Music Features

“Let Me Reintroduce To You…”: The Beatles In Stereo (Part 2)

Part 2: George Martin joins the band…

A compilation of slanderous reconsiderations of classic albums penned by Gen X critics dubbed Kill Your Idols features a very passionate swipe at Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles’ art rock requiem for the Fab Four.  Rock critic Jim DeRogatis, with vehemence his figurative co-pilot, attacked the album, basically calling it an overrated artifact whose relevance is still chasing its own tail back in 1967.  

His is an opinion I don’t share, but DeRogatis makes a very valid point:

“I was 3 years old in 1967, so I can't say for sure, but I'll grant these boys the fact that everybody was listening to this album. Big deal, so what: What were they hearing? The boilerplate analysis holds that it is a great technical accomplishment and a testament to the power of multitrack recording, as well as the first flowering of rock 'n' roll as Art, and a work that perfectly captures the spirit of a generation throwing open the doors of perception and breaking on through to the other side in a frenzy of exploration -- psychedelic, political, sexual, you name it.

“Well, that first bit is easily dismissed: The Beach Boys had already pulled off a more impressive technical feat in the studio in 1966 with
Pet Sounds, and the Beatles themselves had shown their mastery of the tape machine (with a little help from their friend George Martin) that same year with singles such as Rain and Paperback Writer, as well as the masterful Revolver. And it's only the muso gearheads who care about that sort of thing, anyway.”

Cynicism like his is justified knowing that overdubs, developments in studio technique and George Martin’s compositional know-how became the basis for The Beatles’ sudden interest in symphonic theatrics, which had begun with McCartney’s Yesterday.  Though Sgt. Pepper captures The Beatles at a complete disconnect from Beatlemania, having gone so far as to put their smiling and suited likeness in the background like cast aside relics of a long and willingly forgotten era, Revolver is Pepper’s blueprint and the furthest The Beatles took their sound before completely abandoning who they’d been only three years before.

In a way, Revolver is a bolder album than Pepper was, an experimental hybrid clashing symphonic string arrangements (Eleanor Rigby), rock n’ jolly Singin’ In The Rain-styled ditties (Good Day Sunshine), kid-friendly sing-alongs about friendly aquatic transports (Yellow Submarine), Eastern influences (Love You To) and the decade’s introduction to psychedelic rock n’ roll (She Said She Said, Tomorrow Never Knows).  An absolute plethora of influences and styles at work and they marry perfectly onto Revolver with nary a concept at work, nor a marching suit to hide behind.

Revolver is Beatlemania’s actual “good riddance” and the very reason they couldn’t go on as a touring band.  As a continually growing entity, confronted by the possibility of having to appease public expectations with renditions of I Saw Her Standing There and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the studio was their only means to continue as a band.  No single song spoke that truth louder than Tomorrow Never Knows, its eerie and ultra-modern tonality quite possibly The Beatles’ most exciting contribution to rock music.

Citing the need to start over, The Beatles pulled together Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a near-conceptual rock masterpiece that utilized Martin’s knack for string arrangements and combined them with the band’s chemically infused rock progressions.

Its initial life as a “concept” album only went so far as Pepper’s self-titled intro, Ringo Starr’s turn as Billy Shears for With A Little Help From My Friends and its faster self-titled reprise.  Otherwise, the album is simply a collection of songs that found themselves contextually based into the proposed concept, but relatable enough that the concept seemed plausible and remained intact for the album’s entirety. 

McCartney’s swirling bass lines are wildly alive for the stereo mixes, Getting Better and Fixing A Hole bouncing along as Starr’s hi-hat glistens with crystal articulation.  Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! are noticeably more intense, their already layered and collaged constructs easier to experience.

What I couldn’t wait to hear while listening to Pepper was A Day In The Life, the album’s absorbing and emotional closer with its orchestrated build-ups/explosive climaxes of orchestral sound.  Hearing the spoken countdown before the song’s first build-up was something I’d never acknowledged before and once those fingers collided with the piano keys for the song’s climax, I held my hands over my headphones just so I could hear its ghostly echo trail off with newfound density.

And while A Day In The Life typifies perfection for a set of headphones, no Beatles album carries as strong a headphone experience as Magical Mystery Tour.

Though attached to a disastrous film of the same name, Magical Mystery Tour is an odd and rather dark album pulsating with further psychedelic music mutations written specifically for the movie and a collection of singles on its B-side, some of which had been released pre-Pepper.

John Lennon claimed it be one of his favorite albums because “it’s so weird,” and it is. 

While the album’s liner notes express that Magical Mystery Tour is “a perfect companion to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” it has a shadowy disposition, the gloomy outro of its title track very telling of its content.  The Fool On The Hill sort of revisits the lonely nature of Eleanor Rigby and Harrison’s Blue Jay Way is a situational plea for direction and rest told over a sinister cello and isolating reverb. 

The somewhat throwaway Your Mother Should Know provides the A-side its only real lift other than the instrumental, Flying, before I Am The Walrus benefits Martin’s intervention, fully realized string arrangements perfectly harmonized with the band’s playing and Lennon’s meaningless assertion (“I Am The Walrus/Goo Goo Goo Joob”).  This, A Day In The Life and Strawberry Fields Forever represent the fullest extent of Martin’s involvement with the music during this period, these songs possibly having been much less if not for the studio and the freedom to experiment with Martin’s expertise.  Martin has stated himself that, once he’d offered some tips, he was acting under the band’s direction.  But, the possibilities Martin offered… And, man, do they sound great in stereo.

But, as Pepper became yet something else The Beatles felt the need to outrun, they returned to rock n’ roll with The Beatles (or, The White Album.)