(Content adapted from Lauri Ulster’s “’Sgt. Pepper’ 50th Anniversary: The Making of a Rock Classic”)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band spun the music industry on its heels. When the album came out, the public devoured it, the critics raved, and other musicians stopped in their tracks, recognizing that the game had changed forever.
When you break it down into its individual songs, there is the usual mix of masterpieces, gems, and lesser songs—within the context of still being the Beatles, which means even the lesser songs impress—but there’s something that happened when the Beatles, the time period, the studio, and the people who worked on the album came together. Much like the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, and the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-Starr combination, there was alchemy at play, and the result woke up the music industry to the fact that new creative frontiers were possible, and could still be commercial as hell.
Love it or not, the album was groundbreaking. Let’s take a closer look at the elements that brought it all together, starting with:
By the mid-sixties, The Beatles—who’d initially been turned down by every record label in town—ruled over Abbey Road studios. They couldn’t control things like the drab décor or the painfully rough toilet paper—okay, they did eventually get that changed, after much protest—but they could put the studio and its staff on hold, and wander in and out as they pleased. They’d set session times for 7:00 p.m. but show up hours later. They’d have nothing scheduled, but suddenly call everybody up and tell them to come in. They’d use whatever instruments were around, fight for the padlock to be taken off the fridge so they’d still have access to it in the wee hours of the morning, and record whenever the inspiration struck, working on individual songs, tracks, or even simple riffs for as long as it took to get the sound just right. Anyone who signed on to work with them knew that their hours would be long and completely unpredictable, but incredibly rewarding.
They filled the studio up with other musicians, friends, and artists. When George Martin brought in half an orchestra for “A Day in the Life,” the Beatles asked for them to come in “evening dress,” and they did the same, although their version of it involved, as Martin described them, “outrageously flamboyant floral costumes.” McCartney showed up in a full-length red cook’s apron.
That was the atmosphere, but the studio’s technology was the other important piece of Abbey Road’s creative puzzle. At that time, producers only had four tracks available to work with, and every time they transferred the recording to another tape, they sacrificed some of the quality. The constant improvisation needed to move beyond the restraints of the era spurred the Beatles, along with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, to new creative heights as they found innovative and strange ways to get to what they were after. That spirit of experimentation is as much a part of the album as the tracks themselves.