The Beatles’ Greatest Hits? Three Choicest Cuts from the Sgt. Pepper Sessions
‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ Penny Lane,’ and ‘A Day in the Life.’ Imagine if all three were on Sgt. Pepper.
As Paul McCartney tooled around the south of France in his Aston Martin DB5 in September of 1966, he could have been thinking of two Beatles milestones that were accomplished the prior month. On August 5, Revolver was released to critical acclaim. (I sing the praises of Revolver here.) And then on August 29, the Beatles played their final live concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Paul got a kick out of traveling “incognito, disguised so that he couldn’t be recognized,” freed from the glare of screeching Beatlemania and the hated moniker, “Fab Four.” After a two-week Safari in Kenya, Paul and road manager Mal Evans flew home to London.
As they ate their in-flight meal, Paul asked Evans, If I can disguise myself while traveling abroad unnoticed, why not all the Beatles? Let’s not be ourselves, let’s develop alter-egos, even take on the persona of a fictional band.
The two kicked around ideas, like altering the names of existing bands. Distractedly, Evans picked up packets of salt and pepper labeled ‘S’ and “P.’ Salt and Pepper? Evans and McCartney stared at the packets. Then Paul mused, Sergeant Pepper?
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
After a summer of travel and working on solo projects, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr gathered on a cold, blustery Thursday, November 24, 1966, in Studio Two of EMI Recording Studios. Producer George Martin asked curtly, “What have you got for me?”
The fact was, not much. John and Paul had very little facetime over the last few months to collaborate on new material. But Paul, ever the optimist, offered, “I think we’re itching to get going.” (He and Mal Evans had devised the framework for Sgt. Pepper by the time they landed at Heathrow.)
A Fresh Start
John was blunt, as usual. He told George Martin, “Look, it’s really quite simple. We’re fed up with making soft music for soft people…and we’re fed up with playing for them, too. But it’s given us a fresh start, don’t you see?”
The Beatles were well aware of the rock explosion happening around them, especially the “supergroup” Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the Beach Boys’ luscious song, “Good Vibrations.”
For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the Beatles did not place number one in the NME as the World’s Outstanding Vocal Group, being outvoted by those Beach Boys. (Ringo, deadpan, confessed, “We’re big fans of the Beach Boys. Maybe we voted for them.”)
It was time to claim their rightful place at the top of the heap.
Strawberry Fields Forever
On that November day, the Beatles were not entirely empty-handed. John Lennon had “Strawberry Fields Forever” in its infancy, enough so that he performed an acoustic version for George Martin that evening. Martin was quite simply blown away:
It was absolutely lovely. I was spellbound. I was in love. [John] had broken through into different territory, to a place I did not recognize from his past songs…It was dreamlike without being fey, weird without being pretentious.
Strawberry Field is a Salvation Army children’s home in the Woolton suburb of Liverpool, where John played in its garden around the corner from where he grew up. The song evokes Lennon’s childhood memories through a slow, mesmerizing lysergic haze. The lyrics are purposely contradictory and childlike: a polar complement to the ambitious soundscape.
Here is a video excerpt, one minute, 22 seconds in length, published by the Beatles via YouTube:
The Beatles’ Psychedelic Gambit
“Strawberry Fields Forever” took over 45 hours to record, spanning five weeks, mainly due to the song’s ornamentation: the overdubs, tape loops, and ADT. Also, the Beatles had a new toy at their disposal: a Mellotron synthesizer, which John purchased in 1965. It enabled Paul to play the flute sounds in the opening bars as well as mimic other instruments. That was George Harrison playing a sublime slide guitar.
The song validated the Beatles’ willingness to stoke musical boundaries.
Now it was Paul’s turn.
Paul McCartney has said that he and John “were often answering each other’s song,” and Paul responded this time with “Penny Lane,” a breezy, spirited Liverpool neighborhood vignette that Paul narrated with photographic clarity. McCartney:
The lyrics were all based on real things [but were] a little more surreal…twisting it to a sightly more artsy angle [to incorporate] all the trippy ideas that we were trying to get into.”
The middle-eight solo features a piccolo trumpet, which is a story in itself. The night before the final session for “Penny Lane,” Paul was watching a BBC broadcast of a Bach Concerto, in which he heard “this fantastic high trumpet.” The next day, he asked George Martin to find the trumpeter in question. A perplexed David Mason of the New Philharmonic Orchestra was summoned to EMI Studios, where Paul sang out the part he wanted, and Martin wrote the notes down. Mason nailed it in two quick takes. “Jolly high notes, quite taxing,” Mason commented with tongue firmly in cheek.
“Four of fish and finger pies”
Here is the “official” “Penny Lane” video, three minutes long, filmed in East London by Swedish director Peter Goldmann during the Beatles’ break from recording overdubs to “A Day in the Life,” published by the Beatles and Universal Music Group via YouTube:
Stung by Englebert Humperdinck
“Penny Lane” and Strawberry Fields Forever” were released as “double A-side” singles on February 17, 1967, a momentous decision that excluded them from the upcoming album. The release was consistent with EMI’s tradition of giving Beatles fans at least one singles release per year. During the two prior years:
George Martin was initially delighted with the double A-side release. “I decided to give [Brian Epstein] a super-strong combination,” Martin said, “a double-punch that could not fail.”
Well, not quite. Despite selling 2.5 million copies, the record was the first Beatles singles release since 1962 to not reach number one, only to be dislodged by Englebert Humperdinck’s “Release Me.” Martin might have had second thoughts, thinking quite accurately that Sgt. Pepper could have even been “stronger” by their inclusion. Indeed.
A Day in the Life
The song that many consider the Beatles’ reigning achievement, the grand finale to their masterpiece album, began simply enough on a cold January evening in Studio Two. Chief Engineer Geoff Emerick recalls John “singing softly, strumming his acoustic guitar” to a song sounding “light and dreamy” and yet “more compelling than ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ I was in awe.”
Paul accompanied John on the piano, “providing a perfect counterpoint,” according to Emerick. The Lennon/McCartney songwriting team was at its collaborative peak. Working title: “In the Life Of.”
John Lennon often wrote lyrics based on items he read in the newspaper. According to John, the first two verses of “A Day in the Life” concern the death of Guinness heir Tara Browne, whose car crash two months earlier made gruesome headlines. Browne was an acquaintance of both John and Paul and reportedly “instigated” Paul’s first encounter with LSD. But in Paul’s recollection, the lyric, “He blew his mind out in a car “was purely a drug reference that had nothing to do with a car crash. Could it be both?
Paul and John had no such dispute over the lyric, “I’d Love to Turn You On,” which got the song banned from the BBC. According to Rolling Stone, Paul explained, “This was the time of Tim Leary’s ‘turn on tune in, drop out.’ John and I gave each other a knowing look: ‘Uh-huh, it’s a drug song, you know that, don’t you?'” Uh-huh.
24 Bars of Orchestral Dissonance
It was Paul McCartney who on February 10 found the solution to filling a 24-bar gap in “A Day in the Life.” He wanted to hire 90 musicians (George Martin granted him 40) and instruct them to do the following: “We’re going to start very low in pitch and end up very high. You’ve got to make your own way up there, as slide-y as possible. And whatever you do, don’t listen to the fellow next to you because I don’t want [either of] you to be doing the same thing.”
The musicians, some of whom were members of the Royal Philharmonic or London Symphony, looked at Paul “as if I was mad.” These were classically-trained musicians used to playing in unison or harmony; any other way was plain counterintuitive. But they did what they were told and were good sports about being filmed wearing funny hats and comedic novelties like a red clown nose or a gorilla’s paw.
The Beatles always got their way.
Here is the video of “A Day in the Life,” published by the Beatles via YouTube:
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1, 1967, and heralded as the soundtrack to the Sumer of Love. The album drew people together through the common experience of listening to a rock album more than ever before. Radio stations put aside their regular programming to play Sgt. Pepper non-stop, from start to finish.
The release date coincided with the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation. Millions of school kids, myself included, spent the summer consumed by Sgt. Pepper, causing a sea change in our values, the way we dressed, the company we kept, and (unfortunately) a more permissive attitude toward drugs. The album just sounded so good!
Jerry Boys, then a tape operator at EMI and now an independent studio manager, sums it up:
If you listen to the album now, there are [sounds] that are still impossible to make, even with today’s computerized 48-track equipment and all the microchips imaginable. It’s a very clever record. In terms of creative use of recording, it has been one of the major steps forward.