The Top Ten Recording Secrets of Sgt. Pepper

The Top Ten Recording Secrets of Sgt. Pepper

For astrology aficionados, I have looked at the birth charts of both Lennon and McCartney on my own site – now let’s look at one of their most enduring creations. Just about every music fan around the world has heard, or read, about the cultural milestone that was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. Said to inaugurate the ‘Summer of Love’ on its release in June, 1967, Rock magazines regularly place it at number one in their top 100 albums of all time. It has been imitated (The Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request), endlessly documented on film and in print, even lampooned by Monty Python’s Eric Idle and songwriter Neil Innes (The ‘pre-fab four’, the Rutles). However, the details of its actual recording process may surprise a few readers. Odd little quirks are buried in the mix of this historic album, which perhaps only the most seasoned of Beatle experts will know about.

1. The sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band actually began as early as November 24th, 1966, and did not end until April 1st, 1967, when recording the reprise of the title track. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ should have been on the album, with the idea that it would be about their childhood. This concept was abandoned when EMI wanted a new single and the songs were released as a double A side. The version of ‘Strawberry Fields’ we now know is actually spliced together from two versions (in different keys) also at different speeds![1] John liked how the slower, mellotron-based version sounded, but also the other, faster version, heavy with orchestral brass and strings. The trouble is, he wanted them both on the finished recording. To deal with this insurmountable problem (the splice would have sounded plain wrong with the tracks as they stood) the second, faster version needed to be slower (when it would also drop in pitch) to match the tempo and key of the first version. Fortunately, this could be done by merely turning a knob on the tape deck, but the edit is audible at exactly one minute into the song[2]

2. The final version of ‘Penny Lane’ is also an edit: originally (at the track’s close) there existed a further piccolo trumpet figure, played by classical musician David Mason, which was soon removed from the version we now know and love. (Though not before it had been mailed to disc jockeys for radio broadcast in February, 1967). [3] [4] Recorded with at least four piano overdubs, this was McCartney experimenting with layered sound textures. Plus, the original recording (edited from the final product) had an extended ad lib vocal (at 2:54) as the track grinds to a halt, with McCartney announcing “a suitable ending. I think”. (Listen to the CD Anthology 2.)

3. There were two other songs recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, which also never found their way on to the album. The first, commenced after the recording of ‘Penny Lane’ was the avant garde, free-form instrumental known as ‘Carnival of Light’, which had been recorded for a mixed media ‘event’ at the Roundhouse theatre, London, organised by the underground newspaper International Times. The odd thing is that, according to informed sources, it sounds nothing at all like the Beatles. The point is, these random passages of echo and noise could have been made by anyone, hence some of the versions of ‘Carnival of Light’ found on YouTube may not be the genuine article, at all! Paul McCartney has, in later years – thankfully – shed some light on the track’s genesis. [5]

The other track not used on Sgt. Pepper (though almost certainly intended for it) was George Harrison’s ‘It’s Only A Northern Song’ (though it was used later during the soundtrack for the Yellow Submarine animated feature). Quite possibly the strangest song ever recorded by the Beatles (for one particular reason), it is deliberately performed as a somewhat tuneless dirge, with Harrison’s dissonant vocals, unwieldy chord changes and blasts of gleefully amateurish trumpet (thought to be played by McCartney). The Beatles were simply never known for wilful bad musicianship! Harrison’s far superior ‘Within You, Without You’ (thankfully) appeared on the album, instead. (Ian Macdonald, Revolution In The Head, Pimlico, 1998, pp. 198 & 209) .[6]

4. ‘Fixing A Hole’ is not the only song on Sgt. Pepper to be accused of making drug references (the more famous one is ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ which, if one removes the ‘stop-words’ leaves the abbreviation LSD). In ‘Fixing A Hole’, the alleged drug allusions were the ‘holes’ made by needle punctures, though Paul has said the song actually referred to the DIY activities on his rough-and-ready farm in the Scottish highlands. As for the recording, whilst McCartney’s bass playing was always impeccable, on this particular track there is an uncharacteristic mistake. His three-note bass pattern gets out of step with the metre, and he hurries to try and correct this at 1:09 (beneath ‘go’ in the vocal line ‘there I will go’.) Though not a major blemish, when we listen carefully to his bass line, it’s clearly audible. [7]

5. The audience noise we hear just before the title track on Sgt. Pepper came from the EMI sound effects vault. It was taken from a 1961 recording of the comedy revue, Beyond The Fringe. (Combined with this were orchestral noises that had been recorded when laying down tracks for ‘A Day In the Life’, which had started January 19th, 1967; this track wasn’t begun until the following month.) As the song comes to a close and segues into ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, the screaming girls we hear in the mix are actually taken from a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in the USA.[8]

6. The first song recorded (that actually appeared on the album) was ‘When I’m Sixty Four’. With its ‘grandchildren on your knee’ lyric, as Paul quaintly envisions married life in his old age, it was in fact written when he was sixteen! The other Beatles’ reference to grandchildren is more obscure. If we listen to the fade out of ‘Hey Bulldog’ (from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack) we hear some nonsense banter between John and Paul which includes the line, “what d’you mean, man, I already have grandchildren!”  (The Ultimate Beatles Quiz Book, Michael J. Hockinson, Boxtree, 1992, p. 164). [9]

7. The lyrics for ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ are, as Beatle buffs are aware, cribbed almost verbatim from a Victorian poster advertising a local circus. For the recording, Lennon insisted that Beatles producer George Martin find a steam calliope, an instrument that sends air through a bank of large whistles, and which can be played on a keyboard. The idea was to recreate the effect of a circus big top – in one address to Martin, Lennon said he wanted to ‘smell the sawdust’. However, George Martin couldn’t find a manually playable calliope and instead opted to recreate one. To do this he had a studio assistant cut up tape recordings of calliopes, throw them in the air and randomly patch them back together! [10]

8.On ‘Good Morning Good Morning’, the EMI sound effects tape department is utilised once more and we hear an odd assortment of birds and animals in the fade out (from 1:57). It was John’s idea that each succeeding animal would be able to scare or eat the previous one. [11] Hence, we have (in order) the sound of a bird, a cat, a dog, horses (then some sheep, thereby spoiling the concept) a lion, and finally an elephant! [12] ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ also announces itself with the crowing of a cock. What’s interesting is the other bird noise right at the end (following the sounds of the horse-and-hounds hunting party). Strictly speaking, it begins the next rack, the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ reprise, and what we hear is a chicken cluck almost perfectly morphing into a guitar note, at its very start. [13]

9. On ‘A Day in the Life’, the ‘4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’ were thought to allude to drugs, i.e. the ‘holes’ made by injecting heroin. The truth is less controversial, but weirder. The line came from a newspaper story in the ‘far and near’ section of the Daily Mail newspaper which – believe it or not – read: ‘There are 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire, or one twenty sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey. If Blackburn is typical, there are two million holes in Britain’s roads and 300, 000 in London.’! [14]

At the beginning of this monumental track, John (instead of the standard ‘one, two three four …’ count in) actually says, ‘sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy’! [15] This, of course, didn’t make it on to the final record. Something which did was in the long fade out, where an E major chord slams down to end the song (recorded on several pianos). The fader on the mixing desk was slowly turned up as the piano chord started to die away, but there must have been an open mike nearby as we can clearly hear someone’s piano stool creaking as they move! (This occurs at 4:50 on the CD version – you may need headphones!)

10. Apparently, it was Paul’s idea to fill up every available piece of sonic space that could be cut into the grooves of the Sgt. Pepper LP (short for long player, which is how twelve inch albums were known then). McCartney’s sense of humour came to the fore with the placing of a note audible only to dogs – at a frequency of 15khz. This appeared after the long piano chord fade-out, after which the album appears to end – only it doesn’t. People started to wonder why their pet dogs became agitated and began barking right at the end of ‘A Day In The Life’ – it was this very high pitched note they could hear.

But there was more to come; the Beatles masterpiece hadn’t quite finished yet. A final ‘track’, though not a piece of music, was not listed on the Sgt. Pepper album sleeve. It didn’t even appear on the album as such, but when it had completely stopped playing! On the traditional turntable, the needle playing an LP disc (or seven inch single) would normally move into a run-out groove, whereupon the arm would automatically lift and return to its original position. At the end of Pepper, this run out groove ‘played’ what can only be described as a looped section of random gibberish, a set of intermixed voices with no discernible sense to them. [16]

This had originally been recorded and spun backwards before the album was cut, and it really is anyone’s guess as to what is being said. To this author’s ears, it sounds like the phrase ‘never to see any other way’ which, when played in reverse, sounds quite like ‘will Paul be back as superman?’ [17] As we watch the needle apparently stuck in this groove and the phrase apparently repeating ad nauseam, we’re relieved to find it only lasts for about 42 seconds. Beatle aficionados may know about another take on the repeated phrase, one mentioned by Paul himself. He once recalled that a fan had asked him if the backward-masked recording actually said something rather rude – and unrepeatable. He went indoors and played the relevant section backwards and confirmed that it did! (The Beatles in their Own Words, edited by Miles, Omnibus Press, 1978, p.93).[18]

Featured image: Ярослав Трухин

My website is www.astro.nu

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