“If we don’t have to tour, then we can record music that we won’t ever have to play live, and that means we can create something that’s never been heard before: a new kind of record with new kinds of sounds.” – John Lennon
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band spun the music industry on its heels. When the album came out, the public devoured it, the critics raved, and other musicians stopped in their tracks, recognizing that the game had changed forever.
When you break it down into its individual songs, there is the usual mix of masterpieces, gems, and lesser songs—within the context of still being the Beatles, which means even the lesser songs impress—but there’s something that happened when the Beatles, the time period, the studio, and the people who worked on the album came together. Much like the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, and the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starr combination, there was alchemy at play, and the result woke up the music industry to the fact that new creative frontiers were possible, and could still be commercial as hell.
Love it or not, the album was groundbreaking: let’s take a closer look at the elements that brought it all together.
By the mid-sixties, The Beatles—who’d initially been turned down by every record label in town—ruled over Abbey Road studios. They couldn’t control things like the drab décor or the painfully rough toilet paper—okay, they did eventually get that changed, after much protest—but they could put the studio and its staff on hold, and wander in and out as they pleased. They’d set session times for 7:00 p.m. but show up hours later. They’d have nothing scheduled, but suddenly call everybody up and tell them to come in. They’d use whatever instruments were around, fight for the padlock to be taken off the fridge so they’d still have access to it in the wee hours of the morning, and record whenever the inspiration struck, working on individual songs, tracks, or even simple riffs for as long as it took to get the sound just right. Anyone who signed on to work with them knew that their hours would be long and completely unpredictable, but incredibly rewarding.
They filled the studio up with other musicians, friends, and artists. When George Martin brought in half an orchestra for “A Day in the Life,” the Beatles asked for them to come in “evening dress,” and they did the same, although their version of it involved, as Martin described them, “outrageously flamboyant floral costumes.” McCartney showed up in a full-length red cook’s apron.
That was the atmosphere, but the studio’s technology was the other important piece of Abbey Road’s creative puzzle. At that time, producers only had four tracks available to work with, and every time they transferred the recording to another tape, they sacrificed some of the quality. The constant improvisation needed to move beyond the restraints of the era spurred the Beatles, along with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, to new creative heights as they found innovative and strange ways to get to what they were after. That spirit of experimentation is as much a part of the album as the tracks themselves.
“By the time of Pepper, then, the Beatles had immense power at Abbey Road. So did I. They used to ask for the impossible, and sometimes they would get it.” – George Martin
The Time Period, Both in the World, and in the Lives of The Beatles
It was the late 1960s in London, and to crib from another music icon, the times they were a-changin’. Counterculture was in full swing, and London leading the charge. Bright colors, long hair, pharmaceutical experimentation and art were everywhere. People went to “happenings” instead of events, and while the reality of the outside world was on the edge of a dark turn, the innocence and excitement of the flower power era were still in full force, exuding optimism and excitement.
For the Beatles, it was also a time of professional upheaval. They were now light years past the era of the three-minute pop song and had given almost five years of their young lives to touring, which for them meant one hotel after another, one mob after another, and concerts where the fans’ shrieks made it impossible to hear the music they played. Once they started making albums like Rubber Soul and Revolver, which featured more elaborate studio production, the urge to play live diminished even more, since reproducing the songs in stadiums became less feasible. They announced that they were done touring and were going to spend months recording an album, working on a new record without a deadline looming over their heads for the first time. By then, they had the clout to do it, ignoring the panic of their record company and of their manager, Brian Epstein. The timing was just right to explore strange new worlds, and go where no pop band had gone before . . . although admittedly, it was The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album that helped spark this particular journey.
“Their ideas were coming through thick and fast, and they were brilliant. All I did was help make them real.” – George Martin
While The Beatles wrote the songs, came up with the vision, and played, their legendary producer (along with engineer Geoff Emerick) was as integral to the album as the Fab Four themselves. It was Martin who listened to Lennon or McCartney’s descriptions of what they wanted and translated it into reality, with the help of Emerick. Martin may have been the straight man of the room, but he understood the Beatles, and instead of scoffing at their bizarre descriptions, he worked hard to find a way to deliver what they envisioned, recognizing that they had, as he put it, “instinctive musical genius.”
He wrote a book about the entire Sgt. Pepper experience, appropriately titled With a Little Help From My Friends. Not only does he describe the recording process in detail, as well as the way he worked with the Beatles as they recorded, but he also offers his own personal insight into the songs themselves. While most people see “When I’m Sixty-Four” as a whimsical, jaunty song, Martin saw it as McCartney’s “horror story, as the then-25-year-old McCartney couldn’t imagine growing old." Martin later viewed it as an “affectionate satire regarding old age from a young man’s point of view.” He also instantly recognized the brilliance of “Strawberry Fields” the first time Lennon played it for him, and still regrets not recording it at the time.
And it was Martin and Emerick, not the Beatles, who decided what the song order would be, and went about creating the transitions that took the listener from one track to the next, turning the album into a full-on artistic experience.
Martin may have been the straight man, being 20 years older than the Beatles and not into the drug scene, but he was on board with them creatively, and without his knowledge, technique, and creativity, Sgt. Pepper would never have made its way from idea to masterpiece.
“One of my main jobs with the Beatles, as I saw it by 1967, was to give them as much freedom as possible in the studio, but to make sure that they did not come off the rails in the process.” – George Martin
The Songs that Started it Off – Even Though They Weren't On the Album
The recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper kicked off with “Strawberry Fields Forever” from John Lennon, and “Penny Lane” from Paul McCartney. While they never appeared on the album, they were as much a part of its magic as the ones that did. They were the first two songs done in that new era, and used the production techniques that would be all over Sgt. Pepper. Martin was so impressed with the final results that he suggested they go out into the world as a double A-side single. (This is hard to imagine today, when there’s no such thing as a b-side, or even a side!) He later regretted the strategy, as they ended up competing with each other and thus neither one got to #1 on the charts, the first Beatles singles since 1963’s “Please Please Me” to fail to do so. What went to #1 instead? “Release Me,” by Engelbert Humperdinck.
The other interesting business decision, a complete 180 from how singles drive album sales now, is that once those songs were out, it seemed inappropriate to put them on the record. Value for the customer would be lost if they had to go out and buy the single, then spend their money on an LP that had two of the same songs on it they’d already paid for. So while they fit perfectly with the tone and style of Sgt. Pepper, and might, in many people’s recollections, actually be part of it, neither song was actually there. Still, they were the kickoff point, and got the wheels in motion.
“It’s fun to imagine what a re-edited Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with those two crackers on it might be like!” – George Martin
That famous (and Grammy Award-winning) cover was as challenging as it looks, and not just because of the difficulties of physically creating it: clearances had to be obtained from both subjects and the original photographers who took their pictures. John Lennon wanted Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ on it, but was told no way, and they were forced to give up Gandhi as well. Mae West sent back a note in response to the request to use her image saying, “What would I be doing in a Lonely Hearts Club? You can’t leave me in.” Wendy Hanson, in charge of managing this nightmare, had the Beatles write back to her expressing their admiration, and she gave in.
They got permission from Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, and Shirley Temple (who appears three times, and asked to listen to the record first), but Leo Gorcey, one of the Dead End Kids, asked for a few hundred dollars, so out he went.
Even without paying Gorcey, the cover was still reported to be the most expensive one in history, costing over three thousand British pounds at a time when cover art wasn’t even a thing. For lucky buyers in 1967, the record came with cool cut-outs including badges, stripes, and a moustache, all sort of like the things we used to find in cereal boxes when we were kids.
“We liked the idea of reaching out to the record-buyer, because of our memories of spending our own hard-earned cash and really loving anyone who gave us value for money.” - Paul McCartney
The album spent 27 weeks on top of the UK charts and 15 at #1 in the U.S. It won four Grammys, including Album of the Year, and in 2003 was listed at #1 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Some even believe it changed the world.
“ . . . One of the great things was that the music papers started to slog us off, because we hadn’t done anything, because it took five months to record, and I remember the great glee seeing in one of the papers how the Beatles have dried up, there’s nothing coming from them, they’re stuck in the studio, they can’t think what they’re doing, and I was sitting rubbing my hands, saying ‘You just wait.’” – Paul McCartney