Sgt Pepper's Musical Revolution review: 'a masterly tribute to a glorious musical masterpiece'
If you watched only one documentary about the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – and sadly only one was all that BBC Television gave us at the weekend, though there’s an embarrassment of birthday riches available on BBC Radio – I hope it was Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution with composer Howard Goodall.
Some of us will never need reminding why The Beatles’ eighth studio album is the single most important and influential rock LP ever made. Nonetheless, it was nice to be reminded anyway, especially by a guide as engaging as Goodall.
He has the giddy enthusiasm of the true fan, the technical know-how to illuminate exactly what makes Sgt Pepper music’s greatest game-hanger and the ability to translate it into a superb, tremendously enjoyable hour of television.
“There are innovations and revelations on every track of the album,” said Goodall. Rather than working his way through all 13 of them, he picked several key tracks, the ones steeped most deeply in the album’s groundbreaking sonic experimentation, to demonstrate how the band and producer George Martin changed the way albums would be recorded from then on.
He began with two songs that should have been on the original album but weren’t: Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane.
EMI were desperate for a new Beatles record after seven months of silence (in those days an unconscionably long time between new releases), so they were put out as a double A-sided single.
Accessing master tapes, out-takes and fragments of recordings between takes that were never heard outside of the Abbey Road studio until now, Goodall engaged in a kind of musical reverse engineering.
He peeled back, one by one, the layers of sound that Martin and his team – including engineer Ken Townsend, whose discovery of how to vary the speed of magnetic tape was so important to the sound of the finished album – had painstakingly laid down on tracks like She’s Leaving Home (on which McCartney, possibly without even realising it, had incorporated elements of modal folk singing), Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life.
While there’s no substitute for just listening to Sgt Pepper and losing yourself in its kaleidoscope of sound, learning in this kind of detail how it was put together – and done using nothing more than primitive four-track tape machines – was to be thrilled all over again.
When you’ve listened to the album a hundred or so times, you can almost begin to take its brilliance for granted. Watching Goodall break the songs up into their raw components made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Just as innovative as the recording technique was the range of instruments The Beatles used.
As well as the usual piano, drums, guitars, bass and brass there was harp, mellotron, the various Indian instruments George Harrison played on Within You Without You (the original piece of world music): harmonium, piccolo trumpet – a 17th century instrument that caught Paul McCartney’s ear while he was watching a performance of Bach on television – and even the sound of a mechanical calliope, chopped up and randomly rearranged to get just the right whirling circus atmosphere on Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, the lyrics of which John Lennon took almost entirely from a poster advertising a 1983 circus performance that he’d picked up in an antique shop.
Instinctively roping in disparate musical influences and fusing them in a way the world had never heard before, The Beatles, said Goodall, had created “a new hybrid sound. Not a copy, not a clone, but a totally new combination”.
Picking the music apart in this way could have been terribly academic and arid, but Goodall never lost sight of what makes the songs so special: their deeply personal nature.
For an album so closely identified with the Summer of Love, its themes and subjects are deeply rooted in The Beatles’ shared past in 1950s Liverpool. Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane are about their childhood haunts. When I’m 64 is a birthday song for McCartney’s dad.
This was a masterly tribute to a glorious musical masterpiece.