Andre Gardner delves into the sound fabric of The Beatles ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and reveals some of the interesting ‘instruments’ The Fab Four used when recording this masterpiece:
Once their touring years ended, The Beatles were free to make music on their own schedule. No longer would they have to fit recording sessions between concert tours, TV appearances and photo ops. They could book the studio for weeks at a time, turning it into a workshop/laboratory, where they could enter a session with a mere idea, rather than a completed song, in their heads, and work on it until they felt it was right. Since The Beatles’ record company, EMI, owned Abbey Road Studios, the cost of studio time would have meant only a bit of internal paperwork, rather than actually costing anything. Since The Beatles were EMI’s biggest moneymaker by 1967…it was in the best interest of the company to let the band spend as much time as they needed in the studios to get those ideas committed to tape. That explains why sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band often lasted until dawn, and why The Beatles kept toothbrushes at Abbey Road Studios to freshen up when needed.
With this unlimited time in which to work, and a boatload of creative song ideas flowing, the group was able to embellish each track in a way that hadn’t been done before. One of those ways was when The Beatles started to make use of two very unique resources at Abbey Road. One was their voluminous Sound Effects Collection, on reel to reel tapes, with tens of thousands of every sound imaginable, some of which were recorded by Abbey Road engineers themselves. Then there was the “trap room,” a small closet under the Studio 2 stairs that contained all sorts of instruments, bells, whistles, percussion, Latin instruments and various other items. They raided the trap room countless times during sessions, and you hear lots of items from that closet on Beatles records. Paul McCartney has said in many interviews that he was influenced by the strange instruments and instrument combinations used by The Beach Boys on their Pet Sounds album, and that trap room would have been the great place to find some inspiration.
From December, 1966 to April, 1967, The Beatles remained ensconced inside Abbey Road, making the masterpiece that would become Sgt. Pepper. While fans waited, and critics were quick to say things in print like “The Beatles have dried up” or “they can’t write any more songs,” Paul said the group would just respond by saying to each other, “Oh yeah? Just you wait…”
There are many, many interesting sounds on Sgt. Pepper. Here are ten of them:
This xylophone-like percussion instrument was used on Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite, and was played by George Martin. It also made another appearance during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, on “Only A Northern Song,” though that song would not be released for two more years.
Comb and Toilet Paper
To get just the right effect, John Lennon and George Harrison play combs with toilet paper on them during a harmony vocal session for “Lovely Rita.” The toilet paper used, incidentally, was from the lavatory of Abbey Road Studios, and was official EMI paper! It even had the EMI logo stamped on every sheet. Listen for it right after the line, “made her look a little like a military man..”
To help mark the end of the 24-bar middle part of “A Day In The Life,” (at this point they hadn’t recorded the orchestra yet), The Beatles used a cheap wind-up alarm clock to sound off at the 24-bar point, with the intention of erasing the clock sound when the orchestra overdub was done. At some point, someone noticed that the first line Paul sings after the alarm clock sounded was, “woke up, fell out of bed,” so it was decided to keep that nice little coincidence on the recording.
Normally associated with classical baroque pieces, Paul and George Martin play one as the main keyboard instrument on “Fixing A Hole.” For years, the identity of the harpsichord player(s) was not 100% certain, until this upcoming Sgt. Pepper deluxe set confirms it’s Paul (and later George Martin) on harpsichord and JOHN (and later Paul) on bass!
In the studio The Beatles were always looking for not only new sounds, but different twists on existing ones. Rather than simply playing the piano notes on the keys, George Martin went inside the piano and plucked the actual strings with his fingers on “Getting Better.”
Dudley Moore Audience and An Outtake From Another Song On The Album!
The Beatles needed crowd and orchestra warm-up sound effects for their “show” start on the title song, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so George Martin took out a tape he made of Dudley Moore’s Beyond The Fringe comedy revue stage show he recorded in Cambridge in 1961 and used the pre-show crowd noise from that tape to start the Sgt. Pepper. Mixed on top of that was an outtake from the orchestral overdub onto “A Day In The Life,” possibly the first time in rock history a portion of one song from an album was used on another.
6 years before Mike Oldfield made Tubular Bells the centerpiece on his theme from the movie, The Exorcist, Ringo Starr gave one a shake one night at Abbey Road as an overdub onto “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Animal Sound Effects
Since John was inspired to write Good Morning Good Morning after seeing a commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, he requested that the sound of a rooster open the song, and lots of animals at the end. For the end part, it wasn’t just a random sampling of animals. Instead, John instructed engineer Geoff Emerick to make sure the animal sounds were arranged so each successive animal used was capable of either frightening or devouring its predecessor! Thanks to that massive Sound Effects Collection at Abbey Road mentioned earlier, assembling this wouldn’t have been all that difficult. When you hear the end, you’ll see that it’s pretty close to John’s vision.