In the studio
Having finished touring in August 1966, The Beatles were free to spend time in the studio working on their next masterpiece. As EMI owned the studio at Abbey Road time and costs were of little consequence, and The Beatles knew that the songs recorded wouldn’t have to be performed live.
The first songs to be recorded were When I’m Sixty-Four, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. When I’m Sixty-Four actually had its origins in The Beatles’ Hamburg days, though it was recorded in December 1966.
Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever, meanwhile, were taken for the group’s first single of 1967, a decision which George Martin later described as “a dreadful mistake”.
I used to share a flat in Sloane Street with Mal [Evans]. One day in February Paul called, saying that he was writing a song and asking if he and Mal could come over. The song was the start of Sgt Pepper.
At my place he carried on writing and the song developed. At the end of every Beatles show, Paul used to say, ‘It’s time to go. We’re going to go to bed, and this is our last number.’ Then they’d play the last number and leave. Just then Mal went to the bathroom, and I said to Paul, ‘Why don’t you have Sgt Pepper as the compÃ¨re of the album? He comes on at the beginning of the show and introduces the band, and at the end he closes it. A bit later, Paul told John about it in the studio, and John came up to me and said, ‘Nobody likes a smart-arse, Neil.’
Soon after The Beatles began recording the song Sgt Pepper, they realised that it could introduce a fictitious concert.
The idea came about gradually. Basically it was Paul’s idea: he came in and said he had the song ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and that he was identifying it with the band, with The Beatles themselves. We recorded the song first, and then the thought came to make it into an idea for the album. It was at a time when they wanted to concentrate on the studio, and that probably fomented the idea of the alter-ego group: ‘Let Sgt Pepper do the touring.’
The album was recorded on four-track machines; at the time, eight-tracks were only available in US commercial studios. This undoubtedly caused The Beatles to think creatively about how to best use the recording technology.
As with previous album, reduction mixes were used to free up spare tracks and allow the group to continue recording. The reprise version of the title song was the only one of the album not to be mixed in this way.
A Day In The Life arguably saw The Beatles at the peak of their creative powers. The song perfectly combined fragments by both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and the impact of the two orchestral crescendos and the final crashing piano chord have scarcely lessened with the passing years.
George Martin and Paul McCartney conducted the orchestral glissando, with Martin supplying some basic instructions to the musicians, many of whom were from the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras.
At the very beginning I put into the musical score the lowest note each instrument could play, ending with an E major chord. And at the beginning of each of the 24 bars I put a note showing roughly where they should be at that point. Then I had to instruct them. ‘We’re going to start very very quietly and end up very very loud. We’re to start very low in pitch and end up very high. You’ve got to make your own way up there, as slidey as possible so that the clarinets slurp, trombones gliss, violins slide without fingering any notes. And whatever you do, don’t listen to the fellow next to you because I don’t want you to be doing the same thing.’ Of course they all looked at me as though I was mad…
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
George Harrison, meanwhile, was less enamoured by the album and The Beatles in general, having lost his heart to India. His main contribution to the album was Within You Without You, although his first offering – Only A Northern Song – was first recorded in February 1967.
I felt we were just in the studio to make the next record, and Paul was going on about this idea of some fictitious band. That side of it didn’t really interest me, other that the title song and the album cover.
It was becoming difficult for me, because I wasn’t really that into it. Up to that time, we had recorded more like a band; we would learn the songs and then play them (although we were starting to do overdubs, and had done a lot on Revolver). Sgt Pepper was the one album where things were done slightly differently. A lot of the time it ended up with just Paul playing the piano and Ringo keeping the tempo, and we weren’t allowed to play as a band so much. It became an assembly process – just little parts and then overdubbing – and for me it became a bit tiring and a bit boring. I had a few moments in there that I enjoyed, but generally I didn’t really like making the album much.
I’d just got back from India, and my heart was still out there. After what had happened in 1966, everything else seemed like hard work. It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do, and I was losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.
Before then everything I’d known had been in the West, and so the trips to India had really opened me up. I was into the whole thing; the music, the culture, the smells. There were good and bad smells, lots of colours, many different things – and that’s what I’d become used to. I’d been let out of the confines of the group, and it was difficult for me to come back into the sessions. In a way, it felt like going backwards. Everybody else thought that Sgt Pepper was a revolutionary record – but for me it was not as enjoyable as Rubber Soul or Revolver, purely because I had gone through so many trips of my own and I was growing out of that kind of thing.