So many of us have that “Aha!” moment as teenagers where you work out what it is you’d like to do when you grow up.
For one of us here at PaulMcCartney.com HQ it came watching The South Bank Show documentary ‘The Making of Sgt. Pepper’, specifically where George Martin talks the viewer through the recording of the title track. Sitting at a mixing console, the revered producer fades out all the instruments to reveal Paul’s blistering vocal take, “He’d got sawdust in his voice there!” As Mr. Martin fades back up the instruments, and the track once again takes shape that ‘Aha!’ moment happened: music!
So imagine how excited we were when we found out there would be a special 50th anniversary release for the album responsible for changing ours, and so many other people’s lives. This also gave us the ideal opportunity to conduct a special ‘You Gave Me The Answer’ with Paul, pulling some of the most asked questions we’ve seen posted online by you, plus a few of our own that have been in our head since watching that documentary.
Our Q&A with Paul took place a few weeks before Apple announced the details of the release to the world, and we typed it up a few days after hearing Giles Martin’s new stereo mixes at Abbey Road’s Studio Two – the very room where the album was recorded! You’re going to love it. As someone who knows the songs inside out, we're happy to say you can hear every instrument on this album that we’ve “known for all these years” like you’ve never heard them before. The new clarity is incredible and, indeed, "a splendid time is guaranteed for all!”
YOU GAVE ME THE ANSWER: 'SGT. PEPPER' SPECIAL:
PaulMcCartney.com [PMc]: Do you remember coming up with the cover and band concepts? We understand that the original concept came from you doing a doodle on a plane based around an Edwardian military band?
Paul McCartney [PM]: Yeah! Well, what really happened was I was coming back from a trip abroad with our roadie, Mal Evans, just the two of us together on the plane. And we were eating and he mumbled to me, asked me to pass the salt and pepper. And I misheard him. He said [mumbles] “saltandpepper”. I go, “Sergeant Pepper?” I thought he said, “Sergeant Pepper”. I went, “Oh! Wait a minute, that’s a great idea!” So we had a laugh about it, then I started thinking about Sergeant Pepper as a character. I thought it would be a very interesting idea for us to assume alter egos for this album we were about to make.
So that’s what we did. And yeah, I started doing drawings of how the band might look. I sort of got this military look thing going and one of my ideas was that they were being presented by the Lord Mayor of some Northern town in a park. And in the old days they used to have floral clocks, they called them. It was like a clock that was made out of flowers. So I did drawings of the floral clock and then, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band”, AKA The Beatles, getting an award. So they’ve got a big cup and they’re getting some sort of award from the town.
So that’s where the idea came from and then I just talked to all the guys and said, “What do you think of this idea?” They liked it and I said, “It will mean, when I approach the mic, it’s not Paul McCartney. I don’t have to think this is a Paul McCartney song”. So it was freeing. It was quite liberating.
So, you know, we didn’t keep that idea up all the time, but that was the basic idea that we would make something that was very free. Something that this other band might make, instead of doing something that we thought The Beatles ought to make. It originally came from that mishearing of salt and pepper!
PMc: Were you doing the drawings on the same flight?
PM: I don’t remember if I did the drawings on the flight, or whether that’s just got morphed into the same story. But definitely on the flight coming back. That was the start of it when I misheard that. So that’s the essence of the whole idea.
PMc: Had you already started to write the songs for that album?
PM: No, but when I got back I started thinking, “Okay, what would their theme tune be?” So I wrote what became the opening song where they would introduce themselves and then they would introduce another character: Billy Shears, which was Ringo.
It was just to give us all alter egos, to give us all invented characters. So that now we were making this album like a piece of theatre. We were now going in to the studio as other people. And we came down to Soho, in the West End, and had our uniforms made by Berman’s the theatrical costumiere.
PMc: Was there any reason for the different coloured outfits?
PM: No, we just chose a material. Said, “I’ll have that, he’ll have that”. There was no concept, no. It was just whoever wanted what colour.
PMc: We understand there were two drum skins created for the cover. Was there any specific reason for that, or was it just to make sure you had different options?
PM: No, I think the drum skins - as I recall - were organised by Peter Blake, who had someone he knew who did painting for fairgrounds. So you see the rides in the fairgrounds - like the Waltzer, or you know, the House Of Fun and all that - it’s always lettered and painted a certain way, which is quite an ancient tradition, apparently. There’s a specific look to it all and there are people who specialise in those, so I think Peter had those done by those people, and I suppose he just had a spare one made as well. I think we probably would have just said, “That one”.
PMc: We realised in the office that there are some grammar mistakes on the drum skin: a semicolon after ‘Sgt’, and there isn’t an apostrophe in ‘Peppers’. Is that just an accident?
PM: Yeah, that’s an accident! The guy doing it was, as I say, a fairground guy, so all this sort of stuff [Paul points to the logo on the album cover] - the filigree and all these decorative things - are the kind of things you would see on the side of a Waltzer, when you go to the fairground. It’s covered in this kind of stuff.
So I think he will have just been told “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, and instead of putting a dot after the ‘gt’ of ‘Sgt.’ - which I think you might naturally do - I think it just looks better as a composition to be down there. And there’s no particular reason for it being a semi colon. It could have just as easily been two dots, or something. And then no apostrophe? There’s no reason for it. He was asked to do that and he came up with that beautiful design.
PMc: Do you remember who’s idea it was to have the cut outs that came with the album? The moustache, medals, stripes and band stand up?
PM: I think those were Peter’s ideas. I certainly gave him the basic idea of the Sgt. Pepper band. There was the floral clock that got changed into the little flower arrangements on the cover. And then the idea was that each of these characters in the “play” would have their own background. So I asked all the guys to come up with a list of people who their character might be fans of. So everyone did that like as a bit of homework, kind of thing.
PMc: Was there anybody who kind of didn’t make the final collage on the cover?
PM: Oh, yeah! I mean, some, because it was just a fun thing. You know, I think someone brought Hitler. And that was vetoed immediately: “No!” And then Jesus was in there. You know, he was an understandable hero. But there were certain ones that might have offended people.
I mean, Hitler, I think was just a joke. No way he was gonna get on there. Jesus was not so much a joke. He could have been in there but we didn’t want to offend Christians.
PMc: Do you remember any specific names you suggested?
PM: [Looking at the album cover] I think these were mine: Aldous Huxley, because I had been reading a book by him. H.G. Wells, Fred Astaire. And then there was Dylan Thomas.
There’s a footballer there, I think that’s Dixie Dean. I mean this is all documented exactly who they are. Laurel and Hardy, we liked them. William Morris, Marilyn Monroe, Terry Southern. This is what the floral clock became at the bottom of the cover. And then people thought this was marijuana, which they weren’t. They were just plants! But, of course, in those days everyone read everything into everything we did.
But that was it. We all had a list of favourites. George put in an Indian guru, that’s Yogananda. And Babaji is in there. So we just each put people in that we admired through history, so that was the idea. It was really just so if a fan magazine had said to the characters in this fictitious band, “Who are your favourites?” They’d go, “Oh, these people”. We’d go, “Okay this character, is that kind of guy. George: he’s more into mystical people, you know. Paul: okay, he’s more into literary ones, or whatever”. So it would give us each an identity. It was really just for background.
There were certain ones we all liked, like Oscar Wilde. Max Miller was a British comedian. And then there’s Stuart [Sutcliffe], who had been our old bass player, who died. Aubrey Beardsley, the artist. The Bowery Boys, they were a TV series when we were growing up, and there was one of them who wouldn’t do it. One of them wanted money for it.
We just wrote to everyone and said, “Do you mind?” Well, at first we didn’t. But the head of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood came to my house and complained! He said, “This is going to be a nightmare. There are going to be legal battles!” I said, “No, no, no. People are gonna love it! They’re all on The Beatles cover, you know! It’ll be a laugh, they’ll understand”. He said, “No, you’ve got to write to them all”.
So we did. We got a letter out: “We are planning to do this using your image. Do you mind? Is it okay? Please give us the okay”. And all of them did, except for one of the Bowery Boys who wanted to cut a deal. And we thought, “You know what, we’ve got enough people on here!”
PMc: Did that delay the album release?
PM: No. No the cover wasn’t shot. We had the idea… Or it may have been, it may have been actually. Yeah, I think it was shot, but we just had to ask them all.
PMc: Would you pick different people for the cover today, compared to 1967?
PM: I’m not sure. You know probably, yeah. But just because it wouldn’t be the same time.
PMc: We’ve read that the Sgt. Pepper moustache came about because you had been in a bike accident. Is that true?
PM: Yeah! I had a moped and was with a friend of mine up in Liverpool. It was Tara Browne, who was one of the Guinness family. He and I were going to visit my cousin Betty on these mopeds that we had, little motorised bicycles. And there was a very full moon and I said, “Wow, look at that moon!” Then I suddenly realised I’d lost my balance and I looked back and I smacked the pavement and bust my lip! And we went to my cousin’s house with my hand over my lips saying, “Hey Bett! Don’t be worried”. And she’s thinking, “Oh, isn’t he funny”. And then, “…Ahh!”
So, Betty said, “Oh, I’m gonna get this guy”. This doctor, he’s the local doctor and he came over. But, tell you the truth, he’d had a few. So he said, “I’m gonna have to stitch you!” And I said, “Oh!” Because, you know, it was Christmas time or New Years time, and he definitely was over the limit!
So he got his needle, and he could barely thread it, he couldn’t thread it even. So I think Betty sort of said, “Here, let me do that”. So she threaded his needle up for him and I went, “Ahh… Here goes nothing!”
So he put it in – no anaesthetic. Bang! “Oww!” You know, and then he put it through and made a stitch up, put it through the other side, “Oww! God!” I was just sort of standing there. It was not wonderful, but I thought, “Well, he’s got to do it”. He pulls it right through, and the thread comes out. “Oh, we’ve got to do that again, then.” “Jeez.” Was I happy? No!
But yeah, so after that I started growing this moustache to hide quite a big, sizeable bump. There’s a bump still there. But it was quite a good gash, and I broke a tooth!
Yeah but anyway, so he had to do it. He finished it off. It wasn’t a brilliant job. So then, as I was recovering, I let this grow as a moustache. I wasn’t really in the public eye for a while, so then the first thing people knew was that I’d grown that moustache. And the other guys liked it and so we all grew them. It was just like a fun thing. So that’s that!
PMc: At the end of the album - following ‘A Day In The Life’ - you have that very high-pitched tone. And then you have the inner groove loop on the record. Where did those ideas come from?
PM: Okay, so the loop thing was that at that time people were partying a lot and getting stoned a lot. And one of the things is you would be in a party with everyone, you’d be playing an album on vinyl and so the record would end. But everybody would be so sort of stoned that the record would just go [mimics the noise of the record player getting stuck in the inner groove]. You’ve all been there! And people would go, “Ahhh… Yeah…” And no one would turn it off!
So we went, you know what, we should have something there. We should put in a little loop so when that happens, there will be something there! So that was the basis of that idea. So we just recorded something, we just all got around the mic, and we just said stupid stuff. It’s just a loop cut out of some stuff we said.
I think John said something like, “Cranberry sauce, cranberry sauce”. And that was just a little bit of fun for us, because we were always trying to be different from other people who made records. So this would be a very “Beatle-y” thing to do. So we did it, and it was just for that moment where [mimics record player playing the inner groove]. It would say something instead of just, “Cuh-chug, cuh-chug”.
The crazy thing was, as I said, everyone read into everything we ever did in those days. So somebody arrived at my house and the rumour was that if you played it backwards, it said something. If you play it in that groove backwards and then we thought well none of us have ever tried. So I said, “No, it’s nonsense. That’s not true, at all!” And they said, “It is! It is! It is!” And they insisted. So I said well come and show me. So he took it, and somehow, we just went against the player’s motor, turned it backwards, the loop. And sorry folks, excuse my expletives, but it was supposed to say, “We’ll fuck you like supermen”. I went, “This is just ridiculous!” But sure enough, “We’ll fuck you like supermen, we’ll fuck you like supermen”. It sounded like that!
PMc: So that was just by complete chance?
PM: It was, yeah! It was pretty random, but those things happen with the readings, you know. Because people would look into it so much, and that was that.
PMc: And no one had done that kind of inner groove loop before, is that right?
PM: Yeah, nobody had done it on a loop like that. It’s a silly idea. No one was as silly as we were!
But the other thing, that was fascinating: the high-pitched noise [whistles]. We would have great conversations with George Martin in the studio, because he was very swotty, George was. Very mathematics, and he knew the science behind a lot of what we were doing, whereas we didn’t. We just enjoyed it and loved it. But he was talking about frequencies. He said, “There are so many frequencies”. For instance, he said, “Your ears are all younger than mine”. He said, “Let’s do a little test’. So he took a little oscillator that we had and went [whistles from a low to high pitch]. And he got it up to [whistles very high]. And he said, “Can you hear that?” We go, “Yeah…” He goes [whistles higher]. He said, “I can’t hear that, can you?” We go, “Yeah!”
Then he took it higher so even we couldn’t hear it and said, “It’s still there”. The noise, the frequency was still there. He said, “Dogs can hear that. Dogs have a different framework, a different range of hearing”. We went, “Fantastic! We’ve gotta put that on the record!” So when suddenly when everyone’s listening to it, no one can hear it and the dog would perk up. You know, prick his ears up: “What’s that?”
So that arrived from those great conversations. And the other end of that conversation was he said, “Lots of people know this, this frequency thing. And one of the things Hitler had was these sort of PR people, who did movies for him. You know, Leni Riefenstahl. And there was a PR machine behind everything he did”. He said, “And one of the things, and it’s suppose to be true, was that at these rallies, hundreds and thousands of people would arrive, and you see film of it. And he wouldn’t arrive, he wouldn’t be there. And what they would do is they would put a subsonic noise [makes low-pitched hum] through the speakers. But no one could hear it, but it was sort of was rather discomforting. So you can’t hear it, but it kind of puts you off a bit.” It’s like a super sub-bass at a big club. It’s like, it can actually sort of get to you, it can bother you a bit, so he said, “They used to play this, this is the story, and then just before Hitler showed up they would turn it off”.
PMc: So they would get a sense of relief?
PM: Yeah! Like, “I feel so much better, now he’s here!” You know, and nobody knew that there’s a subsonic noise.
PMc: And George Martin told you that story?
PM: Yeah, George Martin. This was all one conversation: “The Highs And The Lows” by George Martin. But you know, we took it all in. We loved him. We loved these little chats and we used it all in our music.
You know, if someone put a tape machine on backwards by mistake once, the tape op, and we were like, “Oh! What’s that?” Whereas I always say any other band would have just gone, “You’ve got it on backwards, stupid! Put it on right!” But we were always, “Ahh, how can we use that?”
George was such a good producer and got it. And he would say, “Well, we could do it. And if we did this, and if we did that…” And so that really made it interesting, because there were all sorts of physical things like that that he would educate us with. Like half speed things. If things were very fast, the guitar solo in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ [sings the song]. It was very hard to play normal speed. So George would say, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do…” So we took it down to half speed on these studio machines. You have to take it down an octave, that’s what was intriguing. So half speed, the octave would go down. You would play it on a bass guitar or a guitar [sings song again, lower and at half speed], and it’s easy to play! And then you just put it back up [sings at full speed]. So if you listen to that solo that’s at double speed. So we had a lot of fun with that, you know, it’s gonna go down an octave, we’re gonna play it slow.
PMc: I’ve always wondered if you guys slowed down ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ because your voice sounds slightly higher?
PM: Sometimes I would just speed things up a bit. Often, when you make a song you record it and then you think, “It’s not quite fast enough!” So rather than do it again, you just lifted the tape. These days you can lift the tape and not lift the pitch, with Logic and a few other machines. But back then you would actually lift the pitch a bit.
PMc: So another question we quite often see is, in hindsight, do you wish ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ had been included on the album? And if so, where would you have placed them?
PM: No, I was happy. So we won’t even get into placing them! I was happy that it was the precursor to ‘Sgt. Pepper’. And the thing was, you know, we always liked to release things fresh. We had just made those tracks, so the thought of waiting until we had completed the whole album would not have appealed to us. You know, we liked that as soon as it’s made, at the nearest point to the actual making of the song and the record, we would like to put it out. So I was glad how we did it and it was like a fanfare, that single. Another thing we liked about it was it was simple value for money. You really got two A-sides. But it kind of heralded what was to come.
PMc: Kind of like a road sign showing what was on the way?
PMc: Another question we see is: Did you have any kind of idea at the time just how big this album would become?
PM: No, not really. The only thing we knew was that the music press, I’m not sure who it was – it would probably have been The New Music Express or The Melody Maker, the two music papers that were very big at the time – one of them, somebody from one of those music papers said, “Oh, The Beatles have dried up. They’ve finished. We haven’t heard anything from them, you know, they’ve run out of ideas”. So we were quietly tinkering away at Abbey Road knowing we hadn’t run out of ideas and knowing it was gonna be really great to be able to say, “No, we didn’t run out. Check this out!” And give them ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and go – “Take that back!”
In fact, when it did get released, the music critic from The New York Times said it was terrible. And Linda said she met him in the street and said, “You’re crazy, man. It’s a great album! What are you talking about?” And there must have been a lot of people that said it to him that week, because he took it back a week later. He said, “You know what, it’s grown on me. I like it’.
PMc: And looking back now, what always blows our minds, is that you were only 24 when that album was recorded. That’s quite incredible!
PM: Yeah, I mean there’s quite a few people who feel they’re very grown up when they’re 24. And we did! We’d been doing the group since, well, since we were kinda 19 and 20. So four years at that kind of pace was a long time. And we all smoked Rothman cigarettes. And we had Carnaby Street stuff, so we thought we were pretty hot. So 24 didn’t seem young to us, because we had just been 20!
I mean, I always tell the story of when were 17, me and George - and George would have been 16 - and we used to go round to see John at his Art College, which was next door to our school. We were where LIPA now is, The Liverpool Institute. Next door was the Arts School which is now part of LIPA as well. But that’s where John was, so we’d go round just to hang out and see him during lunchtime and there was a guy who was in John’s year, who was like older than the class. You know that phenomenon and he was 24 and we felt so sorry for him! No, we really did, like a genuine sorrow. [Whispers] “He’s 24? God, it must be awful!” You know, now looking back he was like a child. But, you know, so by the time we were 24, we felt like we had done quite a lot. We had done enough to sort of think we were pretty grown up!
A coda from PaulMcCartney.com: After we stopped recording our Q&A, Paul carried on telling us some very cool stories, such as how one day in the studio the ‘A’ string on John Lennon’s guitar began to resonate when he leant his guitar against an amplifier. The band jumped up when they heard the noise, saying, “What’s that?!” After George Martin explained how certain frequencies will make objects vibrate, it was agreed they would record this new sound for the start of ‘I Feel Fine’.
Paul told us how he really loved that about The Beatles: when those “happy accidents” happened, the band would want to use it in a song somehow. He likened it to how a painter might see a small, unintended brushstroke on a canvas and decide to leave it in, rather than painting it out.
Another story Paul told us was about how one of the engineers threaded the tape machine the wrong way in the studio during a session. When they pressed “Play” the song played backwards and again, up they jumped asking George Martin if they could use that somehow. Paul told us George’s response was always to rub his chin, look thoughtful then reply, “Well, I suppose we could…” And the rest, as they say, is history!
The aniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band is in stores from Friday 26th May and available to pick up from your local record store and online.