By Gordon Thompson
Forty-five years ago, the Beatles disbanded, not in a legal sense, but in the practical aspect of being a band that played live before audiences. On 29 August 1966, they played their last live concert before an audience in Candlestick Park, San Francisco and, on the plane back to Britain, George Harrison turned to a reporter and sighed, “That’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore.”
In September 1966, each of the Beatles went their separate ways. George Harrison departed for India to study sitar and Indian music with Ravi Shankar, spending part of his time floating on a houseboat on Kashmir’s Dal Lake. Paul McCartney became a cultural sponge, attending events by artists as different as Luciano Berio at London’s Wigmore Hall and bands like Brian Auger and the Trinity in clubs before embarking on a tour of the Loire Valley (in disguise) and a safari in Kenya. Ringo Starr concentrated on his family in London. And symbolically, on 6 September, John Lennon cut his hair, adopted National Health Service wire-rimmed specs, and four days later began a trip to Germany and Spain to play the role of Musketeer Gripweed in Richard Lester’s film, How I Won the War.
In previous years, the time after the summer tours helped to rejuvenate their minds and prepare them for the next Christmas single and album releases. In the fall of 1966, they had a different option. Notably, their recording contract with EMI expired leaving them under no legal obligation to release anything by the end of November. After the rancor of the summer’s tours and the positive responses they received for Revolver, they would take the time to work on their next project. The question then arose for the Beatles: What was next? How could they top Revolver?
Some in the press, upon learning that the band would not be taking any more concert dates and that Brian Epstein had not yet negotiated a new recording contract, predicted that the Beatles were spent and would soon disband. In some ways, they were right: the band that had rocked ballparks and football stadiums no longer existed. In their place, a collective took over the responsibility of reimagining the role of two guitars, bass, and drums in an environment where electronic sounds, Indian music, and orchestral instruments shared the audioscape.
The world was changing. The summer’s experiences of being hounded by reporters about Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” comments, guarded by Japanese police from right-wing militants angry about the band’s influence on youth, abused by Filipino police for ignoring Imelda Marcos, and taunted by the Ku Klux Klan in the United States had convinced the band that they could no longer continue as they were. Like children emancipated from their parents’ homes, they set out to redefine themselves as something other than the two-dimensional giggling mop tops of the cartoon series.
The world’s dramatic social and political changes in the postwar years had led in 1966 to the rise of reactionary conservative forces that found almost everything from the hydrogen bomb to birth control threatening. But perhaps most challenging of all was the maturing mass of baby boomers, the oldest of whom were about to turn 21 and, thus, potentially gain increased political rights. Their sheer numbers meant that their experiments with drugs and music brought what would have been counter-cultural into mainstream media and social discourse. Perhaps without knowing it, the Beatles had been on the front lines of this culture war (thus their experiences on tour) and, even though they no longer wanted to tour, they still very much wanted to be part of this cultural debate, to shed their “fab four” image, and to experiment.
In September 1966, the individual Beatles commenced to molding new individual identities and to exploring individual musical interests. In Spain, John Lennon would write “Strawberry Fields Forever,” one of his most imaginative songs and a reimagining of his childhood and personal identity. George Harrison would return from India with improved sitar technique and the self-confidence to record without his band mates. And Paul McCartney would have an epiphany on the plane back from Africa about how the Beatles could reimagine themselves as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an imaginary group with none of the legal and social complications of reality.
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.