CHEAP TRICK: SGT. PEPPER LIVE (2009)
1) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; 2) With A Little Help From My Friends; 3) Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds; 4) Getting Better; 5) Fixing A Hole; 6) She's Leaving Home; 7) Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!; 8) Within You Without You; 9) When I'm Sixty-Four; 10) Lovely Rita; 11) Good Morning Good Morning; 12) Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise); 13) A Day In The Life; 14) Medley: Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End.
Okay, so this is the weirdest one yet. As if the innumerable quotations, periphrases, hints, and other types of Beatles influence (along with the occasional direct cover like ʽDay Tripperʼ) did not suffice; as if they needed something very direct, very blunt to confirm the title of «American Beatles»; as if work on The Latest stimulated their nostalgia glands to the point where itching gets dangerously close to bursting — Cheap Trick went ahead and did it, climbing up on stage and pulling a one-time Phish on us by covering Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety, in commemoration of the 42nd anniversary of its release, because who the heck cares about round dates? The urge is all that matters.
Actually, we learn from the liner notes that they were doing this as early as 2007 (when there was a round date after all), first with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra, then with other orchestras in different venues — the liner notes do not specify when and where this particular recording was made, but the orchestra is the New York Philharmonic — including a two-week run at the Las Vegas Hilton in September 2009: a royal venue for a royal album! Curiously, they did not follow it up with a medley of Elvis hits, as much as some of the regular patrons would love to hear that, I'm pretty sure.
The choice of Sgt. Pepper was probably quite deliberate — apart from continuing to exist as the quintessential Beatles / quintessential art-pop record in the communal mind, it was also the one album that most glaringly symbolized rock music's transition from stage-based to studio-based: all the innumerable studio tricks that gave Pepper its otherworldly, psychedelic sheen could not be replicated on stage, even if somebody had solved the screaming girl issue. At the same time, Sgt. Pepper was the first Beatles album that was put together as a continuous, quasi-conceptual suite of songs, with an intro and an outro, and thus, deserved to be performed as a single piece. And so here we are — who but Cheap Trick, these reputable «American Beatles» who'd worked so much out of the direct shadow of their UK predecessors, to try and realize that dream? Particularly now that they have already realized theirs, and are left with nothing much to do?
And yet, there's a problem. If they are doing an «authentic» Beatles-like vision of Sgt. Pepper, then this record has to be considered a failure, because, honestly, it does not sound that much like the Beatles (see below on the major discrepancies). But if they are doing a «Cheap Trick interpretation of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper» — then, in my opinion, they are not offering enough Cheap Trickery to make it significantly different. In other words, the performance may have been fun to attend in person, but as an album release, it kind of slips through the cracks, and does not intrigue me all that much to warrant subsequent listens.
The songs are, indeed, played as close to the original as they can be — but within the context of a standard four-piece rock band, expanded with an additional keyboardist, a couple extra backing vocalists, and an orchestra. (I don't know who plays the Indian instruments, but maybe a few members of the orchestra were switching between Western and Eastern ones); there is no specific goal of perfectly recapturing the Sgt. Pepper ambience, so you don't get much by way of weird effects on the guitars, and there are no backing tapes whatsoever, either, so you don't get the kaleidoscopic dazzling patterns on the instrumental parts of ʽMr. Kiteʼ. In other words, the classic colorfulness of Sgt. Pepper is here, if not exactly turned to monochrome, then at least greatly reduced, which only goes to confirm the legend of the album's irreproducibility (is that a word?) in a live setting (unless you do use backing tapes, but that's cheating).
Another problem, from that angle, is Zander's performance. He has to take on the roles of both John and Paul, and while he's largely doing alright as John (and even as George on ʽWithin You Without Youʼ), his impersonation of Paul fails quite miserably — he consistently oversings and adopts a more «rocking» tone than necessary, even for such songs as ʽWhen I'm Sixty-Fourʼ, and as a crooner, he is not particularly fit for ʽShe's Leaving Homeʼ, either. I'm not saying that Paul himself always does a great job on these songs when he is performing them live, but come on now, you just can't have the exact same person be John and Paul at the same time. They should have really found a different vocalist for those songs.
Now if you look at it from a different angle — imagine that this is Cheap Trick's reinterpretation of Sgt. Pepper as would be more fit for, say, a late Seventies audience (the same one who was instead cruelly tortured by the Sgt. Pepper movie back in the day) — then the whole thing makes a little more sense, but only a little. Here the chief point of interest would be Nielsen and his guitar work, as he transforms the majority of Pepper's guitar (and not only guitar) styles into variants of his own screechy rock'n'roll idiom. You get that screechy rock'n'roll style in the coda to ʽLucy In The Sky With Diamondsʼ, you get it in the jumpy, echoey finale of ʽLovely Ritaʼ, you even get it on soft numbers like ʽWith A Little Help From My Friendsʼ, with plenty of distorted block chords, 100% Cheap Trick rather than Lennon/McCartney. Does it work? Well... maybe, but it's not as if we're adding to the depth of the original here — rather, we're subtracting from it by reducing too many different things to the same common invariant. As much as I like the basic power pop format, it is only when you begin honestly applying it to music like Sgt. Pepper that you truly begin to dis-appreciate its sonic limitations.
Still, I think we should be generous and rank the results as at least a tiny notch above the level of «ridiculous one-time curiosity». At the very least, Cheap Trick's long history of Beatle-influenced work guarantees that this is not just a posh cash-in, but a truly heartfelt tribute to their idols. To be fair, I think they could have done a much better job with an album like Revolver, which was much more oriented at heavy guitar rock than Sgt. Pepper and which, on the whole, was far more influential on Cheap Trick's entire career (beginning with ʽTaxman Mr. Thiefʼ) than Sgt. Pepper, but I guess «Revolver Live» would have sounded less appealing to people who only remember the Beatles by their #1 album as per the average mainstream rankings. (They do, however, offer us the final part of the Abbey Road medley as an encore — so why not throw in ʽTaxmanʼ and ʽShe Said She Saidʼ?). Anyway, they do have a very close affinity with the material, although, dear friends, there is no need to rub it in our noses so bluntly — for instance, by boasting that, this time around, they were privileged to work with Sgt. Pepper's recording engineer himself, Geoff Emerick, to ensure further «authenticity» of the experience. Really, guys. The only thing missing was to pull out those Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band uniforms out of the moth closet — for some reason, they didn't even bother to have their own copies made.