Beatles Rishikesh Ashram Sajish 4 1500 crop

in search of the lost mentor (beatles ’68 part 2)

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.

 

MadMagazine Beatles Maharishi Sep1968 500

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.

 

Beatles LadyMadonna PS EastCoast 600

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.

 

Beatles LadyMadonna PS Netherlands 600

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.

 

Beatles Rishikesh Sajish LastChance 1000

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?

 

Chang WhiteAlbum LP

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)

 

Chang WhiteAlbum TILIW 6 600

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.”

 

Medium IMAGE Beatles HeyJude PS Netherlands 600

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

Beatles Rishikesh Ashram Sajish 4 1000

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)

 

 

Subscribe
Notify of
Rate this article:
Please rate this article with your comment.
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments