Making 'Sgt. Pepper,' Part 1: Setting the Stage
  • TUESDAY, MAY 16, 2017

  • Posted by: Robert Steiner

Welcome to 'Making Sgt. Pepper,' a four-part miniseries leading up to the legendary album's 50th anniversary. To kick things off, we're going to explore the couple years before recording sessions for the album began, and the many factors that inspired the Beatles to create such an ambitious and unprecedented work of art.

It's hard to believe that The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that's the soundtrack of a youth-centric movement, is three weeks away from being half-a-century old. Few albums have maintained such lasting praise as long as Pepper, which was hailed as a classic immediately upon its release and still tops 'greatest albums' lists to this day. The album is also an important marker in the band's career, as it's the point where they left their "teen pop idol" image behind and proved themselves to be undisputed, bona-fide artists.

It's an album that sounded nothing like what the band had released up to that point, which naturally brings up the question: What exactly led to Pepper? When John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, & Ringo Starr walked into Abbey Road Studio Two in November 1966, why didn't they churn out another winning pop record like they had always done? The answer, of course, is anything but straightforward. Though recorded in only six months, Pepper was a concept many years in the making, as changes in the band's artistic desires and personal lives drove them to create something unlike anything they had done before.



Although they were still the most popular musical act on the planet at the time,1965 and 1966 proved to be particularly rough years for the band. They, like any other young people entering their mid-20s, were feeling growing pains, and after spending literal years working 24/7 without breaks, the four were eager to actually live like young people now that they had the means to do so. All four members, to varying degrees, were ready to do something different than their rigid album-tour-album cycle, and they were all antsy to create a more personal identity than the lovable, longhaired teenyboppers in suits. However, growing pains or not, they were still the biggest band in the world with an image to maintain. A harsh spotlight followed the band at all times, meaning every mistake or moment of angst was caught on full display. This fact is probably why, for the first time in their careers, the public began to turn on the Fab Four, and what they had been doing for years was suddenly not working.

As the ambassadors for an emerging generation, the Beatles arguably changed as 1960s culture changed, largely because they were often the trendsetters in the first place. So when drug use gradually emerged to prominence the mid 60s, and the Summer of Love was just beginning its sunrise, the band was quick to turn on, tune in, and drop out, forever changing their musical style and personal behaviors. John and George were the first of the four to try LSD, though not by their own accord. As legend goes, John Riley, London's dentist to the stars, invited the pair and their wives, Cynthia Lennon and Patti Boyd, to dinner in the spring of 1965. Without telling either couples, Riley slipped acid into their coffees, intending to be the first person to turn on the Beatles to the emerging drug of choice. The event, coined by George as "The Dental Experience," proved to be more jarring than enjoyable, but it at least compelled John and George to try it again under more consensual circumstances, as well as get the other two Beatles to give it a try. "It was such a mammoth experience that it was unexplainable," George explained in The Beatles Anthology, "It was something that had to be experienced, because you could spend the rest of your life trying to explain what it made you feel and think. It was all too important to John and me."



On August 24, 1965, the band had a day off in Los Angeles, so they rented a house owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor, invited over friends like David Crosby, Peter Fonda, and Roger McGuinn, and dropped acid as a band for the first time (three of the four, at least- Paul would succumb to peer pressure at a later date). It's this get-together that many Beatles historians cite as the beginning of the Revolver era; this was, after all, where Peter Fonda famously creeped out John by whispering to him, "I know what it's like to be dead." But the influence of this get-together could definitely be seen extending into Pepper, if not the rest of their time as a band. It was here where McGuinn introduced George to Ravi Shankar, his first exposure to Indian music that would define everything he wrote from then on. Most importantly, acid literally changed how the band approached the creative process, and it compelled them to push their music farther than they had before. This artistic shift was more than hinted at on Revolver, namely on tracks like "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows," but as the psychedelic movement was just taking root, the Beatles were only beginning to understand what they were capable of.

Though the band was eager to experiment more in the studio, their constant and exhausting touring schedule became a major detriment to both their time and their energy by the mid-60s. Ever since they cut their teeth playing shows twice a day in Liverpool and Hamburg, the band had a reputation for being one of the best and most consistent live acts, their showmanship being a huge reason behind their initial success. Beatlemania saw fans, mostly teenage girls, pack stadiums to max capacity just to see the band play, leading to years of touring the world with great turnouts. However, the unfortunate reality of these shows is that, because of the limited amplification technology in the 1960s, the band couldn't actually hear themselves over the endless, ear-piercing wave of shrieking that was their audience. Even as they were writing more music than ever and recording increasingly better albums, the band began to feel like it wasn't worth it if the audience couldn't even hear them play. As John described at the time, "Beatles concerts are nothing to do with music anymore. They're just bloody tribal rites."



By 1966, the band were fed up with playing to a crowd who wasn't listening, but that certainly didn't stop manager Brian Epstein from booking an Asian and American tour. But before the band could even set foot in Japan, they received an anonymous telegram while playing shows in Europe: "Do not go to Tokyo. Your life is danger." As it turned out, the band was at the center of national controversy in the country, as they were set to play shows at the Nippon Budokan, a martial arts hall located near the Imperial Palace. Japanese conservatives, intent on reclaiming a traditional Japanese identity in a post-WWII climate, didn't like the idea of a Western band coming over and playing in a venue intended for a sacred Japanese art form.

Debates between both citizens and politicians dominated national news, and for the first time in their careers, it was unclear if the band was going to be safe onstage. As a result, police decked in full riot gear accompanied the band everywhere they went from the second they touched down on the island. Though their public appearances were already generally limited, In Japan they weren't even allowed to leave their hotel until the night of the show for their own safety.



Police closely monitored the crowd of the Budokan the night of the show, as there were fears that the band's chaotic audience would be a perfect place for an assailant to strike. "The audience was very subdued. If you look at the footage from the shows you'll see a cop on every row," Ringo remembered in Anthology, "They'd all get excited in their seats as we were playing, but they couldn't express it." With a tamer audience, the band were finally able to hear themselves, but then a much more painful truth came to light, one more troubling than the protests, security escorts, and screaming girls: They didn't sound very good. Not bad per se, just not nearly as strong as they used to be. Playing practically deaf for years had taken a toll on the band's sound, and that reality-check only further fueled their desire for a major change in their lives.

Controversy and unrest continued to entrap the band for the rest of the tour. They flew to the Philippines after Japan, where the promoters had apparently set up a breakfast reception between the band and the new First Lady, Madame Imelda Marcos. Never one to delve into politics (at the time, at least) Epstein respectfully declined the offer on behalf of the band. The promoters apparently didn't relay that to the First Lady, because the band awoke to TV news stations reporting they had insulted and embarrassed the wife of the Filipino President. The band's hired security team walked out in protest, which made for a very tense and potentially dangerous emergency ride back to the airport.

The band took a small break after the tense Asian tour, but they still had the US leg to complete. When asked about the upcoming tour at the time, George Harrison quipped, "We're going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans," and as it turns out, his joke proved to be somewhat prophetic. Trouble started when an interview with John written five months prior to the tour resurfaced, which contained his now infamous comments on the state of religion:

"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."

The comments didn't cause any reaction among English readers when originally published in the London Evening Standard. When they were republished in the US, however, massive outrage erupted throughout the Bible Belt of the Deep South, sparking the first time American audiences turned on the band. Southern radio stations embarked on "Ban the Beatles" campaigns, and sponsored mass album burnings for those keen on punishing the band for their blasphemy, resulting in rather disturbing imagery reminiscent of WWII-era book burnings. After railing from violent protests, death threats, and even a picketing led by the South Carolina chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Epstein pushed Lennon to publicly apologized via press conference.



Though Lennon wasn't fully remorseful ("If I'd said, 'Television is more poplar than Jesus,' I might have got away with it!"), the PR move at least quelled tensions enough for the band to safely continue touring. That said, the August 1966 tour was still abysmal, from low-quality performances to under-sold venues. By the band's final show at San Francisco's Candlestick Park on August 29, they were all burned out, frustrated, and for the first time since their formation, ready to stop. George was more than ready to leave the band entirely, as he wanted travel to India and cultivate his growing affinity for Indian music. He ended up staying, luckily, once the band and their management came to a unanimous decision to end live performances indefinitely and instead put their time and resources towards recording music.

So this is where the band was by late 1966: Retired from the road, ready to record an album with literally all the time in the world, and in major need of a rejuvenation. It was the perfect and most necessary time for reinvention, and as we'll talk about next week, that's exactly what happened.
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