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Sgt. Pepper: A True Innovation?
Winona Mefford Patterson
April 1996, rev. January 1997

1 June 1967 was a revolutionary day in the history of pop music. The album that twenty years later would be deemed the best rock album ever by Rolling Stone magazine ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" 46) was released. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a turning point in rock history. In a sense, it helped legitimize rock music in the "art music" world. In an essay on the Beatles, composer Ned Rorem stated that "She's Leaving Home" is "equal to any song that Schubert ever wrote" ("The Beatles Triumphant" 60). Many people, including music critics and members of the general public, believe that Sgt. Pepper is the Greatest Rock Album Ever. Granted, the techniques used to record this album are primitive by today's standards. Yet they were indeed revolutionary, and a great amount of credit is due to Beatles producer Sir George Martin for helping to master the effects. The sounds of the songs themselves, however, were not as "new" as pop music listeners believed them to be.

Musical styles evolve over time; a new style does not "suddenly appear." The Baroque era, for example, did not extend from exactly 1 January 1600 to Johann Sebastian Bach's death in 1750. Composers did not wake up the next day inspired to write Classic music. Likewise the Beatles, with their preceding albums Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966), along with the corresponding singles, especially February 1967's "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever," clearly foreshadowed what was to come.

Albums mentioned in this paper refer to the British versions of the Beatles albums, which are different from the original American releases up to and including Revolver. The British albums are recorded as the Beatles originally intended and are drastically different from the "hack jobs" that were released in America-albums of singles, bootleg tapes, and sometimes material combined from two different British albums, to please the Beatles-hungry American fans (Pond 131). In fact, the Beatles themselves attempted to make a statement about their displeasure with this practice. The cover for their June 1966 American album Yesterday...and Today showed the Beatles dressed as butchers, happily posed with bloody baby doll parts around them, and was rumored to be a statement that their babies-their albums-were being butchered. Capitol Records, their American distributor, did not like this cover and ordered another one made (Wallgren 164). Three copies of the "butcher cover" slipped by the presses, however, and are now worth over $50,000 each. The Beatles decided fairly early on that their British fans should "get their money's worth" (The Beatles Anthology Tape 2), and therefore, most of their singles do not appear on the original British albums. The Beatles' album catalog was standardized (as the British releases, with the exception of Magical Mystery Tour) in 1987 with the albums' release on compact disc (Puterbaugh 10). The proper, British versions of the Beatles' albums are now available from EMI/Parlophone. Singles are included on Past Masters, volumes I and II, and on the Beatles' greatest hits collections, the "Red," from 1963-66, and "Blue," from 1967-70, albums.

The Beatles' early sound, "simple, economic, and distinctive" (Gammond 46) was developed in Hamburg in the early 1960's, the only place where they could find regular work. Early 1963 marked the beginning of Beatlemania in England. Their effect was not to be felt overseas until early 1964, after a number one single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and a legendary 9 February appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Their classic film A Hard Day's Night was released in July 1964 to great critical acclaim. By this time, their musical style was moving away from the early "Merseybeat" sound they made famous and into more subdued inventive music.

The differences in the compositional styles of John Lennon and Paul McCartney were beginning to become more obvious around 1965. It should be noted that, even though almost all the Beatles' songs are credited to "Lennon/McCartney," there were few true collaborations. Some of these songs were written wholly by only one of the songwriting duo. Todd Compton gives a full analysis of the Lennon/McCartney catalog and who actually wrote them. "Norwegian Wood" and "Nowhere Man," with their simple yet memorable melodies and occasionally cynical lyrics, were written by Lennon. "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" were written by McCartney. "Tomorrow Never Knows," the haunting song that closes Revolver, was a product of Lennon, as were "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," rumored to be an LSD song. These songs recall drug trips and psychedelic dreams with their off-the-wall lyrics and dizzying accompaniments. Even an untrained ear can discern the differences between the jaunty, lyrical, dance-hall vaudevillian style of McCartney's songs and the "trippy," zooming melodies and Carrollian lyrics of Lennon.

After Help!, their second movie, and the album soundtrack (which included McCartney's "Yesterday"), "the Beatles got 'mature': less adrenaline, more subtlety" (Pond 131). Rubber Soul was released in December 1965, and contained music that was a bit more experimental than previous releases, due to the fact that the Beatles were able to invest more time and thought into their recordings than ever before (Lewisohn 15, 1996). With "Nowhere Man," the Beatles showed Bob Dylan's influence in their maturing lyrics (Roxon 34) and the close harmonies proved to be something fresh for audiences:

Doesn't have a point of view
Knows not where he's going to
Isn't he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere man, please listen
You don't know what you're missing
Nowhere man, the world is at your command ("Nowhere Man")

George Harrison's interests in Indian music helped the song "Norwegian Wood" to introduce the sitar, an Indian instrument, to American pop audiences. Rubber Soul offered a new refinement to the Beatles' sound and a reflective maturity that seemed to tie the entire album together. On this album and its follow-up, August 1966's Revolver, the Beatles moved away from simplicity, experimenting with electronic effects and added instruments in the studio, moving in different stylistic directions (Gammond 46). Revolver sported "Love You To," another Harrison composition with Indian instruments, in a traditional Indian style. "Eleanor Rigby," the first pop song to have a classical string-only accompaniment, further demonstrates the Beatles' ability to grow in both lyrical content and musical creativity. The last song on Revolver is aptly placed; "Tomorrow Never Knows," a swirling song with tape-loop psychedelic accompaniment and words that could recall a drug trip, was a definite hint of what was to come.

Turn off your mind, relax and float down-stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining . . .
But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not living, it is not living ("Tomorrow Never Knows")

These songs and ones that followed were a step away from the "boy-girl romantic themes" of their earlier songs. Revolver was a highly adventurous pop record, and established the Beatles as "recording studio auteurs" (Loder 52). In fact they were unable-and unwilling-to perform any of the Revolver songs on their subsequent American tour, which was to be their last.

29 August 1966 was to be the Beatles' last official concert, in Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The Beatles' musicianship was going downhill on tours, because they could not hear themselves. John Lennon told an interviewer, "We may as well have been waxworks." Ringo Starr has said that he was disappointed that he couldn't do any clever drum fills because they would just disappear among the screams of the fans. He joined the Beatles because "they were the best band in Liverpool" and did not want the musicianship going out the window (The Beatles Anthology Tape 6). With the relief of no longer having to tour incessantly came more inventiveness in the studio, and more time to produce an album. As an example, the Beatles' first British album, Please Please Me, took 585 minutes of studio time; Sgt. Pepper would take 700 hours (Lewisohn 4, 1987). Fueled by the Beach Boys' 1965 album Pet Sounds, which introduced the theremin into American pop music with "Good Vibrations," and the threat of Smile, a work-in-progress by Beach Boy Brian Wilson that was reportedly the greatest thing that had happened in rock to date (Roxon 34), the Beatles went back into the studio to work on new material. Fortunately for the Beatles, Smile never made it out of the studio.

The studio sessions resulting in the Sgt. Pepper album began in November 1966 (Loder 52). The first song in these sessions was "Strawberry Fields Forever," a Lennon song that recalls both a Liverpool orphanage and a dreamy, trippy feel:

Let me take you down
'cos I'm going to strawberry fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hungabout . . .
Always, no sometimes, think it's me
But you know I know when it's a dream
I think I know, I mean, er, yes
But it's all wrong
That is, I think I disagree ("Strawberry Fields Forever")

This was also the Beatles' first use of a Mellotron, a forerunner of the synthesizers of today. Martin's first hearing of the song was Lennon on acoustic guitar, producing a gentle, luminescent sound (Martin 13, 1994). The first attempts at recording this song resulted in a heavy rock background. A later attempt yielded an accompaniment of cellos and trumpets. Lennon decided that he liked both versions, and asked producer Martin to put the beginning of the first with the end of the second. There was one problem: the two versions were in two different keys and at two different tempi. Fortunately, the slower version was a semitone flat compared to the faster one. Martin made adjustments on a variable-control tape machine, and slowed one down and sped the other up to make the two versions meet in the middle, at the same tempo and in the same key (Martin 199-201, 1979). This version, with the edit occurring precisely one minute into the song, was released as a combination of Takes seven and twenty-six (Lewisohn 30, 1996). Although this edit is barely detectable, Martin says that it has always stuck out like a sore thumb to him (Martin 22, 1994).

Next, the group tackled "When I'm Sixty-Four," a McCartney song that evoked the sounds and attitudes of vaudeville. "Penny Lane," another McCartney tune, was accented by the sounds of a B-flat piccolo trumpet, like the one McCartney had heard at a recent performance of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerti (Martin 201, 1979). By the time these three songs were recorded, EMI, the band's label, was pressuring them for a single. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were released as a double A-sided record, and were therefore left off the Sgt. Pepper album. This single displayed the Beatles on a new plane (Loder 52). The Beatles were "showing us what they could really do" (Martin 24, 1994). Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick stated that the single "seemed to be one vast, giant step toward something that was better than we'd ever heard . . . into a new generation and a new time" (Loder 52).

Work resumed in February 1967 on the next album. Five more songs were recorded: "Lovely Rita," "A Day in the Life," "Good Morning, Good Morning," "She's Leaving Home," and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The "Sergeant Pepper" theme of the album did not come up until after the song was recorded. Lennon even said in an interview that any of the songs, with the exception of "Sgt. Pepper" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" could have been on any album (The Beatles Anthology Tape 6). McCartney got the idea of the album being by Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band, and sending the album, instead of the Beatles, out on "tour." This idea eventually evolved into the Beatles' development of the first-ever concept album. The album was to be a concert by Sergeant Pepper's band, and the cover art by Peter Blake reflects this: on the cover. the "concert" is over, and the band is posing with concertgoers, people that the Beatles, Peter Blake, and photographer Michael Cooper chose for the shoot. The cover was to evoke a sense of community, with Sgt. Pepper's band surrounded by their friends. The album begins:

We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
We hope you will enjoy the show
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sit back and let the evening go ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")

One of the most remarkable things about the Sgt. Pepper album was the innovations in technology and recording that it produced. The methods used in 1967 to produce this album now seem quite primitive. No synthesizers (except for the Mellotron) or sampling machines were used. The equipment they had was a four-track machine, similar to what is now called a "portable studio" and costs around $500. George Martin produced a masterful work, considering the simple equipment. He sometimes linked up two four-track recorders to make an eight-track machine. In the recording of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!", a Lennon song inspired by an 1843 circus poster (Lewisohn 35, 1996), Lennon wanted a swirling cloud of circus-type music in waltz time--he wanted to "smell the sawdust" (Martin 89, 1994). Martin, Lennon, and another man achieved the hurdy-gurdy sound with a Hammond, a Wurlitzer organ, and a huge bass harmonica. Due to Martin's lack of speed on the keyboard runs, everything was played an octave lower, and slower on the other two instruments' parts, and sped up later. Martin also used recordings of old Victorian steam organs to add to the sound, and dubbed them onto a tape of his own. To ensure that none of the recordings were identifiable (all the songs were marches), the tape was cut into foot-long slices, tossed into the air, and put back together in random order. This resulted in a potpourri of carousel noises, and when put together with the previous tape, it gave the overall impression of the sounds of a circus.

Sgt. Pepper has been hailed as the Beatles' funniest album ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," 46). The end of the album is probably the best example of their humor. After the famous chord in "A Day in the Life" fades into silence, a dog whistle is blown. This 20,000 hertz note was put at the end of the album just to annoy listeners' dogs. After this annoying note fades out, nonsense chatter stretches into the run-out groove. On record players without auto-change or a manual return device, the record would keep playing the run-out groove until it was stopped. The Beatles decided to record something in this previously wasted space, a little loop of conversation. McCartney once said, "We were into Cage and Stockhausen, those kind of people. . . . Well, Cage is appreciating silence, isn't he? We were appreciating the run-out groove!" ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" 46). Unfortunately, this does not have the same effect on the cassette tape or compact disc releases of Sgt. Pepper--the nonsense chatter lasts only about ten seconds before fading out.

Perhaps the most frequently discussed song from Sgt. Pepper is "A Day in the Life." It appears on the album after the "Sgt. Pepper (reprise)," which is fittingly the end of Sgt. Pepper's concert. This song can be thought of as their encore--the best song, saved for last, to keep the audience wondering what would happen at their next "concert." This was the song that shocked listeners. It was totally unexpected--even from the Beatles. Time called it "the most disturbingly beautiful song the group has ever produced" ("The Beatles Triumphant" 61). This song is actually two separate songs: the slow beginning and end verses are a product of Lennon, and the up-tempo middle section is McCartney's (Martin 208, 1979). Lennon's part was a dreamy simple melody, with odd lyrics about news stories that he had read:

I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn't notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared . . . ("A Day in the Life")

McCartney's contribution fit in, according to Martin (208, 1979) as a dream, sequence to the song. The tempo and mood are contrasting: Lennon's is slow, McCartney's is upbeat and typical of the vaudeville dance-hall style he had adopted as of late.

Woke up, got out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and had a cup
And looking up, I noticed I was late
Found my coat, and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream . . . ("A Day in the Life")

Startling sonic delights fill this song. The Beatles wanted something that would "whack the person listening right between the ears and leave them gasping with shock" (Martin 53, 1994). Lennon's first part is separated from McCartney's by "the crescendo," a massive swirl of sound from a full orchestra. Actually, it was only a 41-piece orchestra, with the tape dubbed slightly slower to give the impression of a full orchestra (Martin 211-212, 1979). The instructions given to the orchestra were different from anything they had ever heard. A good ensemble musician is taught to listen to everyone in the ensemble. Martin wanted them to do just the opposite. At the beginning of this part of the score, the lowest note possible for each instrument was notated. Twenty-four bars later, the highest possible note was written. A squiggly line was all that appeared in between. The musicians were instructed to go at their own pace from the pianissimo lowest note to the fortissimo highest note. This effect from the musicians, dubbed to "double" the size of the orchestra, created what is probably the most famous crescendo in rock music (Martin 209-212, 1979).

Even more memorable is the chord heard after the second crescendo, at the end of the song. This chord is a loud piano chord that rings on for forty-five seconds. This required more studio trickery from Martin, Emerick, and all four Beatles. Three pianos--one upright and two grands--were used by five men. The chords were given to the players (Martin and the Beatles) and all hit the chords as hard as possible. In the control room, Emerick gradually turned the faders up to full blast. The people in the studio had to be very quiet, as the microphones were very live--one clearing his throat probably would sound like a terrible explosion. This method was used three times, building up a massive sound from the pianos. This miraculous chord was a fitting end to "A Day in the Life."

Clearly, the technical innovations are one of the things for which Sgt. Pepper will be remembered. That such a sonically challenging album could be recorded on what was basically a four-track machine is astonishing. The album still holds up today as one of the best albums of all time. However, it should not be passed off as a "sudden innovation." The music and lyrics evolved over a period of two years and three full albums. The advances realized in Sgt. Pepper aided the Beatles in their further explorations of sound in the studio.


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---. Revolver (sound recording). EMI/Parlophone, CDP 7 46441 2, 1966, 1987.

---. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (sound recording). EMI/Parlophone, CDP 7 46442 2, 1967, 1987.

---. Anthology 2 (sound recording). Capitol Records/Apple Corps, Ltd., CDP 7243 834448 2 3, 1996.

The Beatles Anthology (television documentary). Apple Corps, Ltd., 1996.

"The Beatles Triumphant." Time, 22 September 22, 1967, pp. 60-62+.

Compton, Todd. "McCartney or Lennon?: Beatle Myths and the Composing of the Lennon/McCartney Songs." Journal of Popular Culture, Fall 1988, pp. 99-131.

Gammond, Peter, ed. The Oxford Companion to Popular Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Kroll, Jack. "It's Getting Better..." (album review). Newsweek, 26 June 1967, p. 70.

Lewisohn, Mark. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles) liner notes. EMI/Parlophone, CDP 7 46442 2, 1987 (compact disc release).

---. Anthology 2 (The Beatles) liner notes. Capitol Records/Apple Corps, Ltd., CDP 7243 8 34448 2 3, 1996.

Loder, Kurt. "It was twenty years ago today..." Rolling Stone, 18 June 1987, pp. 51-54+.

Martin, George. All You Need is Ears. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979.

Martin, George with William Pearson. With A Little Help From My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

Mellers, Wilfred. Twilight of the Gods: The Music of the Beatles. New York: Schirmer Books, 1973.

Pond, Steve. "The Digital Fab Four." Rolling Stone, 16-30 July 1987, p. 129+.

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Roxon, Lillian, ed. Rock Encyclopedia. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969.

"Sgt. Pepper" (album review). New Yorker, 24 June 1967, pp. 22-3.

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Copyright © Winona Patterson, 1997.

Copyright ©1999-2006 Winona Patterson.