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Assault On Pepper

Sgt Pepper | The Beatles

The Beatles' most celebrated LP is 20 years old this month: have a splendid time reading how it was made


The Beatles' 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' LP is 20 years old this month, a milestone for musicians, studio techniques, and 4-track technology. It was arguably the first concept album, and producers, engineers and players can still learn lessons from it today. That's why John Morrish and Tony Bacon, dressed up in their best velvet uniforms, tell the story of just one track — the LP's finest, 'A Day In The Life' — from fresh interviews with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick.

A Day In The Life is the last great Beatles recording, although no-one would have expected that at the time.

It's one of the few actual collaborations between Lennon & McCartney, with George Martin an essential third partner. Without the recording he directed, the song would be nothing more than guitar strums and rambling words.

It's also a much better song than its creators intended. That sounds odd, but it's obvious. We say things all the time that reveal more than we really intend. And our words may mean more to other people than we can anticipate. So it is with songs.

Lennon's verse is a dirge in E minor, the opening "I read the news today, oh boy" a snippet of blues scale. Lennon tells us that he sees a rather sad news item about a man getting killed in a car crash and he just has to laugh.

Clearly, it's an inappropriate reaction, the kind of thing you see in heavy drug enthusiasts, the psychologically disturbed and the heroes of existential fiction. Lennon, at various points, was all three.

The music and Martin's production reinforce the mood. It's difficult to imagine the three central figures sitting down and discussing what the song was supposed to come out like: it happened anyway.

For the second verse, the drums arrive, sounding like orchestral tympani but played like a normal kit. They drive a compressor which, in turn, winds the acoustic guitar level up and down so that it is squeezed out between drum beats, like toothpaste from a tube.

The verses end with that famous banned line "I'd love to turn you on", rocking between B and C notes, a siren wail akin to the one in I Am The Walrus, and no less sinister. It sits unhappily over the Bm, G and Em chord sequence.

The "boys" had already put together Lennon's verse and McCartney's middle section, but between the fragments they wanted "something else". Paul marked out a 24 bar stretch on the 4-track by banging out a piano E four-to-the-bar throughout. They told George to book an orchestra and make them freak out. He declined, writing out 24 bars of upward slide instead and telling the half-sized session orchestra to play without listening to each other.

The material went down on a separate Studer 4-track to that used for the band's playing. Four, or perhaps only three, tracks of orchestra were recorded, in time to McCartney's piano, using for the first time a link between the two machines, invented on the spot by EMI engineer Ken Townsend.

Opinions differ as to how effective it was. The machines would run in sync, the second being driven by a 50 Hz tone recorded on the first, but they wouldn't start together. The orchestral tracks were recorded out of time with the original song, and with each other. And the same problem cropped up at the mix.

Consequently, the rhythmic pulse of the music falls apart during the orchestral passage. No doubt infuriating at the time, it looks now like a happy accident, as disorientating as Lennon's lyric.

Then there's a blunt edit and an alarm clock goes off. A joke by roadie Mal Evans intended to point out the end of the 24 bar gap, it is preserved for posterity because it got onto the tape via the foldback speakers. It ends up as part of the song, with McCartney singing "Woke up..." immediately afterwards.

Paul takes us on a trip on a bus. Upstairs he has a smoke (a cheer from the rest of the band is clearly audible) and goes into his dream. Actually, it's George Martin's dream, brass, strings, echoed "Ah"s, all making the kind of psychedelic music that was as much to blame for the BBC ban as Paul's lyrics. Not bad for a man who much preferred a cup of tea.

The session men hated the Beatles' experiments. Silly people: this was probably the most important recording any of them ever made. George's powers of persuasion were stretched to the limit.

After the last verse, Mal Evans returns to count bars again, but he's soon drowned by the orchestra. His voice this time is accidentally committed to tape, becoming a "found object" before Eno ever got to art school.

The strings scream like a B52 on the runway, arriving at a chord that is approximately E major, being made up of the top notes of each instrument. A moment's pause, then the final crashing chord, a roomful of pianos playing E major in a voicing known only to Uncle George. In classical music, E major sometimes signifies heaven. The Beatles only knew, probably, that it felt right. When you've been playing a gloomy E minor, E major has got to be a joyful release.

Up come Geoff Emerick's faders, holding the chord for a full 42 seconds and making the Abbey Road air conditioning part of the production, just like the words, the music, the weird instruments, the performances, the accidents and masses of unheard engineering expertise.

The pop musicians of 1967 weren't artists: they certainly didn't think they were. The tools they needed hadn't been invented. They didn't really know what they were doing, just that they had to do it. Today, tape machines stay in perfect synchronisation. Alarm clocks don't go off in studios. Accidents have to be arranged.

Today's records are made with calculation and with the end product always in mind. One person can do it all. It's a hefty responsibility to know that every sound on the record is going to have to be put there, deliberately, by you.

It wasn't like that for Lennon, McCartney and Martin. They just got together in a room and made the record that is their highest achievement. They didn't mean to.

THE LONELY FACTS CLUB

"We had one track left to do the overdubbed fairground noises on 'Mr Kite'. George Martin was playing harmonium, someone was playing glockenspiel, another piano, someone was spinning tape fast then slowing it down — and all in one fell swoop, live. George ended up spreadeagled on the floor, he'd been pumping the harmonium for ages." Geoff Emerick, recording engineer.

"I put 'transfer flat' on the master tape box, meaning that the cutting engineer should not equalise or compress anything, we didn't want it interfered with in any way. And I was reprimanded by EMI for not adding the word 'please'." Geoff Emerick.

"I'm afraid the boys didn't plan very much at this time — when they wanted to record they never said 'keep the next two weeks free because we're sure to need a studio'. They'd ring up at 10 in the morning and say 'we want to record tonight, 7 o'clock, OK?' And I had to find a damned studio." George Martin, producer.

"If I had my time again I think I would put a longer gap between 'She's Leaving Home' and 'Mr Kite', I thought it was hip at the time. And there's the hiss of the records used to dub the sound effects on to 'Good Morning' — you don't notice it much on the vinyl, but my God you notice it on CD. Sorry about that folks." George Martin.

'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'Penny Lane' — with 'When I'm 64' the first tracks recorded for "Pepper" — were intended for the LP until EMI demanded a single.

The instrument opening 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is a Hammond organ set to a celeste-like stop, doubled by a droning sitar. John Lennon told 'Rolling Stone' in 1971 that "I swear to God, or swear to Mao, or to anybody you like, I had no idea (it) spelled LSD..."

Indian session musicians on 'Within You Without You' played a dilruba (long-necked fretted fiddle, bowed, with four main and many sympathetic strings), a tabla (pair of small hand-drums), a surmandal (plucked board zither with around 40 metal strings, like an autoharp), and a tambura (long-necked 'drone-lute'). A dozen western violins and cellos were also included.

'Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite' uses three principle sounds to get the fairground effect: a bass harmonica on the first and third beats of the bar; a sped-up organ melody after the 'Henry the horse dances the waltz' line; and chopped-up tapes of fairground organ recordings edited together more or less at random.

'Fixing A Hole' provided one of the few occasions on which the Beatles recorded outside Abbey Road studios. McCartney started the track at Regent A studio in central London. Geoff Emerick says this was because he and George Martin were busy recording Cilla Black at Abbey Road.

The mono mix of "Pepper" took George Martin, Geoff Emerick and the Beatles three weeks. The Beatles then went on holiday and George and Geoff mixed the stereo version in three days. "So the record to have is the mono one, it has finer brush strokes," says Emerick.

The first three tracks via the eight-in four-out EMI desk on to the 4-track Studer machines would usually be: guide bass; mono drums; piano and guitar on one track. Then perhaps some drop-ins would be recorded on to parts of the piano and guitar track. Bouncing was generally kept to one generation (rarely two). The guide bass was invariably replaced with a more ornate line, and vocals would have a track of their own.

Instruments used by the group in 1967 included: Gibson J series acoustic, Gretsch Country Gentleman electric, Epiphone Casino electric, Gibson SG electric, Rickenbacker electric 12-string, Rickenbacker 4000 series bass, Hofner violin bass, Ludwig drum kit, various percussion, sitar, tambura, piano, harpsichord, mellotron, Hammond and Lowrey organs.

The infamous run-out groove nonsense is preserved on the CD version of "Pepper", running nine or ten times and then fading out. As George Martin says, "You can always program your CD not to play it."

Headphone time: listen for Lennon's whispered "Bye-ee" under Paul's count-in on the reprise of 'Sgt Pepper'. Or a squeaking piano stool and rustling paper on the dying moments of 'Day In The Life's final chord. Or the sound of tape hiss on CD.

Most of the tracks were recorded in Abbey Road's studio two, but this was unavailable for the last track recorded, 'Sgt Pepper Reprise'. So the band set up in the enormous studio one — listen for that tell-tale ambience. "The drums were flying about all over the place," remembers Geoff Emerick, "but I like it, it's harder and more biting."

"I had to write it quick because otherwise I wouldn't have been on the album. So I had to knock off a few songs so I knocked off 'Day In The Life', or my section of it..." Lennon, 'Rolling Stone', 71.

"Like Sgt Pepper George (Harrison) turned up for his number and a couple of other sessions but not for very much else." McCartney, 'Q', '86.

Two people planned for the LP's cover failed to appear on the final artwork: loin-cloth clad Indian patriot Mohandas K Ghandi, painted over at the request of EMI, and skint actor Leo Gorcey, wiped out because he requested a fee.


More from related artists



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Drum Hum

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Chord of the Month


Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

 

Making Music - Jun 1987

Artist:

The Beatles


Role:

Band/Group

Related Artists:

Paul McCartney

George Martin


Previous article in this issue:

> Drum Hum

Next article in this issue:

> Chord of the Month


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