A not-quite true story about Sgt. Pepper’s
When we were in eighth grade, my friend Laura told me a story. I’ve never confirmed it, though it has the ring of half-truth and misremembering, but it’s stuck with me:
When the Beatles were recording “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” George Martin had an entire calliope dismantled and re-built inside Abbey Road Studios, just to get this background carnival organ part recorded.
After a long night of recording and rerecording the calliope solo and coda, John Lennon decides he hates everything about it. In a rage, he rips the tape off the console, tears it to shreds, and dumps it on the ground in frustration.
The next morning, Martin comes back in, sees the mess, and decides this is his chance to show Lennon exactly how much much work he does.
He begins splicing the tape back together, without caring that parts of the tape are stretched, backwards, or otherwise damaged. Then he furtively slips it back into the board for Lennon to hear when he comes back in.
When Lennon comes in, and hears the resulting cacophony, he’s overjoyed. The calliope is pitch-shifted, partly reversed, atonal, and jittery — beyond anything human hands could do on the instrument.
It’s pop musique concrète, and to Lennon’s ears, it’s perfect.
I’m sure this isn’t how the story really went down.
Especially since the Wikipedia entry about the song partly disagrees about the specifics. Frankly, I like this story better.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and established precedent doesn’t negate the power of creativity. Or accident. But it’s worth knowing what came before.
“Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was recorded after Doctor Who premiered, and Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop unleashed their concrète theme song on the British public. Partly as a result, this form of electronic music and tape manipulation had become the “in” thing among a certain group of London musicians.
Below, an isolated organ track from “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and a documentary on musique concrète, featuring the Radiophonic Workshop and Delia Derbyshire herself.