Friday, September 20, 2013


Bizarro Sgt. Pepper's, Side One

My current obsession with Beatles covers has led me for the past couple of weeks down some very interesting back alleys indeed.  My quest: to put together an entire Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band track list, using only cover versions.  Let's call it my Bizarro Sgt. Pepper's.

It's a tricky proposition.  Sgt. Pepper's isn't just a landmark in pop history, it's a landmark in my personal pop biography. Back when it was released, in the summer of 1967 -- which you might know by its other name, the Summer of Love -- I was a geeky pre-teen in Indianapolis, far from the capitals of cool. I had to depend on my 16-year-old brother to clue me into the secret messages on this baffling new LP, upon which my beloved Fab Four were inexplicably turning into . . . something else.  He owned the record, so I had to wait until he wasn't home to steal it, to play in my own pink bedroom with the canopy bed. I lurked throughout that summer and fall, waiting for him to leave the house, obsessed with decoding this treasure box of music. Suffice it to say that I have listened to this record A LOT.

Now,  for those of us who grew up spinning Sgt. Pepper's on a vinyl turntable, the order of the songs is fixed and immutable. They must flow into one another seamlessly, going from the jaunty tap dance of "A Little Help from My Friends" straight into the phantasmagoria of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," and so on. My challenge was not only to find brilliant and creative covers -- NOT mere slavish imitations of the originals -- but also to get a sequence that would flow as well as the original album did.

Here's what I came up with. There's a link embedded for each to send you to the Amazon MP3; brackets after the song title send you to previous blog posts I've written about that song.  Face it, I'm still that geeky pre-teen, obsessed with Sgt. Pepper's.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"  [read the original]
Cover by Jimi Hendrix.
At first I resisted -- as Uncle E will attest, I am on the record as being no Jimi Hendrix fan.  I just don't get it. Great guitarist, okay, but he rarely delivers what I want out of a rock song. Nevertheless, his whacked-out version of this opening track -- which I've read he was performing already in Stockholm 2 days after the LP was released -- puts a loose and goofy and utterly delicious spin on the original. He opens the throttle and lets its rock soul really soar, adding a little loungy soul-man stuff of his own.

"With a Little Help From My Friends" [read the original]
Cover by Johnny Chauvin and the Mojo Band
Yes, I too love the old-timey music-hall shuffle of the original, supremely perfect for Ringo Starr's limited voice. So what's an American equivalent of the British music hall sound? How about a little uptempo Cajun zydeco from this bar band out of Lafayette, Louisiana?  Chauvin's voice is infinitely better than Ringo's; he doesn't sound quite so hapless, but he sure does seem to enjoy the help of his band buddies. Lots of squeezebox going on, but some lively electric guitar, too. This song just makes me feel happy.

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" [read the original]
Cover by Fee Waybill
Formerly the frontman of the San Francisco band the Tubes (remember their 1975 debut single "White Punks on Dope"?), Fee Waybill has played a drugged-out rock star often enough on stage; the woozy textures of this cover sound totally authentic. He doesn't change much from Lennon's original -- why mess with something so very nearly perfect? -- but I like how he punches up the contrast between the waltzing verses and the lurching refrain. Some nice guitar decoration in there too -- I believe George Martin would have approved.

"Getting Better" [read the original]
Cover by Gomez
From their 2000 compilation Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, this cover from the English indie band Gomez doesn't tinker too much with the arrangement, yet manages to find a mellow vibe within this song that Paul McCartney never had in 1967. The rhythms swings instead of punching percussively; the rumpled texture of the singer's voice -- think of it as bed-head vocals -- convey a sort of let's-do-brunch weekend zen. (Gomez fans, please help me out -- which guy is this singing?  I looooove his voice.) As Paul sang it, his new love was just beginning to make his life better; Gomez is practically dizzy with uxorious contentment.  Funny how little it takes to change a song.

"Fixing a Hole" [read the original]
Cover by the Wood Brothers
As I was just saying the other day....

"She's Leaving Home" [read the original]
Cover by Harry Nilsson
After a long Nilsson streak this summer, how delighted was I to find this song, on his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show, released the same year as Sgt. Pepper. Like Hendrix, Nilsson was covering this song while it was still new, before it had been ossified by years of familiarity. Yet he delves deep, discovering bittersweet depths within it that to my mind outdo Paul's earnest rendition. I think of Harry Nilsson as one of our greatest interpreters of abandonment -- forever missing the father who walked out on him -- yet his sweetly yearning vocals always adding consoling heart to a song. He throws in an orchestra, he adds some weird percussion sound effects, he goes movie-music with this generation-gap melodrama -- and somehow it works. The haunting social commentary becomes a tender universal statement of loss and change. John's snide line "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy"? It's downright plangent when Harry sings it. I imagine John and Paul listening to this album in 1967 and thinking, "Wow -- we wrote that song?" That's my measure of their genius -- that their songs contain more than they ever consciously realized.

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" [read the original]
Cover by Will Taylor and Strings Attached
 "Mr. Kite" is such a freak-show of a song, it's really hard to top what Lennon did with it without going overboard.  Yet I like how this Austin ensemble pushes the envelope even further. Tons of strings, of course -- that's a given for this group (Taylor himself is plays jazz viola) -- but that includes banjos, blues guitar, the whole works. They switch around tempos, they go deep into the psychedelic effects, and the vocalist (someone named Will Walden?  I have no idea who he is, but I like his real-guy voice) takes liberties with the melody. Sure, it runs on, but so did the original -- a good song to fall asleep to if you wanted some strange dreams. And dig the little surprise at the end.

Stop, breathe, lift the needle . . . on to Side Two next!

1 comment:

NickS said...

That is impressively ambitious -- and a sign of the wide cultural impact of the Beatles, I don't think there any many albums for which you could do that.