We continue our week with The Beatles.
1966–70: controversy, studio years and break-up
Events leading up to final tour
In June 1966, Yesterday and Today—one of the compilation albums created by Capitol Records for the US market—caused an uproar with its cover, which portrayed the grinning Beatles dressed in butcher’s overalls, accompanied by raw meat and mutilated plastic baby dolls. It has been suggested that this was meant as a satirical response to the way Capitol had “butchered” the US versions of their albums. Thousands of copies of the album had a new cover pasted over the original; an unpeeled “first-state” copy fetched $10,500 at a December 2005 auction. In England, meanwhile, Harrison met sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, who agreed to train him on the instrument.
During a tour of the Philippines the month after the Yesterday and Today furore, the Beatles unintentionally snubbed the nation’s first lady, Imelda Marcos, who had expected them to attend a breakfast reception at the Presidential Palace. When presented with the invitation, Epstein politely declined on the band members’ behalf, as it had never been his policy to accept such official invitations. They soon found that the Marcos regime was unaccustomed to taking no for an answer. The resulting riots endangered the group and they escaped the country with difficulty. Immediately afterward, the band members visited India for the first time.
Almost as soon as they returned home, they faced a fierce backlash from US religious and social conservatives (as well as the Ku Klux Klan) over a comment Lennon had made in a March interview with British reporter Maureen Cleave: “Christianity will go,” Lennon 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 alright but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” The comment went virtually unnoticed in England, but when US teenage fan magazine Datebook printed it five months later—on the eve of the group’s August US tour—it sparked a controversy with Christians in the American “Bible Belt”. The Vatican issued a protest, and bans on Beatles’ records were imposed by Spanish and Dutch stations and South Africa’s national broadcasting service. Epstein accused Datebook of having taken Lennon’s words out of context; at a press conference Lennon pointed out, “If I’d said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it.” Lennon claimed he was referring to how other people viewed their success, but at the prompting of reporters, he concluded, “If you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then okay, I’m sorry.”
As preparations were made for the US tour, the Beatles knew that their music would hardly be heard. Having originally used Vox AC30 amplifiers, they later acquired more powerful 100-watt amplifiers, specially designed by Vox for them as they moved into larger venues in 1964, but these were still inadequate. Struggling to compete with the volume of sound generated by screaming fans, the band had grown increasingly bored with the routine of performing live. Recognizing that their shows were no longer about the music, they decided to make the August tour their last.
Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Rubber Soul had marked a major step forward; Revolver, released in August 1966 a week before the Beatles’ final tour, marked another. Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef identifies it as “the sound of a band growing into supreme confidence” and “redefining what was expected from popular music.” Revolver featured sophisticated songwriting, studio experimentation, and a greatly expanded repertoire of musical styles ranging from innovative classical string arrangements to psychedelic rock. Abandoning the customary group photograph, its cover—designed by Klaus Voormann, a friend of the band since their Hamburg days—”was a stark, arty, black-and-white collage that caricatured the Beatles in a pen-and-ink style beholden to Aubrey Beardsley”, in Gould’s description. The album was preceded by the single “Paperback Writer”, backed by “Rain”. Short promotional films were made for both songs, described by cultural historian Saul Austerlitz as “among the first true music videos”, they aired on The Ed Sullivan Show and Top of the Pops in June 1966.
Among Revolver’s experimental songs was “Tomorrow Never Knows”, for whose lyrics Lennon drew from Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Its creation involved eight tape decks distributed about the EMI building, each manned by an engineer or band member, who randomly varied the movement of a tape loop while Martin created a composite recording by sampling the incoming data. McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” made prominent use of a string octet; Gould describes it as “a true hybrid, conforming to no recognizable style or genre of song.” Harrison was developing as a songwriter, and three of his compositions earned a place on the record. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Revolver as the third greatest album of all time. During the US tour that followed its release, however, the band performed none of its songs. As Chris Ingham explains, they were very much “studio creations … and there was no way a four-piece rock ‘n’ roll group could do them justice, particularly through the desensitising wall of the fans’ screams. ‘Live Beatles’ and ‘Studio Beatles’ had become entirely different beasts.” The final show, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on 29 August, was their last commercial concert. It marked the end of a four-year period dominated by touring that included over 1,400 concert appearances internationally.
Freed from the burden of touring, the Beatles embraced an increasingly experimental approach as they recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, beginning in late November 1966. According to engineer Geoff Emerick, the album’s recording took over seven hundred hours. He recalled the band’s insistence “that everything on Sgt. Pepper had to be different. We had microphones right down in the bells of brass instruments and headphones turned into microphones attached to violins. We used giant primitive oscillators to vary the speed of instruments and vocals and we had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way around.” Parts of “A Day in the Life” featured a forty-piece orchestra. The sessions initially yielded the non-album double A-side single “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” in February 1967; the Sgt. Pepper LP followed in June.
The musical complexity of the records, created using relatively primitive four-track recording technology, astounded contemporary artists. For Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, in the midst of a personal crisis and struggling to complete the ambitious Smile, hearing “Strawberry Fields” was a crushing blow and he soon abandoned all attempts to compete with his friendly rivals. Among music critics, acclaim for the album was virtually universal. Gould:
The overwhelming consensus is that the Beatles had created a popular masterpiece: a rich, sustained, and overflowing work of collaborative genius whose bold ambition and startling originality dramatically enlarged the possibilities and raised the expectations of what the experience of listening to popular music on record could be. On the basis of this perception, Sgt. Pepper became the catalyst for an explosion of mass enthusiasm for album-formatted rock that would revolutionize both the aesthetics and the economics of the record business in ways that far outstripped the earlier pop explosions triggered by the Elvis phenomenon of 1956 and the Beatlemania phenomenon of 1963.
Sgt. Pepper was the first major pop/rock LP to include its complete lyrics, which appeared on the back cover. Those lyrics were the subject of critical analysis; for instance, in late 1967 the album was the subject of a scholarly inquiry by American literary critic and professor of English Richard Poirier, who observed that his students were “listening to the group’s music with a degree of engagement that he, as a teacher of literature, could only envy.” Poirier identified what he termed its “mixed allusiveness”: “It’s unwise ever to assume that they’re doing only one thing or expressing themselves in only one style … one kind of feeling about a subject isn’t enough … any single induced feeling must often exist within the context of seemingly contradictory alternatives.” McCartney said at the time, “We write songs. We know what we mean by them. But in a week someone else says something about it, and you can’t deny it. … You put your own meaning at your own level to our songs”. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it number one on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”.
Sgt. Pepper’s elaborate cover also attracted great interest and study: a collage designed by pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, it depicted the group as the fictional band referred to in the album’s title track standing in front of a crowd of famous people. The heavy moustaches worn by the group reflected the growing influence of hippie style, while cultural historian Jonathan Harris describes their “brightly coloured parodies of military uniforms” as a knowingly “anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment” display.
On 25 June, the Beatles performed their forthcoming single, “All You Need Is Love”, to an estimated 350 million viewers on Our World, the first live global television link. Released a week later during the Summer of Love, the song was adopted as a flower power anthem. Two months later the group suffered a loss that threw their career into turmoil. Having been introduced to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi only the previous night in London, on 25 August they travelled to Bangor for his Transcendental Meditation retreat. Two days later, their manager’s assistant Peter Brown phoned to inform them that Epstein had died. The coroner ruled the death an accidental carbitol overdose, though it was widely rumoured a suicide. Epstein had been in a fragile emotional state, stressed by personal issues and concern that the band might not renew his management contract, due to expire in October, over discontent with his supervision of business matters, particularly regarding Seltaeb, the company that handled their US merchandising rights. His death left the group disorientated and fearful about the future. Lennon recalled, “We collapsed. I knew that we were in trouble then. I didn’t really have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music, and I was scared. I thought, We’ve had it now.”
Magical Mystery Tour, White Album and Yellow Submarine
Magical Mystery Tour; the soundtrack to a forthcoming Beatles television film, was released in the UK as a six-track double extended play disc (EP) in early December 1967. In the United States, the six songs were issued on an identically titled LP that also included five tracks from the band’s recent singles. Unterberger says of the US Magical Mystery Tour, “the psychedelic sound is very much in the vein of Sgt. Pepper, and even spacier in parts (especially the sound collages of ‘I Am the Walrus’)”, and calls its five songs culled from the band’s 1967 singles “huge, glorious, and innovative”. In its first three weeks, it set a record for the highest initial sales of any Capitol LP, and it is the only Capitol compilation later to be adopted in the band’s official canon of studio albums. First aired on Boxing Day, the Magical Mystery Tour film, largely directed by McCartney, brought the group their first major negative UK press. It was dismissed as “blatant rubbish” by the Daily Express, the Daily Mail called it “a colossal conceit” and The Guardian labelled it “a kind of fantasy morality play about the grossness and warmth and stupidity of the audience”. Gould describes it as “a great deal of raw footage showing a group of people getting on, getting off, and riding on a bus”. Although the viewership figures were respectable, its slating in the press led US television networks to lose interest in broadcasting it.
In January, the Beatles filmed a cameo for the animated movie Yellow Submarine, which featured cartoon versions of the band members and a soundtrack with eleven of their songs, including four unreleased studio recordings which made their debut in the film. Released in June 1968, it was praised by critics for its music, humour, and innovative visual style. It would be seven months, however, before the film’s soundtrack album appeared.
In the interim came The Beatles, a double LP commonly known as the White Album for its virtually featureless cover. Creative inspiration for the album came from a new direction: without Epstein’s guiding presence, the group had briefly turned to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as their guru. At his ashram in Rishikesh, India, a “Guide Course” scheduled for three months marked one of their most prolific periods, yielding numerous songs including a majority of the thirty included on the album. However, Starr left after only ten days, likening it to Butlins, and McCartney eventually grew bored and departed a month later. For Lennon and Harrison, creativity turned to questioning when an electronics technician known as Magic Alex suggested that the Maharishi was attempting to manipulate them. When he alleged that the Maharishi had made sexual advances to women attendees, a persuaded Lennon left abruptly just two months into the course, bringing an unconvinced Harrison and the remainder of the group’s entourage with him. In anger Lennon wrote a scathing song titled “Maharishi”, renamed “Sexy Sadie” to avoid potential legal issues. McCartney said, “We made a mistake. We thought there was more to him than there was.”
During recording sessions for the album, which stretched from late May to mid-October 1968, relations between the Beatles grew openly divisive. Starr quit for two weeks, and McCartney took over the drum kit for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (on which Harrison and Lennon drummed as well) and “Dear Prudence”. Lennon had lost interest in collaborating with McCartney, whose contribution “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” he scorned as “granny music shit.” Tensions were further aggravated by Lennon’s romantic preoccupation with avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, whom he insisted on bringing to the sessions despite the group’s well-established understanding that girlfriends were not allowed in the studio. Describing the White Album, Lennon said, “Every track is an individual track; there isn’t any Beatle music on it. [It’s] John and the band, Paul and the band, George and the band.” McCartney recalled that the album “wasn’t a pleasant one to make.” Both he and Lennon identified the sessions as the start of the band’s break-up.
Issued in November, the White Album was the band’s first Apple Records album release, though EMI continued to own their recordings. The new label was a subsidiary of Apple Corps, formed as part of Epstein’s plan to create a tax-effective business structure. The record attracted more than two million advance orders, selling nearly four million copies in the US in little over a month, and its tracks dominated the playlists of American radio stations. Despite its popularity, it did not receive flattering reviews at the time. According to Gould,
The critical response … ranged from mixed to flat. In marked contrast to Sgt. Pepper, which had helped to establish an entire genre of literate rock criticism, the White Album inspired no critical writing of any note. Even the most sympathetic reviewers … clearly didn’t know what to make of this shapeless outpouring of songs. Newsweek’s Hubert Saal, citing the high proportion of parodies, accused the group of getting their tongues caught in their cheeks.
General critical opinion eventually turned in favour of the White Album, and in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked it as the tenth greatest album of all time. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson describes it as “large and sprawling, overflowing with ideas but also with indulgences, and filled with a hugely variable array of material … its failings are as essential to its character as its triumphs.” Erlewine comments, “The [band’s] two main songwriting forces were no longer on the same page, but neither were George and Ringo”, yet “Lennon turns in two of his best ballads”, McCartney’s songs are “stunning”, Harrison had become “a songwriter who deserved wider exposure” and Starr’s composition was “a delight”.
The Yellow Submarine LP, issued in January 1969, contained only the four previously unreleased songs that had debuted in the film, along with the title track (already issued on Revolver), “All You Need Is Love” (already issued as a single and on the US Magical Mystery Tour LP) and seven instrumental pieces composed by Martin. Because of the paucity of new Beatles music, Allmusic’s Unterberger and Bruce Eder suggest the album might be “inessential” but for Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much”: “the jewel of the new songs … resplendent in swirling Mellotron, larger-than-life percussion, and tidal waves of feedback guitar … a virtuoso excursion into otherwise hazy psychedelia”.