SOME say the road to Sgt Pepper begins with Bob Dylan introducing The Beatles to cannabis.
Others maintain it’s because John, Paul, George and Ringo got Good Vibrations.
How could they not respond to Brian Wilson’s game-changing explorations of pop’s possibilities with The Beach Boys?
But the heart of their psychedelic magnum opus, “where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies”, lies much closer to home.
In 1966, The Beatles didn’t really want to be The Beatles . . . so they gave themselves an alter-ego, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
They had quit touring that summer, exhausted and disillusioned, and taken their first proper holiday.
John Lennon believed four Beatles waxworks could have satisfied the screaming hordes at those final shows.
“Beatles concerts are nothing to do with music any more,” he said. “They’re just bloody tribal rites.”
His dark mood was fuelled by the “bigger than Jesus” storm in the US and death threats from Japan.
Yet, by the time the band entered Abbey Road’s Studio Two in November ’66, they were ready for a fresh start.
This time, they had a huge budget and unlimited studio time with talisman producer George Martin. Their aim was to expand sonic horizons at their creative playground in London’s NW8, away from the frenzied glare of Beatlemania.
The sessions lasted well into 1967 and we all know they produced the most famous album of all time, released 50 years ago today.
Housed in Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s iconic LP sleeve, the 13 tracks are indelibly etched into the nation’s consciousness.
Including . . . With A Little Help From My Friends, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Getting Better, Fixing A Hole, She’s Leaving Home, When I’m Sixty Four, Lovely Rita, A Day In The Life . . . words that go together like fish and chips.
Today marks the release of various anniversary editions with a luminous, punchy stereo remix of the original album by Martin’s son Giles and a host of previously unreleased “fly-on-the-wall” early takes.
In his only interview to mark Sgt Pepper’s momentous milestone, Paul McCartney reveals the album’s genesis in greater detail than before.
He tells Mojo magazine’s Danny Eccleston: “I was on a plane journey with Mal Evans (The Beatles’ road manager and friend) and he said, ‘Pass the salt and pepper’.
“I thought I heard him say ‘Sergeant Pepper’. It’s in the great tradition of creative misunderstandings.
“Anyway, my imagination just ran wild for the rest of the journey, ‘OK, Sergeant Pepper. This has got to be a new thing, a song or . . . ’ and everyone was doing Soft Joe’s Travelling Medicine Band With Knobs On.
“It was a kind of parody of that: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Travelling Circus, On Wheels . . . In Ramsgate.
Then it all fell into place. There’s this guy and he’s got this band, and that could be us. It was quite freeing. Every time we thought, ‘Oh, we can’t do that’, it was, ‘Why not? It’s this other group . . . it’s not us’.”
In the Nineties, around the time of Sgt Pepper’s 30th anniversary, McCartney went further: “We were fed up with being Beatles. We really hated that f***ing four little mop-top boys approach.
“We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy s**t, all that screaming, we didn’t want it any more.
“Plus, we’d got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”
Lennon explained the narcotic influence like this: “We didn’t really shove the album full of pot and drugs, but there WAS an effect.
“We were more consciously trying to keep it out. You wouldn’t say, ‘I had some acid, baby, so groovy’. But there was a feeling something happened between Revolver and Sgt Pepper.”
Shortly before he died, he gave this insight into the rollicking title track, confirming McCartney’s vibe. “Paul wrote it after a trip to America. The whole West Coast long-named group thing was coming in.
“You know, when people were no longer called The Beatles or The Crickets, they were suddenly Fred and His Incredible Shrinking Grateful Airplanes.
“He got influenced by that and came up with this idea of doing us as somebody else. He was trying to put something between The Beatles and the public.”
Not only did the Fab Four give themselves a new name, they even had a different frontman, “the one and only Billy Shears”.
That line which comes at the end of Sgt Pepper, the song, against a backdrop of tumultuous applause, cued Ringo Starr to sing lead on With A Little Help From My Friends.
Years ago, McCartney ended speculation about Shears’ identity: “Ringo’s Billy Shears. Definitely. It was a rhyme for ‘years’ . . . ‘band you’ve known for all these years’. We thought, ‘That’s a great little name, an Eleanor Rigby-type name’.”
Today, Sir Paul remembers the hand-wringing surrounding their new direction . . . and the band’s defiance in the face of it.
He says: “But we were always being told, ‘You’re gonna lose all your fans with this one’. And we’d say, ‘Well, we’ll lose some but we’ll gain some.
"We’ve gotta advance. We can’t just stop to please this current batch of fans’.”
Despite years of phenomenal success, endless scrutiny of The Beatles came with a stream of naysayers.
“We’d become used to kick-backs,” says McCartney.
“There had been a load of things we’d done that people had said we shouldn’t. Generally, we’d gone, ‘The hell with it, let’s go with it anyway’.
“The first time we told people the name of the group . . . Beatles . . . they’d gone, ‘Ugh! Beatles! Creepy crawly things! You can’t do that!’ Now it sounds weird to think of the creepy crawly thing. It’s evaporated.”
McCartney recalls a “terrible review” of Sgt Pepper in the New York Times. “The critic said he hated it, thought it was a terrible mess.
“Then he was on the streets all week and heard the talk, heard what people were saying, and he took it back, recanted after a week. ‘Er . . . maybe it’s not so bad’.
“But we were used to that. She Loves You was ‘banal’. But if we liked it and thought it was cool, we would go for it.”
As recently as 2015, one of The Beatles’ chief chart rivals, Keith Richards said of Sgt Pepper: “Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish”, and compared it to his own band’s Their Satanic Majesties Request. “Oh, if you can make a load of s**t, so can we.”
It’s safe to say that Keef is in a very small minority.
One of the album’s most gorgeous moments is George Harrison’s Eastern-influenced Within You Without You, an astonishing achievement for a likely Liverpool lad approaching his 24th birthday.
McCartney describes it as “a completely Indian record. It was nothing anyone had heard before, at least in this context.
“It was a risk, and we were aware of that, but it’s a great track. And it opened the gates to a lot of Eastern influences entering Western culture.”
Even though the song exudes serenity, there’s a typically Beatles surprise at the end. “There’s this laughter,” says McCartney.
“Any other group would have gone, ‘No, no, no, let’s have a bit of silence, a mark of respect for this beautiful Indian piece George has just recorded’.
“But we thought it was perfect. We were in hysterics. It was the perfect reaction.”
He goes on to enthuse about another George, the late, great producer who guided their visions to completion, arranging orchestral instruments and generally living up to his role as the “Fifth Beatle”.
“On (Being For The Benefit Of) Mr Kite, we knew we could safely say to George Martin, ‘OK, we want it to be like a fairground’.
“Instead of going, ‘What the bloody hell do they mean?’ he got tapes, he cut them up, he turned them backwards, he re-spliced them.
"When you have people like that working with you, they’re gonna make everything better.”
One of the great Sgt Pepper talking points has always been why two iconic Beatles songs, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, were left off the album despite being recorded early on in the sessions.
Instead, they appeared as a double A-sided single and, of course, became another smash hit.
McCartney remains happy that the songs were not included: “I’m not big into regrets. You make a decision and you stick with it. They were the precursors of Sgt Pepper, the start of the whole thing.
"We knew we had more time because we’d given up touring. We wanted to see how far we could stretch pop music. Realise our visions of how far out a record could be.
“Maybe but it was all just part of our development. The Beatles is a body of work that I can look back on now. And it’s amazing . . . there’s no track ever like the last one.
“We were doing Yesterday and Strawberry Fields Forever and When I’m Sixty-Four and I Am The Walrus. We were so, ‘Been there, done that’.”
Like the fans who will lap up the newly released out-takes, McCartney is a fascinated listener, believing the recordings, complete with studio banter, “humanises” the record.
“The nice thing for me is that they remind me of what we did,” he says. “When you make a record that long ago, you don’t remember all the little things you put into it.”
He draws particular attention to the final chord of the album’s most complex and, some would argue, best track, A Day In The Life.
“I always thought it was a C chord. Turns out it was an E. With this re-release, I’ve learned a lot about Sgt Pepper that I didn’t know, that I didn’t remember.”
Finally, he’s asked the million- dollar question. Is Sgt Pepper the best Beatles album?
“It’s the most influential,” he replies.
“Perhaps it’s the most important but not necessarily the best. Revolver has some special moments. What’s called The White Album had some important moments. And Abbey Road.
“But Sgt Pepper is the most noticeable Beatles album because it was so different, such a change from what was going on at the time.”
Fifty years on, there’s something quaint and quintessentially British about the faux military band in day-glo uniforms, with a bit of circus and a touch of music hall who sang about “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”.
Today, in a music scene dominated by America’s giant cultural footprint, they’d probably be called Peppa’s Tinder Posse. God forbid!