This week’s episode looks at “All You Need is Love”, the Our World TV special, and the career of the Beatles from April 1966 through August 1967. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a thirteen-minute bonus episode available, on “Rain” by the Beatles.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
NB for the first few hours this was up, there was a slight editing glitch. If you downloaded the old version and don’t want to redownload the whole thing, just look in the transcript for “Other than fixing John’s two flubbed” for the text of the two missing paragraphs.
I say “Come Together” was a B-side, but the single was actually a double A-side. Also, I say the Lennon interview by Maureen Cleave appeared in Detroit magazine. That’s what my source (Steve Turner’s book) says, but someone on Twitter says that rather than Detroit magazine it was the Detroit Free Press.
Also at one point I say “the videos for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Penny Lane'”. I meant to say “Rain” rather than “Penny Lane” there.
At one point I refer to Ken Scott when I mean Ken Townsend
No Mixcloud this week due to the number of songs by the Beatles.
I have read literally dozens of books on the Beatles, and used bits of information from many of them. All my Beatles episodes refer to: The Complete Beatles Chronicle by Mark Lewisohn, All The Songs: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michel Guesdon, And The Band Begins To Play: The Definitive Guide To The Songs of The Beatles by Steve Lambley, The Beatles By Ear by Kevin Moore, Revolution in the Head by Ian MacDonald, and The Beatles Anthology.
For this episode, I also referred to Last Interview by David Sheff, a longform interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono from shortly before Lennon’s death; Many Years From Now by Barry Miles, an authorised biography of Paul McCartney; and Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey.
Particularly useful this time was Steve Turner’s book Beatles ’66. I also used Turner’s The Beatles: The Stories Behind the Songs 1967-1970.
Johnny Rogan’s Starmakers and Svengalis had some information on Epstein I hadn’t seen anywhere else.
Some information about the “Bigger than Jesus” scandal comes from Ward, B. (2012). “The ‘C’ is for Christ”: Arthur Unger, Datebook Magazine and the Beatles. Popular Music and Society, 35(4), 541-560. https://doi.org/10.1080/03007766.2011.608978
Information on Robert Stigwood comes from Mr Showbiz by Stephen Dando-Collins.
And the quote at the end from Simon Napier-Bell is from You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, which is more entertaining than it is accurate, but is very entertaining.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
A quick note before I start the episode — this episode deals, in part, with the deaths of three gay men — one by murder, one by suicide, and one by an accidental overdose, all linked at least in part to societal homophobia. I will try to deal with this as tactfully as I can, but anyone who’s upset by those things might want to read the transcript instead of listening to the episode.
This is also a very, very, *very* long episode — this is likely to be the longest episode I *ever* do of this podcast, so settle in. We’re going to be here a while. I obviously don’t know how long it’s going to be while I’m still recording, but based on the word count of my script, probably in the region of three hours. You have been warned.
In 1967 the actor Patrick McGoohan was tired. He had been working on the hit series Danger Man for many years — Danger Man had originally run from 1960 through 1962, then had taken a break, and had come back, retooled, with longer episodes in 1964. That longer series was a big hit, both in the UK and in the US, where it was retitled Secret Agent and had a new theme tune written by PF Sloan and Steve Barri and recorded by Johnny Rivers:
[Excerpt: Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man”]
But McGoohan was tired of playing John Drake, the agent, and announced he was going to quit the series. Instead, with the help of George Markstein, Danger Man’s script editor, he created a totally new series, in which McGoohan would star, and which McGoohan would also write and direct key episodes of. This new series, The Prisoner, featured a spy who is only ever given the name Number Six, and who many fans — though not McGoohan himself — took to be the same character as John Drake. Number Six resigns from his job as a secret agent, and is kidnapped and taken to a place known only as The Village — the series was filmed in Portmeirion, an unusual-looking town in Gwynnedd, in North Wales — which is full of other ex-agents. There he is interrogated to try to find out why he has quit his job. It’s never made clear whether the interrogators are his old employers or their enemies, and there’s a certain suggestion that maybe there is no real distinction between the two sides, that they’re both running the Village together.
He spends the entire series trying to escape, but refuses to explain himself — and there’s some debate among viewers as to whether it’s implied or not that part of the reason he doesn’t explain himself is that he knows his interrogators wouldn’t understand why he quit:
[Excerpt: The Prisoner intro, from episode Once Upon a Time, ]
Certainly that explanation would fit in with McGoohan’s own personality. According to McGoohan, the final episode of The Prisoner was, at the time, the most watched TV show ever broadcast in the UK, as people tuned in to find out the identity of Number One, the person behind the Village, and to see if Number Six would break free. I don’t think that’s actually the case, but it’s what McGoohan always claimed, and it was certainly a very popular series.
I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t watched it — it’s a remarkable series — but ultimately the series seems to decide that such questions don’t matter and that even asking them is missing the point. It’s a work that’s open to multiple interpretations, and is left deliberately ambiguous, but one of the messages many people have taken away from it is that not only are we trapped by a society that oppresses us, we’re also trapped by our own identities. You can run from the trap that society has placed you in, from other people’s interpretations of your life, your work, and your motives, but you ultimately can’t run from yourself, and any time you try to break out of a prison, you’ll find yourself trapped in another prison of your own making. The most horrifying implication of the episode is that possibly even death itself won’t be a release, and you will spend all eternity trying to escape from an identity you’re trapped in.
Viewers became so outraged, according to McGoohan, that he had to go into hiding for an extended period, and while his later claims that he never worked in Britain again are an exaggeration, it is true that for the remainder of his life he concentrated on doing work in the US instead, where he hadn’t created such anger.
That final episode of The Prisoner was also the only one to use a piece of contemporary pop music, in two crucial scenes:
[Excerpt: The Prisoner, “Fall Out”, “All You Need is Love”]
Back in October 2020, we started what I thought would be a year-long look at the period from late 1962 through early 1967, but which has turned out for reasons beyond my control to take more like twenty months, with a song which was one of the last of the big pre-Beatles pop hits, though we looked at it after their first single, “Telstar” by the Tornadoes:
[Excerpt: The Tornadoes, “Telstar”]
There were many reasons for choosing that as one of the bookends for this fifty-episode chunk of the podcast — you’ll see many connections between that episode and this one if you listen to them back-to-back — but among them was that it’s a song inspired by the launch of the first ever communications satellite, and a sign of how the world was going to become smaller as the sixties went on. Of course, to start with communications satellites didn’t do much in that regard — they were expensive to use, and had limited bandwidth, and were only available during limited time windows, but symbolically they meant that for the first time ever, people could see and hear events thousands of miles away as they were happening.
It’s not a coincidence that Britain and France signed the agreement to develop Concorde, the first supersonic airliner, a month after the first Beatles single and four months after the Telstar satellite was launched. The world was becoming ever more interconnected — people were travelling faster and further, getting news from other countries quicker, and there was more cultural conversation – and misunderstanding – between countries thousands of miles apart.
The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the man who also coined the phrase “the medium is the message”, thought that this ever-faster connection would fundamentally change basic modes of thought in the Western world. McLuhan thought that technology made possible whole new modes of thought, and that just as the printing press had, in his view, caused Western liberalism and individualism, so these new electronic media would cause the rise of a new collective mode of thought. In 1962, the year of Concorde, Telstar, and “Love Me Do”, McLuhan wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy, in which he said:
“Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.… Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.…”
He coined the term “the Global Village” to describe this new collectivism.
The story we’ve seen over the last fifty episodes is one of a sort of cultural ping-pong between the USA and the UK, with innovations in American music inspiring British musicians, who in turn inspired American ones, whether that being the Beatles covering the Isley Brothers or the Rolling Stones doing a Bobby Womack song, or Paul Simon and Bob Dylan coming over to the UK and learning folk songs and guitar techniques from Martin Carthy.
And increasingly we’re going to see those influences spread to other countries, and influences coming *from* other countries. We’ve already seen one Jamaican artist, and the influence of Indian music has become very apparent. While the focus of this series is going to remain principally in the British Isles and North America, rock music was and is a worldwide phenomenon, and that’s going to become increasingly a part of the story.
And so in this episode we’re going to look at a live performance — well, mostly live — that was seen by hundreds of millions of people all over the world as it happened, thanks to the magic of satellites:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love”]
When we left the Beatles, they had just finished recording “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the most experimental track they had recorded up to that date, and if not the most experimental thing they *ever* recorded certainly in the top handful. But “Tomorrow Never Knows” was only the first track they recorded in the sessions for what would become arguably their greatest album, and certainly the one that currently has the most respect from critics.
It’s interesting to note that that album could have been very, very, different. When we think of Revolver now, we think of the innovative production of George Martin, and of Geoff Emerick and Ken Townshend’s inventive ideas for pushing the sound of the equipment in Abbey Road studios, but until very late in the day the album was going to be recorded in the Stax studios in Memphis, with Steve Cropper producing — whether George Martin would have been involved or not is something we don’t even know.
In 1965, the Rolling Stones had, as we’ve seen, started making records in the US, recording in LA and at the Chess studios in Chicago, and the Yardbirds had also been doing the same thing. Mick Jagger had become a convert to the idea of using American studios and working with American musicians, and he had constantly been telling Paul McCartney that the Beatles should do the same.
Indeed, they’d put some feelers out in 1965 about the possibility of the group making an album with Holland, Dozier, and Holland in Detroit. Quite how this would have worked is hard to figure out — Holland, Dozier, and Holland’s skills were as songwriters, and in their work with a particular set of musicians — so it’s unsurprising that came to nothing. But recording at Stax was a different matter. While Steve Cropper was a great songwriter in his own right, he was also adept at getting great sounds on covers of other people’s material — like on Otis Blue, the album he produced for Otis Redding in late 1965, which doesn’t include a single Cropper original:
[Excerpt: Otis Redding, “Satisfaction”]
And the Beatles were very influenced by the records Stax were putting out, often namechecking Wilson Pickett in particular, and during the Rubber Soul sessions they had recorded a “Green Onions” soundalike track, imaginatively titled “12-Bar Original”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “12-Bar Original”]
The idea of the group recording at Stax got far enough that they were actually booked in for two weeks starting the ninth of April, and there was even an offer from Elvis to let them stay at Graceland while they recorded, but then a couple of weeks earlier, the news leaked to the press, and Brian Epstein cancelled the booking. According to Cropper, Epstein talked about recording at the Atlantic studios in New York with him instead, but nothing went any further.
It’s hard to imagine what a Stax-based Beatles album would have been like, but even though it might have been a great album, it certainly wouldn’t have been the Revolver we’ve come to know.
Revolver is an unusual album in many ways, and one of the ways it’s most distinct from the earlier Beatles albums is the dominance of keyboards. Both Lennon and McCartney had often written at the piano as well as the guitar — McCartney more so than Lennon, but both had done so regularly — but up to this point it had been normal for them to arrange the songs for guitars rather than keyboards, no matter how they’d started out. There had been the odd track where one of them, usually Lennon, would play a simple keyboard part, songs like “I’m Down” or “We Can Work it Out”, but even those had been guitar records first and foremost.
But on Revolver, that changed dramatically. There seems to have been a complex web of cause and effect here. Paul was becoming increasingly interested in moving his basslines away from simple walking basslines and root notes and the other staples of rock and roll basslines up to this point.
As the sixties progressed, rock basslines were becoming ever more complex, and Tyler Mahan Coe has made a good case that this is largely down to innovations in production pioneered by Owen Bradley, and McCartney was certainly aware of Bradley’s work — he was a fan of Brenda Lee, who Bradley produced, for example. But the two influences that McCartney has mentioned most often in this regard are the busy, jazz-influenced, basslines that James Jamerson was playing at Motown:
[Excerpt: The Four Tops, “It’s the Same Old Song”]
And the basslines that Brian Wilson was writing for various Wrecking Crew bassists to play for the Beach Boys:
[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”]
Just to be clear, McCartney didn’t hear that particular track until partway through the recording of Revolver, when Bruce Johnston visited the UK and brought with him an advance copy of Pet Sounds, but Pet Sounds influenced the later part of Revolver’s recording, and Wilson had already started his experiments in that direction with the group’s 1965 work.
It’s much easier to write a song with this kind of bassline, one that’s integral to the composition, on the piano than it is to write it on a guitar, as you can work out the bassline with your left hand while working out the chords and melody with your right, so the habit that McCartney had already developed of writing on the piano made this easier. But also, starting with the recording of “Paperback Writer”, McCartney switched his style of working in the studio. Where up to this point it had been normal for him to play bass as part of the recording of the basic track, playing with the other Beatles, he now started to take advantage of multitracking to overdub his bass later, so he could spend extra time getting the bassline exactly right. McCartney lived closer to Abbey Road than the other three Beatles, and so could more easily get there early or stay late and tweak his parts.
But if McCartney wasn’t playing bass while the guitars and drums were being recorded, that meant he could play something else, and so increasingly he would play piano during the recording of the basic track. And that in turn would mean that there wouldn’t always *be* a need for guitars on the track, because the harmonic support they would provide would be provided by the piano instead.
This, as much as anything else, is the reason that Revolver sounds so radically different to any other Beatles album. Up to this point, with *very* rare exceptions like “Yesterday”, every Beatles record, more or less, featured all four of the Beatles playing instruments. Now John and George weren’t playing on “Good Day Sunshine” or “For No One”, John wasn’t playing on “Here, There, and Everywhere”, “Eleanor Rigby” features no guitars or drums at all, and George’s “Love You To” only features himself, plus a little tambourine from Ringo (Paul recorded a part for that one, but it doesn’t seem to appear on the finished track). Of the three songwriting Beatles, the only one who at this point was consistently requiring the instrumental contributions of all the other band members was John, and even he did without Paul on “She Said, She Said”, which by all accounts features either John or George on bass, after Paul had a rare bout of unprofessionalism and left the studio.
Revolver is still an album made by a group — and most of those tracks that don’t feature John or George instrumentally still feature them vocally — it’s still a collaborative work in all the best ways. But it’s no longer an album made by four people playing together in the same room at the same time.
After starting work on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the next track they started work on was Paul’s “Got to Get You Into My Life”, but as it would turn out they would work on that song throughout most of the sessions for the album — in a sign of how the group would increasingly work from this point on, Paul’s song was subject to multiple re-recordings and tweakings in the studio, as he tinkered to try to make it perfect.
The first recording to be completed for the album, though, was almost as much of a departure in its own way as “Tomorrow Never Knows” had been. George’s song “Love You To” shows just how inspired he was by the music of Ravi Shankar, and how devoted he was to Indian music. While a few months earlier he had just about managed to pick out a simple melody on the sitar for “Norwegian Wood”, by this point he was comfortable enough with Indian classical music that I’ve seen many, many sources claim that an outside session player is playing sitar on the track, though Anil Bhagwat, the tabla player on the track, always insisted that it was entirely Harrison’s playing:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Love You To”]
There is a *lot* of debate as to whether it’s George playing on the track, and I feel a little uncomfortable making a definitive statement in either direction. On the one hand I find it hard to believe that Harrison got that good that quickly on an unfamiliar instrument, when we know he wasn’t a naturally facile musician. All the stories we have about his work in the studio suggest that he had to work very hard on his guitar solos, and that he would frequently fluff them. As a technical guitarist, Harrison was only mediocre — his value lay in his inventiveness, not in technical ability — and he had been playing guitar for over a decade, but sitar only a few months. There’s also some session documentation suggesting that an unknown sitar player was hired.
On the other hand there’s the testimony of Anil Bhagwat that Harrison played the part himself, and he has been very firm on the subject, saying “If you go on the Internet there are a lot of questions asked about “Love You To”. They say ‘It’s not George playing the sitar’. I can tell you here and now — 100 percent it was George on sitar throughout. There were no other musicians involved. It was just me and him.”
And several people who are more knowledgeable than myself about the instrument have suggested that the sitar part on the track is played the way that a rock guitarist would play rather than the way someone with more knowledge of Indian classical music would play — there’s a blues feeling to some of the bends that apparently no genuine Indian classical musician would naturally do.
I would suggest that the best explanation is that there’s a professional sitar player trying to replicate a part that Harrison had previously demonstrated, while Harrison was in turn trying his best to replicate the sound of Ravi Shankar’s work. Certainly the instrumental section sounds far more fluent, and far more stylistically correct, than one would expect:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Love You To”]
Where previous attempts at what got called “raga-rock” had taken a couple of surface features of Indian music — some form of a drone, perhaps a modal scale — and had generally used a guitar made to sound a little bit like a sitar, or had a sitar playing normal rock riffs, Harrison’s song seems to be a genuine attempt to hybridise Indian ragas and rock music, combining the instrumentation, modes, and rhythmic complexity of someone like Ravi Shankar with lyrics that are seemingly inspired by Bob Dylan and a fairly conventional pop song structure (and a tiny bit of fuzz guitar). It’s a record that could only be made by someone who properly understood both the Indian music he’s emulating and the conventions of the Western pop song, and understood how those conventions could work together.
Indeed, one thing I’ve rarely seen pointed out is how cleverly the album is sequenced, so that “Love You To” is followed by possibly the most conventional song on Revolver, “Here, There, and Everywhere”, which was recorded towards the end of the sessions. Both songs share a distinctive feature not shared by the rest of the album, so the two songs can sound more of a pair than they otherwise would, retrospectively making “Love You To” seem more conventional than it is and “Here, There, and Everywhere” more unconventional — both have as an introduction a separate piece of music that states some of the melodic themes of the rest of the song but isn’t repeated later. In the case of “Love You To” it’s the free-tempo bit at the beginning, characteristic of a lot of Indian music:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Love You To”]
While in the case of “Here, There, and Everywhere” it’s the part that mimics an older style of songwriting, a separate intro of the type that would have been called a verse when written by the Gershwins or Cole Porter, but of course in the intervening decades “verse” had come to mean something else, so we now no longer have a specific term for this kind of intro — but as you can hear, it’s doing very much the same thing as that “Love You To” intro:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Here, There, and Everywhere”]
In the same day as the group completed “Love You To”, overdubbing George’s vocal and Ringo’s tambourine, they also started work on a song that would show off a lot of the new techniques they had been working on in very different ways. Paul’s “Paperback Writer” could indeed be seen as part of a loose trilogy with “Love You To” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, one song by each of the group’s three songwriters exploring the idea of a song that’s almost all on one chord. Both “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To” are based on a drone with occasional hints towards moving to one other chord. In the case of “Paperback Writer”, the entire song stays on a single chord until the title — it’s on a G7 throughout until the first use of the word “writer”, when it quickly goes to a C for two bars. I’m afraid I’m going to have to sing to show you how little the chords actually change, because the riff disguises this lack of movement somewhat, but the melody is also far more horizontal than most of McCartney’s, so this shouldn’t sound too painful, I hope:
This is essentially the exact same thing that both “Love You To” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” do, and all three have very similarly structured rising and falling modal melodies. There’s also a bit of “Paperback Writer” that seems to tie directly into “Love You To”, but also points to a possible very non-Indian inspiration for part of “Love You To”. The Beach Boys’ single “Sloop John B” was released in the UK a couple of days after the sessions for “Paperback Writer” and “Love You To”, but it had been released in the US a month before, and the Beatles all got copies of every record in the American top thirty shipped to them. McCartney and Harrison have specifically pointed to it as an influence on “Paperback Writer”.
“Sloop John B” has a section where all the instruments drop out and we’re left with just the group’s vocal harmonies:
[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Sloop John B”]
And that seems to have been the inspiration behind the similar moment at a similar point in “Paperback Writer”, which is used in place of a middle eight and also used for the song’s intro:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Paperback Writer”]
Which is very close to what Harrison does at the end of each verse of “Love You To”, where the instruments drop out for him to sing a long melismatic syllable before coming back in:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Love You To”]
Essentially, other than “Got to Get You Into My Life”, which is an outlier and should not be counted, the first three songs attempted during the Revolver sessions are variations on a common theme, and it’s a sign that no matter how different the results might sound, the Beatles really were very much a group at this point, and were sharing ideas among themselves and developing those ideas in similar ways. “Paperback Writer” disguises what it’s doing somewhat by having such a strong riff. Lennon referred to “Paperback Writer” as “son of ‘Day Tripper'”, and in terms of the Beatles’ singles it’s actually their third iteration of this riff idea, which they originally got from Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step”:
[Excerpt: Bobby Parker, “Watch Your Step”]
Which became the inspiration for “I Feel Fine”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “I Feel Fine”]
Which they varied for “Day Tripper”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Day Tripper”]
And which then in turn got varied for “Paperback Writer”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Paperback Writer”]
As well as compositional ideas, there are sonic ideas shared between “Paperback Writer”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and “Love You To”, and which would be shared by the rest of the tracks the Beatles recorded in the first half of 1966. Since Geoff Emerick had become the group’s principal engineer, they’d started paying more attention to how to get a fuller sound, and so Emerick had miced the tabla on “Love You To” much more closely than anyone would normally mic an instrument from classical music, creating a deep, thudding sound, and similarly he had changed the way they recorded the drums on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, again giving a much fuller sound.
But the group also wanted the kind of big bass sounds they’d loved on records coming out of America — sounds that no British studio was getting, largely because it was believed that if you cut too loud a bass sound into a record it would make the needle jump out of the groove.
The new engineering team of Geoff Emerick and Ken Scott, though, thought that it was likely you could keep the needle in the groove if you had a smoother frequency response. You could do that if you used a microphone with a larger diaphragm to record the bass, but how could you do that?
Inspiration finally struck — loudspeakers are actually the same thing as microphones wired the other way round, so if you wired up a loudspeaker as if it were a microphone you could get a *really big* speaker, place it in front of the bass amp, and get a much stronger bass sound.
The experiment wasn’t a total success — the sound they got had to be processed quite extensively to get rid of room noise, and then compressed in order to further prevent the needle-jumping issue, and so it’s a muddier, less defined, tone than they would have liked, but one thing that can’t be denied is that “Paperback Writer”‘s bass sound is much, much, louder than on any previous Beatles record:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Paperback Writer”]
Almost every track the group recorded during the Revolver sessions involved all sorts of studio innovations, though rarely anything as truly revolutionary as the artificial double-tracking they’d used on “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and which also appeared on “Paperback Writer” — indeed, as “Paperback Writer” was released several months before Revolver, it became the first record released to use the technique.
I could easily devote a good ten minutes to every track on Revolver, and to “Paperback Writer”s B-side, “Rain”, but this is already shaping up to be an extraordinarily long episode and there’s a lot of material to get through, so I’ll break my usual pattern of devoting a Patreon bonus episode to something relatively obscure, and this week’s bonus will be on “Rain” itself.
“Paperback Writer”, though, deserved the attention here even though it was not one of the group’s more successful singles — it did go to number one, but it didn’t hit number one in the UK charts straight away, being kept off the top by “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra for the first week:
[Excerpt: Frank Sinatra, “Strangers in the Night”]
Coincidentally, “Strangers in the Night” was co-written by Bert Kaempfert, the German musician who had produced the group’s very first recording sessions with Tony Sheridan back in 1961. On the group’s German tour in 1966 they met up with Kaempfert again, and John greeted him by singing the first couple of lines of the Sinatra record.
The single was the lowest-selling Beatles single in the UK since “Love Me Do”. In the US it only made number one for two non-consecutive weeks, with “Strangers in the Night” knocking it off for a week in between.
Now, by literally any other band’s standards, that’s still a massive hit, and it was the Beatles’ tenth UK number one in a row (or ninth, depending on which chart you use for “Please Please Me”), but it’s a sign that the group were moving out of the first phase of total unequivocal dominance of the charts.
It was a turning point in a lot of other ways as well. Up to this point, while the group had been experimenting with different lyrical subjects on album tracks, every single had lyrics about romantic relationships — with the possible exception of “Help!”, which was about Lennon’s emotional state but written in such a way that it could be heard as a plea to a lover. But in the case of “Paperback Writer”, McCartney was inspired by his Aunt Mill asking him “Why do you write songs about love all the time? Can you ever write about a horse or the summit conference or something interesting?”
His response was to think “All right, Aunt Mill, I’ll show you”, and to come up with a lyric that was very much in the style of the social satires that bands like the Kinks were releasing at the time. People often miss the humour in the lyric for “Paperback Writer”, but there’s a huge amount of comedy in lyrics about someone writing to a publisher saying they’d written a book based on someone else’s book, and one can only imagine the feeling of weary recognition in slush-pile readers throughout the world as they heard the enthusiastic “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few, I’ll be writing more in a week or two. I can make it longer…”
From this point on, the group wouldn’t release a single that was unambiguously about a romantic relationship until “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, the last single released while the band were still together.
“Paperback Writer” also saw the Beatles for the first time making a promotional film — what we would now call a rock video — rather than make personal appearances on TV shows. The film was directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who the group would work with again in 1969, and shows Paul with a chipped front tooth — he’d been in an accident while riding mopeds with his friend Tara Browne a few months earlier, and hadn’t yet got round to having the tooth capped. When he did, the change in his teeth was one of the many bits of evidence used by conspiracy theorists to prove that the real Paul McCartney was dead and replaced by a lookalike.
It also marks a change in who the most prominent Beatle on the group’s A-sides was. Up to this point, Paul had had one solo lead on an A-side — “Can’t Buy Me Love” — and everything else had been either a song with multiple vocalists like “Day Tripper” or “Love Me Do”, or a song with a clear John lead like “Ticket to Ride” or “I Feel Fine”. In the rest of their career, counting “Paperback Writer”, the group would release nine new singles that hadn’t already been included on an album. Of those nine singles, one was a double A-side with one John song and one Paul song, two had John songs on the A-side, and the other six were Paul. Where up to this point John had been “lead Beatle”, for the rest of the sixties, Paul would be the group’s driving force.
Oddly, Paul got rather defensive about the record when asked about it in interviews after it failed to go straight to the top, saying “It’s not our best single by any means, but we’re very satisfied with it”. But especially in its original mono mix it actually packs a powerful punch:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Paperback Writer”]
When the “Paperback Writer” single was released, an unusual image was used in the advertising — a photo of the Beatles dressed in butchers’ smocks, covered in blood, with chunks of meat and the dismembered body parts of baby dolls lying around on them. The image was meant as part of a triptych parodying religious art — the photo on the left was to be an image showing the four Beatles connected to a woman by an umbilical cord made of sausages, the middle panel was meant to be this image, but with halos added over the Beatles’ heads, and the panel on the right was George hammering a nail into John’s head, symbolising both crucifixion and that the group were real, physical, people, not just images to be worshipped — these weren’t imaginary nails, and they weren’t imaginary people. The photographer Robert Whittaker later said:
“I did a photograph of the Beatles covered in raw meat, dolls and false teeth. Putting meat, dolls and false teeth with The Beatles is essentially part of the same thing, the breakdown of what is regarded as normal. The actual conception for what I still call “Somnambulant Adventure” was Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. He comes across people worshipping a golden calf. All over the world I’d watched people worshiping like idols, like gods, four Beatles. To me they were just stock standard normal people. But this emotion that fans poured on them made me wonder where Christianity was heading.”
The image wasn’t that controversial in the UK, when it was used to advertise “Paperback Writer”, but in the US it was initially used for the cover of an album, Yesterday… And Today, which was made up of a few tracks that had been left off the US versions of the Rubber Soul and Help! albums, plus both sides of the “We Can Work It Out”/”Day Tripper” single, and three rough mixes of songs that had been recorded for Revolver — “Doctor Robert”, “And Your Bird Can Sing”, and “I’m Only Sleeping”, which was the song that sounded most different from the mixes that were finally released:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “I’m Only Sleeping (Yesterday… and Today mix)”]
Those three songs were all Lennon songs, which had the unfortunate effect that when the US version of Revolver was brought out later in the year, only two of the songs on the album were by Lennon, with six by McCartney and three by Harrison. Some have suggested that this was the motivation for the use of the butcher image on the cover of Yesterday… And Today — saying it was the Beatles’ protest against Capitol “butchering” their albums — but in truth it was just that Capitol’s art director chose the cover because he liked the image. Alan Livingston, the president of Capitol was not so sure, and called Brian Epstein to ask if the group would be OK with them using a different image. Epstein checked with John Lennon, but Lennon liked the image and so Epstein told Livingston the group insisted on them using that cover.
Even though for the album cover the bloodstains on the butchers’ smocks were airbrushed out, after Capitol had pressed up a million copies of the mono version of the album and two hundred thousand copies of the stereo version, and they’d sent out sixty thousand promo copies, they discovered that no record shops would stock the album with that cover. It cost Capitol more than two hundred thousand dollars to recall the album and replace the cover with a new one — though while many of the covers were destroyed, others had the new cover, with a more acceptable photo of the group, pasted over them, and people have later carefully steamed off the sticker to reveal the original.
This would not be the last time in 1966 that something that was intended as a statement on religion and the way people viewed the Beatles would cause the group trouble in America.
In the middle of the recording sessions for Revolver, the group also made what turned out to be their last ever UK live performance in front of a paying audience. The group had played the NME Poll-Winners’ Party every year since 1963, and they were always shows that featured all the biggest acts in the country at the time — the 1966 show featured, as well as the Beatles and a bunch of smaller acts, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, Roy Orbison, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, the Seekers, the Small Faces, the Walker Brothers, and Dusty Springfield.
Unfortunately, while these events were always filmed for TV broadcast, the Beatles’ performance on the first of May wasn’t filmed. There are various stories about what happened, but the crux appears to be a disagreement between Andrew Oldham and Brian Epstein, sparked by John Lennon. When the Beatles got to the show, they were upset to discover that they had to wait around before going on stage — normally, the awards would all be presented at the end, after all the performances, but the Rolling Stones had asked that the Beatles not follow them directly, so after the Stones finished their set, there would be a break for the awards to be given out, and then the Beatles would play their set, in front of an audience that had been bored by twenty-five minutes of awards ceremony, rather than one that had been excited by all the bands that came before them.
John Lennon was annoyed, and insisted that the Beatles were going to go on straight after the Rolling Stones — he seems to have taken this as some sort of power play by the Stones and to have got his hackles up about it. He told Epstein to deal with the people from the NME. But the NME people said that they had a contract with Andrew Oldham, and they weren’t going to break it. Oldham refused to change the terms of the contract. Lennon said that he wasn’t going to go on stage if they didn’t directly follow the Stones. Maurice Kinn, the publisher of the NME, told Epstein that he wasn’t going to break the contract with Oldham, and that if the Beatles didn’t appear on stage, he would get Jimmy Savile, who was compering the show, to go out on stage and tell the ten thousand fans in the audience that the Beatles were backstage refusing to appear. He would then sue NEMS for breach of contract *and* NEMS would be liable for any damage caused by the rioting that was sure to happen.
Lennon screamed a lot of abuse at Kinn, and told him the group would never play one of their events again, but the group did go on stage — but because they hadn’t yet signed the agreement to allow their performance to be filmed, they refused to allow it to be recorded. Apparently Andrew Oldham took all this as a sign that Epstein was starting to lose control of the group.
Also during May 1966 there were visits from musicians from other countries, continuing the cultural exchange that was increasingly influencing the Beatles’ art. Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys came over to promote the group’s new LP, Pet Sounds, which had been largely the work of Brian Wilson, who had retired from touring to concentrate on working in the studio. Johnston played the record for John and Paul, who listened to it twice, all the way through, in silence, in Johnston’s hotel room:
[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows”]
According to Johnston, after they’d listened through the album twice, they went over to a piano and started whispering to each other, picking out chords. Certainly the influence of Pet Sounds is very noticeable on songs like “Here, There, and Everywhere”, written and recorded a few weeks after this meeting:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Here, There, and Everywhere”]
That track, and the last track recorded for the album, “She Said She Said” were unusual in one very important respect — they were recorded while the Beatles were no longer under contract to EMI Records. Their contract expired on the fifth of June, 1966, and they finished Revolver without it having been renewed — it would be several months before their new contract was signed, and it’s rather lucky for music lovers that Brian Epstein was the kind of manager who considered personal relationships and basic honour and decency more important than the legal niceties, unlike any other managers of the era, otherwise we would not have Revolver in the form we know it today.
After the meeting with Johnston, but before the recording of those last couple of Revolver tracks, the Beatles also met up again with Bob Dylan, who was on a UK tour with a new, loud, band he was working with called The Hawks. While the Beatles and Dylan all admired each other, there was by this point a lot of wariness on both sides, especially between Lennon and Dylan, both of them very similar personality types and neither wanting to let their guard down around the other or appear unhip. There’s a famous half-hour-long film sequence of Lennon and Dylan sharing a taxi, which is a fascinating, excruciating, example of two insecure but arrogant men both trying desperately to impress the other but also equally desperate not to let the other know that they want to impress them:
[Excerpt: Dylan and Lennon taxi ride]
The day that was filmed, Lennon and Harrison also went to see Dylan play at the Royal Albert Hall. This tour had been controversial, because Dylan’s band were loud and raucous, and Dylan’s fans in the UK still thought of him as a folk musician. At one gig, earlier on the tour, an audience member had famously yelled out “Judas!” — (just on the tiny chance that any of my listeners don’t know that, Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the authorities, leading to his crucifixion) — and that show was for many years bootlegged as the “Royal Albert Hall” show, though in fact it was recorded at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
One of the *actual* Royal Albert Hall shows was released a few years ago — the one the night before Lennon and Harrison saw Dylan:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”, Royal Albert Hall 1966]
The show Lennon and Harrison saw would be Dylan’s last for many years. Shortly after returning to the US, Dylan was in a motorbike accident, the details of which are still mysterious, and which some fans claim was faked altogether. The accident caused him to cancel all the concert dates he had booked, and devote himself to working in the studio for several years just like Brian Wilson.
And from even further afield than America, Ravi Shankar came over to Britain, to work with his friend the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, on a duet album, West Meets East, that was an example in the classical world of the same kind of international cross-fertilisation that was happening in the pop world:
[Excerpt: Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi Shankar, “Prabhati (based on Raga Gunkali)”]
While he was in the UK, Shankar also performed at the Royal Festival Hall, and George Harrison went to the show. He’d seen Shankar live the year before, but this time he met up with him afterwards, and later said “He was the first person that impressed me in a way that was beyond just being a famous celebrity. Ravi was my link to the Vedic world. Ravi plugged me into the whole of reality. Elvis impressed me when I was a kid, and impressed me when I met him, but you couldn’t later on go round to him and say ‘Elvis, what’s happening with the universe?'”
After completing recording and mixing the as-yet-unnamed album, which had been by far the longest recording process of their career, and which still nearly sixty years later regularly tops polls of the best album of all time, the Beatles took a well-earned break.
For a whole two days, at which point they flew off to Germany to do a three-day tour, on their way to Japan, where they were booked to play five shows at the Budokan. Unfortunately for the group, while they had no idea of this when they were booked to do the shows, many in Japan saw the Budokan as sacred ground, and they were the first ever Western group to play there. This led to numerous death threats and loud protests from far-right activists offended at the Beatles defiling their religious and nationalistic sensibilities. As a result, the police were on high alert — so high that there were three thousand police in the audience for the shows, in a venue which only held ten thousand audience members. That’s according to Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicle, though I have to say that the rather blurry footage of the audience in the video of those shows doesn’t seem to show anything like those numbers. But frankly I’ll take Lewisohn’s word over that footage, as he’s not someone to put out incorrect information.
The threats to the group also meant that they had to be kept in their hotel rooms at all times except when actually performing, though they did make attempts to get out.
At the press conference for the Tokyo shows, the group were also asked publicly for the first time their views on the war in Vietnam, and John replied “Well, we think about it every day, and we don’t agree with it and we think that it’s wrong. That’s how much interest we take. That’s all we can do about it… and say that we don’t like it”.
I say they were asked publicly for the first time, because George had been asked about it for a series of interviews Maureen Cleave had done with the group a couple of months earlier, as we’ll see in a bit, but nobody was paying attention to those interviews. Brian Epstein was upset that the question had gone to John. He had hoped that the inevitable Vietnam question would go to Paul, who he thought might be a bit more tactful. The last thing he needed was John Lennon saying something that would upset the Americans before their tour there a few weeks later. Luckily, people in America seemed to have better things to do than pay attention to John Lennon’s opinions.
The support acts for the Japanese shows included several of the biggest names in Japanese rock music — or “group sounds” as the genre was called there, Japanese people having realised that trying to say the phrase “rock and roll” would open them up to ridicule given that it had both “r” and “l” sounds in the phrase. The man who had coined the term “group sounds”, Jackey Yoshikawa, was there with his group the Blue Comets, as was Isao Bito, who did a rather good cover version of Cliff Richard’s “Dynamite”:
[Excerpt: Isao Bito, “Dynamite”]
Bito, the Blue Comets, and the other two support acts, Yuya Uchida and the Blue Jeans, all got together to perform a specially written song, “Welcome Beatles”:
[Excerpt: “Welcome Beatles” ]
But while the Japanese audience were enthusiastic, they were much less vocal about their enthusiasm than the audiences the Beatles were used to playing for.
The group were used, of course, to playing in front of hordes of screaming teenagers who could not hear a single note, but because of the fear that a far-right terrorist would assassinate one of the group members, the police had imposed very, very, strict rules on the audience. Nobody in the audience was allowed to get out of their seat for any reason, and the police would clamp down very firmly on anyone who was too demonstrative. Because of that, the group could actually hear themselves, and they sounded sloppy as hell, especially on the newer material.
Not that there was much of that. The only song they did from the Revolver sessions was “Paperback Writer”, the new single, and while they did do a couple of tracks from Rubber Soul, those were under-rehearsed. As John said at the start of this tour, “I can’t play any of Rubber Soul, it’s so unrehearsed. The only time I played any of the numbers on it was when I recorded it. I forget about songs. They’re only valid for a certain time.”
That’s certainly borne out by the sound of their performances of Rubber Soul material at the Budokan:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “If I Needed Someone (live at the Budokan)”]
It was while they were in Japan as well that they finally came up with the title for their new album. They’d been thinking of all sorts of ideas, like Abracadabra and Magic Circle, and tossing names around with increasing desperation for several days — at one point they seem to have just started riffing on other groups’ albums, and seem to have apparently seriously thought about naming the record in parodic tribute to their favourite artists — suggestions included The Beatles On Safari, after the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari (and possibly with a nod to their recent Pet Sounds album cover with animals, too), The Freewheelin’ Beatles, after Dylan’s second album, and my favourite, Ringo’s suggestion After Geography, for the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath.
But eventually Paul came up with Revolver — like Rubber Soul, a pun, in this case because the record itself revolves when on a turntable.
Then it was off to the Philippines, and if the group thought Japan had been stressful, they had no idea what was coming. The trouble started in the Philippines from the moment they stepped off the plane, when they were bundled into a car without Neil Aspinall or Brian Epstein, and without their luggage, which was sent to customs.
This was a problem in itself — the group had got used to essentially being treated like diplomats, and to having their baggage let through customs without being searched, and so they’d started freely carrying various illicit substances with them. This would obviously be a problem — but as it turned out, this was just to get a “customs charge” paid by Brian Epstein. But during their initial press conference the group were worried, given the hostility they’d faced from officialdom, that they were going to be arrested during the conference itself. They were asked what they would tell the Rolling Stones, who were going to be visiting the Philippines shortly after, and Lennon just said “We’ll warn them”. They also asked “is there a war on in the Philippines? Why is everybody armed?”
At this time, the Philippines had a new leader, Ferdinand Marcos — who is not to be confused with his son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, also known as Bongbong Marcos, who just became President-Elect there last month. Marcos Sr was a dictatorial kleptocrat, one of the worst leaders of the latter half of the twentieth century, but that wasn’t evident yet. He’d been elected only a few months earlier, and had presented himself as a Kennedy-like figure — a young man who was also a war hero. He’d recently switched parties from the Liberal party to the right-wing Nacionalista Party, but wasn’t yet being thought of as the monstrous dictator he later became.
The person organising the Philippines shows had been ordered to get the Beatles to visit Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos at 11AM on the day of the show, but for some reason had instead put on their itinerary just the *suggestion* that the group should meet the Marcoses, and had put the time down as 3PM, and the Beatles chose to ignore that suggestion — they’d refused to do that kind of government-official meet-and-greet ever since an incident in 1964 at the British Embassy in Washington where someone had cut off a bit of Ringo’s hair.
A military escort turned up at the group’s hotel in the morning, to take them for their meeting. The group were all still in their rooms, and Brian Epstein was still eating breakfast and refused to disturb them, saying “Go back and tell the generals we’re not coming.”
The group gave their performances as scheduled, but meanwhile there was outrage at the way the Beatles had refused to meet the Marcos family, who had brought hundreds of children — friends of their own children, and relatives of top officials — to a party to meet the group. Brian Epstein went on TV and tried to smooth things over, but the broadcast was interrupted by static and his message didn’t get through to anyone.
The next day, the group’s security was taken away, as were the cars to take them to the airport. When they got to the airport, the escalators were turned off and the group were beaten up at the arrangement of the airport manager, who said in 1984 “I beat up the Beatles. I really thumped them. First I socked Epstein and he went down… then I socked Lennon and Ringo in the face. I was kicking them. They were pleading like frightened chickens. That’s what happens when you insult the First Lady.”
Even on the plane there were further problems — Brian Epstein and the group’s road manager Mal Evans were both made to get off the plane to sort out supposed financial discrepancies, which led to them worrying that they were going to be arrested or worse — Evans told the group to tell his wife he loved her as he left the plane. But eventually, they were able to leave, and after a brief layover in India — which Ringo later said was the first time he felt he’d been somewhere truly foreign, as opposed to places like Germany or the USA which felt basically like home — they got back to England:
[Excerpt: “Ordinary passenger!”]
When asked what they were going to do next, George replied “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans,”
The story of the “we’re bigger than Jesus” controversy is one of the most widely misreported events in the lives of the Beatles, which is saying a great deal. One book that I’ve encountered, and one book only, Steve Turner’s Beatles ’66, tells the story of what actually happened, and even that book seems to miss some emphases. I’ve pieced what follows together from Turner’s book and from an academic journal article I found which has some more detail. As far as I can tell, every single other book on the Beatles released up to this point bases their account of the story on an inaccurate press statement put out by Brian Epstein, not on the truth.
Here’s the story as it’s generally told. John Lennon gave an interview to his friend, Maureen Cleave of the Evening Standard, during which he made some comments about how it was depressing that Christianity was losing relevance in the eyes of the public, and that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus, speaking casually because he was talking to a friend. That story was run in the Evening Standard more-or-less unnoticed, but then an American teen magazine picked up on the line about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus, reprinted chunks of the interview out of context and without the Beatles’ knowledge or permission, as a way to stir up controversy, and there was an outcry, with people burning Beatles records and death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
That’s… not exactly what happened.
The first thing that you need to understand to know what happened is that Datebook wasn’t a typical teen magazine. It *looked* just like a typical teen magazine, certainly, and much of its content was the kind of thing that you would get in Tiger Beat or any of the other magazines aimed at teenage girls — the September 1966 issue was full of articles like “Life with the Walker Brothers… by their Road Manager”, and interviews with the Dave Clark Five — but it also had a long history of publishing material that was intended to make its readers think about social issues of the time, particularly Civil Rights. Arthur Unger, the magazine’s editor and publisher, was a gay man in an interracial relationship, and while the subject of homosexuality was too taboo in the late fifties and sixties for him to have his magazine cover that, he did regularly include articles decrying segregation and calling for the girls reading the magazine to do their part on a personal level to stamp out racism.
Datebook had regularly contained articles like one from 1963 talking about how segregation wasn’t just a problem in the South, saying “If we are so ‘integrated’ why must men in my own city of Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love, picket city hall because they are discriminated against when it comes to getting a job? And how come I am still unable to take my dark- complexioned friends to the same roller skating rink or swimming pool that I attend?”
One of the writers for the magazine later said “We were much more than an entertainment magazine . . . . We tried to get kids involved in social issues . . . . It was a well-received magazine, recommended by libraries and schools, but during the Civil Rights period we did get pulled off a lot of stands in the South because of our views on integration”
Art Unger, the editor and publisher, wasn’t the only one pushing this liberal, integrationist, agenda. The managing editor at the time, Danny Fields, was another gay man who wanted to push the magazine even further than Unger, and who would later go on to manage the Stooges and the Ramones, being credited by some as being the single most important figure in punk rock’s development, and being immortalised by the Ramones in their song “Danny Says”:
[Excerpt: The Ramones, “Danny Says”]
So this was not a normal teen magazine, and that’s certainly shown by the cover of the September 1966 issue, which as well as talking about the interviews with John Lennon and Paul McCartney inside, also advertised articles on Timothy Leary advising people to turn on, tune in, and drop out; an editorial about how interracial dating must be the next step after desegregation of schools, and a piece on “the ten adults you dig/hate the most” — apparently the adult most teens dug in 1966 was Jackie Kennedy, the most hated was Barry Goldwater, and President Johnson, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King appeared in the top ten on both lists.
Now, in the early part of the year Maureen Cleave had done a whole series of articles on the Beatles — double-page spreads on each band member, plus Brian Epstein, visiting them in their own homes (apart from Paul, who she met at a restaurant) and discussing their daily lives, their thoughts, and portraying them as rounded individuals.
These articles are actually fascinating, because of something that everyone who met the Beatles in this period pointed out. When interviewed separately, all of them came across as thoughtful individuals, with their own opinions about all sorts of subjects, and their own tastes and senses of humour. But when two or more of them were together — especially when John and Paul were interviewed together, but even in social situations, they would immediately revert to flip in-jokes and riffing on each other’s statements, never revealing anything about themselves as individuals, but just going into Beatle mode — simultaneously preserving the band’s image, closing off outsiders, *and* making sure they didn’t do or say anything that would get them mocked by the others. Cleave, as someone who actually took them all seriously, managed to get some very revealing information about all of them.
In the article on Ringo, which is the most superficial — one gets the impression that Cleave found him rather difficult to talk to when compared to the other, more verbally facile, band members — she talked about how he had a lot of Wild West and military memorabilia, how he was a devoted family man and also devoted to his friends — he had moved to the suburbs to be close to John and George, who already lived there. The most revealing quote about Ringo’s personality was him saying “Of course that’s the great thing about being married — you have a house to sit in and company all the time. And you can still go to clubs, a bonus for being married. I love being a family man.”
While she looked at the other Beatles’ tastes in literature in detail, she’d noted that the only books Ringo owned that weren’t just for show were a few science fiction paperbacks, but that as he said “I’m not thick, it’s just that I’m not educated. People can use words and I won’t know what they mean. I say ‘me’ instead of ‘my’.” Ringo also didn’t have a drum kit at home, saying he only played when he was on stage or in the studio, and that you couldn’t practice on your own, you needed to play with other people.
In the article on George, she talked about how he was learning the sitar, and how he was thinking that it might be a good idea to go to India to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar for six months. She also talks about how during the interview, he played the guitar pretty much constantly, playing everything from songs from “Hello Dolly” to pieces by Bach to “the Trumpet Voluntary”, by which she presumably means Clarke’s “Prince of Denmark’s March”:
[Excerpt: Jeremiah Clarke, “Prince of Denmark’s March”]
George was also the most outspoken on the subjects of politics, religion, and society, linking the ongoing war in Vietnam with the UK’s reverence for the Second World War, saying “I think about it every day and it’s wrong. Anything to do with war is wrong. They’re all wrapped up in their Nelsons and their Churchills and their Montys — always talking about war heroes. Look at All Our Yesterdays [a show on ITV that showed twenty-five-year-old newsreels] — how we killed a few more Huns here and there. Makes me sick. They’re the sort who are leaning on their walking sticks and telling us a few years in the army would do us good.”
He also had very strong words to say about religion, saying “I think religion falls flat on its face. All this ‘love thy neighbour’ but none of them are doing it. How can anybody get into the position of being Pope and accept all the glory and the money and the Mercedes-Benz and that? I could never be Pope until I’d sold my rich gates and my posh hat. I couldn’t sit there with all that money on me and believe I was religious. Why can’t we bring all this out in the open? Why is there all this stuff about blasphemy? If Christianity’s as good as they say it is, it should stand up to a bit of discussion.”
Harrison also comes across as a very private person, saying “People keep saying, ‘We made you what you are,’ well, I made Mr. Hovis what he is and I don’t go round crawling over his gates and smashing up the wall round his house.” (Hovis is a British company that makes bread and wholegrain flour). But more than anything else he comes across as an instinctive anti-authoritarian, being angry at bullying teachers, Popes, and Prime Ministers.
McCartney’s profile has him as the most self-consciously arty — he talks about the plays of Alfred Jarry and the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio:
[Excerpt: Luciano Berio, “Momenti (for magnetic tape)”]
Though he was very worried that he might be sounding a little too pretentious, saying “I don’t want to sound like Jonathan Miller going on” — Miller was a doctor turned comedian turned public intellectual, who had started out as a neurologist, become famous as part of the comedy revue Beyond The Fringe, and had since become the presenter of the BBC’s flagship arts programme, Monitor, as well as a director for the theatre and TV, and he was often satirised as a rather pompous figure who thought a little too much of his own intelligence and erudition.
McCartney also indulged in the kind of reflex anti-Americanism that is very common among British people who want to think of themselves as intellectuals, saying that America needed something like the BBC to give them some culture, and saying “They have hardly any plays on television in America. Here we have lots of plays; you hear people say, ‘I like a good play.’ Well, in America, like in 1984, plays are out of the dictionary. They have willed themselves into this. It makes me sad for them.”
That anti-Americanism also stretched, rather more admirably, to attacking the endemic racism in America, saying “It’s a lousy country where anyone who is black is made to seem a dirty” — and here McCartney used the n-word, which was printed in full in the interview, but which I won’t repeat here — “There is a statue of a good Negro doffing his hat and being polite in the gutter. I saw a picture of it.”
He then went back to his previous point about culture, talking about how in Britain “we have millions of little societies preserving things. We have little societies to preserve barrels of beer and little John Betjeman societies and little ban-the-bomb societies.”
And the interview with Lennon is quite a remarkable piece of writing, a portrait of a deeply, deeply, unhappy man who has got enough money to do anything he wants, burning through hobbies and special interests and discarding them almost instantly, buying things like a gorilla costume. To quote from the piece: “‘I thought I might need a gorilla suit,’ he said; he seemed sad about it. ‘I’ve only worn it twice. I thought I might pop it on in the summer and drive round in the Ferrari. We were all going to get them and drive round in them but I was the only one who did. I’ve been thinking about it and if I didn’t wear the head it would make an amazing fur coat – with legs, you see.'”
That kind of thing is the bulk of the article, but Cleave’s most insightful description of Lennon comes immediately before what would become the most controversial part:”Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it’s closed round whatever he believes at the time. ‘Christianity will go,’ he said. ‘It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.’ He is reading extensively about religion.”
The book Lennon was reading, specifically, was later revealed to be The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield, which is one of those bestsellers that comes around about once a decade presenting a conspiracy theory about the life of Jesus, written by someone with just enough understanding of the classical world and Biblical Hebrew to be plausible to people who like to think they’re privy to secret, hidden, truths that most people don’t understand.
In Schonfield’s case, he takes the standard narrative of the historical Jesus that is largely accepted by secular Bible scholars — that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet — and presents the accepted scholarship fairly accurately. But he then mixes in the idea that the apostles were being kept in the dark about Jesus’ real plans — according to Schonfield, Jesus, Judas, Joseph of Arimathea and the Beloved Disciple conspired together both to have Jesus fulfil many Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, and then to fake Jesus’ death by drugging him on the cross. But then a Roman soldier speared Jesus in the side, Jesus actually died, and the others were left having to fake the resurrection instead. As a result of this, according to Schonfield, Jesus’ message was passed along by people from whom he had deliberately kept his true beliefs and intentions.
There is, it need hardly be said, no evidence whatsoever for this story, but Schonfield mixed in enough genuinely erudite scholarship with the crankery that it was convincing to people who had never before encountered the historical-critical attitude to the Bible. So much so that it became a huge bestseller, and in the 1970s was turned into a film starring Donald Pleasance:
[Excerpt: The Passover Plot trailer]
And it certainly seems to have convinced Lennon, whose claim that “Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me” might as well be the Readers’ Digest condensed books version of Schonfield’s book.
It’s also apparent that Lennon empathised with the figure of Jesus as he was portrayed in The Passover Plot — someone who was being seen as an idol by people who didn’t understand his work at all.
These interviews ran in the Evening Standard with minimal fuss — the odd letter and satirical cartoon noted them, but no more so than anything else any of the Beatles said or did at the time. Indeed, the biggest complaint the Lennon interview got was a letter in the Evening Standard, which paid more attention to how disgraceful it was that Lennon didn’t want anything to do with his deadbeat father than to the comments about Christianity. Lennon’s comments also appeared in the US, in Newsweek, shortly after they were published in Britain, Lennon’s interview appeared in Detroit magazine in May, and all the full interviews appeared in the New York Times Magazine section in July, to no American reaction at all.
But Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ publicist, had written to Art Unger in March, saying “I think you might be more than interested in a series of ‘in-depth’ pieces which Maureen Cleave is doing on each Beatle for the London Evening Standard. I’m enclosing a clipping showing her piece on John Lennon. I think the style and content is very much in line with the sort of thing DATEBOOK likes to use.”
Unger had bought the rights to the interviews with all four Beatles, checked with Barrow if they wanted to amend anything and was told it was fine, and had published the George and Ringo interviews in one issue of the magazine, and then held over the John and Paul ones for the issue that would be coming out while the group were on tour in the US.
Now… here’s the thing. That issue of the magazine was intended to be deliberately controversial — it was the “speaking out” issue. And to make sure the issue would get talked about, Datebook sent copies to hundreds of DJs across the Southern States, in the Bible Belt.
But the thing is… they seem to have been trying to get people angry about a different interview than the one that they got worked up about. They did have a quote from Lennon about Christianity on the cover, but crucially not the bit where he said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, the line “I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity”. And Lennon’s quote wasn’t the one given most prominence.
Remember, this was a magazine that had stuck its neck out often in support of integration. Paul McCartney, not John Lennon, was given the full-page cover photo, and his was the quote on top of the list of pull-quotes on the front page. And the quote used was him saying that America was “a lousy country where anyone Black is a dirty” — and then the n-word.
THAT, I am absolutely certain, is the conversation that Art Unger was wanting to start by sending copies of the magazine to Southern DJs. The whole front page, including another pull quote from another article, about how teenagers need to start dating across races, is designed to get white Southerners incensed. Here’s one of the Beatles condemning segregation, calling America “a lousy country” because of it, and also using the n-word to emphasise this point. You can see *exactly* what Unger was trying to do — it would whip up a fury from the right-wing DJs, but one that would position the Beatles on the side which most young people supported in America’s ongoing culture war, which also happened to be the side Unger himself supported. His circulation would go up, some publicity would go to a cause he supported very strongly, and the Beatles would only get attacked by people who it would make them look good to be attacked by. Everyone would win.
But that’s not what happened.
Instead, a DJ in Birmingham, Alabama, Tommy Charles, read Lennon’s quote about how the Beatles were bigger than Jesus out on the air to his colleague Doug Layton, and they were disgusted — not by the blasphemy, neither were particularly religious, but by the arrogance — they interpreted Lennon’s quote about the group being bigger than Jesus as being Lennon boasting about how great his group was. They decided they weren’t going to play any Beatles records on their show any more, and rather to their surprise they found they were getting a huge number of phone calls supporting them — so many that they said, more or less as a joke, that people should send in their unwanted Beatles records to burn on a bonfire the next time the Beatles came to town. The Beatles weren’t going to play in Alabama on their next tour, and no bonfire was ever held, and nor did they seriously intend to have one, though they received many records from irate listeners.
And that should have been the end of it. Two DJs on a relatively small local top-forty station filling up some time by feigning outrage over something they’d read in a newspaper or magazine that morning, as happens everywhere. But as it happened the Birmingham bureau chief for United Press International was in his car listening to that station that morning, and he filed a report to the press syndicate, titled “Birmingham Disk Jockeys to Hold Beatles Burning”. That story was picked up nationally, and suddenly a lot of other places *were* seriously planning to burn Beatles records.
Brian Epstein was on holiday in Portmeirion, in Gwynnedd, North Wales, when Art Unger got in touch with him to let him know that things had got very out of hand. Epstein had not been in a good way — on the flight back from India after the Philippines debacle, the group had told him that they were thinking of stopping touring, which made his position with the group precarious, and he had broken out into a rash on the plane home from stress. On top of that, he’d come down with glandular fever — what I believe Americans refer to as “mono” — and so rather than travel to America in advance of the US tour, on the advice of his doctor he had decided to take a break in Portmeirion, a beautiful, picturesque, seaside town that was not yet the tourist destination it became after it was used in The Prisoner.
He was trying not to let himself get too stressed, and so at first he looked on the bright side, saying “Arthur, if they burn Beatles records, they’ve got to buy them first.”
But after a few days of increasing press outrage, Epstein was forced to cut his holiday short, drive to Chester, charter a plane to London, and then get a transatlantic flight to the US to do a press conference, where he looked seriously distressed as he read out a prepared statement he had agreed with Lennon:
[Excerpt: Brian Epstein statement ]
Art Unger was rather upset at this, as he argued that Lennon’s remarks hadn’t been taken out of context at all, and he said so at the press conference — as far as he was concerned, you couldn’t get less out of context than reprinting the entire article in full (apart from cutting five sentences of introductory material at the beginning, which had just been there to establish for an adult audience that the Beatles were indeed worth paying attention to. According to Unger, he had something of a row with Epstein later and Epstein tried a carrot and stick approach, threatening to get Unger’s press access to the tour revoked to avoid making it look like everything had been a publicity stunt, but Lennon apparently stuck up for Unger, who he regarded as a friend. We can’t know for sure what actually happened, as all three participants are now sadly dead, but Unger did end up going on the tour.
When the Beatles arrived six days later, things had not completely calmed down, and Epstein and Tony Barrow explained the situation to Lennon — of course he had a right to say whatever he wanted, and they would stand by him, but people like the Ku Klux Klan had been threatening terrorist activity at the gigs, and there was the possibility that a sniper could get into a gig and kill one or more of the group. If he could try to be conciliatory, and walk back some of what he’d said, maybe he could save his friends’ lives. Lennon apparently broke down in tears, though he tried to hide it from Epstein and Barrow, and in the press conference that followed he was clearly in great distress:
[Excerpt: Lennon 1966 press conference]
But the tour, in which they played nineteen shows in eighteen days, went off largely without a hitch. There were problems, of course — in Memphis someone threw a firecracker onto the stage and for one horrifying moment all the group members thought one of the others must have been shot, but all things considered, it went remarkably reasonably. It was less successful than their previous US tour, but only by Beatles standards — they didn’t sell out Shea Stadium, for example, but that meant that they “only” played to forty-four thousand people rather than fifty-five thousand people like they had the year before. It was still a far bigger audience than any other band in the world could have got.
In the same way, their latest single, a double A-side of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine”, once again didn’t go straight into the UK charts at number one. It still went to number one, of course, it just took a little while to get there — and given that both tracks were on Revolver, released on the same day, so some people who would otherwise have bought the single undoubtedly didn’t bother, and that neither song sounded anything like any previous Beatles single, that was still a great achievement. They were still the most successful band in the world, but they obviously needed to move on, and not just continue playing the same shows to slowly diminishing screaming audiences.
In LA, Paul and George met Brian and Carl Wilson for the first time, at Derek Taylor’s house, where the four of them talked for hours, mostly listening to old Glenn Miller records, though at one point Brian played them an acetate of the instrumental track to “Good Vibrations”, which he was still working on.
Brian Epstein’s time in LA was rather less pleasant. He met up with an ex while he was there, and was horrified later to discover that the ex had stolen an attache case containing a large amount of money, several illegal substances, and several photos which, at a time when gay sex was still illegal in both the UK and US, could have got Brian into serious legal trouble. Epstein’s ex blackmailed him, and so Epstein ended up not being at the show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, as he had to attend a drop-off, to pay for the return of some of his possessions.
Knowing that it was likely to be the last show the group ever did, they asked Tony Barrow to record the show on a cassette, something they didn’t normally do:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Long Tall Sally (live at Candlestick Park)”]
That’s where the tape ran out, thirty-five seconds into the last song. That’s the end of the Beatles as a live band. At the end of the show, John said to the crowd “See you again next year”, but on the plane George said “That’s it. I’m not a Beatle any more”. On the plane, John was apparently depressed, but did sign a copy of the Datebook issue that had caused so much trouble for Unger, signing it “To Art with love from John C. Lennon”. The C, he explained, stood for Christ.
The day after they arrived back in London, Maureen Cleave got married and quit her job as the pop music correspondent for the Evening Standard. From that day on, she never played another pop record, and never met any of the Beatles again.
For the first time since 1962, the Beatles had no plans at all. Despite George saying “I’m not a Beatle any more” the group hadn’t split up, but they had no tour dates scheduled, and they had no record contract in place, so for the first time they were not going to be releasing a new album for the Christmas market. Instead, EMI put together the first Beatles compilation album released in Britain — A Collection of Beatles Oldies — which had all their singles from “From Me to You” through “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine”, plus one track that hadn’t yet seen British release, the group’s cover version of Larry Williams’ “Bad Boy”, which they’d knocked out as a bit of album filler for an American release the year before:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Bad Boy”]
From the end of August 1966 through to the end of November, there were no Beatles activities. This was by far the longest time the four of them had spent apart in four years, even though it was only a break of a couple of months. Most of them kept very active, so for the next little while I’m going to tell you the separate stories of what happened to John, George, Brian Epstein, and Paul, in that order — Ringo didn’t do much in this time, other than go along to visit John — but bear in mind that while I’m telling these stories, they happened in parallel, not sequentially.
John was the first one to have an announced outside project. Richard Lester had cast him in the film How I Won The War, and Lennon flew out nine days after the end of the tour for filming in Germany and Spain. Now, I should say something for anyone who wants to watch that film solely out of interest in Lennon, which is that while he has second billing in the film after Michael Crawford, and while the Blu-Ray cover is just a giant close-up of Lennon’s face, he actually only has a *very* small part — it’s an ensemble piece, and nobody but Crawford has what you might call a large part, but Roy Kinnear and Michael Hordern, for starters, both have a great deal more to do than Lennon, whose character Musketeer Gripweed is in the film throughout, but has very few lines.
That’s not the first time that Lennon has been used mildly dishonestly to make money in relation to this film. In 1967 a single titled “How I Won the War” was released as by “Musketeer Gripweed and the Third Troop”, using Lennon’s character’s name in the hope that it might make some people think he had something to do with the record, which was actually some of the soundtrack music by Ken Thorne (who had previously done the instrumental music for Help! and would later go on to do the Monkees film Head) with bits of dialogue pasted over the top:
[Excerpt: Musketeer Gripweed and the Third Troop, “How I Won the War” ]
But that’s not to say that the film isn’t worth watching at all. I think it’s probably Lester’s worst film, but Lester was always an interesting director, and it is at the very least an interesting failure, a Brechtian comedy about class and the futility of war, but fundamentally it’s one of those films where you can watch the first five or ten minutes, think “Ah, yes, I see what they’re doing, very clever”, and then not need to watch the rest of the film.
But the making of “How I Won the War” was also a symbolic ending of the old Beatles image. Lennon had to get his hair cut, getting rid of the moptop hairstyle that had defined the group, in order to play a soldier. He also lost a *lot* of weight during the making of the film. He had been worried and depressed about his weight for a year, since seeing himself described as “the fat Beatle” in an article, but at this point the combination of doing relatively strenuous work in a hot climate, rather than sitting around at home all day, and his massive intake of LSD which made eating seem unappealing, caused his appearance to change dramatically. In some shots he still has something of the roundness to his face that he had in the videos for “Paperback Writer” and “Penny Lane”, but by the end of the filming he was gaunt, almost unhealthily thin, and looked like an entirely different person.
And the change that would be most noticeable was the glasses. Lennon had been wearing contact lenses for many years, but his character, Musketeer Gripweed, had to wear glasses, and even though they were just clear glass, not prescription, Lennon ended up wearing them all day every day while filming — he had a tendency to put things down and forget where he’d put them, and they only had a small number of these props, so it was just easier for him to leave them on all the time, and he grew to be comfortable wearing them. He’d already started wearing coloured sunglasses with similar round frames, possibly influenced by Roger McGuinn, and he’d also seen John Sebastian wearing glasses in this style, but from How I Won The War on these glasses would become synonymous with Lennon.
It was while he was in Spain filming How I Won The War that Lennon started working on a song that was originally titled “Not Too Bad”, which started out as Lennon writing a song about his own feelings of alienation and misunderstanding. He was feeling lonely — though Ringo did come to Spain to visit him — and he was thinking about how most people didn’t understand him and he had no connection with them, and also about his own inarticulacy. The first version of the song he came up with, appropriately for a song about inability to connect, has very few lyrics, although the melody is there from the start:
[Excerpt: John Lennon, “It’s Not Too Bad”]
But after recording several versions of this, which are fascinating to hear, with him feeling out the song a bit at a time, this started to connect with his thoughts about his childhood, and he came up with a central motif.
Strawberry Field, which didn’t have an “s” at the end, was a Salvation Army children’s home near where John had grown up, and it was an imposing building — when the Salvation Army bought it in 1935 they pointed out that from one side of the building on a clear day one could see the city of Chester, fifteen miles away, while from the other side of the building on the same clear day you could see the peak of Mount Snowdon, in Gwynnedd, North Wales, more than fifty miles away.
The home had a huge garden, and Lennon and his friends used to climb over the wall and play in the garden as children. This image, of carefree children playing in an Edenic garden, was juxtaposed with his current desperation to provide a vision of what life could be like:
[Excerpt: John Lennon, “Strawberry Fields”]
By all accounts, Lennon had a miserable time making the film, though he worked hard at it, showing up on set even on days when he wasn’t needed, and things only got worse at the end of October, when he discovered that his friend Alma Cogan had died. Lennon was *extremely* close to Cogan, and according to Lennon’s wife Cynthia, he was in love with her, and she was the great love of his life — they’d been carrying on an affair for years. Lennon was devastated, and Cynthia would later say that he pretty much immediately started looking around for someone else like Cogan to replace her, and really to replace his mother — someone older, Bohemian, and able to take charge of him.
According to Cynthia, then, Lennon was on the rebound when he was invited to an art show by John Dunbar. Dunbar was a friend of the group, but primarily a friend of Paul’s — he’d dated Jenny Waller, the sister of Gordon Waller, who was in the duo Peter and Gordon with Peter Asher, who was the brother of McCartney’s girlfriend Jane Asher. Dunbar, Peter Asher, and the writer Barry Miles had started up the Indica Bookshop and Gallery, and we heard in the episode on “Tomorrow Never Knows” how that shop had been where Lennon had discovered The Psychedelic Experience.
And on the seventh of November, Lennon went along to a preview of a show that was opening at the Indica the next day. The show was by a Japanese-American artist, Yoko Ono, who worked in a variety of media — she was a painter, performance artist, and musician, and she had famously collaborated with John Cage, the avant-garde composer:
[Excerpt: Yoko Ono, John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanigi, David Tudor and Kenji Kobayashi, “26’55.988”, ]
According to Paul McCartney her association with Cage had actually already brought her into contact with the Beatles — she had been putting together a collection of manuscripts by famous composers as a birthday present for Cage and had asked McCartney for one, and he had turned her down, but she later got the lyric sheet for “The Word” from Lennon — though this seems to me likely to be a misremembering of the timeline involved, and likely something that happened the next year (McCartney often gets his memories of when things happened in this period slightly skewed, for example thinking that a moustache he grew in November 1966 happened right after the moped crash he was in in December 1965).
Either way, Ono was part of a very different world than the Beatles, but Dunbar thought that Lennon might appreciate her work, and arranged for Lennon to have a private viewing of what was advertised as her “one-man show” a couple of days before it officially opened. Ono wasn’t keen on this, but Dunbar explained that Lennon was a millionaire and might be a useful patron, and so she reluctantly agreed.
Ono’s exhibition was a set of conceptual pieces, for example a chess set where all the pieces and squares were white, and which you were encouraged to play until you forgot which of the players was you and which your opponent. Lennon was initially unimpressed — he had a famously ambivalent attitude towards intellectualism in art, being simultaneously drawn to it but dismissive of anything he thought might be pretension or a con.
John decided he liked the show when he saw a piece called Ladder Piece. In this piece, the viewer had to climb a ladder, at the top of which were a card and a magnifying glass. The viewer was meant to look at the card with the magnifying glass, and see that in tiny letters the card said “YES”.
Lennon said later that what he liked about this piece was that it was one of the few things he’d seen with an unambiguously positive message — that if the card had said “rip-off” or something he would have walked out, but “YES” got his interest.
He then looked at Hammer and Nail Piece — a block of mahogany with gold-plated nails and a gold-plated hammer next to it — the viewers were meant to hammer the nails in, and Lennon asked if he could, but Ono refused to let him, because she wanted the piece to be pristine for when the show actually opened. But Dunbar knew that it was a good idea to keep Lennon on side because he was so rich, and tried to persuade Ono to let the millionaire potential patron hammer a nail in if he wanted to. Eventually, Ono said he could, but only if Lennon paid her five shillings. When told this, Lennon offered to give her an imaginary five shillings to hammer in an imaginary nail, they both laughed, and they realised they were on the same wavelength.
While Lennon was off filming How I Won the War, George Harrison had decided to devote himself more to his new love of Indian music, and to learn the sitar properly:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Love You To”]
When Harrison had met Ravi Shankar earlier that year, Shankar had given him a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, a book which I would definitely go into in more detail were this not such a long episode already, and the two had talked about Harrison learning the sitar properly. Now there was some space in the Beatles’ calendar, Harrison decided to do just that. He flew off to India, having first cut his hair short and obtained a false moustache until he could grow his own, in the hope of remaining more or less anonymous while he was over there. This didn’t work, of course, and soon Harrison had to do a press conference and explain that he was there not in his capacity as a Beatle, but purely in his personal capacity.
Shankar had initially been extremely unimpressed with Harrison’s sitar technique, calling it “a sort of sound which to us sounded really ridiculous. It’s like if someone in Africa takes the violin and plays it and says, ‘How do you like this scratching sound?’ It takes a long time to produce the real sound and play the real music.”
Harrison only had a month to give, initially, but he had an intensive crash course, not only in the sitar, but also in the philosophy and lifestyle which guided Shankar. While in the afternoon he would take several hours of sitar lessons, in the morning he had to do yoga lessons — it was explained to him that he would need a basic familiarity with yoga to get into the lotus position in order to play the instrument properly — and Shankar also taught him about Hinduism.
While on the trip, George also met Allaudin Khan, the 104-year-old sarod player who had been Shankar’s teacher, and who we heard about in the episode on the Byrds a while back. According to Harrison, it was Khan who taught him about the concept of karma — rather oddly, since Khan was Muslim while karma is a Hindu concept, but as we discussed in that Byrds episode, there was more religious fluidity and openness among the musicians in India than in many other sections of society, and both Khan and Shankar seem to have had rather syncretic ideas about religion — not far off from John Lennon’s statements that he thought that Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha had all got it right and it was only their followers who had messed things up.
That was also the gist of a quote that George took to heart, from Raja Yoga by Swami Vivekananda, one of the books that Shankar told him to study — “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest that divinity. Do this through work and yoga and prayer, one or all of these means, and be free. Churches, temples, rituals, and dogmas are but secondary details.”
Shortly after Harrison got back to Britain, and coincidentally on the same day that Alma Cogan died, Ravi Shankar came over to the UK and Harrison picked him up from the airport. Shankar was in Britain to record the soundtrack music for Jonathan Miller’s new TV play version of John Lennon’s favourite book, Alice in Wonderland:
[Excerpt: Ravi Shankar, “Alice in Wonderland music”]
Miller’s play is definitely worth watching, incidentally, and features several people with connections to the Beatles — as well as Shankar doing the music, it had their friend Peter Sellers, Wilfrid Bramble who had played Paul’s grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night, and Leo McKern, who had played Clang the High Priest in Help! (and who we heard right at the beginning of this episode as “the new Number 2” in The Prisoner).
And, in a coincidence I felt I had to note, Miller’s assistant on the play was Tony Palmer, later to be a director in his own right. Palmer would later go on to make the first serious TV documentary series on the history of popular music, and the book version of that series, which I read as a tiny child, was one of the indirect inspirations for this podcast — and that series was called “All You Need Is Love”.
“Alice in Wonderland” also featured Miller’s old colleague from “Beyond the Fringe”, Peter Cook. John had appeared with Cook and Dudley Moore in their first episode of “Not Only… But Also” in 1965, and would appear in an episode later in 1966.
But while Harrison was learning how to manifest the divinity of his soul in India, Brian Epstein was having a much, much worse time. He was convinced that with the Beatles no longer touring, his role with the group would be at best diminished, and at worst they might not want to sign with him again when their contract came up for renewal at the end of 1967.
At the end of September, Epstein was taken to hospital. The official story was that it was for complications of the glandular fever he’d come down with a month before. In fact, though, it was to have his stomach pumped after an overdose — he’d been discovered by his assistant, Peter Brown, who also found a note saying “This is all too much, I can’t take it any more”. After having his stomach pumped, he went to the Priory, a private hospital for the treatment of addictions, eating disorders, and mental illnesses.
Now it’s important to note, when we look at tragic events later in this episode, that Epstein’s suicide attempts were of the “cry for help” variety — he made a handful, and they were all done in such a way that someone would find him before anything permanent could happen.
But it’s definitely true that Epstein was feeling simultaneously overworked and distressed at the possibility he would be cut out from the Beatles’ lives — he wanted to remain with them, but he also wanted to stop working in the entertainment industry generally. And so shortly before his overdose, he had had a meeting with Robert Stigwood about the possibility of Stigwood taking over NEMS.
[Excerpt: The Robert Stigwood Orchestra, “Massachusetts”]
We’ve mentioned Robert Stigwood before, but only briefly, and that was back in episode one hundred and one, but it’s worth filling in a bit more information about him here, because he would play a big role in Brian Epstein’s life, if not so much those of the Beatles, from September 1966 through August 1967, and he will also come up again in the future.
Stigwood was an Australian, born in 1934, and he had always had ambitions to be in the arts, but his father had forbidden him to go to university unless he was going to study electrical engineering, so he’d taken the closest thing he could find to a job in the media without any qualifications, working in the metal foundry that converted photos into printing plates for the Adelaide News — the newspaper that would become the basis of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
He’d gone on from there to work in an advertising agency, but he had devoted most of his energies to producing amateur dramatics, before making his way to Europe. He’d become engaged to a girl who was going off to work in France, and they’d made arrangements to meet in Paris in summer 1955. Stigwood had no money, but he got a job working on a ship going as far as India, then hitch-hiked from India to Turkey, spent three months working on a Turkish farm, and then made his way to Paris for the rendezvous. Depending on which version of the story you go by, either the girl didn’t turn up, or Stigwood decided at the last minute not to turn up himself, but either way it didn’t much matter, as by that point he’d figured out he was gay, and headed off to the UK.
After spending a while working as an unsuccessful manager of a repertory theatre in Norwich, Stigwood came upon another plan for success in the entertainment industry. He was going to be the manager of a pop singer, and he had the perfect new star — a much younger friend of his named Stephen Komlosy, who was good looking enough that Stigwood was sure he would be a sensation. Stigwood and Komlosy moved to London and started a business called Robert Stigwood Associates Limited, using as startup capital a loan of five thousand pounds from Komlosy’s parents — equivalent to about a hundred and twenty thousand pounds today.
They hit a snag, though, in that Komlosy was such a bad singer that even in the British pop music scene of the late fifties and early sixties, he was unable to get a record contract. So the company they’d formed quickly pivoted, first to running a modelling agency (with both men apparently making the most of the opportunities to date attractive models of their respective preferred genders) and then to an acting agency. Stigwood had experience of working with actors, and had noticed a gap in the market — most of the major acting agencies thought that doing commercials was demeaning, and that even working on commercial TV at all was a bit low-class. This meant that the quality of actors on commercials was appalling, and the quality of actors on commercial TV more generally less than wonderful. Stigwood and Komlosy fixed that, targeting the producers of commercial TV, and Robert Stigwood Associates soon ended up representing forty percent of all actors on ITV.
But Stigwood was playing a long game. What he really wanted was to create careers for stars in multiple fields — he wanted actors who could sing, singers who could model, and so on. The first star in this mould that he found was John Leyton, who Stigwood originally got work playing Biggles’ sidekick Ginger in a 1960 TV series. Stigwood and Komlosy had got to know Joe Meek, and they struck a deal with Meek where they would give him money for improved studio equipment if Meek would sign Leyton and make records with him. The first few records they made together were flops, but then Stigwood got “Johnny Remember Me” placed on a popular TV soap opera, with Leyton miming the song, and it became a massive hit:
[Excerpt: John Leyton, “Johnny Remember Me”]
Stigwood soon built up a small stable of pop stars, like sixteen-year-old Carol Hedges, who had been discovered by Joe Meek. Stigwood changed her name to Billie Davis, and she had a top ten hit with “Tell Him”, a song written by Bert Berns for the Exciters.
[Excerpt: Billie Davis, “Tell Him”]
By August 1963 Stigwood acts had had eighteen top forty hits in two years.
Stigwood became the UK representative for Motown, and also became close to Brian Epstein. Stigwood had got the contract to produce Beatles Monthly, a fan magazine, and socialised with Epstein every time the latter came down to London from Liverpool, looking at him as an example to emulate.
But then, as would be a recurring pattern in Stigwood’s career, he bit off more than he could chew.
First, he decided to promote a new singer, Simon Scott, by sending out hundreds of plaster busts of him to journalists and DJs, at huge expense. The busts were ridiculed by everyone who got one, and it soon became a massive source of fun for anyone who had received one to throw them out of top-floor windows, or otherwise inventively destroy them. Scott’s debut single barely scraped the top forty.
Then in late 1964 RSA promoted a package tour whose headliner was the American singer P.J. Proby, who had several hits in 1964 and 65, including a 1965 version of Lennon and McCartney’s “That Means a Lot”:
[Excerpt: P.J. Proby, “That Means a Lot”]
But then Proby refused to do the tour, and was found unconscious in his hotel room from an overdose. Stigwood tried desperately to get someone to take his place — he actually managed to book Chuck Berry, who was in the middle of a comeback at the time, but then Berry also had to cancel, because he couldn’t get out of a prior commitment, and Stigwood’s insurance company wouldn’t pay out because the tour was cancelled at such short notice.
On top of all this, there was a union dispute which meant that for a while no pre-recorded TV commercials could air. As a result of this, the company’s normal bread-and-butter earnings also dried up, and the company ended up declaring bankruptcy — though Stigwood himself wasn’t bankrupt, and would turn up to creditors’ meetings in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Indeed, he had soon set up a new company, the Robert Stigwood Organisation, and was being as profligate as ever — Komlosy left the company after discovering that Stigwood had gambled away the payroll the day before payday.
Not that there were no consequences for him — RSA had owed the Rolling Stones sixteen thousand pounds when it went bankrupt, for a tour they’d done for the company, and when Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Andrew Oldham, and the journalist Keith Altham happened upon Stigwood coming out of a club they were going into, Richards got the other three to hold Stigwood while he kneed him in the guts and genitals sixteen times, “once for every grand he owes us”
But Stigwood continued to produce records, including one by the Graham Bond Organization which is often claimed to be the first pop record to feature a mellotron:
[Excerpt: The Graham Bond Organization, “Lease on Love”]
Stigwood also started his own label, Reaction Records, which signed the Who, and he became the manager of a new group, Cream — and we’ll hear about both of those in upcoming episodes.
So Stigwood was a major figure in British pop, and in September 1966, he had a meeting with Brian Epstein and Peter Brown. Stigwood initially wanted to become the European representative for NEMS, but Epstein had another idea.
He was getting sick of managing rock bands, and wanted to move to Spain and make films about bullfighting. He was tired of the whole business. He suggested that Stigwood buy a 51% interest in NEMS. Epstein would remain as chairman, but in a purely nominal capacity, while Stigwood would run the day-to-day operations of the company.
The problem was, while NEMS had been valued at twenty million dollars a couple of years earlier, by this point it was much less valuable. There were several pending lawsuits over merchandising licensing, most of the non-Beatles acts had become much less successful — Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and the Fourmost weren’t having hits like they had been in 1964 — and the Beatles’ contract only had thirteen months left to run on it, and there was constant speculation in the press as to whether the group were splitting up. No bank would lend Stigwood the money to buy the company.
So they agreed that RSO and NEMS would merge straight away, but that Stigwood would have an option to buy his fifty-one percent for half a million pounds — a tiny proportion of what the company had been worth shortly before — in May 1967 — thus giving him time to build the company back up to the way it had been, with his new bands like Cream.
The problem was, the Beatles didn’t agree to this — they owned ten percent of NEMS between them and they also didn’t want to be managed by someone who wasn’t in their inner circle. McCartney told Epstein that if it went ahead “We will record ‘God Save the Queen’ for every single record we make from now on, and we will sing it out of tune.” Cilla Black had a similar reaction, and Epstein and Stigwood came to a new agreement — Stigwood would still buy fifty-one percent of NEMS and still take charge of its day to day operations, but as well as being chairman, Epstein would continue to be the Beatles’ and Black’s personal manager. Their management fees would still go into NEMS, so Stigwood would still be making money from them, but he wouldn’t have to manage them. Stigwood thought this was an even better deal, especially as he wasn’t actually a fan of the Beatles’ music.
While the future of the Beatles’ management was being decided, Paul McCartney was still getting involved with the music scene in London. He made some minor guest appearances on other people’s records — he can be heard playing tambourine on a version of Smokey Robinson’s “From Head to Toe” by Merseybeat band The Escorts, and he was allegedly an uncredited coproducer on the track:
[Excerpt: The Escorts, “From Head to Toe”]
And he’s also one of the crowd on Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow”, though despite what many reference books say it’s not him whispering “quite rightly”:
[Excerpt: Donovan, “Mellow Yellow”]
McCartney was also credited as the soundtrack composer for The Family Way, a British film starring Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills. The plan had originally been for Lennon and McCartney to write the score together, but then it was decided that only McCartney would do so, in collaboration with George Martin. But as it happened, McCartney’s contribution was minimal, and had to be more or less forced out of him.
After much pestering, McCartney came up with a fragment of melody, which became the main theme for the soundtrack, and which Martin orchestrated without much consultation with McCartney, other than a vague suggestion from McCartney that they might use a brass band. Martin managed to come up with enough variations and rearrangements of that melodic fragment to stretch it out to twenty-four minutes:
[Excerpt: Paul McCartney, “Theme from The Family Way”]
However, even Martin couldn’t make that work for everything, and he insisted that they needed at least a second melody, a love theme. McCartney kept putting him off, and Martin eventually had to stand behind McCartney at the piano and look over his shoulder until he came up with a second usable bit of melody, a waltz-time thing that could be a love theme. “Love in the Open Air” ended up winning McCartney an Ivor Novello award for “Best Instrumental Theme”:
[Excerpt: Paul McCartney, “Love in the Open Air”]
On November the sixth, the day before John met Yoko, a mass of protestors turned up outside Brian Epstein’s house, presenting a petition for the group to tour the UK again. That was also the day, according to later conspiracy theorists, that Paul McCartney died. Their evidence for this claim is that for the next two weeks, he was not seen again in the UK — there are no photos of him in his usual nightclubs or with his friends for those two weeks, and at the end of it he looked different.
That’s certainly one explanation for it. Another explanation that fits that evidence, though, is that he went on holiday, and before leaving he changed his hairstyle and grew a moustache so he wouldn’t be recognised while he was away. You decide which you believe.
He travelled through Europe into Spain, where he met up with Mal Evans, and the two of them were going to go to see John Lennon, but it turned out that Lennon had already finished filming and they’d just missed him going back to the UK. They carried on into Africa, and while on holiday, Paul got thinking more and more about how much he relished the anonymity, how he liked not having to be “Beatle Paul”, and how maybe it would be nice to do something not as the Beatles.
On the plane back, Mal Evans was momentarily confused by getting little sachets with his meal with S and P written on them, and then realised what they were and said “salt and pepper”. That sparked something in Paul’s mind — “Sergeant Pepper”. He came up with the idea of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an idea which, like several of his other ideas in this period, combined influences from the nascent counterculture on the US West Coast with British nostalgia. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sounded like they could be from the Edwardian era, from before Paul’s mother was born in 1909, but it also sounded like the kind of name that was becoming popular in San Francisco, where bands were starting to be called things like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, and Dr Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band and Medicine Show:
[Excerpt: Dr Humbead’s New Tranquility String Band and Medicine Show, “Dubuque”]
Paul liked the idea of the Beatles becoming Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and escaping the identities that trapped them, but for the moment it was just an idle thought.
On November the thirteenth, in the middle of Paul’s holiday, the Sunday Telegraph ran a piece which started “Mr. Allen Klein, the American impresario, film producer, and business manager of the Rolling Stones, has been approached by two of the Beatles over their future management.”
These reports were soon debunked, but it was a sign of things to come. Most of the time, the Beatles have, understandably, said only positive things about Epstein in public, but occasionally there have been more brutal assessments. In 1982, for example, Paul McCartney said “Brian’s reign was ending. To begin with we needed the man in the Ford Zodiac to get us recording contracts and to make sure we wore the right clothes. But by 1967 a lot of things were escaping his grasp.”
But one thing that wasn’t escaping his grasp was the negotiation of the Beatles’ new contract with EMI. It wouldn’t be signed until January 1967, but Epstein was in the process of finalising negotiations for a new five-year record contract for the Beatles, with historically high royalty rates — in the UK ten percent, rising to fifteen percent on singles after ten thousand copies, and on albums after thirty thousand. The royalty rate in the US was raised to a staggering seventeen point five percent. This rate was about ten times what the rate in the original contract they’d signed in 1962 was (it’s hard to do a precise comparison, because this contract was worded in terms of percentages, while the previous one had been for a flat rate per record sold, but the old one had been roughly one and a half percent).
It should be noted that a lot of people have criticised Epstein for not getting as much for the Beatles in those early contracts as they were worth, but this was a genuine coup. In 1962, he had been negotiating from a position of weakness, with the only company that was even slightly interested, and he could either take or leave their standard contract. Now, in a position of strength, he was going to get a very different deal.
Epstein was also working on plans for the group’s third feature film. There had been initial suggestions that they would make a film based on Richard Condon’s bestselling novel “A Talent for Loving”, but they’d gone off the idea quickly, and in October, the TV playwright Owen Holder submitted a script with the idea it would be filmed in January. The script was titled Shades of a Personality, and featured the four Beatles all playing different aspects of one personality, named Stanley Grimshaw.
The group liked the idea, but didn’t like the finished script, and Joe Orton was called in to do a rewrite. Orton was a popular playwright of the time, who had spent years living off the income of his older boyfriend and collaborator Kenneth Halliwell, while the two of them wrote a series of unsold novels, before becoming hugely successful with a series of strikingly witty but shocking black comedies about sex, death, and money.
Orton’s rewrite of Shades of a Personality was retitled Up Against It, and had a plot involving sexual slavery and the assassination of the Prime Minister, and ended with all four of the main characters in bed together with the same woman.
Unsurprisingly, Epstein turned the script down, without comment, in April 1967. Thirty years later, it was finally performed, in a radio adaptation starring Damon Albarn of Blur, with narration by Leo McKern.
[Excerpt: “Up Against It”]
(Orton had later rewritten it, combining George and Ringo’s characters into one).
It was with this as the background that the group went into the studio on November the twenty-fourth, the first time they’d all been together for many months, to start work on their latest record. By this time, Lennon’s fumbling song that he’d started in Almeria had become a completed song, one of the best he would ever write, though the structure still needed some refining:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever (demo)”]
For their first attempt at recording the song, the group came up with a simple, sparse, arrangement, which I think is absolutely beautiful. For this take one, the group had John on vocals and guitar, with his vocals double-tracked in places and in one point doing Beach Boys style harmonies, Ringo on drums muted with a teatowel from the canteen, George playing bottleneck guitar, and Paul on bass and also playing a mellotron.
We’ve mentioned mellotrons before, but not really said what they are. A mellotron is an electronic keyboard instrument, where each key triggers a different tape loop of a real instrument. The mellotron has a few different settings, so you could set it to, say, a cello, and hit a C key, and it would play a short loop of a cello playing C. The instrument had become a bit of a fad in the British music scene at the time, after Graham Bond started using it — the Moody Blues had taken the instrument up in a big way, and Manfred Mann had used a mellotron on their recent hit “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James”:
[Excerpt: Manfred Mann, “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James”]
George Martin was unconvinced by the Mellotron, saying later that it was “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard”, but the group used it on this first take of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, mostly at the beginning and very end of the track:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever (take 1)”]
That was where they left off for the day. The next day, John and Paul, at least, went to a lunchtime showcase gig by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, before the group went to the offices of Dick James, their music publisher, to record their latest fan club record:
[Excerpt: The Beatles Fourth Christmas Record, “Please Don’t Bring Your Banjo Back”]
The day after that, John made a guest appearance on “Not Only… But Also,” appearing in a sketch parodying American news reports about “Swinging London”, playing the doorman of the Ad Lav Club, a nightclub like the hip Ad Lib Club but based in a public toilet:
[Excerpt: Not Only But Also Ad Lav Club]
That same sketch also featured a section set in a recording studio, where Cook and Moore play a rock band recording a new song, “The L.S. Bumble Bee”, with Cook faking playing a sitar. The song was Moore’s attempt at a Beach Boys parody, but in later years it appeared on several Beatles bootlegs, miscredited as a Beatles outtake or Lennon song:
[Excerpt: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, “The L.S. Bumble Bee”]
Over the next couple of days, the group worked intensely on “Strawberry Fields Forever”, starting from scratch with a new version which, by take four, had become much heavier-sounding. This new version was structured rather differently, starting with a Mellotron figure Paul had come up with, and then going into the chorus:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever (take four)”]
They stuck with this arrangement, and take six, which was marked the best, was mixed down into a final mixdown take, take seven:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever (take seven)”]
The track was, at least for the moment, thought complete, and so a few days later the group moved on to a song of Paul’s — actually one of the first songs he ever wrote, “When I’m Sixty-Four”, which they knocked off in two takes, with George Martin later scoring some clarinet overdubs:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “When I’m Sixty-Four”]
But then, having sat with the finished version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” for a while, John decided that he wanted to take another stab at recording it. They spent December the ninth working on a new, more uptempo, chaotic rhythm track for the song, which more or less descends into pandemonium at the end:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever (take 26)”]
The relative sloppiness of that may be partially explained by the fact that at the beginning of the session, neither George Martin nor Geoff Emerick were available — they were both attending the premiere of a new Cliff Richard film — and so the only person in the control room was technician Dave Harries, and the group didn’t have Martin’s usual firm controlling hand.
Martin did, however, supervise a major overdubbing session on this take, working with the Beatles to add swarmandel — a type of Indian harp — backwards cymbals, and other unusual sounds. He then came up with an orchestral score at John’s request, for four trumpets and four cellos.
It’s also in a higher key than the previous version — this was apparently George Martin’s suggestion, because the lowest note of the cello part, in the original key, would have been below the lowest note a cello could play. And possibly because the group had been recording without Martin’s supervision and were just having fun, the track is distinctly faster than the previous version:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever (take 26)”]
But then, after listening to that, which once again was meant to be the finished version, John Lennon came to a conclusion — he didn’t want either track as they were, he wanted the beginning of take seven, but the end of take twenty-six. George Martin would need to splice them together.
Martin explained to him that this would be impossible — the two tracks were in different keys, and at different tempos — but Lennon said he was sure Martin would think of something. Increasingly, Martin, Emerick, and Scott were working miracles to the point that Lennon in particular, who had no technical mind whatsoever, was convinced they could just do anything he asked for.
And it turned out they could. Martin figured out that by an incredible stroke of luck the difference in keys matched the difference in tempos almost precisely, so if he sped up the first fifty seconds of take seven, and slowed down the rest of take twenty-six, he could get them to match very well.
The two takes had also been structured differently, so in order to create a smooth join, they actually had to do two edits — there hadn’t been a chorus after the first verse in take seven, so Martin flew in the line “let me take you down, ‘cos I’m” from elsewhere in the song, before crossfading to “going to” from take twenty-six. The edit is audible, but it comes across as just the same kind of change in vocal effects as the group had previously used on “Tomorrow Never Knows”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever (mono single mix)” 0:45-1:20]
The resulting track was longer than either of the other versions, at just over four minutes, but John was impressed — though in later years he would talk about a desire to rerecord it and do it properly to get the sound he’d heard in his head.
The group then moved on to Paul’s song “Penny Lane”. This song was something that Paul had had in the back of his mind for quite some time — in December 1965 he had said “I like some of the things the Animals try to do, like the song Eric Burdon wrote about places in Newcastle on the flip of one of their hits.” Here he was talking about “Club A-Go-Go”, a song the Animals had recorded about the club that they’d played in when they were starting up:
[Excerpt: The Animals, “Club A-Go-Go”]
Paul had continued “I still want to write a song about the places in Liverpool where I was brought up. Places like the Docker’s Umbrella which is a long tunnel through which the dockers go to work on Merseyside, and Penny Lane near my old home. The one thing I can’t understand is the protest songs like ‘Eve of Destruction’; that was absolute rubbish. Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ or ‘God On Our Side’ are OK because they say things in an original manner but P.F Sloan is too much.”
Or at least, the interview *says* it was Paul who said those things. That quote came from an interview with both Lennon and McCartney, and it’s interesting to note that of the group John Lennon was the one closest to Eric Burdon, and that he was the one who had lived in the Penny Lane area, and that his original draft lyrics to “In My Life” read in part:
“PENNY LANE is one I’m missing,
Up CHURCH ROAD_ _to the CLOCK TOWER
In the circle of the ABBEY
I have seen some happy hours
Past the TRAM SHEDS with no trams__
On the bus into town
Past the DUTCH and ST. COLUMBUS__
To the DOCKER’S UMBRELLA, that they pulled down.”
So either at this point in time McCartney and Lennon were so in sync that McCartney was thinking along the same lines Lennon had already been thinking, right down to naming two of the same places, or Lennon was thinking about a song he’d already tried writing, and that inspired McCartney to use one of the same places in a song of his own.
Musically, “Penny Lane” shows a very strong Beach Boys influence — if you listen to the verse of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys:
[Excerpt: The Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”]
And to the verse of “Penny Lane”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Penny Lane”]
You can hear that they are both variants on the same basic chord sequence, though they go in different directions, they both have similar general melodic shapes, and they both have the same strong, bright, staccato rhythm. This is not to say that McCartney ripped off the Beach Boys song or anything like that, this is just a case of him hearing something and doing his own version of the same idea — transatlantic inspiration, rather than plagiarism.
The other major musical inspiration for the song came only after the basic track had been recorded. McCartney saw a performance of Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto on TV, and was fascinated with the sound of the piccolo trumpet — a trumpet that plays an octave above a normal trumpet:
[Excerpt: David Mason, Bach Brandenburg Concerto #2 ]
McCartney asked Martin if they could have a similar sound on “Penny Lane”, and Martin got in David Mason, the trumpeter McCartney had seen, to play a piccolo trumpet solo with a vaguely baroque feel:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Penny Lane”]
“Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were released as a double A-side single, and in the US “Penny Lane” went to number one. In the UK, however, the single only went to number two, and unlike “Paperback Writer” and “Eleanor Rigby”, this time it stayed there, kept off the top by “Release Me” by Englebert Humperdinck:
[Excerpt: Englebert Humperdinck, “Release Me”]
The Beatles have later said that they weren’t too bothered by this, because after all Humperdinck’s record — a crooner covering an old country ballad from the fifties — was selling to a completely different audience to their own, so they didn’t feel in competition with him the way they did with bands in their own style. But it was still the first time in four years that the group had released a single that didn’t go to number one, and the newspapers noticed.
Another thing the newspapers noticed, while the group were still working on their single, was the death of a friend of theirs, Tara Browne, a wealthy young man who had been involved in Paul’s moped crash the previous year. He was killed in a car crash on the eighteenth of December, and John read about it in the newspaper, and it gave him the germ of a song.
Before they recorded that, though, they recorded one of the few bits of Beatles music that is still almost completely unheard and unbootlegged. “Carnival of Light” was an experimental composition written by McCartney and recorded by the group for “A Million Volt Light And Sound Rave”, an early hippie event, which also featured music by Unit Delta Plus, a group put together by electronic music pioneers Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, and Peter Zinovieff.
Most of the few people who’ve heard the piece, including people who generally have a lot of time for avant-garde experimentalism, have dismissed it as a load of rubbish. Barry Miles, who disliked it, said it was similar to “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” by the Mothers of Invention, so I’ll play a little of that to give some idea:
[Excerpt: The Mothers of Invention, “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”]
Even the stoned scenesters at the event were completely underwhelmed by the piece, but it still gets talked about largely because it’s never been heard since — Paul McCartney has repeatedly tried to get it released on Beatles archive releases, to help show people that he was the most avant-garde Beatle at this point, but the other band members have vetoed it every time.
“A Day in the Life”, the song that John started inspired by reading about Tara Browne’s death, is possibly the most impressive piece of music the Beatles ever made, and is created by marrying together two unfinished songs, one by Lennon and one by McCartney. Lennon’s song was three verses, two of which were based on newspaper articles he’d read — one about Browne’s death, and one tiny sidebar item about a survey having found four thousand holes in the roads in Blackburn:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”]
The other verse, about having seen a film in which the English army had just won the war, was presumably a reference to his experiences in making How I Won the War, which hadn’t yet been released.
This was married to a half-finished McCartney song about getting up and getting on the bus to work. McCartney’s part of the song is actually one of the many connections on the Sgt Pepper album to the popular music of his parents’ generation, as it seems to have been inspired by the old standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street”. Compare the way the Sentimentalists sing the line “grab your coat, don’t forget your hat” on Tommy Dorsey’s hit version of that song:
[Excerpt: Tommy Dorsey, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”]
With the way McCartney phrases “found my coat, and grabbed my hat” on the guide vocal for “A Day in the Life” released on Anthology 2, where he sings a slightly different melody, closer to the older song:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life (Anthology 2 version)”]
These two half-songs were connected by a long instrumental passage. In the original recording, this was just a long stretch of piano keeping time, with Mal Evans counting bars and ringing an alarm clock at the end, to cue in Paul’s line “woke up, got out of bed”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life (Anthology 2 version)”]
This was to be filled by what George Martin has later called “an orgasm of sound”. The original idea seems to have been McCartney’s — he wanted this space filled with a conceptual piece on the lines of something the avant garde composers he’d been studying might come up with — an orchestra playing from their lowest notes to their highest notes, every musician proceeding at their own pace without reference to the people around them.
Martin knew that this might be difficult to achieve — orchestral musicians are notoriously difficult to get to break loose from keeping strict time with those around them — and so he came up with a sketchy score to show each musician roughly where they needed to be at what time. The musicians were also given false noses, gorilla hands, and so on, to loosen them up slightly, and several of the Beatles’ friends attended the overdub session, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan, and Michael Nesmith of the Monkees.
They only employed half an orchestra for the session, but they managed to get the sound of two full orchestras by recording them five times — though they never told the musicians that was what they were doing. Musicians’ Union rules would have meant they got paid for every overdub, which would have been prohibitively expensive — as it was they paid £367 for the musicians, which is a little over seven thousand pounds in today’s money — so the musicians weren’t told they were multitracking themselves, but just that they needed to do multiple takes to get it right.
The results were outstanding, nothing like anything that had been done on a pop record to that point, though listening to the isolated overdub you can hear how, while the horn players were willing to go along with this idea of not sticking with the other players, most of the string players determinedly play together.:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life (orchestral overdub)”]
That was also tacked on to the ending of the song, as well as being used to transition from John’s section to Paul’s
The last thing to do was the final chord of the song, which had to be massive and portentous. At first, the group tried humming the chord:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life (hummed chord)”]
Eventually, they got the truly massive sound they wanted by having John, Paul, Ringo, and Mal Evans play E major chords simultaneously on three different pianos, while George Martin played the same chord on a harmonium, and in the control room Geoff Emerick kept pushing the faders up and up and up as the chord died down, to make the fade-out last as long as is possible. By the end, the recording levels are so high that the sound of the air conditioning in the studio is louder than the pianos, and you can hear the squeak of one of the chairs the players were sat on:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”]
While all this was going on, there were signs that the British music business that the Beatles had come up in in 1962 was ending and a new, multinational one was beginning. In January, the same month that the group started recording “A Day in the Life”, and in which they signed their new EMI contract, Joe Meek, the man who had given Robert Stigwood his first entry into the music business, died in a tragic murder-suicide, one that had multiple causes but one of which was just that there was no space in the music business of 1967 for someone who had flourished in 1962.
That was also the month that Robert Stigwood formally took control of NEMS, though he hadn’t yet paid for his fifty-one percent share, and he’d already been working there for several months. His first major decision at the organisation caused some disagreement with Brian Epstein, but was made after consulting Paul McCartney. He’d received a record, addressed just to NEMS, from a band who’d had a few hits in Australia but had now come to the UK to try to build a career here.
Stigwood played the record to McCartney, who agreed that he should sign them, and he did, not only signing them to NEMS but having NEMS buy their publishing company for a thousand pounds, something that infuriated Brian Epstein when he found out — apparently Epstein shouted “well that’s a thousand out the window” at Stigwood and slammed the phone down.
That group’s first British record, a reissue of one of the group’s Australian hits, seemed to prove Epstein right, as it did absolutely nothing in the charts:
[Excerpt: The Bee Gees, “Spicks and Specks”]
But in retrospect, Robert Stigwood would be glad that he’d taken Paul McCartney’s advice and signed the Bee Gees, who would in the long run make him back rather more than that thousand pounds.
Between the recording of the basic track for “A Day in the Life” and the orchestral overdub, the group also recorded Paul’s song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which became the title track of the album. This song took Paul’s concept, of marrying modern America and Edwardian England, and did this by combining two very different musical sections. After opening with the sounds of the orchestra tuning up during the “A Day in the Life” session and some audience sounds, taken from George Martin’s production of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller’s show “Beyond the Fringe”, the song starts with a Jimi Hendrix style loud guitar riff and a belted vocal:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”]
There’s some debate as to whether it’s Paul or George playing the lead guitar on the track — it sounds much more like Paul’s style to me, but people who were there have said both. What’s not in doubt is that Lennon didn’t play an instrument on the track — indeed, with the group’s increasing use of overdubbing, Lennon isn’t heard instrumentally on five tracks on the album, including his own song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, though Lennon does appear on the reprise of “Sgt Pepper” towards the end of the album — something suggested by Neil Aspinall, who said he knew they were going to use his idea when Lennon said, while passing him, “No-one likes a smart-arse”.
There’s a separate section of “Sgt Pepper” which is sung over a brass band, much like the ones that Paul had suggested be used on the Family Way soundtrack — Paul had a fondness for brass band music, and this is redolent both of the North of England and also of the past, rather than the up-to-the-nanosecond Hendrixisms of the verse:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”]
And to link these two sections together, there’s a bridge, which uses the massed vocals of the brass band section but the crunchy guitars of the verse:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”]
The group would later deny that the album should be considered a “concept album”, with them all saying that while the album is bookended by the title track, and is presented as a show by the titular band, none of the other tracks were created with that in mind. But what the title track does do is set out a musical mission statement — this is going to be an album about blending nostalgia for a vanished England of the past with the most exciting modern sounds. There’s the rooty-toot clarinets and “Vera, Chuck, and Dave” of “When I’m Sixty-Four” but there’s also the hard-rock sound of “Good Morning, Good Morning”.
In later years, John Lennon would say that the duality on “Sgt Pepper” was between him and Paul, but while I’m not going to talk about every track on the album in detail, I think it’s worth addressing Lennon’s specific comment — “Paul said ‘come and see the show’, I said ‘I read the news today, oh boy'”
Now, that says a lot about Lennon’s self-image, but not a lot about the actual distinction between the two writers, because Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has examples of both doing both.
We’ve seen McCartney saying “come and see the show”, but Lennon did literally that on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”]
All of John’s songs on Pepper were inspired by pieces of media he’d come across — “A Day in the Life” was based on a newspaper he’d read, “Good Morning, Good Morning” was inspired by a cornflakes commercial (and also references a popular sitcom, “Meet the Wife”), and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was inspired by a painting by Lennon’s son of a classmate, and by a section from his favourite book, Alice in Wonderland.
In the case of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, Lennon took inspiration from a poster he’d bought for a circus in Rochdale, which read:
PABLO FANQUE’S CIRCUS ROYAL
Grandest Night of the Season!
AND POSITIVELY THE
LAST NIGHT BUT THREE!
BEING FOR THE
BENEFIT OF MR.KITE,
(LATE OF WELLS’S CIRCUS) AND
MR. J. HENDERSON,
THE CELEBRATED SOMERSET THROWER!
WIRE DANCER, VAULTER, RIDER, etc.
On TUESDAY Evening, February 14, 1843.
Mssrs. KITE and HENDERSON, in announcing the following Entertainments ensure the Public that this Night’s Production will be one of the most splendid ever produced in this Town, having been some days in preparation.
Mr. Kite will, for this night only, introduce the CELEBRATED HORSE, ZANTHUS! Well known to be one of the best Broke Horses IN THE WORLD!!!
Mr. HENDERSON will undertake the arduous Task of THROWING TWENTY-ONE SOMERSETS, ON THE SOLID GROUND.
Mr. KITE will appear, for the first time this season, On The Tight Rope, When Two Gentlemen Amateurs of this Town will perform with him.
Mr. HENDERSON will, for the first time in Rochdale, introduce his extraordinary TRAMPOLINE LEAPS AND SOMERSETS! Over Men & Horses, through Hoops, over Garters and lastly through a Hogshead of REAL FIRE! In this branch of the profession Mr. H challenges THE WORLD! For particulars see Bills of the day.
Lennon would later be rather dismissive of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, saying “I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really. I wasn’t very proud of that. There was no real work. I was just going through the motions because we needed a new song.” But of course he changed it in several ways, always for the better, and the song has a real wit to it. But the most interesting part of the song is the organ break, where George Martin and Geoff Emerick cut up dozens of recordings of fairground organs into tiny sections, threw them in the air, and taped them together in whatever order they got them:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”]
But even despite that, Lennon was never happy with the song, saying later “People think the Beatles know what’s going on. We don’t. We’re just doing it. People want to know what the inner meaning of ‘Mr Kite’ was. There wasn’t any. I just did it. I shoved a lot of words together and then shoved some noise on. I didn’t dig that song when I wrote it. I didn’t believe in it when we were recording it. But nobody will believe it. They don’t want to. They want it to be important.”
Meanwhile, while John was saying to come and watch the show that Mr. Kite was putting on, Paul was telling us about a story he read in the newspaper:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “She’s Leaving Home”]
“She’s Leaving Home” was inspired by the true story of a teenage runaway, who McCartney had read a short piece about in the newspaper. Melanie Coe, the subject of the story, would say that she had later heard it and been astonished at how close it was to her own life — the only difference being that she hadn’t been going to meet a man. In one of those stunning coincidences that happen a lot in the Beatles story, McCartney had actually met Melanie three years earlier, when he’d been on Ready! Steady! Go! and judged a contest with four girls miming to a Brenda Lee record:
[Excerpt: Paul McCartney on Ready! Steady! Go! ]
McCartney wrote most of the song, but Lennon came up with the counter-vocals in the chorus, where he sings some of the things his aunt used to say to him when he was growing up, as the voice of the parents:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “She’s Leaving Home”]
“She’s Leaving Home” is also one of the rare examples of a Beatles song with orchestration by someone other than George Martin — McCartney had wanted an arrangement doing quickly, and Martin was busy working with another artist, so McCartney called in Mike Leander. Martin was upset, but conducted Leander’s arrangement largely unchanged. The arrangement has had a lot of criticism over the years for being too lushly romantic, but honestly, other than the tinkling harp part I can’t imagine that Martin would have done anything very different — it’s actually very much in the idiom Martin was using for his arrangements at the time, very influenced by Bernard Hermann:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “She’s Leaving Home (take 6, instrumental)”]
But this was a sign that the Beatles were themselves more and more able to do without the help of their parental figures like George Martin.
Recording for the Sgt Pepper album finished on the first of April 1967, and on the third of April, Paul McCartney flew out to the USA to meet up with Jane Asher, who was on a theatrical tour there. While he was there, McCartney read about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, a group of early hippies who would travel across America in a psychedelic painted bus, evangelising the virtues of LSD and trying to freak out the squares and blow their minds.
As he was doing so often at this point, McCartney combined that idea with nostalgia for a British past, and in his head it mixed with the idea of a mystery tour — popular day-trips or short holidays which still happen occasionally today but were much more popular during the Beatles’ childhoods, where people would book a coach trip to an unspecified destination, a tourist attraction of some kind, often as a works’ outing. He was also pleased with the multiple meanings of the word “trip”, and decided he wanted to do this as a film project.
Mal Evans was on the trip to the US with McCartney, and wrote in his diary “Getting quite excited about planning the television film. Idea going at the moment is to make it about some sort of Mystery Tour (Roll Up! Roll Up! Paul is getting lots of ideas and we’re jotting them down as we go.)”
On the plane back to the UK McCartney came up with what he called a “scrupt” — a hastily-sketched pie chart in place of a script, with some ideas of things that could be done by a cast who were improvising.
The other group members were not initially that impressed with the idea, and when they went into the studio in the last week of April to record the title song for the proposed film, it was apparently a depressing experience. Paul only had the line “Roll up, roll up for the Magical Mystery Tour”, the three basic chords D, A, and E, and the idea of some kind of brass fanfare.
They put the song together in the studio, but it didn’t go well, with McCartney asking Mal Evans to go and find posters for a mystery tour to use for lyrical inspiration in the same way John had for “Mr. Kite”, but Mal coming back empty handed. After recording the basic track, Paul asked everyone to shout out lyrical ideas, but they only got as far as “Reservation, Invitation, Trip of a lifetime, Satisfaction guaranteed” before giving up — everyone had just spent months working on the Sgt. Pepper album and they were rather drained.
They eventually got something good enough to use, though nobody was wonderfully happy with it, and the most interesting bit of it, the middle eight:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Magical Mystery Tour”]
was just a reworking of Lennon’s melody for “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”]
Everyone was getting increasingly stressed in that period between the end of recording for Sgt. Pepper and its release in June. In early May Brian Epstein’s health got so bad he was admitted to the Priory, where he was put into a medically-induced coma for several days to wean him off his addictions. When Epstein woke up, he said he didn’t feel any better.
Stigwood visited Epstein in hospital, where Epstein told him that he was treating the NEMS employees too harshly — though Stigwood said he was going to ignore him because he wasn’t in his right mind. While Stigwood was there, Epstein received a bunch of flowers from Lennon and burst into tears.
On the eleventh of May the group put aside the Magical Mystery Tour idea for a while to record a song for *another* film project. The makers of the Beatles cartoon series were planning on making an animated film, based on the Revolver track Yellow Submarine, and the group were meant to provide a few tracks for the film. The first one they recorded, “Baby You’re a Rich Man” was, like “A Day in the Life” a splicing together of one song by John and one by Paul. John’s song, “One of the Beautiful People”, was about the hippie movement, and was possibly inspired by his visit a couple of weeks earlier to The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, the first big counterculture event in the UK, which had featured performances by Pink Floyd, Ron Geesin, Graham Bond, the Move, Yoko Ono and others.
The main interesting feature of John’s part of the song was his playing of the clavioline, the proto-synthesiser that Joe Meek had used on “Telstar”, on which he played Indian-flavoured melodies on its oboe setting:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Baby You’re a Rich Man”]
Meanwhile, Paul’s chorus, on which John is still the most audible voice, was supposedly inspired by their manager, then still in hospital, though the urban myth that at one point John sings “Baby you’re a rich” — then a slur for gay people I’m not going to repeat — “Jew” is false:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Baby You’re a Rich Man”]
That was the last time for a little while that George Martin would produce a Beatles session. The group were becoming increasingly undisciplined in the studio, coming in with unfinished songs, spending hours noodling and jamming, and just not focusing, so he decided he wasn’t needed for a while and went on holiday, leaving Geoff Emerick in charge of the sessions while he was away, as de facto producer, though Emerick was still only given an engineering credit.
While Martin was away, the group and Emerick recorded two sloppy, but fun, tracks — Paul’s “All Together Now”, for Yellow Submarine, and the backing track for what would eventually become John’s “You Know My Name, Look Up the Number”.
In between those two tracks, Paul McCartney went to see Georgie Fame play at a nightclub, and there he met a young photographer named Linda Eastman, who also came along a couple of days later to the press party for Sgt Pepper, which was held at Brian Epstein’s house on the day he got out of the hospital.
The group even started one track without any of their normal production team. Increasingly they were booking sessions outside Abbey Road, just to break the routine, and Geoff Emerick, as an EMI staffer, was not allowed to work anywhere else (by this time George Martin had gone freelance, but Martin was still on holiday), so the group did the initial production work themselves, with engineer Dave Siddle.
George’s “It’s All Too Much” was again intended for the Yellow Submarine film, and it’s a great, heavy, dense bit of psychedelia. While George’s recent songs like “Love You To” and “Within You Without You” (his contribution to Sgt Pepper, which we didn’t have time to discuss) had been a rock musician’s earnest attempts at writing Indian classical music, this was him bringing those influences into what was definitely a rock idiom, with feedback and distorted guitars:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “It’s All Too Much”]
George Martin came back in time for the final session for that track, for which he arranged orchestration consisting of four trumpets and a bass clarinet. “It’s All Too Much” was also interesting because its tag incorporated snatches of other pieces of music. George sang the first line of “Sorrow”, a recent hit for the group’s friends The Merseys:
[Excerpt: The Merseys, “Sorrow”]
And the orchestration also included a quote from the Prince of Denmark’s March, the piece Harrison had played a snatch of the previous year to Maureen Cleave:
[Excerpt: Jeremiah Clarke, “Prince of Denmark’s March”]
These elements made for a chaotic but fascinating singalong tag, rather like the one the group would use on their next single
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “It’s All Too Much”]
Also at the end of May, Robert Stigwood met up with Brian Epstein and told him that not only did he not yet have the five hundred thousand pounds he would need to pay for his share of NEMS, he would also like to borrow ten thousand from Epstein, though he assured him that the money would definitely be there in a few more months. Epstein lent him the money, and gave Stigwood til the end of September to pay him back, and to pay for his fifty-one percent of NEMS — the Beatles’ contract with Epstein ran out in October, and whatever happened with them re-signing or not to him, everything about the business needed to be in order by then. Stigwood agreed.
On the first of June, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, the group’s first album in ten months — an eternity in 1960s popular music — and their first release of any kind since the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single which hadn’t managed to make number one. The group thought they’d done their best ever work, but with the press increasingly saying they were has-beens and yesterday’s news, would the public agree?
Paul McCartney has said he knew the album was a success when two days after it came out, he went to see Jimi Hendrix live, and this was his opening number:
[Excerpt: Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”]
It’s a good thing the album was a success, because on the eighteenth of May it had been announced that the group would be performing live to the biggest audience in the history of humanity.
The BBC, Britain’s publicly-owned broadcaster, is part of the European Broadcasting Union, an organisation of public service broadcasters throughout Europe, and the year before the BBC had brought the EBU an intriguing proposition — why not do an international satellite linkup, with broadcasters throughout the world showing the same thing live? Every country could have their own presenter, but each national broadcaster would put out a live section which would be shown by all the others, demonstrating the best things about their country. Everything would be live — no pre-recorded footage — and it would be a demonstration of the power of new technology to bring the world together.
Of course, even technology can only do so much, and a few days before the broadcast the Communist bloc countries pulled out, but even so the national broadcasters of the UK, Denmark, Australia, the USA, Canada, Austria, France, Italy, Mexico, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, and West Germany agreed to do segments, while thirteen other countries didn’t broadcast their own segment but did show the two-hour TV special.
The Canadian broadcast of the show, of course, included an interview with Marshall McLuhan:
[Excerpt: Our World Marshall McLuhan interview]
The show was made up of a mixture of informational segments — about trams in Melbourne, and the construction of the Tokyo subway system, and experiments to make cereal crops more productive, and Canadian cattle ranchers, that sort of thing — and artists. There was footage of Zeffirelli rehearsing actors for his next film, Romeo and Juliet, and of Leonard Bernstein rehearsing a pianist for a performance of a Rachmaninoff piece.
[Excerpt: Our World]
And of course, in what some have seen as the British just showing off, there was a performance by the Beatles, recording their next single.
Both John and Paul had been tasked with coming up with a song the group could perform for the telecast, with the only direction they were given being that it should be easily understandable to people all round the world, and that they could perform at least mostly live — the two rules that the Our World TV broadcast had were that everything had to be live rather than prerecorded, to show off the live transmission capabilities of the satellites, and that no politicians could be shown on screen, to stop any country from turning the event into propaganda.
We don’t know what Paul’s song was, though it’s been suggested by people who have looked into it that it was almost certainly “Your Mother Should Know”, which would be the next song they would record, but eventually it was decided that they would do John’s “All You Need is Love”, a song with a simple message and a sing-along melody — chunks of it are basically “Three Blind Mice”, a melody Lennon would often return to in his career when wanting to evoke childhood simplicity — though it is in 7/4 time for large chunks.
While three of the Beatles would be performing live on the night — John on vocals, George on guitar, and Paul on bass — and the orchestra would also be performing live, there was no realistic way to have Ringo playing the drums live without leakage overpowering the other instruments, and the track also required backing vocals and other instruments to thicken the sound. So eleven days before the broadcast, they went into Olympic studios for an initial session with a rather odd instrumental lineup. John was on harpsichord, Paul on double bass rather than his usual electric — as he played an electric bass on the live performance, it may well be that Brian Wilson had explained to him how he got the thick bass sound on Pet Sounds by having a bass guitar and a double bass play together, and Paul might have wanted to try that out — Ringo of course on drums, and George scratching away at a violin, an instrument he had literally never played before.
A helpful person on YouTube has isolated the various elements of the track, and so we can hear George’s violin part on its own:
[Excerpt: The Beatles “All You Need is Love” isolated elements ]
It says quite a lot about the Beatles’ attitude at this time that they thought that was a good idea — that they were good enough that they could pick literally any instrument, even one they’d never played before, and just stick the result on the record and it would be fine. It also says quite a lot about George Martin’s production skill that in fact it was fine.
Then a few days later they thickened the sound with banjo from John, backing vocals, and a piano part from George Martin, and this was then bounced down to a single mono track to be played back during the performance, for the group to do live guitar, vocals, and bass to. As this basic track was bounced down to mono, it’s all in one channel in the stereo mix of the song, so by splitting the stereo mix we can hear more or less what state the recording was in at this point — the lead vocal and the orchestra here are from the later session, but the rest of the instrumental backing is as the track was eleven days before the performance:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love” left channel, from approx 0:39]
Two days before the performance, they also recorded an orchestral overdub, a first pass through of the score that George Martin had written, and there were more overdubs the next couple of days. As George Martin would need to be in the control room for the broadcast, it was decided to hire an outside conductor, and so Mike Vickers of Manfred Mann directed the thirteen orchestral musicians on these sessions and on the day of the broadcast.
Martin’s score was designed to emphasise the international nature of the broadcast, and so included quotations from several other pieces of music from outside the UK. The opening, famously, is a few bars of La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love”]
And reusing the idea from “It’s All Too Much”, the tag has multiple quotations from both older pieces of music and from the Beatles’ own songs. This section:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love” 02:57 – 03:02]
is from Bach’s Invention No. 8 in F major;
[Excerpt: Bach, “Invention No. 8 in F major”]
Then we have this section:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love” 03:02 – 03:06]
That’s from “In the Mood”, the song made famous by Glenn Miller in 1939:
[Excerpt: The Glenn Miller Orchestra, “In the Mood”]
Incidentally, given this episode’s themes of technological advance, it’s worth noting that “In the Mood” is one of the songs on the first ever recording of a computer playing music, from 1951:
[Excerpt: Ferranti Mark 1, “In the Mood”]
That was programmed by Christopher Strachey, who soon after also created the first ever computer game. He had been invited to work on the computer by his friend Alan Turing, the genius mathematician who worked on the team that put the computer together at Manchester University. Turing sadly died a couple of years later, either of suicide or accidental poisoning, after having his life destroyed by a prosecution for homosexuality.
The excerpt of “In the Mood” used in “All You Need is Love” caused some legal trouble. The way George Martin always told the story was as follows:
“Unfortunately, there was a sting in the tail for me. I was being paid the princely sum of fifteen pounds for arranging the music and writing the bits for the…ending, and I had chosen the tunes for the mixture in the belief that they were all out of copyright. More fool me. It turned out that although ‘In The Mood’ itself was out of copyright, the Glenn Miller arrangement of it was not. The little bit I had chosen was the arrangement, not the tune itself, and as a result EMI were asked by its owners for a royalty. The Beatles, quite rightly I suppose, said: ‘We’re not going to give up our copyright royalty.’ So Ken East, the man who had by then become managing director of EMI Records, came to me and said: “Look here, George, you did the arrangement on this. They’re expecting money for it.’ ‘You must be out of your mind,’ I said. ‘I get fifteen pounds for doing that arrangement. Do you mean to say I’ve got to pay blasted copyright out of my fifteen quid?’ His answer was short and unequivocal. ‘Yes.’ In the end, of course, EMI had to settle with the publishers.”
Now, I’d hate to say that George Martin was being deliberately dishonest, but that’s clearly not what happened. Firstly, the song itself was clearly in copyright — while there’s some dispute over the song’s authorship, because the basic riff had been used by a few different people, “In the Mood” was registered to its credited composer, Joe Garland, in 1938. Secondly, as George Martin would have been very aware, the consensus at that time was that one could not copyright an arrangement — otherwise he would have been able to claim royalties himself for his many arrangement contributions to Beatles records, and not just get paid fifteen pounds as in this case. And thirdly, the section he used is definitely not just from Glenn Miller’s arrangement. A reminder, that section from “All You Need is Love”:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love” 03:02 – 03:06]
Now the opening of the first recording of “In the Mood” by Edgar Hayes and his Orchestra, from 1938, a year before Miller:
[Excerpt: Edgar Hayes and his Orchestra, “In the Mood”]
So it seems like this was George Martin trying to save face a little — either he had been genuinely mistaken about the copyright status of “In the Mood”, perhaps being aware that the main riff had been used in several other songs before it and so assuming that the whole thing was in the public domain or, more likely, he’d not even thought to check if the song was in copyright or not, thinking that a couple of bars quoted in the background in a fade didn’t matter.
Luckily the other pieces in the fade caused no such trouble — Lennon sang snatches of “Yesterday” and “She Loves You”, but those were obviously Lennon and McCartney songs, and the final piece quoted is here:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love”, 03:16 – 03:24]
That’s part of the traditional ballad “Greensleeves”, and was chosen to represent English music to go with the French, German, and American music already quoted. “Greensleeves” has been performed by many people — my favourite is this version by John Coltrane, arranged by Eric Dolphy:
[Excerpt: John Coltrane, “Greensleeves”]
No-one knows who wrote “Greensleeves” — there’s a persistent myth that it was written by Henry the Eighth, but there’s no actual evidence for that, so the earliest record we have of it is when it was registered at the Stationery Office in 1580, by one Richard Jones, under the title “A Newe Northen Dittye of ye Ladye Greene Sleves”, so even if it had still been in copyright, it wouldn’t have caused the Beatles any problems, as it was a Northern Song.
And on the twenty-fifth of June, the big day arrived. Along with the Beatles themselves playing their parts, the orchestra came in once again, dressed formally for the big occasion. And dressed rather more informally were the group’s friends — much like the recording session for the orchestra on “A Day in the Life”, this was turned into a party, with balloons and signs, and with a crowd sat around singing along including various wives and girlfriends of the group, Paul’s brother Mike, himself a pop star with The Scaffold, Graham Nash, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Marianne Faithfull. Their section of the broadcast started with a brief clip of them rehearsing, then moved into the control room at Abbey Road for the live feed:
[Excerpt: Our World]
George Martin and Geoff Emerick were doing the sound, not only for the record, but for the broadcast as well, and not only that, there was a communication problem with the BBC’s mobile truck which meant that George Martin had to relay instructions from the director. To steady their nerves, Martin and Emerick had a shot of whisky before the cameras started rolling. The tape op, Richard Lush, also wanted to have a drink, but Martin thought that his role was too important, as he was the one actually pressing the buttons and getting the tape into position, and it would have been disastrous had he made the slightest mistake.
Luckily for all concerned, the tape ran smoothly, and not only that, John Lennon got the words almost entirely correct — he’d been worried because the cameras meant that he couldn’t have a lyric sheet in front of him, as he normally would:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love”]
He did fluff a couple of lines, which had to be fixed for the single version with a quick overdub after the main broadcast. More embarrassingly, George Harrison massively messed up the very end of his short guitar solo, but that was left in on the finished record, just quickly ducked in the mix:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “All You Need is Love”]
Other than fixing John’s two flubbed lyric lines, and overdubbing a snare roll from Ringo at the start of the track, the record as released was the same performance that had been seen live by three hundred and fifty million people.
The single was released on the seventh of July, 1967, ten years and one day after Paul McCartney first saw John Lennon perform live at the Woolton Village Fete. It went into the charts at number two, behind “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, but the next week it was at number one, and below them at number two was “Randy Scouse Git” by the Monkees — or “Alternate Title” as it was called over here in deference to British sensibilities — which paid respect to the group in one of its lines:
[Excerpt: The Monkees, “Randy Scouse Git”]
The four kings of EMI were back at the very top, and all seemed right with the world.
On the seventeenth of July, Harry Epstein, Brian’s father, died. Epstein was devastated, but in the short term this seemed to give him an impetus to turn his life around. After sitting shiva, Epstein’s mother came to stay with him in London for a month, and during that time Epstein stopped taking drugs, and started once again going into the office every day, working nine to five days, and seeming like his old self. He got Cilla Black her own TV show, and according to things his brother later said, he had finally managed to stop worrying that the Beatles were going to drop him as their manager when the contract ended — he’d decided that he might as well continue working for them on a reduced cut, and without a formal contract.
He also gave a series of interviews to Mike Hennessey of the Melody Maker, in which the most revealing moment was probably when he said “I hope I’ll never be lonely. Although, actually, one inflicts loneliness on oneself to a certain extent.” These interviews show him confident and upbeat, hopeful about the future. He admitted to using LSD — Paul had admitted this earlier in the summer and had some heat from the press about it, and Epstein was standing by him — and said that he thought it had helped him, that he had considered suicide “but I think I’ve got over that period now”. He also hinted at his own sexuality in public for the first time, though not coming right out and saying it — he said that he thought he would never marry, and also talked in the interview in support of the bill going through Parliament at the time to partially decriminalise sex between men over twenty-one in private, saying “Isn’t it silly that we have had to wait all this time for the legislation to go through?”
That legislation went through on the twenty-seventh of July, sadly too late for Joe Orton, the author of the script that had nearly become the Beatles’ third film. Even after the Beatles had rejected it, there were plans for it to be made, starring Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen, and directed by the Beatles’ associate Richard Lester. But on the ninth of August, when a car turned up to take Orton to a meeting with Lester, Orton was found dead. He’d been murdered by his partner, Kenneth Halliwell, who had then died by suicide, distraught at Orton’s infidelities.
“A Day in the Life” was played at Orton’s funeral:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”]
The final installment of Epstein’s interview with Mike Hennessey went out on the twenty-first of August, the same day that Queenie Epstein returned home to Liverpool. On the twenty-third, Epstein visited the group in the studio. They hadn’t recorded together since “All You Need is Love”, nearly two months earlier — they’d spent the intervening time trying and failing to buy themselves a Greek island to move to, and living fairly carefree lives. But now they were back together, and were spending two days working on Paul’s song “Your Mother Should Know”, for possible inclusion in Magical Mystery Tour:
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “Your Mother Should Know”]
They were planning on a third session that week, on the twenty-fifth, and had booked a studio, but they cancelled at the last minute. On the twenty-fourth, they went to see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi give a lecture, and met him afterwards. They were impressed by him, and he invited them to a short retreat he was having at a college in Bangor, in Gwynnedd, North Wales, that weekend — the weekend of the August Bank Holiday. They cancelled the session and they, and their usual gang of friends like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, made the trip to Bangor by train. They never saw Brian Epstein again.
The death of Brian Epstein is one of those subjects that remain hotly debated, and which has at various times and by different people been classed as an accidental overdose, a deliberate overdose, or even murder. The last is obvious nonsense — there’s no actual evidence for it that I’ve ever encountered, just some claims that some business associates were unhappy over some bad deals and had him killed as a result.
What we know for sure is that Epstein invited some friends around to his country house for the weekend, but almost nobody actually showed up on the Friday night, and the two who did were people that Epstein spent most of the work day with. He got irritated that a young man he’d invited didn’t show up — I haven’t seen anyone who was there identify the man, but I’ll talk about one possibility in a moment — and decided to drive back to his London flat, a little drunk. Apparently several other people did show up soon after he left.
On the Saturday afternoon, he spoke on the phone to Peter Brown, one of the people at the country house, sounding a little worse for wear and slurring his words, and apologising for worrying them. Nobody else is confirmed to have spoken with him, or seen him that day. The impression multiple people have stated is that he had spent the Friday night cruising the West End.
On the Sunday, Epstein’s butler and the butler’s wife, who hadn’t seen him all Saturday, got in touch with one of Epstein’s assistants, Joanne Newfield, concerned for him. Newfield came round to the flat and knocked on Epstein’s bedroom door, but there was no answer. She called another of Epstein’s assistants, Alistair Taylor, and a doctor, and Taylor broke the bedroom door down, and found Epstein dead.
Epstein had made suicide attempts in the past, but these had been of the “cry for help” type, where he’d made sure someone knew what he was attempting and could get there in time to stop him, and he had usually written a suicide note. This time, he was in bed and his pill-bottles were full — he hadn’t done anything that made it look like his death might have been intentional, like swallowing an entire bottle of pills. The coroner found that the death was most consistent with an accidental overdose, and in particular that it was consistent with him having taken the overdose over a period of time. It’s most likely, given the reports of his mental state, that Epstein took some sleeping pills mixed with alcohol, woke up after a few hours in a confused state, took another pill or two, then when that didn’t work, he was woozy enough from the effects of the pills and booze that he took one or two more, and that was sadly enough to kill him. It may well be, awfully, that his period off the pills had hastened his death — he’d lost his tolerance and wasn’t as used to their effects as he had been.
And that seems to be by far the most plausible explanation. It’s certainly the one I believe. But it’s worth pointing out that Simon Napier-Bell, who was at the time the manager of the Yardbirds, claims to have heard Epstein’s last words, on an answering machine tape that he later erased. Now, it’s fair to say that Napier-Bell has a reputation for embroidering his stories and caring more about their entertainment value than their strict truth, but I have also not seen anyone seriously doubting that Napier-Bell did receive answering machine messages from Epstein.
As Napier-Bell told the story, he and Epstein moved in similar circles but hadn’t met in person until the summer of 1967, when Robert Stigwood had invited Napier-Bell round to his flat and Epstein had also been there. The two men had started chatting, and Epstein had got Napier-Bell’s phone number, and invited him out to dinner, where he expressed concern that the Maharishi was taking the Beatles away from him, and he seemed to be especially concerned about “losing” John. Epstein made a pass at Napier-Bell, but Napier-Bell didn’t find him attractive and declined.
Epstein invited Napier-Bell to the country-house party he was going to be having that weekend, but Napier-Bell explained that he had a prior commitment to go to Ireland with the journalist Nik Cohn. Epstein sulked, and told Napier-Bell that he would regret it and might not get another chance.
While in Ireland, Napier-Bell heard about Epstein’s death, and decided in his own head that Epstein must have been playing a game with him, personally, trying to get his attention. He went back to London, and listened to his answering machine, and I’ll finish this episode, and this season of the podcast, with a quote from Napier-Bell’s book You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me:
“Brian Epstein may have focused his last outward emotions on me, but it’s possible that the dying words he spoke into my answerphone were really not meant for me at all.
After dinner on the Friday he’d driven back from the country and phoned me. ‘I had a premonition you’d come back to see me. If you have, call me back at once. Please.’
Later he called again. ‘You shouldn’t have gone away.’ His voice was slurred. ‘I asked you not to. I thought I might have changed your mind. I want to talk to you again, like before.’
After that there was a succession of messages which must have been left on the Saturday. Some of them didn’t seem to be for me, in fact, I’d prefer to think that they weren’t. The last one was particularly muddled and seemed to touch on things that had no connection with our brief relationship.
Perhaps it was just that I had an answerphone and the Maharishi’s holiday camp didn’t.”
[Excerpt: The Beatles, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, into theme music]