In 1967, The Beatles upped the game with Sgt Pepper. But the following year they would make an album that mapped out rock’s future – as they themselves were falling apart.
As the 60s swung about them and their iconic mop-tops grew increasingly shaggy, The Beatles enjoyed an unprecedented level of celebrity. Ubiquitous, universally adored, John, Paul, George and Ringo were the four most famous faces on the planet. Their uncanny ability to crank out concise, era-defining hits was the key to their success, and their world-beating charm was significantly enhanced by their easy camaraderie.
The Beatles were a gang; a gang that everybody wanted to join. Boys wanted to be them, girls wanted to be with them. But the private world that they shared remained seductively impenetrable. Somewhere between the musty bowels of Liverpool’s Cavern and the sordid fleshpots of Hamburg, they had developed an understanding that bordered on telepathy, an intuitive harmony that manifested itself in the creation of perfect pop.
But times change. Especially when you live your life under an unforgiving media spotlight, indulged, pampered, preyed upon by divisive sycophants, your judgment almost permanently refracted through a psychedelic prism.
Bound together by the captivity of fame, The Beatles came to resent their essential closeness. And by 1968, as they set about recording their eponymous double White Album, they were pretty much sick of the sight of each other. Just as telepathic harmony between the four Beatles had facilitated the creation of perfect pop, so growing disharmony bred the raw, discordant fury of rock.
The most significant of a series of events that activated The Beatles’ metamorphosis from exemplary pop group to prototype rock band was the death of Brian Epstein (above left). The band learned of their manager’s barbiturate overdose on August 27, 1967 while studying transcendental meditation with Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Wales. Within the week, they announced their decision to manage themselves.
Without Epstein’s cautious hand on the tiller, The Beatles were let off the leash creatively. Lennon was hit the hardest by his death, and as he enthusiastically self-medicated with lashings of LSD, the balance of power steadily shifted towards McCartney.
Epstein’s death left a gaping, substitute parent-shaped void in Lennon’s life (an unsatisfactory relationship with his absentee father combined with his mother’s early death left him vulnerable and in constant pursuit of a viable alternative). The drugs didn’t work, and his marriage to his first wife, Cynthia, was on its last legs. So when George Harrison suggested a trip in February 1968 to Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas, to attend a further course in TM under the tutelage of the Maharishi, John was the first to sign up.
Soon enough, Paul and Ringo followed, along with wives, partners, Celtic folkie Donovan, Beach Boy Mike Love, actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence. John had considered inviting Yoko Ono, the Japanese artist he had met at an art gallery in November 1966 and with whom a mutual attraction had grown, but as Cynthia was also in attendance he thought better of it.