Andrew McMillen describes how the most popular band in history created its landmark double album, released 50 years ago this month
The Beatles had managed to squeeze a fair bit into the years leading up to 1968. The four members of the Liverpudlian group had variously quit touring; received death threats after one of them described the group as being more popular than the son of God; partaken of the psychedelic drug LSD; and spoken cautiously to the press about its mind-expanding effects.
They had also written and recorded one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; offended first lady Imelda Marcos by refusing to attend a social engagement on their only visit to The Philippines; found solace in transcendental meditation in India; grieved for the sudden death of their long-time manager; shot and edited a largely unscripted colour film that was screened on the BBC in black-and-white, and widely panned; launched a publishing and record company named Apple Corps; and sailed around the Greek islands with heads full of acid, strumming ukuleles, chanting “Hare Krishna” for hours on end, with plans of buying an island so they could live communally as a band, with their four houses connected by tunnels leading to a central glass dome.
Having conquered the world of pop, the quartet — whose members were aged between 25 and 28 in 1968 — were keen on separating themselves from the rest of humanity by building their own utopia. “I’m not worried about the political situation in Greece as long as it doesn’t affect us,” John Lennon said in 1967, the year a military junta took power in Athens. “I don’t care if the government is all fascist or communist. I don’t care.”
That trip ended with a hollow thud, as trips tend to do. So did that idealistic vision of four young men living together in isolation and in harmony, with their families and members of their inner circle.
“It came to nothing,” said Ringo Starr. “We didn’t buy an island, we came home. We were great at going on holiday with big ideas, but we never carried them out …
“That was what happened when we got out. It was safer making records, because once they let us out, we’d just go barmy.”
Lennon, in particular, seemed to be phasing in and out of reality with greater frequency than the other three. Paul McCartney recalled him proposing that all four Beatles try trepanning, the ancient surgical intervention of drilling a hole into the skull in order to release pressure on the brain.
His bandmate demurred, suggesting Lennon try it first — and if it worked out well, they’d all follow his lead. “That was the only way to get rid of John’s madcap schemes, otherwise he would have had us all with holes in our heads the next morning,” said McCartney.
Stranger still was the occasion when Lennon called an emergency meeting at the band’s Apple Corps headquarters. The agenda contained just one item. “Right,” he said, sitting behind his desk. “I’ve something very important to tell you all. I am … Jesus Christ. I have come back again. This is my thing.”
In response, Lennon’s audience — his three bandmates plus publicist Derek Taylor and Neil Aspinall, Apple’s managing director — said little, according to one account of this meeting.
After an awkward pause, wherein the new Messiah was not cross-examined, it was suggested they adjourn to a restaurant for lunch.
There, Lennon matter-of-factly informed a well-wishing fan of his new identity.
“Oh, really?” replied the man. “Well, I liked your last record.” The recording sessions for the band’s ninth stu-