Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Shadow Sgt. Pepper's

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6aO6I1ee54Eijz0XzCf0QKMy quest: to put together an entire Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band track list, using only cover versions.  Let's call it my Shadow Sgt. Pepper's.

Now, 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 -- a.k.a. 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.  He owned the record, so I had to wait until he wasn't home to steal it, decoding this treasure box of music in my own pink bedroom with the canopy bed.

For those of us who grew up spinning Sgt. Pepper's on a vinyl turntable, the order of the songs is fixed and immutable. 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, loaded into one Spotify playlist. Face it, I'm still that geeky pre-teen, obsessed with Sgt. Pepper's.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
Cover by Jimi Hendrix
At first I resisted -- I am 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"
Cover by Johnny Chauvin and the Mojo Band
I 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"
Cover by Beth Hart and the Ocean of Soul 

Everyone knows this track as a psychedelic milestone -- but what if you made it a wild soul-blues anthem? As my West Coast girl Beth Hart does, with flagrant abandon. I've been a fan of hers since a random Sirius radio showcase seven years ago -- dive deep into this track,  sister!

"Getting Better"
Cover by Gomez
From their 2000 compilation Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, this cover from the English indie band Gomez finds a mellow vibe within this anxious track. Rhythms swing; 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"
Cover by the Wood Brothers
As I was just saying the other day....

"She's Leaving Home"
Cover by Harry Nilsson
Lord, I loves me some Harry Nilsson. 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. 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"
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, banjos, blues guitar, the whole works. They switch around tempos, they go deep into the psychedelic effects, and the vocalist (someone named Will Walden?) 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.

"Within You, Without You"
Cover by Big Head Todd & the Monsters

This 90s band out of Colorado dives to the trippy heart of this song. Recorded for a George Harrison tribute album, it adds layers of shimmer and distortion that George Martin would never have imagined, then serves it all up with a blues jam twist. About time somebody put a little unh-hunh to raga rock.

"When I'm Sixty-Four"
Cover by Cowboys on Dope
Now this is a hoot. A German country-rock band tackles this Paul McCartney music-hall chestnut and totally transforms it.  Minor key, for one thing -- how brilliant! The "cowboy" part of their name adds some down-and-dirty twang, but it's the "dope" part -- the gritty woozy undertone -- that makes this so delectable. And why shouldn't boozy losers also be able to imagine knitting by the fireside and renting a cottage by the Isle of Wight?

"Lovely Rita"
Cover by Fats Domino
Okay, so maybe he loses the campy irony of the original.  Still, the King of New Orleans soul is out to score with this lady Rita, and he lays out some considerable charm to do so. Most telling variation from the original: "When are you free to have a drink [NOT TEA] with me?" The loungy tempo, the playful vocals -- it's all good, sugar.

"Good Morning Good Morning"
Cover by Micky Dolenz
 All right, yeah, I was obsessed with the Monkees in the fall of 1966; for a while there, Davy Jones even toppled Paul McCartney from my fangirl list of must-haves. But it was Micky who really made the Monkees work as a rock/pop band, and now I can admit that. This gem from his 2012 solo album Remember kicks Lennon's tortured bio-tune into easy samba mode, and it comes out surprisingly well. I would have thought that this angry, conflicted song could never be dialed back to yoga mode. I was wrong.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"
Cover by the Persuasions
The original reprise offered a distinct contrast to the opening track -- let's go for contrast again. Whereas we had Jimi Hendrix jamming it up for Track 1, let's dial things back to 60s doo-wop with the Persuasions, jacking up the tempo and adding an insouciant wink of fun.

"A Day in the Life"
Cover by John Mark Nelson
Coda or climax? It's never been clear which "A Day in the Life" was meant to be, and let's leave it in glorious ambiguity. This version is from the Minnesota Beatle Project, an intriguing 4-CD series (2009-2012) that celebrates a panoply of Minnesotans tackling Beatles material. A wunderkind from Minnetonka, MN, young John Mark Nelson somehow gets this complex and ambiguous song. He changes up the tempos and alters the textures of the song even more radically than John and Paul, intent on blending their disparate material, ever did. More importantly, Nelson restores to this song the youthful earnestness that we forgot it deserved. (Because really, how old were John and Paul when they wrote this sweeping indictment of mass media?)  His voice trembles with the sorrow that lives down deep in things - what more could this song deserve?

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