Given it’s a frequent contender for the ‘Greatest Album Ever Made’ title, it almost seems like there’s nothing left to be said about the Beatles‘ culture-changing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album that hasn’t been said before.
But one element of Sgt. Pepper’s remains inexhaustible — the songs. So when the Flaming Lips announced they were delivering a start-to-finish Sgt. Pepper’s covers album, it was impossible not to be curious.
This isn’t their first time tackling a sacred cow. The Lips covered Pink Floyd‘s entire Dark Side of the Moon album in 2009 and followed it with similar homages to the classic debuts from King Crimson and the Stones Roses.
But covering a Beatles record — much less Pepper’s — requires another level of moxie entirely. Fortunately, Wayne Coyne and his bandmates have always operated on instinct, not fear.
Plus, they’ve recruited a substantial lineup of collaborators — Miley Cyrus, My Morning Jacket, Tegan & Sara, MGMT, J Mascis, Chuck Inglish, James Maynard Keenan and many more — who take the reigns on several of these songs. Coyne doesn’t actually sing on the majority of these covers, but regardless, the album is decidedly refracted through a Flaming Lips light.
From their take on the album’s instantly recognizable opener to its cataclysmic, chill-inducing finale, here’s a track-by-track review of the Flaming Lips’ With a Little Help From My Fwends, which drops Oct. 27. Btw, proceeds from the album go to a charity that helps needy pet owners get veterinary care.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: My Morning Jacket, Fever the Ghost, J Mascis
The first few seconds of Fwends are surprisingly faithful to Pepper’s: You hear an assortment of instruments, albeit electronic ones, warming up. But before long, an insistent synthetic bass — sounding very much like something out of a John Carter score — drops in, and the loving deconstruction of the album is at hand. Helium-high vocals deliver the familiar titular melody while various instruments compete against each other in a nearly atonal din. The unexpected rhythmic shifts sound like the Beatles through the lens of the Shaggs. Like a lot of psychedelica, this is a frightening, thrilling circus you can’t bear to look away from.
“With a Little Help From My Friends”: The Flaming Lips, Black Pus, The Autumn Defense
One of the few tracks on the Flaming Lips’ Sgt. Pepper’s homage actually sung by Wayne Coyne. The band’s unsanctimonious approach to this record is made clear when Coyne sings, “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” and his vocals are clearly Auto-Tuned. It’s a great joke, but the breathless screaming placed as a counterpoint to Coyne’s voice throughout the song becomes grating after about 20 seconds.
“Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds”: Miley Cyrus, Moby, The Flaming Lips
The first song that truly feels like a worthwhile cover on its own merit is the Lips’ reworking of “Lucy” with Miley Cyrus and Moby. Cyrus is perfectly cast in this role, her voice oozing childlike wonder as she sings about exploring the drug-induced, stranger side of the mind. When the chorus crashes in like an exploding subwoofer, this album starts to feel like it’s more than a gag — it’s a legitimate piece of music you’ll want to revisit.
“Getting Better”: Dr. Dog, Chuck Inglish
Another inspired pairing. Dr. Dog’s plaintive psych-rock is a perfect match for Chuck Inglish, who speak-sings most of the verses like the shell-shocked product of a deranged society. Sounding simultaneously damaged and hopeful, Inglish effectively inhabits the song.
“Fixing a Hole”: Electric Wurms
The Lips’ Steven Drozd-fronted side project Electric Wurms handles Paul McCartney’s existential musings. Drozd’s vocals sound filtered through a distant wormhole while an acoustic guitar plays the same chords over and over. This one feels nice, but a little rote.
“She’s Leaving Home”: Phantogram, Julianna Barwick
Dropping the melodramatic strings of the original production for a Casio MIDI beat, this is another one of the highlights on Fwends. Sarah Barthel of Phantogram sings the tale of a girl leaving her parents’ home to have fun (the one thing money can’t buy, allegedly) in an offhand but naive tone, matching the song’s content without getting saccharine.
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”: The Flaming Lips, Maynard James Keenan, Sunbears
Forget “A Day in the Life” — this is probably the hardest song on Pepper’s to cover. The wacky psychedelics of the original haven’t aged well, so the Flaming Lips make the wise choice to play up the kookiness of this song to an extreme. Tool/Puscifer frontman James Maynard Keenan sing-speaks the lyrics over a minimal electronic soundscape. When Henry the Horse dances the waltz, a wash of synths — almost like Kraftwerk on Trans Europe Express — take over. (Hey, Flaming Lips — you should seriously consider covering that classic next.)
“Within You Without You”: Birdflower, Morgan Delt
Another great ‘casting’ choice. New York electro singer Birdflower sings George Harrison’s Eastern-influenced meditation, her high-pitched voice straining to hit several of the notes. The effect is a lovely, otherworldly and unpretentious homage.
“When I’m Sixty-Four”: The Flaming Lips, Def Rain, Pitchwafuzz
While static noise rumbles in the background and electronic squiggles dance about, Def Rain sings McCartney’s music hall charmer sounding very distant, as if she might disintegrate mid lyric. The cover somehow maintains the old-timey flavor of the original without sacrificing the electronic weirdness of the album.
“Lovely Rita”: Tegan & Sara, Stardeath and White Dwarfs
Another highlight. Tegan & Sara sing the whole thing in a cadence all their own, putting the emphasis on all the wrong syllables and sounding more sweetly naive than McCartney at his most impish. Animal noises, acoustic strumming and a simple synth beat carry the song’s extended instrumental ending.
“Good Morning Good Morning”: Zorch, Grace Potter, Treasure Mammal
While the original was a scorching rocker, this sounds more like a drunken sing-along in a hot tub full of bubbling synths led by Potter. While John Lennon breathlessly rushed through the bridge of the original, stuttering, electronic-warped vocals carry that segment here. It’s an inventive, clever interpretation.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”: Foxygen & MGMT
Given their ambitious, messy recent album, Foxygen are a natural fit for Fwends. But their take on the title track’s reprise — executed with MGMT’s Ben Goldwasser — is actually one of the more faithful covers on this album. Sure, it’s lo-fi as hell, but the pacing is the same as the original, and unlke other Fwends tracks, the melody remains intact. But where the original wrapped with a few quick guitar licks, this version finds Foxygen and Goldwasser embarking on an extended, groovy psych-rock workout complete with bongos at the end.
“A Day In the Life”: Miley Cyrus, The Flaming Lips, New Fumes
One of the most imposing Pepper’s songs to tackle, Cyrus, the Lips and New Fumes wisely go small on this cover. Coyne handles most of the verses while a piano plays a fairly faithful approximation of the original. Things get much more interesting when Cyrus comes back around, though. She takes on McCartney’s “woke up, got out of bed” segment and sounds genuinely sleepy singing it. Meanwhile, an extremely simple beat — it almost sounds like a pre-set factory beat on a Casio keyboard — grounds her voice. When the song ramps itself up at the end to the apocalyptic conclusion you’ve been conditioned to expect, the storm of static simply cuts out, as if someone pulled the plug on the whole album. And much like the actual Pepper’s, when it’s all over, you’re going to feel compelled to explore it again.