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Sgt. Pepper vs … ?

This year was the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Coincidentally, it was also the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” These two albums were compared in a gushing retrospective review of the latter in Uproxx, by Steven Hyden. Here’s the key passage:

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I don’t agree with this assessment, but first let me say: Notice how in the intro I specified that “OK Computer” was by Radiohead, but didn’t specify the artist of “Sgt. Pepper.” I think that that difference demonstrates the ongoing gap between the two albums and their respective places in the cultural lexicon: Virtually everyone knows what “Sgt. Pepper” is, but it’s possible that you’ve never even heard of “OK Computer.”

“OK Computer” was released in the summer of 1997 and quickly became one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, the decade, and eventually, of all-time, or at least as far as pop music criticism extends – to roughly the mid 1960s.

That’s a significant date. Most of the “greatest albums ever” lists have few if any entries before 1964. A recent list of the best albums by female artists used 1964 as its cutoff date. Why did “albums” become major events in the 1960s?

“Sgt. Pepper,” released in 1967, is a major reason why. Granted, it wasn’t the first album to be created by artists who were conscious of sequencing and flow, in such a way that they thought of their release as a coherent work rather than a collection of singles:

  • In 1966, The Mothers of Invention had released “Freak Out!” which ended with a multipart suite that featured aural collages.
  • At that time, Bob Dylan had also settled into the habit of closing his albums – “Blonde on Blonde” and “Highway 61 Revisted” are the best examples – with much longer songs than appeared on the rest of those records (a phenomenon I’ll call The Big Finish; it’s been widely imitated).
  • The Beach Boys also released the thematic “Pet Sounds” in 1966, with a loose concept of teenage angst paired with a more sonically adventurous direction than they had previously explored.

However, “Sgt. Pepper” greatly accelerated these trends:

  • The whole record was essentially a suite, with seamless transitions between songs (a ubiquitous feature in pop and especially rap albums ever since, but at that point something found largely only in jazz records such as John Coltrane’s “Meditations”).
  • It had a theme song (the title track) that was reprised and which segued directly into a Big Finish (“A Day In The Life”). Its concept featured a fictional band performing a stylistically eclectic set of songs.
  • It contained the Beatles’ most far-out instrumentation to date, with sitars, harpsichords, orchestras, clarinets, tape effects, sampled noises, and aggressive electric guitar (at a time when that was only starting to emerge with Jimi Hendrix).

There is no argument for “OK Computer” having anywher near the same influence on how “albums” were thought of. In fact, its first two songs – “Airbag” and Paranoid Android” blend into each other, in the vein of the title track and “With A Little Help From My Friends” on “Sgt. Pepper.” It also has a Big Finish with “The Tourist,” although the song is of comprable length to “Paranoid Android.” It is an album solidly in the “Sgt. Pepper” mold.

At this point, it’s possible to object and say something like: “Well, sure, “Sgt. Pepper” was a fancy hippie concept album about ‘meter maids and circus workers’ (as Hyden writes), but its music is overrated. It doesn’t have the feels and the depth of something like ‘OK Computer’ or [My Bloody Valentine’s] ‘Loveless.'”

If anything was an influential as the album’s concept, it was its music:

  • Sgt. Pepper refined all the experiments from the previous two Beatles albums – “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” – into consistently musical results. There’s hard guitar pop (title track, “Good Morning Good Morning”), Indian classical music that presaged trip-hop and electronica (“Within You Without You”), lush psychedelia that influenced Radiohead, Pink Floyd and many others (“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day In The Life”), and melodic ballads (“When I’m Sixty-Four,” “She’s Leaving Home”).
  • Songs are packed with modulations, hooks, and creative arrangements. The approach is different from one song to the next.
  • Having already reinvented string arrangemetns in pop music with “Eleanor Rigby” the year before, they took them in a different direction with “A Day In The Life,” somehow ending the most famous album of all-time with sustained orchestral noise, followed by a thunderous piano E chord and chopped-up voice samples.

Up against the conceptual and musical influence of “Sgt. Pepper,” what does “OK Computer” bring to the table?

It starts well with the “Airbag”/”Paranoid Android” duo, incorporating some unusual influences such as the rapidly shifting hip-hop of DJ Shadow, which spill over into the multiple phases of “Paranoid Android.” The third song, “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” was apparenlty influenced by the electric pianos on Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” but its much more listenable than that album, even if I usually forget its melody if I don’t listen to it for a while.

The album gets weaker after that. “Exit Music For A Film” is long and tedious, with an endlessly repeated “Let you choke” that should prompt questions about what “OK Computer” is actually even about (at least we can tell that “Sgt. Pepper” is about a fake band). “Let Down” is a nice recovery with some Beatles/Byrds-esque chiming guitars.

But then there’s “Karma Police,” which rips its chords from The Beatles song “Sexy Sadie” and drags on into a noisy finish. “Fitter Happier” is two minutes of nonsense read through a Mac computer voice, concluding with “A pig in a cage on antibiotics,” a sentiment very similar to the “Despite all my rage I’m still just a rat in a cage” from The Smashing Pumpkins song “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” from two years earlier. “Electioneering” is like something off Radiohead’s usually ignored debut album, “Pablo Honey,” with loud guitars and incoherent lyrics (one line simplys states: “cattle prods and the IMF”).

“Climing Up The Walls” is better. It is heavily indebted to The Beatles in general and to “Sgt. Pepper” in particular, with its Lennon-esque vocal effects, harsh strings, and psychedelic atmosphere. “No Surprises” is a pleasant lullaby with lyrics that don’t make a lot of sense (“I’ll take a quiet life/A handshake of carbon monoxide.”) “Lucky” is a guitar-based song that the band had worked on a few years earlier, with a thrilling vocal and finish. “The Tourist” aims for a Big Finish but is a nondescript waltz.

I think “OK Computer” is a merely OK album with an inexplicable reputation for being a milestone. The New York Times observed that it seemed to be Radiohead’s attempt to engage with the legacy of The Beatles, and it is definitely indebted to them. I’m not sure how it outdoes “Sgt. Pepper” in any way, since it cannot replicate the circumstances that allowed “Sgt. Pepper” to define both the album as a form and pop rock as a genre. That’s just a fact for an album released in 1997, well after the heyday of rock.

I’m not sure why Hyden is confident that “OK Computer” will eclipse “Sgt. Pepper” as a conversation starter about “great albums.” Maybe he thinks that as the 1960s receded into memory and the Baby Boomers who came of age during the Summer of Love in 1967 grow older, “Sgt. Pepper” will diminish in stature. Maybe, but there are two major objections to consider:

  • “OK Computer” is roughly to Generation X what “Sgt. Pepper” was to the Baby Boomers (although even then, it is nowhere near the representative statement that so completes encapsulates its era); however, Generation X is much, much smaller and less culturally influential than the Baby Boomer set. Quintessential Gen X milestones like the novels of Douglas Copeland – like Radiohead, obsessed with various vaguely corporate and technological demons – and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” have become obscure and less influential over time, respectively.
  • It’s hard to compare different types of art. But predicting that “Sgt. Pepper” will give away to “OK Computer” sounds to me like saying the works of William Shakespeare will be replaced by the works of George Bernard Shaw or another playwright as the central reference point for English-language drama. It didn’t happen, even after 300+ years had passed. The fundamental idea of writing a play in English – the forms used and the gravity/importance intended – is inextricable from Shakespeare, just as the album form is from “Sgt. Pepper.” Shakespeare is essential the DNA of English drama, just as “Sgt. Pepper” is to the entire notion of “the album” as a statement.

Of course, one could prefer “OK Computer” to “Sgt. Pepper,” but that’s not realy the question at hand. The question is which one is the touchstone for debates about the album, and I think “Sgt. Pepper” has to prevail since its story is the story of the album, and “OK Computer” owes its entire format and ambition to the mold of “Sgt. Pepper.”

One last point I wanted to talk about: “technology.” A long time ago, I wrote an entry about tech writing and about “technology” as a category, saying:

“When I see “technology” in a sentence, I move pretty quickly past it and don’t think much about it. If I do, though, it’s like I rounded a corner and saw a forked roads leading into three turnabouts – the generality is crushing. Are we talking strictly about the actions of hardware, software, and networks? Are these actions autonomous? What if we just assigned all of these machinations to the category of “machinery and artisanal crafts” and spoke of the great, world-changing, liberating power of “powerful industrial machinery”? It doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?”

I bring it up now because critcism of “OK Computer” is often intertwined with commentary about technology (see Hyden’s remarks about “the prevalence of technology in our daily lives”), in that unique way that only music critics can do when they get bored talking about what’s actually happening in songs. But what is “OK Computer” even about?

Here are some lines from “Paranoid Android,” perhaps the album’s piece de resistance:

“Please could you stop the noise?
I’m trying to get some rest
From all the unborn chicken
Voices in my head

Rain down, rain down
Come on rain down on me
From a great height
From a great height
Height.”

How is this about “technology” or really about anything that’s unique to the 1990s or to the internet era or the hyperconnected smartphone future (that is, in the future for people in 1997)? Ditto for the opening lines of “Climbing Up The Walls”: “I am the key to the lock in your house/That keeps the toy in your basement.”

If there’s any coherent concept to “OK Computer,” its anxiety about transportation. The first song is entitled “Airbag” and “Fitter Happier” and “Lucky” refer to worries about automobile and airplane transport, respectively.  Is this theme about “technology”? If it is, then “Sgt. Pepper” is also an album about “technology,” with a very similar and similarly central fretting about transportation, as captured in “A Day In The Life” about not noticing the traffic lights at changed. Go figure.

 

 

 

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