Let's review the Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart's Club Band

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart's Club Band (1967)
Purchased: Freshman Year, College
One-liner: Having completely shed their mop-top image, the Beatles revolutionize music with this critically-acclaimed pop masterpiece.

When I first got to college, I still considered myself a casual Beatles fan. With Sgt. Pepper's, I felt a sort of ending. This was the last of the Beatles' albums with which I was familiar, and I made the decision that this was where I'd stop. I mean, why would I buy those old-timey Beatles albums? Well, more on that later.

Though I dropped down cash for it, I didn't really like Sgt. Pepper's as much as the previous albums I had purchased. My theory about buying up the back catalog of old groups that have long disbanded is that, like any band you love, you start to crave "new material." So "new to you" ends up being good enough; you just want to hear a variation of that group's sound again. Hey, that's why I own Bossanova. Of course, these days you can download an entire career of an artist in a heartbeat. Though I have a theory about why you shouldn't do that. In short, I have a lot of theories.

For me, an equally powerful appeal to the Beatles was their album artwork. As an amateur artist, I was more drawn to the art than the music initially, and that's especially the case with Sgt. Pepper's. I was so obsessed with the album's surreal crowd scene that one high school summer, I created a poster-sized parody using a cast of comic strip characters I was drawing at the time. Seeing it today is a little daunting, it's a shrine to myself as a teenager, with the caricatures of my favorite celebrities rounding out the cast of onlookers. And, seriously, this was an album I heard maybe three times in high school.

I shouldn't neglect the music on Sgt. P, because it grew on me. I would nominate "A Day In The Life" if we were having one of those college, "best song ever" types of conversations and I'd say it's difficult to find a better example of the John/Paul collaboration in practice. John's in top form throughout, Paul includes a couple of his best songs ("Fixing a Hole," "Lovely Rita") George and Ringo's contributions are slight, but valuable. George Martin gets crazy. It's an album that has none of the "Beatle hits" and yet still holds up well. After Sgt. Peppers, I became less a listener to singles and more a listener of albums. No more greatest hits albums for me. ...OK, fewer greatest hits albums.

Capitol must've considered this the most important of their CD releases, because they actually made an effort to include a mini booklet about the making of the album, including a "who's who on the cover" key. I got wrapped up in this tiny, jewelcase-sized book. Outside of their music, I didn't know much about this Beatles band, and this would be my introduction to them as individuals. It wouldn't be long before I started reading anything I could get my hands on. The casual fan would transition into the fanatic: By the time I graduated, I would buy 7 more Beatles albums.

Rating: Classic. It's true because important people say so. I dare you to dub it not classic. You will be shunned. Oh, and minus 50 points for the grating "When I'm Sixty Four."

Final Word: I love John Lennon's take on the "theme album" aspect of this record. Essentially, his take is that it's crap. And I agree. Beyond the opening, "A Little Help From My Friends" and the reprise, I challenge you to come up with how these and the other songs on the album tie together. Points for creativity.

Next up: Let It Be and Pastmasters, Vol. 2


Let's review the Beatles: The White Album

Album: The Beatles (aka The White Album) (1968)
Purchased: High School
One-liner: Growing tension within the band leads to a sprawling double album and, after conflicts over everything from to track order to cover art, it is released in a plain white sleeve.

Review: As with everything, the details of the first and the last are always the strongest. And the rest can be a little ...blurry. Here's what I do know: This is the last Beatles CD I bought in high school. I bought it shortly after Abbey Road and the exact whereabouts are unknown (though if you said the mall or Target, you'd probably be close). I could "cold case" some other details: for example I could tell you that this was likely a big purchase for me – I didn't do double albums outside of box sets and 2-CD greatest hits collections. It was also likely picked up due to the impression it made on me during that influential listening day mentioned in my Magical Mystery Tour review. Chances are I was sick of turning the album over all the time, a process that doubled with the White Album.

Other than this being my favorite Beatles album, there's not much in the way of embarrassing life stories tied to this record. I love that in spite of (or maybe because of) their inner turmoil, they were able to create such a unique and distinct work. You can copy the Beatles sound, but you can't mimic what they were going through when they made the White Album. Other bands don't make this album at all, they just break up.

Wait, wait – I just remembered an embarrassing story. A couple years later, I decided that the White Album-era John Lennon look was where it was at. Fortunately for me, I was halfway there. I was pasty and wore glasses, so only a couple of steps were needed. Step one: I picked up a pair granny glasses. Step two: I grew out my hair (long, but not long enough really). Bam. Instant Lennon. My specific inspiration was Lennon's inside cover photo on the White Album. Soon enough I was taking idol worship to that next, Single White Female level:

So, yeah, my fashion sense was a little off. And I liked ironically holding pepper shakers. Be yourself, kids. That's the message for today. And I suppose you could say that's the message of the White Album too. Tied that back around nicely.

Rating: Favorite Beatles album. Six billion stars.

Final thoughts: The poster that originally appeared in the album is mercilessly butchered in the original CD version. Disappointing. Also, while I can still pretty much listen to the whole thing from beginning to end, "Birthday" and "Honey Pie" are tough to get through.

Next up: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band


Let's review the Beatles: Abbey Road

Abbey Road (1969)
Purchased: High School
One liner: After the failed documentary project Get Back, The Beatles return to the studio, get "back to basics" and record one more classic record.

Review: Being ever-dutiful to understanding Beatles history, I, um, bought the band's last studio album (Let It Be was recorded prior to Abbey Road, but the material was released after) second. Keep in mind I'm still just an economical high schooler, so I believe the real logic here was collecting "Come Together," "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" in one swoop.

A slight step up, I bought this disc at an independent retailer... um, that just happened to be at the mall. Since we were living in a time before the Internet, my strategy for buying CDs would be to bounce from record store to Target to record store seeing who had the best deals. Minus the Merle Hay mall, none of my usual spots had Abbey Road. And I reaaaally wanted this album, there just wasn't a moment to spare. So I ponied up $16 (a small fortune) at Disc Jockey (or whatever it was called) and picked up Abbey Road. Though I had heard it a number of times before already, it was still exciting hearing my copy for the first time.

This was groundbreaking stuff for young Slagle. I became completely obsessed with Abbey Road. The singles, the Side Two medley, the cover art, "Her Majesty," etc. etc. I hadn't gotten too cynical yet, so even ditties like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Octupus's Garden" passed the test. For awhile, it acted as the benchmark I used to judge all albums and the experience of hearing it could possibly be traced to why I'm still obsessed with music today. Well, that and Dark Side of the Moon. And the Digital Underground's Sex Packets. What? There was a lot going on.

Today, I tend to jump in on the abuse Paul McCartney gets for being the most saccharine Beatle. But that wasn't always the case. Ah, high school. Music had a handy way of providing escape from the awkward period that was my sophomore through senior year. My parents' divorce, a new job and unrequited crushes bounced around in my 16-year-old, hormone-addled brain. Only then could Paul reach me – and he did – with a song called "You Never Give Me Your Money" (side two, track three). Why? Even a cursory pass over the lyrics and you realize this song had absolutely nothing to do with my problems. It doesn't help my case that it ends with John Lennon repeating "one two three four five six seven/all good children go to heaven." Eh?

But in the right mindset, I guess you can apply anything to anything. And in this case the final verse (before the counting part) contained a fairly generic, but upbeat promise about packing up your bags and blowing town with some floozy. I guess the idea appealed to me. In fact, in doing research for this project, I was able to dig up this sappy little mixtape (which also contained The Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" and some ELO songs). The name of this little love bomb actually refs the song – I called it "One Sweet Dream." Fortunately I think this is as cheesy as I got, but I'll admit it: the song got to me. Guilty as charged. You win this time, Paul.

Rating: For still ranking in my top 3 Beatles albums: 1,200 points. For containing the most iconic image on an album cover ever (i.e., see the logo I created for this series): 500 points. For making me a sappy stooge in high school: -10 points.

Final thought: I really like the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," which usually puts me in the minority. I guess I can see why. Next to "Revolution 9," it was the longest song the band ever released (7:47) and its lyrics contain roughly 12 words total. But hey, that just makes it easier to sing along.

Next up: The Beatles (The White Album)


Let's review the Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour

I've been somewhat surprised at the number of reviews rolling in the Beatles albums, now that they've finally been remastered and re-released. I guess a lot of "new media" outlets finally want a crack at the most famous band of all time (hey why not, everyone wants a little bit of that Beatle money) and now's as good a time as any.

The reviews I've come across have been pretty diverse. Pitchfork seems to have rocked the boat the least (which is surprising) giving a lone dud review to Yellow Submarine, but treating the rest of the catalog with nostalgic "we're-not-worthy" praise. I was half-expecting to see snark ruling the day. My vision included reviews like: With The Beatles Rating: 4.7 Review: Sorry, moptops.

The harshest reviews? Surprisingly the ones I've read are coming from what's commonly considered Beatles sacred ground. For example, British mag Q Magazine chose to give Please Please Me and Let It Be two-star (!?) ratings, ranking them the worst alongside the universally-hated Yellow Sub. Seriously, Q?

Honestly reviewing the Beatles is kind of a joke at this point. As a few of the Pitchfork reviews noted, the Beatles followed a basic outline that has been lampooned (hello, Rutles, B-Sharps) and stumbled into accidentally by countless bands since. It's impossible to hear one of the Beatles' records anymore without thinking "ohhh, this is their ____ album." Since their output didn't meander for decades and decades, it's very easy to pinpoint each album in the context of the times as well as how the band was working together as a unit.

But I'm gonna run through em anyway. To make it a more unique experience, I'll run them down in the order I bought them:

Album: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
Purchased: High School
One liner: After manager Brian Epstein had just died, The Beatles decided to take control of their own career and embarked on a travelogue-style movie (flop) with an excellent soundtrack - basically a collection of singles and odds-n-ends.

Review: Everyone knows you get into the psychedelic Beatles first. This is their most accessible period, and when a teenager realizes the band is cool and not just some "old people band." The first songs I heard on the radio and associated with the Beatles included "She Loves You," "Yesterday," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Yellow Submarine." I wasn't crazy about any of these songs, and would never have thought the same band would be capable of "Come Together" which I always attributed to some other cooler, unknown band I hadn't checked out yet.

By the time high school rolled around, I started making my own money and bought my first CD player. Since I was no longer under my parents' (complete) financial control, I could get serious and also start buying my own music. Magical Mystery Tour was the third CD I ever bought, and the first non-Greatest Hits album (though technically it kinda is) in my collection. At the time, I was economical with my purchases - I wanted all the hits. The first songs that really drew me to the band were "I Am The Walrus," "Hello Goodbye," "Penny Lane," and "Strawberry Fields Forever." And look at that! All here on one handy collection.

At the point, I was vaguely familiar with the band's output. All of the first albums I bought I had heard on vinyl first. My dad had had been pretty good about teaching me about some of the great moments in music history, playing Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" for me on headphones; teaching me about Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; and - in particular - playing Magical Mystery Tour through Abbey Road back-to-back-to-back-to-back for me on one very influential Sunday.

I bought this album at Target. Don't judge. I was, after all, a teenager in West Des Moines, Iowa. You get it where you can. I also remember there being some controversy with this purchase - my dad strongly disagreed with my favorite song on the album ("I Am The Walrus") thinking at the end of the song, the backing vocals were endorsing drug use by chanting "Smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smoke pot." Later, thanks to a nerdy obsession in college, I discovered the actual lyrics were "Oom-pah, oom-pah, everybody's got one." Sure, the Beatles endorsed drug-use, just in other songs and in subtler ways. I do have to admit, even when I hear listen to the song today, I occasionally hear the ol' "smoke pot" version in my head. Maybe this is fixed in the remaster.

And so began my obsession with The Beatles (and music in general). My younger, frugal self probably would never have predicted that I would eventually go on to buy every studio album (and then some).

Rating*: For being my gateway Beatles album: 1,000 points. For containing at least two of my all-time favorite Beatles songs: 500 points. For being attached to a boring movie that isn't even interesting as a failure: -50 points.

Final thought:
When I was a little kid, this record cover use to really creep me out. "Who are these dudes and why are they dressed as animals? They seem way too happy to be dressed as animals." And in general, there's way to much goin' on there. I'm gonna put it on the line and say this is their ugliest album art.

Next up: Abbey Road

*This is a highly scientific ratings system that requires neither explanation nor questioning.