Making 'Sgt. Pepper,' Part 2: Writing the Score
    • TUESDAY, MAY 23, 2017

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    Welcome back to 'Making Sgt. Pepper,' a four-part miniseries leading up to the legendary album's 50th anniversary. We'll be picking up right where we left off in part one, so click here if you'd like to get caught up.

    To many fans and critics, 1966 seemed like the end for the Beatles. Frustrated by grueling years on the road, the band had officially retired from playing shows despite being one of the most highly demanded live acts of the 1960s. Not only that, but the band also decided to leave after a series of public missteps, which only caused breakup rumors to grow in volume. Despite the hearsay, the Beatles weren't actually breaking up; ending touring prolonged that for another four years if anything else. They all intended to get back to Abbey Road, do what they did best, and put out another album, but first, the four took their suddenly open schedule and for the first time since before their club days in Hamburg, they took a break.

    The band now had about three months before they had to work on another record, so each member went off and recharged in their own unique way. John Lennon landed a role in the satirical How I Won The War, which required him to travel to Spain and West Germany for on-site shooting and, perhaps somewhat symbolically, cut his signature mop-top. This was also the period when John attended a fateful London art showcase, where he met a featured artist named Yoko Ono. Still engrossed in South Asian culture, George Harrison traveled to India to study sitar under Ravi Shankar, an experience that forever changed his creative approach and the influences on his own music. Ringo Starr, always the homebody of the group, stayed home with his wife Maureen and their son Zak to try out being a stay-at-home parent for the first time in his life. Paul McCartney initially kept musically and socially active in London, as he was never one to slow down and stop working, but eventually he began to feel burned out by the constant glare of the public spotlight. Though he plenty enjoyed the notoriety and means created by the Beatles, Paul wanted something he hadn't possessed since the band's big break all those years ago: anonymity.

    Paul wanted a break from stardom, a literal vacation from the life he chose, but to go outside and not be immediately swarmed by rabid, hormonal girls was unthinkable for the biggest band in the world. As a solution to this issue, he decided that not only would he go on holiday alone, he would also go in disguise. "I had a couple of pairs of glasses made with clear lenses, which just made me look a bit different, he recalled in his biography Many Years From Now, "I put a long blue overcoat on and slicked my hair back with Vaseline and just wandered around, and of course nobody recognized me at all. It was good, it was quite liberating for me." Armed with false glasses, greasy hair, and a fake mustache, Paul drove his Aston Martin across the French and Spanish countryside, taking plenty of sentimental footage along the way, and never once being recognized.

    Eventually, Paul met up with then-girlfriend Jane Asher and Beatles roadie and friend Mal Evans, and the three embarked on a luxury safari in Kenya to cap off the three-week vacation. On the plane ride back to London, Paul reflected on his solo excursion, as well on the uncertain future of the band. The four still wanted to make music, but it was unclear if making music together was as rewarding as it once was. Being a Beatle wasn't just about playing in a band anymore; it was about maintaining a brand, and the hefty expectations that came with that left the four creatively stifled and tethered to the "teenage pop star" image. The pressures of fame already left them resentful of live shows, a huge defining factor of their career up to that point. It seemed like only a matter of time until the band caved in altogether.

    That's when Paul had an epiphany: They could still make music as a band, no point in ending a good thing. But that didn't mean they had to make music as the Beatles. "I thought, 'Let's not be ourselves. Let's develop alter egos so we don't have to project an image that we know. It would be much more free," he reflected. Just like wandering around in public incognito without attracting a second glance, Paul thought the same idea could be applied to the band, that pretending to be someone else would allow them to both operate on their own terms even and escape from fame without actually giving it up.

    The solution seemed like the best of both worlds, but what moniker could they adopt? "It was the start of the hippy times, and there was a jingly-jangly hippy aura all around in America," Paul remembered in The Beatles Anthology, "I started thinking about what would be a really mad name to call a band. At the time there were lots of groups with names like 'Laughing Joe and his Medicine Band' or 'Colonel Tucker's Medicinal Brew and Compound'; all that old Western going-round-on-wagons stuff, with long rambling names." As Paul pondered over names on the plane, Evans asked him what the "S" and "P" packets that came with their in-flight meals were. "Salt and Pepper, Mal," Paul told him, and then in a moment of silliness, he quipped to himself, "Sergeant Pepper."

    Painfully eye-rolling pun? Absolutely, but for whatever reason, the name stuck (after all, the Beat-les were clearly never too high-art for the occasional dumb pun). It had a certain mix of imperial stature and youthful playfulness, like a fictional character out of an old children's fable. It didn't sound real, and that's exactly what Paul wanted. To make the name sound even more grand and old-timey, Paul threw a couple phrases together until he landed on "Lonely Hearts Club," and so when the four reconvened at Abbey Road, he gave the pitch: "As we're trying to get away from ourselves - to get away from touring and into a more surreal thing - how about if we become an alter-ego band, something like, say, 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts?' I've got a little bit of a song cooking with that title."

    The rest of the band was on board with the proposal, and so the recording sessions for Sgt. Pepper began in late 1966 with a very clear goal in mind: Do something completely different. For however long this new album was going to take, the band wasn't the Beatles. They were a band with a wide-open schedule, a practically endless budget, and free rein to just create good art. The band had a newfound direction from the very start, which is probably why the first song recorded during the Pepper sessions is so vastly different from than the rest of the Beatles' discography up to that point. "Strawberry Fields Forever" wasn't included on Pepper, instead released as a "double A-side" single with "Penny Lane" in February 1967, but the song in many ways acted as a thesis statement for the rest of the album. It was an eclectic composition that threw out usual songwriting conventions in favor of wild experimentation and the blending of genres, marking the band's true, undisputed departure from writing two-minute love songs. More than any of their previous work, the track found the band testing their artistic capabilities in composition and production, the latter widely thanks to producer George Martin and recording engineer Geoff Emerick.

    Inspired by an old children's home in Liverpool of the same name, John wrote "Strawberry Fields" and recorded multiple different versions with the band. Inspired by the likes of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg, Lennon weaved avant-garde lyrics that didn't necessarily create a cohesive narrative, but still invoked the feeling of hazy, nostalgic youth. The band tried out multiple instruments and arrangements over the song's several versions, from trumpets to cellos to the newly invented Mellotron, a device that used tape loops of instruments to create notes for a keyboard.

    John ended up liking two versions the best, one that featured the standard guitar-drums-bass setup (plus a Mellotron intro) and another featuring orchestration written by Martin. He wanted to combine elements of both versions, but the problem was that the two differed in both tempo and key signature. "In the end, John and George Martin [and Geoff Emerick] stitched two versions together," Paul remembered in Anthology, meaning they literally cut the tapes with scissors, slowed down one of the versions, and glued them together. "We could hardly hear the join, but it's one of those edits where the pace changes slightly: It goes a bit more manic for the second half of the song." The spliced and warped version is the "Strawberry Fields" we all know today, and while others might have called these details errors, the band felt they gave the track an otherworldly, psychedelic sound, and so they left it as is.

    Though it was a painstaking process to reach the final product, "Strawberry Fields Forever" embodied everything the band wanted to accomplish in the Pepper sessions. It was whimsical, awe-inspiring, and completely new all at the same time, and most of all, it was entirely unexpected. Though the band considered it their best song to date, the single failed to reach number one, beaten out by "Release Me" by Englebert Humperdinck. The loss didn't faze them, as the music only became more ambitious from there, and the four also began to develop their own individual styles in depth.

    Paul looked to the music of his youth for inspiration, leading to lush, campy pop tracks like "Penny Lane," "When I'm Sixty-Four," and "She's Leaving Home" that sounded more like old-fashioned parlor tunes than teeny-bopper pop. At the same time, he also found a nice balance between old songwriting conventions and more exploratory styles, like the baroque-pop prototype "Fixing A Hole," the bright and bouncy Getting Better, and the only thing close to a love song on the entire record, "Lovely Rita." Thanks to new recording techniques developed by Martin and Emerick, such as overdubbing and recording instruments via DI, Paul was able to really sit down with his songs and show off his musicianship versus getting everything in one take, resulting in some of his best bass lines to date.

    Though Paul was off to the races in the studio, George found it a little more difficult to find his footing and adopt his "Pepper" persona. "It was becoming difficult for me, because I was't really that into it, he explained in Anthology, "[the recording] became an assembly process - and for me it became a bit tiring and a bit boring." He did, however, have a huge moment of artistic growth on the sitar-focused "Within You Without You," which was by far George's biggest foray into Indian music and arguably his most ambitious piece at this point in his career. Ringo, while he did have his customary "shining moment" on the merrily cheesy "With A Little Help From My Friends," mostly stuck to the sidelines and waited for the others to give him parts to play. As he summed up the experience in Anthology, in true Ringo fashion: "Sgt. Pepper was great for me, because it's a fine album But I did learn to play chess while we were recording it."

    If Paul, George, and Ringo were the opposite ends of the productivity spectrum during the Pepper sessions, John arguably fell somewhere in between the three of them. Though he pushed the envelope with "Strawberry Fields," he, like George and Ringo, felt that Paul was increasingly assuming creative control, once commenting that he was making "songs to order" rather than writing meaningful music during Pepper. While it's true Paul had the largest output, John arguably wrote the two standouts on the whole album, the Summer of Love classic (and massively disputed ode to acid) "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," and the band's stunning magnum opus, "A Day In The Life." Though the lyrics were literally ripped from the headlines of a newspaper, the song itself shows the band, Martin, and Emerick firing on all cylinders, pushing their musical and recording capabilities to their limits to deliver a daring and unpredictable song like no one had ever attempted before.

    Anyone who's heard "A Day In The Life" knows exactly what makes this song so special: John's haunting vocals, Ringo's nimble drumming, Paul's jovial surprise interlude, the incredibly dramatic, almost fear-inducing orchestral buildup, and of course, the powerful final piano chord that rings out for almost a full minute. If there was any song to sum up the greatness of the Beatles, and what they could do when they were free of inhibitions and external pressures, it would indisputably be this song. Even in a record packed with left turns and unusual artistic choices, the band reached the pinnacle of creativity on "A Day In The Life," creating a completely new way to make music in the process.

    After 5 months, 700 hours of studio time, and roughly 25,000 pounds spent, the Beatles completed Sgt. Pepper on April 21, 1967. The band succeeded in creating something beyond anything they had done up to that point, resulting in material that was literally destined to change the course of popular music, but the work wasn't done quite yet. They assumed this role of a fictional band, but the rest of the world still saw them as the Beatles. The band now needed to convince the public that their mop-top days were over, and a new, more mature version of the Beatles was here to stay.

    They needed a statement as powerful as the music in order for people to take their work seriously. So what better place for a statement than the album cover? More on that next week.

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