The Beatles, as well as being one of the most widely-loved bands of all time, are a group shrouded in mysticism and mystery. Whether it’s the ludicrous notion of Rosemary’s curse befalling John Lennon or Paul McCartney perishing and being quickly replaced, the Fab Four have always had a darker side.
Another mystery that has surrounded the band’s iconic 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was exactly who the titular character was, or at least, who it was inspired by. According to many, it’s the occultist writer Aleister Crowley.
Often referred to as “the wickedest man alive”, despite living during a time of both Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, Crowley quickly gained fame during the swinging sixties scene as his occultist magic seemed too appealing to turn down. Jimmy Page even bought Crowley’s house after becoming increasingly interested in the sensational figure.
The Beatles were clearly fans of the writer too, including him on their iconic album artwork for Sgt. Pepper (he’s at the top left-hand corner in the back row, right next to Mae West). But despite the portrait of Pepper on the album actually being of war hero James Melvin Babington, many have pointed to Crowley as the real Sgt. Pepper.
The album was released 20 years after the writer died a fact which has led many to suggest that when the band sing “It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,” highlights their allegiance to the writer. It’s a little flimsy, at best, and at worst, totally irrational.
It’s a claim that others suggest is substantiated by Lennon’s now-infamous 1980 interview with Playboy’s David Sheff. In the interview, he seems to replicate Aleister Crowley’s most famous mantra: “Do what thou wilst is the whole of the Law,” when he said, “The whole Beatle idea was to do what you want, right? To take your own responsibility, do what you want and try not to harm other people, right? Do what thou wilst, as long as it doesn’t hurt somebody.”
With so many conspiracies surrounding The Beatles, it’s a fair assessment to say that one or two of them may well be true. But we’d bet this isn’t one of them. More likely than Crowley becoming an inspirational figure to the Fab Four was McCartney creating his very own Sgt. Pepper—after all, he pretty much created the entire album.
In an interview in 1990, Macca said, “If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed Pepper.” Later he continued this theme: “It wasn’t entirely my idea. But to get us away from being ‘The Beatles’ I had this idea that we should pretend we’re this other group”. He reiterates that he’d prefer not to choose just one of his and the band’s records but “I’d choose that if I had to.”
So why not listen to Paul McCartney’s favourite Beatles album and wonder on who Sgt. Pepper might actually be.