When The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 it was a move that few bands could make. Times were frantic and although Ringo Starr asserted, “The Beatles were never gone. And they could have come back,” when they took a break from the road, it seemed clear that the keys to the day-tripping tour bus would be stowed away for good.
They had run-ins with overzealous and notably armed crowds in the Philippines, had to be carted around in the States in armoured vehicles with no suspension and couldn’t get a moment’s rest whether they wanted to or not. All the while they were trying to twist their own sound towards the kaleidoscopic in a multitude of ways.
John Lennon, like a Radio 4 DJ never afraid to deploy an uber-niche reference without explanation, felt it was fitting to liken the last days of The Beatles as a tour de force as akin to Federico Fellini’s most obscure project. By 1969, Fellini had reached his own period of experimentation for the sake of it and he produced his most bombastic work: Satyricon.
Criterion describes the film as “an episodic barrage of sexual licentiousness, godless violence, and eye-catching grotesquerie, Fellini Satyricon follows the exploits of two pansexual young men—the handsome scholar Encolpius and his vulgar, insatiably lusty friend Ascyltus—as they move through a landscape of free-form pagan excess. Creating apparent chaos with exquisite control, Fellini constructs a weird old world that feels like science fiction.”
Now, that certainly sounds like a bizarre life to be living but Lennon was unflinching in his comparison. When being interviewed about their tour dates, John Lennon hinted at some of the debauched antics that would take place and referenced Fellini’s Satyricon as a comparison. “The Beatles’ tours were like Fellini’s Satyricon,” Lennon said, as quoted by Keith Badman in his book The Beatles: Off the Record.
Lennon added: “I mean, we had that image, but man, our tours were likes something else. If you could get on our tours, you were in. Australia, just everywhere! Just Satyricon. Just think of Satyricon with four musicians going through it.
He continued: “Wherever we went, there was always a whole scene going on. We had our four bedrooms separate and Derek and Neil’s rooms were always full of fuck knows what, and policemen and everything. Satyricon! We had to do something, and what do you do when the pill doesn’t wear off, when it’s time to go? I used to be up all night with Derek, whether there was anybody there or not. I could never sleep, such a scene it was.”
In another interview, he was even coy about revealing just how similar it was to the debauchery of Satyricon because Yoko Ono was in attendance. “When we hit town, we hit it, we were not pissing about,” he began. “You know, there’s photographs of me grovelling about, crawling about in Amsterdam on my knees, coming out of whore-houses and things like that, and people saying, “Good morning, John,” and all of that. And the police escorted me to the places because they never wanted a big scandal. I don’t really want to talk about it because it will hurt Yoko, and it’s not fair.”
The comparisons to the famed last days of Rome seem fitting in some ways, but in others, they fall apart. After all, The Beatles were just about built in a day and their empire has shown no signs of fading since it went up in a blaze of glory as the Fab Four fiddled. As Lennon once said: “I was an emperor. I had millions of chicks, drinks, drugs, power and everybody saying how great I was. It was like being in a fuckin’ train. I couldn’t get out.”