When trawling through the impressive back catalogue of The Beatles, it can be easy to become distracted. The group were so expressive in their ideas and the execution of those ideas that it can sometimes be hard to pin down the band’s trademark sonic structure. Start at the early days of the group’s journey to stardom, and you’ll be quick to label John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr a pop group, perhaps even a boyband. However, the Fab Four got more and more experimental as time passed, refusing to let categorisation or record sales determine their artistry.
But, if you were looking to find a song that perhaps typified the group that summed up their mammoth impact on music, on each other and popular culture at large, then there can be only one song; ‘All You Need is Love’, the showstopping superstar anthem. The song may have been written to facilitate a television show, but it makes it no less impressive. If you need more convincing of the track’s power, then you need only look back to the star-studded backup choir.
John Lennon wrote the song as part of the Our World television broadcast. The event was the world’s first satellite transmission, and the show was beamed across 25 different nations. Despite being written at the eleventh hour, Lennon delivered perhaps one of his most pertinent odes to peace and love. “We were big enough to command an audience of that size,” Ringo Starr remembered of the event, “and it was for love. It was for love and bloody peace. It was a fabulous time. I even get excited now when I realise that’s what it was for: peace and love, people putting flowers in guns.”
The group weren’t the only big name to lend their hand to the landmark moment. All of the nations involved with the broadcast were given a segment to showcase one of their incredible creative brains, with the likes of Pablo Picasso and opera-singer Maria Callas also featuring in the innovative broadcast, there was a somewhat peaceful pace to the actual event that belied the cultural and scientific significance of the feat.
Due to the hostile political environment of the day, with the show taking place at the height of the Vietnam War, the ground rules stated that no politicians or heads of state would be allowed to participate in the broadcast. It was an attempt to cleanse the political palette. In light of this political landscape, The Beatles were asked to write a song with a message of positivity and unity, a brief that they duly delivered on as they closed the broadcast and debuted the perfectly poignant ‘All You Need Is Love’.
Perhaps as a reminder of their songwriting talent or inability to stick to a schedule, the track was largely laid down only eleven days before the monumental broadcast. “‘All You Need Is Love’ was John’s song. I threw in a few ideas, as did the other members of the group, but it was largely ad-libs like singing ‘She Loves You’ or ‘Greensleeves’ or silly things at the end, and we made those up on the spot,” recalled Paul McCartney within Barry Miles’ Many Years From Now. “The chorus, ‘All you need is love’, is simple, but the verse is quite complex; in fact, I never really understood it; the message is rather complex. It was a good song that we had handy that had an anthemic chorus.”
The studio process was relatively simply: “We just put a track down,” recalled Lennon when speaking to David Sheff. “Because I knew the chords, I played it on whatever it was, harpsichord. George played a violin because we felt like doing it like that, and Paul played a double bass. And they can’t play them, so we got some nice little noises coming out. It sounded like an orchestra, but it’s just them two playing the violin and that. So then we thought, ‘Ah, well, we’ll have some more orchestra around this little freaky orchestra that we’ve got.’ But there was no perception of how it sounded at the end until they did it that day, until the rehearsal. It still sounded a bit strange then.”
On the day of the broadcast, June 25th, 1967, the band spent most of their time rehearsing with the BBC cameras. The group realised that singing live was the only way to make the song genuinely pop. “I’m ready to sing for the world, George, if you could just give me the backing…” Lennon told George Martin. The producer naturally obliged and provided the band with everything they needed to make a classic moment last forever in the memories.
Perhaps the most significant moment came during the final performance as the band, singing live, asked their famous friend t come around and lend a few vocals. “We went around to EMI for the show,” noted McCartney. “We’d done a lot of pre-recording, so we sang live to the backing track. We’d worked on it all with George Martin’s help, and it was a good day. We went in there early in the morning to rehearse with the cameras, and there was a bit orchestra – for all that stuff with ‘Greensleeves’ playing on the way out of the song. The band was asked to invite people, so we had people like Mick and Eric, and all our friends and wifelets.”
Included in the choir was Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Keith Richard, Keith Moon, Eric Clapton, Pattie Harrison, Jane Asher, Mike McCartney, Graham Nash and Hunter Davies, making it one of the most impressive choirs of all time. It was a fitting reminder of Britain’s huge musical power of the time. It noted that London was the epicentre of pop music, but The Beatles were still spreading love around the world.