Image: Rosemary and Timothy Leary, John and Yoko (Stephen Sammons)
This June marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ classic, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released in the midst of the Summer of Love in 1967, the record encapsulates the creative spirit of the epoch. Conceiving an alter ego in the form of an Edwardian military band, The Beatles embarked upon this artistic reinvention as a means of musical experimentation. Evidently the most idealistic of the Fab Four, John Lennon would embrace the spirit of hippie culture with open arms and try to live by the simple values of peace and love until his untimely assassination in 1980.
The band’s psychedelic experimentation was deep rooted in Revolver (1966). The LP captures this artistic progression, with epic closer Tomorrow Never Knows establishing the precedent for the genre forever. Penned by Lennon under the influence of LSD, the track was inspired by Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead and is believed to be the first recorded pop song to utilise reversed sounds.
Leary was the one going round saying take it, take it, take it. And we followed his instructions in his ‘how to take a trip’ book. I did it just like he said in the book, and then I wrote Tomorrow Never Knows which was almost the first acid song.
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…
The Beatles’ newfound aesthetic flavour could be found in the art pop of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (the obvious mind altering drug connotations were later deemed as coincidence by Lennon). The surrealist imagery laced in the lyrics is nonetheless quintessentially psychedelic; a mood solidified visually in the band’s evolution from starry eyed do-gooders in matching suits to multicoloured love gurus.
For Lennon, the psychedelic spirit would permeate not only musically and visually, but spiritually. During production of Abbey Road (1969) – in protest of the Vietnam War – the star, alongside wife Yoko Ono, conducted an infamous “bed-in” for peace.
In attendance that day was the aforementioned Leary, the innovative psychologist whose controversial philosophies so profoundly influenced Tomorrow Never Knows. Leary’s advocation of the benefits of controlled psychedelic drug therapy was espoused by Lennon, who around the time as the “bed-in” began to write Come Together as a campaign song for Leary’s run for Governer of California (Leary subsequently failed having been sent to jail for marijuana possession, only to be smuggled out by militant left-wingers before fleeing to Algeria).
Published on the Timothy Leary Archives back in 2012, the transcript below is an excerpt from a conversation between Leary and wife Rosemary, John and Yoko. Lost in an unmarked envelope in a box of miscellaneous owned by the academic’s longtime friend and archivist, Michael Horowitz since 1984, the original tape was hitherto unpublished in 2012 and captures the minimalist essence of its time:
Tim: Living in a teepee is great. It’s pretty basic. It’s the first artificial habitat, after all.
Rosemary: It’s the sexiest building ever invented.
Tim: It’s like being in a sailboat, because you have to know exactly where the wind is. You raise the fluttering banners, and just look up through the smoke-flap and you can see how the wind blows. If you don’t have the flaps the right way, the wind will blow the smoke down. We always have to be aware of the wind.
John: Yeah, Yoko had this plan for us two. To blindfold ourselves for two weeks, y’know, and just work it out. We might do that when we get to the new house and find out about it.
Rosemary: Yes, it’d be a fantastic way to learn about it.
Yoko is characteristically introverted for the most part, but does express disappointment at her portrayal in the mass media and comments on the aversion to hatred in places like Amsterdam at the time. Continuing the anti-establishment elements of late 60s counterculture into the 70s, the revolutionary stance Lennon would go on to take in an abundance of solo tracks drew on the more political tones of the psychologist’s work (Leary popularised the term “think for yourself and question authority”).
In its egalitarian spirit, the countercultural zeitgeist of the 1960s undoubtedly remains particularly pertinent in today’s political climate of increasing protectionism. Its influence upon civil and women’s rights stresses the seriousness with which free thinking and the arts should be viewed in any society.