The year was 1967, and the Beatles had just struck it rich with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was an album that pandered mercilessly to a generation of hippies too stoned on acid to realize it was the most globulent, sugar-covered thing the Fabricated Four had ever committed to vinyl.
Even worse than a really absurd Beatles album, though, was that the Rolling Stones thought they needed a Sgt. Pepper of their own. So the Stones played monkey-see, monkey-do, and coughed up a hairball they called Their Satanic Majesties Request. It was full of the same lame psychedelic conceptualisms that made Sgt. Pepper so quease-inducing. In the past several months, two artists, Terence Trent D'Arby and Tears for Fears, thought they could do what the Rolling Stones couldn't-- create a Sgt. Pepper sequel.
The possibility must have been intoxicating. What they released, in fact, were the last two-thirds of Their Satanic Majesties Request: The Trilogy.
A third Sgt. Pepper wanna-be, De La Soul, actually recognized the difference between art and ego. When constructing its "project," the hip-hop group managed to add a major dose of imagination to rap, and crack a smile at the same time. De La Soul took itself just seriously enough, which is to say that De La Soul didn't take itself seriously at all.
THE ROOTS FOR ALL this Satanic Pepper-ing started growing twenty years after the release of the albums. In 1987, Rolling Stone named Sgt. Pepper the best album of the past twenty years, and the compact-disc version of the record appeared.
Sgt. Pepper's canonization inspired Terence Trent D'Arby to hyperbole. He wasted little time in proclaiming his 1987 debut album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby, to be better than the Pepper--to be, in fact, "the most brilliant debut album from any artist this decade."
His massive ego and his mouth helped Terence Trent sell a lot of copies of his first disc. Graciously, D'Arby granted an interview to Rolling Stone, but only after the mag agreed to put his face on the cover.
But the Yank-turned-Limey did deserve a Rolling Stone cover--as least as much as, say, George Michael. His techno-soul tunes may have pandered to radio in the finest tradition of aural payola, but no one in the Top 40 had a voice like T.T.D.'s. On hits like "Wishing Well" and "Sign Your Name," his royal rasps laid down the law like a Smokey-Marvin conglom and hung in the air so long you could almost see them. D'Arby's hits weren't exactly "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" or "The Tracks of My Tears," but they were the only things happening on radio playlists full of "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" and "Hold On to the Nights."
D'Arby was right about his LP's being superior to Sgt. Pepper in one sense. Bound for platinum-plus glory, the record included cuts already cued up for heavy rotation on oldies stations in the next century. Sgt. Pepper's best single moment turned out to be Elton John's version of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Sgt. Pepper was one massive sculpture with nothing much worth chipping off.
Maybe D'Arby didn't have a Sgt. Pepper clone, but he still had an album full of pretty good pop songs. Apparently, though, nothing less than an LP of ultra-organic Sgt. Pepper wholeness would suffice for D'Arby. You can follow the logic by listening to his new LP, Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish nor Flesh. It's a Sgt. Pepper replica in the truest sense--a spacy art detour at least as gaudy as the original and full of instantly forgettable songs.
(Like with his first album, D'Arby is careful to include his name in the title, but this time Terence, Trent, and D'Arby are the first three words, not the last.)
If D'Arby had continued to realize his gifts for gritty phrasing and holding the listener's attention for the length of a single, he might've turned out a couple of classics every year until he, like the Stones, was playing stadiums at age fifty. But if Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish nor Flesh is any indication, that isn't likely to happen. Pop radio has ignored the album because D'Arby has changed from punching to boxing. He is no longer exploring how far his devastating one-two combo--that voice and a way with the classic pop hook--will take him. D'Arby's buried his K.O. punch under an assortment of multilayered instrumentation, downright bizarre vocal affectations and meandering arrangements that sound like he's purposely swerving around any melodies likely to appear.
It isn't really fair to call the tunes on Neither Fish nor Flesh songs, nor is it quite proper to label this release an album. D'Arby's setup is like a series of bizarre tableaux in a private art showing. (The artist, by the way, subtitles the package A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction.)