50 Years Ago: The Beatles Experience an Amazing Series of Pre-‘Sgt. Pepper’ Highs and Lows – All on a Single Day
The Beatles didn’t record or release any music on May 19, 1967, but it became an important (and infamous) day anyway.
First, the Beatles played host to a press launch at manager Brian Epstein’s London home for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was to come out in two weeks. This was the first time anyone outside their inner circle had heard the album. Also on hand was photographer Linda Eastman, who took her first photos of the Beatles. Her presence at the champagne-and-caviar event marked the second time she met Paul McCartney, cementing an attraction.
May 19 was also the day that the British Broadcasting Corporation selected the Beatles to participate in the upcoming Our World broadcast. They would debut “All You Need is Love” at the June 25 event, which was billed as the first-ever live, international satellite television production. Each of the scheduled performers was meant to embody their native countries; in keeping, a spokesperson called the Beatles, “the best of their kind.”
Even as the BBC was publicly praising the Beatles, however, they were also becoming increasingly uncomfortable with certain aspects of the band’s music. The third significant event on May 19 followed as the BBC banned “A Day in the Life” from its radio and television airwaves. The reason: They felt the song contained references to illicit drugs.
McCartney, while still at the Sgt. Pepper launch party, pushed back. “The BBC have misinterpreted the song,” he told the Associated Press. “It has nothing to do with drug taking. It’s only about a dream.” Of course, Paul would later admit that he and John Lennon were, in fact, referencing drugs in the lyrics – all while giving each other a “knowing look.” But the two couldn’t admit that to the media.
Besides, that’s not all “A Day in the Life” was about, given that the song’s impetus came from a report that friend Tara Browne had been killed in car accident. “The laugh is that Paul and I wrote this song from a headline in a newspaper. It’s about a crash and its victim,” Lennon said. “How can anyone read drugs into it is beyond me. Everyone seems to be falling overboard to see the word drug in the most innocent of phrases.”
The BBC’s principal issue was the line “I’d love to turn you on.” A few days later, on May 23, BBC Director of Sound Broadcasting Frank Gillard wrote an apologetic letter to the head of EMI laying out their objections. “The recording may have been made in innocence and good faith, but we must take account of the interpretation that many young people would inevitably put upon it,” Gillard wrote. “‘Turned on’ is a phrase which can be used in many different circumstances, but it is currently much in vogue in the jargon of the drug-addicts.”
Radio personality Kenny Everett attended the Sgt. Pepper launch party to record interviews with the Beatles for the BBC’s Where It’s At, which would be broadcast on May 20. He played every track on Sgt. Pepper – except “A Day in the Life.” Ironically, a song with an actual reference to getting high (“With a Little Help From My Friends”) and another thought to be about LSD (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”) both aired.
Of course, the BBC’s decision did little to stop the success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It might even have enhanced the revered album’s association with psychedelics. Meanwhile, this brand of censorship – which was lifted in 1972 – was a far cry from what the Beatles experienced with the LP in elsewhere in the world. When EMI released Sgt. Pepper in Southeast Asia, for instance, entire songs were removed – including “A Day in the Life,” “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” They were replaced by “The Fool on the Hill,” “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” and “I Am the Walrus,” songs that would later appear on Magical Mystery Tour. A South Korean edition also deleted “Lucy” and “Day” because of drug references.
Once again, all of this censorship had a tinge of irony. While the banned songs may have been influenced by drugs, a track later described by McCartney as a flat-out “ode to pot” made it through. “Fixing a Hole” appeared on every release and went unbanned by radio.
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