49 Years Ago Today: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

(June 1st, 1967) The Beatles released the legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the U.K. The album, which was released a day later in the U.S., was one of the most groundbreaking and influential records in history. There had been an unprecedented eight-month gap with no new Beatles music since the group’s previous album, 1966’s Revolver, with the exception of the double A-sided single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever,” which was recorded during the Sgt Pepper sessions. The album was highly anticipated, and was an immediate critical and commercial success.

Sgt. Pepper was the first Beatles album to be recorded after the group had stopped touring. As a result, the band could now take all the time they wanted with producer George Martin, rather than try to squeeze sessions in between tours, films, and other activities. The recording sessions stretched over a five-month period, spanning from November 24th, 1966 to April 21st, 1967, at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.

The album was notable for its advance in the Beatles’ songwriting, its unusual arrangements and orchestration, and its groundbreaking production techniques. It also represented a musical and visual step into psychedelia and the counterculture by the world’s most popular band, and its release coincided with the famous 1967 “Summer of Love.” It was hailed as a masterpiece by musicians and critics in all fields, and helped show the world that pop music could be taken more seriously as art.

Many other aspects of the album raised the bar for pop music albums, from the way the songs ran into each other, to sonic jokes embedded in the tracks, to the elaborate cover photo and packaging. The album’s influence on pop culture has been immense.

  • Because of the group’s success, they were allowed unlimited studio time and creative carte blanche to rehearse, arrange, record, and overdub while in the studio. Instead of coming to the studio with finished and fully arranged tracks as they did in the past, many of their songs were brought to life on the studio floor, including “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” and “A Day In The Life.”

THE SONGS

SIDE ONE:

  • “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – The album opener, which led many people to initially believe that the album was recorded in front of a live audience, features a searing lead guitar part from Paul McCartney. Since 1989, the song has been a concert staple for McCartney.
  • “With A Little Help From My Friends” – One of the last songs recorded for the project, it features Ringo Starr on lead vocals, with McCartney on piano and also playing one of his most distinctive and melodic bass parts. The song was originally called “Bad-Finger Boogie.”
    • Since returning to the road in 1989, Starr has included “With A Little Help From My Friends” in his concert setlists, usually as the show closer
    • On April 4th, 2009 McCartney and Starr performed the song for the first time together in public at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall during the “Change Begins Within” benefit concert.
  • “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”– This song caused more controversy than the other tracks. The initials of the song’s title were rumored to stand for the hallucinogenic drug LSD, and caused the song to be banned from British airwaves. John Lennon, who wrote the majority of the lyrics, always insisted that the song was written after his then three-year-old son Julian came home from school with a crayon drawing of a schoolmate. When Lennon asked him what the picture was of, Julian answered, “Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”
    • This was the only song from the album that Lennon ever performed live, when he sang it with Elton John on Thanksgiving night, 1974, at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
  • “Getting Better” – The most straight-forward pop track on the album, and stylistically closest to the band’s signature lineup of two guitars, bass and drums, is representative of how Lennon and McCartney were collaborating at the time. McCartney wrote the main body of the song, with Lennon supplying the “bridge” or “middle eight,” of “I used to be cruel to my woman . . .
    • McCartney has said that Lennon’s answering vocal of “Couldn’t get much worse” to his “It’s getting better all the time” perfectly summed up the sweet and sour elements of their musical partnership.
    • McCartney cribbed the title from a pet phrase of substitute drummer Jimmy Niccol, who filled in for Starr during the Beatles’ Australian tour in 1964.
    • The song got its concert premiere during McCartney’s 2002-2003 world tour.
  • “Fixing A Hole” – There is some uncertainty as to the exact instrumental lineup on this song. According to session tapes, McCartney is featured on the harpsichord, with the bass part being recorded simultaneously on the same track. Seeing as how McCartney couldn’t be in two places at once, it’s a safe betGeorge Harrison was on bass guitar. Harrison also provides the distinctive “spiraling” guitar solo in his only true six-string spotlight of the album.
    • “Fixing A Hole” got its live premiere in 1992 when McCartney returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater. On his 2005 tour, he performed the song alone, unaccompanied on the piano.
  • “She’s Leaving Home” – A classic Lennon and McCartney collaboration about the burgeoning 1960s generation gap. The verses of the song were written by McCartney, with Lennon supplying the song’s bridge of “We gave her most of our lives . . .” No Beatles play instruments on this track. The stereo version of the album, which is different from the Beatles-approved mono mix, features a slightly slowed-down lead vocal to age McCartney’s youthful sounding tenor.
    • McCartney and George Martin got into a slight tiff over this song when McCartney enlisted the help of producer Mike Leander to score the string part for the song, rather than waiting for Martin to finish his session work with Cilla Black.
    • McCartney premiered the song live during his 2002-2003 world tour.
  • “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” – Lennon composed the song after purchasing an 1800s circus poster which literally describes the story of the song. The song’s characteristic pump organ circus sound came from Lennon playing an actual organ, combined with tape loops of an organ played by George Martinspliced, thrown into the air, and reassembled. McCartney supplies the acoustic guitar solo that sounds like a Greek stringed instrument.
    • An early version of the song can be found on The Beatles Anthology 3, with McCartney coaching Lennon on how to deliver the song’s lead vocal.
    • McCartney is currently performing a note-perfect rendition of the song on his 2013 tour.

SIDE TWO:

  • “Within You, Without You” – George Harrison’s sole songwriting contribution to the album, this features a mini-Indian orchestra arranged by producer George Martin. It was Harrison’s idea to add the laughter at the end of the track, to dispense with the overly serious mood and subject of the song.
    • The song, which is the longest on the album, reflects Harrison’s deepening spiritual quest through Hindu teachings.
    • Shortly before his death in 1980, Lennon praised this song as one of Harrison’s best, and said it was a personal favorite of his.
  • “When I’m Sixty-Four” – One of McCartney’s earliest songs, which he began around 1958 but took another eight years to finish. The song has a speeded-up lead vocal with a wordless backing vocal by McCartney, Harrison and Lennon, who although admittedly not a fan of the song, supplied the names of the subject’s mythical grandchildren, “Vera, Chuck, and Dave,” along with other lyrics. This song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Penny Lane” were the only tracks on the album to have been recorded in 1966.
    • “When I’m Sixty-Four” and is the only McCartney tracks on the album that he has never performed live.
    • In 2002 Julian Lennon recorded a version of the song for an Allstate TV commercial.
  • “Lovely Rita” – McCartney’s ode to a mythical British meter maid. The song features soaring backing vocals by Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, as well as a piano solo by George Martin, and comb and paper effects by Lennon and Harrison. McCartney currently performs the song, playing a 12-string acoustic guitar.
  • “Good Morning, Good Morning” – Lennon was inspired by a Kellogg’s Cornflake commercial for this slightly psychedelic look at suburbia. The song features the horn section of the Brian Epstein-managed group Sounds Incorporated — who opened for the Beatles on their 1965 U.S. tour. George Harrison doesn’t appear on the track, which features McCartney supplying a virtuosic raga-like lead guitar solo. In 1980 Lennon dismissed the song as “garbage.”
  • “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – Reprise– This short reprise matches its opening guitar note perfectly with the rooster crow that ends the previous track. McCartney occasionaly closes his shows with the “Pepper” reprise played in medley with “The End” from 1969’s Abbey Road.
  • “A Day In The Life” – Lennon, McCartney and George Martin’s tour de force combined a stark and plaintive ballad by Lennon with a brisk shuffle by McCartney. At Lennon and McCartney’s urging, George Martin arranged an orchestra to go from the lowest note of their instruments to the highest in order to create the cacophony of sound that links the sections. The song also used the orchestra part to end the song, before the final droning piano chord, which had all four Beatles hitting the chord with both hands on different keyboards.
    • On June 1st, 2008, in the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England, McCartney paid a poignant tribute to both the 41st anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper and his former partner John Lennon, by performing for the first time ever their crowning production moment “A Day In The Life.” Shortly after, the song was regularly featured in McCartney’s setlists in medley with Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.|”
    • The Beatles produced a promotional video for the song, filmed primarily at the orchestral session, but it was not released at the time. Studio guests seen in the footage include Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithful, Donovan and the MonkeesMike Nesmith.
    • At the end of “A Day In The Life,” the band added two sonic “jokes” — first, a high-pitched “dog whistle” noise many people could not hear, but which was audible to small children and dogs, and then a two-second loop of laughing gibberish in the vinyl record’s run-out groove, that would continue playing indefinitely on many phonographs.

THE ALBUM COVER

The Beatles designed the album cover concept with then-husband-and-wife team Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, explaining that they wanted to appear with a crowd behind them of “people they liked.” Blake created the scene of the group wearing psychedelic marching band outfits, being flanked by their audience, using mainly cardboard blown-up photographs of famous people. The final shot, which was photographed by the late Michael Cooper, has gone on to be one of the most recognizable and imitated album covers in rock history.

Among the famous figures that the group’s record company EMI flat out rejected for the cover were John Lennon‘s suggestions of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi andAdolph Hitler — although a Hitler cardboard cutout was prepared.

  • The label made the Beatles write to each of the people appearing on the cover and ask them for permission. Prior to granting approval, Mae West responded by asking, “What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?” Only Bowery Boy star Leo Gorcey declined, after requesting $400. His face was painted over.
  • Among the many 72 faces featured in the cover are Lenny Bruce, W.C. Fields, Edgar Allan Poe, psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Dion, Fred Astaire, Bob Dylan,Aldous Huxley, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Karl Marx, original Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, Oscar Wilde, Albert Einstein, Marlene Dietrich, and Shirley Temple.
  • Also featured on the cover were figures on loan from Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, of former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and the Beatles themselves with their earlier “mop-top” look.
  • A wax figure rumored to be the Beach BoysBrian Wilson has cropped up on several photos from the session.
  • A doll featured in the corner of the cover wore a sweater declaring “Welcome The Rolling Stones,” as a nod to the group’s good friends and friendly rivals.

More from Jim Johnson
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