Whatever Happened To Sgt. Pepper?

❉ 50 years of the Beatles’ “Liverpool”, and the lost ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album. 

 It should have been the album that defined the Summer Of Love, but instead it proved to be the beginning of their fall from grace. Fifty years on, We Are Cult visit a parallel universe to look at the story of the Beatles’ lost psychedelic opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band….

Spring 2017 and We Are Cult are sat in a playback room at EMI’s famous Abbey Road studios listening to the ultimate bootleg. It opens with a wash of tape hiss, then the sound of crowd noise and violins tuning. Then, a sound familiar amongst Beatles fans with eBay money to burn kicks in, a crunchingly loud mix of an obscure single that the band and their support network have spent the best part of half a century trying to suppress roars into earshot, introducing an album that until now has languished in the vaults. It segues sleekly and surprisingly into one more familiar tune, then another, then another. It’s familiar yet shockingly different. The mixes are wilder, the vocals are different in places, and the whole atmosphere of this work-in-progress is startlingly at odds with the familiar parent album, despite being made of largely the same music. We leave, forty-five minutes and some bad Studio 2 coffee later, feeling as if we’ve gazed into a parallel universe.

The story of the meteoric rise and fall of the Beatles is a well-known cautionary tale, proving how even the biggest band in the world could end up alienating their fans and disintegrating. So drastic was their descent into drugs, egos, bad business decisions, and ill-advised nostalgia touring that some young bands have actually tried to emulate their late-60s crash and burn as an art project. However, they left behind a lot of great, much-loved music in their last years, much of it gaining its reputation posthumously years after their implosion.

This week, as a ‘deluxe’ edition of their controversial 1967 album Liverpool hits shelves, the big story for fans is the inclusion of the fabled, abandoned album that could have been – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, recovered from a scratchy mono acetate found in the dusty archives at Abbey Road. This is the story of how it was made, and shelved.

Image credit: http://idesignalbumcovers.tumblr.com/

In November 1966, the Beatles entered Abbey Road for the first time in five months. On their last visit, they’d put their last album, Revolver to bed, before heading out on the road. Already weary of touring, their last weeks on tour in Japan, South America, and the US had been an alternately dull and nerve-jangling experience. The drama was only added to by the controversy surrounding some throwaway remarks about Christianity made by John Lennon in an interview some months earlier. Now, they were heading out into the tour from hell. They played to stony silence at the Budokan. They were jostled and attacked at the airport or their perceived snub of the first family of Manilla, and any lingering enjoyment of the road was killed off altogether by a hair-raising series of dates in North America, punctuated by terse press conferences, threats from the Christian Right, and the smell of burning vinyl, as young fans angrily chucked Beatle records on bonfires.

After a miserable final gig at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29th, sparsely attended, but still washed out by screams, the Beatles flew back home, and then immediately splintered across the globe. The three married Beatles spread out the furthest. Lennon went to Spain to make How I Won The War. George Harrison fled to India, returning changed forever by his experiences. Ringo Starr remained at home in Surrey, and casually set up a building firm. Only confirmed bachelor Paul McCartney stayed in London, continuing to soak up art and culture, speeding around Swinging London’s clubs, galleries, and nascent underground happenings.

Hitting a creative high around this time, and fuelled by both curiosity and liberal sprinklings of cocaine, McCartney would squeeze a film soundtrack, home movies, and a trip to Kenya into the Beatles’ lengthy lay-off. Travelling incognito, with grown-out hair and a bushy new moustache, McCartney mused on the way forward for the band on the plane home. “We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. Then suddenly on the plane I got this idea. I thought, Let’s not be ourselves. I just fantasised, well, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.”

McCartney’s idea would be parked for the time being as all four Beatles reunited with Producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, who mused that the four thin, moustachioed young men seemed “Almost robbed of their youth.”

Perhaps the Beatles felt the same. Lennon had sunken deeply into an introspective state of mind, munching LSD prodigiously all the way. Although Lennon had become passive, the acid had kicked open a door for him, and the new song he brought with him, Strawberry Fields Forever was rooted in his childhood. Not to be outdone, McCartney brought his own Penny Lane in, as well as When I’m Sixty-Four, a jaunty tune he’d written in his teens. It was decided to make an album drawn from the band’s childhoods and young adulthood in Liverpool, then London, something personal. This new studio era saw the band working Martin and Emerick hard. Without any tour on the horizon, or the pressure to replicate this material on the road, everything but the kitchen sink was thrown in, sped-up, slowed-down, reversed, and overdubbed beyond recognition. The Beatles took to the studio as their new canvas. But there were outside pressures as 1966 ended.

EMI was desperate for new material, and the Beatles’ contract was up. It had actually ran out during Revolver, and the label were getting anxious. Manager Brian Epstein had spent months carefully negotiating a new deal with EMI and Capitol in the US after unsuccessfully trying to hawk the band elsewhere. Epstein was on the verge of getting the Beatles autographs on a nine-year contract that would grant them huge royalties, but their market value was starting to fall, and the Beatles, unconcerned by paperwork and chipping away in their studio bubble, stalled signing the contract until early 1967.  Articles had begun to appear in the music press speculating that the band had split up, or lost the plot. Rumours surfaced that the band had recorded a 14 minute ‘sound collage’ and were making strange promotional films. Epstein became anxious, he didn’t need a cult band, but an ongoing commercial success to make this work. As the sessions continued, and continued, with no end in site, Brian’s control on ‘the boys’ was slipping. The late-night calls from EMI’s head, Sir Joseph Lockwood, demanding to know where the new record was, and why the Beatles had been sighted up a tree in Sevenoaks didn’t do much for Epstein’s nerves.

As the band finally signed, McCartney, who’d taken over as de facto leader in the studio, presented the Sgt. Pepper concept to the others as a fait accompli. The Sgt. Pepper ‘theme’ song would bookend the album, it would be a concept piece, different from anything they’d done before, something to funnel all those studio hours into. Accepting the framing concept with a mixture of enthusiasm and general indifference, the Beatles continued recording through February and March, but all was not well.

Matters came to a head after the lengthy and elaborate photoshoot for the projected album sleeve, designed by Peter Blake and Jann Howarth. Having spent an age choosing the cut-outs of heroes, villains, and gurus to make up the ‘crowd’ and posed at length in garish ‘Lonely Hearts Club Band’ uniforms, the band started to snap at each other.

Two days after the photoshoot, Lennon, who’d largely remained passive throughout the sessions, snapped out of his acid reverie. Shocking McCartney by dismissing his Sgt. Pepper notion as “Intellectual bullshit”, he dug his heels in and insisted that the planned double A-side single coupling Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane was pulled (to the quiet relief of George Martin), and that the album was resequenced to fit with the original Liverpool childhood concept. McCartney was appalled at this challenge to his tacit leadership of the band. Epstein was beside himself, after the protracted contract negotiations, the money spent on Peter Blake’s planned Sgt. Pepper sleeve and the mounting pressure from Parlophone for new Beatle material.

Much to McCartney’s chagrin, Harrison sided with Lennon. “I felt we were just in the studio to make the next record”, Harrison remarked years later “and Paul was going on about this idea of some fictitious band. That side of it didn’t really interest me, I didn’t really like making the album much. I’d just got back from India, and my heart was still out there. After what had happened in 1966, everything else seemed like hard work.”

Ringo, uncomfortable with rocking the boat, eventually went with the majority, saying later: “It had started out with a feeling that it was going to be something totally different, but we only got as far as Sgt Pepper and Billy Shears, and then we thought: ‘Sod it! it’s just two tracks.’ In the end we didn’t actually connect all the songs up.”

The “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” maxi-single, released 10 April 1967.

 The Beatles were a democracy, and McCartney was left somewhat on the back foot by this rebellion, reluctantly agreeing after a brief impasse, and an impassioned intervention from Epstein. McCartney cancelled a planned trip to America to hook up with Beach Boys mainman Brian Wilson, and stayed home, licking his wounds.

To cut their losses, the Sgt. Pepper title track and the recently recorded reprise version were hurriedly issued by Parlophone as a ‘maxi-single’ housed in Blake’s elaborate sleeve, with the original segue into With A Little Help From My Friends retained as a trailer for the new album. Released on 10th April 1967 with the ink barely dry on the picture sleeves, the first new Beatles material in seven months sold like hot cakes, going straight to Number One in the UK singles chart, but plummeting after a week.

This single was met with bemusement by the music press, and confusion by fans. “Who are Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band anyway?” asked a flustered Murray The K. during his Fifth Dimension radio show. The American kids were nonplussed by this odd move from the erstwhile Fab Four, with the younger listeners now favouring Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the older kids adopting the newer sounds of Jefferson Airplane and the Doors. In less developed countries, the picture sleeve was left off altogether, causing even more confusion.

The Beatles shrugged it off publicly, but the album rolled on. As mixing continued at Abbey Road, a new acetate was prepared.

Side A:

Strawberry Fields Forever
Penny Lane
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite
She’s Leaving Home
Lovely Rita

Side B:

Getting Better
With A Little Help From My Friends
Fixing A Hole
Within You Without You
Good Morning, Good Morning
When I’m ’64
A Day in The Life

The track listing changed numerous times, and became harder to pin down once the loose frame of Sgt Pepper was removed, resulting in lengthy stoned post-mortems, and various whacked-out ideas like Lennon’s notion of actually starting the album with A Day In The Life, quickly nixed by the others and George Martin. It would eventually revert to the acetate track listing, although McCartney privately supervised his own mono mix one evening, reinstating his original notion, and took it away for his own collection.

A-side centre label, Dutch 1969 pressing.

The other Beatles were fractious. Lennon dominated but was scornful of what he saw as overproduction. Harrison remained indifferent. Ringo watched the clock. At one point McCartney suggested to Harrison that the most radically different track on the album, Harrison’s solo effort, the indian-classical fusion Within You Without You was included on a separate 7” single credited to Harrison alone, a suggestion met with stony silence from the already unhappy guitarist. At one point, American Film Producer Al Brodax, in the middle of production on an animated feature film based on Yellow Submarine called the studio, asking for Lennon, wanting to know what new music could be featured. Lennon simply took the receiver and handed it to Ringo, telling him to choose.

Despite all the drama, the Beatles managed to pull together a convincing sequence from the remaining material, which covered childhood, teenage years, growing pains of young adulthood, the spiritual awakenings awarded by variously experience, India, and acid, and old age – rounded off with the coda of Lennon’s chilly epic A Day In The Life. The arguments, however, intensified, with McCartney having to lobby for the inclusion of his own Lovely Rita, considered lightweight by Lennon and particularly Harrison, whose Only A Northern Song had already been rejected. Pressing Blake back into service, a new photomontage sleeve was mocked up for ‘Liverpool’ using existing shots and release date set for June 2nd 1967.

As the release date came, and Liverpool hit the shelves, the Beatles breathed a sigh of relief. They’d done it and just about stayed together. Now, perhaps, they could take another break, although that seemed unlikely, as before the album even came out McCartney had floated a TV special idea about a psychedelic coach trip and persuaded his bored friends to record the title track.

As Liverpool entered the world, it topped the charts in the UK. All looked encouraging for the first two weeks, but as the reviews came in, the Beatles hearts sank. “What took them so long?” scolded Disc and Music Echo.

Although the underground press spoke largely well of it, Liverpool was not seen as the long-awaited opus fans had been expecting. It was seen as inward-looking,  and insular, as young people tuned in and dropped out to The Pink Floyd and Cream. Despite this, the BBC banned A Day In The Life anyway. Some fans returned copies thinking that Strawberry Fields Forever had been mastered at the wrong speed. Worst of all, the people of Liverpool didn’t like it either. Interviewed by Joan Bakewell as part of a filmed piece on Late Night Line-Up, Rosalie, a young Liverpudlian girl opined “They ain’t been round here in years anyway, they made their money and cleared off, what do they care about Liverpool?” This sentiment was echoed across the pond, where young Americans found Liverpool too parochial.

Bruised, the Beatles cried off a planned appearance on the worldwide telecast Our World, which annoyed the BBC, who responded by rejecting McCartney’s Magical Mystery Tour idea for Boxing Day broadcast in favour of Bee Gees’ Cucumber Castle. The Beatles retreated into rock star folly, buying islands and taking bit-parts in films. Reality bit back when the news of Epstein’s premature death in August reached them, whilst at a meditation retreat in Wales. In their collective grief, the Beatles decided to go into business together. It didn’t go well. Apple’s opening party made headlines when it was raided by the infamous D.S. Norman “Semolina Pilchard” Pilcher and police dog Josephine, who was not only trained to sniff out certain substances, but also a junkie. Insiders, knowing what was locked in certain office draws, would remark in later years that it was a lucky that Pilcher ‘only’ found the ‘petty cash’ office stash of Hashish.

The Beatles would make three further albums before acrimoniously calling it a day in 1969. There were still hits, but their heyday had well and truly ended with Liverpool, which was seen as a very well-produced anticlimax outside of a hip inner circle that ‘got’ it. Their lo-fi, acoustic Kinfauns album from 1968 was recorded stripped down at Harrison’s house, under the influence of a recent trip to Rishikesh, India, and can be seen as a reaction to the extremes of 1967. After two more albums of stripped back rock and plummeting sales, they bowed out with the sloppy-but-charming Get Back album.

“A cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone” – NME on ‘Get Back’.

From hereon, the fortunes of the former Fab Four were mixed. They would pursue solo interests and projects to varying success and notoriety, briefly reuniting for 1974’s bloated Poppermost album, marred by muddy production and too many guest appearances, and bowing out for good after a disastrous tour where the four Beatles travelled on separate buses. This would be their last reunion, before the deaths of Lennon and Harrison ruled out a return for good.

The rumours about Sgt Pepper began to come out a couple of years before Poppermost. Presented today, it’s a fascinating curio, a glimpse at what might have been. Perhaps the Beatles would have ruled over the Summer Of Love, rather than falling apart, had Sgt. Pepper been released instead of Liverpool. The last word must go to Lennon, the man who buried Sgt. Pepper in the first place but remained conflicted over the album that emerged. “It was a peak, and Paul and I definitely were working together, especially on A Day In The Life… I don’t care about the whole concept of Pepper. Every other song could have been on any other album.” 

❉ This feature has been constructed from truths, quotes, misquotes, conjecture and downright made-up stuff, out of love for the Beatles and an album that most definitely did come out. A splendid time isn’t guaranteed for all, but we hope you enjoy it anyway.

❉ Martin Ruddock has written for ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, the ‘You And Who’ series, and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He lives in Bournemouth with a beautiful, very patient woman and teetering piles of records and nerd stuff. He loves writing, and may write something for you if you ask nicely.

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