As The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’ turns fifty, Sounds Magazine’s Michael Halpin tells the story of the environment in which the album was created and revisits the reaction to ‘Sgt.Pepper’ upon the time of its release. Embracing London’s underground movement, musique-concrete and Indian philosophy, as well as encountering the conservatism of the British establishment, The Beatles managed to create one of the most talked about and celebrated albums of all time. An album which reflects the age in which it was created like no other.
On the 18th of January 1967, Paul McCartney gave, by far, his most candid interview to date. Appearing on a half-hour documentary entitled ‘It’s So Far Out It’s Straight Down,’ for Granada Television, the twenty-four-year-old McCartney discussed London’s burgeoning ‘Underground Movement’ which had become an increasingly significant part of British youth-culture over the previous eighteen months.
Appearing to have aged mentally as well as physically in the months since The Beatles August ’66 American tour, McCartney discussed topics such as personal freedom, painting, making music, psychedelia, the recently opened Indica art gallery and bookshop as well as discussing the ultra-hip underground newspaper, The International Times.
McCartney’s demeanour and tone were very different from the lovable pop star of October 1965 who had gladly accepted his MBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace. By contrast, McCartney’s interview criticised both the conservatism of British society and the fear and suspicion that the establishment appeared to have of those involved in London’s underground scene. “I really wish the people who look with anger at the weirdo’s, at the happenings, at the psychedelic freak-outs, would, instead of just looking with anger, would just look with nothing,” McCartney said. He challenged those who looked with suspicion to be ‘unbiased’ about the underground movement:
“They really don’t realise that what these people are talking about, is something that they want for themselves—personal freedom.”
‘The ‘people’ that Paul McCartney was referring to were the key players in London’s counter-cultural underground scene. Individuals such as John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, Barry Miles, John Dunbar (husband of Marianne Faithfull from 1965-66) and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend, Jane Asher) between them were responsible for founding The International Times, Indica, the UFO club – where the early Pink Floyd were deemed to be the clubs house band – and the London Free School, out of which, The Notting Hill Carnival grew.
The seeds of the underground movement being discussed in ‘It’s So Far Out—’ were both the CND marches of the early 1960s and the much revered ‘International Poetry Incarnation’ gathering, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in June 1965.
Featuring the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the International Poetry Incarnation acted as a starting point for much of what McCartney was referring to as he defended the ideas and ideals held by the undergrounds key players and innovators. “All this gang of people from International Times, Indica and the whole scene are trying to do is see where we are now and see what we’ve got around us—Its just a straight forward endeavour to do something other than what’s been done before—there’s nothing strange about it. They’re talking about things that are a bit new, and they’re talking about things that people don’t really know too much about yet.”
The thought behind the International Times was to cover areas ignored by the Fleet Street press in 1966 such as poetry, music, political activism, theatre, art and literature. Following the International Times launch in October 1966, it soon ran into financial trouble but as a friend of Barry Miles, Paul McCartney made the suggestion, “If you interview me, then you’ll be able to get advertising from record companies,” Barry Miles recalled in his Paul McCartney, ‘Many Years From Now.’
The McCartney interview was picked up by the underground press syndicate and reprinted in San Francisco, Vancouver, Sweden and Holland. Following McCartney’s interview, the International Times interviewed George Harrison who’s entire interview was devoted to Hinduism and Zen. The paper’s financial troubles, for the time being at least, had been eased in the process.
McCartney also held a heavy involvement, although silent at the time, in assisting M.A.D. (Miles, Asher and Dunbar) financially in the set up of the Indica bookshop and art gallery. Further to his financial assistance, McCartney also built the bookshelves in the Indica shop and painted the walls. Poet, Peter Brown, who would later go on to write with Cream, was also involved in the birth of Indica and recalls, “I would be painting away and look over my shoulder and there would be Paul McCartney sawing wood.”
Following The Beatles final tour in the summer of 1966, for the first time in over five years, they had no immediate plans ahead of them. Deciding that they were not prepared to record an album in time for the Christmas market (as they had done in the previous three years) and deciding that they were not going to make a film in 1966 as they had in both ’64 and ‘65, each Beatle took time out to pursue their own interests. For Paul McCartney this meant he had time to embrace both the London counter-culture and more experimental music:
“Paul was very much into what we called the ‘Avante-Garde’ in those days: modern art, literature, modern music by the likes of John Cage, Stockhausen – the things he heard in the fruitful environment provided by the family Asher.” Beatles producer George Martin told William Pearson in ‘Summer of Love’. “The Asher’s, who took Paul in when he started going out with Jane, were very perceptive people, highly intelligent and very musical. They encouraged Paul in his musical self-education to experiment and to be free, musically, if he felt like it.”
Although the Ashers are unlikely to have introduced Paul to the avante-garde experiments of John Cage and Karl Heinz Stockhausen, through his exploration of London’s underground movement, and the social circles in which he was moving at the time, McCartney’s exposure to the musique-concrete of John Cage, Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, as well as the free-jazz of AMM and Albert Ayler, opened up a whole new world of possibilities to the ever inquisitive McCartney regarding what The Beatles could do as the follow up to the much revered ‘Revolver’ LP.
McCartney’s ‘It’s So Far Out’ interview portrayed a more serious freethinking young man. A young man open to experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what was possible within popular music. Rather appropriately, on the day that followed McCartney’s Granada Television interview, The Beatles set to work at EMI Studios on their most ambitious recording to date: ‘A Day In The Life.’
Written predominantly by John Lennon, ‘A Day In The Life’ was conceived following a newspaper article reporting the death of Tara Browne, a friend of Paul McCartney’s who was living the life of a young millionaire in middle-class ‘Swinging London’. Due to inherit the Guinness Brewery’s fortune in later life, Browne’s life was cut short following a road accident in which he drove his Lotus Elan, at speed, through a red traffic light in South Kensington. Browne’s Lotus hit a parked van and he died instantly.
As Lennon and McCartney developed the idea inspired by the Tara Browne newspaper article and The Beatles conceived their most daring recording. Complete with counter-cultural drug references (‘I’d love to turn you on’), an avante-garde forty-one piece orchestral climax and a final chord leading to a forty-five second fade-out, it is impossible to consider that ‘A Day In The Life’ would have been possible had Paul McCartney not been exposed to the musique-concrete experimentation of Stockhausen and John Cage.
Like ‘A Day In The Life’, much of Lennon and McCartney’s work during the writing of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ drew inspiration from idly flicking through magazines and newspapers and in Lennon’s case, writing whilst watching TV. In Hunter Davies’ 1968 authorised biography of The Beatles, John Lennon explained how this method assisted him in the composition of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’.
“I often sit at the piano, working at songs, with the telly on low in the background. If I’m a bit low and not getting much done, then the words on the telly come through. That’s when I heard ‘Good Morning, Good Morning.”
While Paul McCartney became London’s counter-cultural man-about-town, Lennon would spend much of his day, whiling away the hours in this way, sat inside his twenty-seven-room mock-Tudor mansion in Weybridge, Surrey.
Tony Bramwell, Brian Epstein’s former-assistant, discussed Lennon’s lifestyle during this period with Sounds Magazine recently and commented that John, ‘probably was’ jealous of Paul’s freedom. “John was very lazy. He would spend his days reading, doodling, playing with Julian and writing I suppose—and taking lots of acid—and I remember, he used to go into London and just get totally whacked for a night and then go back to Weybridge, carted off in the back of the car in a heap.”
Living in a property chosen for him by Brian Epstein, the well-policed, extremely suburban Weybridge appeared to have a stultifying effect on Lennon. “I was still in a real big depression in ‘Pepper’” Lennon told Barry Miles, “and I know Paul wasn’t at the time. He was full of confidence. I was going through murder.”
The “murder” that Lennon was going through began in mid-1965 in what he described as his ‘Fat Elvis’ period. By early-’67 much of the physical weight that Lennon had gained during the Beatles ascendancy had been lost, mentally however, little had changed. His increased LSD intake only exacerbated matters as he, like many LSD users of the time, killed his ego and suppressed his motivation. Luckily for The Beatles however, as Lennon fell further into domesticated and LSD induced isolation, McCartney was entering a period in which his imagination was at its most fertile.
During The Beatles final American tour, they began to observe the trend of unlikely, rather extensive names being adopted by a large number of west-coast rock groups. In 1980 John Lennon told Playboy magazine: “People were no longer ‘The Beatles’ or ‘The Crickets’, – they were now ‘Fred and His Incredible Shrinking Airplanes.”
On a flight back from Kenya in November 1966, whilst The Beatles were in the midst of their extended break, Paul McCartney considered what The Beatles might be called, should they have been a new band, in search of a name. Bolstered by a recent trip to France where he had donned a disguise, dressed differently and thoroughly enjoyed the anonymity, McCartney considered the possibility of the Beatles losing their identity and adopting an alter ego.
“I threw those words together: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band’, McCartney explained in ‘The Beatles Anthology’. “I took the idea back to the guys in London: ‘As we’re trying to get away from ourselves – to get away from touring and into a more surreal thing – how about if we become an alter-ego band, something like, say, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts?”
“They were a bit bemused at first, I think, but they said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be great” McCartney told Barry Miles. “Everyone was into it. It was a direction for the album.”
Due to the extended amount of time McCartney suddenly had on his hands due to his girlfriend, Jane Asher, spending much of her time extensively travelling as part of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company, McCartney was effectively left to direct The Beatles himself by early 1967. The ever-affable Ringo was never likely to rock the boat regarding what musical and conceptual direction The Beatles took; John’s mood appeared too apathetic to be overly opposed to any McCartney’s ideas at this point and George, still scarred from 1966 and what Tony Bramwell described as a ‘shitty year’, was, as he stated in ‘The Beatles Anthology’, “losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.”
“So many things happened (in 1966) that were untoward,” Tony Bramwell told ‘Sounds’. “Manila, rip-offs, robberies, America, Jesus quotes and all that stuff—and they were still touring and they still couldn’t be The Beatles. The Beatles were a band of five years earlier that played for eight hours a night. What they were (by 1966), were a sort of cabaret act playing for half-an-hour a night and on top of that, unable to play the songs that they were writing and recording because the technology wasn’t there to be able to play them onstage. The PA systems were inadequate, everything was just a waste of time really. The audience couldn’t hear them, they couldn’t hear what they were playing, they couldn’t play what they wanted to play. The treadmill of the whole thing. Plus they’d taken some drugs and had a different viewpoint on life.”
George Harrison (Beatles Anthology): “After what had happened in 1966, everything else seemed like hard work. It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do—I felt like we were just in the studio to make the next record, and Paul was going on about this idea of some fictitious band. That side of it didn’t really interest me.”
As John Lennon’s apathy increased and his escalating LSD ingestion took hold he ran the risk of becoming a bona fide acid casualty in a similar vein to that of Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson. In her book, ‘John’, Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia tells of how “within weeks of his first trip, John was taking LSD daily,” and explains that those around him were concerned for his health at the time:
“At the launch party for ‘Sgt. Pepper’, the journalist Ray Coleman was seriously worried about John’s health when he met him that night. Not only was he clearly drugged, he was smoking and drinking and looked haggard, old and ill; his eyes were glazed and his speech was slurred.”
During the recording of ‘Fixing a Hole’ (a crystallisation of the ideals that McCartney was trying to communicate in his ‘Its So Far Out’ Interview) The Beatles themselves encountered an early acid casualty.
“The night when we were going to record it (Fixing A Hole) I brought a guy who was Jesus.” McCartney told Barry Miles. “A guy arrived at my front gate and I said ‘Yes?’ This guy said, ‘I’m Jesus Christ,’ I said, ‘Oop,’ slightly shocked. I said, ‘Well, you’d better come in then.’ I thought, ‘Well, it probably isn’t. But if he is, I’m not going to be the one to turn him away.’ So I gave him a cup of tea and we just chatted and I asked, ‘Why do you think you are Jesus?’ There were a lot of casualties about then. We used to get a lot of people who were insecure or going through emotional breakdowns or whatever. So I said, ‘I’ve got to go to a session but if you promise to be very quiet and just sit in the corner, you can come.’ So he did, he came to the session and he did sit very quietly and I never saw him after that. I introduced him to the guys. They said, ‘Who’s this?’ I said, ‘He’s Jesus Christ.”
Although ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and LSD will be forever intertwined, essentially due to the furore surrounding ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ upon ‘Pepper’s’ release, much of the imagery surrounding ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ came from John Lennon’s love of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland.’ As far back as June 1965, Lennon was speaking publicly about his love of the ‘Alice’ books. In an interview for BBC Radio’s ‘World Of Books’ he explained, “I love ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’—I usually read those two about once a year because I still like them.”
With the Carroll-esque imagery created in ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and the childhood theme visited in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ the mix of psychedelia and childlike innocence was very much in the public consciousness in the later part of 1966 and early 1967. As well as the lyrical themes visited by Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, the blend of psychedelia and childhood was no more evident than in Jonathan Miller’s TV adaptation of ‘Alice In Wonderland’, screened by the BBC on the 28th of December 1966. Miller’s film was awash with psychedelic imagery, hallucinogenic dream-like sequences and, as if to add even further weight to it as a totem of the psychedelic period, the soundtrack was written by the peerless Ravi Shankar.
Aside from ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ hypnotic, five-note intro, much of the songs intrigue can be attributed to the musical colouration added by George Harrison. Along with adding the songs tamboura drone having amassed a multitude of eastern instruments, Harrison also added a further off-kilter tone to Lennon’s song:
“During vocals in Indian music they have an Indian instrument called a sarangi, which sounds like the human voice, and the vocalist and sarangi player are more or less in unison in a performance. For ‘Lucy’ I thought I’d try that idea but because I’m not a sarangi player I played it on the guitar. I was trying to copy Indian classical music,” he explained in The Beatles Anthology.
During his visit to India in the September of 1966, Harrison learned the sitar under the tutelage of Ravi Shankar and immersed himself in Indian culture. Upon his return he was to become relatively silent during much of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ recording. “I’d just got back from India, and my heart was still out there.” As a student of the sitar, Harrison appeared to lose interest in guitar playing and aside from his solo on ‘Fixing A Hole’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ only other two significant guitar moments, the lead guitar on the album’s title track and the Hendrix-esque solo on ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’, can both be attributed to Paul McCartney. George’s guitar work on the album’s title-track was replaced by McCartney after George is said to have spent seven hours recording his contribution.
As George’s musical leanings veered towards a more eastern influence, it was inevitable that any contribution to ‘Pepper’ was going to be in this vein. ‘Within You, Without You’ was only arrived at however after producer George Martin had the unenviable task of informing Harrison that he did not believe that George’s first offering, ‘Only A Northern Song’, was good enough to be included on the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album. Martin then advising Harrison to go away and write something better. This was the only time George Martin had to undertake such a task during The Beatles career.
“I never cold-shouldered George,” the producer explained in ‘Summer of Love’. “I did, though, look at his new material with a slightly jaundiced eye. When he brought a new song along to me, even before he had played it, I would say to myself, ‘I wonder if it is going to be any better than the last one?’ When he came up with ‘Within You, Without You’, then, as a replacement, it was a bit of a relief all round.”
“The song was written at Klaus Voormann’s house in Hampstead, London, one night after dinner.” George said in his 1980 autobiography ‘I, Me, Mine’. “I was playing a pedal harmonium in the house, when the song came to me. The tune came first, then the first sentence—’we were talking’—I finished the words later.”
The words that Harrison later completed were inspired by a conversation with his then sister-in-law, Jenny Boyd. “I read that line in a book and I called him and said, ‘this is an amazing line’, and he thought it was incredible line,” she told Sounds. “So it inspired him to write ‘Within You, Without You’. It’s from ‘Karma & Rebirth’ a book I was reading by Christmas Humphreys.”
Much of the deeply anti-establishment tone of ‘Within You, Without You’ can be aligned to the youngest Beatles’ experiences less than six months earlier. Witnessing religious fanaticism in America, heavy-handed crowd control in Japan and the wrath of a fascist dictatorship in the Philippines, it is of little wonder that Harrison sounded world-weary and questioning of those in power in 1967.
Aside from Harrison, none of the other Beatles play on or contribute any vocals to ‘Within You, Without You’ and any sign of western instrumentation is buried deep in the songs mix. As a result, ‘Within You, Without You’ is very much the track most distant from the sound that the Beatles were known for prior to the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’.
On the 12th of May, twenty-days before the albums official release, pirate radio station, Radio London, played ‘Sgt Pepper’ in its entirety at a time when the 3 minute single was still the dominant musical format to be aired. According to legend, many American radio stations suspended their playlist for several days upon the release of ‘Pepper’ and replaced it with tracks from the album. As The Pretty Things Dick Taylor said to Sounds in a recent interview, “The word ‘zeitgeist’ springs to mind.”
Following its release on the 1st of June, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ sold 250,000 copies in its first week, the fastest selling album in UK chart history at that point. On the same day however, the conservatism of the British establishment that Paul McCartney had bemoaned in ‘Its So Far Out’, was still more than apparent. Following the International Times offices being raided by the London police in March, leading counter-cultural light John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins was jailed for nine months for possession of marijuana, his creative free-thinking spirit forever quashed upon his release six-months later.
On the same day, the Daily Mail lamented the development and artistic growth of The Beatles, commenting, “What’s happened to The Beatles? It’s now around four years since they happened, and since the early days of 1963, the Beatles have changed completely. They rose as heroes of a social revolution. They were everbody’s next-door neighbours. The boys whom everybody could identify with. Now, four years later, they have isolated themselves, not only personally, but also musically. They have become contemplative, secretive, exclusive and excluded.”
Tony Bramwell told Sounds that the Beatles faced similar conservatism within the circle of musicians who had come out of Liverpool whilst riding the wave of Merseybeat, “There was a northern mentality of ‘Oh, they’ve gone too far this time! After the first couple (of records) had been released, people would be saying, ‘Oh, it’s not as good as the last one.’ They’d say that after their first hearing and then after a few hearings they’d say, ‘Oh, god, yes it is, it’s bloody good.’ They (listeners) weren’t getting them as quickly and also the press and the media were constantly looking for some way of knocking them down.”
Aside from the misgivings of the Daily Mail and various contemporaries from their Cavern days, praise for ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was almost unanimous. The Times called the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ a “decisive moment in the history of western civilisation” while the New York Review of Books heralded it as a “new and golden renaissance of song.” Newsweek referred to it as, “The Beatles ‘Waste land” in reference to the work of T.S. Eliot and an over-exuberant Timothy Leary declared, “John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are mutants. Evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with mysterious powers to create a new human species.”
One of the most significant and surprising reviews, considering the general hyperbole that surrounded Sgt. Pepper, came from Richard Goldstein of America’s ‘alternative newsweekly’, ‘The Village Voice’. Goldstein’s review, which later found itself appearing in the New York Times, described ‘Sgt. Pepper’ as “a pastiche of dissonance and lushness.” Stating, “The mood is mellow, even nostalgic. But, like the cover, the overall effect is busy, hip and cluttered.” Goldstein continued, “Like an over-attended child, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is spoiled.”
Goldstein described the lyrics of ‘Within You, Without You’ as “dismal and dull” before concluding that, “all the minor scales in the Orient wouldn’t make ‘Within You, Without You’ profound”. Further lines from Goldstein’s review included, “There is nothing beautiful on ‘Sgt. Pepper” and concluded that the album was, “an undistinguished collection of work.”
Six-weeks later, on July 20th, Goldstein wrote a follow-up in which, although conceding that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was “better than 80 per cent of the music around today”, did go on to write, “when the Beatles work as a whole is viewed in retrospect, it will be ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’ which stand as their major contributions.”
Goldstein went on to draw attention to the recent work of the Rolling Stones, the Fugs, Love, the Doors, the Beach Boys and the Mothers of Invention, not suggesting that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was a plagiarised work but highlighting that it did not exist in isolation. Something that Dick Taylor of the Pretty Things also pointed out, “It wasn’t in a vacuum. There was certainly other things – Pink Floyd, the Doors—in fact I saw The Doors at UFO. Then there was the Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. They were the ones who a lot of people were listening to and I must admit there was a little bit of, “Oh, the Beatles’, because of their previous career, ‘oh, they’re not as hip as some of this other stuff.’ Even when they brought out ‘Pepper’. Were they almost, in a sense, jumping on a bandwagon themselves? There was a little bit of that and people saying things like, ‘Oh, I love Spirit’ or something like that, rather than wanting to love the obvious, which still goes on really.”
In 1995, Paul McCartney himself backed up the viewpoint that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ did not exist in a vacuum. “The mood of the album was in the spirit of the age, because we ourselves were fitting into the mood of the time. The idea wasn’t to do anything to cater for that mood – we happen to be in that mood anyway. And it wasn’t just the general mood of the time that was influencing us; I was searching for references that were more on the fringe of things.
There was definitely a movement of people. All I’m saying is: we weren’t really trying to cater for that movement – we were just being part of it, as we always had been. I maintain the Beatles weren’t the leaders of the generation, but the spokesmen. We were only doing what the kids in the art schools were all doing.”
The importance of the individual Beatles taking the time to embrace London’s underground movement, Indian culture and philosophy, musique-concrete and (through its cover) pop-art, cannot be underestimated when considering ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ creation.
It can be argued that other Beatles albums hold better songs and that other groups produced albums containing heavier rock, sweeter harmonies, more socially-conscious lyrics and superior psychedelic imagery in 1967. It is difficult however to argue that any other group produced an album as diverse, innovative, enthralling and imaginative as Sgt. Pepper – a true mirror of its age.