BLANK CAN­VAS

An­drew McMillen de­scribes how the most pop­u­lar band in his­tory cre­ated its land­mark dou­ble al­bum, re­leased 50 years ago this month

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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-

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