By Gordon Thompson
Forty-five years ago, at the beginning of April 1966, on the almost anniversary of a London dentist surreptitiously spiking his and George Harrison’s coffees with Lysergic acid diethylamide, John Lennon visited Barry Miles’ Indica Books and picked up a copy of Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In its pseudo-mystical prose, Lennon found partial inspiration for one of the most audacious recordings the Beatles would ever attempt.
As winter waned into spring, the Beatles had reason to believe in their invincibility. Over the past three years, they had seen their films triumph in the summer markets, their albums and singles consistently dominate the charts, and the press cling to their every utterance. Change charged the air and they sensed that they surfed its crest. After returning from the 1965 US summer tour, Lennon increased his experimentation with LSD, largely for its visual effects. Since childhood, he had been fond of Lewis Carroll’s surrealism and now, with the hallucinogen coursing through his brain, he sought out the exotic. The cult of LSD made astounding claims about what could be accomplished by “liberated” minds, especially through the destruction of the ego, which they justified with terminology appropriated from Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. Of all the era’s experiences, Lennon would regret this pursuit the most.
Britain had long held a fascination with Asia, rationalizing imperial aspirations by projecting dark desires on the blank screen of its ignorance. But with the postwar rise in Indian and Pakistani immigration and the accessibility of the world through an expansion of international air travel, some British musicians (e.g., Davy Graham, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds) came into direct contact with non-Western traditions and incorporated elements of these musics into their recordings. George Harrison in particular had become infatuated with India and had infected Lennon with an appreciation of its music. When the Beatles gathered with producer George Martin to make initial plans for their next album, Lennon premiered an India-tinged paean to non-existence. Outlining a major triad and pivoting the melody against a single chord, he imitated the modality of Indian classical music. To emphasize this source of inspiration, they would later add the drone of a tambura to the mix.
But London occupied the center of the western universe in 1966 and Paul McCartney encountered a different musical reality, that of the avant garde and the mix of live and electronic sounds he heard in the music of composers such as Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen. After three years of having George Martin cut and splice Beatles tapes to create composite recordings, McCartney knew the basics, which in the sixties involved little more than a grease pencil (to mark edit points), a pair of brass scissors (to avoid a magnetic click), and adhesive tape. Some of the core techniques of musique concrète (the electronic manipulation of recorded acoustic sounds) included playing the recordings at different speeds and directions, as well as creating loops of particular sounds. McCartney quickly mastered this simple technology and shared it with his mates.
When Geoff Emerick arrived on 6 April for his first day as their balance engineer, he did so not in their beloved Studio Two (someone had already scheduled that space). Instead, the Beatles began recording Revolver—which many consider the band’s most important album—in the more intimate confines of EMI’s Studio Three. Another new member of the production crew also watched and listened as the band worked through Lennon’s as yet unnamed one-chord wonder. The new tape operator, Phil McDonald, fulfilling one of his responsibilities, annotated this particular experiment as “Mark I.”
Long before rappers sampled other people’s recordings, the Beatles selected five bits of sound to complement their reworking of “Mark I.” One loop featured the sound of a man laughing, which, when sped up, sounded like gulls. Another captured an orchestra playing a Bb chord, while another carried the sound of a sped-up mandolin. Two more loops contained sitar music, which, when reversed and doubled in speed, produced an unearthly music. Finally, McCartney would dub a guitar solo onto the master tape as it spooled backwards, producing a sound no guitarist could duplicate in live performance.
As often would be the case, when Lennon superimposed the lyrics over this sonic amalgam, he felt dissatisfied with the sound of his voice: the quality did not match the recording’s aesthetic. To his rescue came EMI stalwart Ken Townsend. By patching Lennon’s microphone through an amplifier and speaker arrangement designed to give electronic organs a greater room presence, Townsend transported the vocals for the last verse into another universe.
In many ways, the Beatles and their production crew were temporarily abandoning their attachment to the traditional rock ‘n’ roll ensemble and Lennon even suggested as much in an interview with Christopher Hutchins that month in the New Musical Express. They would selectively pursue this direction over the next few years, with “Tomorrow Never Knows” (a Ringo Starr gem of a phrase) as their point of departure.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.