It was 50 years ago today that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play
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The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper remains a landmark album. Arts editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at the world and the ambition that transformed the Fab Four from lovable mop tops into avant garde musicians
It was 50 years ago today – Thursday June 1 1967 – that Sergeant Pepper taught The Beatles to play. The previous summer The Fab Four had taken the vow that the screaming had to stop. There would be no more touring.
Paul McCartney told reporters at the time: “We couldn’t hear ourselves when we were live, as there was so much screaming going on. If you can’t hear yourselves then how can you get better?”
In another interview he said that as a live band, they weren’t as good as they had been at The Cavern Club or in Hamburg. The noise of the fans was so great that not only could they not hear themselves on stage, Ringo could only keep time by watching his band-mates swing their backsides in time to the music.
Besides, the band were tired of the whole Beatlemania business of being herded from airport to hotel room to stadium back to hotel room. They were also frustrated that they couldn’t replicate their new music live.
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In the studio, a lot had changed. The Beatles no longer sounded like the lovable mop tops captured on Please, Please Me, their first LP, which merely looked to record the sound of their live act in mono.
The song-writing abilities and musical ambitions of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison had come a long way in the intervening four years – not to mention the technical changes in recording technology.
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Although, mono was still the favoured medium for singles, stereo recordings were becoming increasingly popular for albums. The Beatles, along with long-time producer George Martin, were also keen to make the most of the four-track recording technology.
Experiments with looping, overdubs and sonic shaping which began on the 1966 album Revolver were going to move up a gear. The Sergeant Pepper mastertapes are so packed with music, sounded effects and added detail that it is impossible to believe that it was recorded on just a four track machine – although more space was created by bouncing down finished mastertakes onto one channel, freeing up the remaining tracks for further overdubs.
Recording was now what fired up The Beatles creative juices. They were engaged in a creativity arms race – not with arch-rivals The Rolling Stones who loved that edgy live sound on their recordings – but with American west coast maestros The Beach Boys – or rather their writer-producer Brian Wilson.
In 1966 The Beatles had released Revolver, their most ambitious album yet, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys retaliated with Pet Sounds and then followed that up with their iconic single Good Vibrations which was recorded in small fragments, rather than full takes, and then stitched together in the studio.
George Martin commented during an interview for the 40th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper: “Without Pet Sounds, Sergeant Pepper never would have happened. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”
The sessions for what would become Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band commenced on Thursday November 24 1966 in studio 2 at EMI’s Abbey Road recording facility. It had been three months since they had seen each other – having taken a long break after their final world tour. Now they came to make music safe in the knowledge that it would never have to be replicated on stage. Now they record songs using all the studio trickery and technology they could get their hands on.
They were so famous and profitable, that session time, which was so valuable when they recorded their first album in the spring of 1963 that they had to get all ten tracks recorded in a single day, was now unlimited. They could experiment in the studio and take as long as they wanted.
That first evening was devoted to a new song of John’s called Strawberry Fields Forever, a nostalgic journey back to his childhood. This feeling of nostalgia was also present in the songs committed to tape over the following months – namely Penny Lane, Paul’s own nod to the Liverpool of his youth, When I’m 64 and Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite.
It became clear that the rock’n’roll of The Beatles past was being mixed with dashes of Victorian music hall and in the case of She’s Leaving Home and A Day In The Life sophisticated singer-songwriting.
Then there was the psychedelia. The backwards vocals, symbols and the drumming wildtracks that characterised these new recordings. Even on a piece of nostalgia like Strawberry Fields, John was determined to explore the limits of what was possible and the finished recording was an edit of two different recordings done in two different arrangements which required George Martin to speed up one version and slow down another in order to match the two together
After the Christmas break recording continued in earnest with Penny Lane, A Day In The Life and the title track. It wasn’t until McCartney submitted the song Sergeant Pepper that the album started to coalesce and the notion formed that the album would follow a notional performance given by the fictional Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Further classic songs followed in quick succession including With A Little Help From My Friends, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Fixing a Hole. The Beatles were so energised now that it is hard to see where one project ends and another begins. In April 1967 The Beatles recorded the rock reprise of Sergeant Pepper which would become the album’s penultimate track and George Harrison’s Indian-inspired Within You, Without You but they also put down the basic tracks for The Magical Mystery Tour which was to become their next album and a television special.
Prior to release Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were detached from the album to form a double A-side pre-release single creating a sense of anticipation for when the album arrived.
When Sergeant Pepper hit the shops, complete with its iconic cover created by artist Peter Blake and photographer Michael Cooper, gatefold sleeve, cardboard cut-out giveaways and, for the first-time ever, printed lyrics, it became an event. An indication of the impact it generated can be judged by the fact that the first cover version of the title track was created four days after release when Jimi Hendrix opened his concert at the Saville Theatre, London with a faithful, full-length live version of the title-track and the place went crazy.
During the past 50 years the fortunes of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has waxed and waned being voted both the most influential rock album of all time and the most over-rated. But, the fact that we are still talking about it and listening to it probably says more than anything else.