The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’: It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…
By mid-january the monkees were topping the British charts with “I’m a Believer,” a new guitar sensation from America called Jimi Hendrix had erupted out of nowhere with a single called “Hey Joe,” and the Beatles, refreshed by a Christmas break, were back in the Abbey Road studios. By this point, EMI was anxious for a new Beatles single, and so it was decided to give the company “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane.” Both songs had been intended for the album, but as Martin recalls, he and Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, “had a campaign to make sure singles weren’t duplicated on albums. In those days people were very conscious of value for money. Of course, today that seems completely wrong – everybody wants the single on their album.” Thus “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” were effectively cut from the heart of the Pepper project when EMI released them as a double-A-side single on February 17th.
Shortage of material was never a problem for the Beatles, though, and by the end of March they had added five new tracks to “When I’m Sixty-four,” the only song remaining from their pre-Christmas sessions. The new titles were announced (or at least reported) as being “Meter Rita,” “A Day in the Life,” “Good Morning, Good Morning, Good Morning,” “She’s Leaving Home” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Blues.”
One of the first people outside the Beatles’ immediate orbit to hear any of this new music was Alan Livingston, the head of Capitol Records, the EMI subsidiary that released the Beatles’ records in the States. Livingston happened to be in London for an EMI board meeting and accepted an invitation to drop by the studio and hear what his most important act was up to. “They were doing playbacks when I walked in – ‘A Day in the Life,’ ” Livingston recalls. “I was not prepared at all. I said, ‘What is that? Who is that?’ I couldn’t believe it. I raised two feet off the floor.”
“A Day in the Life” was indeed a stunner – not that the other five tracks so far recorded were simple filler in any way. Each production was in some way – lyrically, harmonically, sonically – innovative. And perhaps the most remarkable thing about them, especially from the perspective of the tech-happy Eighties, is how playfully, even primitively, they were put together. There are no synthesizers on Sgt. Pepper, none of the harmonizers or sampling machines that dominate so much current pop music. The songs were recorded on what would be, by today’s standards, laughably crude four-track machines, of a sort not unlike the portable-studio decks now available to aspiring amateur producers for something like $500. Two of these four-track machines might be linked at times to record in sync, mixing down the original four tracks onto two tracks on the second machine and adding two new tracks of studio overdubs. This process might occasionally be repeated once again but, according to Martin, never more – the decay in tape quality would have been unacceptable. In terms of today’s technology – in which it is not unusual to hear records containing forty-eight tracks and more – the Sgt. Pepper sessions were strictly kiddy exercises. But the magic in the grooves was undeniable.
“Most of today’s studio technology is based on the things we used in those sessions,” says Geoff Emerick. “Flanging, phasing – that’s all based on what we used to do with just a variable-speed tape machine. We weren’t inundated with electronic boxes. It was a mechanical form.”
“We had to invent our own tools,” says George Martin, “rather like cave men. Therefore it was much more exciting. The coming together of Pepper was a kind of eruption of combined genius. It wasn’t just that John and Paul wrote some marvelous songs – they did, of course. But everybody sparked each other off.”
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