11 Facts About Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images
John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images

The Beatles' status as the Biggest Music Group in the World was in danger of being taken away from them during the first few months of 1967. The band had announced they were no longer going to perform live because of the growing physical dangers that came with touring, largely thanks to John Lennon's seemingly blasphemous comments on Christianity, which stoked religious fervor in the United States. Guaranteed sellout audiences—crowds so loud that nobody, not even the band, could hear a note of the music—were replaced by half-empty stadiums by the time the Fab Four performed in San Francisco on August 29, 1966 for what would be their final concert (not counting that rooftop performance in 1969).

When they reconvened in November of 1966, they found themselves with as much time as ever to get their next album as perfect as they could. What Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, producer George Martin, and engineer Geoff Emerick came up with was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a loosely conceptual album that was both a celebration and a piss-take on the psychedelic bands that had been popping up at the time.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released to the public on June 1, 1967—50 years ago today—and served as a confirmation that The Beatles were not only alive and well, but still at the forefront of pop music innovation; "The Summer of Love" came shortly after.

1. THE TITLE CAME FROM AIRPLANE SALT AND PEPPER PACKETS.

By the time The Beatles took a three-month vacation in the latter part of 1966, they were all tired of being The Beatles. McCartney and tour manager/assistant Mal Evans ruminated on this problem as the two traveled together, ending their international adventures in Kenya. On their flight back to London, McCartney was developing an alter ego for the band for their next record.

"Me and Mal often bantered words about, which led to the rumor that he thought of the name Sergeant Pepper," McCartney explained to author Barry Miles about how he came up with the name. "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." McCartney then added "Lonely Hearts Club" to "Sergeant Pepper," and figured it would be a "crazy enough" band name, "because why would a Lonely Hearts Club have a band?"

2. THE BAND WAS UNDER A LOT OF PRESSURE.

Because of the perceived fading popularity of the group, Beatles manager Brian Epstein and their label EMI put pressure on Martin and the band to release a "can't-miss" hit single. Caving in to the pressure, two of the first three songs from the Sgt. Pepper sessions were released as a double A-side single: "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane." As was the practice at the time with singles, those two classic songs weren't included on the album. Martin later said that listening to Epstein and EMI in this instance was "the biggest mistake" of his professional life.

3. IT WAS INFLUENCED BY THE BEACH BOYS' PET SOUNDS, AND FRANK ZAPPA.

George Martin was quoted as saying that if Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys had not created and recorded their classic album Pet Sounds, "Sgt. Pepper never would have happened." McCartney repeatedly played the album at Abbey Road during recording sessions. Unbeknownst to The Beatles, they were fulfilling their part in a pop group ouroboros, because Wilson was inspired to write Pet Sounds after hearing The Beatles' Rubber Soul.

In June 1966, Frank Zappa's The Mothers of Invention came out with the double-record Freak Out!, a satirical album that also happened to contain classical music-influenced movements instead of individual tracks; some consider it to be the first rock concept album. "This is our Freak Out!" McCartney supposedly said during the Sgt. Pepper sessions.

4. DOGS MIGHT GO NUTS IF YOU PLAY THEM "A DAY IN THE LIFE" ALL THE WAY THROUGH.

A 15-kilohertz high-frequency tone/whistling noise can be heard—if you have the remastered CD version and not the vinyl repressing anyway—after the iconic final piano chord finishes resonating and before the backwards talking that closes the album. It was Lennon's idea to add the equivalent of a police dog whistle after he had an hours-long conversation with McCartney about frequencies. McCartney admitted to it all in 2013. Some believe the inclusion of the dog whistle was a subtle nod to the influence Pet Sounds had on the album.

5. RINGO REFUSED TO SING ONE LYRIC.

The song originally began with the hypothetical, "What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?" Starr remembered what happened years earlier when fans constantly threw jelly babies on stage, after Harrison mentioned that he liked them. The drummer worried he would just be asking for it and take tomatoes to the face and other parts of his body for the rest of his life, and informed Lennon and McCartney there was "not a chance in hell" he was going to sing the line as written.

6. RINGO NEEDED A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS WITH "A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS."

Starr was apprehensive about singing the number, and was more than happy to head home instead after an all-nighter recording the instrumental to the track. But the other Beatles wouldn't let him leave despite it being just before dawn. Emerick, the album's engineer, wrote about what happened when Ringo started to go up the studio stairs to end the session, as he and his boss, Martin, witnessed and listened:

He was at the halfway point when we heard Paul's voice call out.

"Where are you going, Ring?" he said.
 Ringo looked surprised. "Home, to bed."
 "Nah, let's do the vocal now."

Ringo looked to the others for support. "But I'm knackered," he protested. To his dismay, both John and George Harrison were taking Paul's side. "No, come on back here and do some singing for us," John said with a grin. It was always a group decision as to when a session would end, and obviously Ringo had jumped the gun a bit.

Starr groaned and wondered out loud if they were still going to be there at Abbey Road when that night's session was due to start, but he managed to get the vocal right, with his three bandmates gathered around him, silently conducting and cheering him on just inches behind the mic. The drummer still had trouble with the final high note, and after it was determined studio effects weren't an option, Paul, George, and John had to encourage him again to give him the confidence to pull it off. Once he hit the note, they toasted with scotch-and-cokes and finally called it a night/morning.

7. FOR THE MOST PART, RINGO WAS BORED.

While the others consulted with Martin on technical aspects of the songs they wrote and kept Starr—who had not written any material for Sgt. Pepper—waiting around longer than ever to record the percussion overdubs, he learned how to play chess.

8. "SHE'S LEAVING HOME" WAS WRITTEN ABOUT A TEEN WHO REALLY RAN AWAY FROM HOME, AND HAD MET THE BEATLES YEARS EARLIER.

McCartney wrote "She's Leaving Home" after reading in the local newspaper about 17-year-old Melanie Coe, who went missing without her car, checkbook, or any spare clothes. It turned out that Coe was shacked up with a croupier she had met at a nightclub, and ended up coming home 10 days later. What McCartney never realized was that he actually met Coe on October 4, 1963, when she won a miming contest on the TV show Ready Steady Go!. McCartney was the judge.

9. THE PABLO FANQUE IN "BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR.KITE!" WAS GREAT BRITAIN'S FIRST BLACK CIRCUS OWNER.

Lennon was not aware of this. He had taken the lyrics for his song from an 1843 poster for Pablo Fanque's circus, which he had purchased in an antique shop on the day he filmed the music video for "Strawberry Fields Forever." Lennon hung it in his music room, where he played his piano, which lead to the obvious inspiration. Martin aided with the production considerably, based on Lennon's direction to make "Mr. Kite" sound like people can "smell the sawdust".

10. ADOLF HITLER IS HIDING ON THE ALBUM'S COVER.

Lennon had initially asked for Jesus Christ, Adolf Hitler, and Mahatma Gandhi to appear on the cover with the other celebrities and historical figures, but all three of those suggestions were nixed. Yet, Sir Peter Blake—the artist responsible for the design of the picture along with Jann Haworth—revealed in 2007 that wasn't exactly true.

"Hitler and Jesus were the controversial ones, and after what John said about Jesus we decided not to go ahead with him—but we did make up the image of Hitler," Blake told the Independent. "If you look at photographs of the outtakes, you can see the Hitler image in the studio. With the crowd behind there was an element of chance about who you can and cannot see, and we weren't quite sure who would be covered in the final shot. Hitler was in fact covered up behind the band."

11. THE BBC BANNED "A DAY IN THE LIFE."

Sgt. Pepper made its public debut on May 20, 1967 at 4 p.m. on the BBC's Where It's At. Excerpts from every song except "A Day In The Life" were played, as the tune had been officially banned the day before for promoting "a permissive attitude toward drug-taking." BBC believed that McCartney's singing "found my way upstairs and had a smoke" was a drug reference, and that Lennon's line about "Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" might be a reference to a heroin junkie's arm.

Because of that ban—and the belief that "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" also referenced drugs—the three suspicious songs were omitted from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band when it was released in South Asia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House

Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But ever since her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a hit Netflix series, her work has been experiencing a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.)

If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”)

In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. Shirley Jackson claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:

"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."

It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities.

Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. Shirley Jackson considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life.

“They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. Shirley Jackson died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.)

A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Singers George Michael (left) and Andrew Ridgeley, of the band 'Wham!', performing on stage, July 1986
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Andrew Ridgeley (right) and George Michael (1963-2016) of Wham! performing on stage together in Sydney, Australia during the pop duo's 1985 world tour, January 1985.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in the Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.

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