Saluting Sergeant Pepper

Saluting Sergeant Pepper

Abbey Road Studios

Abbey Road Studios

Recently, the busy folks at Google made available an online tour of the famed Abbey Road Studios.  Anyone with internet access can go online and see inside the place where some of the most famous recordings were made.   The building at 3 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, City of Westminster, London was originally a townhouse.  It was already 100 years old when it was converted into a recording studio by the Gramophone company in 1931.  The list of artists who have recorded at Abbey Road Studios is extremely long, but by far the most famous group to work there is the Beatles.

Tour Abbey Road Studios on Google.

There is hardly a hearing person on the planet that needs any introduction to the Beatles.  If there were such a person, I can assure you that there are many more qualified than me to make such an introduction.  I beg the reader to have a touch of patience with me as I try to put together a few thoughts about one landmark album the Fab Four recorded at Abbey Road, namely, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

In 1966, the Beatles retired from touring.  Their performances had become events of sheer pandemonium.  No one could hear the band over the screaming adulation of the fans.  The band couldn’t even hear themselves play.  Security guards had to keep overwhelmed groupies from running up on stage during performances.  Band members had to be escorted by guard both to and from performing venues.  The Beatles had grown weary of the spectacle, and were disappointed in their own musical performance under these circumstances.  The group had received death threats, caused controversy with their public statements, and barely escaped the Philippines after turning down a breakfast invitation from Imelda Marcos.  Public performance had taken a huge toll on the four men.  They decided to just not do it anymore.

SgtPepper CoverThis turned the Beatles into a studio band, but not just any studio band.  They were still the Beatles.  There was a huge demand for their records and plenty of sales could be made if there was a product to put out.  They began working in the studio in sessions that would become the 1967 album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.  This developed into a “concept” album, and represented a huge paradigm shift.  Previously, recordings were trying to preserve a performance, make a representation of  a live (or live-in-studio) musical event.  With this new album, the Beatles knew they were never going to play the music live.  With the cutting edge technology of Abbey Road Studios, they had at their disposal recording effects that were state of the art.  The album BECAME the performance, not just a preservation of a piece of art, but THE piece of art itself.  It existed only on the album, and was never sounded out live the way the recording sounded.

This is evident from the opening seconds of the first tune.  The listener hears audience noise and the tuning of orchestra string instruments, giving the impression of a noisy public space.  This is one of the great ironies of the “Sgt. Pepper” album.  The Beatles had given up live performance, but the concept of this album was one of a fictitious live performance of an alter ego, the Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The album was originally released in the UK without any pause between tracks, further reinforcing this aural impression.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Opening Track

Abbey road insideThe Beatles had an unlimited recording budget for this album.  It’s possible they could have recorded bodily functions and sold enough copies to make it a gold record.  But they wanted to make this one of the best albums ever, and spent a colossal 55 hours of studio time in open-ended sessions to record the tracks.  Over 700 hours of engineering time was spent on making the final mixes.  The Fab Four were experimenting, and had the money and pull to bring in whatever sounds they wanted for the album.  The George Harrison contribution, “Within You Without You”, is a good example.  There is George’s Sitar, a group of uncredited Indian musicians, a string section later overdubbed, a tambura, and probably more things I can’t begin to identify.

Within You Without You

One of the funniest stories about the recording sessions was an interaction between John Lennon and producer George Martin.  It actually may have started in the sessions for the previous album, 1966’s Revolver.  In previous times, musicians often had to record lead vocals twice, to create an enhanced and richer sound for the final product.  This was a tedious process for the vocalist to repeat their performance precisely.  During the “Sgt. Pepper” sessions, the Beatles had every effect available to them including something called automatic double tracking or ADT.  This process made re-recording the lead vocal unnecessary. It was during the Revolver sessions that Lennon had asked about the technology.  Martin fed him a line of prunes and told him his voice was “treated with a double vibrocated sploshing flange”.  Lennon realized he was being joked with, but always referred to the effect as “Flanging”.  As a testament to the influence of the Beatles, the term “Flanging” in universally accepted for this effect to this day.

The idea of an album as the main product was a shift in thinking in the music industry of the time.  In those days, singles were the lifeblood of the recording and radio industry.  The album’s production was taking so long that two songs that were originally intended for the album were released as singles.  This was in no small part to keep the Beatles somewhat in the public eye as they built this early concept album.  “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were both recorded in these sessions, and certainly are artistically consistent with the album.  These two songs were later included on the US release of the “Magical Mystery Tour” album, but not the British versions

Strawberry Fields Forever

The Sgt. Pepper album has been criticized for having tunes of varying quality, and it is true that the Fab Four spent more time on some of the first tunes recorded, and less on the later tunes as things began to get bogged down.   No matter what your final opinion of the finished product, the achievement is a milestone in the history of music.  As an early concept album, recorded with state of the art technology, the creative freedom, and budget that the Beatles’ fame empowered the project with, it remains a work not to be missed.  I’m not going to put a link to the entire album here.  I’m sure you can throw a pebble out your front door and hit a friend who has a copy, if it is not already in your music collection.

 

King of the Slide Guitar

King of the Slide Guitar

Elmore James

Elmore James

The slack-stringed, wailing, electric guitar riff that opens “Dust My Broom” is a sound that will forever immortalize Elmore James.  Although this tune was first recorded by the legendary Robert Johnson, it was the version by James that became an R&B hit in 1952.  Guitar players have spent hours and hours copying that sound, but it is Elmore James who owned it.  Everyone else is simultaneously a tribute to James, and a pale imitation.

The phrase “dust my broom” means “it’s over, I’m done and leaving” .  I imagine back in the day, when the cleaning was done, the last step was to shake the dust off the broom used to sweep up.  It was understood to express, “I’m gonna quit you and not come back”.  In the first verse of the song, Elmore sings he is going to quit the best girl he’s lovin’, and his friends can have his room.  He is gone and won’t need either any more.

Elmore James, “Dust My Broom”

Elmore James

Elmore James

Elmore James was born in Mississippi, the birthplace of the blues.  His first guitar was undoubtedly acoustic, but soon he helped electrify the blues.  Initially an electric pickup was added to the sound hole of an acoustic guitar, and eventually he moved to a fully electric guitar.  He moved up to Chicago, and became a fundamental figure in the electric blues sound of Chicago.  His sound was studied and copied by scores of blues and rock and roll musicians.

 

Elmore James, “The Sky is Crying”

In addition to his guitar work, Elmore James is famous for his vocals.  There is a strained, desperate, wailing sound to the way he sings.  It is a perfect match for the subject matters of his songs.  Many of his tunes have that famous “Jimmy Reed” shuffle figure, with James’ plaintive vocal pleading out the lyrics, and his slide guitar sound getting all the miles he can out of that octave wide “Dust My Broom” riff.  When you hear it, it is simply perfection.  I can’t imagine it any other way.  The main part of his recording career is right in the middle of the time of early Rock & Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and straight up Electric Blues.

Elmore James, “Shake Your Money Maker”

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

Elmore James suffered from a heart condition and died in 1963 of a heart attack.  He was just about to join a tour of Europe, with other blues musicians in the American Folk Blues Festival.  That tour fed the European appetite for the blues sound, and undoubtedly James would be even more famous had he lived long enough to join that trip.  As it is, he is a figurehead in the world of guitar players.  Jimi Hendrix sometimes posed for photos, with albums in hand of musicians he respected.  One of the most famous photos of Hendrix has him holding an Elmore James record.

The four tunes included in this post are really just scratching the surface of Elmore James’ output.  Any tune you run across that has James playing and singing is well worth your time to listen.  The music is powerful, expressive, authentic, and something that I can hear over and over again.

 

Elmore James, “I Need You”

 

Something Blue and Borrowed

Something Blue and Borrowed

Well the podcasting bug struck again.  This time I was inspired by all the places you hear the chord progression that makes up the twelve bar blues.  The blues is a sound that has been borrowed and incorporated into a variety of genres of music.  I try to point out and follow a few examples in this new twenty-minute episode of the Good Music Speaks Podcast.

 

microphone headphone

 

The episode has examples of delta blues, rock and roll, and jazz.  There is also a link to a Spotify playlist that has all of the tunes included in the podcast, so you can listen to the entire performance of each.

Follow the link below to the new Good Music Speaks Podcast page, and take a listen.

I hope you enjoy.

podcastGood Music Speaks Podcast

 

 

I am aiming to offer a new episode once a month, if the good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise.  🙂