On The Beatles’ final US tour in 1966, Paul McCartney was struck by the inventiveness of the West Coast hippy groups, with names such as Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. In November that year, on a post-holiday flight from Nairobi to England, he came up with the idea of an alter-ego for the band, which would perform an entire album before an audience.
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. 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 the 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.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Some versions of events hold that Mal Evans came up with the name Sgt Pepper. It is believed to have been inspired by Evans asking McCartney what the letters S and P stood for on the salt and pepper sachets on their in-flight meal trays.
I used to share a flat in Sloane Street with Mal. One day in February Paul called, saying that he was writing a song and asking if he and Mal could come over. That 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 compère 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’.
Switching between straightforward rock verses and instrumental bridges featuring a French horn quartet, punctuated by three-part harmonies from McCartney, Lennon and Harrison, the song is more of an introduction to the Sgt Pepper concept than a rounded song.
I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We could make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.
In the studio
The song ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was recorded over four days. On 1 February 1967 The Beatles taped nine takes of the rhythm track, though only the first and last of these were complete. They recorded drums, bass and two guitars – the latter played by Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
The next day McCartney recorded his lead vocals, and he, Harrison and John Lennon taped their harmonies. The song was then left for over a month, until the French horns were overdubbed on 3 March. McCartney also recorded a lead guitar solo, leaving the song almost complete.
On 6 March they added the sounds of the imaginary audience and the noise of an orchestra tuning up, a combination of crowd noise from a 1961 recording of the comedy show Beyond The Fringe and out-takes from the 10 February 1967 orchestral overdub session for ‘A Day In The Life’.
For the segue into ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, meanwhile, they inserted screams of Beatlemaniacs from the recordings of The Beatles live at the Hollywood Bowl.