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 for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 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, although 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”.

The album’s monumental closer, ‘A Day In The Life’, was recorded from 19 January 1967, becoming the second Sgt Pepper song to be taped. The third was the title track, which was first recorded on 1 February.

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 compere 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.’
George Martin

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 at their disposal.

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…
George Martin
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

The final Sgt Pepper recording session took place on 21 April 1967. Creative to the last, The Beatles decided that there should be no silence at the end of the album. Instead, they recorded a burst of nonsensical gibberish which was pressed in the album’s run-out groove – following a brief high-pitched 15 kHz tone intended for dogs.

They were all there discussing how to end the LP but the decision to throw in a bit of nonsense gibberish came together in about 10 minutes. They ran down to the studio floor and we recorded them twice – on each track of a two-track tape. They made funny noises, said random things; just nonsense. We chopped up the tape, put it back together, played it backwards and threw it in.

It took Harry [Moss, disc cutter] about eight attempts to get it right because the slightest incorrect placing of a stylus at the very beginning of the LP side can put the concentric groove out. We had to enquire if putting musical content in the run-out groove would tear the metal when the records are stamped out at the factory.

An early version of the tracklisting had the songs on side one in a slightly different order, possibly in an attempt to prolong the idea of the stage show. In early April 1967 the album had the songs in this order: ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’; ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’; ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’; ‘Fixing A Hole’; ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’; ‘Getting Better’; ‘She’s Leaving Home’.

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