Sgt. Pepper at 50: How a Classic Was Born

sgt pepper

In 1967, a music critic with New Musical Express, having apparently listened to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band just once, summed it up as “a very good LP” that ought to “please the ear”.

In the years since, considerably more time has been spent dissecting the Beatles’ most adventurous record. This week, for its 50th anniversary, a new deluxe edition has been released, featuring unreleased takes and remixes by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin.

To mark the occasion, a peek behind the scenes, track-by-track, to look at the little details that made Sgt. Pepper’s great.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

In 1966, Paul was busy expanding his horizons. He acquired a couple of paintings by Rene Magritte, met Bertrand Russell and Michelangelo Antonioni and, in interviews, quoted Hamlet and enthused over Stockhausen. Finally, in November, he took a well-earned break from being a Beatle. Driving through France, he checked in at hotels under false names wearing a disguise: glasses, overcoat, fake moustache. On the flight back to London, Paul hatched an idea for a kind of musical masquerade and a band of Beatle alter-egos. Sgt. Pepper was born.

With a Little Help From My Friends

Ringo felt somewhat left out during the recording of Sgt. Pepper, the record on which he learned to play chess. For one track at least, he was very much the centre of attention. The lyrics, though, were cause for concern: “What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you throw ripe tomatoes at me?” Ever since mentioning a fondness for jelly babies, the Beatles had been pelted with the sweets at concerts. Lyrics wisely tweaked, Ringo continues to close concerts with the number to this day, unscathed.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

John was a voracious reader. At one point, he was reportedly keen for The Lord of the Rings to be the next Beatles film, but Tolkien nixed the idea. Inspired by his son Julian’s drawing of a classmate, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds reflected a lifelong love affair with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Lewis Carroll was one of several writers who appear in the crowd on the album cover, along with Aldous Huxley, Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde.

Getting Better

John was adamant that the initials to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds weren’t a coded reference to the band’s drug of the moment. Even so, he referred to Sgt. Pepper as the Beatles’ “acid album” – and had one of his worst trips while recording Paul’s ebullient Getting Better. George Martin, noticing John was in a bad way, ill-advisedly took him to the roof for some fresh air. It wouldn’t be John’s most dramatic LSD experience: a year later, he would gather the band for an important meeting to announce that he was the second coming of Christ.

Fixing a Hole

Providing a lyric sheet for the first time opened the Beatles up to a new level of scrutiny. Their lyrics were never more seriously misunderstood than by Charles Manson, paroled from prison in March 1967; then there were those who believed Paul had died in a car accident around this time (“He blew his mind out in a car”) and had been quietly replaced by a lookalike named William “Billy” Shears Campbell. Fixing a Hole would be taken by some as an ode to heroin. Rather more innocently, the ditty referred to roof repairs on Paul’s Scottish farm.

She’s Leaving Home

Paul regularly showed off his songs-in-progress. In January, he played Penny Lane to playwright Joe Orton, who had been commissioned to write the screenplay for the next Beatles film (ultimately deemed too “gay”). Soon after, Paul paid a visit to the Beach Boys, whose Pet Sounds had directly inspired the sonic audacity of Sgt. Pepper, providing celery-chomping percussion for the track Vege-Tables. Before he left, he played She’s Leaving Home for Brian Wilson and his wife, who were moved to tears.

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!

In later years, George Martin would point to this track to illustrate John’s way of expressing musical ideas – he had once requested that a song be made to sound “like an orange”. For Mr. Kite!, inspired by a 124-year-old circus poster that later occupied his billiards room, John wanted to “smell the sawdust on the floor”. Martin employed the jaunty sound of a calliope, while audio engineer Geoff Emerick gathered an assortment of circus sound effects, cut up the tape, threw the bits in the air and spliced them together again like Dadaist poetry.

Within You Without You

In 1965, while filming the second Beatles film, George picked up a prop sitar that was lying around: the humble beginnings of an immersion in Indian music and eastern philosophy. Compared to the novelty deployment of the instrument on John’s Norwegian WoodWithin You Without You reflected George’s increased devotion to the form, with session musicians playing tabla, swordmandel and dilruba on the carpeted floor under dim lighting, candles and incense burning.

When I’m Sixty-Four

Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, recorded at the beginning of the Sgt. Pepper sessions, were both exercises in Liverpudlian nostalgia: Strawberry Field was a home for orphan girls near where John grew up; Penny Lane was the site of a bus hub not far from Paul’s. The track recorded in between was also something of a fond backwards glance. Paul dusted off a tune he’d written in his teens, an instrumental piano piece he would play in between more raucous numbers to the sweatily adoring crowds at the Cavern Club. Years later, McCartney’s children recorded a version of the number, presenting it to Paul for his 64th birthday.

Lovely Rita

Fictional characters abound in Paul’s lyrics: lonely people Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, happy-ever-after couple Desmond and Molly Jones, hammer-toting serial killer Maxwell Edison. Asked about Lovely Rita years later, John would write off much of Paul’s “stories about boring people being postmen and writing home”. But one person would come forward to claim she was “Lovely Rita, meter maid” – Meta Davies, a female ticket officer working in the vicinity of Paul’s home in St. John’s Wood.

Good Morning Good Morning

A couple of years after admitting an interest in writing “comedy songs”, Sgt. Pepper shows the Beatles at their most prankish: the record ends with a high-frequency sound intended for dogs, followed by cackling and gibberish that would loop endlessly on some record players. Good Morning Good Morning – spun off a line from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial – culminated in a gag worthy of one of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations: a cacophony of animal noises, meant to suggest a succession of animals devouring one another.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)

It was road manager Neil Aspinall’s idea to bookend the record with a reprise of the title track. By the time the band got around to bashing out this finale, Paul had taken another fruitful flight, and begun sketching ideas for the next Beatles project, Magical Mystery Tour.

A Day in the Life

The orchestral recording session for the Beatles’ masterpiece was a grand ’60s happening – Brian Jones and Marianne Faithfull (who had joined in the singalong of Yellow Submarine the previous May) were in attendance, along with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Donovan and Mike Nesmith, while a 40-piece orchestra, wearing funny hats and clown noses, generated a tremendous orchestral tsunami the likes of which had never been heard before – certainly not on a pop record. George Martin would admit to thinking, “We’re being a bit self-indulgent here.”

Story originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.


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