It’s a testament to how seriously the Beatles took their craft when one realizes that even after retreating from the public eye, their cumulative studio time did not really diminish all that much. Back in this golden era of rock music, musicians would not have even entertained the thought of taking months or even years off between albums. Part of it was the perceived need that one’s band had to be constantly in the spotlight, or at least brought back into it after a short time–one can wonder if this might have been a response to Elvis Presley’s nearly two year absence from the public eye back in the late fifties due to his Army stint. When Elvis returned, his music style remained pretty much the same, but the style of popular rock music had already changed, leaving him far behind. In order to remain relevant, one had to constantly stay on top of things, and no popular band wanted to run the risk of irrelevance.
The Beatles’ next projects–there were in fact three recorded in tandem at this time–kicked off even before Sgt Pepper’s was released on 1 June 1967. All were to be multimedia events. One was the band’s next motion picture project, an animated feature named after and partly inspired by their 1966 single “Yellow Submarine”. It was a major undertaking, using over two hundred artists and using multiple styles of animation from limited animation to multilayering to rotoscoping. The band themselves were not interested in appearing or acting in this particular film, but had agreed to record music specifically for it (and later, once they watched a rough cut and loved what they saw, agreed to a short real-life cameo at the end). The small handful of songs for the movie would be recorded at this time. The movie would be released in the UK in summer 1968 (and a few months later in the US), but the soundtrack itself would not be released well until 1969.
The second was another mini-project thought up by Paul on his way back from his trip to the US in late April (if you remember from the last entry, the “Sgt Pepper Reprise” track was the last to be recorded for the previous album just before he took off for this trip). On the flight home he had come up with a short movie somewhat inspired by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus that was currently touring around the US at the time…a decidedly British take on the mystery trip, in which the band and their friends take a chartered bus to an unannounced destination [more on this for the next installment]. Most of the filming for this project didn’t take place well until September, but the music was started at this time.
The third much simpler project was participation in a special television appearance unlike any they’d had before. Our World was to be an international event created by the BBC: multiple countries from around the globe were to take part in what is probably one of the first truly global (physically and politically) television broadcasts. It was to be a two-hour focus on life around the world, looking at culture, sport, health, art, and even the future. The Beatles had been invited to be a part of the “Artistic Excellence” segment, and were asked to write a song specifically for it. Both Paul and John had come up with a song, and though it was never revealed what Paul’s song may have been (Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn posits that it might have been “Your Mother Should Know”), it was John’s offering of “All You Need Is Love” that was used. The band performed the song semi-live (playing against a pre-recorded take) in the early evening of 25 June 1967. The single would be released just shy of two weeks later.
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Single: “All You Need Is Love”/”Baby You’re a Rich Man”
Released: 7 July 1967
It’s up to question by the various band members and George Martin as to whether this single had been written for the Our World special, or if it had just been a few songs of John’s he was working on at the time, but it remains a classic single for many reasons. First of all, it could probably considered one of the quickest turnarounds from studio to single yet for the band, even considering the fast release of some of their early singles. But more importantly, it definitely captured the counterculture vibe of the Summer of Love–while all the world was in turmoil, it was a distinct reminder that peace and love were still strong in the minds of sixties’ youth.
Sadly, it would also be the last release seen by their manager Brian Epstein before his untimely death on 27 August. His passing would deeply affect the band in more ways than anyone would have expected. In that respect, it was quite the bittersweet single…Epstein would only witness the band at the peak of their career.
Side A: All You Need Is Love
In another testament to the band’s expertise in songwriting, though the band was well aware that they had been assigned to write a song to deadline, they had put it off until the last possible moment. This particular track was brought in and started on 14 June, a mere eleven days before the live broadcast. The basic tracks were actually started at Olympic Sound Studios in the Barnes neighborhood of London, though overdubs and further vocals were recorded at Abbey Road. Olympic Sound had become one of the top independent recording studios in London, churning out a number of hit songs (including those by the Rolling Stones) and soundtracks.
John would later say this song could easily have been a rewrite of his earlier 1965 song “The Word” (off Rubber Soul, though with much better lyrics and specifically tailored to the current counterculture atmosphere). It’s also a unique track in that, like a small number of Beatle tracks from the 1966-67 period, it contains a number of changing time signatures. The main verses are played in 7/4 time, switching to 8/4 for one bar and returning for one more bar of 7/4, before hitting a 4/4 chorus. Quite evident as well are many borrowed musical themes: the first thing you hear on the track is a symphonic phrase of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”; the callback “ra-tatah-tatah” in the chorus is from Wayne Shanklin’s “Chanson D’Amour”, a French pop hit from 1958; and in the fade out, the symphony plays phrases of “Greensleeves”, one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos (played by David Mason–who had earlier played the piccolo trumpet on “Penny Lane”!) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”; even the Beatles themselves ham it up with John singing “Yesterday” and “She Loves You” just as the song fades out. It’s a clever multilayering of both musical chronology and genre to fit the show’s theme, all scored by George Martin.
Lyrically it’s one of John’s greatest achievements thus far–he delivers quite long and unique lines of verse, counterpointing it with a very short and repetitive chorus. The theme itself could have been filled with weak imagery and hippie platitudes (such as he had done with “The Word”), instead pushing himself to make a valid point. He’s not just saying “Love conquers all”, he’s saying there’s nothing so bad in this world that it can’t be fixed or at least remedied with a bit of understanding and compassion. It goes to show that when he truly put his heart into it, his lyrics could have a deep impact on its listeners.
[Note: The video link is to a copy of the actual Our World broadcast, complete with all their friends in studio (including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, and many others). The released single version was superimposed on the video for clearer sound.]
Side B: Baby, You’re a Rich Man
Despite it being relegated to a b-side, this song was actually the first of the small handful of new tracks to be recorded specifically for the Yellow Submarine film project. It’s also the first Beatles song completely recorded and mixed, start to finish, outside of Abbey Road, instead done at Olympic Sound Studios. Recording took place on 11 May for this joint John-and-Paul track; John had provided the main lyrics (under the working titled “One of the Beautiful People”) and Paul provided the main chorus. It’s very similar to “Lovely Rita” in sound, with nearly every sound on the recording given some special effect, either generated or manmade. Paul creates a faux-backwards loop sound with his bass right at the beginning by plucking a dampened bass string; both pianos are heavily treated with trebly double-tracking (and in the mono mix, given a “spin-echo” effect at the end of each verse to further give it a fake-backwards sound); to top it off, a Clavioline (an early precursor to a synthesizer) was used on its oboe setting to create a trippy Indian raga-style feel.
Lyrically no one is really sure who it’s about, though there have been theories by various critics and biographers that this song was about Brian Epstein. Epstein had been from a well-off family and was often seen in upper-class circles, and in typical John fashion, this could have been a response to that, asking him “how does it feel to be one of them?” It’s also been said (in Bob Spitz’s band bio, for example) that Epstein was well aware of his stature and understood John’s good-natured jibe, even if he himself was not all that comfortable in those circles.
As the song was released as a b-side here, it was not assigned a spot on the Yellow Submarine album soundtrack, though it does appear in the movie. A segment of the track is used when Ringo “saves” the Sgt Pepper band from the glass bowl that has entrapped them via the “hole in his pocket”.
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The single itself was an instant hit, especially given its release and its theme, and stayed on the Billboard charts for eleven weeks. “All You Need Is Love” could probably be the most prevalent song in the band’s catalogue pre- and post-breakup; it was not only featured as its own single, it was featured in a major climactic scene in Yellow Submarine as well as on its soundtrack album, was available on the US version of Magical Mystery Tour, and shows up on no less than three pre-Anthology compilations. Its most curious appearance, however, was in the classic sixties science fiction show The Prisoner (of which the band were fans): in its final episode, it is heard while Numbers 2, 6, and 48 begin their final escape.
After its release, the band spent their summer building up more tracks for the Yellow Submarine film project (we will cover those for the soundtrack album), and recording songs for the Magical Mystery Tour EP and filming footage for that project. It was also about this time that George and his wife Patti met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and sat in on one of his Transcendental Meditation lectures at Caxton Hall in London; he soon talked the rest of the band into sitting in on a further lecture. The Maharishi’s words and ideas had taken effect on the band to one level or another, and they would later agree that perhaps an extended vacation to India to meditate and reconnect with themselves might help their future endeavors. According to Bob Spitz’s biography, it was during this particular second lecture that the band had received word that Brian Epstein had died. His passing, as well as the time it took to finish up their current productions, had caused the band to delay their trip to India until early 1968.
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Single: “Hello Goodbye”/”I Am the Walrus”
Released: 24 November 1967
As was usual for the band, their latest single track was written and recorded in tandem with the current projects, but was considered separate and would not show up on either release. [Keep in mind: Magical Mystery Tour was originally released only as a six-track double EP in the UK and was not released as a full UK album until 1976…the current full-album version that is now considered canon is actually the 1967 US release with the EP expanded to contain the previous three singles. Thus, “Hello Goodbye” was at first a non-album single.] Backed with a track of John’s that would appear on the Magical Mystery Tour EP, it’s a single that might not be the strongest song they had at the time, but it was certainly a fitting coda for the Summer of Love.
Side A: Hello Goodbye
This is very much a Paul song, one that is light and entertaining on purpose, with very little depth to it lyrically. It’s said that Brian’s assistant Alistair Taylor had been visiting Paul one evening and had asked Paul how he wrote his music; in response, they both sat down at Paul’s harmonium and had Taylor call out the opposite of a word Paul would say while he was playing. It’s a simple lyric about opposites and differences, all focused on the “I don’t know why you say goodbye / I say hello” chorus.
Musically, however, it’s a feast for the ears! There’s quite a lot of instrumentation here, from maracas and handclaps, drums, pianos, organs, and layered vocals. Paul also deftly has the main melody and the lyric melody playing off each other, always going in opposing directions; the vocals rise as the melody descends, and vice versa. Even the finale of the song is used as a counterpoint; while the majority of the song is in midtempo and always changing and stops cold, the “hey-la, hey-lo-ah-lo-ah” ending is played double-time, repeated ad nauseum, and fades out.
On the surface, this can be seen as somewhat of a slight song dashed off at the last minute, but it’s also a great example of the band’s now-vast understanding of professional songwriting.
[Note: The above link is for another promotional film they created at the time; this one was shot at Saville Theatre and directed by Paul himself.]
Side B: I Am the Walrus
John’s most psychedelic track to date could be both the start of his avant garde period and part of his frequent returns to his childhood during this time. This song was all about sounds and visuals for him. The sound of the wobbly two-note vocal melody was inspired by the sound of police sirens going by his home, and the lyrics were partly inspired by the goofy rhymes he and his childhood friend Pete Shotton would come up with to try to gross each other out (thus the “yellow matter custard” lyric). A majority of the lyrics, however, were also inspired by a letter he’d received from his alma mater, Quarry Bank High School, in which a languages teacher was having his students analyze Beatles lyrics; John’s typically rebellious answer to that was to write them most deliberately incomprehensible lyrics he could think of.
Musically it’s also fascinating; in the main verses there are two separate descending chord progressions that are quite different yet achieve the same result of barely contained tension, and the entire chorus is simply a C-D-E progression played once. The song also changes pace exactly two minutes in with a breakdown both musically and aurally; the accompanying strings fall down to the low E, only to swoop back up a few moments later for the “sitting in an English garden” middle eight. It’s here that the original stereo mix falls into “fake” stereo for the rest of the song, and it’s for good reason: on 29 September, while working on the mono mix of the track, John decided to throw one last touch onto the song, in the form of a live broadcast of Shakespeare’s King Lear (specifically, parts of Act IV Scene VI) that happened to be playing on the BBC Third Programme. John had wanted white noise in the background, specifically the sound of a meandering radio dial hitting the random stations–it was a nod to the late nights as a kid when he would stay up late, listening to Radio Luxembourg and other foreign stations that only came in at that time. By the long ascending fadeout of the song, the radio stayed on the Lear scene, and became a classic element of the song. As this effect was recorded straight onto the mono mix, that rendered a true stereo mix impossible at the time, though an attempt was made on the 2006 Love soundtrack/compilation, with the original superimposed on a pre-overdub stereo mix.
The single was, of course, an immediate hit both in the UK and in the US. John half-joked that he felt “Walrus” was the stronger of the tracks and should have been the A-side, but regardless, both songs are strong and are still fan favorites. They also both had a darker edge; they weren’t as jovial and whimsical as Sgt Pepper or as pastoral as the “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” single. The mood was changing already, and the band could see it. The blissful optimism in both countries was eroding and giving way to dreary frustration. The drug haze was wearing off, and many weren’t liking what they saw.
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The Yellow Submarine project deadline was much farther out at this point, given that the production had just started, and many of the songs to be used in the movie were previously released (mostly from the Revolver and Sgt Pepper albums). By early summer they had “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, “All Together Now” and “It’s All Too Much” in the can along with the Pepper outtake “Only a Northern Song”, with “Hey Bulldog” to be recorded in early 1968. That left them with the remaining Magical Mystery Tour songs and visuals to work on. George Martin has admitted not being entirely happy with this batch of work, as he felt they were still stuck in their “random” phase (“hey, this instrument sounds neat through a flanger and taped backwards, let’s use it!”) and while there were some strong songs during this time, there were also some less than stellar songs as well, their charm lost due to a lack of vision or direction. After their crowning achievement, it seemed they weren’t quite sure how to proceed.
It can also be noted that the evolution of the band, both musically and personally, had changed. All four members were drifting into their own lives…Paul, who was deep into his own artistic phase at this time, was about to break up with Jane Asher and would soon start seeing rock photographer Linda Eastman; John’s marriage to Cynthia was about to end and was working through quite a few personal issues, and he would soon meet and fall for avant garde artist and filmmaker Yoko Ono; George was fiercely dedicating himself to his spiritual studies, whether or not the others were willing to be just as dedicated; and Ringo was busy starting a family with his wife Maureen and two sons Zak and Jason (son Lee would be born in 1970). They had also become somewhat lost emotionally and spiritually, especially since Brian’s death…it had hit them hard, and they were now faced with the burden of finding a new manager, as well as starting up their own company, Apple Corps. It could be said that between the loss of Brian and the lack of direction after the Sgt Pepper project, they were starting to forget what it was they were aiming for, and instead of backing away and taking stock, they started taking part in multiple projects all at once. Nearly all these events and changes took place in late summer 1967, so these projects could possibly be thought of as the a prologue to the next phase in the band’s career. It was only afterwards, a few years later, when it became clear that this might not have been the best of choices.
Next Up: the Magical Mystery Tour EP and the Christmas Time (Is Here Again) fan club single