As June 1, 2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I thought that, between now and June, I'd take a look at some of the songs on the album and how they were conceived and recorded.
As noted earlier, two of the first three songs recorded for what became Sgt. Pepper, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," were released as a double A-side single instead of appearing on the album. The third song, "When I'm Sixty-Four," was thus the first song on the actual LP to be recorded.
Sgt. Pepper was first heard in June 1967 as a giant leap forward for rock, with its new songs and innovative sounds and arrangements. Ironically, "When I'm Sixty-Four" was unabashedly retrograde, its clarinets, bass and piano coming out of the early days of music-hall jazz. Also, "When I'm Sixty-Four" itself was not a new song, having been written by Paul McCartney in 1958 when he was sixteen (64 is 16 quadrupled) and played by the Beatles in clubs during their stays in Hamburg whenever the electricity went out or their amplifiers broke down, so they could keep the show going.
"When I'm Sixty-Four" wasn't rock and roll, which is why it went unrecorded for so long. But at the beginning of the Sgt. Pepper sessions in late 1966, with little new material available, the Beatles took a stab at it. One likely reason for Paul suggesting the song as a Beatles track at that point was the fact that his father, Jim McCartney, had turned 64 earlier that year. (Hunter Davies, the Beatles' official biographer, mistakenly reported in his book that it was in fact written for Jim McCartney.) John Lennon was not a fan of the song. "I would never even dream of writing a song like that," he later admitted.
The recording of "When I'm Sixty-Four" was begun on December 6, 1966, and recorded in four takes; it was not a hard song to get on tape. (One piece of studio trickery was used - Paul's recorded vocals were mixed a semitone higher than his natural voice to make him sound like he was sixteen, when he wrote it, as opposed to sounding like he was 24, when he actually recorded it.) Its lyrics about a teenager imagining himself and his girlfriend growing older together were actually quite revolutionary in a way, as no one in rock and roll - either the stars or the fans - had ever contemplated old age. (Family, of course, would imagine life from the cradle to the grave in their 1969 masterpiece "The Weaver's Answer," even sharing an observation with "When I'm Sixty-Four" about grandchildren on one's knee.)
"When I'm Sixty-Four" fits well into Sgt. Pepper's song cycle of innocence and experience, and while few people would consider it one of their favorite Beatles songs, it did inspire the intriguing piece of artwork below.
In the late 1960s, illustrator Michael Leonard drew this sketch of what the Beatles might look like some time between 2004 and 2007, the period when they would all reach 64. It's sort of sad to see John and George depicted in their sixties while knowing that they never made it that far. But the depictions of them here seem quite inaccurate; John looks like he belongs in Sherlock Holmes movie, and George looks like a member of a late-period Jethro Tull lineup. (George may have said that if you're going to be in a band it might as well be the Beatles, but he never said that if you're going to be in a band it might as well be Jethro Tull.) Leonard got Ringo and Paul completely wrong; Ringo still looks young going toward 77 years of age, completely different from the crochety coot depicted above, while Paul, nearing 75, still looks like the rock star he is; here he looks like the banker who doesn't wear a raincoat. Though, of course, he's much richer. But even Paul's and Ringo's youthful looks in old age can't conceal the fact that they are, in fact, old.
Rock and roll, saddled by a thinning gerontocracy these days and in bad need of younger artists to take the torch (the few young rockers who have emerged in recent years don't seem to last long enough to carry it), seems to be on its last legs, but even the Beatles, at the height of their careers, could see that they weren't going to be young forever, and neither was the music. Maybe that's why, even as Sgt. Pepper, with its psychedelic sounds and electronic effects, is thought to be the most dated Beatles album, "When I'm Sixty-Four" may now be its most relevant song.