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Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: How Paul McCartney’s Travels Inspired the Title Track

“How about if we become an alter-ego band?” McCartney would recall asking the group following French road trip and Kenyan safari in late 1966.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which Rolling Stone named as the greatest album of all time, turns 50 on June 1st. In honour of the anniversary, and coinciding with a new deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper, we present a series of in-depth pieces – one for each of the album’s tracks, excluding the brief “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” reprise on Side Two – that explore the background of this revolutionary and beloved LP. Today’s instalment focuses on how Paul McCartney’s solo travels after the end of the Beatles’ final tour inspired the title track and gave Sgt. Pepper its famous “alter ego” concept.

“Right – that’s it, I’m not a Beatle anymore!” George Harrison was heard to exclaim as the band concluded their touring career on August 29th, 1966, with a set at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. His remark bore a touch of hyperbole, but for the next few months, the Beatles effectively didn’t exist. That fall afforded the foursome the most substantial stretch of personal time they had ever known as adults, allowing each to finally get to know the man he had become after four years as part of a collective identity.

John Lennon had been the first to venture out, accepting a part in director Richard Lester’s satire How I Won the War. It was little more than a glorified cameo, but the role required him to be shorn of his famous mop-top – a metaphor if there ever was one – and film on location in West Germany and Spain. Harrison also went abroad several weeks later, pursuing his love of Indian culture by going to the source. Accompanied by his wife Patti, he made a pilgrimage to Mumbai to study sitar under the tutelage of virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Ringo Starr was joyfully playing the family man, spending time with his wife Maureen and baby son Zak in his Surrey estate, Sunny Heights.

That left Paul McCartney. “I’m just looking for something I enjoy doing,” he told the Sunday Times that September. “There’s no hurry. I have the time and the money.” For a while he followed his songwriting partner into the cinematic realm by seeking offers to compose a soundtrack. He was ultimately hired to provide music for a dramatic comedy, The Family Way, though the work did little to inspire his creativity. His status as the sole London-based Beatle made him a familiar face at gallery openings, theatrical events, experimental music seminars and avant-garde freak-outs, but the barrage of external stimuli caused him to turn inward. As a youth in Liverpool he relished his solitary moments, sitting on a park bench or the top deck of a bus, playing the detached observer while scribbling in his notebook. He was far too famous to ever indulge in such simple pleasures again, but perhaps a solo road trip – with some extra precautions – would clear his head.

On November 6th, McCartney drove his new dark-green Aston Martin DB6 to Lydd Airport in Kent, where it was loaded into the bay of a Silver City Airways superfreighter. McCartney himself relaxed in the 20-seat passenger area for the duration of the plane-ferry’s brief flight to Le Touquet, France. After clearing customs, he disguised his world-famous face with a false moustache specially made by Wig Creations, who had worked with the Beatles on the set of A Hard Day’s Night. “They measure you and match the color of your hair, so it was like a genuine moustache with real glue,” he told biographer Barry Miles in Many Years From Now. “And I had a couple of pairs of glasses made with clear lenses, which just made me look a bit different. I put a long blue overcoat on and slicked my hair back with Vaseline and just wandered around and of course nobody recognised me at all. It was good, it was quite liberating for me.” For the first time in years, McCartney shed the weighty cloak of superstardom and assumed the identity of an anonymous everyman. “I was a lonely little poet on the road with my car,” he later recalled.

It’s fitting that the undercover Beatle drove James Bond’s favorite automobile, even though the flashy sports car was hardly inconspicuous in the French countryside. “I was pretty proud of the car. It was a great motor for a young guy to have, pretty impressive,” he recalls. He aimed it towards Paris and the Loire Valley, leisurely pausing to visit chateaus and antique stores along the way. By almost anyone else’s standards, much of his vacation was painfully ordinarily. “I’d cruise, find a hotel and park. … I’d walk around the town and then in the evening go down to dinner, sit on my own at the table, at the height of all this Beatle thing, to balance the high-key pressure. Having a holiday and also not be recognised. And re-taste anonymity.”

He kept a journal of the trip, and shot reel after reel of 8 mm film, making short, atmospheric movies partially inspired by his acquaintance, Andy Warhol. Like many of his lyrics, they were poetic, sometimes surreal twists on the everyday – a Ferris wheel in motion, a policeman directing traffic, an elderly woman tending a grave like a real-life Eleanor Rigby. Sadly, both the journal and much of the film were later stolen by fans, but a few reels survive.

McCartney’s Gallic Clark Kent disguise sometimes worked a little too well. The night before he was due to meet up with friend and Beatles roadie Mal Evans, he was turned away from a Bordeaux nightclub for appearing like a regular scruff. “I looked like an old jerko. ‘No, no, monsieur, non – you schmuck, we can’t let you in!’ So I thought, ‘Sod this, I might as well go back to the hotel and come as him!’ I came back as a normal Beatle, and was welcomed in with open arms.”

Like a twist in an old movie, the incident reminded McCartney what he missed about his extraordinary daily life. “I remembered what it was like to not be famous and it wasn’t necessarily any better than being famous,” he told Miles. “It made me remember why we all wanted to get famous; to get that thing. Of course, those of us in the Beatles have often thought that, because we wished for this great fame, and then it comes true but it brings with it all these great business pressures or the problems of fame, the problems of money, etc. And I just had to check whether I wanted to go back, and I ended up thinking, ‘No, all in all, I’m quite happy with this lot.'”

McCartney and Evans met at 1 p.m. the following day, November 12th, at a pre-arranged spot under the Grosse Cloche clock tower in Bordeaux’s Saint-Eloi Catholic church. Together they drove towards Spain, stopping off at the coastal town of San Sebastian, and then to Madrid, Cordoba and Malaga. The idea had been to visit Lennon on the set of How I Won the War in Almeria, but along the way they were informed that filming had moved on and Lennon was already back in England. Disappointed by drizzly weather and bored by the aimless driving, McCartney craved something more exotic. So, like many adventurous Englishmen before him, he booked a safari in Kenya.

Having arranged for the Aston Martin to be driven back to London, the men embarked on a flight to Nairobi, where McCartney’s girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, joined them. The trio took accommodations at a lodge in the Tsavo National Park and hired a man named Moses to drive them to the local sightseeing spots. At Mzima Springs they watched splashing crocodiles and hippos from an underwater viewing station, and followed wildlife through the Maasai Amboseli game reserve at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. For an added treat, they stayed at the famous Treetops Hotel, built into an enormous chestnut tree overlooking an elephant watering hole in Aberdare National Park. Queen Elizabeth II had been residing there when she ascended to the throne in 1952. McCartney’s stay would provide another historical footnote.

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 epicentre 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.”

“I thought, ‘Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we don’t have to project an image that we know.'” – Paul McCartney

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.

Apart from the cool cachet, “Sgt. Pepper” reminded McCartney of less-than-trendy community brass bands, a familiar sight when he was growing up in industrial Northern England. His grandfather Joe had played an E-flat bass tuba in the company band at Cope Brothers’ tobacco manufacturers. “It’s a roots thing for me,” he later told Miles. “Sgt. Pepper’s British Legion Band” sounded a little too normal, so from deep within his unconscious he retrieved “Lonely Hearts Club,” an antiquated term for a dating agency. “I threw those words together: ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.'”

But every band needs a tune. What would Sgt. Pepper and his group play? “They’re a bit of a brass band in a way, but also a bit of a rock band because they’ve got the San Francisco thing,” he explained to Alan Aldridge, author of The Beatles: Illustrated Lyrics. In his mind, McCartney began to sketch the bones of a song that blended the two disparate genres together. “I took an idea back to the guys in London: ‘As we’re trying to get away from ourselves – to get away from touring and into a more surreal thing – how about if we become an alter-ego band, something like, say, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts”? I’ve got a little bit of a song cooking with that title.'”