At the beginning of 1962, anyone who wanted to hear Beatles music had no option but to go and see them live. There were no Beatles records played on the radio because there were no Beatles records. Now, just five years later, the opposite was true. The futility of making themselves heard over the screams of their fans left The Beatles with little choice but to quit touring. As John Lennon put it: “We could send out four waxwork dummies of ourselves and that would satisfy the crowds. Beatles concerts are nothing to do with music any more. They’re just bloody tribal rites.”
From 1967, this was a band in retreat. For the first time since their rise to prominence, there had been no Beatles album released in time for the previous Christmas. Keen to fill the void, EMI rushed out a compilation of their hits so far Oldies... But Goodies, but it merely served to reinforce an idea of Beatledom that the group themselves had disowned. In the modern pop terms, the period of time that elapsed between the August 1966 release of Revolver and the group’s next new release, seven months later, would be the blink of an eye. But at the beginning of 1967, it was enough to make some people wonder if The Beatles had lost their momentum. Hunter Davies recalled rushing to his publisher at the end of January, having secured an exclusive contract to write the first authorised Beatles biography, but his publishers Heinemann Books were anything but keen. “We know everything we could possibly want to know about The Beatles and they’ll disappear soon,” Davies was told, before grudgingly being given the green light.
The sense of uncertainty was underscored by the group’s personal assistant Neil Aspinall who ventured, “You might say they’re not even The Beatles anymore. They only come together now to record as a sort of hobby... The Beatles are now four very different, four incredibly wealthy men, who have lives of their own to lead.” This apparent deceleration was clearly a cause for concern over at EMI. Two years after leaving the label to which he signed the group, Martin was being pressurised to extract new material from his proteges. With only three new songs completed, Martin handed over the best two – Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane – for a double A-side. Martin recalls being “gobsmacked” when Lennon played him Strawberry Fields Forever on an acoustic guitar. Aspinall’s suggestion that The Beatles were losing their collective identity was half-right, but Strawberry Fields Forever showed that wherever their desire to explore took them, The Beatles remained the repository into which they deposited their new findings: Paul’s yearning mellotron intro; the otherworldly Indian zither brought to the happening by George Harrison; the relentless 45 degree turns set off by Ringo’s sublime rhythmic tremors, somehow both intuitive and counterintuitive at the same time.
But if the genius of Strawberry Fields Forever was immediately apparent, the flipside of The Beatles’ first single of 1967 went about its business more insidiously. Like When I’m Sixty-Four – the sole other post-Revolver Macca song submitted to the rest of band at this point – Penny Lane’s breezy bonhomie was the kind that calcifies into unbearable poignancy with the passing of time; pausing the videotape of memory onto a scene to which its author can never return. And yet, it’s easy to see what George Martin was getting at when he referred to the release of the double A-side as “the biggest mistake of my professional life.”
By releasing Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane, The Beatles effectively jettisoned their proposed concept album, a record which was to be loosely based on the idea of a “northern childhood.” For all of that, in the late 1960s, it was hard to make a record that didn’t stray into this sort of thematic territory. The first generation of post-conscription musicians had grown up on tales of military valour and music hall singalongs. Refracted through LSD and pot, these sensibilities impacted upon the musical and sartorial sensibilities of several groups in close succession. In his eponymous 2011 biography of John Lennon, Philip Norman writes about Swinging London’s... obsession with Victorian militaria” which found its outlet in Portobello Road’s antique markets, even yielding a chain of shops called I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet. Albums by The Bee Gees (Odessa), The Zombies (Odessey & Oracle), Kevin Ayers (The Joy Of A Toy) all bore signs of this shift, but Sgt Pepper was the first.
All of which meant that, for the 27 weeks it spent at the top of the UK charts, Sgt Pepper could truly stretch out in the zeitgeist. In his Times review William Mann made mention of the album’s vaudeville flourishes: among them the title track, Fixing A Hole and the ghostly boom-thump of Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite (whose lyrics were virtually copied from a Victorian circus poster bought by Lennon on the day of the Strawberry Fields film shoot). Released on the same day as Pepper, the ill-fated debut album by a certain David Bowie shared similar characteristics to those songs, but what Bowie –indeed every other musician lacked at that moment – was the ability to write a song like A Day In The Life.
More than anything else in The Beatles’ canon, A Day In The Life the song which most perfectly preserves Lennon and McCartney’s collaborative genius clearly enough for us to examine it. The two news stories – the death of London socialite Tara Brown and those holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – that inspired Lennon’s lyric can both be dated to the Daily Mail which appeared on January 17th. In his vocal, Lennon glides through the details with a lysergic sense of remove – somehow accentuating the way newsprint miniaturises tragedy and magnifies trivia. Keen to smuggle avant-garde ideas into the confines of a pop song, it was McCartney – apparently, wearing a red butcher’s apron – who overrode George Martin’s misgivings and freighted in the New Philharmonia to create the song’s iconic 24-bar happening. McCartney also contributed a cantering middle-section (“Got up/Got out of bed…”) once the rest of the song had been completed.
It would be nice to believe that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had an immediate impact on the world into which it emerged – and actually, in this case, there’s some anecdotal evidence to support that belief. Aspinall recalled the informal unveiling of the record in the small hours of April 21st. Having just taken receipt of the finished recording, all four members of The Beatles drove from Abbey Rd to Mama Cass’s flat in Chelsea. As the sun rose, they turned the speakers outwards and played their latest creation at full volume. “Far from being annoyed, the neighbours knew exactly what they were hearing,” said Aspinall. “All the windows around us opened and people leaned out… It was obvious who it was on the record. Nobody complained.”
Two days after Sgt Pepper’s release, McCartney went to the Saville Theatre where The Jimi Hendrix Experience were playing a headlining show. Hendrix opened his set with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles’ masterstroke was to sate the collective appetite for a concept album without really delivering one. Ringo Starr described the “method” behind Pepper in almost dismissive terms: “A bunch of songs and you stick two bits of ‘Pepper’ on it and it’s a concept... It worked because we said it worked.” On its release, John Lennon told Melody Maker, “I suppose we could have worked harder on it, but I couldn’t be arsed doing any more.”
It’s perhaps necessary at this point to throw Lennon’s “indolence” into perspective. If any band today came up with a Sgt Pepper, the shock of their achievement – combined with the critical scrutiny and subsequent expectations – would send them into creative paralysis. But, as the first artists to tread the pop-cultural snowfall that they had helped cause, The Beatles didn’t know about all of that. Instead, a fortnight after Sgt Pepper’s arrival, they started work on All You Need Is Love, a song which they would premiere to an estimated global audience of 500 million people in 31 countries.
If the driver of an intercity train drops dead at the controls, the train will continue to keep going for a time, and that’s how it was with The Beatles after Brian Epstein. His death in August 1967, from an overdose of barbiturates, didn’t end The Beatles. But John’s reaction, recounted some years later as “we’ve fucking had it now” was prescient. Magical Mystery Tour was the first sign that Paul McCartney had instinctively moved in to assume the role of de facto leader of the Beatle family. Having got away with making a concept album that had been stripped of its founding concept, you could see why Macca’s optimism about making a film with no plot overrode the misgivings of his fellow Beatles. Surely the music alone would mitigate its failings? Certainly, in I Am The Walrus, Magical Mystery Tour boasted arguably the quintessential John Lennon song of the Fabs’ later years. Here and on Flying and The Fool On The Hill, the colours looked cosmic – but, on the film’s Boxing Day TV premiere, no-one in black-and-white Britain saw the colours.
Speaking to David Frost the following day, Paul McCartney explained, “We could put on a mop-top show, but we don’t really like that sort of entertainment any more. And we don’t work for the bread now.” A few months previously, Brian Epstein had renegotiated his charges’ contract from a 2% royalty rate to an unprecedented 10% of their records’ recommended retail price. His subsequent death gave The Beatles carte blanche to squander their windfall. Indeed, Apple Boutique – the Baker St shop ostensibly run by the Fabs – was a metaphor for their life without Brian: a cash-haemorrhaging triumph of unsustainable hippy idealism. Even The Queen registered the changes that had befallen the identically attired quartet to whom she had given MBEs less than three years previously. Speaking to EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood at a reception, she remarked, “The Beatles are turning awfully funny, aren’t they?”
Yet, to the wider world, they were still The Beatles – a single, four-headed musical entity. A band whose individual creative needs could be contained within the grooves of a disc that had the word “Beatles” printed on it. By the end of 1968, that was no longer clear. Anyone removing the records from their numbered gatefold sleeve would have found four glossy photographs of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Not a single group shot, but four individual portraits, portending Paul’s statement in 1970, “I didn’t leave The Beatles – The Beatles have left The Beatles.” Either by accident or design, it was thoroughly appropriate. From hereon in, the brand superceded the band. The Beatles effectively became The Beatlephonic Workshop, the imprint of four musicians working – sometimes together, sometimes not – to a broadly common purpose. Blackbird and Mother Nature’s Son are a lone McCartney while Julia is just Lennon; Back In The USSR lacks Ringo Starr while I Will misses Harrison; Long Long Long misses Lennon whilst Why Don’t We Do It In The Road just McCartney and Starr. And so on, and so on.
And yet, The White Album’s beginnings can be traced in the last event that would unite them. In the aftermath of Epstein’s death, they all upped sticks to Rishikesh, high above the Ganges, where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Academy of Transcendental Meditation ashram was situated. The White Album was the result of that enforced solitude and the wildly differing reactions it engendered in The Beatles, effectively signposting the tone of their solo canons.
Emblematic of the resolve in McCartney’s outlook, are simple acoustic ruminations like Mother Nature’s Son and Blackbird. Even moments of ineluctable heaviosity such as Birthday and Back In The USSR stop short of venturing into the darkness. Before Charles Manson attempted to co-opt it into his world, the rousing proto-metal of Helter Skelter resulted from McCartney’s disappointment that The Who’s I Can See For Miles didn’t sound as heavy as Pete Townshend’s description had led him to believe. As for Harrison – the Beatle who yearned most intensely for escape from the goldfish bowl – the expansive, spiritual qualities that would inform his solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass was abundant in Long Long Long and While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
But more than any of this other bandmates, it was Lennon’s world that was changing at a velocity he could barely compute. As his marriage disintegrated, Lennon was also the one who seemed to set the most store by the promise of what the Rishikesh could offer. When the group first met the Maharishi in 1967, he assured them that “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” The fourteen new songs that Lennon wrote at this time – more than the others had written in total – are a startling chronicle of a turbulent period. Via Donovan, who was also in Rishikesh at the time, Lennon learned the folk-picking which – coupled with meditation – yielded the foetal yearning of Julia, written about the mother to whom in an unguarded moment, Lennon professed to be sexually attracted.
The disenchantment felt by Lennon after unsubstantiated allegations that the Maharishi had made a sexual advance at one of the Academy’s female attendees found an outlet in Sexy Sadie. If Lennon went to India hoping the Maharishi would “slip me the answer”, the withering Glass Onion served reminder that he knew many of his fans were looking for the same thing from his lyrics. Increasingly, Lennon also became the lightning rod for a world that was changing as was as he was. In a year that saw rioting in Prague, Paris and – in protest to the Vietnam war – Grosvenor Square, the sense of all hell breaking loose was well contained in Lennon’s bell-mauling Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey, and Happiness Is A Warm Gun. To this small but stunning index of sonic possibilities, we can also add the collaborative out-thereness of of Revolution 9.
Amid the turmoil, it’s tempting to see McCartney’s last words on The White Album – on Cry Baby Cry he sings, “Can you take me back where I came from?” – as an S.O.S. on behalf of his bandmates. The Get Back project, which eventually surfaced in the wake of their split as Let It Be, was a response of sorts. Had McCartney not seen The Rolling Stones’ Rock’n’Roll Circus and decided that the sessions – initially conceived as rehearsals for a televised show – should also be filmed, his back-to-basics schtick might have brought The Beatles closer together. Though it’s hard not to squirm now as you watch Harrison and Lennon grow increasingly resentful of McCartney’s attempts to steer a listing vessel, hindsight tells us that it might have all ended with The White Album had he not done so. And often, in circumstances, he found intimidating: “It simply became very difficult to write with Yoko sitting there,” he would later say, “I always felt that I had to say something clever and avant-garde. She would have probably loved the simple stuff, but I was scared.”
And in spite of it all – the management split that would ultimately formalize the group’s dissolution, the constant presence of Yoko Ono – you can hear the love: Lennon and McCartney sharing a single mike on Two Of Us; the two fleetingly regressing to simpler times on One After 909. Most musicians might have lost patience with a co-frontman (and his girlfriend) who, in the previous few weeks had put out a solo album which depictED him entirely naked on the sleeve, sat in a bag on stage at the Albert Hall and conducted a “bed-in” at an Amsterdam hotel. Less sympathetic souls would have referred to this burst of hypomanic activity a breakdown. The Beatles merely turned it all another number one single The Ballad of John And Yoko. McCartney’s struggle to keep his de facto family together can’t have been much less stressful than Lennon’s struggle to keep himself together. Like Lennon, he wrote about his mother on Let It Be, but whereas Lennon’s allusions to his mother left him seeming exposed and vulnerable, McCartney seemed to draw strength.
He would have needed it for Abbey Rd. The fragments of songs stitched together by McCartney for the side two medley serve lasting reminder that this was an album whose songwriting riches were greater than the energy most of its creators had to do it justice. Not that it was immediately apparent in the thrilling ensemble performances that comprised much of Side One. Have they ever sounded more vital as a band than they did on the swampy reptilian menace of Come Together and the clammy cold sweats of I Want You (She’s So Heavy)? On Something and Here Comes The Sun, the slowness of Harrison’s bandmates to acknowledge his flowering as a songwriter seems totally eradicated. On Because, they’re four disembodied souls – momentarily untethered from the mess they had inadvertently created for themselves, making the quiet simply purest noise they had ever committed to tape.
Echoing the words of Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, that the group were now “a prison for four souls screaming for freedom”, recriminations began almost the moment a press release for Paul’s debut album revealed that he was no longer a Beatle. Having formed The Beatles in the first place, Lennon felt he should have been the one to disband them, his pique intensified by his conviction that McCartney was using the split to promote his record. Look at the timeline in the ensuing months and what emerges is a sense of shock at being a Beatle in a post-Beatles world: a grieving Paul hitting the bottle before decamping to the Highlands with Linda; John and Yoko virtually reconstructing their entirely personalities around primal scream therapy; and poor bored Ringo eventually realising that he would have to make solo records because, “I was bigger than any band I could have joined.” With a huge backlog of songs and a point to prove, only George managed a clean sweep of artistic, commercial and critical success with the monolithic, magnificent All Things Must Pass.
It was a sense of shock which spidered out into the wider world. Philip Norman described “a future without these companions, who were as potent as gods, yet closer than closest family, hardly bore thinking about.” Certainly, in pop terms, he had a point. So much of what we take for granted about the career arc of a great artist was invented by The Beatles: the notion of the album as a self-contained art form; the idea that each album should be a marked evolution from the previous one; the assimilation of avant-garde concepts into a simple pop song. None of this existed before The Beatles. So, in the wake of their passing, it was perhaps no surprise Britain reverted to a denial of their legacy. In the mainstream, pop’s next big idea was glam-rock – essentially a sequined return to the no-nonsense rock’n’roll from which The Beatles grew in the first place. In the serious music press, the lion’s share of column inches was devoted to prog and blues-rock – subgenres which seemed almost entirely cleansed of all Fab influences.
Ironically, the luxury of forgetting The Beatles wasn’t extended to its former members. Over a decade later, Paul McCartney spoke about his desire to travel back in time and forewarn his bandmates that, “this business is going to keep going until the end of our days.” And yet, even before it formally ended, that much seemed inevitable. Drop the needle onto side two medley of Abbey Road and what awaits you is a double swansong of chilling prescience. If Carry That Weight addresses the monstrous proportions of their collective achievement, The End is a weary acceptance of its ramificatons: “And in the end/The love you take/Is equal to the love you make.” Forty-four years on, it reads like an epitaph inscribed on a millstone.