." "I buried Paul." Bare feet, black carnations, "the walrus was Paul" (and by the way, conspiracy people see all sorts of omens and portents where there aren't any. Walruses are NOT a sign of death, people. They are large marine mammals. John's use of them was pure surrealism.)
This album has been analyzed and written about to death. Each song has brought forth PhD theses and books and more albums and all manner of things. My favorite Pepper story - and this may even be true - is about Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, the circus poster come to life. George Martin wanted something special to illustrate the surrealism of Henry the Horse dancing the waltz, so he had a technician find an old tape of calliope music, cut it up into one-second pieces, throw them up in the air, then splice them back together as they landed. This led to a lot of snippets of backwards music that was, like, weird, man, it was just incredible. I don't know for sure if the Beatles invented backwards music/messages, but I do remember that in 1965 the end of Rain sounded a lot like "nair".
I always assumed Paul was alive, but then it hit me, as I was mucking around trying to make these silly animations: hey, why is he facing backwards? This was 1967, and though the conspiracy theory didn't really come out until two years later, the Paul-is-dead zealots would claim that he had died already and they were trying to cover up the fact that his "double" (Billy Shears? William Campbell? - whatever) looked nothing like him.
I was determined to get Paul (Faul?) to turn around here, and found an image of a guy in a blue Pepper uniform. I don't know who he is, nor do I care. He was the right size and shape for my purposes, Beatlish in a generic sort of way. I keep thinking he looks a bit like Dave Thomas of SCTV wearing a Sonny Bono wig.
I don't know. It is odd as hell, when you think about it. I am not sure if all the people on the cover were dead, or just most of them. I can't remember, and I don't want to look it up because I am getting bloody sick of the topic. If they were all dead, then Paul was "facing" them by looking backwards like that.
But wait, wait, no, JOHN is dead - we know that much. We know George is dead. Good old scouse working-class Ringo is still around, and he is SO COOL and hip now, it's a real transformation. It's really just stupid, because it means Paul never did Blackbird, and - screw it, it's all a load of crap! Who else could have done Blackbird? No other human being, living or dead.