Remember 1967? That was the year of "Surrealistic Pillow" and "Light My Fire." Haight-Ashbury was at its peak and bands like the Dead, Steve Miller and the Airplane were forging the "San Francisco sound." The Byrds and the Mamas and Papas patrolled Los Angeles while students nationwide exercised their newly discovered political clout. It was a time of artistic fertility and intellectual fervor. And it was the time of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
In June of 1967, the Beatles - then in the midst of their most creative period - released what still stands as the most monumental album in rock history. Hearing it the first time was awesome experience, and its continued sales figures are staggering even by today's standards.
Never before had a popular music ensemble presented such an ambitious effort. Critics were overwhelmed; other rock bands were dumbstruck. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was classic in every sense of the word.
Now, 11 years later, Robert Stigwood gives us another "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Any resemblance between this two-record set and the Beatles' masterpiece is purly coincidental. The names haven't been changed to protect the innocent.
Stigwood and his RSO conglomerate are the same outfit that gave us "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." "Fever" has sold more records than any double album in history. "Grease" sold more initial copies than "Fever" and there is no end in sight. At $15.98 a pop, Stigwood and company obviously expect this new movie soundtrack (like the other two, "Sgt. Pepper . . ." is a film score) to be another million-dollar baby.
Understand that it will be chic to be down on this "Sgt. Pepper," both the album and the film. The concept is so repugnant to so many people who grew up worshipping the real thing that critical slams are unavoidable. It would be nice to report that they are also undeserved, that the new "Sgt. Pepper" is an acceptable campanion piece to the old one - or at least a lot of fun. No dice. Chic or no, RSO's "Sgt. Pepper" is a study in overindulgence and a paean to the idea that the public will swallow anything.
The album "stars" Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees and you'd think that's as hot as a record could get. Not even the Beatles ever had the top five singles in the country at the same time (the Bee Gees had something to do with all five earlier this year), and Frampton sold more two-record sets than anyone in the universe until people caught "Saturday Night Fever." However, like a basketball team with too many superstars, this quartet (there are three Bee Gees) never jells.
Frampton's work is so airy that no one will ever again believe that he once rocked the Fillmore with Humble Pie. His solo, "The Long and Winding Road," would make Andy Williams proud, and his vocals with the Bee Gees on "Getting Better" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" nearly disappear as they leave his mouth. The Bee Gees fare a bit better, especially during "Nowhere Man" and Robin Gibb's "Oh! Darling." But anyone waiting for the perfectly balanced excitement of "Saturday Night Fever" better find a new record.
The rest of the two discs is a pastiche of the ridiculous and the sublime. Steve Martin's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is predictably funny and newcomer Sandy Farina's "Here Comes the Sun" is a pleasant surprise. The two best tracks are Earth, Wind and Fire's jazzy "Got to Get You Into My Life" and Aerosmith manages to tone down their usual Black Maria howl long enough to inject just the right amount of menace to a genuinely menacing song. After that, the package has problems.
One problem is that it's not really "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at all, but a collection of Beatle tunes redone by various artists as a movie soundtrack.
In fact, of the 28 songs on the two records, only 10 are from the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper." Two originals - "Within You and Without You" and "Lovely Rita" - don't show up at all. Instead, we get Billy Preston doing a souled-out "Get Back" and Alice Cooper mugging his way through "Because." George Burns even manages to tiptoe his way around "Fixing a Hole."
Probably the most alarming thing about the whole project is the way every tune has been geared to mass consumption. Hooks and orchestrations run rampant and any hint of strength is coated with sugar. With all due respect to the past accomplishments of producer George Martin (who produced the Beatle original), the two cuts with guts - "Get to Get You Into My Life" and "Come Together" - are produced by Maurice White and Jack Douglas (with Martin) respectively.
Despite all this, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" may make a lot of money for RSO. It might be just the pabulum contemporary audiences need to shield them from taxes, inflaction and the fight for human rights.
There is nothing wrong with a good time. And no one is saying that rock musicians, producers and promoters can't occassionally put on the dog. But when a major work of art is reduced to caricature, someone has gone too far.