You keep all your money in a big brown bag
Inside a zoo.
How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?
If this verse isn’t proof enough that the Beatles were having to be scraped off the ceiling for recording sessions by mid-1967, then perhaps a poet can convince.
When you get to the top, there is nowhere to go but down.
But the Beatles could not get down.
Philip Larkin, London Observer 1983
The sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band finally wrapped on the 1st April 1967, bringing five months of goal focused, if rather protracted, recording to a grinding halt.
After committing the reprise of the title track to tape (‘smart arse’ Neil Aspinall’s idea) in a single session, the band dispersed from EMI studios like four dogs let off the leash into what could have amounted to an abyss.
From hereon in, without any foreseeable mountains to climb, the group would cease to exist as a living, breathing four-headed entity. Instead they became urban myth, rarely seen, only heard. Since the nucleus of the band was formed, the Quarry Men, Silver Beetles and finally Beatles had been on a steady mutually agreed treadmill toward a tacitly agreed end.
It’s well documented that the band always saw the next step as the most important, from regular bookings, to bigger ones, to a record contract, to a hit single…and on it went, culminating in John Lennon waking up at a gig in a New York City Baseball stadium, having a minor mental health episode live on stage to rapturous applause. ‘It was like being in the eye of the hurricane. You’d wake up in a concert and think, ‘wow, how did I get here?’.
By the time touring ended in August 1966, they’d already released their seminal mid-period album Revolver, to a mixture of fanfare and scratched heads, opting to not play any of its material for the duration of the tours that followed. Legend suggests they simply couldn’t, in effect sabotaging the gigging phase of their career. In reality they could have played any number of tracks off their sole 1966 album - Taxman, I’m Only Sleeping, Here, There and Everywhere, She Said She Said, And Your Bird Can Sing and Good Day, Sunshine were all eminently playable, bar a couple of backward guitar solos, by a tight four piece band.
They chose not to partly because they’d already decided that the old Beatles was dead and were focused on the new, and partly because the edge had long been rubbed off their collective playing. They had nothing left to prove on stage, having left it all on the boards of endless ballrooms, clubs, theatres and stadia over the previous six years.
Their Everest was now Abbey Road’s EMI studios…and beyond. ‘When Sgt. Pepper was released in June’, says Ian MacDonald, ‘it was a major cultural event’. This was the commercial, critical and social climax of the momentum gained over the previous nine years. Energetic and enthusiastic touring had given way to contractual obligation, which itself had been superseded by ever more engaging and challenging recording. Where through ’65 and ’66 the two overlapped with the release of Rubber Soul and Revolver alongside 90 shows spanning tours of Britain, America, Europe, the Phillippines and Japan, by 1967 there was only one focus.
Dressed by a psychedelic shotgun, the band were on their collective last legs - a final push into the unknown drew a new unity and a drive toward ‘showing everyone’, a sentiment that had always driven them. Assuming The Beatles had dried up, contemporary critics were once again out to get the Beatles, seizing every opportunity to announce the bursting of the bubble. So long and unprecedented was their collective silence before the release of Pepper, and so confused and surprised by Revolver, that the result of their supposed hibernation was greeted with much shock, heralded as the work of some super sentient, God-like beings. Their work was now not just new, but unassailable, and often incomprehensible, by mere mortals.
The effect and influence of Pepper was immediate, sending cultural shockwaves around the world. The counter-culture now had a soundtrack and the figure heads of the previous incarnation of new youth had renewed themselves into something entirely more enigmatic and mystical.
Before this however, came the period of having the album in the can, but unreleased. Confident that everything they’d touch would turn to gold - for now - but unsure of the reception their new direction would receive, the band were camped out in an odd hinterland between achievement and recognition. In the meantime the Beatles, when seen, drew quizzical looks.
Their moustaches (previously a symbol of the pre-boomer, pre-war generation were now grown to be groovy carpets over cut lips) and detached demeanour hinted at a change beyond the strange new sounds presented on the February release of the extraordinary double-A side single of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. Drugs, namely cocaine (McCartney) and uppers and psychedelic hallucinogens (Lennon and Harrison and to a lesser extent, Starr, who loved pot and booze) were taking centre stage, and where Pepper partly attempted to disguise the influence underneath the flimsy concept of a third person perspective and occasionally breathtaking music, the work that followed in its wake would make no such allowances.
I do think that, on balance [Sgt. Pepper] is a bad thing. It’s influence on popular music is to be regretted’, says Donald Clarke, columnist for the Irish Times. ‘In the space of five years they’d gone from a cracking beat band to the defining creative force of their generation. No wonder they lost the run of themselves…these supposedly blokeish Liverpuldlians were as much at home to pomposity as any Bloomsbury poet.
On the 29th April Lennon attended the Technicolour Dream freak out with Indica Gallery co-founder, John Dunbar. Cited as the first tribal gathering of the ‘beautiful people’ (who were essentially hip kids tripping their tits off at a rave at London’s Ally Pally), Lennon found himself in the presence of Yoko Ono more than a year before the start of their romance. Lennon absorbed the atmosphere created by The Pink Floyd and several thousand turned on scenesters, wondering around the masses in somehow terrifying fashion, like a normal, non-Beatle person.
In response to what he saw, John L immediately wrote a passage of a song tentatively titled One Of The Beautiful People. Spurred on by the inspiration of incident that drove the two major songwriting Beatles, Lennon was calling for an emergency recording session and his partner to help fill out the idea.
Too short notice for EMI, within two weeks the Beatles were booked in at Olympic Sound Studios, an altogether more ‘laid back’ environment. ‘There was also a much more relaxed attitude toward drugs’, said engineer Geoff Emerick, ‘and it wouldn’t surprise me if the staff…would partake with clients’. Exhausted by the sessions for Pepper that had only finished five weeks previously, the band were pulled back into a studio to start again, this time recording in a more haphazard fashion and most certainly less focused on a mutual goal. The song would ultimately appear on the soundtrack to the animated Yellow Submarine film they’d signed the contracts for just days prior, but this was not necessarily the plan.
After the monumental (for the age) time in the studio, most bands would want and need time away from the process to recoup, regenerate and to spend time apart, but the Beatles couldn’t. Acid-buggered Lennon was ever impatient when inspiration - of any quality - hit, and mixed with the boundless enthusiasm (cocaine) of McCartney the new song took shape. Utilising their new found method of sticking two bits of incomplete song together and hoping for the best after the considered success of A Day In The Life, Lennon and McCartney glued John’s Technicolour Dream piece together with a bouncy chorus looking for a purpose of Paul’s.
Likely picking it up in Olympic, Lennon played a Clavioline with an orange throughout the production, giving this hight of psychedelia tidbit an ironically ‘futuristic’ Telstar vibe. In the spirit of the time, Mick Jagger was also present, adding vocals to the ‘baby, you’re a rich man too’ refrain to which Lennon couldn’t help but add the spiteful ‘baby, you’re a rich fag jew’, a jibe aimed at the soon to be deceased Brian Epstein. It’s debated as to whether Lennon actually ‘did’ do this, but come on. Of course he did.
Baby, You’re A Rich Man, ultimately the B-side to All You Need Is Love, was the first Beatles song to be entirely recorded and mixed away from their home ground at EMI’s Abbey Road. Fitting then that it marks a departure from their purposeful, relatively structured (though that structure was to record through the night) existence at EMI.
Now the band would record in snatches, piecemeal over the next few months, adding some of their least focused work to their catalogue, alongside some of their very best, that would result in stopgap soundtrack albums for Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour before resuming something like normal service at EMI to record The Beatles (White Album) on May 30th 1968.
The Beatles could not get down.