Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness
There are several versions of the story of how The Beatles’ most highly-acclaimed album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club came to be.
In one, John gives the full credit to Paul, who, inspired by “America and the whole West Coast, long-named group thing” - of bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company - came up with the concept.
According to Lennon, Paul “was trying to put some distance between the Beatles and the public”:
"And so there was this identity of Sgt. Pepper … Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere. All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band; but it works ‘cause we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared. But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album".
Lennon’s typical mix of grandiosity and self-deprecation probably sells the album short in any fan’s estimation (certainly in mine), but I believe that Paul cooked up the goofy personas and marching-band look. It is, after all, as Lennon says, “his way of working.”
Paul himself has said of Sgt. Pepper’s: “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We could make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.”
Despite the complex of personalities (both real and imagined) in the writing and recording of what many consider the band’s masterpiece, the recording process was incredibly simple, at least by today’s standards.
Today’s digital recording enables bands to record an unlimited number of tracks - either live or, more often, in layers upon layers of overdubs - leaving mixing engineers with sometimes hundreds of individual tracks to integrate into a coherent whole.
In 1967, during the age of tape and the tracking of Sgt. Pepper’s, engineers were limited to four tracks at a time, which they could then “bounce,” or merge together, to free up room for additional recording.
This is how the title song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” was made, and you can hear the four final master tracks “deconstructed” above.
First, in green, you’ll hear the original rhythm tracks, with drums, bass, and two guitars, all recorded on two tracks.
The red line represents tracks 3 and 4 - all of the vocals.
The blue portion is the horns and lead guitar, and yellow is the audience sounds.
You’ll hear each track individually, then hear them all come together, so to speak. The description below of the recording process comes from that inerrant (so I’ve heard) source, The Beatles Bible:
"The song was recorded over four days. On 1 February 1967 The Beatles taped nine takes of the rhythm track, though only the first and last of these were complete. They recorded drums, bass and two guitars - the latter played by McCartney and Harrison. The next day McCartney recorded his lead vocals, and he, Lennon and Harrison taped their harmonies. The song was then left for over a month, until the French horns were overdubbed on 3 March. McCartney also recorded a lead guitar solo, leaving the song almost complete. On 6 March they added the sounds of the imaginary audience and the noise of an orchestra tuning up, a combination of crowd noise from a 1961 recording of the comedy show Beyond The Fringe and out-takes from the 10 February orchestral overdub session for A Day In The Life. For the segue into With A Little Help From My Friends, meanwhile, they inserted screams of Beatlemaniacs from the recordings of The Beatles live at the Hollywood Bowl".