In the early evening of Thursday, November 24, 1966, four young men — the oldest 26, the youngest 23 — arrived at a north London recording studio to start work on a song one of them had written in Spain weeks before.
Cars ferried three of them from Georgian and mock Tudor mansions in Surrey — London’s so-called stockbroker belt — while the fourth journeyed from just around the St John’s Wood corner.
These wartime boys of Liverpool’s working classes had come a long way. On that same day in 1962 their primitive debut single was heading towards No 17 on the British charts before its modest run lost momentum. That same night they completed a two-hour set at the Royal Lido Ballroom in Prestatyn, north Wales, earning £30, but the cook threw in a plate of jam sandwiches.
By the time John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr assembled at Abbey Road’s Studio Two at 7.30pm, they were the four most famous young men on the planet.
What the Beatles had done in that room in the intervening period changed popular music, and then popular culture, reshaping the century in ways that reverberate still.
When things were tough for the band, as they ground out consecutive eight-hour gigs in Hamburg’s grubby red-light district, the quartet boosted their spirits with a set piece exchange:
Lennon: “Where are we going, fellas?”
The others: “To the top, Johnny!”
Lennon: “Where’s that, fellas?”
Others: “To the toppermost of the poppermost!”
Long before November 1966, it was mission accomplished.
After Love Me Do grazed the charts, The Beatles had 12 successive No 1 singles in Britain and the US. One week they had the top five spots on Billboard. Each of their albums topped the charts globally — unprecedented achievements that remain unmatched.
The band’s recent albums — Rubber Soul and Revolver — were critically acclaimed as landmarks, as music moved away from Tin Pan Alley commercialism.
And just as the Beatles abandoned touring, Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson — himself off the road, and often off his rocker — showed how the recording studio could be used almost as an instrument itself, fashioning his band’s now acclaimed Pet Sounds over a year while his bandmates played their earlier material on stages across the world.
By Beach Boys standards Pet Sounds flopped in the US — and was elbowed out of the way around the world by Revolver — but fans had a keener sense of its greatness in England, where it rose to No 2 in July 1966.
One Englishman in particular was astounded by it — and challenged. McCartney played it ceaselessly, rating God Only Knows as the greatest song of all time.
Wilson said that with Pet Sounds he set out to make the “greatest rock and roll record ever”. Frustrated that it was slipping between the cracks at home, Wilson’s onstage replacement, Bruce Johnston, flew to London to promote it, playing it twice to McCartney and Lennon at the Waldorf Hotel, after which the pair returned to McCartney’s house to discuss it.
Released from the unbearable circus surrounding them on tour, and freed from the era’s primitive stage sound systems, the Beatles then set out to make the greatest rock ’n’ roll and roll record ever. One they would never be required to replicate live.
The album’s best songs were plundered for a potboiler single, killing off its original concept — “a collection of northern songs”. And lawyers — always the enemy of rock — interfered with its artwork.
But the story of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ends in unprecedented triumph.
On that November evening half a century ago, Lennon picked up an acoustic guitar and played to his bandmates and the Beatles’ producer George Martin a couple of verses to an unusual song he had written about a Salvation Army orphanage near his childhood home.
Strawberry Fields Forever marked a change for the Beatles. Lennon had heeded the advice of broadcaster Kenneth Allsop, who had suggested that he and McCartney should write “more autobiographical” lyrics.
Everyone liked the song, but it was a work in progress: the version labelled “take one” is quite unlike the recording we know.
McCartney’s first contribution to what became Sgt. Pepper was a melody he wrote in the late 1950s, to which he improvised lyrics when the sound system broke down at early Beatles gigs.
When I’m Sixty-Four was written with McCartney’s dad, Jim, in mind. Jim had played trumpet and piano in Liverpool bands during the ragtime era. Indeed, the young McCartney wrote the bouncy tune on an old upright piano his dad had bought between the wars from Harry Epstein, father of future Beatles manager Brian. McCartney still plays it today at his London home.
It may have been intended to send up the era that its arrangement echoed, but nonetheless Lennon was sneeringly dismissive of it. Although the famous Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership was still a legal entity, the pair no longer worked collaboratively, but they would each “improve” the other’s compositions. Stung by Lennon’s attitude to his playful tune, McCartney was back on December 29 with another that at first was labelled “Untitled”.
The following day it had a name: Penny Lane.
Lennon’s draft of 1965’s In My Life had included the words Penny Lane, but he later removed references to Liverpool landmarks.
McCartney mentioned real and imagined shops and characters around the Penny Lane bus terminal lane he and Lennon used in their youth. Before long, the jaunty arrangement, led by McCartney’s distinctive piano, included flutes, trumpets, flugelhorn, oboes, harmonium, congas, cor anglais, a double bass and even a hand bell, rung at mentions of firemen and fire engines.
But something was missing. That missing bit turned up soon enough, on BBC television on January 11, 1967, when McCartney saw David Mason playing “a tiny little trumpet” as the English Chamber Orchestra performed Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2. Within a week, Mason was at Abbey Road recording his famous piccolo part. After a distinguished life as a soloist and teacher, he predicted, correctly, that this would be first thing mentioned in his obituary.
The effort put into Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane was indicative of the Beatles’ new approach. The security fiasco when the band performed in Manila in July 1966 — they had inadvertently snubbed first lady Imelda Marcos, whose goons sought violent revenge — and the hostile reception in the American south following publication of Lennon’s cynical aside that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now” had put them off touring.
In any case the Beatles had become two bands: the one that toured, playing the hits from its early career, including covers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard; and the band whose increasingly complex studio music could not be replicated on stage.
The set list for the Beatles’ final tour performance on August 29, 1966, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park included not one song from their latest album, Revolver, released 24 days earlier.
All up, the band spent 105 studio hours on Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. On February 11, 1963 they had recorded their debut album in just 585 minutes in that same studio.
Eventually, they devoted 700 hours to Sgt. Pepper, spread across seven months. But the concept of a series of songs recalling memories of a northern childhood was dashed almost immediately.
EMI indulged its favourite band with studio time, mostly “out of hours”, but it was an efficient business and it wanted another record from its uniquely efficient hit-makers. Under pressure for a single, Martin was persuaded that Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever be released immediately. He later regretted this, describing it as “the worst mistake of my life”. He was right.
Sound engineer Geoff Emerick — the only other man to have his name on the album — tells The Australian: “We were devastated when Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were taken from the album and issued as a single”.
Martin considered the double A-sided single the band’s supreme achievement. But with a value-for-money policy of no singles appearing on their albums, the Beatles dropped the songs from Sgt. Pepper, an omission no other band would — or could — have dared to make. It topped charts around the world, but in Britain became their first single since Love Me Do to fail to reach No 1, kept at bay by Engelbert Humperdink’s dreary Release Me.
By this stage, the Beatles’ studio project was known Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an alter ego for the world’s most famous act so that it might more easily move beyond the expectations of its loving audience.
McCartney and Mal Evans, their burly mate from sweaty Liverpool nightclub The Cavern, who had been their security and road manager, travelled to Kenya for a safari in early November 1966. Flying back to Heathrow, Evans picked up two tiny sachets marked “S” and “P” that arrived with his meal. “What does that mean?” he asked out aloud. “Salt and pepper,” McCartney replied. Moments later it was Sgt. Pepper and an idea was born.
But while the title track and its book-ending reprise suggest a concept of sorts, Sgt. Pepper ended up as just another collection of unrelated songs by Lennon and McCartney.
With their best efforts already gone and with just the passable When I’m Sixty-Four in the can, there was work to do. Lennon was first off the blocks on January 19, 1967, contributing a sparse song first called “In the Life of ... ” whose lyrics were inspired by a coroner’s report into the death of Tara Browne published in the Daily Mail two days earlier. Browne, a friend of McCartney, was killed in Earls Court after driving through a red light at speed.
The same edition of the newspaper contained a story about Blackburn City Council’s survey of holes in its roads. We all know now that there were 4000 of them — and all fans of the era’s music know what those holes would fill.
Days later, McCartney turned up with the title track. It was probably closest to an old-style Beatles rock song, its French horns trumpeting the start of the show McCartney had imagined Sgt. Pepper headlining.
The sounds of an orchestra tuning up at the start came from a session nine days later when Martin was explaining to 40 classically trained, but mystified, musicians what he wanted for the 24-bar crescendo that ends side two.
The crowd sounds had been recorded by Martin in 1961 at a Beyond the Fringe show starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
Just 11 days apart, Lennon contributed Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite — with lyrics taken from a 19th-century circus poster he had bought in Kent while filming the promotional video for Penny Lane — and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the words Lennon’s son Julian had used to explain a drawing he had done at nursery that day.
McCartney returned fire with Lovely Rita and Getting Better, a reference to the phrase that had entered the Beatles’ lexicon after interim drummer Jimmy Nicol filled in for Ringo on the band’s 1964 tour of Australia and the Far East. Asked each evening how it was going, Nicol would allow only that “It’s getting better”.
Martin was often asked what would have made way for Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever had they remained on the album. His response was that he would have held over Getting Better and When I’m Sixty-Four.
Over 48 hours in mid-March the band embarked on two songs that are among their most noteworthy, if only for who didn’t play on them. Harrison brought in his droning sitar and tabla-based Within You Without You, and he was the only band member to play on it. McCartney, meanwhile, inspired by a newspaper report on teen runaway Melanie Coe, turned up with She’s Leaving Home — a track on which no Beatle played an instrument (neither had any Beatles played on Eleanor Rigby the previous year.)
It was getting very near the end when Lennon and McCartney realised they had not written a token vocal part for drummer Starr. On March 29, the pair went to McCartney’s house at 7 Cavendish Avenue, around the corner from Abbey Road, and worked on a Lennon nonsense playfully called Bad Finger Boogie. It evolved quickly into With a Little Help From My Friends, with the lyrics completed as the band began recording it that night.
The Beatles left Abbey Road at 5.45am the next morning. Within hours they reassembled at Chelsea Manor Studio for the photograph that would adorn the most famous album of the rock era. The Beatles stood alongside their wax dummies, on loan for the day from Madame Tussauds, and an array of famous characters that band members (minus Starr) had chosen. On legal advice, EMI asked that Gandhi be removed, and the company’s common sense prevailed over Lennon’s wish for Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ.
After another all-night session, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr — having wrapped up recording of the Sgt. Pepper reprise — emerged from Abbey Road at 6am on April 2, 1967, a mild Sunday morning in London.
With white-label acetates of their album they headed over to the Chelsea apartment of Mamas and Papas singer Mama Cass Elliot. The boys set her record player’s speakers on the windowsill and loudly played their soon-to-be-released record over the rooftops. People in nearby flats waved and gave thumbs-up signs.
Seems they had a winner.
By Alan Howe
With many thanks to The Australian
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