The origins of Sgt Pepper
Download on iTunes

During The Beatles' final US tour in August 1966, Paul McCartney noticed the inventive names adopted by many new bands.

Sgt Pepper is Paul, after a trip to America and the whole West Coast, long-named group thing was coming in. You know, when people were no longer The Beatles or The Crickets - they were suddenly Fred and His Incredible Shrinking Grateful Airplanes, right? So I think he got influenced by that and came up with this idea for The Beatles.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

In November 1966 McCartney and Mal Evans spent time travelling around France. From there they journeyed on to Madrid, Rome and then Nairobi, Kenya, where they were joined by Jane Asher.

The genesis of Sgt Pepper came during their return flight from Kenya to London on 19 November 1966. Unable to sleep on the overnight journey, McCartney toyed with the idea of creating a new identity for The Beatles, to allow them to experiment and display their maturity to their audience.

We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didn't want any more, plus, we'd now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers. There was now more to it; not only had John and I been writing, George had been writing, we'd been in films, John had written books, so it was natural that we should become artists.

Then suddenly on the plane I got this idea. I thought, Let's not be ourselves. Let's develop alter egos so we're not having to project an image which we know. It would be much more free. What would really be interesting would be to actually take on the personas of this different band. We could say, 'How would somebody else sing this? He might approach it a bit more sarcastically, perhaps.' So I had this idea of giving the Beatles alter egos simply to get a different approach; then when John came up to the microphone or I did, it wouldn't be John or Paul singing, it would be the members of this band. It would be a freeing element. I thought we can run this philosophy through the whole album: with this alter-ego band, it won't be us making all that sound, it won't be the Beatles, it'll be this other band, so we'll be able to lose our identities in this.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The title came from a conversation between McCartney and Evans about the sachets marked S and P which came with their in-flight meals.

Me and Mal often bantered words about which led to the rumour that he thought of the name Sergeant Pepper, but I think it would be much more likely that it was me saying, 'Think of names.' We were having our meal and they had those little packets marked 'S' and 'P'. Mal said, 'What's that mean? Oh, salt and pepper.' We had a joke about that. So I said, 'Sergeant Pepper,' just to vary it, 'Sergeant Pepper, salt and pepper,' an aural pun, not mishearing him but just playing with the words.

Then, 'Lonely Hearts Club', that's a good one. There's lot of those about, the equivalent of a dating agency now. I just strung those together rather in the way that you might string together Dr Hook and the Medicine Show. All that culture of the sixties going back to those travelling medicine men, Gypsies, it echoed back to the previous century really. I just fantasised, well, 'Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'. That'd be crazy enough because why would a Lonely Hearts Club have a band? If it had been Sergeant Pepper's British Legion Band, that's more understandable. The idea was to be a little more funky, that's what everybody was doing. That was the fashion. The idea was just take any words that would flow. I wanted a string of those things because I thought that would be a natty idea instead of a catchy title. People would have to say, 'What?' We'd had quite a few pun titles - Rubber Soul, Revolver - so this was to get away from all that.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Although the idea was well received by the other Beatles, it wasn't intended as a concept album; indeed, an early working title was One Down, Six To Go, a reference to their contract with EMI.

As I read the other day, he said in one of his 'fanzine' interviews that he was trying to put some distance between The Beatles and the public - and so there was this identity of Sgt Pepper. Intellectually, that's the same thing he did by writing 'He loves you' instead of 'I love you'. That's just his way of working. Sgt Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn't go anywhere. All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with this idea of Sgt Pepper and his band; but it works 'cause we said it worked, and that's how the album appeared. But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album.
John Lennon, 1980
All We Are Saying, David Sheff

For perhaps the first time, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band saw Paul McCartney emerging as the creative leader of The Beatles. There was, however, a strong feeling of collective creativity among the group, with a concerted push to achieve something special.

This creativity occasionally caused problems for The Beatles. Impatient to record She's Leaving Home, McCartney asked freelance arranger Mike Leander to write the string section as George Martin was temporarily unavailable.

It was just one of those silly things. He was so damned impatient and I was up to my eyes with other work and I just couldn't cope. But Paul realises now, though he was surprised that I was upset.
George Martin
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

At the time John Lennon was at the height of his extended dalliance with LSD, although he did play a key role in a number of songs - not least A Day In The Life, which is widely held to be among The Beatles' finest works.

It was a peak, and Paul and I definitely were working together, especially on A Day In The Life... I don't care about the whole concept of Pepper. It might be better, but the music is better for me on the double album, because I'm being meself on it... I felt more at ease with that than the production. I don't like production so much, but Pepper was a peak, all right.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner