It was 45 years ago today... The Beatles' Sgt Pepper inches toward the half century mark
The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, originally released on June 1, 1967, turns 45 years old today.
By the summer of 1966, the Beatles sucked. Or at least that's the way they felt for the band. "Performance, for us, it's gone downhill," Paul McCartney said of his band at the time. "Because we can't develop if no one can hear us; so for us to perform...it gets difficult each time." The pressures of being the generation-defining, teenage-girl-arousing, million-dollar-making, international entertainment sensation was beginning to weigh on the aging pop group, evidently. Touring was becoming a drag: Playing to screaming girls who didn't care about the music, death threats from the KKK and Philippine soldiers, the bathroom being your only moment of refuge.
George Harrison's new-found spirituality was conflicting with pop-stardom, and John Lennon's marriage could only take so much traveling and infidelity. The world was changing, with exciting new music, fashion and art springing up all over the London and America. All the while the boys were stuck in Holiday Inns and circles of bodyguards, unable to look over the fence and see what was happening in the generation that they were supposedly the leaders of.
McCartney -- ever the diplomatic businessman -- was committed to finishing their 1966 U.S. tour, playing the final (paying) live show of the Beatles' career in San Francisco's Candlestick Park in August of that year. Afterward, the boys went on a much-needed two-month holiday, with Harrison traveling to India to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar, McCartney writing and recording the soundtrack to a film with George Martin, and Lennon playing a supporting role in the film How I Won the War with director Richard Lester in Spain.
In the beginning, Lennon enjoyed the freedom of a Beatle-less existence (even penning the lyrics to the era-defining single, "Strawberry Fields Forever"), but soon grew lonely and requested the companionship of Ringo, who quickly came to the rescue. Being one of the biggest creative, sexual and cultural icons of the age (even surpassing heroes like Elvis Presley) wasn't bringing any peace to the 27-year-old Lennon. Songwriting was becoming a chore, and he was only able to produce small fragments, little ideas that he hoped his partner could help flesh out.
A constant flow of acid, marijuana and cocaine was wreaking havoc on his mental stability, sometimes driving the abandoned child to fall to his knees and scream at the ceiling, asking God what He wanted of him. Yet those tiny fragments of song were still brilliantly inspired, taking as much from his childhood love of Lewis Carroll's Alice as it did from the blossoming art/pop scene of Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, and newly acquainted Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono.
"I was riding in John's new Rolls [Royce] and he said to me, 'I don't usually have acid for breakfast,'" Beatles publicist Derek Taylor remembers in the documentary It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. "I thought, 'Oh, that sounds awful,' like he'd had some bad food. But he said, 'And to celebrate, I'm going to play this record. Tell me what you think.'" With a coke-dusted mustache and an LSD-sizzled brain, Lennon played for Taylor the somber new Procol Harum single, "Whiter Shade of Pale."
While McCartney may have had a healthy rivalry with Lennon, he was always available to pick up the pieces of his brain-boiled buddy, helping him turn those fragments of melodies and lyrics into classic recordings. While Mac hadn't given the drug world the bear-hug that Lennon had (his two acid trips of the era were taken nearly a year after the rest of the band had turned on), he was heavily involved in the blossoming music scene and was in the center of the most inspired songwriting period of his career. Shortly after Lennon released the song "Help" (his desperate plea to be rid of all neuroses, written during his self-described "fat Elvis period"), he was reflecting with McCartney on their new album, Revolver, admitting "your songs are better than mine."