Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year by Steve Turner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oh no, I thought, when a friend recommended Steve Turner’s “Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year.” Another Beatles book? I love the Beatles, but is there anything fresh to say, besides what the indefatigable Mark Lewisohn is putting in volume 2 of his exhaustive biography? (Don’t die, Mark!)
Not only is “Beatles ’66” a worthy addition to the Beatles literary canon, Lewisohn’s going to have to dig deeper to find a few nuggets that didn’t make Turner’s book. It helps that Turner has followed the band since the ‘60s and is as well-connected as any Beatles expert, quoting from personal interviews with Cynthia Lennon, McCartney paramour Maggie McGivern, various members of the Fabs’ inner circle, and even some tangential folks, such as tour assistants and DJ pals. Moreover, he seems to have read every article about the band in ’66, including mentions in Indian newspapers and American teen magazines, and has enough knowledge to put it all in context with events of the epochal year.
So, why is 1966 so important? In Beatles lore, it’s 1967 that’s the peak of the mountain, the year the band released the “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single and, on June 1 – practically the very center of the year – “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” only to be followed by the apparent first forebodings of the band’s downfall, with the death of manager Brian Epstein and the failure of the “Magical Mystery Tour” movie.
But, as Turner makes clear, 1966 was the year the band truly went from the lovable mop-tops of Beatlemania to serious musicians – not least to themselves, though the first glimmers of the “adult” Beatles could be seen as far back as the “Help!” soundtrack LP. The year began with “Rubber Soul” in stores and “We Can Work It Out” atop the singles charts. By year’s end, the group had gone on a disastrous tour – enough to put them off touring completely – released “Revolver” (still their best LP, in my opinion), weathered the “bigger than Jesus” controversy and recorded “Strawberry Fields,” with “Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life” just around the corner.
Paul McCartney immersed himself in avant-garde music, leading to the tape-spliced squalls of John Lennon’s LSD-influenced “Tomorrow Never Knows,” while George Harrison took formal lessons on the sitar in India. Ringo relaxed with his family and played the best drums of his life, partly thanks to new Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who sharpened the sound of the rhythm section.
Moreover, it was a year in which energy and tumult were present in equal measure, with musicians and other artists feeding each other’s creativity. In May, the Beach Boys’ Brian Johnston journeyed to London with the landmark “Pet Sounds” and was greeted by Beach Boys fan Keith Moon, who helped introduce him to Lennon and McCartney – both of whom were hugely moved by the record. (McCartney has often said that “God Only Knows” is his favorite song.) The Animals’ Chas Chandler brought Jimi Hendrix to town later that year, blowing away a room full of the UK’s finest guitarists; word was that Eric Clapton retreated to his house for days on end to practice.
The Kinks were still big; the Who was the band of the moment (the Beatles loved the Who’s edgy, power chord-filled singles); and Bob Dylan came to town, making John Lennon uncomfortable.
Just typing all that is making me gasp for air, but there was more – besides “Revolver,” notably a global tour that forced the band off the road once and for all. Why play when nobody can hear you, when the press corps’ questions are still stupid and dull, when you’re practically killed while running from a van to a hotel to a hall to a plane?
Turner digs deep into all this, turning up new tidbits every chapter. I had no idea that the Kinks’ Ray Davies felt threatened by the Beatles, giving “Revolver” a lukewarm song-by-song review. (Ray! “Face to Face” is just as good!) Or that McCartney was such a fan of Rene Magritte. Or that there was a plan for the Beatles to record at Stax Studios in Memphis … and get together with Motown’s Holland/Dozier/Holland. Or that the band was actually friendly with Art Unger, the editor of Datebook, the magazine that reprinted Maureen Cleave’s fateful “bigger than Jesus” Lennon interview in America. (Datebook did play up some of Lennon’s more provocative quotes, but to be fair, none of them had made a ripple in the months the interview was around before it appeared.) Or that the “Sgt. Pepper’s” cover was partly inspired by a list Frank Zappa had included with the Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out.” (The Mothers would repay the favor(?) with the cover of their 1968 LP, “We’re Only In It for the Money.”)
And P.S.: Turner even alludes to the “Paul Is Dead” rumor, given that, if you believe the elaborate tapestry about that story, Mr. McCartney died early in the morning of November 9, 1966 (the day after a “stupid bloody Tuesday” row). Turns out Paul was in Kenya, getting away from it all.
For all of these “whoa” moments, though, what impressed me about Turner’s telling was a sense that 1966 was very much part of a continuum – not just for the Beatles, but for music and art in general. I don’t know why, but having heard and read so much about these events for years, I picture them as discrete pieces, as if they have no connection to events of the years before or after, because they’re so different – as different as Herman’s Hermits is from the Jefferson Airplane. But of course they’re all related – just ask the Monkees, spun off of the “Hard Day’s Night”-era Beatles, about their 1967 opening act, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And the Beatles were pals with the Monkees, particularly Micky Dolenz.
Turner manages to link everything together. The world of “Beatles ‘66” was a small one, all seemingly mixing at the Bag o’ Nails or the Scotch of St James, reading the same books and aware of the same trends – and then pushing them in new directions and suggesting new works to investigate. I’ve long thought that 1966 was the greatest year in pop music history (“The Ballad of the Green Berets” and “Elusive Butterfly” notwithstanding), but “Beatles ‘66” also suggests that it’s one of the great creative years, period, a time when you could still bring outré ideas into the mainstream (a book called “The Passover Plot” informed Lennon’s religious thinking) and make them palatable to the masses.
Of course, part of the reason that happened was the miracle of the Beatles, who had the ability to soak up so much diversity and re-create it as something fresh. It’s happened since – I think of the line that connects the comedy of the Goons and Nichols and May to Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, National Lampoon, and “Saturday Night Live” up to “The Simpsons” – but it’s become the exception in our splintered, overly attention-demanding times. We’ll never see the likes, or the life-force, of the Beatles again.
Makes me want to turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream.
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