It Was 45 Years Ago Today

A song by song response to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles

It Was 45 Years Ago Today

  1. The Smashing Pumpkins- “Tonight, Tonight”
  2. Hank Williams III- “Country Heroes”
  3. XTC- “Senses Working Overtime”
  4. Tanya Donnelly- “Keeping You”
  5. Vaselines- “Son Of A Gun”
  6. Cyndi Lauper- “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
  7. Sufjan Stevens- “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
  8. Love and Rockets- “Kundalini Express”
  9. Melvins- “Goin’ Blind”
  10. Frank Black- “Speedy Marie”
  11. The Vapors- “Turning Japanese”
  12. The Smashing Pumpkins- “Tonite Reprise”
  13. Queen Latifah- “Just Another Day…”

Inspiration Album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles

  1. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Lennon/McCartney)
  2. “With a Little Help from My Friends” (Starr)
  3. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Lennon/McCartney)
  4. “Getting Better” (Lennon/McCartney)
  5. “Fixing a Hole” (Lennon/McCartney)
  6. “She’s Leaving Home” (Lennon/McCartney)
  7. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” (Lennon/McCartney)
  8. “Within You Without You” (Harrison)
  9. “When I’m Sixty-Four” (Lennon/McCartney)
  10. “Lovely Rita” (Lennon/McCartney)
  11. “Good Morning Good Morning” (Lennon/McCartney)
  12. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” (Lennon/McCartney)
  13. “A Day in the Life” (Lennon/McCartney)

Mix Challenge Liner Notes

I had a couple of goals with this mix, beyond the obvious (possibly foolhardy) goal of finding a track-by-track response to the Beatles’ masterpiece. I wanted to find songs from what you might call the “post-Pepper” generation, i.e. by musicians who grew up in the musical world that the Beatles made. Thus all of these tracks are from the 80s, 90s and 00s, the earliest being from 1980 and the most recent from 2006. I also wanted it to not be a novelty response, even if some of the links have a hint of whimsy, but to really try to find some heart of connection between these songs and the originals. Lastly, I wanted the response songs to be on a level with each other, and hopefully on their best days, not be ashamed to be in the company of the Beatles. I’m not sure how well I pulled it off, but I hope you enjoy it!

1. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Lennon/McCartney)/The Smashing Pumpkins- “Tonight, Tonight”

When I first thought about doing this mix, I knew this would be one of the most troublesome tracks to find a match for. What do you pair with the opening song of the original concept album/voice of its generation? How about the almost opening track of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, an album Smashing Pumpkins impresario Billy Corgan himself said he wanted to be like Pink Floyd’s The Wall for Generation X. Because surely Sgt. Pepper’s was the album that created a world where there could be concept albums like The Wall and Mellon Collie. I also think there’s a way in which it has a similarly grandiose spirit, its orchestral swell a kind of warped counterpoint to the neo-Big Band sound the Beatles were going for on their opening track. As an added bonus, choosing this song solved an even thornier problem I was going to have when I got to track twelve…

2. “With a Little Help from My Friends” (Starr)/Hank Williams III- “Country Heroes”

I see your idiosyncratic dude celebrating letting his own freak flag fly while getting high with a little help from his friends, and raise you one idiosyncratic dude celebrating letting his own freak flag fly while getting drunk with his country heroes. You have to think that pre-recovery Ringo and Hank Williams III could have raised some serious hell together.  Also, I’m a sucker for minor chords.

3. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Lennon/McCartney)/XTC- “Senses Working Overtime”

Perhaps it’s because it’s such an icon of the psychedelic 60s, but I find that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is one of the most dated-sounding songs on Sgt. Pepper. Still, there is something undeniably charming about the sensory kaleidoscope that it presents, which led me naturally to “Senses Working Overtime”. And surely there could hardly be a group that more thoroughly owes their entire musical oeuvre to late-period Beatles than XTC. Well, maybe Oasis, but it’s competitive.

4. “Getting Better” (Lennon/McCartney)/Tanya Donnelly- “Keeping You”

When Tanya Donnelly’s (nee of Throwing Muses and Belly) solo album Beautysleep first crossed my path in 2002, it was one of the cornerstones of my post-divorce rebuilding. It’s such a beautiful, tender, musical document, in which new mother Donnelly celebrates the gift of her first child, letting in the redemption of new life while still honoring the difficulty and damage of her past. It resonated with my own crossroads of loss and renewal. In other words, the entire album is like a one-woman embodiment of “Getting Better”, in which she is both the hopeful pop-melodic McCartney and the cynical and slightly sinister Lennon in the background.

5. “Fixing a Hole” (Lennon/McCartney)/Vaselines- “Son Of A Gun”

The singer of both these songs is doing a remarkably similar thing- trying to fill the space of being alone in the bedroom on a rainy day. True, the Beatles have hit on the more noble solution, filling the emptiness with something that comes from within rather than with someone else. Still, I feel like they’re of a spirit with each other. It was definitely a judgment call whether to go with the Vaseline’s original version of “Son Of A Gun” or Nirvana’s cover, but in the end the Vaseline’s were more UK (Scotland, to be exact) and more poppy, which seemed like a better fit for the Beatles.

6. “She’s Leaving Home” (Lennon/McCartney)/Cyndi Lauper- “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”

I wanted to present the other side of the story. I considered the Dixie Chicks, as they have several fine songs about headstrong young women leaving home, but none of them were quite right. Also, I knew I was going to have Hank III on this mix, and wasn’t sure I wanted to double-down on the Country (not that there’s anything wrong with that…). And then it came to me. Who was this girl who had to leave home because she just wanted to have fun, and her parents couldn’t understand? The answer was obvious!

7. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” (Lennon/McCartney)/Sufjan Stevens- “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

I always pictured Mr. Kite as a kind of everyman whose life is made grand by the circus presentation of the song. Underneath it, though, there’s a hint that all is not quite right. The aggrandizement seems a little too grand, like it’s covering up for something. And somehow that led me to this thoroughly chilling and yet oddly tender masterwork by Sufjan Stevens. About an everyman whose life was made grand by performing as a beloved clown. And under the floorboards, something was not quite right…

8. “Within You Without You” (Harrison)/Love and Rockets- “Kundalini Express”

Through songs like “Within You Without You”, George Harrison carved out a space where Eastern Spirituality could be seriously presented in a pop song. Love and Rockets are clearly heirs of this legacy. Even more fittingly, before forming the band, they were three of the members of a Fab Four. It was Bauhaus rather than the Beatles, but that’s just a detail.

9. “When I’m Sixty-Four” (Lennon/McCartney)/Melvins- “Goin’ Blind”

The narrator of “Goin’ Blind” does not give a fuck if you will still need him or feed him when he’s sixty-four. Do you know why? Because you’re sixteen, he’s ninety-three, and anyway, he thinks he’s going blind. One of Kurt Cobain’s favorite bands, the Melvins, gives this Kiss cover their finest slower and sludgier Black Sabbathesque treatment, producing what is probably Paul McCartney’s worst musical nightmare.

10. “Lovely Rita” (Lennon/McCartney)/Frank Black- “Speedy Marie”

One great song that celebrates a super-groovy motorway-connected gal deserves another. Frank Black is considerably dialed back from his maximum Pixies rawness here, striking an achingly romantic note that actually makes “Speedy Marie” fine company for McCartney’s song. I also find that they both somehow perfectly strike the note of their era- swinging 60s London on one end, 90s alternative cool on the other.

11. “Good Morning Good Morning” (Lennon/McCartney)/The Vapors- “Turning Japanese”

Call me crazy, but I think this is the same song separated by a musical era. Rushing here, rushing there. Society breaking down, but you have to stay busy. A little more masturbation in the second than the first, but there are sections where even the lyrical phrasing and pacing of the two songs are strikingly similar. The Beatles certainly got there first, but you have to concede that “Turning Japanese” loses nothing in terms of catchiness for being second.

12. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” (Lennon/McCartney)/The Smashing Pumpkins- “Tonite Reprise”

The real problem with finding a match for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is that to do it right, you also have to find a match that has a reprise. I was frankly consternated. Then my consternation turned to joy as research on Mellon Collie, which I already had my eye on for providing some kind of intro and outro song, revealed the existence of “Tonite Reprise”. This song is not on that album (it was the B-side of “Tonight, Tonight”), but it can be found on both their singles box-set The Aeroplane Flies High and on their Rarities and B-sides collection. Thank you Smashing Pumpkins!

13. “A Day in the Life” (Lennon/McCartney)/Queen Latifah- “Just Another Day…”

“A Day in the Life” sets a formidably high bar for any potential companion song. When I thought about the essentials of what it might involve, I came up with: something with more than one lyrical/vocal style, on the longer side, with samples and sound effects, and offering some kind of social critique. This left me even more consternated than the whole “Lonely Hearts Club Band” imbroglio did. And then I realized that there is a genre that regularly produces songs that do all of these things, hip-hop. Even better, there was a hip-hop song, by someone who’s been a favorite of mine since the late-80s, that did all of this and even had “A Day in the Life” kind of theme. It even ends with the same kind of ominous bang, albeit via actual gunshots rather than a crashing piano chord.  I couldn’t be happier with ending this mix through Queen Latifah’s exposure of the disquieting underside of a “normal” day that plays every bit as well for late 20th/early 21st century urban America as Lennon and McCartney’s song did for mid-60s UK.

I’d like to close with a confession: Sgt. Pepper’s has never been one of my favorite albums. I think in a way it’s stymied by its very success. It’s hard to hear it in this day and age without also hearing the voice of decades of critical regard in the background intoning, “THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ALBUM OF ALL TIME.” That’s a lot for the music to get through. And, while unquestionably high-quality, it also sounded not quite so groundbreaking by the time I first got to it in my parent’s record stacks circa 1980, and this is even truer today. The simple reason, of course, is that four decades of music has colonized the territory that the Beatles first discovered with this album. Making this mix, though, has vastly increased my respect for the original. My offerings here are scarcely more varied, musically and thematically, than Sgt. Pepper’s itself. And the four lads from Liverpool did all that when nobody had done anything like it before, or even knew if it would work. Well done boys!