Inside the Making of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Rock’s Great Concept Album

The Bea­t­les’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lone­ly Heart’s Club Band may or may not still be the “great­est rock album of all time,” but—as the pre­sen­ter in the doc­u­men­tary above remarks—it most cer­tain­ly is “an extra­or­di­nary mir­ror of its age.” The album also marks sev­er­al great leaps for­ward in stu­dio record­ing tech­niques and pop song­writ­ing, as well as pro­duc­tion time and cost. Sgt. Pepper’s took five months to make and cost 40,000 pounds. By con­trast, the first Bea­t­les album, Please Please Me, was record­ed live in a sin­gle day for a cost of about 400 pounds.

The band decid­ed to make such invest­ments in the stu­dio after becom­ing fed up with con­stant tour­ing. In addi­tion to the gru­el­ing sched­ule, John Lennon had alien­at­ed many of the band’s reli­gious Amer­i­can fans with the flip­pant “more pop­u­lar than Jesus” remark. And in the Philip­pines, they failed to turn up for an event put on by Fer­di­nand Mar­cos, offend­ing both the dic­ta­tor and his wife; they “bare­ly escaped with their lives,” we’re told above. Fur­ther­more, ampli­fi­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy being what it was at the time, there was no pos­si­bil­i­ty of the band’s sound on stage com­pet­ing with the vol­ume of scream­ing fans in the sta­di­um crowds, and they found them­selves near­ly drowned out at every show.

They retreat­ed somewhat—Harrison to India to work with Ravi Shankar, Lennon to Spain to work with film­mak­er Richard Lester—until they were ral­lied by Paul McCart­ney, whom Ringo calls “the worka­holic” of the band. Hav­ing firm­ly decid­ed to leave the road behind for good, says McCart­ney, they “very much felt that it could be done bet­ter from a record than from any­where else,” that “the record could go on tour.” Record­ing began on Novem­ber 24, 1966 with “Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er,” a track that didn’t even appear on the album, but on its fol­low-up, Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour.

We’re treat­ed in the doc­u­men­tary to the orig­i­nal record­ing of the song, with com­men­tary from George Mar­tin, who explains that record­ing tech­nol­o­gy at the time was “in a prim­i­tive state,” only just enter­ing the mul­ti­track stage. Lim­it­ed to four tracks at a time, engi­neers could not sep­a­rate each instru­ment onto its own indi­vid­ual track as they do today but were forced to com­bine them. This lim­i­ta­tion forced musi­cians and pro­duc­ers to make firm deci­sions about arrange­ments and com­mit to them with a kind of dis­ci­pline that has gone by the way­side with the ease and con­ve­nience of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. Mar­tin talks at length about the mak­ing of each of the songs on the album, patient­ly explain­ing how they came to sound the way they do.

As a musi­cian and occa­sion­al engi­neer myself, I find that the heart of the doc­u­men­tary is these moments with Mar­tin as he plays back the record­ings, track by track, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly recount­ing the pro­duc­tion process. But there’s much more here to inspire fans, includ­ing inter­views with the clas­si­cal musi­cians who played on the album, sto­ries from Paul, George, and Ringo about the writ­ing and devel­op­ment of the songs, and even an inter­view with reclu­sive Beach Boy and stu­dio wiz­ard Bri­an Wil­son about his Pet Sounds, an exper­i­men­tal pre­cur­sor and inspi­ra­tion for Sgt. Pepper’s. We do not hear much about that famous album cov­er, but you can read all about it here.

For Paul McCart­ney, “the big dif­fer­ence” Sgt. Pepper’s made was that pre­vi­ous­ly “peo­ple played it a bit safe in pop­u­lar music.” The Bea­t­les “sud­den­ly real­ized you didn’t have to.” Over the next few months, they cob­bled togeth­er their per­son­al influ­ences into a glo­ri­ous pas­tiche of rock, pop, bal­ladeer­ing, vaude­vil­lian show tunes, psy­che­del­ic stu­dio exper­i­men­ta­tion, tele­vi­sion adver­tis­ing jin­gles, and Indi­an and sym­phon­ic music—creating the world’s first con­cept album. Noth­ing like it had ever been heard before, and it may not be too much of a stretch to say that near­ly every pop record since owes some debt, how­ev­er small, to Sgt. Pepper’s, whether by way of the song­writ­ing, the con­cep­tu­al inge­nu­ity, or the stu­dio exper­i­men­ta­tion. To see the influ­ence the album had on a hand­ful of pop­u­lar Eng­lish musi­cians forty years lat­er, watch the BBC tele­vi­sion spe­cial above, pro­duced in hon­or of the album’s for­ti­eth anniver­sary and fea­tur­ing bands like Travis, the Mag­ic Num­bers, and the Kaiser Chiefs cov­er­ing the album in its entire­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Straw­ber­ry Fields For­ev­er Demos: The Mak­ing of a Bea­t­les Clas­sic (1966)

The Bea­t­les: Unplugged Col­lects Acoustic Demos of White Album Songs (1968)

The Mak­ing (and Remak­ing) of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Arguably the Great­est Rock Album of All Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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