MAHARISHI MAHESH YOGI played an important role in the Beatles career, one that has been shoved aside by fans and historians. If you were of age and paying attention in 1968, the Maharishi was the Big Poobah in the Fab Four’s lives, at least for a while. Given the recent loss of manager, mentor, and father figure Brian Epstein, the lads from Liverpool may have been unconsciously looking for a replacement.
The Maharishi was happy to oblige and extended a warm invitation to come and learn Transcendental Meditation (referred to simply as “TM”). On February 16, 1968, John and Cynthia Lennon and George and Pattie Harrison arrived in Rishikesh in northern India to be a part of a special course in TM at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Lady Madonna was shocking to fans expecting a follow-up to Hello Goodbye and I Am the Walrus.
“Our arrival at Delhi went very much unheralded,” recalled Mrs. Lennon. “We were bundled unmolested and travel-weary into three battered, ancient Indian taxis without all the usual fuss and frantic rush. It was wonderfully refreshing and stress-free.”
This event was also attended by Donovan (then at the height of his fame and influence) and Mike Love of the Beach Boys (then spiraling downward from their height of just two years before). Also in attendance were jazz musician Paul Horn, movie star Mia Farrow, and her younger sister, Prudence Farrow.
While there, the musicians hung out together, playing acoustic guitars (there being no electricity) and sharing songs. Then, in an act of liberation, irony, buffoonery, or some existential combination of the three, the Beatles apparently turned on, tuned in, and dropped out on LSD instead of meditating and the Fab Four and entourage were asked to leave!
Or so one version of the story goes.
This is the September 1968 issue of Mad (35¢ Cheap), which has to be one of the first instances of the Beatles being openly mocked by a major publication in the US. Not counting the brouhaha over John Lennon’s declaring the Beatles to be more popular than you-know-who in 1966, of course.
Secular sexual appetites
Another story has the scheduled stay cut short among rumors of the Maharishi having very secular sexual appetites. “We made a mistake there,” Mr. Lennon remembered. “We believe in meditation, but not the Maharishi and his scene.”
Whatever the actual reasons, the Beatles may have left the man and his teachings behind, but two things happened because of their relationship with him:
1. TM became a worldwide phenomenon, still practiced by tens of millions today. (“If it’s good enough for the Beatles, it’s good enough for me.”)
2. The Beatles came away with almost four dozen newly penned songs.
The role of the Maharishi in the affairs of the Beatles requires more attention that I can give it here, but it needed to be addressed up front before I continued. And to be fair to the Maharishi and the Beatles, the rumors of his peccadilloes have never been substantiated and appear to have been falsely made, as are the rumors of their tripping instead of meditating.
“Lady Madonna” was one of the few Beatles singles of the decade not to make it to the toppermost of the poppermost, being kept from the #1 position of Cash Box by Bobby Goldsboro’s saccharine single “Honey.” This is the picture sleeve prepared by Capitol Records for use in the US; it is one of the last impressive Beatles sleeves from the ‘60s.
See how they run
Two weeks earlier, on February 3, the Beatles had returned to Abbey Road studio to work on their next single. Instead of continuing their exploration of psychedelia and “flower power,” they opted to get back to basics and recorded “Lady Madonna.” Rather than being a step forward or at least being horizontally in step with Sgt. Pepper and “All You Need Is Love,” the new single harkened back to the rock & roll of Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and the ‘50s.
It was a fine single, but regressive, not progressive. In hindsight, the Beatles so-called “return to roots” music of 1968 seems logical. At the time, however, “Lady Madonna” was quite shocking to fans who were expecting a follow-up to either the likable flab of “Hello Goodbye” or the impenetrable slab of “I Am the Walrus.”
Such was not the case and Paul’s making like Fats Domino (or Elvis) was a harbinger of things to come later in the year. (Coincidentally, for both the Beatles and Elvis.)
In an act of liberation, irony, and/or buffoonery, the Beatles apparently turned on, tuned in, and dropped out on LSD instead of meditating.
On May 11, 1968, with “Lady Madonna” already in the Top 10 on most of the major charts in the world, John and Paul took a plane to New York City to publicly announce the formation of the Beatles’ own company, Apple Corps Ltd, on whose Apple Records they would be releasing their records. While it seemed oh-so-groovy at the time—and a gigantic piece of public relations—it proved to be even more disastrous than the Magical Mystery Tour movie!
Two weeks later, John and Paul took the new songs that had been composed in India to George’s house. There they recorded more than two-dozen demos on Harrison’s 4-track tape-recorder. These demos would provide the foundation for their next album.
On May 30, 1968, the Beatles began the sessions that would give them the second biggest hit single of their career and the most profitable album issued in the ’60s by any artist anywhere.
The single was “Hey Jude” / “Revolution,” which was released on August 26, 1968. It was the first Beatles record released on Apple Records and featured Paul’s lengthy ballad as the A-side (whose lyrics sounded rather hopeful) with John’s harsh rocker as the B-side (whose lyrics seemed to call the masses to take to the streets).
“Hey Jude” spent seven weeks at #1 on the Cash Box Top 100, making it the group’s second biggest hit behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Clocking in at more than seven minutes, it was the longest single to reach the top of the charts! In 1999, it was certified by the RIAA for a 4xMulti-Platinum Record Award. Global sales reputedly approach 7,000,000.
The Beatles’ may have been intended “Lady Madonna” to break the group free of its affiliation with psychedelia, but that didn’t stop Parlophone in the Netherlands from selling it in a psychedelic picture sleeve. It’s possible that the art for this sleeve was conceived prior to the recording of the record, with Parlophone assuming more psychedelia was coming from their biggest sellers.
Where’s the psychedelia?
On November 22, 1968, Apple Records released The Beatles, a massive two-record set that clocked in at more than 93 minutes in playing time. It was crammed with all kinds of music, some of it the lamest the group had released and some of it (arguably) among their best.
Due to its plain white front and back covers, the album was immediately dubbed “The White Album,” a title that has stuck to it for fifty years and by which it is better known than its official title! (And it is as The White Album that I refer to it in the rest of this article.) There were several things that listeners noticed immediately about the new album:
1. It ranked with Rubber Soul as the Fab Four’s most acoustic album. This was due in large part to the folk-based, finger-picking style that Donovan taught John and Paul that they used when writing songs on their acoustic guitars while in India. (Refer to “Unplugging the White Album.”)
2. Like Rubber Soul, the new album stood out for its low-key production. Unlike Rubber Soul, the new album also stood out for what seemed like an almost complete lack of aspiration. Some fans even thought it lacked inspiration while others saw it as the group’s withdrawal from the world’s stage, a retreat from the limelight and its responsibilities.
3. And there was the almost complete lack of psychedelia, which also stood out because so other artists were going gangbusters with the lessons learned from the Beatles records of ’67, especially the engineering and production wizardry.
For most listeners, the plusses outweighed the minuses: the dizzying array of songs and styles and the sheer amazingness of the music overcame most complaints of all but the most negative of listeners (of which I was one for many years).
I am not going to attempt a song-by-song breakdown of the four sides. As I said, breaking the album down into individual parts and find fault with them or even praising them is pointless given that the wholeness, the oneness, of the album is what makes it important.
I can say that I think that pairing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” with “Dear Prudence” is one of the strongest and attention-getting openings of any of their albums, that my least favorite tracks are “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (and am continually astounded when I remember that Paul wanted it issued as a single) and “Honey Pie,” and that I seem to like “Revolution 9” a helluva lot more than most people.
It’s an album that requires repeated hearings—attentive, “serious” listening combined with just playing it while doing other things—to allow the relationships between the songs, the sounds, the moods, and between the four Beatles to take shape. It’s a rewarding endeavor, no matter how poor your initial impression of the album is.
This is one of my favorite photos from Sajish’s website: a plucky Indian (?) entrepreneur posted a hand-lettered sign welcoming tourists to their “Last Chance” at a bite to eat or a cold drink before reaching the “Beatle’s Ashram.” For more information on this and similar photos of Rishikesh, see Featured Image below.
The White Album as a gestalt
Like Sgt. Pepper, the new album worked like a gestalt: no matter how much you break the album down into individual parts and find fault with them—and it’s really easy to do just that (Ob-la-di-ob-la-da some wild honey pie, anyone?)—the the album-as-a-whole has an overwhelmingly positive effect on most listeners.
While the four members were on the verge of a break-up and occasionally at each other’s throats, the album as a whole is almost impossible to criticize without sounding fatuous. Here are a few bullet points about the individual contributions:
• George had moved away from the lure of India and toward the lure of contemporary rock and pop structure in his songs.
• Paul was all over the place with his effective love songs, straight-ahead rock & roll, and a growing infatuation with silly songs with a dance hall flavor.
• Ringo contributed a rare original composition with a country & western tang to it.
• John was angry. John was frustrated. John was alienated.
For John, gone was the straightforward voice of the early years, the suggestive voice of the psychedelic years, the playfulness of In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. In its stead was the sardonic and sarcastic humor of “Bungalow Bill” and “Sexy Sadie.”
As his anger and vitriol from that period have become a part of his story, it was unexpected by most fans in 1968. The Beatles were still only a few years removed from having been the charismatic, adorable “Mop-Tops” and we were only one year from the Beatles who had sung, “Love is all you need.”
Few people who grew up with the Beatles talk about how astounded they were by John’s songs and his singing on this album when they first heard it. Years later, the unauthorized release of the demo tapes recorded at George’s house gave us John singing those same new songs in a more passive, more tender voice than he had even on his psychedelic sides.
So what happened between the casual get-together at George’s house in early May and the final recording sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road studio in October?
This is what The Beatles looked like when first opened in 1968. The front cover had the group’s name in raised-letters that were difficult to see and a sequential serial number stamped in black ink in the lower right corner.
I’m going down
In 1968, John and Yoko were introduced to heroin, to which he took with his usual aplomb. Normally, to reach a point where heroin use becomes abuse takes months of “casual” use. Addiction is not lightly come by. For John to have moved from his generally genial, popular façade to one of abrupt, overt hostility would seem to indicate a severe break with his normal pattern of behavior; that is, lots of heroin used quickly.
“Lennon and Ono had become addicted to the drug in 1968, while The Beatles were making The White Album. He referred to his habit in ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ (I need a fix ’cause I’m going down) and ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’ (The deeper you go, the higher you fly).” (The Beatles Bible)
Lennon’s heroin use—which he claimed was snorted only, never with a needle—appears to have left him vexed and his approach to his music became more aggressive, more blunt, and, frankly, less interesting.
“Lennon’s heroin use accounted for much of his ambivalence during the Let It Be sessions in January 1969, although his addiction came and went. He was, for example, reportedly clean during the two bed-ins for peace in March and May 1969.” (The Beatles Bible)
The blank white surface of The Beatles aroused the inner-artist in thousands of fans around the country, who did everything imaginable to make the cover more eye-catching. For a look at some of these works of art, see “Just What Is It That Makes the White Album so Different, so Appealing?”
A sprawling, motley assemblage
Response to The White Album from fans and the critics at the time was mixed: although many fans were surprised by the direction the group had taken, most fans loved it and many initial detractors came under its spell with repeated listenings over time. (Like me.)
Response from the critics was equally mixed if given to seeing more of the negative aspects of the records than the fans did. At Time magazine, Richard Goldstein wrote, “Skill and sophistication abound, but so does a faltering sense of taste and purpose. The album’s 30 tracks are a sprawling, motley assemblage of the Beatles’ best abilities and worst tendencies.”
For The New York Times, Nik Cohn opined, “It’s been put together with endless care and tenderness and, finally, it’s boring almost beyond belief.”
Jon Landau expressed his belief in The London Daily Times that “The Beatles have used parody on this album precisely because they were afraid of confronting reality.”
There were, of course, many positive reviews. Perhaps the most famous was in Rolling Stone, where publisher Jann Wenner called it their best album and asserted that they are allowed to appropriate other styles because their ability and identity are “so strong that they make it uniquely theirs, and uniquely the Beatles. They are so good that they not only expand the idiom, but they are also able to penetrate it and take it further.”
For some reason, Capitol/Apple did not release “Hey Jude” / “Revolution” with a picture sleeve, although they were printed by Parlophone representatives around the globe. This colorful sleeve from the Netherlands nods toward the group’s “flower power” stage of the previous year. Even without a sleeve, “Hey Jude” was a huge hit in the US, spending seven weeks at #1 on the Cash Box Top 100.
You come down and sing it
During the making of The Beatles, both Ringo and EMI engineer Geoff Emerick quit the Beatles. Emerick had joined the group’s sessions in 1966 and had played a creative hand in many of the studio effects that made Revolver and Sgt. Pepper special.
But the ’68 sessions were too much for him—the proverbial internecine squabbling among the band members was more than he could tolerate or bear—and on July 16 he abandoned the project:
“I lost interest in The White Album because they were really arguing amongst themselves and swearing at each other. The expletives were really flying. There was one instance just before I left when they were doing ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ for the umpteenth time.
“Paul was re-recording the vocal again and George Martin made some remark about how he should be lilting onto the half-beat or whatever and Paul, in no refined way, said something to the effect of ‘Well you come down and sing it’.
“I said to George ‘Look, I’ve had enough. I want to leave. I don’t want to know anymore.’ George said ‘Well, leave at the end of the week’ but I said ‘No, I want to leave now, this very minute,’ and that was it.” (The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions)
On August 22, Ringo quit the band. He took his family and flew down to the Mediterranean and spent two weeks aboard Peter Sellers’ yacht. He then returned to the recording sessions. While he has made light of the situation since he did need a break from the John-and-Yoko-versus-Paul vibes of the sessions.Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken from the article “The Beatles — Their Ashram and Their Cathedral” on the Travails and Travel blog (March 23, 2015). The correspondent Sajish GP remarked, “I had four days to kill in Rishikesh before the start of a trek up in the snowy hills. On that particular day, I decided to roam around a bit on foot and explore Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram more popularly known as the Beatles’ Ashram because of its one-time residents who were here in the late ’60s.”
The units that the Beatles, their entourage, and other celebrities occupied in 1968 have been left to the ravages of time and tourists, who have covered the exterior and interior walls in messages and art. Sajish posted more than 80 photos of the ashram and the graffiti within and without. To see these photos, click on over to “The Beatles – Their Ashram and Their Cathedral.”
The Beatles ’68 (Tetralogy)
Here are the four parts of this not-particularly-deep look at the Beatles and The White Album:
• Sgt. Pepper on Blue Jay Way (Beatles ’68, Part 1)
• In Search of the Lost Mentor (Beatles ’68, Part 2)
• Unplugging the White Album (Beatles ’68, Part 3)
• We’re All Getting Back to Our Roots (Beatles ’68, Part 4)