Paul McCartney On Sgt. Pepper: “We wanted to see how far we could stretch pop music.”

Paul McCartney speaks to MOJO about The Beatles’ game-changing 1967 masterpiece.

The Beatles 1967

by Danny Eccleston |
Published on

Inside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band there lurks a treat for anyone lucky enough to be opening that iconic vinyl gatefold for the very first time. And we don’t mean the set of cardboard sergeant’s stripes that would fall out if you’d managed to score an un-interfered-with first edition. We’re not even talking about the 13 amazing songs that changed music utterly and resound as freshly today. No, it’s the Beatles themselves, lined up across the inside gatefold, eyeing the camera, regarding the viewer, with a limitless charm. There’s always been something hypnotic about that photograph.

 “Because the cover had been so complex and full of stuff, it was suggested that we do some very simple portrait shots,” explains Paul McCartney, on the phone to MOJO from his New York office. “So amongst ourselves we were like (conspiratorial whisper), ‘OK, let’s really look through the camera. Really vibe it. Really put your thoughts right through to the person looking at this. Totally try to get your energy through.’ And that’s why that picture communicates – we weren’t just sitting there passively having our pictures taken; we were really trying to reach the person looking at this cover.”

It’s indicative of the creative pitch the Beatles and their collaborators were humming at in early ’67 that even this simplest of undertakings – a portrait pic, not even (as yet) destined for the record sleeve – could be the platform for an idea, a theory or an experiment. In 1967, Paul McCartney and his then-bandmates were primed to beam their energy out into the world, as powerfully as they were able.

Today, little – at least in that respect – has changed. Across the Atlantic, a familiarly blithe Macca is chucking out vibes like they’re going out of fashion, keen to offer MOJO (“Go, MOJO!” he exclaims) insights into the world of Pepper past, and his take on the album’s latest anniversary package, chiefly its new Giles Martin stereo mix. Which is where, without further ado, we begin…

What did you first think when they said, We’re thinking of remixing Sgt. Pepper? Bloody cheek?

Well I’m kinda getting used to, you know, remixing, remastering, reissuing. And I’m now very happy with the idea of it. When I’m approving the new versions, I always do an A and B thing. I listen to the old one alongside the new one, and switch between them. With this one, there’s really quite a difference.

There was always controversy over the original stereo mix…

Well, in the Beatles we weren’t into stereo. We were totally mono freaks. We presumed that stereo meant it would be twice as loud because there were two speakers! And when we heard that you would be able to spread the sound out, we still weren’t interested. We gave that job to George Martin. We thought we’d finished the album. There it is. Sgt. Pepper. Mono.

But the original stereo mix is a bit of a period piece. You’ve got the drums in one corner. You’ve got the vocals in another corner. We would be at listening parties, have some mates around and I’d go, “Listen to the drums on this, man!” ...and you couldn’t hear ’em. Oh! They’re over there in the other corner of the room.

Then there are weird things like She’s Leaving Home. It was higher and faster on your mono version, slower and lower on the original stereo. That’s been restored in the new mix.

Exactly. We were always fiddling with speed and pitch. It was one of the things that kept recording fun in those days. We’d come to mixing and think, you know, the groove should be a bit faster than how we played it. So we would get the engineers to lift it up a little bit. It would put the song in a strange half key. Something that was in A could end up in almost B Flat. We kinda liked the effect, how it brightened the voices a little bit, gave it a bit more punch. So I’m glad that’s back.

Restoring the drums to the centre – and making them louder – makes the whole album rock more. Getting Better, the Sgt. Pepper overture, Good Morning, even Lovely Rita feel more muscular.

Yeah, that’s one of the things I like about it. “Muscular” is a good word; it sounds more like us playing in the room and more like we intended it. After all, sticking the drums in the middle does kind of bring it back to mono.

A more 3D version of mono…

Yes, exactly. 3D Mono! You’re coming up with all the lines today. We didn’t, and I still don’t, think too technically about things. If it just sounds better, there you go. So that’s the justification for the new release. Then you can put all kinds of things in the package that weren’t there in the original. For instance: Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane.

Have you ever regretted the original omission of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane?

No, we didn’t. I’m not big into regrets I must say. You make a decision and you stick with it. No, they were the precursors of Sgt. Pepper. It was the start of the whole thing. We knew we wanted to stretch our recordings. We knew that we now had more time, because we’d given up touring. We wanted to see what we could do, see how far we could stretch pop music. Realise our visions of how far out a record could be.

The outtakes really take you inside the studio. Like all the early takes of the big piano chord in A Day In The Life, where you’re telling Mal Evans which pedal to press down: “It’s the one on the right!”

I think it humanises the album so much. ’Cos when it was released it was just, There it is, what do you make of it? People sat around and came up with all the theories about what was going on. The nice thing for me is that it reminds me of what we did. When you make a record that long ago you don’t remember all the little things you put into it. Like that final chord. I’d always thought it was a C chord. Turns out it was an E chord. It had turned into a game for us: if you press down the loud pedal and play a chord, how long can you hear that chord go on? The game was to find out. Can you hear it still? No? Just! Yeah yeah yeah yeah! I have to say, with this re-release I’ve learned a lot about Sgt. Pepper that I didn’t know and a lot of stuff I didn’t remember.

You say it refreshes your memory about Sgt. Pepper; I also think it refreshes the songs. Because it’s such an “important” album, sometimes people listen to the reputation rather than hearing the record.

Well now that is true. That’s what happens to everything that becomes – inverted commas – “historical”. You approach it with a reverence that you shouldn’t. It’s just a record – but it’s gained in notoriety over the years. It’s actually very economical, you know, the way it’s recorded.

The Beatles had gone through a lot in ’66 and ’67. You’d jacked in touring and taken flak from people with a stake in your success. Then there was your LSD interview, which moved the debate along but brought a lot of criticism from the media. Then Sgt. Pepper comes out and it’s like another challenge: “The Beatles Have Gone Weird”…

But we were always being told, “You’re gonna lose all your fans with this one.” And we’d say, “Well, we’ll lose some but we’ll gain some.” We’ve gotta advance. We can’t just stop to please this current batch of fans.

It was never daunting, getting that push-back?

We’d become used to them, these kick-backs. There had been a load of things we’d done that people had said we shouldn’t do. And we’d think, “Oh, maybe we shouldn’t… I dunno… should we? Shouldn’t we?” Generally, we’d gone, “The hell with it, let’s do it anyway.” We’d become quite brave at doing what we thought was right. The first time we told people the name of the group – Beatles – they’d gone, “Ugh! Beetles! Creepy crawly things! You can’t do that!” I mean now, it sounds weird to think of the creepy crawly thing. It’s evaporated.

And over the years our records hadn’t always been liked. Sgt. Pepper did actually get a terrible review in the NY Times. The critic [Richard Goldstein] said he hated it, thought it was a terrible mess, and then he was on the streets all week and heard the talk, heard what people were saying, and he took it back [in a subsequent Village Voice piece], recanted after a week: “Er… maybe it’s not so bad.” But we were used to that. She Loves You was “banal”. But if we liked it and thought it was cool, we would go for it.

I mean, George doing Within You Without You, a completely Indian record – it was nothing anyone had heard before, at least in this context. It was a risk, and we were aware of that. But it’s a great track. And it opened the gates to a lot of Eastern influences entering Western culture. Combine that with the meditation thing and look at today’s scene, and George opened the door to a lot of stuff.

Why “Sergeant Pepper”?

It was something I’d overheard… misheard. I was on a plane journey with Mal Evans and he said, “Pass the salt and pepper…” I thought I heard him say “Sergeant Pepper”. It’s in the great tradition of creative misunderstandings. I heard somewhere that William Burroughs had meant to call his book Naked Lust, and it was Allan Ginsberg, who was short-sighted, saw it and said “What’s that? Naked Lunch? Fantastic!”

Anyway, my imagination just ran wild for the rest of the journey: “OK, Sergeant Pepper. This has got to be a new thing, a song or...” And seeing as though everyone was doing Soft Joe’s Travelling Medicine Band With Knobs On… it was kind of a parody of that: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Travelling Circus, On Wheels… In Ramsgate. And then it all sort of fell into place. There’s this guy and he’s got this band, and that could be us. It was quite… freeing. Every time we thought, “Oh, we can’t do that,” it was, “Why not? It’s this other group – it’s not us.”

If Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, the lead tunes of an older “Back To Liverpool, Back To Childhood” idea, had been on the album, there may have been no room for the Sgt. Pepper concept…

Maybe, but it was all just part of our development. The Beatles is a body of work I can look back on now. And it’s amazing – there’s no track that’s ever like the last one. You look at a lot of other groups – I always mention The Supremes – poor old Supremes! I love the records, but it’s Baby Love, Stop In The Name Of Love… (sings) “Stop! In the naaaame of luuurrve!” It’s a Supremes/Motown sound and the songs are similar, tied together. We weren’t doing that. We were doing Yesterday, and Strawberry Fields Forever, and When I’m 64, and I Am The Walrus. If you study it, are there two songs that are ever really alike? We were so, Been there done that. And it always kept it fresh, for us. Kept it exciting.

The tracks aren’t segued as such, but Pepper has fantastic transitions. You obviously thought those through quite carefully…

Oh I don’t know about that! I’m not sure we thought about ’em carefully. A lot of them were fortunate accidents. Things that just happened to be there on the end of a take. At the end of Within You Without You, there’s this laughter. It just popped up. Any other group would have gone, No no no, let’s have a bit of silence, a mark of respect for this beautiful Indian piece George has just recorded. But we thought it was perfect. We were in hysterics, we’re laughing, it was the perfect reaction to that. And then that segues into something else…

…into When I’m 64. Which is the perfect yin and yang…

A lot of it was having all the time in the world and the greatest team working with us… Everyone was involved. On [Being For The Benefit Of] Mr Kite we knew we could safely say to George Martin, “OK We want it to be like a fairground.” Instead of going, “What the bloody hell do they mean?” he got tapes, he cut them up, he turned them backwards he re-spliced them. When you have people like that working with you, they’re gonna make everything you come up with better. Like the cover – a little idea I had and sketched up that goes out to Peter Blake – this great artist, to this day. Him and Jann Haworth put in their set of ideas. It becomes this collaboration with all these great people. Everyone with enough time to concentrate on what they’re doing.

Horrible question: is it the best Beatles album?

Horrible answer: I don’t know. I think it’s the most influential Beatles album. Perhaps, as you said, in inverted commas, it’s the most “important”, but not necessarily the best. Revolver had some special moments on it. What’s called ‘The White Album’ had some very important moments on it. And Abbey Road. There are other albums as good in different ways. But Pepper is the most noticeable Beatles album because it was so different, and such a change from what was going on at the time. There were so many little things happening, and it seemed like they all culminated on Sgt. Pepper. But we went beyond it, did Let It BeAbbey Road, and do you know, they weren’t bad either.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 283

Picture: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images

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