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Their own private 'Pepper'

The 'Sgt. Pepper' tributes just keep coming -- and, like the original, the best ones take us somewhere we haven't already been


(Illustration by Katharine Streeter)

BEATLES TRIBUTES: HOW redundant they are, how irresistible, how tantalizing. Redundant because the ongoing appeal of the band's music is surely its own best tribute; irresistible because musicians still can't deny the impulse to redefine what the Beatles defined; and tantalizing because you never know when an artist will crack the combination, get inside the song, and come away with a prize no one suspected was there.

A lot of hip young safecrackers are taking on the Beatles these days. We're well into the time-frame encompassing the 40th anniversaries of the band's classic studio albums: "Rubber Soul" was commemorated by 2005's "This Bird Has Flown," an engaging if erratic effort featuring the Fiery Furnaces, the Donnas, Cowboy Junkies, and others; and last year's "Revolver Reloaded," a warm, witty rustication of the 1966 masterpiece, featured alt-folk artists like Thea Gilmore, Catfish Heaven, and The Handsome Family.

This, of course, is the summer of the Sergeant. The glossy British pop monthly MOJO has issued "Sgt. Pepper: With a Little Help from His Friends," a multi-artist re-creation of the Beatles' psychedelic apotheosis, which turned 40 in June. In addition, BBC Radio 2 broadcast an all-star Pepper extravaganza last month, with the likes of Bryan Adams, the Kaiser Chiefs, and Oasis re-recording the album at Abbey Road Studios. Next year is certain to bring epic revisions of the double "White Album"; and the year after, "Abbey Road Redux."

But only the weakest tributes are predicated on the happenstance of an anniversary. The best seem to come from the musician's faith that the song hides something -- a truth, a realization, a key to her own desires and drives -- that only she can find and make visible. The result is not a revisiting of familiar terrain but the opening of a new landscape, where the signs remain readable but now point to different destinations. Destinations, for instance, like those found in two previous "Pepper" tributes -- the 1988 compilation "Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father" and a 1992 reimagining by a one-time Los Angeles musical comedy group called Big Daddy.

There's only one song on MOJO's "Pepper" tribute that has this quality of leading you out of a world you know into one you don't. It is "Within You Without You," and its interpreter is a Wisconsin-born singer of spectral folk-pop named Stephanie Dosen.

Intended as The Beatles' bow to Eastern wisdom, in the hands of George Harrison the song was a rod of discipline. In Dosen's double-tracked treatment, it is more seance than lecture. Floating above a mass of coalescing tones, the lead voice is thin, haunted, and attuned to the ethereal. A second voice enters to echo the first, which grows more entranced, as if its owner is being drawn into a darkness that might swallow her. The second voice is distant and alluring, and you begin to realize the song's new identity: a call-and-response, in some forest of the mind, between a woman and a ghost. As the voices overlap and intertwine, it's less certain which voice is which, or who is echoing who. At that point the music fades, and the mist closes in.

Dosen's dark dream is nearly the sole refuge of imagination, let alone terror, on MOJO's woeful compilation. Unkle Bob's "She's Leaving Home" -- in which a four-man Glasgow rock band unearths the song's buried pain by reducing its soap opera to shreds of lyric and shards of emotion -- is notably intense, but otherwise we clump between the dull (Irish folkie Fionn Regan's "Getting Better"), the lumbering ("Lovely Rita" by Nashville underground legends Dave Cloud & The Gospel of Power), and the embarrassing (Chicago indie rockers Chin Up Chin Up's "When I'm Sixty-Four").

So why does Dosen's tribute succeed where its neighbors fail? First and last, the maker of a successful tribute asserts herself against the thing she venerates. Which doesn't mean she must tear down the song, deface or scandalize it. Only that she assumes the right of interpretation, the prerogative to take the song anywhere, or be taken by it -- even into the mist, where she and the song might disappear together.

Dosen begins by disregarding what has always been accepted as the theme and thrust of "Within You Without You": a cosmic reproach to the unbelieving. ("They don't know, they can't see -- Are you one of them?") In her reshaping, it becomes the journey of one haunted voice toward another, a woman seeking the ghost that calls to her alone -- which, if you listen to Dosen's other music, is what her brief career has been all about. The artist working toward her art, the individual tracking her obsessions: that's the personal truth Dosen found in the Beatles' song, the story she remade it to tell.

Another tribute from another time, "Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father" -- a charity collection assembled by the UK paper New Musical Express -- emerged from a far more heterogeneous, less rockist frame of movement than obtains today. That means it's full of Beatles stories not just retold but rewritten: fine essences are extracted from familiar songs and used to make their sources unrecognizable. This is especially true of the album's twin monuments, The Fall's "A Day in the Life" and Sonic Youth's "Within You Without You" (again!): the first is a noble, half-soused doomsday rant, the second a vast funnel of white noise and mechanical drone.

But finest of all is Michelle Shocked's "Lovely Rita" -- a modest highlight, a perfect jewel, and just as personal a Beatles tribute as Dosen's, though less cryptic. Shocked turns The Beatles' banging, jovial ode to the meter maid into an elegant piece of mandolin folk, full of sly phrasing and charming insinuations. No pronouns are altered, and what you realize instantly is that this "Rita" is unmistakably a love song between women. A personal truth pursued and made visible: two years after singing her Beatles tribute, Shocked came out publicly as a lesbian.

Which shows again that the finest tribute need not be towering or terror-stricken or even radical; merely felt, and unique to its creator -- a realization of something in the song that no one else saw, until the artist made it plain.

Which brings us, amazingly, to Big Daddy, whose shtick was to redo post-Beatles rock standards in a range of pre-Beatles pop styles (imagine "Super Freak" as if performed by the Everly Brothers). In 1992 they issued a revision of "Sgt. Pepper" that recast the album as a wax museum of genres and artists from Johnny Mathis to Jerry Lee Lewis to Elvis.

The incongruity, obviously, is the joke -- and the joke is both deeper and more logical than it appears. The Beatles, the logic asserts, came out of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard; thus, those original rockers, though not pictured on the cover of "Pepper," are among the voices echoing in its chorus. By descent, then, "Pepper" comes out of "Johnny B. Goode," "Ready Teddy," and "Hound Dog" -- despite its being about as far from first-generation rock 'n' roll as rock 'n' roll can get.

Big Daddy's "Pepper" switcheroo is therefore doubly impressive, and doubly perverse. The band's juxtapositions, though occasionally overemphatic, are lovingly created and conceptually stunning. The title track begins as street-corner doo-wop before becoming a simulacrum of the Coasters on "Poison Ivy." We have "Dion" singing "Fixing a Hole" as a sequel to "The Wanderer," and "Freddie Cannon" discovering "Palisades Park" inside Mr. Kite's benefit. Repeatedly, the combinations click. The joke, as far as it goes, is funny.

Then you come to the finale, "A Day in the Life." You've been waiting for it: the album's greatest song, maybe the greatest the Beatles ever did. To which rock 'n' roll ghost will Big Daddy award the honor and the challenge of interpreting it?

That guitar, those drums -- it's "Peggy Sue"!

A near-faultless Buddy Holly impersonator begins to sing, and it's no longer a joke. Time warps around you as the lyrics expand with new referents, new meanings. "I read the news today, oh boy" -- what news? Perhaps the news dated February 3, 1959, announcing that a Beech Bonanza craft carrying Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Buddy Holly had gone down in a snowy Iowa field?

The song is perfectly aware of the connection it is making: in place of the Beatles' last crashing chord is the sound of a crashing airplane. And in between, the meanings multiply with every Hollyesque hiccup. "Buddy" sings the Beatles' "oh boy" -- and you hear the timeless hook of a great Holly hit: "Oh boy, when huh-you're with me, oh boy, the-huh world can see --"

Astonishing and inevitable, laughable and heartbreaking, it's pop art at its intuitive best. History flips its lid: Buddy Holly has been hijacked for a cameo in a Beatles tribute, yet now, the Beatles seem merely a chapter in "The Buddy Holly Story." "Buddy" does sing in the "Pepper" chorus; his ghost does stand in the "Pepper" crowd. Though as a ghost, he is invisible -- to all but this band of hipster mimics from LA.

Big Daddy has, in paying tribute, remade private fantasy as a public work. "The-huh world can see." Damned if it isn't guaranteed to raise a smile. But it's guaranteed, as well, to leave you jarred and jangling.

When they said they'd love to turn you on, the Beatles didn't mean just "get you high"; they meant "get you thinking." A handful of artists have taken up their challenge and extended it into new times, new lives. Thinking about the Beatles and Buddy Holly, Stephanie Dosen and Big Daddy, your mind drifts out to snowy fields and swallowing mists, your ears are alive, and suddenly old songs are speaking in new voices, telling new tales.

Devin McKinney is the author of "Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History" (Harvard). His music blog is popwithashotgun.blogspot.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, an essay on Beatles tributes in Sunday's Ideas section incorrectly said that the singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked is a lesbian. She is not.)

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