Re-published with love by Vanessa Burton & LDS, March 2015
Flicking through a copy of New Zealand’s LIFE Magazine from 24 July, 1967 a quite incredible story stands out on one of the most influential pop bands of our lifetime. It is written at a very interesting time, the turning point of a very sharp decade, a period where psychedelia and exploration gave new aspect and provides great insight into the changing mood and evolution of the most famous pop band of our time.
The New Far-Out Beatles
Written by Thomas Thompson, 1967, NZ LIFE Magazine
They’re grown men now and creating extraordinary musical sounds.
The session to record music for the newest Beatle album was planned for seven this night in the EMI Studios in London, but the boys are late. Suddenly at eight the room crackles to life. Paul McCartney comes in singing a nonsense tune and John Lennon trails him. Ringo Starr appears shortly and George Harrison is last. The last time I saw them was at their 1966 Shea Stadium concert in New York, standing and moving like forlorn puppets on their platform out at second base, the boyish Beatles of poster, record jacket and TV yore. Now they are grown men and distinctly individual personalities. For a moment I pondered their droopy French moustaches, their book-wormish faces and their bizarre clothing, and considered the extent to which they have gone their separate ways. For instance, three of the four are married (Paul McCartney is the bachelor), and two of them have become fathers. I thought about the startling change that is happening to their music, the new direction it is taking into the farthest reaches of their musical firmament. Quite deliberately The Beatles are ignoring the oldest mixed metaphor in show-business: “when you discover what the people want, don’t rock the boat.” They are stepping far ahead of their audience, recording music so complex and so unlike the music that made them successful they could very likely lose the foundation of their support. But that possibility does not bother them in the least. What does matter is setting down in music the forces they believe are at work on them.
Now the recording session begins, so casually that it seems no beginning at all. Paul sits down at the piano and begins chording. (I wished for a tape recorder because the impromptu musicale was marvellous.) John, meanwhile, spots a volume of E.E.Cummings poetry lying on the piano and begins to read it. Ringo, hungry or maybe mearly disinterested, goes to a corner and starts wolfing down a plate of mashed potatoes and beans which an aid has produced. George is showing off a large black frock coat, which he purchased at an antique clothing shop in Chelsea. “I’d rather imagine some head waiter at the Savoy didn’t want it any more,” he says.
A tall, lean young man in a quiet gray suit and modest tie hovers at the piano. This is George Martin, producer and arranger of the Beatles music. He is a recognised musical scholar and the off-stage presence who has come to be called the Fifth Beatle. Paul and John explain to him that they have spent this day writing a song which they want to record tonight. “Alright, let’s hear it,” he says. Paul pounds out a strong assortment of chords and John sings, falsetto, the melody which is to be called “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” They go through it half a dozen times while Martin nods, quickly familiarising himself with the composition and making notes.
At this embryonic stage the song sounds like the early Beatle works which dealt in jack-hammer 4-4 arrangements and lyrics which were seldom more eloquent than, “yeh, yeh, yeh”, but before they were done with it on this long evening and on many more, it will undergo extraordinary changes. “Picture yourself in a boat on the river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies,” sings John over and over again, while George Harrison begins finding a guitar accompaniment and Ringo, sipping an orange drink, slaps out a rhythm. I begin to understand the remarkable process of the Beatles music. It begins absolutely from scratch. The Beatles (who can neither read nor write music) are composing even as they record.
In 1963 the Beatles took only 12 hours to cut their first slapdash album. Now they are vastly more sophisticated as to what they want. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is part of the LP called Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. They began recording it last November and it was not finished until April. “You might say they are not even the Beatles any more”, says a colleague who has been close to them since the days of the simple beginning. “They only come together now to record as sort of a hobby – a very, very deep hobby – if you accept the definition of hobby as something you don’t have to do for money. The Beatles are now four very different, four incredibly wealthy men who have lives of their own to lead.”
Of the four, 26-year-old John’s life is probably the most complicated. An awesome world of literature, art, philosophy and thought has opened up to him. He reads copiously – everything from Bertrand Russell to Paul Tillich to Alan Ginsberg, and he writes poetry which only he can understand. Last fall, when he went out on his own to star in the film called How I Won the war, it was mainly to see if he could survive as John Lennon. He still does not know, and the executives at United Artists who have seen a rough-cut of the picture are just as bewildered.
Paul, 24 the unmarried Beatle, is also the only one who lives in London – the others having become suburban squires. He is swept up in London’s so-called swinging world, goes to dinner parties and discotheques and talks about art and football. He is very much aware of the world’s troubles and has his own ideas of what it would take to straighten everything out. For example, he professes agony over the war in Vietnam, and is deeply committed to the possibilities of LDS as a universal cure all. “After I took it, it opened my eyes,” he says.
“We only use one 10th of the brain just think of all we could accomplish if we could only tap that hidden part! It would mean a whole new world. If the politicians would take LSD, there wouldn’t be any more war, or poverty or famine.”
George, also 24 found his own direction in the mysteries of the East. Sometime ago he became interested in music recorded by an Indian named Ravi Shankar, who uses a native stringed instrument called a sitar. He bought one, and last autumn went to India, where he spent two months at the feet of the master, gaining a smattering of skill on the instrument and immersing himself in the Indian culture and philosophy. The experience shows up in his thinking. “You see,” he says,
“We haven’t really started yet, the Beatles. The future stretches out beyond our imagination. There is musical infinity as well. We’ve only just discovered what we can do as musicians. What thresholds we can cross. It doesn’t matter so much anymore if we’re number one or on the charts. It’s alright if the people dislike us, just don’t deny us.”
The only source of consistency in the Beatles has been, and still is, Ringo Starr, 26, the least inquisitive of the four, and the only one who has not made a contribution to the progress of Beatle music. While the others pursue their various intellectual or occult interest, Ringo collects old swords, tinkers with home movies, and other material for a Beatle museum he has started.
It is now almost midnight in the recording studio and after four hours of assault, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” still sounds quite terrible. Fifth Beatle Martin grimaces. “We are light years away from anything tonight,” he shudders.
“They know it is awful now, and they’re trying to straighten it out. It may be a week before they’re pleased, if ever. They’re always coming up with something new they’ve just learned, something I wouldn’t dream of. They never cease to amaze me.”
They never cease to try his patience either. During the recording of their most recent success, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Martin despaired of ever pleasing them. The record begins with an eerie whining sound intending to indicate that the boys are singing to us from outer space. It was recorded with John and George on the guitars, Ringo on drums and Paul playing the Mellotron, a costly instrument that is sort of a computerised electric organ. It can imitate various sounds of the orchestra – for example, tapes of the flute can be programmed into it, and by pressing certain keys one can obtain a flute like tone. After several all-night sessions, the recording was finally finished and John listened thoughtfully to the playback. “It’s not exactly what I had in mind when I wrote it,” he said, and ordered an entirely new version, to which the other Beatles enthusiastically agreed because they are still best of friends and worshipfully respectful of each other’s wishes. Working with Martin, John produced a new score for the three cellos and four trumpets. Still not satisfactory. Like layers on a cake, the tracks began to be laid down on one another. A rhythm track of Ringo’s drums and percussions was added, then played backwards and recorded and added again. Unsatisfied, they hit upon the idea of getting studio bystanders to pick up bongos, tambourines, conga drums and tympani and bang away, and this too went onto the cake. Then George recorded a track on an old table harp he had found in a junk shop, and Paul added one more track on his mellotron. In the end, this many layered tape was superimposed on the original that John had disliked – and the Beatles loved it. From there early recordings which used only three guitars and Ringo’s percussion section, the Beatles within the past year have progressed to an astonishing array of instruments. They have scored music for French horns, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, a wound up piano (which produces a sound somewhat like a chipmunk running across the wires), a harmonium, a harpsichord, a tamboura and, of course, George’s sitar. They are searching for a tune suitable for a steam calliope. To record a composition called “A Day in the Life, ” they assemble a 42 member orchestra, composed mostly of regulars in the Royal Philharmonic. The resulting piece of music, utilising the orchestra as a hundred orchestras by means of tapes laid down on top of one another, is a howling assault to the senses. Different from anything the Beatles have recorded before, it is not unlike what Michelangelo Antonioni does with film. That is not an invalid comparison. As it happens, serious negotiations are underway to obtain that mystical Italian to direct the next Beatle film, if there is one.
Now, at the bone-weary hour of 2am, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is beginning to take shape. Paul has suggested a tempo change, John is rearranging the lyrics, George is experimenting on a new guitar sound and Ringo has added brushstrokes. They ask to hear a playback and during the break that follows, I ask Paul if they ever worry that the legions of Beatle supporters might not follow their march into the outer regions. He candidly answers:
“sure, we’re going to lose some fans. We lost them in Liverpool when we took off our leather jackets and put on suits. But there’s no point in standing still. We always used to say we could never be 30-year old Beatles. But we will be, and not too many years from now. We’ve reached the point now where there are no barriers. Musically, now, this moment, tonight, this is where we are.”
Photography: Henry Grossman