Certain songs come to define a time and a place in history. The 1960s spawned countless examples of songs such as this; tracks that feel like an inseparable part of the time they’re a product of — as though they have been stitched into the very fabric of the era. With songs like ‘I Am The Walrus‘, ‘A Day In The Life’, and innumerable others, The Beatles curated an all-encompassing soundtrack for a world in the midst of a cultural revolution.
It was a revolution spearheaded by the mind-altering proliferation of pop culture and drugs like LSD and, for the most part, soundtracked by a heaving group of rock musicians. Below we’ll be looking at John Lennon’s favourite song from that period of social transformation, a track he described as the perfect “dope song”.
It’s easy to look at the 1960s as an entirely unique decade. It’s easy to imagine that artists had relied not on drugs, but on arithmetic and other rigorous mental exercises to inspire their creativity in previous decades. But the reality is that drug use and artistry have always had a symbiotic relationship. Consider writers such as Oscar Wilde sipping on absinthe or jazz musicians engaging in lengthy, drug-fuelled concerts during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. No, the ’60s simply marked the moment that the relationship between music and drug use was popularised and demystified.
LSD became especially important to The Beatles during the latter years of the 1960s. After drinking tea laced with the psychoactive substance in the home of John Riley, The Beatles were transformed. Suddenly, their music became more cerebral and oblique. It was no longer founded on the recognisable musical principles of western music but on eastern-influenced song structures and experimental production techniques. It was during this time in Lennon’s career that he became obsessed with Procol Harum’s song ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’.
In his book Lennon: The Definitive Biography, Ray Coleman tells about an episode at a party at Brian Epstein’s, just before the release of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper Coleman describes how: “We spoke a little about the state of the music scene, and he (Lennon) said there was one ‘dope’ record which he couldn’t get off his mind. He couldn’t remember the title. All other pop music of that period was ‘crap’, one of his favourite words at that time.”
“Next day John phoned me,” Coleman continues, “I remembered after I’d gone what record it is that I can’t stop playing,’ he said. ‘It’s that dope song, Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’. It’s the best song I’ve heard for a while. You play it when you take some acid and … whoooooooo.'”
The effect of the Fab Four’s regular acid trips had a profound effect on not just their music but on their style, their public personas, and their appreciation of contemporary music. It seemed to renew something within them that had started to fade to grey, transforming the world into a kaleidoscope of vibrant colour.
In Scorsese’s documentary George Harrison: Living In the Material World, there is an interview in which Derek Taylor, ‘the fifth Beatle’, describes travelling to Brian Epstein’s home in Sussex. Taylor recalls: “Waiting for us was John and George and they were dressed in this exotic way; they had silk shirts that were this incredible colour and they hugged us and they kissed us and all of a sudden there were no barriers – and what’s happening? We were swept outside of Heathrow Airport where John’s Rolls Royce like a Romany caravan was waiting for us – George in his Mini and us in the Rolls Royce with Procol Harum playing ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’, driving along the English roads from Surrey to Sussex.”
Yes, It would seem that even John Lennon had a song that defined his experience of the 1960s. Many people describe it as a time of innocence, an embryonic period before the Jonestown massacre and the ultimate demise of the hippie dream. In those years in the late 1960s, the world was bent out of shape in the most beautiful way possible. An entire generation of young people was liberating itself from the oppression of 9-5 mundanity, military service, and the trauma of the Holocaust. Young people recognised that trying to change the world by force had only led to destruction and totalitarianism. So, instead, the ’60s generation, helmed by band’s like The Beatles, attempted to change the world from within.