By Dave Price
1967 was a year filled with psychedelic sights and mind-expanding sounds.
On London’s Carnaby Street, fashion boutiques were offering hip, wild, colorful clothing for with-it British men and women. Meanwhile, young Americans from San Francisco to New York City were letting their hair grow long, while simultaneously tuning in and turning on to marijuana, LSD, and the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and the Vanilla Fudge. And reflective of all that was swirling around them, the Beatles produced their pot and acid-drenched masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
To say that the album was revolutionary in its time is understatement. But earlier this month, the Mark Morris Dance Group proved that more than 50 years later, there still is innovation to be found in the musical masterpiece.
For three sold-out nights at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, the New York City-based dance company, directed by noted ballet and opera choreographer Mark Morris, presented the group’s reworking of Sgt. Pepper’s titled Pepperland, a stunning visual dance performance set to six much-altered Beatles songs and seven original pieces composed by pianist Ethan Iverson.
Here is a summation of the one-hour performance from score notes by Iverson, who led the seven-member live pit band which included a single vocalist, two keyboardists, a trumpeter, a trombonist, a percussionist, and, most interestingly, a theramin player. (For those not familiar with the theramin, and many in the performance hall were not, the one-of-a-kind electronic instrument is a single oscillator with two metal rods used to change pitch and amplitude controlled by a single performer using hand gestures above the rods):
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- The original album ended with an unprecedented effect, a very long chord. Fifty years later, perhaps a similar chord is a good place to begin …
- A formal invocation of personalities from the LP cover
With a Little Help from My Friends
- When Ringo sang it, he was on top of the world. Our version is more vulnerable.
- In an age of Tinder, a Lonely Heart advertisement might seem hopelessly quaint. But everyone has always needed to find a match.
When I’m Sixty-Four
- In between 6 and 4 is 5. All three counts (to the bar are heard) are heard beneath the music-hall scuffle.
- A single offhand line from “Sgt. Pepper” germinates into a full-fledged sonata.
Within You Without You
- George Harrison’s sincere study of Indian music aligns easily with another Harrison interested in bringing the East to the West: the great composer Lou Harrison, one of Mark Morris’s most significant collaborators. The hippie-era sentiment of the lyric remains startlingly fresh and relevant today.
- Glenn Gould said he preferred Petula Clark to the Beatles. Apparently, Gould, Clark, and a chord progression from “Sgt. Pepper” all seemed to have inspired this mod number.
- The first thing we hear on the LP is a blues guitar lick, here transformed into a real blues for the horns to blow on. Wilbur Scoville invented the scale to measure hot sauce: The original Sgt. Pepper?
- After seeing Bach’s Brandenburg on the telly, Paul McCartney came into the studio and told George Martin to add piccolo trumpet to “Penny Lane”. Indeed, detailed references to European classical music are one reason so many Beatles’ songs still stump the average cover band.
- Not on “Sgt. Pepper,” but nonetheless originally planned to be, and, of course, especially relevant to the city of Liverpool.
A Day in the Life
- Theremin nocturne, vocal descant, apotheosis.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- Another unprecedented effect on the original LP was a reprise of the first theme, which is part of why it is called the first concept album. Our later vantage point enables us to project into the next decade, the ‘70s, and conjure a disco ball. Thank you, Beatles. Thank you, Sgt. Pepper.