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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Musical: Aimee Mann in NYT on the 40th Anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper's" 
3rd-Jun-2007 07:07 pm
Did anyone else today notice Aimee Mann's charming op-ed in the New York Times? I'd never heard her music 'til I was blown away by it in Magnolia. Well worth checking out. Still, as for me, I'd say Revolver shoots Sgt. Pepper's dead any day of the week....

Op-Ed Contributor
P.S. I Loved You

Published: June 3, 2007
The New York Times
Los Angeles

MY big brother was always the one to bring new music into the house. Until I heard the Beatles playing on his stereo in the basement, my favorite music had been Glen Campbell singing “Galveston” or my father playing “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey” on the piano.

I was young enough to giggle when my brother changed the words of “P.S. I Love You” to...something more puerile, and four years later, young enough to think that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was really a band, and not the name of a Beatles record. In those intervening years, a transformation had taken place, and both the sound and the look of the Beatles had completely changed. Also, I was a little slow on the uptake, and didn’t notice the name “Beatles” spelled out in flowers on the cover.

Is it a testament to the quality, or purity, or beauty, or timelessness of that record (released 40 years ago this weekend) that it appealed so thoroughly to an 8-year-old, one who had virtually no contact with pop culture? I could not have been more out of tune with the zeitgeist — it would be two more years before I discovered radio, and even then I would have only the vaguest notion of what was out there. I bought my first LP solely on the basis of the cover (one of the reasons today I try to take extra care with the packaging of my CDs). It was pure dumb luck that it turned out to be Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water,” still one of my favorite albums of all time.

But the favorite is, and was, and must remain “Sgt. Pepper’s.” I had a love affair like no other with that record. My brother had bought it, of course, and when I heard it, I braved his wrath and smuggled it out to my friend’s house so I could play it over and over. You’d have had to know my brother back then to fully understand how daring that was.

In a way, that record seemed made for children: the fun false mustaches that came with the package, the bright shiny outfits, the cheery melodies, the jaunty horns. The band itself seemed almost irrelevant — scruffy mustachioed men in costumes, lost in a sea of collaged faces. I ignored them.

My ignorance extended to the opening song, which I took at face value as a real live introduction of the singer Billy Shears, who, whoever he was, became my favorite, with his dopey baritone, in humble gratitude for his pals — bless them, it all was so innocent, those marmalade skies and winking meter maids (whatever they were). The darkest moments were with the runaway girl — although a throwaway line in “Getting Better” (“I was cruel to my woman, I beat her...”) gave me pause. He beat her? What the heck? But hey — things were getting better all the time, so ... I shrugged and let it go.

And then things took a weird turn: a nightmare cacophony of strings, someone blowing his mind out in a car — what was that? Did he get shot in the head? What were the holes in Albert Hall? Things had gotten creepy and dark, and it lost me. I started skipping that last song.

I can’t listen to “Sgt. Pepper’s” anymore. As a musician, I’m burnt out on it — its influence has been so vast and profound. As a lyricist, I find that my ear has become more attuned to the likes of Fiona Apple and Elliot Smith, and though the words of “Sgt. Pepper’s” are full of vivid images — Rita’s bag slung over her shoulder, Mr. Kite sailing through a hogshead of fire, the runaway girl with her handkerchief — there’s an emotional depth that’s missing. I’m ashamed to say it, but sometimes John Lennon’s melodies feel a bit underwritten, while Paul McCartney’s relentless cheerfulness is depressing. The very jauntiness I used to love as a girl feels as if it’s covering up a sadder subtext. And what’s bleaker than a brave face?

The whole experience is uncomfortable, like realizing you can beat your own father at chess or arm-wrestling. I don’t want to go back and find that the carcass has been picked clean. Because I know without a doubt that “Sgt. Pepper’s” changed the course of my life. If the magic is gone, it’s only because first loves can’t be repeated. When I was 8, I’d never heard anything like it, and I can honestly say that if I live to be 100, I’ll never hear anything like it again.

Aimee Mann is a singer and songwriter.
4th-Jun-2007 12:57 am (UTC)
What a lovely piece!

Sgt. Pepper's always reminds me of a laser-light show in a planetarium -- I cannot, however, say whether this is an actual memory or a hallucination. I find that fitting. (I am required, I think, by BMC to prefer Rubber Soul, if only because my class's song is "In My Life"...)

Oddly (fittingly? coincidentally?) I'm currently immersed in Aimee Mann's other favorite album mentioned in her op-ed -- a recent party ended (for me, at least) with Madman Across the Water played in its entirety -- a rarity in this iPod age -- and I was reminded of listening to "Levon" endlessly in a small cottage one summer...
5th-Jun-2007 06:28 pm (UTC)
I've decided that the Beatles' part of this response is invalid: a single is not a sufficient reason for ranking a Beatles album as such. My favourite single is "Penny Lane," which clearly has nothing to do with Revolver as such. So, granting the utter awesomeness of "In My Life," which is perhaps John's very best, I'd still rather hear you give an album your judgment qua album.
6th-Jun-2007 12:56 am (UTC)

I suppose it's only fair that you take seriously my flippant response -- what's good for the gander, etc.

But instead I'm going to respond with an even more irrelevant and "invalid" answer -- to whit, does the album format really matter? I'm still being slightly facetious, of course, but...
6th-Jun-2007 03:56 am (UTC)

Even if a group of songs are tied together by no more than having been written and/or produced at around the same time (and those factors can create all sorts of thematic unities from the artist(s) alone), a great deal of thought goes into what presentation the whole has, how to move from song to song, perhaps even what songs to include or to drop entirely, based upon an emerging gestalt of the album/disc as a unit, such as U2's decision to drop the lovely pop of "The Sweetest Thing" from The Joshua Tree because as a sweet as the tune was, and personally important for Bono and his wife, it did not fit the epic and political sensibilities of what was emerging as The Joshua Tree.

So, no, the album format fades in importance when the song are encountered solely as radio singles, but swells in importance for all the listeners coming into contact with the whole.
6th-Jun-2007 05:21 am (UTC)
*props hands on chin*

Oh, I do so love a good impassioned speech.

So, no, the album format fades in importance when the song are encountered solely as radio singles, but swells in importance for all the listeners coming into contact with the whole.

Which I suppose is rather the point -- there's these increasingly multifaceted ways of encountering a song (or even parts of a song -- we live in an age of sampling, mashup, etc. as well) From my very amateur observation, it seems music is now experiencing something of a similar change, in a fashion, to that long experienced by writers of texts (particularly things like, say, poetry). Many people (comparatively speaking) can talk about an individual poem, but far fewer I reckon could talk about a sequence of poems as they were originally presented. And when you talk about creators like Blake, whose work is ripped from an even more clearly meaningful multimedia framework, you're talking about an even more specialized sort of knowledge/encounter.

Which brings me back, in a sense, to Aimee Mann's Op-Ed -- how many people reading that this week could not only recall the progress of Sgt. Pepper, but recall and describe the album's physical qualities (as she does with such precision), I wonder.

Of course it "matters" -- editorial and artistic choices always matter, IMHO -- but I suppose the question really is, how much longer is the album format going to be "vernacular" as opposed to ... jargon? Are we moving towards a way of appreciating/experiencing/reading/etc. music that makes the album format less useful/relevant/necessary? I think of other pieces in the Times recently -- one about a guy who literally blogged a song a day, f'instance. Very different sort of listening experience.

Some have said it's a matter of time before the book goes the way of the dodo. So far, it hasn't proven entirely true -- the book still shapes a big chunk of our reading experience (for a lot of different reasons). But I'm not so sure that the album format is the same way...
11th-Jun-2007 03:26 am (UTC)
I suppose that music could just go to the "single" format – especially in the age of the downloadable song, where even a "single" doesn't have to have a B-side – without the "album" at all. But outside of just the programmed hit-kids set, belting out whatever songs are given them in whatever image they've been marketed for, artists are still probably going to be producing bodies of work from which singles are discerned. That's my best guess. The artists aren't so interested in single production, themselves, and "making a single for the album" is often a marketing concession rather than the driving songs behind the whole project....

And I don't think the book is going anywhere....
11th-Jun-2007 03:37 am (UTC)
artists are still probably going to be producing bodies of work from which singles are discerned.

Yes, but I guess I'm wondering if "the whole project" will be understood in new ways if the album format goes away, or whether it will be even more single-driven than it already is.

RE: Books --- I sure hope not.
4th-Jun-2007 02:05 am (UTC)
I have never listened to the whole album of Sgt Pepper's, but I do love Aimee Mann. Even without knowing every song on the album, I can really relate to the last two paragraphs about trying to go back and listening to the first albums of your youth. If the magic is gone, it's only because first loves can't be repeated.
5th-Jun-2007 06:29 pm (UTC)
It was indeed a cool way of describing the way that that early feeling stand alone.
4th-Jun-2007 02:43 am (UTC)
I'd say Revolver shoots Sgt. Pepper's dead any day of the week....

Oddly enough, Sgt. Pepper was one of the first three CDs I owned. I got my first CD player for my 16th birthday (which was the summer of 1990), and the first 3 CDs I got were Sgt. Pepper, R.E.M.'s Green, and the complete symphonic recording of the Les Miserables soundtrack.
4th-Jun-2007 02:44 am (UTC)
(though I suppose it helps to mention that both of my parents were (and are) big Beatles fans)
4th-Jun-2007 02:57 am (UTC)
An admirable mix! My first CD, from around the same time but sans CD player, was Midnight Oil's Blue Sky Mining, shortly to be followed, I think, by Morrisey's Kill Uncle.
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