“Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released in England and internationally on June 2nd, 1967 , but the concept for it began fermenting in the imagination of Paul McCartney in Fall of 1966.
McCartney had taken a solo driving excursion incognito through the wine region of France, aided by hair slicked back with Vaseline and an artificial goatee. This effect, combined with sunglasses, permitted him to visit cities and villages along the way from Paris to Bordeaux, unrecognized by residents and tourists alike.
Later that year, returning from a Safari in Nairobi, Kenya, McCartney began speculating about the notion of the Beatles adopting alternate personae for their next recording project. The cocoon of the idea was his trip through France and his contrived anonymity during it. Could the Beatles, instead of recording as themselves, record instead as a fictional group in apparel from a surrogate reality, a transformation from what had become a mundane (to them, at least) image of the band?
When McCartney approached the band with the concept, which had by then crystallized to a greater extent, there was some doubt and indifference. What seemed to Paul McCartney like an artistic and theatrical breakthrough in musical terms and in terms of eclipsing the standard presentation of rock bands up to that point, was viewed with a degree of skepticism from the others.
Particularly inscrutable was the reluctance on the part of George Harrison, who had just been on over a year’s worth of experimentation of mind altering substances, consciousness raising Eastern mysticism and spirituality. Yet George later recalled that, “I had gone through so many trips of my own, and I was growing out of that thing.”
Part of the skepticism that arose with John and George may, if only subconsciously, have had to do with the trend in rock music to resent the traditional sensibilities of the music and entertainment industry and its agents and promoters – being that popular singers, song stylists, music ensembles and even Jazz artists were not artists per se, but merely “acts”, implying a lack of authenticity and originality.
But in November of 1966, Sgt. Peppers’ was really still just a conversation between McCartney and his bandmates. The immediate job at hand was giving manager Brian Epstein some new singles to answer the incessantly ringing phone on his desk from EMI executives .
John got the ball rolling with “Strawberry Fields Forever”, a musing inspired by Lennon’s childhood impressions of the garden of the Salvation Army Children’s home in Woolton – his and Paul’s neighborhood in Liverpool. That recording would not appear on Pepper, but on the next Lp released in ’67 – “Magical Mystery Tour” – nor would the flip side, for which McCartney dug into his own Woolton reminiscences, the brilliant bookend, “Penny Lane”.
Where “Strawberry Fields” was contemplative and introspective, “Penny Lane” was more akin to a photo album put to music – very much more upbeat in contrast. “The lyrics were all based on real things”, McCartney recalled, but “a little more surreal.”
While other groups were expanding on the foundations laid by the Beatles’ previous Lp, “Revolver”, the Beatles were catching their breath. When the focus turned once again to the organization of the album proper, the subject of “Sgt. Peppers” once again cropped up. The story of the idea for the name, is as random and spontaneous as the one explaining the title of the song, “A Hard Day’s Night”.
It goes that McCartney and Mal Evans, the Beatles’ road manager / assistant, were sitting on a plane and Evans asking what the “S” and the “P” were on the small packets accompanying the in flight meal, to which Paul responded, “Salt and Pepper” and then riffing off that, “Sergeant Pepper”. Boom – there was an album name, even if Paul’s mates didn’t know it yet. “Lovely Rita”, the paean to the captivating meter maid, some accounts have it, was the result of a brief cordial exchange between McCartney and a young ‘traffic warden’ who ticketed his car in front of McCartney’s home in St. John’s Wood. McCartney admits the encounter but denies that it or she, was the direct motivation for the song.
It was true of most of the compositions, but most notably the case of “A Day In The Life”, that the songs were not the result of a singular songwriting and composition process, but instead, were pastiches that were assembled in such a clever manner that they might be mistaken as such. As Bob Spitz notes in his biography of the band, “instead of learning a new song and recording it, as was customary, there was more of a tendency to let it develop organically, idea by idea”.
“A Day In The Life”, it should also be noted, was finished before the grand architecture of the project shifted toward the overarching concept of the Beatles’ transmutation into the “Lonely Hearts’ Club Band”.
There are many misconceptions that have grown up around Pepper over the intervening half century. One of them is that Pepper is a complete realization as a “concept album”. Other than the Mothers Of Invention’s “Freak Out”, released almost a year earlier, there had been nothing in the world of rock music that could even be loosely defined as a “concept album” although some music critics strongly argue for the inclusion of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” as a precursor of sorts to Pepper.
Concept albums by definition, were another 5 months away, beginning with the epochal, “Days Of Future Passed” – a shockingly unexpected masterpiece from the remainder of a very second rate British Invasion group, the Moody Blues. And John Lennon himself dismissed the notion of Peppers’ as being a concept album in any strict sense, saying acerbically – “… all my contributions have absolutely nothing to do with this idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it worked because we said it worked”.
Was Sgt. Pepper the momentous arrival of something unprecedented? It wasn’t. The honors for that distinction went to their previous recording, “Revolver”. Sgt. Pepper was simply an evolutionary result of the kind of sonic and compositional experimentation that had already begun on “Revolver”.
Remember that “Yellow Submarine” with it’s previously unheard of effects and sonic characteristics, was recorded in the same time frame, leading writers such as Ian McDonald to regard that with “Revolver”, the Beatles had “initiated a second pop revolution – one which while galvanizing their existing rivals and inspiring many new ones, left all of them far behind”. Pepper, from the standpoint of its innovations and technical acumen, is really “Revolver – Pt. 2”.
The main distinction between them was the intensity of the recording sessions, particularly from the viewpoint of the recording technicians themselves, who were continuously being ordered about as short order cooks, to produce effects that sprung spontaneously from the creative instincts of McCartney and Lennon – primarily McCartney. Producer George Martin was the “fifth Beatle” and the studio (image below), was the sixth.
The musical forms that Lennon and McCartney incorporated into Pepper were notably more diverse as well, hence the term “Art Rock” – which was often subsequently used to describe it.
Few would argue that Pepper was not the womb from which most most psychedelic and progressive music sprung. And though it is not well known, Pink Floyd happened to be recording at EMI’s Studio 3 , at the same time of the Pepper sessions.
As a complete package, from album cover art to how the tracks were knitted together to form a sustained emotional involvement with the listener, it was yet another raising of the bar, and not only that, but yet another demoralizing blow to the collective solar plexus of the Beatles competitors, if they can be said to have really had any.
None other than Bob Dylan, was to recall that, “They were doing things nobody else was doing. I knew they were pointing the direction that music had to go. . . . It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before”.
Perhaps the person most affected by this was Brian Wilson, who even though a towering creative force himself, experienced immense stress from his effort to maintain pace with Lennon and McCartney.
Wilson had already produced “Good Vibrations” as an answer to the sounds on the “Revolver” album and then was confronted with Pepper.
Not just Wilson, but most musicians, producers and songwriters during this period – though they would never admit it to be the case – viewed the Beatles as a creative force that was virtually insurmountable, yet at the same time an irresistible provocation to attempt to surpass their achievements.
While the Beatles remained a band, even in their later, fractured condition – it never happened.