Sgt. Pepper – The making of a masterpiece

The Beatles during a “Sgt. Pepper” press conference in London on May 20, 1967. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

By Gillian G. Gaar

On August 29, 1966, The Beatles performed in concert for what would be the last time at Candlestick Park, San Francisco. Following their final number, “Long Tall Sally,” they took a picture of themselves on stage, then headed off into the night. As their plane spirited them back to Los Angeles, George Harrison announced, “Well, that’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore” as he sank into his seat. They wouldn’t enter the studio again for another three months. After nearly four hectic years of Beatlemania, it was time to figure out what to do next.

The “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” single, released six months later in February 1967, gave a taste of what was to come, drawing on a dazzling array of new sounds. Nonetheless, no one was quite prepared for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” when it was finally released on June 1, 1967. It was The Beatles’ most imaginative work to date; the group had created a colorful new world and invited the listener inside to join them. The Beatles had reinvented what the idea of a “rock album” could be, and nothing would ever be the same in pop music again.

Not that The Beatles knew what they were about to do when they returned to EMI Recording Studios on November 24, 1966. But now that touring was behind them, they were ready to get to work on their terms. The strictly regimented sessions of their early years had fallen by the wayside; now sessions were held on Beatle time, beginning in the evening and continuing into the early hours of the morning. For the first time, they had the freedom to take as long as they needed to make their next album.

From “Rubber Soul” on, the band had become increasingly experimental in the studio, using it as an instrument in its own right. Reverse tapes, loops of repetitive sounds, and putting vocals and instruments through different kinds of speakers were some of the aural tricks they used. ADT (automatic double tracking, a way to double a vocal without having to record it twice), echo, phasing, and varispeeding (altering the pitch of a recording) were also used to manipulate sounds. Their growing expertise in the studio had resulted in increasingly sophisticated songs that were a far cry from the simplicity of their first single, “Love Me Do.”

All these new ways of working had a big impact on the first numbers the band worked on, John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul McCartney’s “Penny Lane.” But once those songs were plucked for release as singles, it was decided to not include them on the subsequent album, and the band was basically back to square one. Aside from McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” that is, which the band began recording on December 6. McCartney had written the song when he was 16, “thinking it could come in handy in a musical comedy or something”; The Beatles had even played an early version of it during their club days when their amplifiers broke down, as a way of amusing the audience while the equipment was being repaired. A clarinet section enhanced the vintage quality of the song.

The charming, whimsical number couldn’t have been more different from the next track The Beatles worked on: the magnum opus “A Day in the Life,” with the first session held on January 19, 1967. Lennon was initially inspired by a story he read in the “Daily Mail” about the death of Tara Browne, heir to the Guinness fortune, and a friend to The Beatles, who’d died in a car crash in London on December 16, 1966. Browne became the man who “blew his mind out in a car,” an event made more poignant by Lennon’s world-weary vocal. McCartney had a scrap of a song describing the morning routine of heading off to school that Lennon agreed would fit in the song’s center section. McCartney also came up with the line “I’d love to turn you on,” injecting a bit of psychedelic flavor.

McCartney also came up with the idea that would make the song take an inspired leap into the avant-garde; using the power of a symphony orchestra to create some kind of “freak out” between the two sections of the song. Producer George Martin duly booked 40 orchestral musicians for a session on February 10, and The Beatles decided to make the event a “happening,” asking the musicians to wear evening dress and inviting such friends as Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan, and Michael Nesmith, among others, passing out party favors to add to the festive atmosphere. The musicians played an ascending chromatic run on their instruments, starting at their lowest and culminating in an E Major chord; the ascent would be used between the Lennon and McCartney parts of the song, as well as at the end. The ascent was recorded five times, meaning you’re hearing the equivalent of 200 musicians. To conclude the number, Lennon, McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Beatle aide Mal Evans were recorded each playing an E major chord on different pianos (Martin also played harmonium), banging the chord out and letting it fade away.

McCartney’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the next track, with recording commencing on February 1. It was a straightforward rock song, the only studio embellishment being the echo applied to the vocals. There were also various sound effects used throughout; the sound of the orchestra warming up, and applause. There was also laughter dropped in at one point to puzzle the listener; there was no clue as to what the audience might be laughing at.

McCartney suggested that Sgt. Pepper’s band could become The Beatles’ alter ego; a means of allowing the band to take on a new identity on the record, freeing from the pressure of being “The Beatles.” But there’s no consensus as to how much this new theme really impacted the rest of the album. While McCartney has insisted, “Everyone was into it,” Lennon later stated, “All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with this idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band” (though he conceded, “but it works, because we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared”). “Paul was going on about this idea of some fictitious band,” Harrison recalled. “That side of it didn’t really interest me, other than the title song and the album cover.” For Starr, “After we’d done the original ‘Sgt. Pepper’ song, we dropped the whole military idea. We just went on doing tracks.”

Next up was Lennon’s “Good Morning Good Morning,” recording beginning on February 8. Lennon later dismissed his song, inspired by a TV commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, as “a throwaway, a piece of garbage,” which underrates its appeal. With its detached perspective on modern day life, it’s something of a livelier version of “A Day in the Life,” with the song’s protagonist cast as a disinterested spectator of his own day-to-day existence, embellished by a punchy horn section, mostly members of the instrumental combo Sounds Inc. There were also animal sound effects, with a rooster crowing at the beginning (as in the commercial), and a sequence of sounds at the song’s conclusion — a rooster, birds, cat, dog, horse, sheep, elephant, baying dogs and a chicken cluck — perhaps a way of disguising that the song had no proper ending.

Recording began on McCartney’s introspective “Fixing a Hole” on February 9 at Regent Sound studio in Central London, as EMI Recording Studios was unavailable. Martin’s harpsichord gives the song a dreamy, somewhat melancholy feel, and the instrument predominates throughout. McCartney later explained the song was a gentle chiding of people who are too rigid in their thinking, unable to let their mind “go wandering, where it will go,” as the song puts it.

The inspiration for Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” can be tied to a specific date: January 31, when the band was in Sevenoaks, Kent, shooting the promo film for “Strawberry Fields Forever.” During a break, Lennon wandered into an antique shop and bought a poster advertising a performance of Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal at Town-Meadows, Rochdale on February 14, 1843. Anyone who’s seen a copy of poster (which has been reproduced many times since the release of “Sgt. Pepper”) can see that the lyrics were drawn almost entirely from the poster’s copy.

Recording began on February 17, and what really makes the track come alive was Lennon’s determination for the song to have a genuine circus atmosphere; “I want to smell the sawdust,” he told Martin. Martin looked through EMI’s sound library for recordings of organs and then transferred them to one tape. He then had engineer Geoff Emerick cut the tape into 15-inch sections, fling the pieces in the air, and re-edit them at random; the result was an eerie and disorienting backdrop for the song. The song was further embellished by Martin playing the harmonium, an organ you pumped with your feet as you played, which was exhausting. Martin also played the Hammond organ during the song’s instrumental break; when he couldn’t play the part fast enough, he resolved the problem by recording himself playing at half speed, so the organ runs would sound faster when the tape was played at full speed.   

(Photo by BIPs/Getty Images)

Recording of McCartney’s buoyant “Lovely Rita” began on February 23. The song was inspired by his delight in learning that in America female traffic wardens were called “meter maids.” After initially thinking of making Rita a villain, he opted to take a more playful approach, casting her as an unobtainable object of desire. McCartney’s lead vocal was recorded at a slower speed, as was Martin’s piano solo; Martin also added what he called “a spot of ‘wow’” to his piano part by putting a piece of tape on the capstan of the tape recorder, producing a honky-tonk sound. When played back at full speed, the song has a brightness that makes the track positively shimmer.

Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” recording beginning on March 1, had some of the album’s most evocative imagery. Though later tagged as a drug song — the main words in the title being the initials for LSD — Lennon always insisted the title came from a drawing done by his son, Julian, “Lucy” being one of his nursery school classmates. Lennon also cited two of his favorite books, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” as influences. And he described the girl “with kaleidoscope” eyes in the song as being “the image of the female who would someday come and save me.”

McCartney played the Lowrey organ on the track, the organ stop used on the instrument making it sound like a celeste, the song’s most distinctive element. Lennon’s vocal was recorded at a slower speed and treated with echo; Martin said there were more variations in tape speed on “Lucy” than any other “Sgt. Pepper” track. His diction was precise; he carefully enunciated each syllable, making the words seem elongated. Harrison’s electric guitar part was distorted by sending it through a Leslie speaker (a rotating speaker in a Hammond organ).

Recording began on McCartney’s “Getting Better” on March 9. The lyrics had a positive/negative interplay similar to “We Can Work It Out”; in “Getting Better,” McCartney’s declaration about things getting better was followed by Lennon’s backhanded barb that it couldn’t get much worse. The upbeat number had an equally bright keyboard part, the result of a piano, and a pianette (an electric piano), played by striking the strings of the instruments rather than playing the keys. Harrison added another unusual flavor to the track with his droning tamboura, while Starr played congas.

So far, Harrison hadn’t had much luck getting one of his own songs on the album. On February 13, recording had begun on “Only a Northern Song,” but after two sessions Martin told Harrison it wasn’t strong enough to be included. He then came up with the more satisfactory “Within You Without You,” recording beginning on March 15. Harrison had written the song in the wake of an evening spent with one of The Beatles’ longtime friends, Klaus Voorman, whom they’d met when they first played Hamburg, Germany, in 1960, and who later designed the cover of “Revolver.” In fact, he’d begun the song while still at Voorman’s home, playing a pedal harmonium.

Harrison was the only Beatle who performed on the track. He played acoustic guitar and sitar, and he and Beatle aide Neil Aspinall also played tamboura. He also brought in members of London’s Asian Music Circle to play a variety of Indian instruments: sitar, tamboura, dilruba, swaramandal and a tabla. Martin wrote a score for strings, a unique pairing of Western and Eastern instrumentation. Harrison’s lyric, about opening your mind and looking beyond ego, was serious, but he lightened the mood at the song’s ending by overdubbing some audience laughter.

London’s “Daily Mail” newspaper had already provided inspiration for “A Day in the Life.” Now, an article in the paper’s February 27 issue about a teenage runaway inspired a song from McCartney, “She’s Leaving Home.” Recording began on March 17. McCartney’s own reflection on the generation gap, detailing the story of a young woman leaving home in search of freedom and fun, featured what he referred to as the “Greek chorus” —answering lines from the parents’ point of view, sung by Lennon. 

McCartney and Lennon were the only Beatles who appeared on the track, and even then only vocally; the music was provided by a string section and a harpist (Sheila Bromberg, the first woman to appear on a Beatles record). When Martin wasn’t immediately available to write an arrangement, McCartney asked Mike Leander (whom he knew through his work with singer Marianne Faithfull) to write it. This caused some bad feeling between McCartney and his producer; Martin was hurt McCartney hadn’t waited until he was free to write the arrangement himself.

No song had yet been written for Starr to sing. Finally, at the end of March, Lennon and McCartney began working on “With a Little Help From My Friends”; author Hunter Davies watched one of the songwriting sessions at McCartney’s home on March 29 and later wrote about his observations in his authorized biography, “The Beatles.” The first session for the song was held later that day. The song plaintively plays up Starr’s limited vocal range, the first lines asking if his singing out of tune would make the audience walk out. Being The Beatles, they snuck in a little innuendo as well; when Lennon and McCartney ask “What do you see when you turn out the light,” Starr teasingly responds, “I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.”

It was decided that the track would follow the opening “Sgt. Pepper” song, which ends with McCartney introducing the first performer, Billy Shears; a segue with the group singing “Bill…Lee…Shears!” was recorded to lead directly into “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

The “Sgt. Pepper” sessions were coming to an end. McCartney was leaving for the U.S. on April 3; his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, was touring the states with the Bristol Old Vic theater company, and McCartney planned to surprise her by showing up for her 21st birthday on April 5. Neil Aspinall had the idea that Sgt. Pepper’s band should return at the album’s end, so on April 1 The Beatles recorded a reprise of the title track. It has the most “live and in concert” sound of the album; as Martin later wrote, “the electrifying, football stadium atmosphere comes through.”

It was Martin who chose the album’s running order. On side one, “Sgt. Pepper” was the obvious opener, segueing into “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Then, providing a sonic contrast, came “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” followed by the positive sentiments of “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole.” “She’s Leaving Home” provided some gravitas, and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” brought the first act, as it were, to a dramatic close. Martin had no idea where to place “Within You Without You,” and so decided it would open side two, as it didn’t seem to match up well with anything else on the album. The laughter at the end of the song led him to follow it with “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Then came “Lovely Rita,” while the final chicken cluck of “Good Morning Good Morning” led nicely into the opening guitar line on the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise, which then segues into “A Day in the Life.”

The imposing final chord of “A Day in the Life” would’ve provided an excellent ending to the album. But The Beatles had one more trick up their sleeves. Why not fill the space between that last chord and run-out groove with something? Lennon suggested adding a 15-kilocycle tone — a frequency only audible to a dog — to the record after the final chord faded away. Following that would be a short clip of gibberish; if you didn’t have an automatic turntable, the clip would repeat endlessly until the turntable’s tone arm was picked up.

So The Beatles reconvened in the studio one more time. “They made funny noises, said random things; just nonsense,” Geoff Emerick recalled, and a short sequence was edited onto the mono and stereo masters. Capitol Records cut both the 15-kilocycle tone and the gibberish on U.S. editions of the album. Subsequent non-U.S. repressings of the album also cut these aural jokes; they were finally restored when “Sgt. Pepper” was reissued on its 20th anniversary in 1987.

And so, nearly five months after they’d entered the studio in November 1966, work on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was finally complete. The album’s release was just six weeks away. There had never been so long a gap between Beatles albums, and the band’s fans were filled with anticipation. So were The Beatles; as McCartney later recalled: “I was sitting rubbing my hands saying, ‘You just wait.’” 

Sgt. Pepper – The songs

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