Sgt. Pepper - the back story
On August 29th 1966, The Beatles performed for 33 minutes
in front of 25,000 people at Candlestick Park in San Francisco
and although no one knew it then, it was their last live concert*.
It was the last gig of their third tour of North America.
They had done 19 concerts in 14 cities in 18 days.
The tour was an economic success, but aside from the
rigours of travel, they were virtual prisoners in their
hotel rooms, surrounded by legions of psychotic fans.
They were given to incessant, high-pitched screaming
whenever the lads appeared. Vox had developed new
100 watt amplifiers** for the tour, but monitors had not
yet been invented so even when they finally got to play,
they couldn't hear themselves or each other.
When we started to get famous and did our own songs
more it was very exciting. Then we started doing these
big tours and we had to play our records to promote them
and sing our hits and stuff.
By the time of our last tour, we were in a rut... It got boring.
…Worst of all, we became terrible musicians because we
couldn’t hear ourselves and we didn’t really care anymore.
There was also controversy. During an interview in March,
Lennon had remarked that "We're more popular than Jesus
now". It had passed almost unnoticed in the UK, but in
America there was some serious umbrage, especially
in the deep South (of course) .
In Memphis, the city council wanted to cancel the concerts,
conservative groups staged public burnings of Beatles
records and the KKK nailed a Beatles album to a wooden
cross, vowing "vengeance".
At the evening concert, an audience member threw a lit
firecracker onstage. In one of those curious correspondences
that can make one go "Hmmmm", when the firecracker went
off, Beatles' press agent Tony Barrow recalled that
"everybody, all of us at the side of the stage, including
the three Beatles on stage, all looked immediately
at John Lennon".
As they flew back to England, the four mop tops were not happy.
They were the biggest band in the world but they didn't
feel like musicians anymore. They weren't even sure
they still wanted to be Beatles.
Five months later, on December 8, the Fab Four would
meet up with the Other George in the EMI Studios
at 3 Abbey Road to start work on their eighth studio album.
Since they'd last seen each other:
- George Harrison had traveled to India to continue developing
his sitar playing at the invitation of Ravi Shankar.
- Paul McCartney, along with George Martin, wrote the
music for the film The Family Way
- John Lennon acted in How I Won the War, and attended
art galleries, where he met his future wife Yoko Ono.
- Ringo Starr spent time with his wife and children.
Now, it was time for the biggest band in the world
to make beautiful music together.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
- the concept
During a flight back from a holiday in Kenya with his girlfriend
Jane Asher and tour manager Mal Evans, McCartney had
the first idea for the concept of an alternative Beatles band
- fictitious characters - that would become the Sgt Pepper's
Lonely Heart's Club band.
The album would be a performance by that fictitious band.
This "alter-ego group" would give the band the freedom
to experiment with songs.
The album opens with the title song, introducing Sgt. Pepper's
band and segues into an introduction for bandleader "Billy Shears"
(Ringo) who performs "With a Little Help from My Friends".
There is a reprise version of the title song that appears on side
two just prior to "A Day in the Life".
While many point to Pepper as the dawn of the concept album,
the Beatles effectively abandoned this one after recording
the first two songs and the reprise. John Lennon said nothing
really tied everything together and that aside from the title
and reprise "Every other song could have been on any other album".
True, as far as it goes, but the concept wasn't dead.
Oh no. It would be back.
Sgt. Pepper's - the album
On that first day, they fired up the four track tape machine
and laid down take one of When I'm Sixty-Four.
The last track - the violins and cellos for Within You
Without You - was recorded on April 3, 1967, and mixing
was completed April 20.
Over the course of 129 days, they'd finished and sequenced
13 songs... 39 minutes and 42 seconds of music that
would literally rock the world.
They'd also started work on the cover.
Sgt. Pepper's - the cover... concept
The cover photo was taken on March 30, 1967.
The Grammy Award-winning album packaging was art-directed
by Robert Fraser, designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth,
his wife and artistic partner, and photographed
by Michael Cooper.
The photo was taken at Chelsea Manor Photographic
Studios on March 30, 1967.
There are more than 70 famous people, including writers,
musicians, film stars, including an image of the original
Beatles’ bassist, the late Stuart Sutcliffe.
George Harrison requested the four Indian gurus,
who appear in the final image. John Lennon requested
images of Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ, who do not.
Mae West initially refused, famously asking, "What would
I be doing in a lonely hearts club?" but she relented after
The Beatles sent her a personal letter.
Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys was supposed to be in there,
but in an early assertion of copyright control he demanded
to be paid for the use of his image and was not included...
On the back cover were all the lyrics. Black ink on a red
background meant they were not too readable in low-light
(drug-friendly) situations, but thanks to the catchy melodies
and repeated playings, they would soon be committed
to memory, where many of them reside to this day.
Open up the the gatefold sleeve, and a 24 inch photograph
of the Beatles on a bright yellow background wham-bams
For my friends and I and other young music lovers in Ontario,
this experience was complicated by the crest on Paul's left sleeve.
Where others might have seen one more splash of colour,
we saw the insignia of the Ontario Provincial Police,
an organization we preferred to avoid.
The eye candy continued in the form of a printed insert...
...which i don't remember anyone ever caring about much.
When all was said and done, the final bill for the cover
was £2,868 5s 3d (equivalent to £38,823 today). It may not
seem like much for an album that would chart for months,
let alone become an icon, but the going price for album art
at the time was about £50.
With Pepper's cover, the Beatles had smashed yet another
glass ceiling and laid the groundwork for a graphic
revolution and a marketing explosion.
SPLHC Band - the product
Pepper came out on June 1, 1967.
In Britain, it was number #1 with a bullet. Between June,
1967 and February, 1968, it spent a total of 27 weeks at
the top of the charts and it would stay on the charts for
a total of 148** weeks. In the US, it was number one for 15
weeks and on the charts for 88. Released in both mono and
stereo, it was the first Beatles' album released with
identical track listings in the UK and US.
People clearly liked it. Critical reaction ranged from
"a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization"
to "like an over-attended child, Sergeant Pepper is spoiled.
It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted
animal noises, and a 41-piece orchestra".
Sgt. Pepper's - epilogue
In another one of those curious correspondences that can
make one go "Hmmmm", two years to the day after the
release of Sgt. Pepper, John Lennon and a few friends
would record "Give Peace A Chance".
In Room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal,
with John and Tommy Smothers on guitar, Timothy Leary,
Joseph Schwartz, Petula Clark, Dick Gregory, Allen
Ginsberg, Murray the K and Derek Taylor would join
with dozens of journalists in creating an anthem.
* their last public performance was an unannounced concert
on a London rooftop in January 1969. They performed "Get Back,"
"Don't Let Me Down," "I've Got a Feeling," "One After 909," and "Dig a Pony".
** the standard amp at the time was 20 watts.
*** 148 weeks being like almost 3 years.
the Beatles last concert
the Beatles last tour
the greatest album cover of all time?
taking the famous cover shot