It was 50 years ago today that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play
- Credit: AP
The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper remains a landmark album and on the 50th anniversary of its release we take a look at the world and the ambition that transformed the Fab Four from lovable mop tops into avant garde musicians.
It was 50 years ago today – Thursday June 1 1967 – that Sergeant Pepper taught The Beatles to play. The previous summer The Fab Four had vowed that the screaming had to stop. There would be no more touring.
Paul McCartney told reporters: 'We couldn't hear ourselves when we were live, as there was so much screaming going on. If you can't hear yourselves then how can you get better?'
Besides, the band were tired of the whole Beatlemania business of being herded from airport to hotel room to stadium back to hotel room. They were also frustrated that they couldn't replicate their new music live.
In the studio, a lot had changed. They no longer sounded like the lovable mop tops captured on Please, Please Me, their first LP, which merely looked to record the sound of their live act in mono.
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The song-writing abilities and musical ambitions of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison had come a long way in the intervening four years – not to mention the technical changes in recording technology.
Experiments with looping, overdubs and sonic shaping which began on the 1966 album Revolver were going to move up a gear. The Sergeant Pepper mastertapes are so packed with music, sound effects and added detail that it is impossible to believe it was recorded on a four-track machine.
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Recording was now what fired up the band's creative juices. They were engaged in a creativity arms race with American west coast maestros The Beach Boys – or rather their writer-producer Brian Wilson.
In 1966 The Beatles had released Revolver, their most ambitious album yet. Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys retaliated with Pet Sounds and then followed that up with the single Good Vibrations.
George Martin commented during an interview for the 40th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper: 'Without Pet Sounds, Sergeant Pepper never would have happened. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.'
The sessions for what would become Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band commenced on Thursday November 24 1966 in Studio 2 at Abbey Road. They were now so famous and profitable that session time, which was so valuable when they recorded their first album in the spring of 1963 that they had to get all ten tracks recorded in a single day, was now unlimited.
That first evening was devoted to a new song of John's called Strawberry Fields Forever, a nostalgic journey back to his childhood. This feeling of nostalgia was also present in the songs committed to tape over the following months – namely Penny Lane, Paul's own nod to the Liverpool of his youth, When I'm 64 and Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite.
It became clear that the rock'n'roll of The Beatles' past was being mixed with dashes of Victorian music hall and, in the case of She's Leaving Home and A Day In The Life, sophisticated singer-songwriting.
Then there was the psychedelia. The backwards vocals, cymbals and the drumming wildtracks that characterised these new recordings. Even on a piece of nostalgia like Strawberry Fields, John was determined to explore the limits of what was possible and the finished recording was an edit of two recordings done in two different arrangements which required Martin to speed up one version and slow down another in order to match the two together.
After the Christmas break recording continued in earnest with Penny Lane, A Day In The Life and the title track. It wasn't until McCartney submitted the song Sergeant Pepper that the album started to coalesce and the idea formed that the album would follow a 'performance' given by the fictional Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Further classic songs followed in quick succession including With A Little Help From My Friends, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Fixing a Hole. The Beatles were so energised now that it is hard to see where one project ends and another begins. In April 1967 The Beatles recorded the rock reprise of Sergeant Pepper which would become the album's penultimate track and George Harrison's Indian-inspired Within You, Without You but they also put down the basic tracks for The Magical Mystery Tour which was to become their next album and a television special.
Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane were detached from the album to form a double A-side pre-release single creating a sense of anticipation for when the album arrived.
When Sergeant Pepper hit the shops, complete with its iconic cover created by artist Peter Blake and photographer Michael Cooper, gatefold sleeve, cardboard cut-out giveaways and printed lyrics, it became an event. The first cover version from it was created four days after release when Jimi Hendrix opened his next concert with a full-length version of the title track. The place went crazy.
During the past 50 years the fortunes of the album have waxed and waned being voted both the most influential rock album of all time and the most over-rated. But, the fact that we are still talking about it and listening to it probably says more than anything else.