Lately, I have been turning my attention to music production. One of the best things to do, when learning how to do anything, is to watch and learn from the masters. I was delighted to find a documentary, made in around 1992, about the making of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. What a gem!
Interestingly, in this illuminating video, George Martin and three of the Beatles tell the behind-the-scenes story of the writing and recording of the record. What is evident, especially from the four track mixes and the demo recordings, is that the Beatles and George Martin really crafted this record from a well spring of enormous creativity, a great deal of skill and experience and a willingness to experiment.
The competitive situation between the two main writers, Paul and John, resulted in better and better songs, but that is not to take away from George, who undoubtedly added some of the more avant garde sounds and textures and whose musical ideas have been often underrated.
George Martin rose to the challenge of adding musical elements on demand and it is clear, from the raw tracks, that each track was superbly engineered, with the correct limiting, compression, mic placement and equalisation already in place.
Poor old Ringo was the only one that seemed to have approached the task of making the album as a chore, rather than the ultimate musical production playground and this appears to have negatively coloured his view of the entire experience. What a pity for him.
Another thing that is evident from the video is the beautiful simplicity of many of the musical elements (the melody in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, for example).
The lovely thing, for me, is in hearing how few tracks you needed to make a great sound. George observes that all the technical elements (e.g. the vacuum tube consoles, the tape machines, etc.) contributed to a subtly overlaid sheen or colour, which makes the sound of the record into a period piece. Recreating those sounds digitally, of course, is now infinitely possible.
It was also clear that writing the songs in the studio was a process of evolution, with the early demos being elaborated upon by the fourth and fifth versions. Interestingly, the Beatles would “finish” a track, then go back and remake it many times over, from scratch, but drawing upon earlier versions for inspiration.
These days, the process of moving sounds around from version to version is so much easier and there are virtually unlimited tracks, sounds and textures to play with, but the essence of using inspiration, bright new ideas and innovative approaches stands the test of time, I think. It’s all too easy to get lost in the sea of technology, today, but the important thing the video teaches (or at least teaches me) is that the important thing is to draw upon that authentic spark of creativity, the desire to push the boundaries experimentally and the passionate desire to make something of quality.
No wonder this record was so ground-breaking.