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The Beatles: It was 50 years ago...

When the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album was released on June 1, 1967, it was, according to critic Kenneth Tynan, "a decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation". Simon Evans looks at the making of this landmark album and the key events of the Summer of Love that it ushered in

It is the Christmas of 1966, and The Beatles are assembling at the Abbey Road recording studios in North London the work on their next LP.

Resplendent in all their psychedelic finery they draw up in their Rollers and Minis where they are door-stepped by a waiting camera crew eager to ask the question that had long been on the nation's lips, 'were The Beatles breaking up'? It was a fair question to ask; the group had hardly been seen since they officially retired from touring in August that year, the same month as the release of their last album Revolver and accompanying double-A sided single, Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby.

"No, no, no, we will not be going our different ways" insisted George Harrison as he swept up the stairs at the entrance to Abbey Road,, newly energised, like the rest of The Beatles, from a three-month lay-off during which he had developed his fascination with Indian music and religion.

Ringo Starr had used this break from recording to closet himself away in suburbia with his wide and young son, Zak, playing with his train set and "sitting around getting fat" , Paul McCarney had immersed himself in vibrant London counter-culture while John Lennon, by his own account, had, apart from filming a part in the movie How I Won The War, spent much of his time tripping on LSD.

This was the drug choice for all of swinging London's bright young things and explains Lennon's beatific countenance that winter evening in contrast to the surly, scathing moptop of recent memory. Work on the new album, which was originally intended to be a musical exploration of the Beatles' Liverpool roots, had begun on November 24, with the recording of Strawberry Fields Forever and this would be followed, in early 1967, by Penney Lane, both song titles referring to locations Lennon and McCartney remembered from when they were growing up.

The tracks reflected the outlook of their respective authors, Lennon's dark, brooding Strawberry Fields contrasting with the sunny suburban skies of McCartney's Penny Lane, but although both songs marked a creative breakthrough for the group, neither of them would make the finished album.

EMI wanted a dingle, urgently, to try and rebuild some momentum in the marketplace. Christmas 1966 had been the first since the Beatles broke big not to feature a new album from the group, so instead the record company had rushed out a compilation album, A Collection of Beatles Oldies, to ensure that fans of the group had something to open on Christmas morning.

But now it was February, and to lay to rest all that talk of The Beatles breaking up, Strawberry Fields/ Penny Lane was rushed out as a double A-sided single (although most DJs chose to play the more accessible McCartney number)). True to form, the record glided serenely up the chart, but it was kept off the top by Engelbert Humperdinck's Please Release Me, which only served to further fuel the speculation- had The Beatles really lost their magic touch?

By now work had begun in earnest on what would become the Sgt Pepper LP. IN between sessions for Strawberry fields and Penny Lane the band had made a tentative start on recording a McCartney number When I’m 64, which was similarly drenched in nostalgia, but the main focus of attention, once the two sides of the single had been dispatched to EMI, was on A Day In The Life, the extraordinary song that would eventually close the Sgt Pepper LP. Probably the single most important recording made by the group, and the point at which pop art became high art, A Day In The Life was capable of many different interpretations. That’s the mark of a masterpiece.

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