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Wednesday, January 25, 2012


The Beatles' best album.  The greatest album of all time.  The most influential album of all time.  The most famous album of all time.  Take your pick.  Sgt. Pepper has been called all of these and more, and whether or not any or all of these labels still apply, there is no denying that it was, and still is, a landmark recording.

Once they abandoned the concept of an album about their childhood following the release of the Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever single, it wasn't long before McCartney came up with the idea of an alter ego for the group, with an absurdly long and flowery name like many of the newer California bands.  But it was only after recording the title song that the idea extended to a virtual performance by this alter ego band, spanning the two sides of the album.  To make this imaginary performance continuous, the Beatles requested that the usual pauses between songs be practically eliminated, so that the music almost never stops, the only exception being the time it took to turn over the record.  The fact is, except for the segues at the beginning and the end of the album, the songs are not really related at all, thematically or otherwise, but as Lennon later said, "it works 'cause we said it worked."

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - As they had done on Please Please Me and Revolver, the Beatles clue us in right at the top as to what we are about to hear.  In this instance, as Tim Riley states, "we're listening to a pretend audience that is pretending to listen to the pretend Sgt. Pepper's...Band."  It's an amusing premise from a group that only months earlier had decided to stop playing live.  Except for the French horns, it is one of the only instances of straight-ahead rock on the album, with just the group on their usual instruments for this McCartney composition.  Paul sings as the emcee with John and George singing backup.  Sound effects from several sources enhance the conceit of a live performance.  The orchestra warming up is from the session for A Day in the Life.  The audience murmuring at the top and the laughter in the middle come from the Abbey Road sound archives, and the screaming at the segue into the next song is from the Capitol Records Hollywood Bowl recordings of the Beatles.  This segue is the only true link on side one as Paul introduces the singer Billy Shears.

With a Little Help from My Friends - Ringo's signature song was written primarily by McCartney, but finished off with a little help from Lennon at a session attended by the group's authorized biographer Hunter Davies.  His highly entertaining account sheds some light on the collaborative method they employed.  The recording features Ringo at his most relaxed, backed by some fine call-and-response vocals from Paul and John.  The instrumentation is one of the most stripped-down on the entire album.  Compare this breezy, laid-back performance with Joe Cocker's smouldering version from 1968, and it's hard to imagine that it is the same song.

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds - The first truly psychedelic recording on the album is from Lennon, who always insisted that the song was based on a drawing by his son Julian, and that the letters LSD in the title were purely coincidental.  The writings of Lewis Carroll also inspired some of the images John used in this trippy fantasy number.  The distinctive opening phrases are played by Paul using the celeste stop on a Hammond organ.  When John's voice enters, vari-speed makes it sound incredibly high.  On take 6 from Anthology 2, he strains to hit the same notes with the tape running at regular speed.  George adds an Indian instrument called a tamboura to create a droning effect for the verses and a fuzzed guitar for the refrains.  If anyone ever wants to know what psychedelic rock was all about, they need look no further than this recording.  Elton John's 1974 attempt to recapture that psychedelic feel, though his version had the assistance of Lennon and was a number one hit, misses the mark.

Getting Better - Clipped chords introduce this upbeat number from McCartney.  The playful backing vocals from John and George are reminiscent of those from Help!, commenting on the lead by Paul.  The darker lyrics - "I used to be cruel to my woman..." - were added by Lennon as a contrast to McCartney's sunny lines.  George once again plays the tamboura and Ringo overdubs bongos onto the track.  But the most unique sound is George Martin playing piano by striking the strings directly instead of using the keyboard.  This effect is punched up for the fadeout.

Fixing a Hole - McCartney writes a state of mind composition.  He also adds harpsichord to the list of keyboards he played during these sessions.  George plays an absolutely fabulous guitar solo on this track, and he and John supply some fine backing vocals, as well.  Abbey Road Studios was fully booked on the night the Beatles were scheduled to work on the rhythm track of this song, so for the first time ever, they went to another studio in London - Regent Sound.

She's Leaving Home - McCartney took his inspiration for this song from a newspaper article about the generation gap.  While rather melodramatic, it works in part because Lennon, channeling his Aunt Mimi, added the voice of the parents to the refrain.  The syrupy score is by a fellow named Mike Leander, because George Martin was not immediately available to write it and Paul was impatient.  The harp which opens the song was played by Sheila Bromberg, the first female musician to work on a Beatles' track.  Paul and John's vocals are the only contributions by the group.

Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! - Lennon took the lyrics for this song almost verbatim from an old circus poster that he found while the group was shooting a promotional film in Kent for the recent single.  The complex recording has George Martin on harmonium, Paul playing the guitar solo, George, Ringo, and Beatles' assistants Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans on harmonica, plus John on Hammond organ and Martin on a Wurlitzer organ.  But the piece de resistence is the calliope.  Martin was unable to find one that did not require punched cards to play prerecorded songs, so he found a tape of a calliope playing Sousa marches and had Geoff Emerick cut it into segments, throw them in the air and splice them back together at random for the final section of the song.  This amazing swirl of sound brings side one to a close.

The sequence of songs was considered crucial to the flow of the album, and so, for the first time, Capitol Records in the US was required to release the exact same version as in the UK.  To get seven songs on one side of an album was as extravagant treat for American fans.


  1. I'd go for Revolver as my all-time favorite Beatles album (and album cover for that matter) but your summation of SPLHCB definitely reminds me that there's a huge tie in my mind for second fave Beatles LP between SPLHCB, the white album, Abbey Road and Rubber Soul. Great site! xo Amy

  2. Thanks, Amy. My personal favorite is the "White Album" as I state in my entry for side one of that album, but Revolver is a close cousin to it for its incredibly eclectic batch of songs.