Lucy, Pablo & Tara: Behind
Lennon’s Sgt. Pepper Songs
Some say that John Lennon was the reporter-on-duty for the Beatles. For the most part, his songs do have that matter-of-fact quality, often commenting on the news of the day. Or of his life, for that matter, and always taking a lot of artistic liberties, of course.
Three songs from the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album have exquisite stories behind them: Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and A Day in the Life. One family-generated, other on vaudeville history, and another about a crash that may have shaken London society and pretty much no one else, but that did send John ‘into a dream.’
We’re not getting into the slippery slope of ancient rock music critique, for most of these stories have been percolating around for over 40 years. They’re part of the lore and mystique about the Beatles and, we promise, that’s the last word ending in ‘QUE’ we’ll be using on this post. But before we forget, of course, these are outstanding songs, and the passage of time has had no effect on them.
As such, they always had room to inspire apocryphal tales about them, which are sometimes so colorful and detailed that only Apple would care enough to periodically deny them any currency. Reality tramps delusion in the case of these three, however, and their true origins, supported by Lennon on record talking about them, also belong to the ‘we can’t make this stuff up’ category.
‘I went to see what the other songs spelled out. They didn’t spell anything out.’ That’s John Lennon emphatically denying that Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds had anything to do with LSD, a drug they were reportedly experimenting with at the time the album came out. By now, even Bob Dylan’s grandchildren know that it was a drawing that John’s son, Julian, had made in school.
The drawing was about Julian’s schoolmate, Lucy, who of course, came out to identify herself in the years since. It was a lucky match to the mood of the times and John, dutifully, used the drawing as a springboard for the song. It’s also his homage of sorts to one of his own childhood heroes, Lewis Carroll, author of the pre-Surrealism, nonsensical coming-of-age tale Alice in Wonderland.
John wrote most of it but the song is vintage Lennon & McCartney, with both trading striking images to complete the lyrics (which incidentally, were sold in a 2010 Sotheby’s auction for $1.2 million). ‘I remember coming up with ‘cellophane flowers’ and ‘newspaper taxis,’ Paul said, ‘and John answered with things like ‘kaleidoscope eyes’ and ‘looking glass ties’. Such rich visual suggestions would be fully explored on Yellow Submarine, released a year later.
Talking about the mood of the times, Benefit to Mr. Kite is a gem among gems. It’s doubtful, though, that the great majority of Beatles fans then, at least outside England, would know the meaning of its lyrics. Not much beyond the vague idea, accurately conveyed by the musical arrangement, that it was about someone named Pablo Fanque and some old circus, anyway. And really, who would care otherwise?
Well, John for one did, and took pains to use the right vocabulary to tell the story of an evening performance by horsemen and
‘somerset turners,’ playing amid hoops and garters. The thing is, he pretty much turned a vintage poster, advertising a pre-music hall vaudevillian circus, into arguably one of the most intriguing set of lyrics of pop music ever.
According to the lore, he’d found the Victorian playbill earlier that year, in a Kent antique store, and created the commentary that envelops the description of some of the acts to be performed at Bishopsgate, Rochdale in February 1843. Fanque’s Circus Royal, as it turned out, was a successful troupe, perennially on tour in the British countryside throughout the 19th century.
Before he became famous by his stage name, Fanque was William Darby, born in 1796, in Norwich, and the son of a black father and a white mother. Little else is know about him, until he reinvented himself and became a multi-talented circus performer, acrobat, tightrope walker and horse trainer, billed in the press as ‘the loftiest jumper in England.’
Issues of race may have pervaded his career and late booming, as it took him a few decades to finally be able to lead his own initially modest troupe. Somewhere William Kite, the acrobat, and John Henderson, a rider, wire-walker and tumbler, joined in, and the wandering group grew to dozens of horses, clowns, musicians, a ring master and its own 3000-seat auditorium in Manchester.
Despite fame and success, his life was also marked by tragedy, when an accident at a rented space killed his first wife in Leeds, 1848, and when old age found him practically destitute, living in a rented room at Stockport Inn, where he died in 1881. One of his children, Ted Pablo, who once performed for Queen Victoria, died over three decades before the Lennon song became a hit.
HE BLEW HIS MIND
The song that closes Sgt. Pepper, A Day in the Life, has a number of interesting features, including a distinctive part sang by Paul, and at the time, the longest chord ever recorded in pop music. It’s a meditative view of England in the 1960s, through keen and wide-eye observations about daily events and society mores, with a few ironic asides about the British army having ‘won the war.’
At their core, the lyrics bring a rather graphic description of a car crash which, historians say, may have been the accident that killed in 1966, 21-year old Tara Browne, heir to the Guinness (beer) fortune and already a feature of the Swinging London of the time. Accordingly, he was friends with the Beatles and also a Paul McCartney-lookalike, to whom he reportedly gave his first LSD.
Fans familiar with the video of the song Rain, sent to be shown on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1966, which features a cracked-tooth Paul, would also know that the Beatle was hanging around with Tara, when he fell from his moped back in England. Apparently, there was no time to fix his teeth before the group shot the pre-MTV video clip, at Chiswick House in London.
Somehow that chipped tooth, Tara’s fatal accident and the studio-made crash sound that ends Helter Skelter are all connected with the Paul Is Dead rumors of the time, and there are some who believe that Faux Paul is really Tara after plastic surgery, along a number of other insane pieces of trivia that, for crying out loud, we won’t be listing here any time soon, if we can help ourselves.
Suffice to say that the socialite was speeding up his ‘turquoise’ Lotus Elan, in which he’d entered the Irish Grand Prix, when he was killed. His life, although surely very important to himself, his family and the legions of bottom feeders who certainly followed him around, would be all but forgotten, hadn’t been for John’s inspiration.
OFF WITH THEIR HEADS
Or should we say, at least he had an artist of John Lennon’s stature to report and memorialize the moment when ‘he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.’ Most of us, of course, won’t notice them either, but will have nothing of the sorts. Let’s face it, most likely there won’t be a Beatle reading the news about us in any circumstance, and that’s a fact.
Finally, if you’re into This Day in History kind of thing, the Beatles arrived in Adelaide, Australia, 48 years ago today, where they’d meet the press and perform in quick succession. At the peak of Beatlemania, John, Paul, George and Jimmy Nichols were in fine form… Come again? Yeah, no Ringo, but Nichols, in what was to become history’s greatest, and briefest, world-famous musical career.
A year later, they all (but not poor Jimmy) would receive the MBE from Elizabeth II, Queen of the British Empire, a profitable but dubious honor. So much so, that in 1969, unsatisfied with the U.K.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, obliviousness to the Biafra famine in Africa, and blatant indifference to his song Cold Turkey, then ‘slipping down the charts,’ Lennon would return his medal.