The Beatles Sgt Peppers
Photo: Gatefold inner sleeve of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'

When a Concept Became a Problem: Reconsidering the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Humdrum, high and low, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sounds like a swirling, strident loss of pre-modern innocence.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles
26 May 1967

There are few more tenuously defined musical concepts than that of the concept album. The first wildly successful attempt to transpose themed song cycles from the Hoboken treacle of Frank Sinatra and the histrionic cattle-stampede of Marty Robbins into rock music is usually considered to be the Beach BoysPet Sounds (1966)—itself inspired by the BeatlesRubber Soul (1965)—and less often the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (1965). While Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was conceived as a concept album (and a direct response to Pet Sounds, at that), it remains a matter of 55 years’ dispute whether it became one. In those years it has been declared “the most important rock & roll album ever made” (Rolling Stone), “busy, hip and cluttered” (New York Times), “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation” (London Times), one that “sucks dogs royally” (Chicago Sun-Times), and scarcely anything in between.

No album in music history has seen critics keener to judge by its cover. With cardboard cutouts and cloth-cast figures of Aleister Crowley, Mae West, Lenny Bruce, and Karlheinz Stockhausen at one end and Karl Marx, Marilyn Monroe, Sri Mahavatar Babaji, and T. E. Lawrence at the other, John, Paul, George, and Ringo in fluorescent silk military-band attire courtesy of Bermans gird a drum bearing a grammatically unsound advertisement for SGT PEPPERS LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. Wax Beatle doppelgängers from the Please Please Me (1963) era mope in their shadow with moon-faces, bowl cuts, and funeral suits, courtesy of Madame Tussaud’s; they were auctioned for £81,500 in 2005. Hyacinths and peperomia announce the BEATLES in crimson. The image alone cost £3,000 pounds; most covers at the time ran £50.

Much of it was paid to the 58 people surrounding them. The idea was that the band would pose as a fake one fringed by their heroes, as though they had just played a concert. Predictably, Paul wanted Brando and Astaire on the cover; a brassy John demanded Hitler and Jesus (both rejected); George went for gurus, and Ringo went along to get along. Mae West refused to sign over her likeness, at a loss as to what she would be doing in a lonely hearts club band. After the band made their case in a personal letter, she relented. Bowery Boy Leo Gorcey demanded $400; he was unceremoniously plucked out. They considered Elvis too important to include. Cover designers Peter Blake and Jann Haworth and art director Robert Fraser chose the rest.

Horrified by the proposed cover—a psychedelic Disneyland designed by a Dutch collective called The Fool (they painted a mural on the Apple Boutique in London)—Fraser recommended Peter and Jann, a married couple who had each exhibited in his gallery. Paul suggested that the picture take place in a municipal north-England park reminiscent of the band’s origins. Brian Epstein, their manager, was scandalized by the cost. By the time the cover was photographed by Michael Cooper, Epstein would scrawl a note before boarding any plane for fear that it would crash: “Brown paper bags for Sgt Pepper.”

In fact, it was among the first records encased in something other than a brown paper bag (a kaleidoscopic sleeve designed by The Fool), one of the first with a gatefold sleeve, and the first modern pop record with lyrics printed on the back. The band demanded an inner packet with badges and pencils; fearing marketing problems, EMI replaced them with cardboard cutouts—mustaches, sergeant stripes, a postcard of a statue at Lennon’s house.

It must be remembered that three, even two years prior, the Beatles were a rout of mop-topped entertainers. After incessant tours, a greased-lightning musical evolution, and a screeching, groping, and blind global reception well-documented in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), the band couldn’t hear itself play at concerts. They took a three-month break in August 1966 after their final performance in Candlestick Park, San Francisco; they never again played for a paying audience.

George learned the sitar in India, John met Yoko and acted in Lester’s How I Won the War (1967) in Spain, Paul saw Kenya with roadie Mal Evans, and Ringo presumably had tea. Mulling over their pre-fab image (and the fact that it had become inconvenient to leave the house undisguised) on the flight home from Nairobi, Paul considered a Beatles alter ego. If they played as another band, they’d be free to sound like another band. 

Punning over in-flight salt and pepper packets, he and Evans came upon “Sergeant Pepper”. “Lonely Hearts Club Band” was an effort to dupe the California acts. Due west of the Animals, the Turtles, the Monkees, and the Byrds, everyone in the golden land were Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, the United States of America, and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Reassembled and reeking of joss sticks, the Beatles spent five months recording as an alias band—an eternity then, scarcely enough time for premarketing now. They’d set a precedent for studio surrealism with their last release, Revolver (1966); Sgt. Pepper promised a performance they were free never to perform, an album complete with canned applause. They told the engineer Geoff Emerick that they wanted to play sounds they had never heard.

With the ingenuity of a Savile Row tailor, Emerick proceeded to change the course of music history. In 1967, albums were recorded on four-track tape. Instruments and vocals were recorded on individual tracks and “bounced” onto a master. As sounds are layered, they distort: tape runs over the recording and playback heads. Achieving the complexity of Sgt. Pepper, without detriment to the quality, required recording as much sound as possible before a track was bounced, and this required psychopathic levels of planning. The 39-minute album results from 700 hours of studio work and $100,000, the Beatles’ first release, Please Please Me, took nine hours and cost only $10,000. 

Emerick never recorded an instrument in the same way twice. To track Ringo’s tympani-boom on “A Day in the Life” (upon the album’s release, it was regarded as the best drum sound ever recorded), he tuned down the toms by loosening the drumhead skins, removed skins from the bottom, and placed a glass jug with a mic wrapped in a tea cloth on the floor. To get the wobble on producer-cum-fifth-Beatle George Martin’s honky-tonk piano break on “Lovely Rita”, he stuck editing tape to the tape machine guide rollers. This technique is now a plug-in for digital sound processing, but at the time, EMI would have fired Emerick on the spot had they known his methods. 

To smooth track McCartney’s bass, Emerick cleared the studio and had him play (until his fingers bled, in fact) in the center. A mic six feet from the amp captured the room’s rich, round ambiance. To meld bass with drums was difficult. The low frequencies of one muddied the other. He reversed the traditional method—mixing them first and overdubbing the other sounds—by using EQ, compression, and limiting to sculpt their space as a final addition to each song. This method is now the standard procedure.

The first two songs of the session—“Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”—were singles about Liverpool which never made the album, to the regret of Martin. He held that “Strawberry Fields” was the “agenda of the whole album”, and that leaving it off was the biggest mistake of his career. They recorded two versions, with different tempos and pitches a semitone apart. Lennon asked Emerick to replace the beginning of the second with the beginning of the first.

The task surpassed the tech: doing this increases or decreases pitch by speeding or slowing down the tape, which increases or decreases tempo. Emerick joined the songs at the word “going” in the second chorus, slowing the second and slowly increasing the first over the minute before the versions meet. Spliced at a 45-degree angle (per the norm), the tracks buzzed where they were joined. After a Sisyphean trial-and-error with razors and tape, Emerick devised a silent vertical cut. By EMI policy, sound engineers were technicians; his name appears nowhere on the album.

Beyond the guitars, pianos, bass, and drums of the Fab Four of old, there were harpsichords, tamboura, harmoniums, woodwinds, bass harmonicas, French horns, piccolos, flugelhorns, English horns, oboes, trumpets, flutes, bells, a dilruba, a tabla, a Mellotron, a sitar, a table harp, and a 41-piece orchestra. Everything was distorted, equalized, limited, double-tracked, signal-processed, or compressed. Emerick stuck headphones on violins, speakers in organs, microphones down brass, and oscillators by vocals. Tapes were razor-chopped and joined over, under, and sideways to the very last second. 

The most arbitrary part of this alleged concept album was its order. Certainly Ringo’s debut as Billy Shears in “With a Little Help From My Friends” had to follow his introduction in the title track, and the reprise belonged somewhere at the end, but the rest was slapdash convenience. The laughing at the end of “Within You Without You” led to the laughable “When I’m Sixty-Four” (which Paul had written in his bushy-tailed Hamburg days). A chicken at the end of “Good Morning Good Morning” sounded like George tuning his guitar at the beginning of the reprise. Ironically, this haphazard sequencing resulted in the first Beatles record, which required that it be heard front-to-back.

Emerick brushed the dust off generic EMI clip tracks for laughter, barking, buzzing, and crowing (look to “Within You Without You” for “Volume 6: Applause and Laughter” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” for “Volume 35: Animals and Bees” and “Volume 57: Foxhunt”). He cut in applause from the Beatles’ 1965 Hollywood Bowl show. The ten-hand power chord at the end of “A Day in the Life” is followed by a dog-agitating 15-kHz whistle, courtesy of John Lennon. After that are 25 seconds of Beatles chatter taped, slashed, randomly joined, reversed, and pressed into the runout groove where the needle would normally retract, so that listeners had to remove it to end the album physically. It took the disc cutter Harry Moss eight tries and a letter from the factory assuring him that the pressing wouldn’t tear their record stamps.

“A Day in the Life” is a meld of two songs; to no surprise, the pensive beginning is from John and the perky middle from Paul. With uncharacteristic realism, Goldstein deemed it a “historic Pop event”. Like everything else in the album, it began with a problem. The band was so determined to use the song when Lennon first played it for them that they recorded the instrumental backing with a 24-bar hole in the middle, to be overdubbed later. Evans set off an alarm clock at the 24th bar to alert the band to play, and Emerick couldn’t remove it from the mix. Paul worked out an inspired clip where the lines “Woke up / Got out of bed” concurred with the clock and suggested that the Royal Philharmonic or London Symphony play it. EMI refused to pay an orchestra to play 24 bars of music. Ringo, ever the pragmatist (suggested they had them) hire half an orchestra to play it twice.

Once they crammed the studio, John demanded that the classical musicians do what classical musicians do not: improvise and ignore what others were playing. He wanted clarinets to slurp, trombones to gliss and violins to slide from soft and low to high and loud with not a single fingered note. Determined to cut loose, the Beatles threw the orchestra a party replete with clown noses and wigs; the incessant and random popping of balloons put the room on edge. They recorded the enveloping and vast crescendo which joins McCartney’s song to Lennon’s. To avoid distortion in bouncing the orchestra onto the master track, they recorded with two machines and used faders to increase dynamic range and dampen unsynchronized breaks. 

The five-keyboard E-major chord crash at the end (two Steinway grand pianos, a detuned Steinway upright, an electric Wurlitzer, and a harmonium) was easy to play and hell to sustain. While a pedal sustains a piano abused at maximum volume for a minute, tape hiss and vinyl noise drown the sound. Emerick compressed, staggered, and blended four takes to lengthen and smooth the sustain, raising faders as volume decreased (hence the audible squeak of Ringo’s shoe in some remasters). Martin ended recording there; nothing else could follow it. In the wee hours of 21 April, Sgt. Pepper was done. The Beatles absconded from Abbey Road to Mama Cass’ flat in Chelsea, flung open the windows, and blasted the acetate into the terse London dawn at top volume. Windows opened in reply, and awestruck neighbors leaned out to hear.