John Lennon Discovers Suburbia’s Monotony in ‘Good Morning Good Morning': The Story Behind Every ‘Sgt. Pepper’ Song
With the Beatles off the road, John Lennon became ensnared in the every-day ennui of a marriage he never really wanted – and that crushing boredom is laid bare in 1967’s “Good Morning Good Morning.” Its very genesis – Lennon was inspired by a television commercial for Kellogg’s cereal; the song also references a BBC soap opera – paints a portrait of deeply unwanted domesticity for someone who had always been too busy before.
By the next year, he and the former Cynthia Powell were already divorced, ending a union that grew out of her unexpected pregnancy with Julian Lennon in 1962 and was kept a secret during the height of Beatlemania. Lennon already seems resigned to that awful end here, as he offers an existential lyric largely masked by knifing brass and galloping animal noises.
“John was feeling trapped in suburbia and was going through some problems with Cynthia,” Paul McCartney said in Many Years From Now. “It was about his boring life at the time. There’s a reference in the lyrics to ‘nothing to do’ – and ‘meet the wife.’ There was an afternoon TV soap called Meet the Wife that John watched. He was that bored, but I think he was also starting to get alarm bells.”
The words came first, setting up an series of in-studio challenges as the Beatles and Abbey Road sound personnel worked feverishly to match the narrative up to the language of Lennon’s grief. In the end, “Good Morning Good Morning” seems to change time signatures like the ticking of an alarm clock. Wrangling all of that into a recognizable pop song took from early February 1967 through late April, when the final crossfade was added to join this up with a reprise of the title track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
In the early going, after eight takes on Feb. 8 and another overdub session for background vocals and bass on Feb. 16, “Good Morning Good Morning” felt raw, confrontational and still remarkably chaotic. Abbey Road sound engineer Geoff Emerick found a subtle way to give the disorder some recognizable early shape.
“This song serves as a good example of how simple manipulation can improve a track sonically,” Emerick later remembered. “During the mix, I enjoyed whacking the faders all the way up for Ringo [Starr]‘s huge tom hit during the stop time – so much so that the limiters nearly overloaded. But that definitely gets the listeners attention. Add in the flanged bass, miked in an unorthodox way, and it’s all icing on the cake. Take those effects off, and the recording doesn’t have the same magic.”
The Beatles returned in early March to work on the tricky brass overdubs. Sessions musicians from Sounds Inc., a group who’d met the Beatles during the Star Club dates at Hamburg in the early ’60s, handled the parts – which Lennon then had compressed, limited and flanged. The horns end up as brittle as a nagging spouse.
On March 28, Lennon recorded a new main vocal and McCartney – who played lead in the Beatles’ early days, while Stu Sutcliffe manned the bass – plugged in for an eruptive guitar solo very much in keeping with his earlier turn on “Taxman.” Lennon and McCartney then added additional backing vocals, as Lennon mulled over a key final element. He settled on a series of animal sound effects (including a cat, dogs, horses, sheep, lions, elephants, a fox, a cow and then finally a hen). They were assembled and then added to “Good Morning Good Morning” the next day.
Lennon intended for these various squawks, barks and peeps – taken from “Volume 35: Animals and Bees” and “Volume 57: Fox-hunt” in the the Abbey Road sound effects library – to be sequenced in a specific way. “John said to me during one of the breaks that he wanted to have the sound of animals escaping and that each successive animal should be capable of frightening or devouring its predecessor,” Emerick said in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. “So, those are not just random effects. There was actually a lot of thought put into all that.”
Just before that stampede of Darwinian subtext, Lennon can be found taking a side-long glance at a passing skirt, then hoping he might run into her later. As the final chicken cluck morphs into the opening guitar lick on the Beatles song that follows, Lennon’s marriage was already over.
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