Part 2: Return to the Studio
It was time apart that rejuvenated The Beatles creatively. For once, having the freedom to pursue individual goals took precedence over doing things for the good of the group. Ringo spent time with his family. Paul wrote a film score, working with George Martin. John ventured to Spain to film his role in Richard Lester’s World War II film How I Won the War. George journeyed to India with his wife to study Eastern religion and learn sitar (Womack, 2007).
When the four Beatles entered EMI’s Studio Two at Abbey Road on 24November, 1966 to begin recording their new album, they came armed with ideas, a slew of influences, and a raging desire to experiment. The first song recorded was a Lennon composition entitled “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon was dissatisfied with the initial version laid to tape, so the group returned to the song in early December, recording a new backing track. Because there were two different takes Lennon wanted to use to create the final take, both of different speed and key, studio engineer Geoff Emerick decided to simply “splice,” or connect, the tapes together, correcting their speed to bring them to nearly the same pitch (MacDonald, 1994). Overall, “over forty-five hours” in the studio had gone into work on “Strawberry Fields” (Spitz, p.655, 2005).
With its many studio effects and “swimming” sound, the song sounded unlike anything the Beatles had recorded at that point in their career (MacDonald, p.174, 1994). Geoff Emerick’s final edit of the song (with the two ‘final’ versions edited together at about 1:00) has two distinct sounds. The first minute of the song is noticeably higher in pitch, while the song grows increasingly disorienting following the edit, when the pitch becomes noticeably lower transforming Lennon’s voice into a druggy, warped version of its usual self. The instrumentation of the second part consists of densely layered percussion, a jarring departure from Ringo’s sparse backing on the first minute of the song (MacDonald, 1994).
“Strawberry Fields” did in fact serve as what Martin proclaimed to be the “agenda of the whole album” (Heylin, p.117, 2007). Soon after its completion, the group was hard at work on McCartney’s first contribution to the project, coincidentally, another song about childhood landmarks from Liverpool, “Penny Lane” (Spitz, 2005).
“Penny Lane” was McCartney’s response to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” evoking the same childhood imagery and imagination. “Penny Lane” was a more upbeat and traditional sounding tune, yet was revolutionary in much the same way as “Strawberry Fields.” McCartney’s taste in classical music played a role in the creation of the song, where after viewing a performance of Bach’s “Second Brandenburg Concerto” on television, McCartney decided to write a similar melodic line for piccolo trumpet, a smaller, higher pitched trumpet, for his own song (MacDonald, 1994). According to Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey, Martin scored a beautiful “arrangement for flutes, trumpets, piccolo, and flugelhorn…oboes, cor anglais (English horn), and bowed double bass” (p.144, 2006) giving it a jovial and upbeat feel, while bell chimes sound out in response to McCartney’s line about a fireman “keeping his fire engine clean” (“Penny Lane”). The pianos were tracked at different speeds by Lennon and McCartney, a trick which altered their overtones, thus producing a unique thick, multi-layered piano sound for the song (MacDonald, 1994).
Although “Strawberry Fields” would be released as a single by the Beatles’ label, Parlophone, in February 1967 (MacDonald, 1994), four months prior to the release of Sgt. Pepper, George Martin claimed the song “set the agenda for the whole album” (Heylin, p.117, 2007). Martin later regretted telling Beatles manager Brian Epstein about the songs: “These songs would, I told him, make a fantastic double-A-sided disc – better even than our other double-A-sided triumphs, ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work it Out’, and ‘Eleanor Rigby’/Yellow Submarine.’ It was the biggest mistake of my professional life” (Martin et al., p.26, 1994). While these two tracks technically mark the beginning of the group’s new studio-based career, they were not included on the album due to EMI policy at the time (Spitz, 2005). Instead of performing take after take of the same finished song in an attempt to get the right version for the album, the Beatles would now use the studio time at their disposal to construct songs layer by layer, and literally build them up with each subsequent overdub.
“Penny Lane” was followed by the recording of McCartney’s charming ode to vaudeville music, “When I’m Sixty-Four” (Martin et al., 1994). McCartney’s lyrics for the song tie into the first proposed concept of an album of “Northern Songs,” featuring songs that were “progressive” yet used the sounds of the past (in this case, a chorus of clarinets) to touch upon the group’s upbringing in Liverpool (Heylin, p.116, 2007). According to Spitz, Emerick and Martin even sped up the tape while recording Paul’s vocal, in order to obtain his desired effect of sounding “younger…a teenager again” (p.668, 2005).
The “concept” was a principal device in keeping the album separate from the rest of the group’s discography. According to Clinton Heylin, the group, McCartney in particular, preferred to have a concept or theme for the sole purpose of making Sgt. Pepper “stand out from what came before” (p.116, 2007). McCartney said in a 1967 interview:
“We realized for the first time that someday someone would actually be holding a thing they’d call ‘The Beatles’ new LP’ and that normally it would just be a collection of songs with a nice picture on the cover, nothing more. So the idea was to do a complete thing that you could make what you liked of; just a little magic presentation.”  (Heylin, p.116, 2007)
McCartney initially devised an embryonic idea for a concept album while traveling around France in September 1966. In order to ‘escape’ his famous image so he could enjoy his trip, McCartney donned a disguise to remain incognito (Spitz, p.643, 2005). According to Spitz, the disguise led McCartney to an idea: “if he could disguise himself on vacation and travel about unnoticed, then why not all the Beatles?” (p.643, 2005) McCartney would later explain the concept: “‘I thought, Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter-egos so we’re not having to project an image which we know’” (quoted in Spitz, p.643, 2005). Later, during a flight from Africa to London, Evans and McCartney were discussing band names, according to Spitz, “mimicking the variety of groups that were just coming into vogue: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Lothar and the Hand People” (p. 643, 2005). Evans then picked up miniature salt and pepper packages and gave McCartney the idea that would spur the entire concept for the record: “‘Salt and Pepper’” (p. 643, 2005). McCartney, in an effort to create one of his own “West Coast” band names, “threw the words together: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Aspinall et al., p. 241, 2000).
Different songs recorded during the sessions would serve as launching points for new conceptual ideas for the album. “With a Little Help From My Friends” was one such song, along with the title track, which introduced another concept to the project. The two songs open the album by giving the listener the feeling of being at a live concert by a musical group. George Martin claimed the Beatles and the production team “‘had to start with the song that gave the illusion of a concept’” (quoted in Heylin, p.175, 2007). Ironically, to create this atmosphere of a live concert Martin used a portion of audience applause taken from a recording of the Beatles’ own recording of a 1965 show at the Hollywood Bowl (Heylin, 2007).
The title track then segues into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” carrying on the live performance concept by introducing Ringo as the bandleader of Sgt. Pepper’s band, Billy Shears. This idea was proposed by cover photographer Peter Blake (Heylin, 2007). Starr himself admitted after the album was released that “‘the original concept of ‘Pepper’ was that it was gonna be like a stage show…We did it for the first couple of tracks and then it faded into an album’” (quoted in Heylin, p.171, 2007). A reprise of the title track occurs at the end of the album preceding “A Day in the Life,” with the Lonely Hearts Club Band reappearing to bid the audience farewell (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967).
Ringo’s vocal style is particularly well suited to the upbeat instrumentation of jangly guitars and piano. The song is a commentary on love and friendship, with the other three Beatles offering encouraging backing vocals that seem to support Ringo/Billy Shears as he takes the lead (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967).
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” follows, plunging Sgt. Pepper’s band into a vivid dream world, complete with psychedelic imagery of “plasticine porters with looking glass ties” and girls “with kaleidoscope eyes” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967). The song is impressive sonically, with heavily treated instruments complimenting Lennon’s Technicolor imagery in his lyrics, which he admitted were heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (Heylin, 2007). McCartney performed the song’s distinctive keyboard introduction not on a harpsichord, as the sound would suggest, but on an electric organ heavily altered by electronic effects in an attempt to achieve the chiming bell tones of a Celeste (Hertsgaard, 1995).
“Getting Better” finds the group returning to the supportive themes of friendship visited in “With a Little Help From My Friends,” with Lennon’s background vocals seemingly encouraging or even provoking McCartney (Hertsgaard, 1995). The song is an anthem for the sixties, a time of new ideas and new beginnings; McCartney likely referring to the end of the Beatles’ touring days (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967).
The group also would play with texture by adding tape loops to songs. Small clips of sound were used to change the feeling of songs or bring them to a close. Harrison’s raga “Within You Without You” utilized a brief clip of laughter culled from a tape out of the EMI studio archives entitled “Volume 6: Applause and Laughter,” inserted at his insistence to lighten the serious mood of the piece (Lewisohn, 2003). “Volume 35: Animals and Bees” and “Volume 57: Foxhunt” were also used to add dogs, roosters and various farm animals to “Good Morning Good Morning” (Lewisohn, 2003).
One of the most critical uses of tape effects during the sessions would take place during the recording of Lennon’s “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” According to Spitz, Lennon desired a “fairground sound” to go with lyrics he had written based on a 19th century circus poster he had purchased from an antique shop, and called upon Martin to assist in the creation of such an atmosphere for the recording (pp.668-669, 2005). Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick then set about using tapes to simulate the sounds of an old-fashioned steam organ, due to prohibitive costs of renting and programming one for the session (Spitz, 2005). Emerick once again played the innovator; after retrieving tapes of marches played on steam organs, he cut them into small pieces, tossed them in the air, and reassembled them in a random order, overdubbing them onto the existing rhythm track to achieve the desired effect (Lewisohn, 2003).
The Beatles used their newfound artistic license to write in a more abstract manner, wrapping personal thoughts and feelings in lyrical sheets of realistic imagery. Lennon’s commentary on suburban life, “Good Morning, Good Morning,” was inspired by a television commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and he decided to analyze his supposedly comfortable life in his Weybridge mansion in an “ironic” and “sarcastic” way he never had thought about before, according to Martin and Pearson (pp. 71-73, 1994). “She’s Leaving Home” had an exclusively classical sound, utilizing a string section as the sole instrumentation, but for the lyrics, McCartney turned to the local newspaper for inspiration, using an actual story that had run in the Daily Mail on February 27, 1967 (Heylin, 2007). The story was about a family whose daughter “had run away,” and Lennon and McCartney arranged the vocals to represent both sides of the incident (p.162, 2007). Lennon’s “A Day in the Life” would also reference a story from the local newspaper, this time about a wealthy heir to the Guinness fortune who had died in a car crash (Spitz, 2005).
Perhaps the ultimate musical statement of the Beatles’ career was made in Lennon and McCartney’s powerful song that was chosen to close the album, “A Day in the Life.” Emerick later recalled the group came into the studio with only small parts of the song written and ready to record; the group wanted to “get it down on tape and then finish it later” (Emerick et al., p.146, 2006). The song took shape as the group worked out the arrangement in the studio, with little accidents or unintentional additions often remaining in the song after one Beatle would express a liking for the mistake. (Emerick et al., p.149, 2006).
The most stunning feature of the song was the orchestra recorded for the middle section. The idea for the orchestra came from Lennon, who, according to Emerick, desired “some kind of sound that would start out really tiny and then gradually expand to become huge and all-engulfing” (p.152, 2006). After a discussion, it was decided to hire the orchestra and have them improvise by playing from the lowest notes to the highest notes in their respective instruments’ ranges, which would create a swirling, cacophonous buildup of sound (Emerick et al., 2006). Because of the attitudes present in working orchestra musicians at the time, a very prestigious job in the music industry, the Beatles decided to turn the session into a party, encouraging a loose atmosphere in an attempt to persuade the orchestra (musicians who do not typically improvise) to play at random to achieve the chaotic sound envisioned for the middle section and the ending (Emerick et al. 2006).
Five different improvisations were ultimately edited into the final track, giving the illusion of over 200 orchestral instruments playing at once (Spitz, 2005). Following the orchestral spiral, copied and inserted at the end of the song, the Beatles, assistant Evans and George Martin then recorded a massive “E” chord, played simultaneously by all participants on three grand pianos and allowed to sustain for slightly over one minute, which would serve as the final note in their new studio creation (Spitz, 2005).
As a final eccentric detail for their new opus, the Beatles decided to end the album with additional sonic madness collected on the run out groove, the final groove of a vinyl record where it would normally stop playing and the needle would retract, or the listener would have to take the needle off to stop the record. A 15-kilocycle whistle, which is a frequency so high-pitched only dogs can hear it, was inserted just before the nonsense (p.253, 2003). On subsequent stereo and compact disc versions of the album, the runout groove noise and the 15 kilocycle tone are only heard briefly before fading out, bringing the album to a bizarre but utterly unique finale (Emerick et al., 2006).
After months of recording, the band finally completed work on the album in April 1967. Martin and the group then had another important task to be done before the album’s release: sequencing the songs. Martin was tasked with giving the songs an appropriate running order. He did know he had to pair the opening title track before “With a Little Help From My Friends,” as the former mentioned the “Billy Shears” character, bandleader for the Lonely Hearts Club Band, who sings “With a Little Help From My Friends” (Martin et al., 1994). Martin had also determined from the outset that the piano chord ending “A Day in the Life” would have to close the album, because the chord “was so final that it was obvious nothing else could follow it.”
This prompted Martin to place the reprise of the title track second to last, coming before “A Day in the Life” (p.148, 1994). Smaller details also determined Martin’s placement of the songs. The laughing at the end of “Within You Without You” prompted Martin to follow it with McCartney’s “jokey” “When I’m Sixty-Four” (Martin et al., 1994). A tape loop of a chicken squawking at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” coincidentally had a pitch similar to a noise made by George Harrison tuning his guitar at the very beginning of the title track reprise, giving Martin the idea to blend the two together (Martin et al., 1994). He would later admit the album seemed to fall together much by itself, “When it came to compiling the album, I tried to edit it together in a very tight format, and in a funny kind of way when I was editing it it almost grew by itself; it took on a life of its own” (p.150, 1994).
According to Kehew and Ryan’s comprehensive account of the Beatles’ recording practices, “Recording the Beatles,” an estimated 700 hours of work went into the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the band spending 45 days between January and April of 1967 in the studio (Kehew et al., 2006). The album was produced at a total cost of about £25,000, an unbelievable amount for the recording of the average pop album in 1967, according to producer George Martin (p.168, 1994).