Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

deconstructing-sgt-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-band

I have to admit, when Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started, I was surprised and a little off balance. Yes, I was seeing it at a movie theater, but I had assumed the theater was hosting a rare live event. From the description I had read of this presentation, and the preview I had seen of it on the website devoted to it, I had gotten the impression it was a live lecture. The preview shows professor/author/technology entrepreneur/composer/music producer/all-around-Beatles-expert Scott Freiman in front of a movie screen talking to a live audience. The online description of him says, “Mr. Freiman is the creator of Deconstructing the Beatles, a series of multimedia presentations about the composition and production techniques of the Beatles. Mr. Freiman has presented his lectures to sold-out audiences at theaters nationwide and has spoken about the Beatles at colleges, universities, and corporations, such as Pixar, Google, and Facebook.”

Furthermore, the presentation at the theater was billed as one night only, it was identified as part of a nationwide tour, and ticket prices were roughly double what they charge for a movie.

What’s the logical inference here? Wouldn’t you think the reason it’s one night only is because this is a presentation by a live human being who is traveling from city to city, and can only be in one place at a time?

So I’m expecting to see Freiman walk out on stage, lecture on the Beatles, augment it with various video and audio clips and who knows what else, and maybe take questions from the audience at the end or make it interactive in some way like that.

But, no, it’s a film of Freiman doing that somewhere else (all except the interactive part—there’s nothing like that).

I felt like I was lost in a David Foster Wallace novel or something.

It’s not even that I necessarily would have strongly preferred a live lecture. More like modestly preferred. It’s more that that’s what I was expecting, so I was in a slightly different mindset from when I (knowingly) go to a movie.

But really it was only for the first five minutes or so that the experience didn’t feel right to me. After that I pretty much adjusted.

In Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Freiman goes through almost all the songs of that famous album and talks about how they were put together. Technically, that is, like what the four available tracks on the recording machines were used for, how tracks were then combined and new ones added (that is, you take what was on Tracks 1 and 2 on one machine and combine it and put it onto Track 1 of a different machine, then you take what was on Tracks 3 and 4 of the first machine and combine it and put it onto Track 2 of the second machine, and then you can add totally new material—new instruments or sound effects or whatever—to Tracks 3 and 4 of the second machine). In the process of explaining these things, he plays individual tracks, either from the final version of the song or sometimes from earlier takes, so you can hear, say, just Paul playing the bass, or just John singing, or just George coming in on one of his Indian instruments.

The movie—the filmed lecture—also includes such things as background information about the Beatles as a band, Beatles trivia/anecdotes, descriptions of the role played by George Martin and others in the studio who provided the necessary technical services, information or speculation about the meaning of the lyrics of some of the songs, the historical context in which the album came out (e.g., its relation to Brian Wilson’s groundbreaking efforts on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds), descriptions of the songwriting process, a discussion of the famous cover art of the album, audio and video clips of one or more Beatles talking about these things, and more.

Frankly it’s all interesting stuff. But if I had to make a criticism, it’s that I would have preferred more balance. Probably 80% of the movie is that stuff from the paragraph before last, where Freiman talks about how the songs were put together technically and plays clips from the songs that lack one or more of the tracks so you can better hear certain aspects of the songs in isolation. That means that all those other types of things I mentioned get only a tiny amount of attention each.

I mean, I liked hearing the isolated tracks, and I liked his explaining about them. It’s not like I would have preferred that not be in the film. I’m just saying that if it had been 50% (or 40% or 25%) of the film instead of 80%, there would have been room for a lot more of those other kinds of material, which mostly were at least as interesting.

Of course I love and am fascinated by the Beatles, and I know a great deal about them (though admittedly there are plenty of people who are even more fanatical about the Beatles who know more) and I’m always interested in learning more.

A few things I did not know that I found out from this movie:

  • The opening lyric of “With a Little Help from My Friends” was originally written as “What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?” Ringo objected that if they ever performed the song live, there was too much of a risk that people would in fact throw tomatoes at him, so “Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?” was changed to “Would you stand up and walk out on me?”
  • Originally, the concept for the album—which was mostly Paul’s idea—was going to be that the songs were all related in one way or another to their childhoods. The first two songs they’d written for it, after all, were “Strawberry Fields Forever,” about an orphanage near where John grew up, and “Penny Lane,” about Paul’s childhood memories of that street in Liverpool. But George Martin was pressured to provide the record company with a single well before the album would ever be completed, and he ended up giving them these two songs, making them unavailable for the eventual album, and putting the band back at square one as far as coming up with a concept for it.
  • The runaway whose story in the newspaper inspired Paul’s “She’s Leaving Home” by coincidence was the winner of a televised teen dance contest from a few years earlier that the Beatles had judged, but Paul had no idea it was the same person.
  • When John and Paul, collaborating on “A Day in the Life,” came up with the line “I’d love to turn you on” as a connector between different parts of the song, they realized they were pushing the envelope lyrically in terms of what would be acceptable in 1967, but with mischievous grins decided to keep the line and accept the consequences (which included it being banned from radio play for a time). (Freiman notes that the reason you weren’t supposed to say a line like that in a song back then is because it’s a drug reference. The funny thing is, that had never occurred to me in all these years of hearing the song. I mean, now that he mentions it, I’m aware that to “turn you on” can mean to provide you with drugs so you can get high, but I would have thought that if the line were controversial it would have been due to its being a sexual reference rather than a drug reference. I think of “turn you on” as meaning “sexually stimulate you.” Obviously it can mean either, but, like I say, the drug interpretation never even occurred to me.)
  • Originally, Gandhi was one of the figures on the album cover, but he was airbrushed out due to concerns that some might regard his inclusion as sacrilegious and offensive.

A few other random thoughts that come to mind, thinking back on the movie:

Freiman is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guy with an entertaining speaking style. He’s not the best I’ve seen, but he’s good to very good. I’ll give him a thumbs up as a lecturer.

For some reason, I found the shots of the audience a little off-putting or distracting. Freiman will get off some clever quip, and invariably there will then be a close-up of some audience member nodding and smiling in appreciation, perhaps sharing a knowing glance with the person in the next seat as they confirm that each is appreciating what they just heard.

It’s all vaguely phony looking. I assume they’re genuine audience members, but they put me in mind more of a paid audience at an infomercial, told to express wonder and appreciation for the Amazing Shammy.

I mean, you can also go too far in the other direction, by not showing the audience. I remember how weird—not in a good way—the movie version of Julia Sweeney’s God Said, “Ha!” was in lacking shots of an audience. It made it feel like we were watching her up on stage talking to no one, perhaps just rehearsing. But surely there must be some happy medium.

Also, as I recall virtually 100% of the people shown in the audience at the lecture are middle-aged or older. I think of the Beatles as having appeal that crosses generational lines, but there’s little evidence of that here.

As Freiman notes, the end of live performances by the Beatles and their much heavier reliance on studio techniques, or “tricks,” are closely related. They were now creating songs that could not be performed live by a band.

It’s kind of a different art form. For years they, and many bands, had been doing things in the studio that made the songs released on records different from what one would hear watching them perform the same songs live, but certainly not to this radical an extent, with all the speeding up and slowing down of tapes, the adding in of whole orchestras and assorted animal noises, the echo effects, and on and on.

They were ready to move on from the live performing, both because, one, it had grown increasingly stressful and unrewarding to them to play the way they played—in huge stadiums with horrible sound systems to screaming people who couldn’t hear the songs anyway—and, two, this new art form allowed them to be creative in all kinds of ways that limiting themselves to songs that could be performed live did not.

Was it the right move? Were they even still a “band” when they switched to making artificial sounds in a studio?

I suppose. After all, plenty of my favorite Beatles songs come from the era after they stopped performing live.

But a part of me still likes the purity of a band just playing instruments they’re capable of playing, and singing with their real voices, all in real time while it’s being recorded (or performed live). So I have some sympathy for Paul’s later seeking to reinvigorate them as a band by trying to make the Let it Be album as free of the various artificial studio gimmicks and such as possible, filled with songs that they could play together as a conventional band, as they famously did on the rooftop while working on the album, and even suggesting that they return to touring, but on a very small scale at little clubs and bars and such (an idea the other three nixed immediately).

In the end I guess I’d say I’m glad they did both, and it’s just further evidence of their genius that they could be arguably the best in the world at both of these art forms.

I have various small criticisms of the film, ways I think it could have been organized better, but on the whole Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the kind of thing I have to think any Beatles fan would enjoy. I certainly did.

It’s part of a whole Deconstructing the Beatles series of films by Freiman. It’s the only one that I’ve seen, but I think it’s safe to assume from the evidence of this one that all the films in the series would be worthwhile.

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