In these virtual pages, we’ve already discussed why 1966 was a revolutionary year in general. Now, to continue our celebration of this landmark year’s 50th anniversary, we’ll get specific. What did 1966 mean to the Beatles? According to Steve Turner’s excellent new book, Beatles ‘66: The Revolutionary Year, it was the crux of their existence as a working band — building on past triumphs, peaking with their most remarkable work, and even sowing the seeds of their eventual demise. Turner considers the events of 1966 too important to be condensed and shoehorned into a typical Beatles bio, and the year deserves its own book.
It was first and foremost a transformative year for them. In the space of just a few months, they went from their matching suits and famous pudding-bowl haircuts, bashing out “She’s A Woman” into a wall of deafening screams, to being draped in beads and velvet, sporting moustaches and soul patches, and beginning the recording process for Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In between, they made the momentous (and unprecedented for a 60s “pop group”) decision to quit touring, produced what many feel is their greatest album, Revolver, and its accompanying single, “Paperback Writer/Rain,” and embarked on individual journeys of personal growth and self-education that fundamentally altered their relationship with each other and how they approached their art.
The catalyst for all of this was the fact that the first part of 1966 was the least active period of their professional lives. It wasn’t always going to be that way. 1966 was supposed to follow the pattern of 1964 and ‘65: film a movie in the first few months of the year, a world tour in early summer, a U.S. tour in late summer, a U.K. tour in the autumn — and writing and recording three hit singles and two hit albums in the midst of all that.
The pattern was broken when a suitable film idea could not be found. Initial talk about adapting Richard Condon’s 1961 Western novel A Talent For Loving came to naught. The film was eventually made in 1969, with Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero, and Topol in the older character parts, and two attractive young cowboys in competition for the favors of the sexy heroine. Boggles the mind how anyone thought a very-adult Old West sex farce would be a suitable vehicle for four English musicians, but stranger things have happened. One presumes it would have been expanded to include four attractive young (English) cowboys competing for the heroine.
So after a soul-punishingly brutal schedule since the onset of Beatlemania, with no movie shoot happening, the Beatles had over three months off. The only thing on their work calendar for January was doing some overdubs for the film of their famous Shea Stadium concert from the previous summer. Once that was done, John and Ringo skipped town to vacation in Trinidad, where Ringo celebrated being out of the public eye by growing a full beard a year before they “officially” debuted their facial hair look. George married his girlfriend of almost two years, Patti Boyd, and also headed for the Caribbean for a honeymoon. Paul remained in London, and plunged into intellectual pursuits.
John often gets credit for being the “experimental” Beatle, but the trend was started by Paul around this time, who began being associated with places like the Indica Art Gallery and people like art dealer Robert Fraser, artists Peter Blake and John Dunbar, and writer Barry Miles. He assisted with the launch of the famous “underground” newspaper International Times, attended lectures and concerts by modernist composers, and basically gorged himself on every scrap of intellectual stimuli he could get his hands on. He was the first Beatle to really experiment with the possibilities of home recording, creating sound-saturated tape loops by removing the eraser head of his Brennell Mark V reel-to-reel recorder.
A lot of this may have been instigated by living for almost three years with the family of his long-time girlfriend, actress Jane Asher. The influence of the unconventional and sophisticated Ashers was bound to rub off on Paul. Jane’s father, Dr. Richard Asher, was a brilliant endocrinologist, mother Margaret was a music instructor at the Guildhall School (specializing in oboe — she taught Beatles producer George Martin in his formative years), and brother Peter was half of the music duo Peter and Gordon. The press at the time reported Paul’s unusual living arrangement (millionaire pop star living in girlfriend’s parents’ attic) as being quite chaste — like another sibling. But given how open-minded the Ashers were, one would have to assume nocturnal navigations between the two bedrooms were undertaken. Even so, after a couple of years, Paul realized he needed a place of his own. He bought a large townhouse on Cavendish Avenue, just around the corner from Abbey Road Studios, in 1965. By the time it was ready for him to move in it was early 1966, and Paul had begun his cultural crash-course. By staying in London, he was staying close to the action.
John realized he had miscalculated by opting for the mansion way out in the countryside, and frequently expressed his envy of Paul’s being at the heart of things. He did what he could from his more isolated environs, mostly reading — and experimenting with another new development of 1966: LSD. More on that below.
George, although he did not eschew the acid experience at this stage, was choosing to expand his consciousness via more spiritual means. His interest in Indian religion and philosophy was growing by leaps and bounds, and now he found the time to devote himself to studying it — and struggle with learning the difficult-to-master sitar.
Their desire to improve their minds in this fashion was typical of intelligent people who had missed large portions of traditional education. “Having gone from the classroom to the Cavern, they leapfrogged the university experience,” said journalist Tony Barrow.
During this time, the individual Beatles sat for lengthy interviews with radio and print journalists such as Alan Freeman, Ray Coleman, and Maureen Cleave, who took them seriously and asked sophisticated, grown-up questions — a welcome change from their inane group press conferences when on tour. Although the philosophical underpinnings of these interviews would come back to haunt John in the coming months.
The Beatles were keeping tabs on their competition, too. Each Beatle had a subscription service that, for £30 a month, would deliver all the most recent Top 20 singles to their doorstep. Several other British and American bands were also reaching the peak of their powers. The Beatles kept their ears especially pricked on the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and the hits from the American soul/R&B factories of Motown and Stax-Volt. The Who did not quite have their album act together, but were considered the best “singles” band of the era, and were frequently cited by Paul as up-and-comers in several interviews. Jimi Hendrix, who had not started recording yet, also blew the Beatles’ collective mind at his first London club shows.
Ever since being unknowingly dosed by a social acquaintance in the spring of 1965, George and especially John became increasingly beguiled by the mind-altering effects of the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). On their second experience, in L.A. during a break from their U.S. tour in August of ‘65, they were joined by Ringo (and actor Peter Fonda, and several Byrds). Paul hung back — he was admittedly afraid of the life-altering potential of the psychedelic experience, and the little-understood side effects. All of the Beatles at one point or another stated that this drove a wedge between Paul and the rest of the band, and was the first hairline fracture in what had been an existence of total solidarity.
Paul did eventually take LSD, and perhaps a lot earlier than is usually cited. The Beatles’ memories of the maelstrom of Beatlemania are notoriously unreliable, and Paul reckoned his first acid experience came in late 1966. Turner opines, based mostly on an anecdote related by Pretty Things drummer Viv Prince and some other contemporary evidence, that McCartney’s first LSD trip was in November 1965. This is quite feasible, as the album Revolver was likely the product of all three songwriters having been exposed to acid. Turner’s theory that Paul’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” reflected an acid experience rather than being an ode to pot is interesting, but Paul has said many times in many interviews that the song was his love letter to marijuana, and I’m inclined to believe the songwriter himself.
Still, the late ’65 date for Paul taking his first acid trip does hold water. According to Turner, “curious to discover hitherto unheard-of sounds, [Paul] experimented by stripping music down to its component parts before reconfiguring it in new and hopefully startling ways…[the Beatles] became conscious of intricacies they would once have overlooked…small details took on great significance, previously hidden patterns revealed themselves, and unconventional associations were made.” (For more on LSD’s effects on Revolver and the band as a whole, check out Mikal Gilmore’s article “The Beatles’ Acid Test” for Rolling Stone.)
Speaking of unconventional, the Beatles sat for a photo session for Robert Whitaker on March 25. After a fairly straightforward round of photos, Whitaker put the band in butcher’s smocks, and draped them with cuts of bloody, raw meat and dismembered baby dolls. Whitaker originally intended the pictures to be a part of an avant-garde triptych art piece inspired by Russian church iconography (yeah, I don’t see the connection either), but it was used instead for the cover an American compilation LP. The Beatles have said that they were delighted to break with their “cute” image (“It was inspired by our boredom and resentment at having to do another photo session,” said John), but when the pictures went public, the response was shock and disgust. The LP was hastily withdrawn and a new cover substituted, and people speculated that it was a comment on everything from repackaging policies of American record companies to the Vietnam War. Whitaker’s art project was forgotten.
Their idyll could not last forever. They trooped back into the studio on April 6 to begin recording what would become Revolver. Early plans to record at the Stax-Volt studio in Memphis fell through, and it was plain old Abbey Road where these remarkable recording sessions unfolded.
The recording of Revolver was another transformative moment — it was when the Beatles went from being essentially John’s band to being essentially Paul’s band. John succumbed to an acid-induced lethargy that winter and spring (“It was like candy, I just ate it all the time,” he confessed years later), compounded by his natural inclination to laziness (see Revolver’s “I’m Only Sleeping”). Paul, meanwhile, had finally had his acid experience, but he never overdid it. His boundless energy and cultural immersion buoyed him, and he became the chief architect of late-period classics like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. (By the time the acid fog lifted for John in early ‘68, he was into Yoko and not particularly interested in the Beatles anymore — his disengaged passivity regarding all Beatle activities continued for the duration of the band.)
Beatles albums were never planned out in advance. Sessions usually started when about half the needed songs were written, and they wrote the remainder while recording was already underway and creative juices were flowing. Paul had “Eleanor Rigby,” “For No One,” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” in pretty much finished form, and George had the still-untitled Indian piece “Love You To,” but recording began with an amorphous idea of John’s, initially titled “Mark I.” It was an attempt to sonically recreate the experience of an LSD trip. All played on one chord, with a swirling, surreal bed of Paul’s tape loops and Ringo’s thunderous drums, what became the album-closing epic “Tomorrow Never Knows” featured lyrics adapted from the writings of acid guru Dr. Timothy Leary, wailed by John like a monk on a mountaintop — “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream…It is not dying, it is not dying…Lay down all thought, surrender to the void…It is shining, it is shining…Listen to the color of your dreams…”
The “Paperback Writer” single came out before the sessions were finished. It went straight to #1 on both sides of the Atlantic.
The haphazard nature of writing most of the album as it was being recorded usually resulted in the album pushing right up against the deadline…and being several minutes short. A new composition would have to be written, arranged, and recorded in a day or less. “You Won’t See Me” was created for Rubber Soul under such circumstances. (In the old days, when the albums weren’t all-original, they could just bash out a Carl Perkins or Larry Williams cover in a take or two.) Revolver’s last-minute concoction was “She Said, She Said,” based on John’s second acid trip in L.A. the previous year, which took a dark turn for him. Peter Fonda related a story of how he had almost died on the operating table. “I know what it’s like to be dead,” he kept repeating. John freaked out and banished Fonda from his presence to keep it from turning into a full-on “bad trip,” but filed the experience and a few snippets of the conversation away. The marathon recording session for “She Said, She Said” in the late hours of June 21 was fraught with tension — for the first time on one of their sessions, a Beatle stormed out in anger. (It was Paul that bailed — George played bass on the track.) The argument was quickly forgotten, but it was a glimpse ahead at the fractious “White Album” and Let It Be sessions in the future.
With the album in the can, it was time to go on tour, and there was nothing the Beatles wanted to do less. The studio had become their favorite place — a laboratory and a playground, whereas touring had become intolerable. Use Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years, to study the contrast between a witty, spirited 1964 press conference and the grim slog of a 1966 press conference. By 1966, all the joy had drained from their faces. They were masks of boredom bordering on misery. There was no such thing as real rock journalism yet, so clueless middle-aged newspapermen were still asking them about when they were getting a haircut or how long the pop music “fad” would last. They few times they are asked seriously about music or their opinion on world affairs, they visibly perk up. But it never lasts. The next question will invariably be about what color hair they prefer on girls or why people scream at their concerts.
They played West Germany, Japan, and the Philippines in late June and early July. The performances were sloppy and perfunctory, but no one had really come to listen, anyway. In Japan, the respectful audiences were quieter than usual, and the Beatles could actually hear how much their live playing had degenerated — botched chords, flat harmonies, sluggish tempos — and were disgusted. This is what touring under Beatlemania conditions had done to them over three years. They barely escaped the Philippines with their lives after “snubbing” the imperious dictator’s wife Imelda Marcos by not appearing at her state luncheon. The Beatles’ management had never even told the group about the invite, and it would have been declined anyway — it was group policy never to go to government functions, and it was on one of the sacrosanct days off to boot. All service and security were withdrawn. The Beatles and their tiny road crew had to haul their luggage and stage gear from the hotel to the airport, while being jeered, spat at, and kicked. Rumor has it that the plane was not allowed to take off until a substantial bribe had changed hands.
Revolver hit store shelves on August 5 — another trans-Atlantic #1. The Beatles did not play a single song from their new album on their U.S. tour. The material was simply too complex to reproduce. They fudged and fumbled their way through “Paperback Writer,” the sole 1966 song in the set list.
If they thought the U.S. tour would relieve the tension, they were mistaken. John’s lengthy print interview with the London Evening Standard that spring touched on a variety of subjects, including religion. John noted that popular music had more meaning to the younger generation than traditional religion, and predicted that Christianity will “vanish and shrink.” He was speaking to an adult readership primarily about England and the Church of England, but portions of the interview were re-printed in the American teen magazine Datebook in June and unleashed a firestorm of controversy, especially in the conservative American South. “Lennon Says Beatles ‘Bigger Than Jesus!’” ran the typical headline. At the start of the tour in August, a special press conference was held where Lennon had to swallow his pride and apologize for statements that needed no apology if they hadn’t been taken out of context and sensationalized.
They spent the tour worried about the vague threats made by religious fanatics on the group’s safety. They were less worried about the people in the Bible Belt burning their records on huge bonfires. “They had to buy them to burn them,” Ringo reasoned. Their nerves were frayed to the snapping point by August 19, when they played the tour’s sole show in the South — Memphis, Tennessee. Part-way through the show, a cherry bomb was lobbed onstage. The resulting gunshot-like sound stopped their hearts as they all swiveled their heads to look at John, expecting him to crumple to the stage.
By the time they played their last concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, even the pro-live music and consummate showman Paul McCartney agreed that it couldn’t go on like this. The decision had quietly been reached among the four of them during the tour’s waning days. They knew the Candlestick show was a special occasion, even if no one else did. They took pictures of themselves with their personal cameras on the ad hoc stage at second base, asked their press officer to make a tape recording of the show, and nostalgically changed the final song in the setlist from “I’m Down” to “Long Tall Sally,” their traditional closer from the halcyon days of ’64, when concerts were still fun. No formal announcement was made, but they never played for a paying audience again. As their airplane lifted off out of San Francisco, George Harrison reclined his seat, took a big swig of his drink, and said with palpable relief, “That’s it…I’m not a Beatle anymore.”
Not quite. But he would certainly be a very different kind of Beatle from this point on. With the outdated plan for three singles, two albums, and a film per annum now in tatters, their schedule opened up again. Two lengthy breaks in one year from the pressures of Beatle life was something they had never experienced. They were delighted at the beginning of the year…now they were genuinely worried about growing bored.
John was the first to get started on his post-touring life. Six days after the last Beatles concert, he was on location in West Germany to play a small part in Richard Lester’s absurdist anti-war dark comedy How I Won The War. His Beatle locks and sideburns were cut into a style more appropriate to the WWII era, and it was decided his character, Private Gripweed, should wear round, wire-rimmed spectacles. The very nearsighted John decided he liked the look so much he had his prescription lenses transferred to them, and was never seen without them for the rest of his days. The era of painful early contact lenses or hiding his old Buddy Holly-style glasses in his coat pocket as soon as they hit the stage or anytime a camera was pointed at him was over. The filming location was moved to Almeria, Spain (standing in for North Africa), and after a few days, his worst fears were confirmed: he was bored. Shooting an ensemble movie when you’re not the star is incredibly tedious. In the evenings, he sat around his rented villa, toying with a new song dealing with his feelings of isolation. “No one, I think, is in my tree…I mean it must be high or low…”
George took off to India for a period of intensive sitar tutoring from Ravi Shankar himself.
Paul succeeded in writing a film score for a Boulting Brothers movie called The Family Way (he may have bitten off more than he could chew — he needed a lot of help from George Martin), then took off for a languorous solo drive through France, followed by a luxury safari in Kenya accompanied only by road manager Mal Evans.
Ringo had something of a “staycation,” puttering around his country home, playing with his one-year-old son (future ace session drummer Zak Starkey), and becoming more and more interested in photography. He took a brief trip to visit John in Spain.
In late November, they re-convened at Abbey Road Studios. Their heads were bursting with new ideas, they had no deadlines, and were determined to take as much time as they needed with their next batch of recordings. No more conservative trousers and dress shirts with ties for recording. Now they were wearing pinstripes, velvet jackets, perhaps a boldly-colored knotted scarf at their throats. Paul and George grew out their moustaches while overseas — a visually symbolic break with their past image — and were happily joined by the hirsute Ringo.
As he sat down on the night of November 24 in front of the studio microphone and tuned up his trusty Gibson J-160 acoustic guitar, John’s upper lip was still smooth (he would film a cameo for the comedy show Not Only…But Also three days later, clean-shaven but bespectacled), but that would change by the middle of December. The Beatles were still a very exclusive boys’ club. What one did, the others often wanted to do, too.
He cleared his throat. Over the studio intercom, recording engineer Geoff Emerick announced “’Strawberry Fields Forever,’ take one.” At this stage, the lonely little song begun in Spain still opened with the verse:
“Living is easy with eyes closed…”
Through December, “Strawberry Fields Forever” would be re-configured, re-arranged, and completely re-recorded. Cellos and trumpets would be added. It grew heavy, psychedelic. The master recording ended up being an edit of two entirely different versions of the song, one sped up and one slowed down to match keys and tempos. It was every studio trick in the book. It was everything they had grown to love about recording.
Then came “When I’m Sixty-Four,” with its trio of clarinets and music-hall feel, the first track recorded for what would become the epoch-shattering 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Then, on December 29, came “Penny Lane,” with its sprightly pianos, bowed string bass, and piccolo trumpet solo.
Then, with two tracks in the can and “Penny Lane” partially finished, Big Ben struck twelve on New Year’s Eve, and 1966 was over for Swinging London and the world…a world that had irrevocably changed for the Beatles and music fans everywhere. “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” was released as a single in February 1967, introducing the new-phase Beatles, who didn’t tour, who didn’t go on Top of the Pops, but remained hard at work in their studio laboratory as winter turned to spring, concocting the soundtrack to the upcoming Summer of Love…