To fully understand where the new Beatles sound came from–that of more creative, more artistic music and lyrics, and a move away from the quick and easy love songs of a few years previous–one should also take into account what was going on in the world at the time, musically and historically. By 1965, there had been a distinct change in viewing the world, and it was decidedly generational. The younger crowd were now well aware of historical events both in the US, the UK and abroad. Racial tension was at a high in both the UK and the US. Societal tension as well, the haves and have-nots becoming ever more polarized. The US had started deploying soldiers to the ongoing war in Vietnam at that time, and by 1967 the number of young soldiers there was soon to reach its peak. Back at home, more and more people of the same age were growing frustrated–there was a real and terrifying chance they would be called into duty to fight in a war they did not believe in. By late 1966 and early 1967, the younger generation started feeling the strain.
At the same time, there were movements in certain cities where that same generation had come up with an answer to the tension: peace and love. It took hold in all kinds of forms, depending on where you were. London, then currently hitting the height of fashion with Mary Quant and other designers, as well frequent but low-level recreational drug use, became “Swinging London” with its feverishly bright colors of Carnaby Street and the vibrant nightclub scene. San Francisco, on the other hand, had just kickstarted its own community movements, specifically as a “together we’re stronger” movement to counteract the generational and class-centric tensions going on. More to the point, San Francisco’s idea was to “look after your brothers and sisters” because it felt like no one else was at the time. Both scenes did involve some recreational drug use of course. In January 1966 Timothy Leary put on the first Acid Test in that city (equal parts party, concert, and LSD sharing), and in January 1967 he was one of the guest speakers at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, ushering in the “turn on, tune in, drop out” alternate lifestyle vibe. By that point, both London and San Francisco scenes had become somewhat blissed out, maybe even a little blissfully ignorant of world events, and in the process it had started to influence the sounds of the music coming out at the time.
That’s not to say that all rock music was political or oblivious in nature; it was more that eyes and ears had been opened, partly due to mind-altering drugs and partly as a need to break out of long-standing social mores that didn’t fit anymore. Musicians had stopped thinking about trying to write the next big radio hit, and started thinking: let’s see how far we can take this. By the mid-sixties, central California had created a bluesy-folksy sound in the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin; in southern California, the Beach Boys were growing out of their surf-pop phase and venturing into detailed songwriting and recording (especially evident with 1966’s Pet Sounds). Elsewhere we had the freakishly weird psychedelia of Frank Zappa, the countless garage-psych bands, and the brutally honest lyricism of folkies like Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.
In addition to this was a relatively new and untested sound: FM Radio.
FM had been around for quite some time, but had never really caught on publicly. Part of this was due to the fact that most listeners were either tuning in with the big bulky radio console in the living room (most of which still only picked up the AM frequencies), or in the hands of teens via small transistor radios. By the mid-sixties, however, many electronics companies were making newer and smaller radios that could pick up both bands, but at this point the radio business really hadn’t jumped on the FM bandwagon yet (and in effect, most FM stations, though commercial to some extent, did not have that much advertising that early in the game). This left the playing field–so to speak–wide open for the music directors and the deejays. Many of these announcers were decidedly not of the old-school variety, refusing to put on silly voices and say corny jokes to get revenue. Instead they were mostly music lovers, the fans who had grown up listening to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other bands and singers who sounded nothing like their parents’ favorite performers. This unexpected freedom created a format soon to be called “free-form”, in which they would not just play the singles (and on heavy rotation at that, like the AM pop stations), but would often play obscure album tracks and b-sides.
A perfect playing field for the new, rock-oriented Beatles.
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Single: “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single
Released: 17 February 1967
The band reconvened for their new sessions on 24 November 1966 with a completely clean slate. They didn’t have any concrete ideas of what the next album was going to be about, much less what it might sound like. They only had one song at first–a wispy, meandering song by John that he’d written in Spain during the shoot for How I Won the War, and a vague idea of how they’d view their new endeavor. During their extended vacation at the end of 1966, Paul had come back from a visit to the US having seen a number of new bands with odd names like “Uncle Jessy’s Medicine Show” or the like, and it had occurred to him: why not view the new work in a different light? Maybe instead of writing and singing “the latest Beatles pop hit”, why not write and sing as if they were a completely new band? They’d started going in that direction on Revolver, especially with the far-out psychedelia of “Tomorrow Never Knows”, so to the rest of the band, it made sense. Time to move forward in a new direction.
Side A: Strawberry Fields Forever
John’s new song was quite an introspective piece on multiple levels. He’d started withdrawing into himself (and into LSD and cannabis) about this time, not really knowing who he really was within, and was also dealing with his crumbling marriage to Cynthia. Was he normal, or was he going crazy? Was he the writer and the musician, or was he the performer? Perhaps to answer these questions, he needed to look back to his childhood and retrace his steps. The outcome was a dreamlike nostalgia like nothing he’d written before.
The finished recording itself is quite possibly one of the most detailed and complex recordings they’d ever put to tape. The first few takes were more pastoral–quiet and meandering, the offer to “let me take you down ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields” sounding more like a request to detach from the world for awhile. That mood was heightened by the appearance of a new instrument to the studio, the mellotron, formerly used in the studio for sound effects but here used–quite possibly for the first time on a rock record–as a full-fledged instrument. The end result of the first few takes remain quiet, but by Take 7, John–known quite well for his lack of patience–had decided that the song needed a LOT more oomph to it. On 8 December when they returned to the track, they tried a new approach, this time playing it much harder and louder. They enjoyed this new version and used it as the master for overdubs with horns and strings, among other things. Lastly, John threw in one more spanner: he confessed to George Martin that he liked the opening of the softer pastoral version in a lower key, but also liked the latter half of the louder, nearly complete version recorded one key higher…and wondered if they could be edited together. Martin being ever resourceful and creative, managed it almost too easily: slow one down and speed one up until they matched both in pace and key. [One can hear the edit at precisely one minute in: “let me take you down, ’cause I’m” [EDIT] “going to…”] The end result was a fantastic piece of dreamy psychedelia that no one had expected from the band–it would only hit #2 on the UK charts, but it was a wonderful introduction to the new sound of the band.
Side B: Penny Lane
This song of Paul’s was started on 29 December 1966, though he had started writing it nearly a year previous. It seemed to be a perfect counterpoint to John’s semi-nostalgic song–while “Strawberry Fields” is more introspective and the namesake is only used in passing, “Penny Lane” went into great detail describing everything one could see in that particular location of Liverpool when Paul was growing up. It’s quite a lively track full of semi-fictional characters going about their daily lives, all seen by a young man at the bus terminal in the square. Paul went to great lengths to give it a high, bouncy feel, playing short, hard chords on the piano and later having musician David Mason play a Bach-like solo on a piccolo trumpet. It’s a well-loved track, and Paul still plays it live to this day.
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Since both tracks were so strong (and their only other track put to tape at this time was the somewhat less poppy “When I’m Sixty-Four”), Brian Epstein chose these two tracks as a double A-side single. Promotional videos were made for both songs and shot in Knole Park in Sevenoaks, Kent, and shown around the world. The packaging for the single came in a color cover, quite rare for UK singles at the time, with a shot of the band on the cover and individual toddler shots on the back. The band even looked different–the moptops were replaced by longer stylish cuts, they’d all grown facial hair, and even their clothes style had changed. George Martin famously admitted that releasing them as a single and thus taking them out of the running for an album was possibly the worst move he’d ever made in the music business…had he not done that, the sound of the album could have ended up being quite different. Still…it’s an exceptional single, and one that took almost everyone by surprise. And if they thought this single had come out of nowhere…
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Album: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Released: 1 June 1967
One can only wonder what a regular Beatles fan thought of this album when they dropped the needle down on it for the first time. The preceding single was definitely a sign that the band had completely changed their sound from just a few years ago, but what would they be expecting to hear? Perhaps the cover itself was a hint: it clearly wasn’t the loveable moptops anymore. The old Beatles were Madame Tussauds wax figures in black and off to the side, looking somewhat tired and morose. The new Beatles were in colorful band uniforms standing around a colorful bass drum, and surrounded by statues and cut-out pictures of famous people past and present. And on the back, instead of a stock shot of the band or a punchy article written by Tony Barrow, it presented all the lyrics to the songs, superimposed over a small picture of the band looking as though they were about to perform, with Paul conducting. And those lyrics weren’t the regular love songs of yore.
This wasn’t going to be a record full of three minute radio-friendly pop gems, that was for sure.
The album could be considered partly a concept album–a relatively new creation in rock at the time–in which the Beatles are envisioning themselves as Sgt Pepper’s band, playing their songs. Sure, some could say this was a bit of a pretentious move for them (and Paul actually admitted as much in a later interview about it), but in hindsight, it seemed to be the right course of action for them at the time. They didn’t want to just try something new to see how it sounded…they wanted to see how far they could take it.
Track 1: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The album starts off, curiously enough, with audience sounds. Taken from source recordings for an older Beyond the Fringe comedy album, it literally sets the stage for the rest of the album: you’re about to see Sgt Pepper’s band play live, just for you. The song itself starts a few seconds later, a curious yet fascinating mix of introductory march and groovy rock sound, with Paul playing a loud and crunchy lead guitar throughout. Lyrically and musically it’s a simple track, but it sets the scene for the entire album: here we are, the new band, ready to play songs for you. And for the first time, one Beatles song segues perfectly into the next…
Track 2: With a Little Help from My Friends
…in this case, a feature song for Ringo to sing, under the guise of singer Billy Shears. It’s an incredibly simple song melodically–there’s only five notes to it, if you think about it–but lyrically it’s a lovely piece that ties in with the “new band” theme. We might not be that great, but give us a chance and I think you’ll like us. The lyrics also fit Ringo perfectly–he’d always been happiest playing with his three best mates, and when they offer a call-response on the second and third verses (and the bridges), one can truly hear the friendship they shared.
Track 3: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
After two introductory songs, we’re brought in to a track of John’s that, for the first time in a Beatles song, dives headfirst into the whimsical world of John’s subconscious mind. Though decidedly not about LSD per se (despite the long-standing naming myth), the drug did influence just how far he was willing to go with his wordplay. The imagery here is otherworldly, full of strange colors and odd people and things and sung with heavily treated vocals, but at the same time it could also be looked at as a love song to a girl who could literally blow his mind. Musically it’s fascinating, a quiet and delicate melody in 3/4 played in just a few notes by Paul on an organ and accompanied by sparse guitars and tamboura, until the chorus kicks in, played in 4/4 time as a counterpoint. Nearly every instrument has been treated with some kind of effect, including John’s voice, drenched in ADT (Artificial Double Tracking). It’s an extremely trippy song, but it’s fascinatingly arranged.
Track 4: Getting Better
Paul and John follow up with an upbeat song that sounds reminiscent of what they were aiming for on Revolver. The lyrics are incredibly straightforward–Paul sings about once being a less-than-stellar man in his youth but seeing the error of his ways and indeed “getting better all the time.” He’d borrowed the phrase from temporary fill-in drummer Jimmy Nicol (that was his stock answer whenever being asked about how he was getting along with the band), and John throws in a clever “It couldn’t get no worse” response in the chorus. The arrangement here, unlike the live sound of the first two tracks and the deliberate muddiness of the “Lucy”, is sparse and remarkably clear, with chiming guitars and choppy piano, as if to make the song as bright and positive as positive. That clarity is wonderfully counterpointed during the verses about how bad he once was; the first half of each verse is played low and droning, only to pick up at the end.
Track 5: Fixing a Hole
A Paul song that somewhat continues the self-examination theme, this time focusing on all the moments where he loses track of where he’s going and what he’s doing. It’s also about those around him at that point in his life, specifically the fans and followers, some of whom really didn’t get that he and the other three also had a mundane private life as well. This song is also unique in that it’s the first Beatles song (not including the two German-sung remakes in 1964) recorded at an EMI studio that wasn’t Abbey Road, which happened to be booked solid on 9 February. They instead recorded a few takes at Regent Sound Studio, and built the final song off Take 2 from that session.
Track 6: She’s Leaving Home
An incredibly haunting song written by both John and Paul, partly inspired by the occasional stories they’d heard of young women disappearing in the UK for one reason or another–in this case, a girl who had run away from home to be with her boyfriend. The arrangement here is so sparse it feels nearly empty, which only adds to the sadness of the song. John and Paul sang their vocals together in Greek chorus style, with John playing the girl’s parents, lamenting her disappearance and unable to see what they might have done to chase her away. Quite heady stuff lyrically, and miles away from even their most recent songs like “Ticket to Ride” or “In My Life”. [As an aside, the mono and stereo versions are different, in that the mono version is sped up to sound a semitone higher, apparently to make Paul sound younger and the song slightly more upbeat.]
Track 7: Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Ending Side 1 on a more upbeat note, John features an incredibly fun track whose lyrics were taken almost wholesale from an antique circus poster he’d recently bought. It’s a track that’s quite close to the whole imaginary Sgt Pepper theme, a song introducing the feats and wonders of a number of circus performers, and arranged to sound as much like a fairground as possible. John, George and Ringo all take part playing the many harmonicas on the track; the ending bars contain not just a perky organ melody but a mishmash of steam organ recordings played forwards and backwards. Again, this reinforces John’s budding habit of infusing whimsy into his music instead of just his writing. It’s an interesting parallel to “Lucy” in that, while both are dreamlike, the former takes a fever-dream route while “Kite” takes it in a childlike direction, the innocence of going to a festival to see the acrobats and the dancing horses.
Track 1: Within You Without You
This is actually George’s second attempt at a song for the album; the band had originally recorded the track “Only a Northern Song” in late February, but as the sessions went along, it was clear that the track would not fit the overall sound of the rest of the album. So instead on 15 March, George–and only George, along with Indian instrumentalists–recorded this deeply spiritual track inspired by his ongoing studies of Indian music, spiritualism and culture. Lyrically it’s a meditation on one’s place in the world, specifically how, despite what one may think or believe, everything goes on whether one is connected or not. While George’s musicianship in this style was hinted at on Revolver (specifically with “Love You To”), here he brings it out front and center, building a three-part song of introduction, meditation and reflection. Even more fantastic here is George Martin’s orchestral score (added a few weeks later on 3 March), which not just echoes the tones of the Indian instruments but attempts to mimic them, with sliding notes and pizzicato taps. Perhaps the most curious and unresolved part of the song is in its final seconds, once the song winds down; the spiritual calm is broken by canned laughter, perhaps meant to lighten the overall mood of the song, or to provide a lighter segue into the next track. [I’ve always felt that it was a Zen-like reminder that the message may be serious, but that does not mean one must remain serious forever.]
Track 2: When I’m Sixty-Four
This ditty actually dates back to their days at the Cavern Club in Liverpool–Paul once noted that this track was his attempt at writing for a lounge singer, or perhaps someone like Sinatra. By the time they returned to it in December 1966, they’d exchanged the swinging sound for a much lighter soft-shoe vaudeville one, complete with a jazzy clarinet trio, which seemed to fit the “when I get older, losing my hair” theme. In addition to that, Paul suggested they record it in a lower key and speed up the master (it was recorded in C, but the released version is in D-flat); the effect not only makes him sound younger but also makes the song sound like an old-timey jazz 78rpm record recorded played a bit fast. It’s a fun song that doesn’t take itself seriously at all–much like the original Cavern days version, which was often performed whenever their amplifiers lost power.
Track 3: Lovely Rita
To continue the light ambience, Paul brings in a fun and quirky love song about a female traffic warden he’s fallen for. It too is a silly track, almost a pastiche of John’s “Norwegian Wood” in a way, in which the narrator tries to bring the woman home (so to speak!) but is thwarted in the end–this time by Rita’s sisters who are keeping an eye on the two. Musically it sounds like the band had a hell of a lot of fun recording this on 23 February, as their playing is quite jovial and bouncy, the vocals are delivered tongue firmly in cheek and quite heavy on the ADT, and the background noises are John, Paul and George humming a tune via paper-and-comb.
Track 4: Good Morning Good Morning
John’s current habit of writing about the mundane side of life came to the fore here, a bright and lively track inspired by none other than a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial. The “rise and shine” theme is evident throughout, as the narrator (singing in a rare second person here!) describes the day as it unfolds–unlike “Penny Lane” with its slice of life description, “Good Morning” is more of a mise-en-scene–you’re walking down the street, feeling tired and run down, but things will get better, because everyone around you is so full of life–even if it’s just for something as mundane as tea and soap operas. This recording fascinating on multiple levels: its shifting time signature of 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4 just in the verses alone; the horns (played by the band Sounds Incorporated, who’d toured with the band previously) are miked similar to “Got to Get You Into My Life”, with the pickups in the bells of the saxes to get a rich wall of sound out of them. And to top it off, in a wink to farm sounds found on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, John had George Martin insert all kinds of wildlife sounds at the end, with the implicit instruction that the follow-up animal had to be capable of scaring (or eating!) the animal before it. Thus we go from rooster, to cat, to dog, and upwards until the song fades out on a stampede of wild elephants, which fades into the distance, leaving only the rooster again. In a brilliant editing move, Martin deftly cross-cuts the start of a rooster crow with….
Track 5: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Reprise)
…a guitar note! The band’s road manager Neil Aspinall had suggested the band do a reprise of the first track, considering it had been an “introductory” song, and the album could wind down with a “closing” song as well. This version, recorded exactly two months after the original, was a rocking interpretation, a rousing “thank you and good night” track lasting just a minute and a half. It was recorded in one marathon session of multiple takes (mainly due to the fact that Paul was leaving on a US trip the next day), but for the most part it was recorded nearly completely live, with very little overdubbing of vocals and a few light touches. It’s short, but it’s nothing but solid playing from everyone involved.
Track 6: A Day in the Life
Though this track was recorded relatively early in the sessions (19-20 January, with additional work done a week or so later), by the time they finished recording, they knew that this absolutely had to be the last track on the album, no question. It’s long been considered one of their best compositions, and given the amount of time dedicated to it (a total 34 hours, twenty-two more than the entirety of Please Please Me!), it’s by far one of their most complex productions. There are three distinct parts–the first and third, written mostly by John and taken from recent newspaper articles (the death of friend Tara Browne in a car accident, the report that the roads in Blackburn were filled with potholes, and so on), and the middle section provided mostly by Paul (a simple nostalgic trip of riding the double-decker bus through Liverpool when he was younger), each with its own personality. The first part is performed with deliberate slowness, starting quietly but growing increasingly louder until we reach the end. The link to part two is via a crazy idea from Paul and Martin, in which an orchestra plays an unscripted rise from the instrument’s lowest note up to its highest in the space of 24 bars. That link serves not just to wind up the listener but the speed, as Paul’s section comes in double-time, a bouncy and simple melody meant to evoke a commuter running late. The second gives way to a third part via an absolutely breathtaking eight bars–it’s not complex, but listen to how Martin takes a simple four-note score and makes it dynamic by gradually increasing the volume. In part three we’ve returned to an abbreviated repeat of John’s first section, played double-time as well…only to be brought back to that nightmarish ascension again. This time, once everyone hits that high E, we’re left floating up in the air for a brief second…only to come crashing down–hard–on a final low E chord. That final breathtaking moment is played by John, Paul, Ringo and Mal Evans on three pianos and George Martin on a harmonium, and is drawn out to nearly forty seconds via the recording level being brought up as high as possible as the piano’s natural reverberation slowly fades.
[And in typical Beatle fashion, just as the listener is left breathless, the original UK pressings of the album had a quick few seconds’ banter added just at the right moment that it would be played in the runout groove, thus causing it to be played in an infinite loop until the stylus was picked up. It’s since been added in a fake loop on the CD version, and is found in its brief three-second form on the US compilation Rarities under the title “Sgt Pepper Inner Groove”.]
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Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released during the height of the Summer of Love–1 June in the UK, and 2 June in the US–and was immediately embraced and lauded by nearly every fan and critic. A few critics felt it was a bit over the top, but for the most part, it was considered the band’s ultimate masterpiece. It’s been near or on the top of many Best Ever Rock Album lists, and it’s been celebrated, imitated, and made into multiple tribute albums (one of the best being 1988’s Sgt Pepper Knew My Father, an NME tribute album compiled for a UK teen runaway hotline). It took nearly five months to record and mix, over double the time given for Revolver, and as no tracks had been leaked until its final release, not even the critics knew what to expect. In the end it set the bar up so high that many other bands could only wish to reach that far, but at the same time it gave those same bands something to aim for. Rock music had turned a page, evolving out of its place as a teen commodity and becoming more of an art form. Pop music was still around and had its true fans, but those with a deeper, more emotional tie to the music they loved were finally given something they could fully embrace. The Beatles were well aware of this, and though they still had a firm foothold on the pop charts, they knew that from here on in, they could (and would) try anything.
Next Up: The "All You Need Is Love"/"Baby You're a Rich Man" and "Hello Goodbye"/"I Am the Walrus" singles