50 years ago today – essay

FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY
Marking the 50th anniversary of
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

 INTRODUCTION

 It was 50 years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play.

The British public heard the Sergeant and his band on 1 June 1967, and the Americans the next day. Us Aussies, though, had to wait till the end of July, because the Poms didn’t trust us Antipodeans to do a good job of printing the elaborate artwork, so 50 000 covers had to be shipped. While they were on their way, the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War broke out, so the ship carrying the covers couldn’t get through the Suez Canal, and had to come the long way round.

This was at a time when the population in Australia was 11,912,253, and our Prime Minister was the debonair Mr. Harold Holt (until he tried to walk on water at the end of the year). It was the era of the Vietnam War. Australia was going all the way with LBJ, and military conscription was compulsory for 20 year-old males, who, conveniently, couldn’t vote till they were 21. Don Dunstan became Premier of SA, and Gough Whitlam leader of the federal opposition.

But much more importantly, you could buy a bottle of Sparkling Porphyry Pearl for 90c a bottle, and a brand new Holden Ute for $1981.

If you felt like ‘a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down’, a packet of Bex painkillers cost 12 cents, and a pound of tea 29c.

And even though we’d had decimal currency since February 1966, the prices were still given in pounds, shillings and pence, as well as in dollars and cents. So, a copy of Sergeant Pepper’s, on vinyl of course, cost $5.25, or £2/12/6.

It was an LP that was unlike anything we’d experienced before. The music wasn’t really rock ‘n’ roll, there were hardly any love songs, and it reeked of English fairgrounds, circuses and Music Hall. But at the same time it was so sixties, full of LSD references and inspiration.

In 1967, I was in my second year at Wollongong Teachers’ College, and played piano and trombone in a band called The Rubber Band. We were all Beatles’ fans, especially the lead guitarist who I think was even more of a tragic than yours truly. He brought Sgt Pepper’s around to my flat in Austinmer pretty well on the day it came out, and everything about it was extraordinary. There was the pop art cover, cardboard cut-outs, a psychedelic inner cover, lyrics printed on the sleeve for the first time ever. I listened to it on a tiny portable record player with the worst speakers in the world, and it still managed to blow me away.

THE FIRST TWO TRACKS

We’re Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
We hope you will enjoy the show
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Sit back and let the evening go
Sergeant Peppers Lonely, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It’s wonderful to be here
It’s certainly a thrill
You’re such a lovely audience
We’d like to take you home with us
We’d love to take you home

I don’t really want to stop the show
But I thought you might like to know
That the singer’s gonna sing a song
And he wants you all to sing along
So let me introduce to you
The one and only Billy Shears
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Billy Shears.

 The next track just segued in- Billy Shears singing With a Little Help From My Friends. Well, Ringo really, but the illusion was there. Only a few minutes in and I was already introduced to Sgt Pepper himself, his band, and his singer.

What would you think if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key

 Oh I get by with a little help from my friends
Mmm I get high with a little help from my friends
Mmm I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends.

 In the days of Beatlemania it was mandatory to have a favourite Beatle. (Moya’s was George because of his cheek bones, mine was John because his voice touched me.). So all four had to have tracks to appease the fans- easy with John and Paul as they did most of the writing and singing, and George always had a track or two, but something had to be found each time for Ringo.

One afternoon in March 1967, John and Paul met up at Paul’s house, not far from the Abbey Road studios, to finish a song for Ringo. They’d started the day before and all they had was a bit of a tune, and a working title (Bad Finger Boogie), but the lyrics just wouldn’t come, until John suggested basing each verse on questions.

What do I do when my love is away?
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

That night they turned up at the studio to record the song, with unfinished lyrics and two opening lines that went…

What would you think if I sang out of tune?
Would you throw a tomato at me?

 With its instant rewrites and lyrical gaps filled, it became a perfect fit for Ringo and he sang it brilliantly.

Yes I get by with a little help from my friends
With a little help from my friends.

 The name Billy Shears was actually based on a real person, William Shears Campbell, a musician who had won a Paul McCartney look-alike competition, and, with all the rumours around at the time that Paul was dead, the belief was that Mr Shears was being passed off as Beatle Paul.

Luckily Paul was alive and well, because he was the driving force behind Sgt Pepper’s.

THE BACK STORY

To understand how The Beatles progressed to the point of creating this seminal work, it’s worth going quickly through their story to see how they changed from the days when they were just four cute Moptops, producing a string of top pop hits, all with ‘me‘ and ‘you’ in the title…

Love love me do, you know I love you

                    Please please me whoa yeah like I please you

                   She loves you yeah yeah yeah yeah

                   I want to hold your hand.

It was that last song that made them internationally adored in 1964, and saw them touring America where they met Bob Dylan for the first time. When His Bobness heard…

I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide

he thought they were singing…

      I get high, I get high, I get high.

So he treated them to a puff or two of weed, thinking they were old hands at it. Instead he introduced them to it.

And it was partly thanks to discovering dope that The Beatles made the breakaway from catchy pop to a more arty style that set the scene for the musical changes that were yet to come. Also, these self-taught musicians were now being taken quite seriously in wider music circles. Orchestral versions of their tunes started to appear, and even classical music critics deigned to analyse their work.

So natural is the Aeolian cadence, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths, and the flat-submediant key switches built into their tunes.

John Lennon’s comment about all of this?

I thought Aeolian cadences were exotic birds.

In 1965 they launched into a new LP, Rubber Soul, often described as the pot album. It took them musically and thematically into uncharted waters, and saw them become more involved in production. It was the sign of a new musical direction and a new level of artistic control.

The Beatles were now caught between the old and the new. They had taken pop into a new dimension, but were still looking like mop tops, and their manager, Brian Epstein, was still working them hard on the interminable touring grindstone. Between tours, in early ’66 they discovered a new creative stimulus, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, LSD.

Their next LP, Revolver captured the LSD experience, and once again broke boundaries, with material that ran the gamut from children’s song to political song, songs with Indian influences, funk, the surreal, the trippy, the enigmatic, the melancholic and the simply beautiful.

PET SOUNDS

It’s now that The Beach Boys come into the Sgt Pepper’s story, because while The Beatles were recording Revolver, Brian Wilson was still trying to get over the impact of Rubber Soul. He thought that was it for The Beach Boys, that pop music could never get better. But he didn’t give up, he just locked himself away in the studio for 10 months till he came out with The Beach Boys answer to Rubber Soul, called Pet Sounds- more a single work, than just a series of songs.

                      I may not always love you
But as long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you.

It was God Only Knows from Pet Sounds that especially touched Paul McCartney. He thought it was the best pop song ever written. So, a respectful rivalry developed between the two groups, and by the time Revolver came out, The Beatles knew that their next album would have to be pretty amazing to outdo The Beach Boys. Beatles producer, George Martin, said that without Pet Sounds there would have been no Sgt Pepper’s.

                      God only knows what I’d be without you.

STRAWBERRY FIELDS/PENNY LANE 

One important development that led to the creation of Sgt Pepper’s was the fact that by ’66 The Beatles’ live shows, staged in massive sports arenas, were becoming increasingly soulless, unsatisfying musically, even dangerous.

They received an anonymous telegram advising them not to go to Tokyo as their lives were in danger. The venue they were due to perform in, the Nippon Budokan, was considered a sacred place where traditional Japanese martial arts took place. There was opposition from conservative groups, and the tour took place in a state of siege, the crowd consisting of 7000 fans and 3000 policemen. The drama had its impact on the music, the Tokyo gigs being some of the worst The Beatles ever did.

The next day they flew to Manila, where things got worse. Manager, Brian Epstein, had received a suggestion that the group pay a courtesy call to Imelda Marcos en route to an afternoon concert. He turned down the invitation because time was too tight, and when they didn’t show up, all hell broke loose. Security was removed from all their appearances, and death threats were received at the British Embassy and at their hotel.

Then there was John Lennon’s Jesus comment about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus. The article in which his words were printed hadn’t raised a flicker of controversy in Britain, but in the southern Bible Belt of the USA it was deemed outrageous. 22 radio stations banned Beatles’ music, there were public burnings of their records, books and merchandise, the audience numbers were down, and more death threats were being made. In August ’66 they gave up touring forever.

When they returned to England they each went their own way, following individual pursuits. Ringo was wanting more time with his young family, John was trying out an acting in a movie called How I Won the War, Paul bought an old farm house as a hideaway in a remote corner of Scotland, and George was studying Indian music.

Then at the end of ’66, having hardly spent a day together for two months, they reunited, now as recording artists only, to make the album that would become Sgt Pepper’s.

The original idea was to have a Liverpool theme, and one bitterly cold night in November 1966, the sessions began with a new song from John, based on the name of an orphanage housed a in gloomy Gothic mansion not far from where John had grown up in Liverpool.

Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever.

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me.

Composed on the film set in Spain, it began its life as a gentle acoustic guitar song, but soon developed onto something much heavier. The final product was made up of two takes in different tempos and keys, brilliantly spliced together as one by producer George Martin. 

In response, Paul wrote his Liverpool song, an imaginary take on a bus roundabout.

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known,
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello

On the corner is a banker with a motorcar,
The little children laugh at him behind his back
And the banker never wears a Mac
In the pouring rain, very strange

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back.

Neither song made it on to Sergeant Pepper’s. The Liverpool theme was too hard to sustain, and they needed a new hit record. After a dozen in a row, they released a double A-sided single with Strawberry Fields on one side and Penny Lane on the other, the best ever in my opinion. Unbelievably, it only reached number 2 in the UK, kept from the number 1 spot by none other than Engelbert bloody Humperdinck.

Please, release me, let me go
For I don’t love you anymore
To waste our lives would be a sin
Release me and let me love again.
 

But The Beatles’ single did get to number 1 here in Australia, Engelbert only making it to number 5.

So release me and let me love again.

(The 50th anniversary release of Sgt Pepper’s includes Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, as originally intended.)

WHEN I’M SIXTY FOUR

The first song that actually made it onto the new album had been written by Paul when he was a spotty unknown Liverpudlian teenager, back in the pre-Beatles days. It was written very much as a tribute to the style of music that his father played in dance bands.

When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?

Considering that the new album had no title, and certainly wasn’t conceived as a concept, When I’m Sixty-Four contributed perfectly to the olde-worldy feel that would permeate the record eventually.

Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight
If it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck & Dave.

And guess how old Paul’s father was when the LP was released?

Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four?

LUCY IN THE SKY

The recording of the new album continued still with no name until Paul McCartney rolled up at the Abbey Road studio in early ’67 with the Sgt Pepper’s theme song. This was the first time the others had been introduced to this notion.

Paul had been holidaying in Kenya and was toying with the idea of The Beatles adopting the identity of a mythical band. On the flight home he noticed the two salt and pepper packets that were served with his meal, one marked S, the other P. In his mind this grew to be Sgt Pepper, the leader of this imaginary band.

There was a tendency at the time for bands to have ever-expanding names like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Bonzo Dog Doodah Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. So he came up with an equally lengthy name- Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Without knowing it, he’d given birth to the idea of a concept album, where a mythical band took you into a fanciful world of acts and characters, with a large helping of psychedelia thrown in.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
And she’s gone

Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Aah aah.

John Lennon said that the images in this song were inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The title came from a painting his son, Julian, had done of a nursery school friend called Lucy. Julian described it as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, the initials of which, coincidentally, are LSD.

Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers
That grow so incredibly high.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is essentially a Lennon song, but Paul did add the recurring riff, and also the next image…

Newspaper taxis appear on the shore
Waiting to take you away
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds
And you’re gone.

As the epicentre of Hippiedom had moved from Swinging London to tripping San Francisco, and all four Beatles had immersed themselves in the LSD experience, this new album was going to be a hell of a trip.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds
Aah aah.

 CONCEPT ALBUMS

In the very year Sergeant Pepper’s was born, some notable celebrities died-

actors Spencer Tracey and Vivien Leigh, writers Dorothy Parker and Carl Sandburg, freedom fighter Che Guevara, Australian Prime Ministers Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Harold Holt, jazz musician John Coltrane, classical composer Zoltan Kodaly, and folk legend Woody Guthrie.

Now Woody does have a distant connection to Sergeant Pepper’s, because if you Google ‘concept albums’ the first name that comes up is Woody Guthrie. The reasoning behind this is that he wrote and recorded many songs around central themes, like the dust storms of the 1930s, and the building of the Grand Coulee Dam that would go on to provide water and jobs for the dust bowl migrants.

Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground,
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the water runs down,
Every State of this Union us migrants have been,
We come with the dust and we’re gone, gone with the wind.

Woody’s songs came out as 78rpm singles, and it wasn’t until the mid ’50s that albums with a single concept were released, most notably Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, on which every song evoked the same mood, one of late night loneliness and lost love.

In the wee small hours of the morning
While the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never, ever think of counting sheep

When your lonely heart has learned its lesson
You’d be hers if only she would call
In the wee small hours of the morning
That’s the time you miss her most of all.

 MR KITE

The immediate precedent for The Beatles’ concept album was a 1966 offering from Frank Zappa’s group, The Mothers of Invention, called Freak Out!. Its central theme was American popular culture, and this was reflected throughout the songs and also on the sleeve.

Apart from the title track, the songs on Sgt Pepper’s weren’t written to fit the theme. That sort of happened later when the final product was being assembled. But there is one song that sounds like it was made to slot into the concept, it’s the last track on side one, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.

John Lennon got the idea for the song from an old poster he’d bought in an antique shop – a poster that advertised a benefit performance to be staged by Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royale, in Rochdale Lancashire, on Tuesday Evening, February 14, 1843.

Messrs Kite and Henderson, in announcing the following Entertainments, assure the Public that this Night’s Production will be one of the most splendid ever produced in this town, having been some days in preparation.

 Little did Mr Kite and co know that they would one day be immortalised in a famous song, because Lennon borrowed heavily from the ornate wording of the poster.

For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show tonight on trampoline
The Hendersons will all be there
Late of Pablo Fanques Fair-what a scene
Over men and horses hoops and garters
Lastly through a hogshead of real fire
In this way Mr. K. will challenge the world

The celebrated Mr. K
Performs his feat on Saturday at Bishopsgate
The Hendersons will dance and sing
As Mr. Kite flies through the ring, don’t be late
Messrs. K and H. assure the public
Their production will be second to none
And of course Henry The Horse dances the waltz.

The waltz section of Mr Kite was a perfect example of how the creativity bounced between producer George Martin and the musicians. John wanted the music to swirl around and give the appearance of a horse dancing. So Martin collected a whole bunch of recordings of fairground organs, put them onto tape, cut up the tape, threw the bits in the air and spliced them back together. The result is simply brilliant.

The band begins at ten to six
When Mr. K performs his tricks without a sound
And Mr. H will demonstrate
Ten summersets he’ll undertake on solid ground
Having been some days in preparation
A splendid time is guaranteed for all
And tonight Mr. Kite is topping the bill.

Pablo Fanque was the pseudonym for William Darby, a circus impresario, who was actually of black African descent. Mr Kite was an acrobat in his troupe whose celebrated trick was standing on his head on top of a pole whilst playing the trumpet. There’s an engraving of him performing this feat on the poster upon which John based his song. Mr Kite was obviously down on his luck, and the proceeds of this event were to go to him, an act of generosity for which Pablo was famous.

There’s a fascinating Australian connection to this story too- a relative of Pablo Fanque, probably a son or nephew took his name, toured down under, and moved to Sydney where he died, and is buried in Pioneer Park in Balmain.

GETTING BETTER/FIXING A HOLE

As I said earlier, there’s not much in the way of rock music on Sgt Pepper’s. What is rife on the record, though, is music that swings, that has a lilt that’s associated with entertainment of former times. The big swingers are With a Little Help From My Friends, When I’m 64, Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite, Getting Better, and Fixing a Hole.

I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go.

Many people assumed that Fixing a Hole was about mind-altering drugs, but it was just about Paul McCartney’s home renovations. He’d bought his Scottish farmhouse sight unseen, but when he saw it, he rapidly became a DIY expert.

I’m filling the cracks that ran through the door
And kept my mind from wandering
Where it will go.

When The Beatles toured Australia back in ’64, they had to hire a replacement drummer, Jimmy Nicol, because Ringo was hospitalised back in England, suffering from tonsillitis. Every day the other three would ask Jimmy how he was getting on and he always replied…

It’s getting better all the time.

Back to ’67, The Beatles were needing more songs for their new album, and Paul McCartney was walking his sheepdog, Martha, when someone asked him what he thought of the weather. It was the beginning of spring in London so his reply echoed Jimmy Nicol’s immortal words. He went home, wrote the positive chorus…

It’s getting better all the time
(Better, better, better)
It’s getting better all the time
(Better, better, better).

The song is an interesting mix of sunny optimism and harsh reality, a perfect blend of the stereotypical characterisations of John and Paul.

I used to get mad at my school (No I can’t complain)
The teachers who taught me weren’t cool (No I can’t complain)
They’re holding me down (Uh huh)

Turning me round (Uh huh)
Filling me up with your rules.

Guess which words in this next section came from Lennon?

I’ve got to admit it’s getting better
A little better all the time
(Can’t get no worse).

While they were recording that song, John was drugged up to the eyeballs and felt ill. Innocent George Martin thought it was just a dizzy spell so took him to the Abbey Road roof to get some air and left him there, up on the roof with no railings. The other three ran upstairs and rescued him.

                   I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
It’s getting better all the time.

 And all in swing time.

SHE’S LEAVING HOME

In 1967, Australian television, just over ten years old, produced some new shows that made their mark. There was This Day Tonight, affectionately known as TDT, our first nightly current affairs show and forerunner of today’s 7.30 show on the ABC. And we can’t forget Bellbird, the popular soapie that won Australian hearts, in black and white of course.

We also got a dose of realism in a new series called You Can’t See ‘Round Corners. It was highly controversial –for a start its main character was a conscientious objector, and furthermore the show had an uncompromising approach to social issues.

Gritty, realistic ‘kitchen sink drama’ had been around in British theatre since the 50s, and it spilled over into television, so it’s no surprise that Sgt Pepper’s made its contribution in this area with stories of domestic violence, angry young men, and brutal teachers in Getting Better, and a runaway teenager in this haunting masterpiece.

Wednesday morning at five o’clock
As the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes downstairs to the kitchen
Clutching her handkerchief
Quietly turning the backdoor key
Stepping outside, she is free

We gave her most of our lives
Sacrificed most of our lives
We gave her everything money could buy
She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years.

Paul McCartney wrote that song after reading about a 17 year-old schoolgirl who’d run away from her respectable, middle-class family. It was becoming a familiar story as the young generation were breaking away from their parents’ more traditional ways.

Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown
Picks up the letter that’s lying there
Standing alone at the top of the stairs
She breaks down and cries to her husband
“Daddy, our baby’s gone
“Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?
How could she do this to me?”

We never thought of ourselves
Never a thought for ourselves
We struggled hard all our lives to get by
She’s leaving home after living alone for so many years.

As soon as he’d written it he had the idea for the arrangement in his head, so he asked George Martin if he could write a score from his ideas immediately, while the thoughts were hot. But George was busy recording Cilla Black and couldn’t drop everything in the middle of a recording session.

So Paul, for the first time on a Beatles’ recording, hired another arranger, Mike Leander, who did a brilliant arrangement for harp and strings. George Martin was miffed, but, in stiff upper lip fashion, recorded the song with minor alterations.

Friday morning, at nine o’clock
She is far away
Waiting to keep the appointment she made
Meeting a man from the motor trade

What did we do that was wrong?
We didn’t know it was wrong
Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy

Something inside, that was always denied for so many years
She’s leaving home, bye, bye.

She’s Leaving Home took the rivalry between The Beatles and The Beach Boys to a new level. When Brian Wilson heard it he started to answer it with a new album called Smile, but he then declared The Beatles the winners of their little contest and stopped working on the album. He finally finished Smile in 2004. 

BASS AND DRUMS

That track is one of the few by The Beatles to have none of the foursome playing on the accompaniment. But when they did play their instruments, they often experimented with how they played them and how they were recorded.

Take drums, for instance. In pop music of the time they had mostly been workhorse instruments, relegated to keeping time in the background. But now in the studio, Ringo had the luxury of adding little flourishes he would never do in a concert.

There’s an old joke that goes…

Is Ringo the best drummer in the world?

The answer?

He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles.

One of the big myths of all time, in my opinion. And I am not alone. In the words of legendary musician Al Cooper…

Sgt Pepper’s was the album that changed drumming. Before that album drum fills in rock ‘n’ roll were pretty rudimentary.

Legendary drummer Phil Collins said…

Well I think he’s vastly under-rated, Ringo. The drum fills were in fact very, very complex things.

Also the drums were now being much more heavily miked and could be heard much more up front.

When it came to the bass, EMI had always claimed that too much bass would make the stylus jump. Paul McCartney thought this was a load of crap, and wanted to try plugging his bass directly into the recording desk instead of via an amplifier. To do this, the Abbey Road engineers invented the Direct Injection box, (the DI that we all now use on stage and in the studio).

When Lennon saw it working, he asked George Martin…

Hey George, can you put my singing straight into the desk?  

To which George replied… 

As long as you’re prepared to have an operation that inserts a jack plug into your voice box, John.

One of the things I remember so well from that night when I first heard Sgt Pepper’s was Paul’s bass playing- how high in the instrument’s register it was, and how melodic and orchestral his bass lines were.

Thanks to Sgt Pepper’s, bass and drums were featured like never before.

GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME

Before The Beatles came along, producer, George Martin, had cut his teeth on producing comedy records, like the big 1960 hit for Sophia Loren and Peter Sellers, Goodness Gracious Me. Sellers often played played Indian characters, and whenever Indian musicians were needed on these comedy records, George Martin would call on the Asia Music Circle in Finchley, North London.

LOREN: Oh doctor, I’m in trouble
SELLERS (as Indian doctor): Well, goodness gracious me
LOREN: For every time a certain man
Is standing next to me
A flush comes to my face
And my pulse begins to race
It goes boom boody-boom boody-boom boody-boom
Boody-boom boody-boom boody-boom-boom-boo
Boom boody-boom boody-boom boody-boom
SELLERS: Well, goodness gracious me

 (ENTER INDIAN INSTRUMENTS)

From New Delhi to Darjeeling                                                                    I have done my share of healing,
And I’ve never yet been beaten or outboxed,                                            I remember that with one jab
Of my needle in the Punjab
How I cleared up beriberi
And the dreaded dysentery,
But your complaint has got me really foxed.
Boom boody-boom boody-boom boody-boom
Boody-boom boody-boom boody-boom-boom-boom,
Boom boody-boom boody-boom boody-boom
(Well, goodness gracious, how audacious, goodness gracious me!)

WITHIN YOU, WITHOUT YOU

So when George Harrison turned up with his contribution to the album, George Martin knew exactly where to turn for Indian musicians.

We were talking
About the love we all could share
When we find it
To try our best to hold it there
With our love
With our love
We could save the world
If they only knew.

It is common for the culture of immigrants to influence the over-riding culture of the host country. This is exactly what happened with Indian music, especially as a result of the influx of Indians after the decline of the British Empire.

George Harrison first became interested in Indian music when he was on the set of the 1965 movie Help!. In one scene, an exotic instrument, that had been carefully placed as a prop, caught George’s eye, and in the break he just had to pick it up and see how it sounded. It was a sitar and it immediately struck a nerve with him, it was as if it were in his subconscious somewhere. A door was opened. He equated it with his first hearing of Heartbreak Hotel.

The sound meant something to me. It just touched me in a certain way and made me want to know more about it or follow it. Likewise with Indian music.

 Harrison soon brought Indian influences into Beatles recordings, and took the study of Indian classical music very seriously.

His first effort for the Sgt Pepper’s album was a throwaway song about the strange world of The Beatles’ business arrangements. When George Martin heard it, he sent him home to do better.

And he certainly did that.

Try to realise it’s all within yourself
No-one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you.

The words emerged from a cosmic dope-driven dinner party at the home of Klaus Voorman, whom The Beatles had known from their Hamburg days. To me the outstanding aspect of this track is not to do with the lyrics, but with the music, light years away from standard pop tracks. The beautifully constructed modal melody is sung without harmony, except for the presence of a drone that runs throughout the whole song. This reflects a belief that the voice is all important and all other instruments are meant to copy it, not compete in any way. Then there’s the use of traditional Indian drum rhythms, and the exciting solo that is a hybrid of Eastern and Western music, as sitars and orchestral sings bounce off each other in a call-and-response fashion. In terms of the concept album, Sgt Pepper’s variety show now had its exotic element.

At the recording session, the stark atmosphere of the Abbey Road studio was transformed as the musicians from the Asia Music Circle redecorated it with carpets, hangings, and smouldering joss sticks.

When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find
Peace of mind, is waiting there –
And the time will come when you see
We’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you.

George Harrison didn’t want his song to be taken too seriously so an outtake of all four Beatles cracking up at the end of some unrelated recording was edited in to end the track.

THE COVER, METER MAIDS AND CORN FLAKES

Back in ’67, the image on a record cover was becoming all important. The previous two Beatles’ album covers had become much more than publicity pictures of the group. Rubber Soul featured a distorted image of the band, and the Revolver cover, designed by the very same Klaus Voorman mentioned above, consisted of psychedelic drawings of the foursome, interspersed with standard photographs.

For the Pepper album, pop artist Peter Blake was commissioned to come up with a cover that picked up on the idea of The Beatles stepping outside themselves. They would appear dressed as their alter-egos in military uniforms with brass instruments in their hands. They would be flanked by their Madame Tussaud waxwork figures, along with 60 cultural icons including Fred Astaire, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Marlon Brando, Shirley Temple, Laurel and Hardy, Lenny Bruce, W. C. Fields, Bob Dylan, Stockhausen, Dylan Thomas, William S. Burroughs, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll,  Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Carl Jung, Lawrence of Arabia, a couple of Hindu gurus, and quite a few dope plants.

But, until the last minute, no one had thought of copyright so they paid 50 quid to a former employee of Brian Epstein to contact the sources of all 60 images. It was a nightmare. She certainly earned her money.

It all added to this wonder world of images, sounds, drugs and fanciful characters. There was even a song about a parking attendant.

Lovely Rita meter maid, nothing can come between us
When it gets dark I tow your heart away

Standing by a parking meter when I caught a glimpse of Rita
Filling in the ticket in her little white book.
In her cap she looked much older
And the bag across her shoulder
Made her look a little like a military man.

When us I first heard Lovely Rita, I didn’t quite get it because, to us Aussies, meter maids were young wannabe beauty queens on the Gold Coast who were paid by a local businessman to put money in people’s meters so they wouldn’t get fined while they stayed longer at the shops. In their skimpy bikinis, they certainly didn’t look anything like military men.

Lovely Rita meter maid,
May I enquire discreetly
When are you free to take some tea with me?

Meanwhile, John Lennon was bored with his home life. Too many drugs and a dying marriage weren’t a great combination so when he was at home he spent most of his time reading the paper or watching television and these were the sources of many of his songs on Sgt Pepper’s.

According to his then wife, Cynthia…

When he was at home he spent a lot of his time lying in bed with a notepad. When he got up, he’d sit at the piano, or he’d go from one room to the other listening to music, gawping at television and reading newspapers.

One of the ads he heard regularly on the tele was…

Good morning, good morning
|The best to you each morning
Sunshine breakfast
Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
Best for everyone.

In his boring world he wrote a song for Sgt Pepper’s inspired by a Kellogg’s ad.

Good morning, good morning
Good morning, good morning
Good morning-ga

Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in
Nothing to say but what a day how’s your boy been
Nothing to do it’s up to you-ou
I’ve got nothing to say but it’s OK.

That last line pretty well describes Lennon’s state of mind at that time. Good Morning, Good Morning is a mishmash of unrelated images and jagged time signature changes. John wanted a brass section, so George Martin wrote a stunning score played by some of the members of instrumental group, Sounds Incorporated. John thought the brass recording sounded too straight, so it was flanged and compressed till it sounded like something else.

John’s summing up of the song?

…a piece of garbage…

Maybe, but coming from the mind and musical imagination of John Lennon, it’s not without its interesting elements.

A DAY IN THE LIFE

The outstanding final track of Sgt Pepper’s, A Day in the Life, also had its genesis in John’s mundane suburban life.

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.

 One day in January 1967, John read this vital piece of news…

There are 4000 holes in the road in Blackburn Lancashire, or one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey.

which became…

I read the news today oh, boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I’d love to turn you on.

That last line changed the direction of the song completely. Now it went far beyond stories in The Daily Mail, to a provocative reference to LSD.

Paul had an unfinished song that he says was a simple school day recollection of having an illicit smoke on the school bus. Whatever, it fitted in perfectly with John’s song, and despite Paul’s innocent explanation, was an equally provocative reference to marijuana.

Woke up, got out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank 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
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.

A Day in the Life had the dubious honour of being banned by the BBC, up there with House of the Rising Sun, Paper Doll, and Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans.

Before Paul’s song emerged, they knew that something would happen in the middle but didn’t know what, so they left a space of 24 bars, ending with an alarm clock so they’d know when time was up.

This was later filled with a monumental crescendo (Paul’s idea), played by 40 classical musicians from the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras, who arrived at the studio to be told they were to play their instrument from its lowest to its highest range without listening to the person next to them. The musicians were asked to wear full evening dress, and were further decorated with red noses, gorilla paws, funny hats and carnival novelties. The total cost of the session was £367/10/-, money well spent.

The crescendo was recorded four times, each super-imposed so it ended up sounding like 160 players. Coming as it did after the famous ‘I’d love to turn you on’ line, there was no doubt that we were being treated to a musical approximation of the turning-on experience.

FINALE

 (Warning: the following chapter contains information only possible as a result of the era of vinyl records, and to a lesser extent the CD era, but now in the age of Spotify and iTunes, an anachronism.)

Recording for Sgt Pepper’s ended in April 1967, and the all-important running order of the tracks was left to George Martin, for Beatle approval of course.

He knew he had to start with the theme song, then, because of the Billy Shears’ reference, go to With a Little Help From My Friends as the second track. As far as the ending went, nothing would be able to follow A Day in the Life with its enormous orchestral climax, and the reprise of the theme song would need to come before that. In the days of vinyl, side one needed a good strong ending, and as much as he would have loved to have given this honour to She’s Leaving Home, he thought it wasn’t upbeat enough to end a side, so Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite got the guernsey.

Within You, Without You was so unlike anything recorded in pop music, that George struggled with where to place it. He couldn’t see it following anything, so he opted for track one, side two, and with laughter at the end of the track, he thought that it should lead into a song with a bit of humour, like When I’m Sixty-Four.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds was so different and very strong, so it came in as track three, side one, then the lesser tracks fitted the in-between spots.

It was Martin’s idea to edit the tracks tightly close together, and this went a long way towards adding to the notion of this as a single work. The Beatles thought though that after all that continuous sound it would be a pity to have silence after the final long decaying chord.

Back in ’67, unless you owned an automatic record player, the needle would sit in an inner groove while the record rotated, until someone lifted it off. So they decided they would fill this groove with sound by recording gibberish. The engineers chopped up the tape, played some backwards, spliced bits together at random. The end result sounds something like…

Never… you see any other way… Never… you see any other way…Never… you see any other way…

over and over until the stylus was removed, and The Beatles put out of their agony.

As was normal, fans played it backwards to see what clues there were as to Paul’s mortality status. All they got was a mixture of a possible obscenity and a reference to Superman.

Also on the inner groove is a police dog whistle, only audible to the family dog.

When Sgt Pepper’s was released in mid ’67, George Martin and The Beatles were a bit nervous about how it would be received. Had they gone too far, too fast? Was it too pretentious? Too uncommercial? Reviews were diverse but mostly full of praise.

In just four years they had gone from their first LP, which was recorded in 10 hours, costing £400, to this one which took five months and cost £25,000.

Sgt Pepper’s turned popular music upside down, and provided the Summer of Love with a trippy hippy LSD-ridden soundtrack. It has gone on to sell over 32 million copies.

To mark this anniversary, I wrote my own tribute to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Moya and I performed as an encore in Queanbeyan. It contains around 25 references to the LP.

Fifty long years have gone
Since your golden baton
Kept the time on that magic LP
Half a century hence
And you’ve made a few pence
But the pepper still grows on the tree
You’ve fixed all the holes on the bandstand
And filled all the cracks in the skies
And you’ve helped Mr K who gets better each day
As he scoffs all the marshmallow pies

You’ve returned all our ears
Now that young Billy Shears
Has got by with the help of a friend,
The words you believe
They remain on your sleeve
Though there’s some I still don’t comprehend
And Rita is wishing good morning
Her little white book’s run its course
And that motor trade bloke
He woke up, had a smoke
While he’s waltzing with Henry the Horse

Tonight was your night to sit back,
Let the evening go
So Sarge, before we say we’re sorry that it’s time to go
We say happy 5-0

Quietly opened the door
To at least sixty-four
Of the loneliest hearts you could find,
You have flown through a ring,
Gone without and within
You have found, in your time, peace of mind
You’ve counted the holes out in Blackburn
You’ve lived through the highest of highs
You’ve been leading the band like a military man
Who can see with kaleidoscope eyes

Tonight was your night to sit back,
Let the evening go,
So Sarge, before we say we’re sorry that it’s time to go,
We say happy 5-0.

P.S. Just months after the record came out there was earth shattering news- The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead from an accidental drug overdose. Epstein had done a brilliant job of taking them from Liverpool to the world, and making them (and him) very rich. He saw his job as making
sure the records kept hitting the top and that his number one act was seen live by as many people as possible around the world. So, once the dispirited musicians pulled the plug on touring, he felt redundant, his role taken away from him. How much this contributed to his untimely death will never be known.

Around this time, John and Yoko became an item, Paul met Linda; now without a manager the direction of the band became more aimless. Disunity struck. It was like there was a pre-Pepper story and a post-Pepper story.

Happy fiftieth birthday to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

NOTES

SONG CREDITS

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
With a Little Help From My Friends by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Love Me Do by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Please Please Me by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
She Loves You by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
I Want To Hold Your Hand by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
God Only Knows by Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Strawberry Fields Forever by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Penny Lane by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Please Release Me by Eddie Miller and Robbie Yount
When I’m Sixty-Four by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Pastures of Plenty by Woody Guthrie
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning by Bob Hilliard and David Mann
Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Getting Better by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Fixing a Hole by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
She’s Leaving Home by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Goodness Gracious Me by Herbert Kretzmer and David Lee
Within You Without You by George Harrison
Lovely Rita by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Kellogg’s ad by David Lee
Good Morning, Good Morning by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
A Day in the Life by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Happy 5-0 by John Shortis.