There are very few ways that a full-album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band can succeed. How do you take an album that’s so beloved, well-known, and – arguably – perfect, and cover it?
As proof that it would be possible, I’d give you Beck’s side project, Record Club, where Beck and an ever-rotating cadre of friends rerecord excellent albums they clearly love, in the course of one day’s worth of sessions. (The exception is their cover of Yanni Live at the Acropolis, which we don’t talk about.) The results aren’t perfect, but they’re respectful, loving, sincere, and thoughtful.
But never fear – whether it’s Native Americans or the Beatles, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne never met something (over the last few years, at least) that he couldn’t poop on to serve his own ego. So welcome to the guest-star bloated With a Little Help From My Fwends, a benefit for the Bella Foundation in the Lips’ home state of Oklahoma. The album’s exactly what you’ve always wanted, so long as you’ve always thought the Beatles were too sincere, playful, and original, and that they probably could have benefited from more spacey-swirly noises.
To be fair: there are places where Fwends manages to be tolerable, which are generally where it adheres closely to the original. “Getting Better” is OK, but as joyless as everything before and after, something no version of “Getting Better” should ever be. “Within You Without You” works surprisingly well, but – as is a problem with too many of these tracks – the vocalist plays the song straight while the Lips’ overheavy production has nothing but cynical contempt for the source.
The title track’s reprise is decent, but offers no excitement or happiness. That huge, momentous key change in the song falls flat. And then it noodles on for several more minutes and sounds very nice, but is clearly not Sgt. Pepper. It’s an outro that escaped from a parallel universe, a universe that’s far luckier than ours, where the Flaming Lips don’t need to resort to gimmicks.
The most aggressively bad track, “With a Little Help from My Friends”, tries to add teeth to a sweet, honest, sincere song. The original song’s call and response between Ringo and the other Beatles is rendered as a call and response between a singer and … heavy-metal screams, for some reason. But at least that’s surprising, something that wasn’t true for most of these songs. Most of them sound exactly like what you’d expect.
The Beatles pioneered psychedelia. Sgt. Pepper was written, recorded, and mixed while each Beatle was high on a VW minibus’ worth of drugs. They didn’t put swoopy outer-space noises on their albums in order to make them psychedelic or novel, because they didn’t have to. Sgt. Pepper was a carefully-composed gem that didn’t need outlandish processing and oh-so-trippy vocals to not just work, but blow minds. But that would involve subtletly, something that Fwends is short on.