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The Court-Martial of Sgt. Pepper. The Curious Case of Two Missing Tracks.

NOTE: Like the other Beatles bits, this one initially appeared in our first issue way back in The 'Aughts.

By Vic Garbarini

"Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" were the first two songs recorded for the Pepper project. Incredibly, two of the Beatles true masterworks were removed from the album lineup and released as a stop-gap single, thereby derailing the thematic (ie: childhood) and musical integrity of the album. In addition, if you listen to the Beach Boys single "God Only Knows", the musical similarities in terms of instrumentation and production were startling.

Paul: The big influence was Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. That album just flipped me. Still does. The musical invention on that album is just amazing. I played it for all of my kids as they grew up, and they loved it. "God Only Knows", "Wouldn’t It Be Nice?"…I thought, “God, this is the album of all time. What the hell are we going to do?” My ideas took off from that standard.

Ringo: Sgt. Pepper was supposed to have been this complete musical montage, with all the songs blending into each other. For various reasons, that idea went out the window two tracks in, right after "Sgt. Pepper’s" and "With A Little Help From My Friends".

Martin: Looking over the Beatles songs, if I had to pick just one as a favorite it would have to be "Strawberry Fields Forever". It was the first time we had such a radical change in musical direction. And it pointed the way to where we were going. When we started that song in November of 1966, it really was the beginning of the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions. And it really should have been on the Sgt. Pepper’s album. 

VG: So why was it released as a single with “Penny Lane” instead?  The Beatles seemed to have a policy of not putting singles on albums.

Martin: That’s right, and it seems ludicrous now. At the time I didn’t want to shortchange the public. Assuming the fans had bought the single, I figured they wouldn’t want to hear it again on the album. Of course, it’s opposite to the logic that we use today.

VG: You must have known that those two songs would have doubled the artistic value of Sgt. Pepper’s. So why toss them both away prematurely on one single? Was it record company pressure?

Martin: No, it was [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein. He came to me in desperation while we were working on Pepper, because he was terrified that the Beatles popularity was plummeting. Everything had been going against them that year: John’s statement that "the Beatles were more popular than Jesus" led to record burnings, they were attacked in the Philippines, and they didn’t want to tour anymore. Brian felt that these were all indications that they were going down the pan. So he said to me, “I’ve got to have a terrific single!” Well, I had only three tracks finished forPepper at that point: one was "Strawberry Fields", another was "Penny Lane" and the third was "When I’m Sixty-Four". Brian was so desperate I put "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" out together as a double-sided single. And you’re right, both of those songs should have stayed on the Pepper album. It was the biggest mistake of my life.

Sir George deserves a break here. He was under tremendous pressure from a desperate Brian Epstein. And the practice of not putting singles on records was by no means exclusive to the Beatles. Besides, we’re living in a digital environment today that enables us to do things we couldn’t imagine half a century ago. So let’s try an exercise in what historians call “counter-factual history.” Scenarios such as what would have happened if Hitler hadn’t invaded Russia. Or in our case, what would Pepper have been like if George Martin hadn’t listened to Epstein’s pleas.

Just burn your own new version of Pepper, and put those two lost songs back where they once belonged, Jo Jo... You’ll find “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” on Magical Mystery Tour which was the only “American” version of the canon that joined the original UK catalogue when the albums were first transferred to CD in 1987.

The question is: Where would these songs best fit in if restored to Sgt Pepper’s? Or more specifically: Where would the Beatles and Martin have placed them?

They were the first songs written for the album, but that doesn’t mean they’d necessarily lead things off. The album’s title song is obviously designed to start the show, and would probably stay as the opener. The crowd cheers and guitar bridge lead seamlessly into “With A Little Help From My Friends”, so let’s assume that song would retain the # 2 position. Now we have an opening. The thematic and musical gravitas of “Strawberry Fields” would seem timely and appropriate as the record’s third track, followed by McCartney’s take on the same theme with “Penny Lane” at # 4. 

If it was 1967, the next big question would be, what two songs would the band drop too accommodate the “new” additions? Internal politics would likely mean dropping one McCartney and one Lennon composition. Lennon claimed to never have liked “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” – the lyrics were taken almost verbatim from an old circus poster John had picked up somewhere. As for Paul, “Lovely Rita” is probably his least important contribution. “Kite” and “Rita” both have their sonic charms, but if two songs had to go to make way for more substantial cuts, these two would arguably be the first two tossed overboard.

But of course we are digital counter-factualists, and don’t really have to dump any tracks if we add “Strawberry Fields” or “Penny Lane” to the mix. For that matter, you can place those songs anywhere on the album you like. After all, It’s your take on Sgt. Pepper’s.

But whatever you do, if you’re buying individuals albums make sure you pick up “Past Masters Vol. I and II”, now combined on one disc. It contains all those incredible singles left off the UK albums, plus some of the greatest ‘B’ sides ever made, including “Rain”, “I’m Down”, and “She’s A Woman”. You’re not going to find those singles and B-sides anywhere else. A true no-brainer.