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Music

Behind the scenes of the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'

The seminal 1967 album turns 50 next month

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A version of this story appeared in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now or available to buy here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

On June 1, 1967, John, Paul, George, and Ringo changed the world when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the greatest albums of all time. Now, for its 50th anniversary, the band’s label is putting out a massive reissue — featuring two discs of outtakes — that offers an unprecedented look at the making of a masterpiece. Giles Martin, the son of late Beatles producer George Martin who helped oversee the effort, and Jann Haworth, codesigner of the iconic album art, take EW behind the scenes of the Fab Four’s finest.

Martin redid Sgt. Pepper’s stereo mix

Sgt. Pepper’s was a sonically groundbreaking work — but many modern listeners hear a subpar version. That’s because the Beatles designed the album for mono, while the mixes for stereo, still a novelty in the late ’60s, were thrown together without the band present. “The earlier stuff they designed for mono, they didn’t think about panning,” Martin says. “You don’t, if it’s only going to come out of one speaker.”

The album’s 2009 remaster polished the pre-existing stereo mix, but for this one, Martin started from scratch. Subtle studio trickery yielded big dividends, such as Martin’s decision to pan the famous keyboard riff in “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” from side to side. Martin jokes that he had to bury fears of “changing the quantum physics of the universe and everything [going] wrong for the rest of time” when remixing the beloved album.

Paul and Ringo were heavily involved in the reissue

“I thought of new ways to approach it,” Martin says of his work with the reissue. “That’s what the Beatles demand of me. They don’t want me to sit around on my hands.” But he wasn’t on his own with the Herculean task of remixing Sgt. Pepper’s. “Paul has to be happy, and Ringo has to be happy,” says Martin. “I had a huge safety net, and the safety net is them.” And the surviving Beatles helped him when possible. “I sit down with Paul and we’ll go through the mixes,” Martin explains. “It’s actually fun. None of us wander around with white gloves on and dust ourselves down and say, ‘Listen here, chaps, this is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most famous album of all-time, and let’s not screw it up.'”

Even the world’s best band made goofs sometimes

Sure, every note of Sgt. Pepper’s is perfect — but that’s because some weird ideas were cut, Martin reveals. One take of “A Day in the Life,” for instance, found the band humming the song’s final chord in unison. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, were they seriously going to do this?'” Martin says. “What’s reassuring is that even on an album full of good ideas, they came up with bad ones — which is heartening for us mere mortals. Their willingness to try things shows how they got to where they got.”

Paul and John were a symbiotic unit in the studio

While their creative partnership would be strained after Sgt. Pepper’s — the Beatles announced their breakup just three years later — the pair were still in tandem for these sessions. “You hear them giving each other guidance,” Martin says about the outtakes. “There’s a bit where ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ ends and Paul goes through how John should be singing the verses: ‘Don’t go cell-oh-phane flowers, go cello-phane flowers.’ The album is the sum of their parts.”

Sgt. Pepper’s was George Martin’s favorite Beatles LP

The late producer and arranger worked on just about every Beatles recording. And, to him, nothing compared to Pepper’s. “It was my dad’s favorite Beatles record and the one that he was most proud of,” his son says. “It was the peak of the happiest time.” Things soon turned for the worse: In the months following the album’s release, George’s father died, as did longtime Beatles manager Brian Epstein. “Everything changed,” Giles recalls.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” could’ve ended up on the album

The Beatles began these sessions by recording “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” but those tracks didn’t make it onto the LP and were instead released as one 7-inch single. While outtakes of both songs are featured on the reissue, George had hoped to include them on the original release. “For my dad, ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ were the catalyst for the making of Sgt. Pepper’s,” Giles says. “It was a sea change for the way things were recorded. They wanted to paint pictures with sound and create a world that they couldn’t perform live. My father said he regretted them not being on the album. They’re part of that world.”

Famous figures were cut from the cover art

The Beatles tapped pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth to help create the iconic image, which showed the band surrounded by cutouts of 58 historical figures. John had lobbied to include Hitler, Ghandi, and Jesus — but those ideas were nixed. “It would’ve been a disaster [if Hitler were included],” Haworth says. “He was not infallible, our John.” As for the celebrities who were living at the time, the Beatles had to secure their permission. “Mae West said, ‘What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club band?'” recalls Haworth. “So the Beatles had to write a letter [explaining the idea], and then she said, ‘Fine.'”

Grammarians, take note: There is an apostrophe

It’s a question long debated by Beatlemaniacs: Is it Sgt. Peppers or Sgt. Pepper’s? The cover art’s bass drum famously omitted an apostrophe, but Haworth is setting the record straight. “It was a mistake. There should have been an apostrophe. Sgt. Pepper is the man — and the band belongs to him.”