November 15, 2016
By Connor McIlveen and Hisham Temmar
Sergeant Who? The Beatles, drug culture, and censorship…
Who: The Beatles
What: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
When: 1960s – 1970s
Where: England and abroad
Why: Drug references and controversial album art
The Beatles were megastars at their peak and are still considered by some as one of the most influential bands of all time. Their eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was a departure from all musical conventions of the time, including their own previous style, blending dissonance (clever use of stereo sound) and what Ian McDonald, author of Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, calls “a shrewd fusion of Edwardian Variety orchestra and contemporary ‘heavy rock’” (233). In doing so, the band produced an album that was “arguably the most creative album in rock history” (About the Beatles). The album would be a major success for the band, acquiring 4 of the 7 Grammy Awards it was nominated for including Album of the Year. It also spent an astounding 175 weeks on the Billboard Top 200, 15 of which it held the coveted #1 spot. However, this album stirred major controversy in the United Kingdom as well as abroad, becoming censored for both the content of the songs and the accompanying artwork. Allusions to drug culture and depictions of controversial figures would play a large role in hindering the album’s distribution.
Released June 1st, 1967 in the UK and June 2nd in the US, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a joint effort of Beatles members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, along with producer George Martin. Recorded in 400 hours over a 129 day period, the album consists of 13 tracks running a total of 44 minutes. Almost all the songs were written in tandem by Lennon and McCartney, with the only exception being “Within You Without You” by Harrison.
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
2. With a Little Help From My Friends
3. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
4. Getting Better
5. Fixing a Hole
6. She’s Leaving Home
7. Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
8. Within You Without You
9. When I’m Sixty-Four
10. Lovely Rita
11. Good Morning Good Morning
12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Sgt. Pepper marked a major shift for the group. Just before starting on the album, The Beatles had decided to permanently end their career touring in August of 1966, as it was taking too great of a toll on them, both physically and musically. Because they had stopped touring, the band felt free to experiment openly with sound without having to worry about replicating it live later on. This freedom led to a sort of quirkiness that was not found in earlier productions, with complex orchestras woven into traditional Indian music, but still laced with that classic Beatles charm. The conclusion of their touring also led to the content of the album. In Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now, McCartney was quoted saying “We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men” (Miles 303). This desire to express their maturity led to out of the box thinking, ultimately leading to the revelation that would produce one of their most critically acclaimed works.
On a return flight from Kenya to London in November of 1966, McCartney toyed with the idea of creating a new identity for the group. As McCartney recounted in Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, “I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in persona of a fake group. We could make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place” (232). Playing with the words “Salt and Pepper” on the plane, McCartney, along with friend Mal Evans, came up with the fictional character “Sergeant Pepper.” Wanting to replicate the crazy band names they came across in India, Paul tacked on “Lonely Hearts Club,” a slang term for a dating agency.
I just fantasised, well, ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. That’d be crazy enough because why would a Lonely Hearts Club have a band?…The idea was to be a little more funky, that’s what everybody was doing.
– McCartney in Many Years From Now by Barry Miles 304
The name stuck, and soon thereafter The Beatles’ transformed into the Sergeant Pepper’s mythical Lonely Hearts Club Band. McCartney and Lennon would go on to write the opening two songs, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “With a Little Help From My Friends” to the tune of a fake live concert at the Lonely Hearts Club, but quickly the interest in the gimmick turned sour. In The Beatles Anthology, a book of quotes from the group about their time together, Starr recounted “we only got as far as Sgt Pepper and Billy Shears (singing With A Little Help From My Friends), and then we thought: ‘Sod it! it’s just two tracks.’ It still kept the title and the feel that it’s all connected, although in the end we didn’t actually connect all the songs up” (280). This led to the decision to treat the rest of the album as normal songs.
Though The Beatles were creative on their own, the group received help in establishing the psychedelic mysticism of the album with the aid of their newfound love of drugs, namely marijuana and LSD. The band often partook in these drugs, both during their free time and in the studio. The Beatles Bible, an online accumulation of Beatles history, noted that “at the time, John Lennon was at the height of his extended dalliance [relationship] with LSD.” The rampant use of drugs altered the mindset of the group. McCartney acutely expressed that they had “now got turned on to pot and thought of [themselves] as artists rather than just performers” (Miles 303). As the drugs slipped into their bodies, so did it slip into the themes and lyrics of their songs, resulting in riskier content and subsequent action by the governing authorities.
Despite the album’s widespread critical acclaim, it still received challenges. The ensuing censorship of the album took two main forms, the banning of tracks from BBC Radio stations (and removal of some songs from some retail versions of the album) across the globe and the censorship of the album art. Both forms of censorship highlight that even the most influential pieces of work cannot escape censorship. It is important to note, however, that the censorship of Sgt. Pepper did not stop people from hearing the album in its entirety. The main censor of the tracks was the BBC. But, in an interview with John Platoff, a professor of music at Trinity College, he expresses that the ban “made the BBC look foolish, because the album was widely available to buy (which everyone did), so no one was prevented from hearing it.” Even though it was available in many record stores across the UK, the BBC still felt like it had to ban the songs on its stations. It considered lyrics like this (taken from “A Day in the Life”) to be some of the main offenses:
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.
These lines were enough to ban the song until 1972. Internationally, EMI Studios also participated in censorship, completely removing three songs, “A Day in the Life,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “With a Little Help from my Friends,” from the Sgt. Pepper LP in South East Asia, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, for the same reasons outlined by the BBC (Beatles Again).
Three of the tracks on the album were a major cause for controversy and censorship. These tracks, embedded and previously mentioned above, are “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life,” and “With a Little Help from my Friends.” “Lucy,” the third track on the album, describes a strange setting where seemingly normal natural objects are made from everything from marshmallows to cellophane. The lyrics, and the “melodic eddies in an iridescent stream of sound” (MacDonald 240) come together to make the song an experience to listen to. While John Lennon claimed the title came “from a pastel drawing by his four-year-old son Julian and its atmosphere from a hallucinatory chapter in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass” (MacDonald 240), the BBC thought otherwise. It believed that the song’s title was a coded message referencing the hallucinogen LSD, and that the lyrics described a psychedelic experience while on LSD. This resulted in the BBC keeping it off the air in the UK until the album reached the influential notoriety it has today. According the The Beatles Bible, Lucy was an actual person; Lucy O’Donnell, was a classmate of Julian’s at the time. Interestingly enough, Lennon himself was not a fan of the song, and in the book All We Are Saying (by Lennon and David Sheff), he states the following:
It’s abysmal, you know? The track is just terrible. I mean, it is a great track, a great song, but it isn’t a great track because it wasn’t made right. You know what I mean? I feel I could remake every fucking one of them better.
– John Lennon in All We Are Saying 73
Lennon was very displeased with the track later on, as were others like MacDonald, who considered it “poorly thought out, succeeding more as a glamourous production… than as an integrated song” (241).
The following track, “A Day in the Life,” was officially banned by the BBC until 1967. It was banned “on the grounds that it could encourage a permissive attitude towards drugs” (Beatles Again). This censorship was due to lyrics such as the ones stated earlier, and others such as “I’d love to turn you on.” The audio to the track seems rather psychedelic and removed, with a middle section that goes against traditional conventions of music. The last song of the track, played after the fictional band concludes its show, seems to fit into the end as it is an apparent return to some kind of reality. However, according to Macdonald, the track was the first produced for the album, before the group had any direction they wanted to take the album in. It just so happened that when the album was finished, the song fit exactly where it needed to. Macdonald called the track “[The Beatles’] finest single achievement,” so it is fortunate that the song was readily available to hear on all mediums but radio, allowing most people to experience the album in its entirety.
The third track, “With a Little Help from my Friends,” was the least censored of the three, but was still included in the tracks removed from the Southeast Asian and Korean versions of the album. EMI Studios believed that lines such as “get high with a little help from my friends” directly referenced drug use, and this was seen as impermissible in the Southeast Asian release. The BBC never banned it in the UK, however, and since the album was available in full across most of the world, most of the album’s fan got to hear the song eventually. But, the censorship in Asia caused significant portion of the world to have to wait before they could hear the song in full. The track was produced in March of 1967, around the end of the album’s production, and was mostly produced by Lennon and McCartney. Considered a sort of “acid lullaby” (Macdonald), the song became symbolic of counterculture in the years after Sgt. Pepper’s release.
However, these were not the only tracks on the album to be censored, nor were the tracks the only features of the album that were censored. The song “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was also banned because the lyrics “‘Henry the Horse’ supposedly meant heroin (which it did not),” according to Platoff. The album also caused controversy in America when “‘She’s Leaving Home’ was attacked by religious groups…as a cryptic advertisement for abortion” (MacDonald 228). It seems the censors had a field day nitpicking the lyrics looking for faults. Of course, this situation was exacerbated by the growing controversy surrounding the album art.
Though it would go on to win the Grammy Award for Best Album Cover, the album art was controversial. Aided by art director Robert Fraser, designer Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, as well as photographer Michael Cooper, The Beatles set out to create a cover as unique as the songs contained within. The group ultimately decided on a portrait of the four as the fictional members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. For the background, McCartney recalled that he “asked everyone in the group to write down whoever their idols were” (Miles 305) in hopes of creating a gallery behind the band, the patrons of the Lonely Hearts Club. Being the quirky band they were, the list of idols quickly got out of hand. Among the likes of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan and various gurus (thanks to Harrison) stood Karl Marx, Jesus, and even Hitler. McCartney remarked “of course John, the rebel put Hitler and Jesus, which EMI wouldn’t allow, but that was John” (Miles 305).
This choice of “idols” would be censored both before release by their record label EMI in order not to offend foreign entities. Immediately, the label enforced self-censorship on the band, rejecting the inclusion of Jesus and Hitler, as well as Gandhi, who was removed “because EMI felt his inclusion might offend record buyers in India” (BeatlesAgain). Other people such as Lee Gorcey were removed by the label because they requested payment for the use of their likeness. This created turmoil for The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, who then had to personally write each person on the cover who was alive at the time to ask for permission.
Even after the self-censorship of the artwork, various foreign governments took the censorship further. Upon release in 1977 in Korea, the Korean government decided to remove not some but all of the characters on the front cover, leaving only the foursome with a black background with “Beatles” imprinted below (BeatlesAgain).
The back of the album featured the lyrics to all of the songs, the first of any modern pop record to do so (BeatlesBible). The songs’ lyrics were formatted perfectly so that they exactly filled up the back cover. Because some countries or regions such as Southeast Asia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong forced the label to remove certain songs regionally, their governments then had to alter the back of the artwork to reflect the changes. The Korean version saw the removal of the classic foursome standing and replaced with the image found in the centerfold, as well as a gap in the lyrics where songs were removed. Other governments like South East Asia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong took it a step farther and removed the lyrics entirely, as they had removed certain songs and replaced them with others off of the album Magical Mystery Tour (BeatlesAgain). What was left was only the classic band photo and the names of the newly created list of songs.
Though a marvel today, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had to jump through its fair share of hoops to reach the masses. The cause was The Beatles’ newfound romance with drugs and the desire to showcase their idealized vision of a mature piece of art. They wanted to express their viewpoints with the world, and subsequently defined the era. Producer George Martin attests to this, expressing, “I think Pepper did represent what the young people were on about…It was the epitome of the Swinging Sixties…the freedom of sex, the freedom of soft drugs like marijuana and so on” (Anthology 290). What manifested was an album that was laced with numerous references to drug culture, accompanied with artwork featuring controversial figures. This form of art did not sit well with both their record label EMI or various governments, forcing the band to endure both self-censorship in the studio and post release censorship abroad. However, this did not hinder the band’s mindset nor stop them from pursuing more abstract music. The album would still go on to be a critical success during its release and is still heralded as a masterpiece today. In 2012, Rolling Stone named it the Greatest Album of All Time, claiming that it was the “most important rock & roll album ever made” (RollingStone). The Beatles expressed the ideals of the counterculture, regardless of if doing so would put them in a bad light. Perhaps McCartney sums it up best, “I maintain that The Beatles weren’t the leaders of the generation, but the spokesmen” (Anthology 292). For better or worse, Sergeant Pepper’s fictional yet infamous Lonely Hearts Club Band ingrained itself into the minds of the people it touched.
Keywords: The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Music, Censorship, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Platoff, Drug Culture, Album Art, Weed, Marijuana, LSD