Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

‘Their production will be second to none’ :
an introduction to Sgt. Pepper

Olivier Julien

San Francisco, Candlestick Park, 29 August 1966: the 25,000 people in the audience do not know it yet, but they are attending the last public concert the Beatles will ever give. During the tour that is ending tonight, the Fab Four did not perform any songs from their latest album, Revolver, considering that their usual line-up of two guitars, bass and drums could not possibly reproduce songs like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ on stage. Their career has just reached a turning point. Four years of intensive touring and three years of Beatlemania have left them dissatisfied and exhausted. Back in August 1964, they had already expressed their dislike of spending their lives in anonymous hotel rooms and television and radio studios. But this time, it is more than mere dislike: this time, in Cincinnati, they have been frightened to the point of being sick when they found themselves in the middle of 35,000 screaming fans who had just been told that the concert had to be postponed for rain; this time, in the Bible Belt, they also faced hostile demonstrations and received death threats following John Lennon’s statement that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus’.1 As Philip Norman observes in his classic biography: ‘It did not start out as the Beatles’ last tour. It started as their next tour and finished as the one none of them ever wanted to repeat’ (Norman 1981, p. 254). On the plane home to London after the concert, George Harrison will be the first to answer the question that was on everybody’s mind over the past two months by announcing: ‘Well that’s it, I’m not a Beatle anymore’ (quoted in Martin with Pearson 1994, p. 11).

Back in England, the Beatles will do nothing to confirm or deny their intention to give up touring, which will eventually lead to rumours of the band splitting. However, it is obvious that their decision has already been made. In private, Ringo Starr confesses to Hunter Davies:

We got in a rut, going round the world. It was a different audience each day, but we
were doing the same things. There was no satisfaction in it. Nobody could hear … It was
wrecking our playing … The noise of the people just drowned anything. Eventually I just
used to play the off beat, instead of a constant beat. I couldn’t hear myself half the time,
even on the amps, with all the noise. (Quoted in Davies 1992, p. 292)

1 Lennon made this now-famous statement during an interview with Maureen Cleave that was published in the London Evening Standard on 4 March 1966. The scandal began after the latter interview was reprinted in an American teenage magazine, Datebook, in July 1966. The exact text was: ‘Christianity will go … It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity’ (reprinted in Thomson and Gutman 1988, p. 72).

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