High Times Greats: The True Story of Sgt. Pepper

An inside look into Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
High Times Greats: The True Story of Sgt. Pepper
High Times

Between November 1966 and March 1967 the Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Abbey Road studios. The album, which sold one and a half million copies in the first two weeks following its US release on June 2, 1967, became an electronic bible for the emerging drug generation. Miles, then the editor of International Times, London’s first underground newspaper, and subsequently the editor of London’s Time Out magazine, went to the recording sessions at the invitation of Paul McCartney. In the following behind-the-scenes account published in the October, 1979 issue of High Times, he tells you what it was like to be there.

I remember it well. “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet,” the last track on the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out album, came to an end and Paul McCartney strolled across his huge living room to take the record off. In one corner a BBC color-TV monitor was mistimed to give a flickering abstract pattern; two Rene Magritte paintings glowed on the wall in the pale afternoon winter sun; and Martha, Paul’s Old English sheepdog, lay content in front of a crackling log fire. I sat by the French windows enjoying a cup of tea. Paul returned and picked up the conversation where we’d left off. “This is going to be our Freak Out. Not like Zappa’s. But when people hear this they’ll really stop and think about what it’s all about!”

“Fantastic, man!” I said, in that dull flat voice you sometimes get after smoking too much dope. Paul was talking about an album the Beatles had just started recording at Abbey Road. It was January 1967. The album was Sergeant Pepper.

In those days I saw a lot of Paul. The London scene was very small, and if you smoked pot in the mid ’60s, you easily got to know every other head in town. When I first met him Paul was living in a large townhouse in Wimpole Street, the parental home of his girl friend, Jane Asher. I met him through Jane’s brother, Peter, who was then still a member of Peter and Gordon and also lived at home and who, much later, went on to become the successful manager and producer of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor.

Paul lived in a small attic room on the top floor of the Asher household, originally part of the servants’ quarters, next door to Peter’s room. Peter had an L-shaped room done out in modern style with lots of Norwegian wooden shelves, gold records and various trophies and awards from his career with Gordon Waller in the hit parade. A pair of Brenell tape recorders sat just inside the door. These belonged to Paul and were the machines on which he devised and recorded many of the Beatles’ backwards tapes. “Brenells are the best, even if the knobs do fall off.” He found that his own name came out as Ian Iachimoe when played backward on tape and suggested that we all write to him as that so he could distinguish letters from friends in amongst the sacks of fan mail. He published a short story under the same name.

Paul’s room was next to the upstairs bathroom. It was a small plain room with a single window, a large brown wardrobe and a single bed, which occupied most of the floor space. A wall shelf held some interesting bric-a-brac: a couple of Jean Cocteau drawings from the Opium series, one in a cracked frame; a few first-edition books; a volume of Alfred Jarry; and some guitar picks. Under the bed where the chamber pot used to be were a pile of gold records and a presentation MBE. An electric bass was propped in the corner, and stenciled on the case in white letters: BEATLES. No room for more instruments. He kept some in Peter’s room. No room even for records. The few that he had were kept outside on the landing in a rack on top of a chest of drawers next to the amateurly wired bell system that announced whom an incoming telephone call was for. I think there would be three rings for Peter, four for Paul. Paul had no phone of his own. In fact the very idea probably hadn’t occurred to him. This was at a time when his accountant had already informed him that he was technically a millionaire. Not that he lacked money. Peter once went into Paul’s room to borrow some socks, pulled open the sock drawer and was showered with dollar bills that Paul had forgotten about.

On the floor below lived Jane, a successful actress; but Victorian propriety meant that they couldn’t sleep together in the parental home, so in 1966 Paul finally bought himself a house. Unlike the other Beatles, who had all bought huge mansions in the country, Paul decided to stay in the city and bought a beautiful free-standing Regency house next to Lords cricket ground. The house, which was built in about 1880, had a lamppost in the front drive and an orchard at the end of the garden. It was surrounded by a high wall and had a pair of gates covered in black expanded metal to prevent the ever-present fans from writing on them. You needed to know the bell code to get in. From the upstairs music room you could see the hands and heads of young girls who would hold onto the top of the wall for a few moments before dropping back exhausted. The house was within walking distance of Abbey Road, where Sergeant Pepper was being recorded.

From the very beginning everyone involved knew that this album was going to be special. It was going to work on all levels. Paul described it like this: “The idea was to do a complete thing that you could make what you liked of, just like a little magic presentation. We were going to have a little envelope in the center with the nutty things you can buy at Woolworth’s, a surprise packet.” Not just another Beatles album but something to look at, to do and to listen to—a complete experience. It also had another level: “There are only about a hundred people in the world who understand our music” (John Lennon, 1967).

In its time Sergeant Pepper was the most expensive album ever made. It took an unprecedented 400 hours of studio time and cost over £10,000 ($20,000), which nowadays would be cheap. The Beatles’ first album was made in a day. The Sergeant Pepper sessions began in November 1966 and continued through March 1967. First came “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” numbers that gave a good idea of the new direction the Beatles were going, particularly “Strawberry Fields,” with Paul’s use of Mellotron, George on Indian temple harp, and with its use of cello, trumpet and electronic drum track.

I recorded a conversation with Paul at his new house the day after “Strawberry Fields” was recorded. It was November 1966, and to the public and most of the fans the Beatles were still the Four Mop-tops. For this article I dug out the dusty old cassette and played it again. As I expected, ghosts hiding in old interiors came to life as Paul’s Liverpudlian voice predicted the future:

“People, quite a few people, are prepared for the next sound. They’re ready, they’re waiting for the next scene in music, the next scene in sound. A lot of people now are ready to be led to the next move.” He was fully aware of what they were doing.

As the conversation rambled on, he described his approach to music: “With everything, with any kind of thing, my aim seems to be to distort it. Distort it from what we know it as, even with music, with visual things. But the aim is to change it from what it is to see what it could be. To see the potential in it all.

“The point is to take a note and wreck the note and see in that note what else there is in it that a simple act like distorting it had caused. It’s the same with film, to take a film and superimpose on top of it so you can’t quite tell what it is anymore. It’s all trying to create magic. It’s all trying to make things happen that you don’t know why they’ve happened. I’d like a lot more things to happen like they did when you were kids, when you didn’t know how the conjuror did it and you were happy to just sit there and say, ‘Well, it’s magic!’ ‘‘Ordinary everyday thought is so messed up that you’ve got to allow for the possibility of there being a lot lot more than we know about. Therefore to take things that we already know about in one way: to bang one note on the piano, instead of trying to put millions of notes into it, just to take the one note of the piano and listen to it shows you what there is in one note. There’s so much going on in one note, but you never listen to it! So many harmonics buzzing around, that if all that’s happening in one note, and if in one frame of a picture all that’s happening… the thing is, it could take a bit of looking into!” Paul had had a number of insights from his use of acid.

Generally speaking, most of the music on the album is by Paul and most of the words are by John, but there are plenty of exceptions. Not all the material was new. Paul originally wrote “When I’m 64” in 1962-3 during the Cavern days in Liverpool, but he revised it in honor of his father, who was 64 in 1967, and it was ideal for Sergeant Pepper since the album was supposed to have something on it for everyone.

Paul was also completely responsible for “She’s Leaving Home.” I arrived at the studio one night and ran into George in the corridor leading to Studio 2. He was dressed in a dragoon jacket, yellow crushed-velvet pants, and was carrying a smoldering bunch of incense sticks. When George talks to you he likes to get up real close, about eight inches from your face. “You should have been here yesterday, man,” he said excitedly. “We recorded this beautiful song about a girl leaving home. It really says it all!” He gave me a stick of incense and left for the canteen.

The Beatles took many of their stories from the daily newspapers. “She’s Leaving Home” came from a story in the Daily Mirror, the most popular newspaper in the United Kingdom. A girl left home and her father said, “We gave her everything, I don’t know why she left home.” As Paul said, “He didn’t give her that much, not what she wanted when she left home.” George Martin was almost moved to tears when he first heard it, and provided one of his most beautiful arrangements for it.

The “Sergeant Pepper” theme was worked on as a device to unify the album, which was originally intended to not have any spirals—each song was to segue right into the next—only EMI would not agree. The actual title was one of those random things songwriters come up with. Paul: “I was thinking of nice words like ‘Sergeant Pepper’ and ‘Lonely Hearts Club’ and they came together for no reason.” The Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Beatles, who were themselves, with their North Country upbringings, a bit of a brass band as well as a rock ’n’ roll band. “We went into it just like that. Just us doing a good show.” As usual the influences on the music come from all over the place; for instance, the brass fanfares, applause and laughter-off on the “Sergeant Pepper” reprise was an effect that Paul took, probably unconsciously, from Stockhausen’s Momente! (he’s on the album sleeve).

The huge scale and scope of the album was realized almost immediately when the Beatles embarked on “A Day in the Life” using a full orchestra. This was a John Lennon number. He was sitting at the piano with a copy of the Daily Mail, another popular tabloid newspaper, propped up in front of him and found a paragraph about 4,000 holes being discovered in Blackburn, Lancashire. John picked up on it: “There was still one word missing when we came to record. I knew the line had to go, ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.’ It was a nonsense verse really, but for some reason I couldn’t think of the verb. What did the holes do to the Albert Hall? It was Terry Doran who said ‘fill’ the Albert Hall.”

It’s a rule on Beatles records that whoever wrote the verse sings it, unless it was written for Ringo. On “A Day in the Life” the bit sung by Paul was originally a different song entirely, but it just happened to fit. It was a simple little song of him remembering what it was like to run up the road to catch the bus to school, going upstairs to the upper deck and having a furtive cigarette before going to classes. It was written as a deliberate provocation, the only one on the album that could be taken two ways. It was one for their dope-smoking friends. Paul: “We decided, ‘Bugger this, we’re going to write a turn-on song!’”

George didn’t attend all the sessions and at times felt that he was being ignored by Paul, but the Beatles always kept these disagreements very much to themselves. There were other times of course when George was in great form. I arrived one day and George, on seeing me, ran to his Stylist guitar, plugged into his Conqueror amp, yelled “Live at EMI!” and blasted one of the melodies he had written. Ringo joined in for a few bars from his sound box, but John continued to quietly tune his Gibson. The Beatles recorded with their microphones and amps set up as if playing for an imaginary audience.

They were very self-critical. Paul was always worried about the bass sound, and Martin was also concerned about how to get the bass notes onto record without them being lost. Martin’s second biggest problem was Lennon’s voice. John was convinced that he had a terrible voice and always wanted it changed electronically to sound better. Consequently Martin used a great many effects on the voices, some of which worked and a few of which didn’t. Since these were the days before parametric equalization and the like, there were times when Lennon could be seen in the studio singing down a cardboard mailing tube to get a certain effect.

The actual making of the album was a fascinating process. As is usual with recording, there were large amounts of time when nothing was happening except that the engineers were fixing something or taking levels. The Beatles often used to work out the final form of songs in the studio itself, during which time no recording could take place.

There were never great crowds of people there to watch, but most sessions were attended by a few friends. Among those who came by were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan and Mike (“I’m a Believer”) Nesmith. Slack periods were filled by smoking dope or drinking vile coffee or tea from paper cups from the canteen. The dope was smoked English style, mixed with tobacco, and more than once I was passed a laboratory test tube filled with white powder, usually speedballs, a mixture of coke and smack, though care was always taken not to expose George Martin to any of these things. Despite all this, there were times when Lennon would get pissed off at waiting around and grab the nearest live microphone and yell, “What’s going on up there? Let’s get on with it. You can’t keep us hanging ’round for your fuckin’ tea break. We’re the fucking Beatles!” and George Martin would patiently try to explain what they were doing to the exasperated Lennon and at the same time mollify irate engineers.

One evening we arrived with Paul and sat out a full session from 7 P.M. until about 3 a.m. All that they recorded in that time was the two-second spiral leader that finishes the album and plays forever if you don’t have an automatic pickup on your record player. At one point, all four Beatles were standing clustered around a mike, talking and singing anything that came into their heads, when Ringo said, “I think I’m going to fall over!” and as everyone watched in amazement he proceeded to do so. There was no problem, though, because before he hit the ground, Mal Evans, their trusty, burly assistant was there to catch him and stand him on his feet again.

Ringo was always funny in a quiet way, but you had to be fast to catch him sometimes. One night there was a team from Time magazine taking photographs and interviewing for a feature. During recording, Ringo felt hungry and Mal prepared a meal for him, setting up a small table at the side of the huge studio. As Ringo tucked into a plate of baked beans on toast, the Time man approached, then stopped, horrified. “Good God, man, you can’t eat that!”

“Why not?” asked Ringo. “Did you see someone put something in it?”

At the time of Sergeant Pepper, Lennon was at the height of his acid phase, taking literally hundreds of trips. He lived in a country mansion surrounded by five television sets, endless tape recorders, instruments, a huge altar cross and a suit of armor called Sydney. He would buy a movie camera, paint it in psychedelic colors, the paint would run inside and jam up the works, and it would be thrown into the corner and a new one bought.

Of all the Beatles, John was the one who used his money to fulfill his every whim. At 2 a.m. in the studio he would turn to Mal Evans and say, “Apples, Mal,” and sure enough, half an hour later, Mal would appear grinning, carrying a box of apples fresh from Covent Garden market. On another occasion he turned and said, “Socks, Mal.” Fairly soon, Lennon was happily trying on dozens of pairs of brightly colored socks. This reached its peak years later at Apple Records when John and Yoko would make the most impossible demands of their loyal staff. John and Yoko would like to send an acorn to every world leader for peace. The trouble was, it was mid winter. Where do you get acorns in the middle of winter? The whole staff of the press office was dispatched to the London parks to try to find where the squirrels had hidden their supplies and to dig them up. John and Yoko got their acorns.

John had his huge white Rolls Royce painted with bunches of flowers. He had bought an old gypsy caravan for his garden, and now he got a firm of caravan and barge designers to give the RR the once over. Rolls Royce lodged a formal complaint.

I saw John arrive at Abbey Road one evening dressed in a full-length Chinese brocade gown, carrying a handbag and wearing a large floppy hat tied with a white scarf that almost touched the ground. The fans loved it, but inside John was going through a very bad period. His relationship with Cynthia was breaking up, and his resolve to follow Tim Leary’s suggestions in The Psychedelic Experience and destroy his ego was resulting in just that. Lennon never did things in half measures. He was subjecting his ego to a full frontal attack.

This made him somewhat unpredictable and sometimes unapproachable. I was having dinner at Paul and Jane’s one evening and some of Jane’s actor friends were also visiting. John was there, and the actors were more than a little nervous in the company of two Beatles. One of them, a young woman, needed an ashtray. Seeing none on the table, she asked Lennon if he knew where one was. Lennon sprang to his feet ran to her side, crouched down, inclined his head to one side and pried open his nostril for her to stub out her cigarette. “Here, use this!” The poor girl froze in horror just as he’d expected her to do. Jane glared at John until he shrugged and stood up.

Since the sessions usually ran late into the night it was always a problem finding somewhere to eat afterward. The Beatles usually finished up at one of London’s “in” clubs. One of their favorites at that time was the Bag o’ Nails. The Beatles never telephoned ahead for reservations because the managers always spread the word that they would be there and they were mobbed. They just arrived, like royalty, knowing everything would be all right. One night we arrived at the Bag o’ Nails at 3 a.m., just as they were closing. The manager took one look at who was at his door and customers who were being cajoled into their coats ran joyfully back to their tables, music started up again, the kitchen was reopened, and we settled down to a nice meal of steak, chips and peas washed down with Scotch and Coke, the Beatles’ favorite drink. Neal Aspinall—Nell as they always called him—carried a flashlight with him for these occasions in order to inspect the food in the dim light and make sure it was up to standard.

After the album was completed I arrived at Michael Cooper’s photographic studio in Chelsea. The Beatles had already put on the Sergeant Pepper outfits designed for them by the American artist Jann Haworth, and she was fussing ’round them, getting the flowers pinned on John’s epaulets and adjusting their medals. Her husband, pop artist Peter Blake, was still arranging the potted plants, constantly watering them in case the strong photographic lights made them wilt. Both Jann and Peter showed their work at Robert Fraser’s Bond Street gallery, and Robert was there also, darting about rubbing his hands together in sheer delight and wearing a skintight purple-polka-dot suit from Hung on You. Huge, very strong joints were being passed about, and it took Michael so long to take his light readings that several people doubted whether the picture would ever get taken at all. But it did, and he shot off roll after roll of film since the sleeve required at least four different poses.

So what was the message that the Beatles gave to the world on June [2],1967? Everyone read the album in a different way of course, but this is the way that Paul explained it to me at the time:

“We’ve been in the lucky position of having our childhood ambitions fulfilled. We’ve got the big house and big car and everything. So you stand on that plank then, having reached the end of space, and you look across the wall, and there’s more space! And that’s it! You get your car and house and your fame and your worldwide ego satisfaction, then you just look over the wall and there’s a complete different scene there, that it really is. And which is really the scene. And looking back, obviously you can still see everybody in the world trying to do it. Trying to do what you’ve just done. And that’s what they believe life’s about! And it’s right! Because that is what life’s about at the moment, I suppose, for them. But you know, I could tell a few people that I can see a few rungs further down the ladder, trying to do exactly what I’ve just done, I could tell a few of them: That’s completely the wrong way to do it because you’re not taking into account this scene on the other side of the wall. This is the bit you’ve also got to take into account and then that bit will be easier. It’ll all be easier then!”

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