Behind The Scenes Of The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'
The Beatles officially broke up in 1970, but the Fab Four image they'd grown to hate almost split them up years earlier. Though they'd started to branch out musically with Rubber Soul and Revolver, their recording of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1966 and 1967 reinvigorated the band and gave them a chance to experiment creatively.
After several years of performing for stadiums filled with fans screaming loud enough to drown out the music, the Beatles had lost interest in touring. "We really hated that f*cking four-little-mop-top approach," Paul McCartney recalled. "We were not boys; we were men. It was all gone... we didn't want any more."
Behind-the-scenes Beatles studio stories from the Sgt. Pepper recording period reveal a group of artists who wanted to prove themselves as more than pop darlings beloved by shrieking fans. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band inspired at least one Beatles conspiracy theory and marked a turning point for the band in both their sound and attitude. It also foreshadowed their eventual need to explore music individually. And in keeping with 1960's culture, a "free your mind" psychedelic approach to life and art strongly influenced on the album.
More than 50 years have passed since Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr donned colorful, satin, military band uniforms and surrounded themselves with other famous faces for the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But the album - which Rolling Stone gave the No. 1 spot on its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - remains timeless. And stories about how the album came together are as intriguing as the songs themselves.
- Photo: badgreeb RECORDS / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Salt And Pepper Packets Inspired The Titular Band's Name
While flying to London with the Beatles' roadie and friend Mal Evans, Paul McCartney tried to come up with a name for the band's new alter ego for the album. During the flight, Evans became confused by packets of salt and pepper labeled only with the letters "S" and "P." When McCartney pointed out they were salt and pepper, he joked that it sounded like "Sergeant Pepper" together - but the pun had a catchy ring he couldn't forget.
Thanks to military-inspired fashions worn by stars like Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger, the name was also in vogue. Inspired by other lengthy band names of the era, such as Big Brother and the Holding Company, McCartney tacked on "Lonely Hearts Club," a term once used as slang for dating agencies. Community brass bands also inspired McCartney, giving his fictional band a traditional band sound mixed with modern rock.
- Video: YouTube
A Man Claiming To Be Jesus Sat In On A Recording Session
People often rang the doorbell on Paul McCartney's front gate, and being a nice guy, he usually answered. One evening, a visitor rang and claimed to be Jesus Christ. McCartney let him in, thinking, "Well, it probably isn't [him]. But if he is, I'm not going to be the one to turn him away."
The two had tea before McCartney was due at the recording studio to work on "Fixing a Hole." McCartney decided to bring "Jesus" to the studio after the visitor assured him he would sit in a corner and remain quiet. The other Beatles shared a laugh about the visitor's identity, but the man kept his word and sat silently until the recording session ended. The Beatles never again saw the man who claimed he was Jesus.
- Photo: Bassetts
Jelly Beans And Tomatoes Inspired A Lyric Change
In 1963, George Harrison told the world via a television interview that he loved Jelly Babies, a candy similar to but softer than jelly beans. Not long after, fans started pelting the Beatles during concerts in the US with Jelly Babies and the much harder jelly beans. Harrison was even hit in the eye once by the flying candy. Unfortunately, fans didn't limit their airborne offerings to sweets and sometimes tossed lighters and toys at the band.
Even though Ringo Starr could technically hide behind his drum kit, he kept the fans' reaction in mind when he asked to change several lyrics in "With a Little Help From My Friends." He refused to sing the original lines:
What would you do if I sang out of tune?
Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?
Starr feared that fans really would throw tomatoes at him if the band toured again. Luckily, the rest of the Beatles agreed and changed the line to, "Would you stand up and walk out on me?"
- Photo: Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL
John Lennon And Paul McCartney Shared A Special Acid Trip
During an all-night session to record the backing vocals for "Getting Better," John Lennon accidentally took a tab of LSD instead of amphetamines. Despite Lennon's staring in amazement at the ceiling and seemingly walking in slow motion, producer George Martin didn't realize what was going on and suggested Lennon just needed some air.
The two went out onto the roof, where Martin left Lennon - until Paul McCartney and George Harrison, who knew Lennon was in the middle of an acid trip, realized that was probably a terrible idea. Luckily, they retrieved Lennon from the roof before he accidentally fell and ended the session for the night.
Since McCartney lived nearby, he took Lennon home with him. Although he was notoriously the least enthusiastic of the group about psychedelic drugs, McCartney decided to join Lennon on his acid trip - the first time he did so with any of his bandmates. He remembered they stayed up for the rest of the night, hallucinating and staring into each other's eyes. The memory stuck with McCartney, as he later recalled:
You're looking into each other's eyes, and you would want to look away but you wouldn't, and you could see yourself in the other person. It was a very freaky experience, and I was totally blown away.
- Video: YouTube
Everyone, Including The Orchestra, Had To Dress Up For 'A Day In The Life'
The last track on Sgt. Pepper became what many critics considered the album's best. "A Day in the Life" was inspired by the car accident death of the Beatles' friend and Guinness heir Tara Browne. The song combined John Lennon's pessimistic view of current news and a sense of dread with a more jaunty section by Paul McCartney. To emphasize the shifts in tone, the song includes an orchestral build to a final chord - a sonic freak-out, of sorts. McCartney knew the band needed a real orchestra to create this moment, and the Beatles held a "happening" to record it.
George Martin hired 40 orchestral musicians, and the Beatles insisted they come dressed in their finest clothing. The Beatles themselves wore "outrageously flamboyant floral costumes," Martin recalled, including McCartney dressed in a red cook's apron. They also invited such friends as Donovan and Mick Jagger, making the recording a real party - complete with favors.
The orchestra played the build five times, later layered so it would sound like 200 orchestral members. For the final chord, the Beatles recorded an E chord struck on five different pianos at once, played by McCartney, Lennon, Martin, Ringo Starr, and the Beatles' roadie Mal Evans.
- Photo: Bill Mitchell, New York City / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Ringo Starr Was Insecure About His Vocals
Because Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote the majority of the Beatles' songs, their voices are most often heard singing the lead. In later years, George Harrison began singing more frequently, as more of his songs made it onto the band's albums, and each Beatle received his own chance to sing.
To give Ringo Starr a shot, though, songs often had to be adapted to his voice and written in a lower key. Because it required more work, the other Beatles weren't always enthusiastic about the process. In the case of "With a Little Help From My Friends," Starr's contribution to Sgt. Pepper, the other band members left the recording to the last minute.
Starr often became nervous about singing, so the other Beatles tried to lessen his anxiety by not telling him beforehand when they expected him to sing. Even then, Starr needed encouragement to get through the song, especially the last note, which was higher than his normal range. Engineer Geoff Emerick recalled:
All three of his compatriots gathered around him, inches behind the microphone, silently conducting and cheering him on as he gamely tackled his vocal duties. It was a touching show of unity among the four Beatles.