Halfway into the Summer of Love, and the Beatles were back on top of the world. Since Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine was number 1, the Fab Four had given up touring in August 1966 and worked on separate projects, with John Lennon starring in Richard Lester’s comedy How I Won the War (1967) and Paul McCartney scoring the 1966 comedy drama The Family Way.
Reconvening in November, they began work on Lennon’s dark, psychedelic masterpiece Strawberry Fields Forever, then McCartney’s joyous Penny Lane. It’s believed that McCartney became the last band member to try LSD that December. By this point, Lennon was a heavy user, which resulted in him becoming more emotionally withdrawn and lacking his usual bullishness. McCartney would become unofficial band leader over the next year.
These tracks were originally intended for their next album, which could have been based around the Beatles’ childhood, but after pressure from EMI, they were released as a double A-side single in February 1967. Famously, despite perhaps being their finest ever 7-inch release, not even the biggest band in the world were able to stop Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me, and for the first time since 1963, they didn’t get to number 1.
It wasn’t a big deal for the Beatles, who knew they were taking giant steps away from their cuddly moptop image of old. They were now working on their next album. The idea of a concept album based around a concert by Sgt. Pepper’s band came from McCartney. It would give them the freedom to create a wildly different type of album, and indulge themselves like never before. They knew they would not have to perform live anymore, so were able to experiment in ways previously thought impossible. Their magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was finished in April, and released on 1 June.
The Beatles had changed forever, but the world still needed them, and so it changed with them too. Like Procul Harum, they captured the zeitgeist, and next they released a single that would be the unofficial anthem of the Summer of Love.
In May the band agreed to represent Great Britain on the live TV special Our World. Scheduled to be broadcast around the world on 25 June, the show would feature artists representing each country across the globe. The Beatles were working on giving tracks to the forthcoming animated movie Yellow Submarine, and at first they weren’t sure what track to choose for the show. The only instructions they were given was that it needed to contain a message that could be understood anywhere in the world. When manager Brian Epstein told them, they originally bristled at the idea. One track they considered was McCartney’s Your Mother Should Know.
Opinion is divided over whether All You Need Is Love was then written specifically for Our World, or whether it was a track Lennon had in mind for them anyway. Perhaps lyrically inspired by The Word from 1965’s Rubber Soul, and George Harrison’s Within You Without You from their new album, Lennon liked the concept of making an advertisement for love, and turning the song into an advert for the concept. Turning it into a catchy slogan fitted with the idea of Our World perfectly.
The producers of the show wanted the track to be performed entirely live, but producer George Martin insisted the group performed to a backing track. Work began on 14 June at Olympic Sound Studios, and with the Beatles now fully engrossed in the idea of embracing random elements into their methods, they decided to play instruments they weren’t used to (with the exception of Ringo Starr). Lennon was on harpsichord, McCartney on double bass and Harrison played the violin. With unusual sloppiness, they bounced this performance on to one of four available tracks. Five days later they overdubbed piano from Martin, plus banjo, guitar and vocal parts including Lennon on the chorus and the ‘Love, love love’ harmonies.
Two days before the show, they rehearsed with an orchestra, which they added to the backing track. It was only the day before the performance that they announced it would be their next single. Around this time their was a minor furore over McCartney revealing on television that he had taken LSD. Despite being the last to do so, the other three had never revealed their drug use to the media.
On the day of the broadcast, Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick drank scotch whiskey to calm their nerves. After all, Our World was to be shown to millions upon millions of viewers. The Beatles sat nonchalantly on high stools, surrounded by a 13-piece orchestra and celebrity friends sat beneath them (how symbolic!), including members of the Rolling Stones, the Who, Small Faces and Cream, plus Marianne Faithfull, Pattie Boyd and Jane Asher. It’s a shame the broadcast was in black and white, as the studio was awash with colour. With much of the track already in the bag, Starr’s drums, McCartney’s bass and Harrison’s guitar solo were performed live, as well as the lead vocal from Lennon and backing vocals from the group and their assorted friends.
The Beatles’ music normally transcends time and place, and you rarely find yourself saying ‘I guess you had to be there’, but I feel that does apply to All You Need Is Love. Back in 1995 when I was 16 and obsessed with them, I wanted to be a hippy and this single was up there with my favourites. Now I’ve grown up and become more tired and cynical, I find it somewhat… I’m not sure if ‘hollow’ is the right word or not… it seems harsh. But for me in 2019, its their least creatively impressive single for several years.
Then again, it was intended as a celebration of the spirit of the times, and in that sense it certainly achieved what it set out to do. The orchestral elements help add flavour to proceedings, and I like the trumpet elements that interject after every line of the chorus, creating a lazy, drunken feel. The brief snatch of the French national anthem, La Marseeillaise at the start makes for a great introduction. However it’s unusual for a Beatles song to quote so many old songs. Was this to go along with the party atmosphere or a sign they were creatively lacking. I don’t know, but it does make for a rousing finale, mixing in In the Mood, Greensleeves, and even Beatles classics Yesterday and most memorably of all, She Loves You. Using the latter two works in a similar way to the usage of waxwork dummies of the Beatles in their earlier days on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Hearts Club Band. It’s as if they’re saying goodbye to their younger, fresh-faced selves. To get the most out of the song’s finale, listen to the mono mix – the fade-out is slightly longer.
Brian Epstein, who was only two months away from his early death, called All You Need Is Love the finest moment of the Beatles. It’s far from it, but its nice that he felt that way towards the group that had transformed his life. Whatever your opinion on the song, it’s a great sentiment, it was right for the time, and Lennon’s slogan stuck, and showed the way forward for his eventual solo career.
The single would find its way on to the Magical Mystery Tour US album – which, since the CD releases in 1987, is a UK album too. It also made a memorable appearance in Yellow Submarine (1968) and features on the movie’s soundtrack too.
In the news that summer: the British steel industry was nationalised on 28 July. On 3 August, the inquiry into the Aberfan disaster (see Distant Drums) blamed the National Coal Board for the deaths of 164 people in South Wales in October 1966. And on 5 August, psychedelic pop group Pink Floyd released their classic debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Producer: George Martin
Weeks at number 1: 3 (19 July-18 August)
Broadcaster Rageh Omaar – 19 July
Journalist Lauren Booth – 22 July
Tennis player Monique Javier – 22 July
Cricketer Darren Bicknell – 24 July
Actor Jason Statham – 26 July
Actor Basil Rathbone – 21 July