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The Beatles: The stories behing the songs 1967-1970
The fruitful period which produced the singles ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ as well as the Sgt Pepper album was the first in which the Beatles could be totally devoted to the studio because they were free of touring commitments. They took an unprecedented 105 hours to record both sides of the single and then a further five months to complete the album.
Paul conceived the album as a show staged by a fictional Edwardian brass band transported through time into the psychedelic age and played, of course, by the electronically equipped Beatles. Released in June 1967, Sgt Pepper was the album of what became known as ‘The Summer Of Love’ – a brief season when the hippie ethic developed in San Francisco seemed to pervade the whole of the Western world. For anyone who was young at the time, the music automatically evokes the sight of beads and kaftans, the sound of tinkling bells and the aroma of marijuana masked by joss sticks. Despite this, there were only four songs on Sgt Pepper – ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘A Day In The Life’ – that even alluded to the social upheaval caused by the changing youth culture.
The rest of the songs were very British pop songs, tackling a range of domestic subjects from neighbourliness (‘A Little Help From My Friends’) and self-improvement (‘Getting Better’), through suburban living (‘Good Morning, Good Morning’) and home decoration (‘Fixing A Hole’), to Victorian entertainment (‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’). The language of the songs was often deliberately antiquated – ‘guaranteed to raise a smile’, ‘may I inquire discreetly’, ‘meeting a man from the motor trade’, ‘a splendid time is guaranteed for all’, ‘indicate precisely what you mean to say’ – as if this really was an Edwardian production staged by the good Sergeant Pepper and his men from the local Lonely Hearts club.
Yet, the spirit of 1967 suffused the album in significant ways. It was a fruit of the belief that limits to the imagination were culturally imposed and should therefore be challenged. Anything that seemed technically possible was worth an attempt from a climaxing orchestral frenzy on ‘A Day In The Life’ to a note of such a high frequency that only a dog could hear it on the play-out groove.
Sgt Pepper was one of the first records to have a gatefold sleeve, printed lyrics, decorated inner bag, free gift and a cover designed by a celebrated artist. Its reputation as the first ‘concept album’ though is undeserved. Merle Travis’s Folk Songs From the Hills (1947) was a concept album as was Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours (1955) and, more recently, Johnny Cash’s Blood Sweat and Tears (1963) and Bitter Tears (1965). Indeed, it’s arguable whether Sgt Pepper was a concept album at all. The only unifying theme was the Pepper song and its reprise and the photographs on the sleeve.
There was no theme holding the individual songs together. “Basically Sgt Pepper was McCartney’s album, not Lennon’s,” says Barry Miles, who was the group’s main contact on the London underground scene at the time. “People make the mistake of thinking it must have been Lennon’s because he was so hip. Actually, he was taking so many drugs and trying to get rid of his ego that it was much more McCartney’s idea.”
Penny Lane is a Liverpool street but also the name given to the area that surrounds its junction with Smithdown Road. None of the places mentioned in ‘Penny Lane’ exists in the lane itself. Anyone not raised in this area of Liverpool might find it , as musician and art critic George Melly once put it, a “dull suburban shopping centre”. But to Paul and John, who had spent their early years in the area, it represented a time in their lives when everyone appeared to be friendly and the sun shone for ever in a clear blue sky. Living in the bubble of fame their memories of childhood were more gilded. As John had observed in ‘She Said, She Said’, ‘When I was a boy, everything was right.’
John had incorporated Penny Lane into an early draft of ‘In My Life’, but it was Paul who made it work. He created a Liverpool street scene that could have been taken from a children’s picture book with a pretty nurse, a jolly barber, an eccentric banker, a patriotic fireman and some friendly passers by. “It’s part fact,” he admitted. “It’s part nostalgia.” At first it sounds as though a summer scene is being described (‘blue suburban skies’) but then rain is mentioned as well as someone selling poppies (November 11). The point is that the song is a series of snapshots, not all of them necessarily taken on the same day.
There was a barber’s shop in Penny Lane, run by a Mr Bioletti who claimed to have cut hair for John, Paul and George as children; there were two banks (Barclays and Lloyds), a fire station in Allerton Road and, in the middle of the roundabout, a shelter. The banker without a mac and fireman with a portrait of the Queen in his pocket were Paul’s embellishments. “I wrote that the barber had photographs of every head he’d had the pleasure of knowing,” said Paul. “Actually he just had photos of different hairstyles. But all the people who come and go do stop and say hello.”
Finger pie was a Liverpudlian sexual reference included in the song to amuse the locals. “It was just a nice little joke for the Liverpool lads who like a bit of smut,” said Paul. “For months afterwards, girls serving in local chip shops had to put up with requests for ‘fish and finger pie’.”
Liverpool poet Roger McGough, who was in the music and satire group Scaffold with Paul’s brother Mike, believes that ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’ were significant because, for the first time, British rather than American landmarks were being celebrated in rock’n’roll.
“The Beatles were starting to write songs about home,” McGough says.
“They began to draw on things like the rhymes we used to sing in the streets and old songs our parents remembered from the days of the music halls. Liverpool didn’t have a mythology until they created one.”
Today, because of the song, Penny Lane is a Liverpool tourist attraction and this itself has altered the area. The original street signs were stolen years ago and their replacements have had to be screwed to walls and placed beyond easy reach. The barber’s shop has become a unisex salon with a picture of the Beatles displayed in the window. The shelter on the roundabout has been renovated and re-opened as Sgt Pepper’s Bistro. The Penny Lane Wine Bar has the song’s lyrics painted above its windows.
STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER
In the autumn of 1966, John went to Spain to film the role of Private Gripweed in Dick Lester’s How I Won The War. While relaxing between shots on the beach at Almeira he began composing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, a song he conceived as a slow talking-blues. Further work on the song took place in a large house he was renting in nearby Santa Isabel.
The song began with what would become the second verse in the recorded version.
It was a meditation on the conviction he’d had since he was a child that he was somehow different from everyone else; that he saw and felt things that other people didn’t. In the earliest preserved version of his Spanish tapes he starts, “No one is on my wavelength”, later changing the line to “No one I think is in my tree”, presumably to disguise what could be seen as arrogance. He was saying that he believed that no one could tune in to his way of thinking, and that therefore he must either be a genius (‘high’) or insane (‘low’). “I seem to see things in a different way from most people,” he once said. It was only on take four of the songwriting tape that he introduced Strawberry Fields (but without the ‘forever’) and on take five he added the line ‘nothing to get mad about’ that was later altered to ‘nothing to get hung about’. He was already using the deliberately hesitant mode – “er”, “that is”, “I mean”, “I think” – to underline the truth that this was an attempt to articulate concepts that can’t actually be put into words.
On his return to England he worked on the song at Kenwood where the final verse was added. It wasn’t until he went into the studio that he finished the song by adding the opening verse, a fact that helps to explain why the sentiment of the introduction seems out of joint with the rest of the song.
In the completed version a place is made to represent a state of mind. Strawberry Fields (John added the ‘s’) was a Salvation Army orphanage in Beaconsfield Road, Woolton, a five-minute walk from his home in Menlove Avenue. A huge Victorian building set in wooded grounds, it was a place where John would go with his Aunt Mimi for summer fêtes but also somewhere that he would sneak into during evenings and at weekends with friends such as Pete Shotton and Ivan Vaughan. It became their private adventure playground.
These illicit visits were, to John, like Alice’s escapades down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. He felt that he was entering another world, a world that more closely corresponded with his inner world, and as an adult he would associate these moments of bliss with his lost childhood and also with a feeling of drug-free psychedelia.
In his Playboy interview of 1980 he told David Sheff that he would ‘trance out into alpha’ as a child, seeing ‘hallucinatory images’ of his face when looking into a mirror. He said it was only when he later discovered the work of artists like the surrealists that he realized that he wasn’t mad but a part of ‘an exclusive club that sees the world in those terms’.
SGT PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
Success meant that the public expected the Beatles not only to deliver another artistic masterpiece but a prophetic vision. To relieve this pressure, Paul developed the personae of Sgt Pepper and his musicians, an identity that would give the band more creative freedom. They had become self-conscious as the Beatles but as the Lonely Hearts Club Band they would have nothing to live up to.
Paul conceived the idea on a flight back to London from Nairobi on November 19th 1966. During an earlier part of this holiday when he was in France he had used a facial disguise in order to travel incognito. This had led him to consider how free the Beatles would be if they could adopt a group disguise.
The conceit, however, wasn’t sustained beyond the opening track and the reprise although it succeeded in giving the impression to many people that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a ‘concept album’. “The songs, if you listen to them, have no connection at all,” George Martin admits. “Paul said, ‘Why don’t we make the band ‘Pepper’ and Ringo ‘Billy Shears’ because it gives a nice beginning to the thing? It wasn’t really a concept album at all. It was just a question of me trying to make something coherent by doing segues as much as possible.” Later on, Martin came up with the idea for the reprise, which helped to wrap it all up.
Sgt Pepper and his band achieved the feat of being very West Coast 1967 (you could picture their name on a psychedelic poster for the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco) at the same time as remaining quintessentially English (you could imagine them playing on an Edwardian summer lawn). Paul had intended to play it both ways, writing old-fashioned lyrics delivered with a satirical psychedelic intensity, and using a title that appealed to the late Sixties vogue for long and surreal band names – Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Incredible String Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. “They’re a bit of a brass band in a way,” Paul said at the time, “but they’re also a rock band because they’ve got that San Francisco thing.”
The origin of the name Sgt Pepper is disputed. The Beatles’ former road manager Mal Evans is sometimes cited as having created it as a jokey substitute for ‘salt ‘n’ pepper’. Others suggest that the name was derived from the popular American soft drink ‘Dr Pepper’.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
Journalist Hunter Davies was granted a unique insight into the Beatles’ writing methods while working on their eponymous 1968 authorised biography. On the afternoon of March 29, 1967, Davies went to Paul’s house in Cavendish Avenue and watched as Paul and John worked on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. It was one of the first times a journalist had witnessed Lennon and McCartney composing. “They wanted to do a Ringo-type song,” remembers Davies. “They knew it would have to be for the kids, a sing-along type of song. That was what they thought was missing on the album so far. I recorded them trying to get all the rhymes right and somewhere I’ve got a list of all the ones they didn’t use.”
At the beginning of the afternoon, all the writers had was a chorus line and a bit of a melody. For the first two hours, they thrashed away on guitars, neither of them getting very far. It was John who eventually suggested starting each verse with a question. The line, ‘Do you believe in love at first sight?’ didn’t have the right number of syllables and so it became ‘a love at first sight’. John answer to this was ‘Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time’. This was then followed by ‘Are you afraid when you turn out the light?’ but rephrased to ‘What do you see when…’.
Cynthia Lennon then came in and suggested ‘I’m just fine’ as an answer, but John dismissed it saying that ‘just’ was either a filler or a meaningless word. Instead, he tried ‘I know it’s mine’, eventually coming up with the more substantial ‘I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine’.
After a few hours of playing around with words, their minds began to wander. They began fooling around, singing ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and playing ‘Tequila’ (a 1958 hit for the Champs) on the piano. “When they got stuck, they would go back and do a rock’n’roll song,” remembers Davies. “Sometimes they would sing an Englebert Humperdinck song and just bugger around and then get back to the job in hand.”
A recording session was due to begin at seven o’clock and they called Ringo to tell him that his song was ready, even though the lyrics weren’t quite there yet. The lyrics were completed in the studio, where ten takes of the song were recorded that night. As John had an injured finger at the time it was initially known as ‘Bad Finger Boogie’ but was later changed to the rather apt ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.
LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS
One afternoon early in 1967, Julian Lennon came home from his nursery school with a coloured drawing that he said was of his classmate, four-year-old Lucy O’Donnell. Explaining his artwork to his father, Julian said it was Lucy – ‘in the sky with diamonds’.
This phrase struck John and triggered off the associations that led to the writing of the dream-like ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, one of three tracks on the Sgt Pepper album that were supposed to be ‘about drugs’. Although it’s unlikely that John would have written such a piece of reverie without ever having experimented with hallucinogenics, this song was equally affected by his love of surrealism, word play and the works of Lewis Carroll.
That the song was a description of an LSD trip seemed to be proved when it was noted that the initials in the title spelt LSD. Yet John consistently denied this both in public and in private, although he was never hesitant to discuss songs that did refer to drugs. He insisted that the title was taken from what Julian had said about his painting. Julian himself recalls, “I don’t know why I called it that or why it stood out from all my other drawings but I obviously had an affection for Lucy at that age. I used to show dad everything I’d built or painted at school and this one sparked off the idea for a song about Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”
Lucy O’Donnell (who now works as a teacher with special needs’ children) lived near the Lennon family in Weybridge and she and Julian were pupils at Heath House, a nursery school run by two old ladies in a rambling Edwardian house. “I can remember Julian at school,” says Lucy, who didn’t discover that she’d been immortalized in a Beatles’ song until she was 13. “I can remember him very well. I can see his face clearly… we used to sit alongside each other at proper old-fashioned desks. The house was enormous and they had heavy curtains to divide the classrooms. Julian and I were a couple of little menaces from what I’ve been told.”
John claimed that the hallucinatory images in the song were inspired by the ‘Wool And Water’ chapter in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, where Alice is taken down a river in a rowing boat by the Queen, who has suddenly changed into a sheep.
As a child, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass were two of John’s favourite books. They’d been given to him as birthday presents and in a 1965 interview he claimed that he read both books once a year.
In a later interview he claimed that it was partly through reading them that he realized the images in his own mind weren’t indications of insanity. “Surrealism to me is reality,” he said. “Psychedelic vision is reality to me and always was.”
For similar reasons, John was attracted to The Goon Show, the British radio comedy show featuring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers which was broadcast by the BBC between June 1952 and January 1960. The Goon Show scripts, principally written by Milligan, lampooned establishment figures, attacked post-war stuffiness and popularized surreal humour. The celebrated Beatle ‘wackiness’ owed a lot to the Goons, as did John’s poetry and writing. He told Spike Milligan that ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and several other songs had been partly inspired by his love of Goon Show dialogue.
“We used to talk about ‘plasticine ties’ in The Goon Show and this crept up in Lucy as ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’,” says Milligan who, as a friend of George Martin, sat in on some of the Sgt Pepper sessions. “I knew Lennon quite well. He used to talk a lot about comedy. He was a Goon Show freak. It all stopped when he married Yoko Ono. Everything stopped. He never asked for me again.”
When Paul arrived at Weybridge to work on the song John had only completed the first verse and the chorus. For the rest of the writing they traded lines and images; Paul coming up with ‘newspaper taxis’ and ‘cellophane flowers’, John with ‘kaleidoscope eyes’.
Much of Sgt Pepper was written as the album was being recorded, with John and Paul grabbing inspiration from whatever was happening around them. Hunter Davies was with Paul on one such occasion – when he was struck by the phrase which became the basis of ‘Getting Better’. “I was walking around Primrose Hill with Paul and his dog Martha,” he says. “It was bright and sunny – the first springlike morning we’d had that year. Thinking about the weather Paul said, ‘It’s getting better’. He was meaning that spring was here but he started laughing and, when I asked him why, he told me that it reminded him of something.”
The phrase took Paul’s mind back to drummer Jimmy Nicol, who briefly became a Beatle in June 1964, substituting on tour for a sick Ringo. Nicol was an experienced musician who had worked with the Spotnicks and Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames, but he had to learn to be a Beatle overnight. Called in by George Martin on June 3, he met John, Paul and George that afternoon and was on stage with them in Copenhagen the following night. A week later in Adelaide, after playing just five dates, Nicol was given his fee, together with a jokey ‘retirement present’, a gold watch. “After every concert, John and Paul would go up to Jimmy Nicol and ask him how he was getting on,” says Hunter Davies. “All that Jimmy would ever say was, ‘It’s getting better’. That was the only comment they could get out of him. It ended up becoming a joke phrase and whenever the boys thought of Jimmy they’d think of ‘it’s getting better’.”
After the walk on Primrose Hill, Paul drove back to his home in St John’s Wood and sang the phrase over and over, while picking out a tune on his guitar. Then he worked it out on the piano in his music room which had a strange tone that sounded almost out of tune. “That evening John came round,” remembers Davies. “Paul suggested writing a song called ‘It’s Getting Better’. Now and again, they’d write whole songs individually, but mostly one of them had half a song and the other one would finish it off. That’s how it was with this one. Paul played what he’d come up with to John, and together they finished it.”
‘Getting Better’ proved an interesting example of how they curbed each other’s excesses when they worked together. The optimism of Paul’s chorus, where everything is improving because of love, is counterbalanced by John’s confession that he was once a schoolboy rebel, an angry young man and a wife beater. When Paul sings that things are getting better all the time, John chimes in with ‘it couldn’t get much worse’.
Asked about the song years later, John admitted it referred to his aggressive tendencies, “I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.”
FIXING A HOLE
‘Fixing A Hole’ was another Sgt Pepper song assumed to refer to drugs. People assumed that Paul was talking about ‘fixing’ with heroin. But the song really was about renovating his life, allowing himself the freedom to close up the cracks and holes that allowed the enemies of his imagination to leak in. “It’s the hole in your make up which lets the rain in and stops your mind from going where it will,” as he put it.
Although it wasn’t about DIY, Paul may have drawn the images from his Scottish hideaway, High Park, that he had bought in June 1966 on the advice of his accountants. The house, which had 400 acres of grazing land, hadn’t been lived in for five years and was in poor condition from the regular battering of rain and sea winds.
The brown walls were dark with damp, the only furniture consisted of potato boxes and there was no bath.
Paul decorated this property ‘in a colourful way’ as remembered by Alistair Taylor, Brian Epstein’s assistant who accompanied Paul and Jane on their first visit to High Park. “The brown paint made the farmhouse look like the inside of an Aero bar,” he wrote in his book Yesterday: My Life With The Beatles. “Paul decided he’d had enough of it so he went into Campbeltown and bought lots of packets of coloured pens. The three of us spent the next few hours just doodling in all these colours, spreading them all over the wall and trying to relieve the gloom.”
In 1967, in an interview with artist Alan Aldridge, Paul was probed on the drug associations: “If you’re a junky sitting in a room and fixing a hole then that’s what it will mean to you, but when I wrote it I meant if there’s a crack, or the room is uncolourful, then I’ll paint it.”
SHE’S LEAVING HOME
In February 1967, Paul came across a newspaper article about a 17-year-old London schoolgirl studying for her A GCE level exams who’d been missing from home for over a week. Her distressed father was quoted as saying, “I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here.”
The subject of teenage runaways was topical in 1967. As part of the creation of an alternative society, counter-culture guru Timothy Leary had urged his followers to ‘drop out’, to abandon education and ‘straight’ employment. As a result, streams of young people headed for San Francisco, centre of Flower Power. The FBI announced 90,000 runaways that year – a record.
With only the newspaper story to go on, Paul created a moving song about a young girl sneaking away from her claustrophobically respectable home in search of fun and romance in the swinging Sixties. What he didn’t know at the time was how accurate his speculation was. He also had no idea that he had met the girl in question just three years before.
The runaway in the story was Melanie Coe, the daughter of John and Elsie Coe, who lived in Stamford Hill, north London. The only differences between her story and the story told in the song are that she met a man from a gambling casino rather than from ‘the motor trade’ , and that she walked out in the afternoon while her parents were at work, rather than in the morning while they were asleep. “The amazing thing about the song was how much it got right about my life,” says Melanie. “It quoted the parents as saying ‘we gave her everything money could buy’, which was true in my case. I had two diamond rings, a mink coat, hand-made clothes in silk and cashmere and even my own car.
“Then there was the line ‘after living alone for so many years’, which really struck home to me because I was an only child and I always felt alone,” Melanie continues. “I never communicated with either of my parents. It was a constant battle. I left because I couldn’t face them any longer. I heard the song when it came out and thought it was about someone like me but never dreamed it was actually about me. I can remember thinking that I didn’t run off with a man from the motor trade, so it couldn’t have been me! I must have been in my twenties when my mother said she’d seen Paul on television and he’d said that the song was based on a story in a newspaper. That’s when I started telling my friends it was about me.”
Melanie’s case was a textbook example of the generational friction of the late sixties. Melanie wanted a freedom she’d heard about but could not find at home.
Her father was a successful executive and her mother a hairdresser, but their marriage was dry and brittle. They had no religion: to them the most important things in life were respectability, cleanliness and money. “My mother didn’t like any of my friends,” says Melanie. “I wasn’t allowed to bring anyone home. She didn’t like me going out. I wanted to act but she wouldn’t let me go to drama school. She wanted me to become a dentist. She didn’t like the way I dressed. She didn’t want me to do anything that I wanted to do. My father was weak. He just went along with whatever my mother said, even when he disagreed with her.”
It was through music that Melanie found consolation. At the age of 13, she began clubbing in the West End of London and, when the legendary live television show Ready Steady Go! started in late 1963, she became a regular dancer on the show. Her parents would often scour the clubs and drag her back home. If she came back late, she would be hit. “When I went out, I could be me,” she said. “In fact, in the clubs I was encouraged to be myself and to have a good time. Dancing was my passion. I was crazy for the music of the time and couldn’t wait until the next single came out. When the song says ‘Something was denied’, that something was me. I wasn’t allowed to be me. I was looking for excitement and affection. My mother wasn’t affectionate at all. She never kissed me.”
On Friday October 4, 1963, Melanie won a Ready Steady Go! mime competition. By coincidence, it happened to be the first time the Beatles were on the show and she was presented with her award by Paul McCartney. Each of the Beatles then gave her a signed message. “I spent that day in the studios going through rehearsals,” she says, “so I was around the Beatles most of that time. Paul wasn’t particularly chatty and John seemed distant but I did spend time talking to George and Ringo.”
Melanie’s flight from home took her into the arms of David, a croupier she had met in a club.
They rented a flat in Sussex Gardens near Paddington Station and, while out walking one afternoon, they saw her photo on the front page of an evening newspaper. “I immediately went back to the flat and put on dark glasses and a hat,” she said. “From then on, I lived in terror that they’d find me. They did discover me after about ten days, because I think I’d let it slip where my boyfriend worked. They talked to his boss who persuaded me to call them up. When they eventually called to see me, they bundled me into the back of their car and drove me home.”
To escape from her parents, Melanie married at 18. The marriage didn’t last much more than a year and by the age of 21 she had moved to America to live in an ashram and tried to make it as an actress. Melanie now lives in Spain with two children and a partner, buying and selling Fifties Hollywood jewellery. “If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn’t choose to do it the same way,” Melanie remarks. “What I did was very dangerous but I was lucky. I suppose it is nice to be immortalised in a song but it would have been nicer if it had been for doing something other than running away from home.”
BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR KITE!
In January 1967, the Beatles went to Knole Park near Sevenoaks in Kent to make a promotional film for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. “There was an antiques shop close to the hotel we were using,” says former Apple employee Tony Bramwell. “John and I wandered in and John spotted this framed Victorian circus poster and bought it.”
Printed in 1843, the poster proudly announced that Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal would be presenting the ‘ grandest night of the season’ at Town Meadows, Rochdale, Lancashire. The production was to be ‘for the benefit of Mr Kite’ and would feature ‘Mr J. Henderson the celebrated somerset (sic) thrower’ who would ‘introduce his extraordinary trampoline leaps and somersets over men and horses, through hoops, over garters and lastly through a hogshead of real fire. In this branch of the profession Mr H challenges the world’. Messrs Kite and Henderson were said to assure 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’.
John began to write a song using the poster’s words. It now hung in his music room and Pete Shotton saw him squinting at the words while he picked out a tune on his piano. John changed a few facts to fit the song. On the poster, Mr Henderson offered to challenge the world, not Mr Kite: the Hendersons weren’t ‘late of Pablo Fanque’s Fair’, Kite was ‘late of Wells’s Circus’. In order to rhyme with ‘ don’t be late’, John moved events from Rochdale to Bishopsgate and to rhyme with ‘will all be there’ he changed the circus to a fair. The original horse was named Zanthus rather than Henry.
Pablo Fanque, Mr Kite and the Hendersons were never more than colourful names to John but records show that, 150 years ago, they were stars in the circus world. Mr Kite was William Kite, son of a circus proprietor, James Kite, and an all-round performer. In 1810 he formed Kite’s Pavilion Circus and 30 years later he was with Wells’s Circus. He is believed to have worked in Pablo Fanque’s Circus from 1843 to 1845.
Pablo Fanque was a multi-talented performer, who became the first black circus proprietor in Britain. His real name was William Darby and he was born in Norwich in 1796 to John and Mary Darby. He started calling himself Pablo Fanque in the 1830s.
The Hendersons were John (wire-walker, equestrian, trampolinist and clown) and his wife Agnes, who was the daughter of circus owner Henry Hengler. The Hendersons travelled all over Europe and Russia during the 1840s and 1850s. The ‘somersets’ which Mr Henderson performed on ‘solid ground’ were somersaults, ‘garters’ were banners held between two people and a ‘trampoline’ in those days was a wooden springboard rather than stretched canvas.
At the time, John saw ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ as a throwaway, telling Hunter Davies, “I was just going through the motions because we needed a new song for Sgt Pepper at that moment.” By 1980, he had radically revised his opinion. He told Playboy interviewer David Sheff: “It’s so cosmically beautiful… The song is pure, like a painting, a pure watercolour.”
WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU
George became interested in Eastern thought as a consequence of discovering the sitar in 1965 and, having studied the instrument under Ravi Shankar, made his first explicit statement of his new-found philosophy in ‘Within You Without You’.
Written as a recollected conversation, the song put forward the view that Western individualism – the idea that we each have our own ego – is based on an illusion that encourages separation and division. In order for us to draw closer and get rid of the ‘space between us all’, we need to give up this illusion of ego and realize that we are essentially ‘all one’. Although the view expressed in ‘Within You Without You’ was drawn from Hindu teaching, it touched a chord among those experimenting with acid at the time.
Through a chemically-induced destruction of ego, acid trippers often felt as if they had been absorbed into a greater ‘cosmic consciousness’. The line about gaining the world but losing your soul is taken from a warning given by Jesus and recorded in two of the gospels (Matthew 16, v 26, Mark 8, v 36).
George began to compose the song one night after a dinner party at the home of Klaus Voormann, a German artist and musician he had first met in Hamburg and who had designed the cover for Revolver. Voormann was now living in London, married to former Coronation Street actress Christine Hargreaves and playing bass for Manfred Mann. Also present at the party were Tony King and Pattie Harrison. King had known the Beatles since they first arrived in London in 1963 and he would later work for Apple in London.
“Klaus had this pedal harmonium and George went into an adjoining room and started fiddling around on it,” remembers King. “It made these terrible groaning noises and, by the end of the evening, he’d worked something out and was starting to sing snatches of it to us. It’s interesting that the eventual recording of ‘Within You Without You’ had the same sort of groaning sound that I’d heard on the harmonium because John once told me that the instrument you compose a song on determines the tone of a song. A number originally written on the piano sounds totally different to one worked out on a guitar.”
King’s recollection of the evening is of a typical hip Sixties affair with joints being smoked and lots of cosmic ideas floating around: “We were all on about the wall of illusion and the love that flowed between us but none of us knew what we were talking about. We all developed these groovy voices. It was a bit ridiculous really. It was as if we were sages all of a sudden. We all felt as if we had glimpsed the meaning of the universe.
“When I first met George in 1963, he was Mr Fun, Mr Stay Out All Night,” King continues. “Then all of a sudden, he found LSD and Indian religion and he became very serious.
Things went from rather jolly weekends, where we’d have steak and kidney pie and sit around giggling, to these rather serious weekends where everyone walked around blissed out and talked about the meaning of the universe. It was never really my cup of tea but we all got caught up in it because we were young, easily influenced, and around famous people. I remember when the Dutch artists Simon and Marijke, who later painted the Apple shop front, were at George’s, I got fed up with it all and went down the pub. Just as I was walking down George’s drive, Simon and Marijke floated past in yards of chiffon and said in their groovy voices, ‘Ooh. Where are you going, man?’ I told them I was going for a Guinness. They said,. ‘Oh. Say something beautiful for me, will you?’”
In an interview with International Times in 1967, George said: “We’re all one. The realization of human love reciprocated is such a gas. It’s a good vibration which makes you feel good. These vibrations that you get through yoga, cosmic chants and things like that, I mean it’s such a buzz. It buzzes you out of everywhere. It’s nothing to do with pills. It’s just in your own head, the realization. It’s such a buzz. It buzzes you right into the astral plane.”
None of the other Beatles were present when ‘Within You Without You’ was recorded. George and Neil Aspinall played tambouras while session musicians played an assortment of instruments including dilruba, tabla, violin and cello. “The Indian musicians on the session weren’t hard to organize,” remembers George Martin. “What was difficult, though, was writing a score for the cellos and violins that the English players would be able to play like the Indians. The dilruba player, for example, was doing all kinds of swoops, and so I actually had to score that for strings and instruct the players to follow.
“The laugh at the very end of the track was George Harrison. He just thought it would be a good idea to out on it,” recalls Martin.
WHEN I’M SIXTY-FOUR
Paul has said that the melody to ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ was composed on the piano at Forthlin Road, Liverpool, “when I was about 15”. This places it in either 1957 or 1958, shortly after he joined John in the Quarry Men. By 1960, Paul was playing a version of it at gigs when the amplification broke down. At the time, he thought of it as “a cabaret tune”, written out of respect for the music of the Twenties and Thirties, which his father had played as a young man.
In the midst of psychedelia, the fashions of Jim McCar tney’s younger days were being revived and it made sense for Paul to dust off his teenage song. Twenties pastiche ‘Winchester Cathedral’ had been a UK hit for The New Vaudeville Band in September 1966, and Bonnie and Clyde, the movie that started a craze for Thirties clothing, was released in 1967.
Although the song was written with his father in mind, it was coincidental that he was 64 when it was eventually released. “My dad was probably only 56 when I wrote it,” Paul said, “Retirement age in Britain is 65, so maybe I thought 64 was a good prelude. But probably 64 just worked well as a number.”
The song is written as a letter from a socially inept young man who seems to be trying to coax a female he hardly knows into promising him long-term devotion. The official tone of the letter (‘drop me a line, stating point of view’) paints a convincing picture of this formal young gent who wants to get it all in writing before he signs on the dotted line.
“It was a kind of pastiche,” says George Martin. “It was a send-up of the old stuff. The words are slightly mocking. It was also something of his father’s music coming out because his father had been a musician in the Twenties. Paul always had that sneaking respect for the old rooty-tooty music.”
John claimed that he wouldn’t have dreamt of writing anything like ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. “John sneered at a lot of things,” says Martin. “But that was part of the collaborative style. They tended to be rivals. They were never Rodgers and Hart. They were more like Gilbert and Sullivan. One would do one thing and the other would say, yeah, I can do better than that and go and do better than that. At the same time, he was thinking – that was bloody good. I wish I could do it.”
An American friend was visiting Paul and, noticing a female traffic warden, a relatively new British phenomenon, commented: “I see you’ve got meter maids over here these days.” Paul was taken with this alliterative term and began experimenting with it on the piano at his father’s home. “I thought it was great,” he said. “It got to be ‘Rita meter maid’ and then ‘lovely Rita meter maid’. I was thinking it should be a hate song…but then I thought it would be better to love her.”
Out of this came the idea for a song about a shy office worker who, having been issued with a parking ticket, seduces the warden in an attempt to get let off the fine. “I was imagining the kind of person I would be to fall for a meter maid,” Paul remarked.
Some years later, a traffic warden by the name of Meta Davies, who operated in the St John’s Wood area of London, claimed she had inspired the song. Not that she had been seduced by a Beatle but, in 1967, she had booked a certain P McCartney who had, apparently, asked about her unusual name. “His car was parked on a meter where the time had expired,” says Meta, “I had to make out a ticket which, at the time, carried a ten shilling fine. I’d just put it on the windscreen when Paul came along and took it off. He looked at it and read my signature that was in full, because there was another M Davies on the same unit. As he was walking away, he turned to me and said, ‘Oh, is your name really Meta?’ I told him that it was. We chatted for a few minutes and he said, ‘ That would be a good name for a song. Would you mind if I use it?’ And that was that. Off he went.”
It may be that Paul had already written ‘Lovely Rita’ and was flattering her a little, although Meta herself was 22 years his senior and the mother of a teenage daughter. “I was never a Beatles’ fan,” admits Meta. “But you couldn’t help hearing their music. My own daughter used to wait outside the Abbey Road Studios to see them.”
GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING
Paul dominated Sgt Pepper because John had become a lazy Beatle. He rarely ventured far from home, paid little attention to business and was drawing inspiration, not from contemporary art but from the stuff of domestic life –newspapers, school runs, daytime TV.
‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ was an accurate summary of his situation and an admission that he had run out of things to say. It was a song about his life of indolence – the result of too many drugs, a cold marriage and days measured out in meals, sleep and television programmes such as Meet The Wife. “When he was at home, he spent a lot of his time lying in bed with a notepad,” remembers Cynthia of this period. “When he got up he’d sit at the piano or he’d go from one room to the other listening to music, gawping at television and reading newspapers. He was basically dropping out from everything that was happening. He was thinking about things.
Everything he was involved in outside the home was pretty high-powered.”
While sitting around in this state of mind, odd sounds and scraps of conversation would trigger ideas. It was a television commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes that gave John the title and chorus of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’. The black and white commercial featured nothing more than corn flakes being tipped into a bowl. The four-line jingle went: ‘Good morning, good morning, The best to you each morning, Sunshine breakfast, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Crisp and full of fun’.
The ‘walk by the old school’ was a reference to taking Julian to Heath House, and it’s likely that the person he hoped would ‘turn up at a show’ was Yoko Ono who he had met in November 1966. The ‘show’ would therefore have been an art show, not a theater performance.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
For ‘She Said She Said’, John had combined two unfinished songs but here, for the first time, he put together an unfinished song of his own with one of Paul’s to build the most ambitious track on the album.
John’s songwas prompted by his interminable newspaper reading. The ‘4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’, was picked from the Far And Near column in the Daily Mail dated January 17, 1967, where it was reported that a Blackburn City Council survey of road holes showed that there was one twenty-sixth of a hole in the road for each resident of the city. When John was stuck for a rhyme for ‘small’ to finish off the line ‘Now they know how many holes it takes to fill…’ his old school friend Terry Doran suggested ‘the Albert Hall’.
The film about the English army winning the war was of course How I Won The War, that wouldn’t be premiered until October 1967 but had been talked about a lot in the press.
The man who ‘blew his mind out in a car’ was Tara Browne, an Irish friend of the Beatles and a well-known socialite, who died in a car accident on December 18, 1966. The coroner’s report was issued in January 1967. “I didn’t copy the accident,” John told Hunter Davies. “Tara didn’t blow his mind out. But it was in my mind when I was writing that verse.” The details of the accident in the song – not noticing traffic lights and a crowd forming at the scene – were made up. Paul, who contributed lines to this part of the song, didn’t know at the time that John had Tara Browne in mind. He thought he was writing about ‘a stoned politician’.
Browne was driving down Redcliffe Gardens in Earls Court after midnight, when a Volkswagen emerged from a side street into his path. He swerved and his Lotus Elan ploughed into a stationary van. He was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. The autopsy revealed that his death was the result of “brain lacerations due to fractures of the skull”. His passenger, model Suki Potier, escaped with bruises and shock.
Tara Browne, great grandson of the brewer Edward Cecil Guinness and son of Lord Oranmore and Browne, was part of a young aristocratic elite who loved to mingle with pop stars (but he wasn’t a member of the House of Lords). Although only 21 at the time of his death, he would have inherited a £1,000,000 fortune at the age of 25 and was described on his death certificate as a man “of independent means” with a London home in Eaton Row, Belgravia.
After schooling at Eton, Browne married at 18 and fathered two boys before separating from his wife and taking up with Suki Potier. He frequented London nightspots such as Sibylla’s and the Bag O’Nails and had become particularly friendly with Paul and Mike McCartney and Rolling Stone Brian Jones. For his 21st birthday, he had the Lovin’ Spoonful flown to his ancestral home in County Wicklow, Ireland. Mick Jagger, Mike McCartney, Brian Jones and John Paul Getty were amongst the guests. Paul was with Browne when he first took LSD in 1966.
Paul’s unfinished song, a bright and breezy piece about getting out of bed and setting off for school, was spliced between the second and third verses of John’s song. “It was another song altogether, but it happened to fit,” Paul said. “It was just me remembering what it was like to run up the road to catch a bus to school, having a smoke and going into class…It was a reflection of my schooldays. I would have a Woodbine (a cheap unfiltered British cigarette) and somebody would speak and I would go into a dream.”
The references to having a smoke, dreams and ‘turn-ons’ meant that the track was banned from the airwaves in many countries. There were even some who were convinced that the holes in Blackburn, like the holes Paul had been keen to fix, were those of a heroin user.
In 1968 Paul admitted that ‘A Day In The Life’ was what he called ‘a turn-on song’. “This was the only one on the album written as a deliberate provocation,” he said. “But what we want to do is to turn you on to the truth rather than on to pot.” George Martin comments: “The ‘woke up, got out of bed’ bit was definitely a reference to marijuana but ‘Fixing A Hole’ wasn’t about heroin and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ wasn’t about LSD. At the time I had a strong suspicion that ‘went upstairs and had a smoke’ was a drug reference. They always used to disappear and have a little puff but they never did it in front of me. They always used to go down to the canteen and Mal Evans used to guard it.”
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