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March 28, 2024

50 Candid Photographs From The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” Sessions in 1966 and 1967

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the eighth studio album by the Beatles. Released on May 26, 1967, Sgt. Pepper is regarded by musicologists as an early concept album that advanced the roles of sound composition, extended form, psychedelic imagery, record sleeves, and the producer in popular music. The album had an immediate cross-generational impact and was associated with numerous touchstones of the era’s youth culture, such as fashion, drugs, mysticism, and a sense of optimism and empowerment. Critics lauded the album for its innovations in songwriting, production and graphic design, for bridging a cultural divide between popular music and high art, and for reflecting the interests of contemporary youth and the counterculture.

Sessions began on November 14, 1966 in Studio Two at EMI Studios (subsequently Abbey Road Studios), marking the first time that the Beatles had come together since September. Afforded the luxury of a nearly limitless recording budget, and with no absolute deadline for completion, the band booked open-ended sessions that started at 7 pm and allowed them to work as late as they wanted. They began with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” followed by two other songs that were thematically linked to their childhoods: “When I'm Sixty-Four,” the first session for which took place on December 6, and “Penny Lane.”

According to the musicologist Walter Everett, Sgt. Pepper marks the beginning of McCartney’s ascendancy as the Beatles' dominant creative force. He wrote more than half of the album’s material while asserting increasing control over the recording of his compositions. In an effort to get the right sound, the Beatles attempted numerous re-takes of McCartney’s song “Getting Better.” When the decision was made to re-record the basic track, Starr was summoned to the studio, but called off soon afterwards as the focus switched from rhythm to vocal tracking. Much of the bass guitar on the album was mixed upfront. Preferring to overdub his bass part last, McCartney tended to play other instruments when recording a song’s backing track. This approach afforded him the time to devise bass lines that were melodically adventurous – one of the qualities he especially admired in Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds – and complemented the song’s final arrangement. McCartney played keyboard instruments such as piano, grand piano and Lowrey organ, in addition to electric guitar on some songs, while Martin variously contributed on Hohner Pianet, harpsichord and harmonium. Lennon’s songs similarly showed a preference for keyboard instruments.

Although Harrison’s role as lead guitarist was limited during the sessions, Everett considers that “his contribution to the album is strong in several ways.” He provided Indian instrumentation in the form of sitar, tambura and swarmandal, and Martin credited him with being the most committed of the Beatles in striving for new sounds. Starr’s adoption of loose calfskin heads for his tom-toms ensured his drum kit had a deeper timbre than he had previously achieved with plastic heads. As on Revolver, the Beatles increasingly used session musicians, particularly for classical-inspired arrangements. Norman comments that Lennon’s prominent vocal on some of McCartney’s songs “hugely enhanced their atmosphere,” particularly “Lovely Rita.”

Within an hour of completing the last overdubs on the album’s songs, on April 20, 1967, the group returned to Harrison’s “Only a Northern Song,” the basic track of which they had taped in February. The Beatles overdubbed random sounds and instrumentation before submitting it as the first of four new songs they were contracted to supply to United Artists for inclusion in the animated film Yellow Submarine. In author Mark Lewisohn’s description, it was a “curious” session, but one that demonstrated the Beatles’ “tremendous appetite for recording.” During the Sgt. Pepper sessions, the band also recorded “Carnival of Light,” a McCartney-led experimental piece created for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, held at the Roundhouse Theatre on January 28 and February 4. The album was completed on April 21 with the recording of random noises and voices that were included on the run-out groove, preceded by a high-pitched tone that could be heard by dogs but was inaudible to most human ears.

The Beatles sought to inject an atmosphere of celebration into the recording sessions. Weary of the bland look inside EMI, they introduced psychedelic lighting to the studio space, including a device on which five red fluorescent tubes were fixed to a microphone stand, a lava lamp, a red darkroom lamp, and a stroboscope, the last of which they soon abandoned. Harrison later said the studio became the band’s clubhouse for Sgt. Pepper; David Crosby, Mick Jagger and Donovan were among the musician friends who visited them there. The band members also dressed up in psychedelic fashions, leading one session trumpeter to wonder whether they were in costume for a new film. Drug-taking was prevalent during the sessions, with Martin later recalling that the group would steal away to “have something.”

The February 10 session for orchestral overdubs on “A Day in the Life” was staged as a happening typical of the London avant-garde scene. The Beatles invited numerous friends and the session players wore formal dinner-wear augmented with fancy-dress props. Overseen by NEMS employee Tony Bramwell, the proceedings were filmed on seven handheld cameras, with the band doing some of the filming. Following this event, the group considered making a television special based on the album. Each of the songs was to be represented with a clip directed by a different director, but the cost of recording Sgt. Pepper made the idea prohibitive to EMI. For the March 15 session for “Within You Without You,” Studio Two was transformed with Indian carpets placed on the walls, dimmed lighting and burning incense to evoke the requisite Indian mood. Lennon described the session as a “great swinging evening” with “400 Indian fellas” among the guests.

The Beatles took an acetate disc of the completed album to the flat of American singer Cass Elliot, off King’s Road in Chelsea. There, at six in the morning, they played it at full volume with speakers set in open window frames. The group’s friend and former press agent, Derek Taylor, remembered that residents of the neighborhood opened their windows and listened without complaint to what they understood to be unreleased Beatles music.


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