Paul McCartney’s vision for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

Saturday, November 19, 1966
Timeline More from year 1966
Location:
Nairobi, Kenya

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About

On November 6, 1966, Paul McCartney set off on a weeklong road trip through France. On November 12, he met his roadie, Mal Evans, in Bordeaux. They planned to drive to Spain to visit John Lennon on the set of his film, “How I Won the War.” However, they learned along the way that filming had moved on and John was already back in London. Disappointed, Paul decided to book a safari trip to Kenya on the spot.

In Kenya, they were joined by Paul’s girlfriend, Jane Asher. On November 18, they spent their final night in a YMCA in Nairobi before flying back to London.

During the flight, Paul got the idea that The Beatles would record their new album, not as The Beatles, but under the disguise of an imaginary band named “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”


We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didn’t want any more, plus, we’d now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers. There was now more to it; not only had John and I been writing, George had been writing, we’d been in films, John had written books, so it was natural that we should become artists.

Then suddenly on the plane I got this idea. I thought, Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we’re not having to project an image which we know. It would be much more free. What would really be interesting would be to actually take on the personas of this different band. We could say, ‘How would somebody else sing this? He might approach it a bit more sarcastically, perhaps.’ So I had this idea of giving the Beatles alter egos simply to get a different approach; then when John came up to the microphone or I did, it wouldn’t be John or Paul singing, it would be the members of this band. It would be a freeing element. I thought we can run this philosophy through the whole album: with this alter-ego band, it won’t be us making all that sound, it won’t be the Beatles, it’ll be this other band, so we’ll be able to lose our identities in this.

Me and Mal often bantered words about which led to the rumour that he thought of the name Sergeant Pepper, but I think it would be much more likely that it was me saying, ‘Think of names.’ We were having our meal and they had those little packets marked ‘S’ and ‘P’. Mal said, ‘What’s that mean? Oh, salt and pepper.’ We had a joke about that. So I said, ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ just to vary it, ‘Sergeant Pepper, salt and pepper,’ an aural pun, not mishearing him but just playing with the words.

Then, ‘Lonely Hearts Club’, that’s a good one. There’s lot of those about, the equivalent of a dating agency now. I just strung those together rather in the way that you might string together Dr Hook and the Medicine Show. All that culture of the sixties going back to those travelling medicine men, Gypsies, it echoed back to the previous century really. I just fantasised, well, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. That’d be crazy enough because why would a Lonely Hearts Club have a band? If it had been Sergeant Pepper’s British Legion Band, that’s more understandable. The idea was to be a little more funky, that’s what everybody was doing. That was the fashion. The idea was just take any words that would flow. I wanted a string of those things because I thought that would be a natty idea instead of a catchy title. People would have to say, ‘What?’ We’d had quite a few pun titles – Rubber Soul, Revolver – so this was to get away from all that.

Paul McCartney – From “Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now” by Barry Miles, 1997

From Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: What Inspired the Title Track – Rolling Stone:

[…] The group spent their final night in a YMCA on Nairobi’s State House Ave before boarding a flight bound for England on November 19th. Once elevated, McCartney reflected on the 13-day excursion. The time alone had been restorative, and the change of scenery had been stimulating, but he remained fascinated by the transformative properties of disguise. Unencumbered by the burden of celebrity and liberated from any preconceived expectations, he could indulge his every impulse or curiosity. It was total freedom.

As the jet hurtled towards London, bringing him ever closer to the epicenter of over-ripened Beatlemania, he contemplated how to apply these same principles to a band in danger of being suffocated by their own fame. It had already robbed them of live performance, and if they weren’t careful, it would crush their musical creativity. In five days he was due at EMI’s Abbey Road studios for the band’s first sessions since completing Revolver that June, and the way forward seemed murky. “We were fed up with being the Beatles,” he said. “We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didn’t want any more.” They yearned to be accepted as artists, but most saw them as the same cuddly act they’d known for all these years.

Perhaps the Beatles needed a disguise. “I thought, ‘Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we don’t have to project an image that we know. It would be much more free. What would really be interesting would be to actually take on the personas of this different band. We could say, ‘How would somebody else sing this? He might approach it a bit more sarcastically, perhaps.’ So I had this idea of giving the Beatles alter egos simply to get a different approach.

But the new group needed a new name. The Beatles’ moniker, for all its global recognition, belonged to a different pop era by the end of 1966. Had the band extended their stay in San Francisco after playing Candlestick Park, they would have encountered Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, the Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. “It was the start of the hippy times, and there was a jingly-jangly hippy aura all around in America,” McCartney remembered in the Beatles Anthology documentary. “I started thinking about what would be a really mad name to call a band. At the time there were lots of groups with names like ‘Laughing Joe and his Medicine Band’ or ‘Colonel Tucker’s Medicinal Brew and Compound’; all that old Western going-round-on-wagons stuff, with long rambling names.

McCartney was mulling it over when the inflight meal arrived. Evans found himself momentarily confused by the packets marked “S” and “P” on the trays. “Salt and pepper,” McCartney reminded him, before making a quick aural joke: “Sgt. Pepper.”

It was merely a pun – just above groan-worthy, really. But something about the name was catchy. It evoked the Edwardian militaria that had recently come into vogue among London’s fashion-conscious elite. Beautiful young men and women delighted in subverting these emblems of the British empire, steeped in violence and rigid adherence to order, by turning them into stylish works of art. Ultra-hip boutiques like I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet on King’s Road sold vintage dress tunics bedecked in stripes, frilly epaulettes and gleaming brass to Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix and lesser stars of the rock galaxy.

The Beatles began recording the Sgt Pepper title track on 1 February 1967.

From Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: What Inspired the Title Track – Rolling Stone

PAUL McCARTNEY returned to London this week from a nine-day holiday in Kenya. He is pictured above with the moustache and slightly shorter hair he used towards his disguise. Also back in London this week after a visit to New York is recording manager George Martin. The Beatles may begin recording this weekend for their next single and (film) album.

From New Musical Express – November 26, 1966
From New Musical Express – November 26, 1966

Last updated on September 28, 2023

Going further


The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years

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We owe a lot to Barry Miles for the creation of those pages, but you really have to buy this book to get all the details - a day to day chronology of what happened to the four Beatles during the Beatles years!

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