Album Spotlight: The Beatles—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles’ eighth album, released June 1st, 1967, is their most famous and had the greatest musical impact of any of their records. In the famed Summer of Love of that year, everyone—EVERYONE—was listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. American hippies adopted it as their Holy Grail. Rock groups throughout the United States (particularly in San Francisco) and Great Britain created works of even more psychedelic music, most of which have been lost in the dustbins of history. Almost everyone loved the record, or at the least was stunned by its musical and lyrical innovation, breadth and ambition.

I’m going to resist the urge to say any more about Sgt. Pepper’s cultural impact since reams of pages have been written about it. Instead, I’m going to look at the music, which is what has lasted for over fifty years and may well do so for another fifty. All recording dates are from 1967 except where otherwise indicated.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: Paul was flying back from the States with his roadie friend, Mal Evans, and dining on board the plane when Evans asked for the salt and pepper. Mishearing it as Sgt. Pepper, McCartney then began thinking about the American bands he’d heard with names like “Colonel Tucker’s Medicinal Brew and Elixir”, and envisioned a similar British music hall band. He also soon got the idea that the album the group was working on could be presented as if it were a performance by the fictional band. Thus, a concept, albeit a loose one, was born.

Recording took place over two days on February 1st and 2nd. Paul plays lead guitar, and his bass was recorded through a Direct Injection Transformer, allowing the signal to go directly to the tape machine rather than being recorded by a microphone from an amplifier. Four French horns augmented the track.1 Background effects such as the orchestra tuning up and laughter were taken from Abbey Road’s collection of sound effects compiled by engineer Stuart Eltham, who had devoted a closet to items used for similar purposes. The screams at the end of the song for Billy Shears are not, as previously suggested, from the Hollywood Bowl recordings; they were taken from a concert by Irish tenor Brendan O’Dowda.

In terms of the sound, the Beatles had never recorded any harder rock than they did here. Jimi Hendrix was so taken by the song (and album) that he spent the weekend learning it and performed it Sunday, June 3rd, live in concert.

A Little Help From My Friends2: The penultimate song to be recorded was Ringo’s vocal showcase on March 29th-30th. It’s probably his finest vocal performance with the Beatles. He insisted on the lyrical change from “Would you throw tomatoes at me?” because, as he told the others, he didn’t want to be bombarded with tomatoes if they ever did perform it live! Paul’s bass lines are magnificent yet simple, and the call-and-response question and answer lines really give the impression of friends singing to each other. George Martin contributed Hammond organ. The line “I get high with a little help….” got the song banned on U.S. radio. Joe Cocker did a fantastic soulful cover of this tune, which the Beatles loved.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds: To the end of his life, John insisted that the “L.S.D.” initials were pure coincidence and that the song was inspired by a drawing his son Julian had made of his friend Lucy. I tend to believe him, but the lyrical inspiration is definitely tinged by his acid trips, as well as his love of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Recording took place from February 28th-March 2nd. George contributed tamboura, and overdubs were done at various speeds to get psychedelic effects. The keyboard throughout the verses is a Lowrey organ played by Paul set to harpsichord, vibraharp, guitar and music box. John’s vocal was treated to ADT (see my previous review) and phasing, which gave it a vibrating effect, although the phasing was left out of the original stereo mix. Elton John recorded a cover of this in 1974 with help from John which went to #1 on the singles charts; I almost prefer it to the Beatles’ version.

Getting Better: Paul thought back to the Beatles’ tour drummer Jimmy Nicol’s phrase, “It’s getting better”, and wrote a song with that theme. John contributed the verse “I used to be cruel to my woman” based on his experience with his wife, Cynthia.3 Recorded from March 9th-10th, the 21st and the 23rd. The vocal session was attended by Hunter Davies, who wrote an official biography of the band which was published in 19684; he was unaware that John had accidentally taken LSD and was taken up to the roof by an unsuspecting George Martin because he didn’t feel well. When Paul and George realized what had happened, they fetched him down before he could step off the edge. They also met Pink Floyd, working on their debut The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, that same night.

My favorite thing about this song is something it took me years to notice: At the beginning, the bouncy chords are played by guitars. On the last chorus, almost unnoticeably, they shift to pianos. Special care was taken to make the two sound as similar as possible, and it was done so well that when I realized what had happened, I was overcome with awe. And still am. 

Fixing A Hole: Not about heroin, but about Paul’s passion for fixing up his house in St. John’s Wood. The line about “Silly people who run around” is a reference to the fans outside, who “never ask why they don’t get past my door”. Their first song to be recorded outside EMI Studios; as Abbey Road was booked on February 9th, they went with George Martin to Regent Sound Studio on Tottenham Court Road. Paul plays harpsichord, and either John or George plays bass, but Paul overdubbed another bass line on February 21st. George Martin overdubbed additional harpsichord on the same day. 

She’s Leaving Home: Recorded March 17th (instruments) and March 20th (vocals). No Beatle plays on this number, but Paul sings lead and John joins him in the echoed chorus. Inspired by a news story Paul read about an A-level student who had run away; unbeknownst to him, he had met the girl during a taping of the pop TV show Ready Steady Go! in October 1963.5 Scored by Mike Leander because George Martin was busy with a Cilla Black session and Paul didn’t want to wait. I think he should have waited, because this arrangement is incredibly sappy. To be fair, though, so is the song, with lines like “Clutching her handkerchief”, “Daddy, our baby’s gone”, “How could she do this to me” and the like. More of a soap opera than a drama, but perfect for the angst of the generation gap in 1967. The original stereo mix, unlike the mono, was not sped up, and it drags horribly. The 2017 stereo remix corrects this to the song’s benefit. The original mix contained a cello phrase right after each of the first two choruses which stopped the song cold; wisely, it was removed in the final mixes.

Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!: John bought a Victorian poster while on a break from filming the promos for Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and took whole lines of the text from it to create this song. “Garters” are banners, and a “hogshead” was the rim of a large barrel set alight. The song conjures up the feel of a circus quite accurately. John’s feelings about the number changed from outright dislike to enthusiastic approval by the end of his life.

Recorded February 17th, with tape effects overdubbed on February 20th. These were accomplished by George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick taking recordings of steam organs, chopping up the tapes, throwing them into the air and then splicing them together, turning them backwards when necessary for a random effect. This created the sound of a steam organ in the background, like a dream. (A real steam organ was deemed cost-prohibitive, which given that over 25,000 pounds were spent on this recording really tells you something.) John plays organ; George Martin overdubbed a harmonium, organ, Mellotron and glockenspiel; and George, Ringo, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans overdubbed bass harmonicas. Paul plays a guitar solo, although I’m darned if I can tell you where under all those layers of keyboards.

Within You Without You: George got his prize Side Two opener with this Indian music showcase. Nowadays we call it world music; back then we called it boring. With all due respect to George, it’s still his most draggy Indian piece, although the instrumentation is gorgeous. Recorded March 15th and 22nd with members of the Asian Music Circle (unnamed) along with George playing sitar and tamboura. There’s a lovely bit on the Sgt. Pepper Super Deluxe Edition (about which, more later) where Harrison is teaching the musicians the melody by singing to them with Indian note names. Members of the London Symphony Orchestra were overdubbed on April 3rd-4th with a score by George Martin. George is the only Beatle on this track, and it seems to have used up all his creative energies; when asked years later, he had only vague memories of the album sessions. Give him credit, though; he requested the laughter be added at the song’s end, both to fit the concept of an audience and to lighten the mood after all “that somber Indian stuff.”

When I’m Sixty-Four: Paul wrote this at the age of 16, and the Beatles used to play it live in the Cavern Club days when their amps would break down. He may have revised the lyrics, but it’s a pretty good melody for a sixteen-year-old. Lines like “We can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear” and “Indicate precisely what you mean to say” really give it a British feel. Recorded December 6th, 8th, 20th and 21st, 1966, this almost ended up as the B-side to either Penny Lane or Strawberry Fields Forever. How interesting that would have been! Three clarinets were added, one a bass clarinet, which give it that old-time feel. When mixing, the tune was sped up by a semitone to make Paul sound even younger.

Lovely Rita: Recorded February 23rd-24th and March 7th and 12th. While in the States, Paul saw a female police officer writing up a parking ticket and got the idea for a song about “meter maid”s. The line “When it gets dark I tow your heart away” is sublime. Details like the little white book and the bag across her shoulder give Rita a nice specificity. Alas, the narrator’s date is foiled by the presence of Rita’s sisters (although I always wondered if perhaps a threesome or more was going on instead). The buzzing sound is the boys humming into combs wrapped in toilet paper; there was much discussion about whether the tissue in the Abbey Road bathrooms was the proper thickness. George Martin plays the piano solo, which was given a honky-tonk feel by placing a piece of sticky tape on the capstan of the machine (to make it wobble) and also with varispeed recording. The jam with John’s breathed vocals at the end has always been unsettling to me.

Good Morning, Good Morning: Recorded February 8th and March 13th, 28th and 29th. Sounds Incorporated members returned to overdub three saxophones, and two trombones and a French horn were also overdubbed and compressed and flanged heavily to get that weird sound. Two takes of the basic track minus horns, which can be found on Anthology 2 and on the Sgt. Pepper Super Deluxe Edition, both smoke like a lost Plastic Ono Band track. John’s lyrics are so obviously about his boredom with English suburban life that it’s a wonder to me that Cynthia didn’t catch on; however, she wasn’t the most astute observer of his state of mind. “Meet the Wife” was a British comedy show of the time. The chorus came from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial. Paul overdubbed the guitar solo. At the end, the animal sounds (from Abbey Road’s sound effects tapes) were lined up so that each succeeding animal would be capable of frightening or devouring its predecessor. How the chicken frightens a fox is beyond me, but the cluck at the end blended nicely into the guitar of the next track thanks to George Martin and Geoff Emerick.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise): Recorded April 1st. The last song to be recorded, it was Neil Aspinall’s idea to do a reprise. When John replied, “Nobody likes a smart-arse, Neil,” he knew it would happen. It’s the only recording not to have been bounced down from four tracks as they were all that was needed for a straightforward rock performance. Again, the effects library was used for the laughter. It was getting very near the end, but the Beatles had one final card up their sleeve….

A Day In The Life: Recorded January 19th-20th and February 3rd and originally titled In The Life Of…. The group’s greatest accomplishment, which still makes my jaw drop. John had half a song and Paul had half a song, so they combined it to make this surreal tone poem rivaling T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for modern anomie. John’s portion was inspired by two news stories: the first about the death of Tara Browne in a car crash, the second about 4,000 potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire. The recording was made with a twenty-four bar gap where the group knew something apocalyptic would go, but weren’t certain at first what; when they decided on an orchestra, George Martin booked 40 symphony musicians which he overdubbed using two synchronized four-track recorders to get 160 total. Each instrument was given a score indicating their lowest note and a glissando going up the scale to their highest possible note, with marks at each bar to indicate about where they should be at that time. Martin told the players not to follow each other, and he later said that they looked at him as if he were mad. Paul conducted the orchestra, and noticed how the strings tended to follow each other, and the horns broke out into more individual sounds. The sessions were filmed and later made into a video for the song; a lot of famous guests were present.

The alarm clock on the track was to indicate where Paul’s section would begin; it made a perfect introduction to his “Woke up, fell out of bed” line, so was kept. You can hear Mal Evans, his voice plastered with echo (as is John’s), counting out the bars in the background. I love the piano lick just after “Dragged a comb across my head”. The line about going upstairs and having a smoke refers to the smoking section on a double-decker bus. The track was banned by the B.B.C. due to the line “I’d love to turn you on.” Originally the final E major chord was to be hummed, but since this didn’t quite sound right, they used pianos instead, played by John, Paul, Ringo, George Martin and Mal Evans (with a harmonium overdubbed by Martin). The drone lasts for 47 seconds, and if you listen carefully, you can hear paper rustling and a chair squeaking as the mikes in the studio were turned up so high.

I feel I haven’t said even half of what there is to say about this song. It was the first song recorded for the album sessions proper, and the only one that could finish the album.

15 kHz Tone: The group thought it would be funny to have a tone that only young people and dogs could hear. My dogs always ignore it. I used to be able to hear it, but I can’t anymore (sigh); but my kids have assured me that it is still on the newest CD releases.

The Inner Groove: Paul wanted every inch of the album filled with sound, and thus had the idea of putting something in the vinyl record’s run-off groove. Recorded April 21st and left off the U.S. release because the mono mix was already on its way to America, it’s basically two seconds of random chatter, repeated several times on the CD releases to give the effect of the needle sticking in the groove with a manual turntable.6 Mastering this for the disc gave engineer Harry Moss quite a headache, as he had to recut it several times after getting test pressings to see if he’d been successful. This was also released on the U.S. compilation album Rarities in 1980.

Album Cover: Photographed by artist Peter Blake based on Paul’s drawing of Sgt. Pepper’s band standing in a garden surrounded by their friends and idols. Blake compiled photos of all the different people requested, and then Brian Epstein, their manager, had to get permission to include each one.7 This stressed Epstein enough that when he thought a plane that he was about to board would crash, he gave his assistant a note stating “Brown paper bags for Sgt. Pepper.” Fortunately for us all, his plane didn’t crash. Hitler and Gandhi were both requested (the former by John, the latter by George) but didn’t make the final cut due to their controversy. Lest we think that John was a racist, I think that he was just being defiant. The group in their old stage outfits were wax figures on loan from Madame Tussard’s. The plants everyone thinks are marijuana plants are actually Peperomia plants.8 There’s a shout-out to the Rolling Stones on the arm of the doll. The gatefold cover insert showed the Beatles in their uniforms, made by Berman’s in London’s West End; two of them are wearing their MBEs. The Fool, an Apple group of three Dutch artists, designed the inner paper sleeve of red, pink and white waves. The album also included a set of cardboard cutouts complete with mustache, chevrons, a picture of Sgt. Pepper and the group themselves. This was a compromise; originally they’d wanted to include a bag of sweets. Ah, the Sixties.

Getting the lyrics on the back sleeve proved a challenge; they had to get permission from the publishers. In the end, the artwork cost 3,000 pounds at a time when the usual cost was under 100. EMI agreed to pay it only if the album sold a million copies worldwide. This didn’t worry Epstein overly. The final result was trend-setting, artistically brilliant, and won Blake a Best Album Cover from the Grammy Awards the following year.

Released on CD originally June 1st, 1987 (thus preserving the “20 Years Ago Today” line; how exciting that was!). The stereo remaster was released September 9, 2009, as was the mono remaster as part of The Beatles In Mono box. The mono mix is also included on the Super Deluxe Edition; seek it out and hear it if at all possible. It’s mind-blowing. As a point of interest, the original running order for Side One was: Sgt. Pepper, A Little Help, Mr. Kite, Fixing A Hole, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Getting Better, She’s Leaving Home.

On June 1st, 2017, a remixed stereo edition was released both as a two-disc CD and digital release, complete with outtakes and remixes of the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single, and as a Super Deluxe Edition, with four CDs, a BluRay and DVD (content was duplicated on the latter two), an extensive book, two posters and more. My detailed review can be found at this link:

Here, I’d just like to say this about the set: It’s magnificent and inclusive, with the outtakes providing marvelous insight into the sessions and giving me new appreciation for the album. It’s also horribly expensive. It really irks me that Apple Records hasn’t chosen to issue it digitally, as other artists have done with their boxed sets, so that poorer fans could have a chance to hear this material.

As far as the remix, because I know some are itching to hear my views here: It’s the best remix of Beatles material I’ve heard yet. It does open up the sound, and makes the songs clearer. They also corrected She’s Leaving Home to run at the proper speed, which makes it far more listenable in stereo. That’s all to the good. The bad is that the drums and bass are too loud in spots, such as just before the chorus of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, when the drums crash in so loudly that it breaks the dreamy mood of the song. There’s an organ note in Getting Better which is mixed so loudly in the first chorus that it drives me insane. Worst of all, the orchestra in A Day In The Life is out of sync the first time around (I noticed this originally on the 1+ video set), and the back and forth stereo drifting of John’s vocals, which added to the psychedelic atmosphere of the song, is gone. The Beatles mixed this track for stereo themselves—don’t believe people when they say that the entire album was mixed for stereo without their input; that’s not true—and the remix completely destroys their original intentions.

OK, enough. The remix is available for those who want it. As long as they don’t delete the original stereo mix, I’m fine with that.

Sgt. Pepper isn’t the group’s greatest album; a lot of the songs and the psychedelia have dated over the years. Nevertheless, it is still their most towering achievement, and the pinnacle of their influence and artistic dominance. After this, the downhill slide began.