‘Oh God, is it that close?’ - John Lennon
Most bands, having just released their most celebrated work amongst an ever increasing pile of celebrated works, would retreat into a miasma of self-congratulatory ego abuse and tour it around the world for two years before popping up on chat shows to promote yet another single release from the same, tired collection.
The Beatles weren’t most bands.
In psychedelic lockdown for an unprecedented amount of time at Abbey Road from 25th November 1966 with no deadline or budget restriction, the band set about recording endless backing tracks, overdubs and learning to play chess. When finished, the Beatles dispelled rumours of breaking up, or worse drying out, by spraying the technicolour orgasm of Sgt. Pepper all over Western civilisation’s face on the 26th May 1967 in the UK and all over America’s back a week later on June 1st.
Glory be, our new ‘laughing freemen’ overlords were here and the world as one welcomed them. Kings of all they surveyed, the Beatles could have been forgiven for taking a moment to enjoy the fruit of their conquered lands, but due to impossible demands for their time and clamour for more output that instead of easing up after having disposed of touring, the merry-go-round of global obsession - the more they did, they more was demanded of them - continued to gain momentum, centrifugal force dragging them out of their inner circle of calm into an uncountable multitude of directions leaving time for little else but to give the people more Beatle. They couldn’t stop.
The world was changing at an alarming rate. The shrapnel of rapid technological advancements made during WW2 had still enough white-heat to burn holes in living room walls. The TV age was here and people were using electronics to supplement and improve all aspects of daily life. From electronic tin openers to digital clocks, every room in the house was now a-buzz. The Beatles, never last in the queue to experiment with the new, had long realised that they may as well film themselves miming along to their own noise and send it around the globe in their stead than mime along to the noise of 20,000 screaming girls in a storm of claustrophobic auditoria, hysterical press junkets, PR hacks and hotels.
Marvels of the white-hot technological revolution:
When the concept of Our World, a show billed as the first global satellite TV broadcast, passed through desk of Beatles manager, Brian Epstein it made perfect sense for the Beatles to represent the nation to the world: our boys in the crow’s nest, leading the advancement of the new breed of “evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen”, or at least that’s what Californian free-love loving LSD fanboy, Timothy Leary thought. Britain was once again at the forefront of a new kind of imperialistic force - popular culture. This Anglo invasion was short lived, America’s dominance in the hearts and minds of youth is the true mark of their 20th century empire, but for a few short years, Britannia ruled the waves and the Beatles were the lookouts on the frontier of empire freshly won.
The show was to be broadcast on the 25th June, and it was deep into the second week of that month, still coming down from Eppy’s Pepper launch party (where Paul met Linda) that Lennon said to Wizard’s assistant, Geoff Emerick, of the impending broadcast: “Oh God, is it that close? I suppose we’d better write something.” Paul offered forth Hello/Goodbye, a future McCartney lead Beatles number one single, but Lennon wanted to express something else, something new that sat on the cutting edge…something befitting of a world first experience of a technological marvel. As in his race to write A Hard Day’s Night, Lennon stole a march and created a statement on a new state of consciousness that he’d been contemplating for nearly two years, since Rubber Soul’s co-written The Word. Lennon had invented Love, and he wanted to spread the news.
Lennon’s brand of Love was something outside the paradigm of romanticism, beyond the reaches of boy/girl teen crushes that they’d sang about nearly exclusively, though with wit and charisma, in the first phase of their career. Set apart from a maternal/paternal love, too, Love was becoming newly defined by 1967; it was a love for you and me and them and us and all. Lennon's Love was a breaking down of aggression, of suspicion and doubt and instead reaching for an interpersonal peace and unity. Not everyone saw the world in the way young John Lennon did and not everyone felt as if the world was there to be attacked or was attacking them, but here was he coming around to a new way of thinking. And it amazed him.
This, flower power Love, is often the stick to hit Lennon with in the 21st Century cynicism splattered hell hole in which we all now live, but seen through more earnest eyes, this is the start of Lennon reaching out for self-improvement…to get better. Be better. This is the beginnings of Saint John of Lennon, bringer of peace.
That John was so determined to out himself as a Lover in the mid-60s was due in part to the shockwave of his awakening. A feeling of inner-peace brought about by an attempt at ego-suicide via LSD brought a series of great epiphanies. A man long defined by his bluster and aggression, shielding the more sensitive part of his personality that he’d gone to extreme lengths to hide, had now learned of another way. Of course, many had felt an ambiguous version of this throughout history, but in a ‘I wish you no specific harm’ kind of way. Now, with Lennon’s new vision we have a conceptual Love, a counter-cultural approach to loving each other, man (and woman), without the pre-text of sexual intention, just a protective union of free-thinking progressive lovers, bringing a new kind of peace to a changing new world. For some, this just meant guilt free sex. To others, it was a new way to live.
By the 1960’s the 20th Century was war-weary. The first generation of baby boomers had grown up and were starting to flex their collective muscle by opening their wallets. If we know anything, we know that we inherently reject our parent’s ideals and the unholy thought that their way was the right one. So in 1966/67, Western youth rejected conflict (briefly), rejected materialism (briefer still) and resented being strong-armed into it (permanently). So unilateral was the shift to what the establishment thought of as anarchism, big Government in the USA mobilised against an entire generation in retaliation. 1968 seemed a long way off here, however and for a few heady months the kids were alright.
A whole generation of Brits brought up in the wake of WW2 were constantly told to feel lucky and grateful for what had been done for them long before they were born.
Old:“I fought the war for the likes of you.”
Young: “I bet you’re sorry you won!”
A rejection of war, the concept of it or who it was really being fought for, was the neatest and most sincere reward for victory and freedom, but of course the war-tattered veterans didn’t look at it that way and who could blame them? The world had killed the innocence of hundreds of millions of people and the end result, apart from a kind of frigid peace, was a generational divide so clearly defined that it irrevocably changed the foundations of society.
“It was for love and bloody peace again” - Ringo
By the 14th June, to order and in a few days, John had written All You Need Is Love. It was another astonishing departure from the textured and impossibly dense double A-side of the Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single that bore the fruit of the late ’66 early Pepper sessions.
This time Lennon had created something new (again). This was the first of his political-sloganeering songs, unless you count The Word, which you could, to be followed by Give Peace A Chance, (The Continuing Story of) Bungalow Bill, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Woman Is The N-Word of the World and of course, Imagine. A writer of perfect soundbites, he used his skill in brevity to crystallise an important message in a one note chorus that appeared to contain enough melody to carry a deceptively light song of peace and love to the world. Outside the All You Need Is Love chorus line (you’ve all heard it) is a collection of apparent non-sequiturs that portray the challenge of letting love in, whilst not really saying much at all. It’s easy.
“‘All you need is love’, is simple, but the verse is quite complex; in fact I never really understood it, the message is rather complex.” Paul, Many Years From Now.
The band, in full accidentally experimental mode, put down their two guitars, bass and drums in favour of a mix of unfamiliar instrumentation in the hope of surprising themselves. This was a much used tactic around this time, and this may have been one of the last times accidental discovery was used to such great effect. It has been said, by Ian Macdonald in his superlative Revolution in the Head that the care and attention to recording shown throughout the Sgt. Pepper sessions had all but deserted the band. “The engineers at Olympic…were shocked by the carelessness by which the mixdown was made”. Macdonald also considered this track one of the Beatles’ “less deserving hits”, but I cannot agree with that sentiment, this song had obvious worldwide appeal, panache and a zeitgeist making message that defines its time. We can’t all be right all the time, even the very best of writers which Ian Macdonald absolutely was.
“We just put a track down. Because I knew the chords I played it on whatever it was, harpsichord. George played a violin because we felt like doing it like that and Paul played a double bass. And they can’t play them, so we got some nice little noises coming out.” - Lennon
Laying down 33 takes on the 14th June, the Beatles had what they were looking for, if they even knew what that was. “There was no perception of how it (the backing track) sounded at the end until they did it that day, until the rehearsal. It still sounded a bit strange then.” Said John in 1980. There obviously were substances being imbibed, Paul was fond of the odd toot at this point and Lennon’s breath smelled of microdots, so there is clearly a sense of ‘putting some stuff down and covering it with orchestra’, but regardless of the means, the end result was one of the most distinctive and hooky pop songs of the decade, and one of the Beatles’ key singles.
Eleven days later on the 25th June, the world tuned in to what is likely to be the dullest TV event anyone was ever made to suffer through outside of a Liberal Democrat Party Political Broadcast. The two and a half hour broadcast went live to 400 million poor souls in 24 different countries. Outside of footage of Spanish fishermen and Japanese construction workers came announcers making such proclamations as “Art bears witness, as always, in the heart of man”, a gripping interview with media theorist Marshall McLuhan and relieved by an appearance from Pablo Picasso, arguably the 20th Century’s other most important artist. Heady stuff, the event was an enormous deal and one of the humanity’s biggest global events outside of the, still two years away, moon landing.
The Beatles are cut to in the studio some 40 seconds before they were expecting. George Martin and Geoff Emerick were a bundle of nerves - and were caught having a slug of scotch each to level their nerves. They managed to bundle the glasses and bottle under the mixing desk before being rumbled, but they were bricking it and the ramshackle nature of the production wasn’t helping. The organisers had been concerned with Martin’s intention to use a pre-recorded backing track, but he rightly stood his ground, saying “we can’t just go on in front of 350 million people without some work!”
The performance was mixed live, hence Martin & Emerick’s nerves. John, phrenetical chewer of gum was hiding his own and providing a current to channel amphetamines, sat proudly on a stool with Mick Jagger at his feet. George looked about as handsome as a man is able to look, splendent in his psychedelic regalia, Paul cheerful, bobbing around on his stool conducting the cameras with his eyes, Ringo plonked on his kit, happy to be invited along. This must be the biggest Beatles song with the least amount of Ringo on it but he doesn’t seem to mind. The live mix version found on your favourite video streaming site reveals the reason for the premature demise of George’s odd guitar break - here the brass section takes over, as if in a tandem duel. On this version, his guitar makes sense, on the official realise it sounds as if George has simply forgotten what comes next. It’s a scene, it’s the Summer of Love, and John’s singing all about it.
A progression from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, All You Need Is Love manages to reduct the interpretive ambiguities from much of that album’s content to a child like mantra that has no possible ulterior motive. At once crystallising Lennon’s ability for a pithy statement and reflecting his hallucinogen raddled mind in 1967, the song can be viewed as a utopian statement of intent or a frazzled burning out of the imagery laden mind of a literary wonder. It doesn’t matter which side you take on this, the effect was a success and for the briefest of moments, it must have felt as if the Beatles were on to something. And who am I to argue?
“I’m not saying ‘all you have to do is...’ Because All You Need’ came out in the Flower Power Generation time. It doesn’t mean that all you have to do is put on a phoney smile or wear a flower dress and it’s gonna be alright. Love is not just something that you stick on posters or stick on the back of your car or on the back of your jacket or on a badge. I’m talking about real love, so I still believe that. Love is appreciation of other people and allowing them to be. Love is allowing somebody to be themselves and that’s what we do need.” John Lennon, 1971.
PS Whisper it, but this is the best sounding version from 1999's remixed Yellow Submarine soundtrack album.