In 1967, the rock & roll scene in London was scattering in several directions at once. The stars – the Who, the Stones, the Animals – could be found at clubs like the Marquee and the Bag O’Nails, often watching an expatriate American, a left-handed former paratrooper named Jimi Hendrix. But in a basement on Tottenham Court Road, in an Irish bar called the Blarney Club, something else was happening. On weekends, the dingy space became the UFO Club, the focal point for an emerging psychedelic community, with all-night light shows and experimental-film screenings. A new band known as Pink Floyd had played the club’s opening at the end of 1966, the first of their nine shows there. “Everything was accelerating that spring: new drugs, clothes, music and clubs,” writes producer Joe Boyd – who ran the UFO Club – in his new memoir, White Bicycles. “The psychedelic underground and the pop scene were starting to overlap . . . Everyone was high – on chemicals or adrenaline or both. You really did believe in that moment that ‘when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake.'”
London in 1967 witnessed the birth, of course, of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But it was also the year of The Who Sell Out, of Something Else by the Kinks, of “Sunshine of Your Love,” Pink Floyd’s first recordings and Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? as well as Axis: Bold as Love.
Yet there were also ominous signs of the days that Eric Burdon of the Animals refers to as “the endarkenment.” There was a series of rock-star drug busts, most notoriously the raid on Keith Richards‘ Redlands estate in February that resulted in the jailing of both Richards and Mick Jagger. And in August, while the Beatles were still soaring from the triumph of Sgt. Pepper, their manager, Brian Epstein, was found dead at his London home.
“Like any scene, it grew and grew until it reached a critical mass, which both made it big and destroyed it at the same time,” says Boyd. “In the bull’s-eye of culture, it’s very hard to maintain stasis.”
Andrew Loog Oldham, the former manager of the Rolling Stones, looks back on the time more harshly. “For many, 1967 marked the beginning of the Sixties, and for just as many the end,” he says. “The psychedelic community was very suspicious of those who had been at the start of the game – everybody was just as self-serving, only a lot more stoned.”
One thing on which all parties agree is that the rock scene in London in 1967 was still very small and tightknit. “If you look at society now, the amount of people that you would regard as ‘heads,’ the hip people or what have you, is quite a large proportion,” says Eric Clapton. “In ’67, you could count them on both hands. The clubs would be packed, but it was a really small scene. If you saw someone with long hair, you wanted to go up and say hello to them, because it was like meeting a member of your lost tribe.”
Mitch Mitchell, the drummer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, recalls seeing “loads of other musicians” hanging out at the band’s early gigs. “Paul McCartney was one of the first people to hear something in our band he liked,” Mitchell says, “and he generously spoke to other people about it – he was really responsible for the band being booked at Monterey.”
McCartney was out on the town a lot in 1967. He was the only one of the Fab Four still living in London rather than in a countryside estate and the only unmarried Beatle. “I was living a more suburban life at the time, with a wife and a kid,” John Lennon once said, “while he was still tripping around town, hanging out and being a bachelor.” The band had stopped touring the previous summer and was holed up in Abbey Road Studios, near McCartney’s residence in the St. John’s Wood neighborhood.
“We were spending more time off the road, which allowed us to investigate other stuff,” McCartney says. “We had a lot of friends in the music world and in the art world, and there was a big cross-fertilization. I had a particular friendship with a gallery owner named Robert Fraser. I was learning about Magritte and all sorts of artists. I was getting into music by [experimental composer Karlheinz] Stock-hausen and Luciano Berio, and going to concerts in London. So it was a great time for experimentation, and it all found its way into our music and our lifestyle.”
The most radical experimentation of the time, of course, was with drugs – and in an interview with Life magazine published on June 17th, McCartney was the first major pop figure to admit to taking LSD. “The fundamental unifying thing was drugs,” says Boyd. “The more tabs of acid there were circulating, the more freaks you saw, the more boutiques, macrobiotic restaurants, the more tie-dye sold – and the music evolved.”
One immediately apparent way in which the new sensibility was blossoming was visual: Psychedelic colors, patterns, prints, paisleys and Victorian-inspired costumes became almost inseparable from the music itself. “Every sound upheaval in England has manifested in fashion, ahead of everything else,” says Boyd. “In the U.S., the uniform didn’t change that much – Americans were still cautious, and men were scared to be seen as unmanly. Whereas in England, people really did dress up. So [clothing shops] Granny Takes a Trip or Hung on You were really as important as headquarters of the revolution as the UFO Club.”
The musical experimentation, the chemicals, the style – the whole London moment was captured with the release on June 1st of Sgt. Pepper. The Beatles hadn’t put out an album since Revolver the previous August. “We didn’t really tell too many people about it – we were tinkering away with glee, like the Seven Dwarfs,” McCartney told Rolling Stone recently. “We released it on a Friday, and that weekend, suddenly everyone had it. It was just everywhere. Everyone you knew talked about it.”
Two days after the album’s release, the Jimi Hendrix Experience were playing on a bill with the Who at the Saville Theatre. “Sgt. Pepper had just come out,” says Mitchell. “We were so impressed that, last minute on a whim, we worked out a few bits in the changing room before we went on. We opened with ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ Paul was there, and he was delighted.”
Later that month, the Beatles debuted “All You Need Is Love” as part of the first-ever live global television broadcast. They were singing that “it’s getting better all the time,” but could the scene get any better than this? As things got bigger and bigger, the official backlash was about to set in.
On February 11th, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull and a few friends retired to Redlands, Richards’ house in Sussex, for a party following a recording session. After dropping acid and roaming about, they returned to the estate. Faithfull took a bath. Suddenly, the police showed up at the door.
The subsequent bust became a tabloid sensation. Jagger took the rap for four pills of speed. Robert Fraser was carrying twenty-four hits of heroin. Rumors spread that Faithfull – wrapped in a fur rug after getting out of the tub – was naked at the center of an orgy, with a Mars Bar between her legs ready for the taking.
By 1967, Faithfull wrote in her autobiography, “there were highly placed people in Her Majesty’s government who actually saw us as enemies of the state.” Boyd agrees: “Sgt. Pepper, which was so obviously a druggy record – it really rattled a lot of people in the upper levels of society.”
Jagger and Richards were tried separately, from June 27th to 28th. When questioned about Faithfull’s lack of clothing, Richards replied, “We are not old men. We are not worried about petty morals.” Both Stones were convicted after approximately five minutes of jury deliberations. The singer was sentenced to three months in prison for possession, and the guitarist received a year for allowing drugs to be consumed on his premises.
They weren’t the only Stones to get busted that summer: A month before their trials, Brian Jones was arrested by the infamous Detective Sgt. Norman Pilcher (who would later bust John Lennon and, according to some, was immortalized as the “semolina pilchard” in “I Am the Walrus”).
Lennon and McCartney demonstrated solidarity by singing backup on the Stones new single “We Love You,” which opened with the sound of a jail-cell door swinging shut. The Who rush-released a cover of “Under My Thumb.” The London Times even ran an editorial titled “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?” protesting the flimsy nature of the arrests. (In the end, Jagger and Richards served two days and their sentences were overturned.)
But it was too late to salvage the year for the Rolling Stones. “There was a time . . . in ’67 when everybody just stopped,” Richards told Rolling Stone in a 1971 interview. “Everything just stopped dead,” The band spent virtually the entire year working on the spacey, flawed Their Satanic Majesties Request album.
“The press had had it with us all winning,” says Oldham. “They could sell more papers turning us into losers. It was very tough for the Stones – on top of the drug busts, we had business problems going on that had to be dealt with, and we were all an average age of less than twenty-five, most of us very stoned. Basically, we were being told it was over. The Beatles were allowed to dress up, cruise around in Rollers [Rolls-Royces], get Zen and be silly. The Rolling Stones were not.”
But even for the Beatles, the remainder of 1967 didn’t go smoothly. On August 25th, George Harrison persuaded the rest of the band to join him for a transcendental-meditation retreat in Wales with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Two days later, Brian Epstein – who’d overseen their career since Liverpool’s Cavern Club – died from an overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol. It was ruled an accident, though some believe it was suicide.
It was the beginning of the end for the Beatles. The Magical Mystery Tour television special would prove their first real creative misstep when it aired the day after Christmas. Squabbles over money and direction would persist for the next few years, ultimately breaking up the band.
The irony of the British establishment’s resistance to the cultural shifts of 1967, Boyd points out, is that the “sex, drugs and rock & roll” movement never posed much of a threat. “England is more of a backwater,” he says. “The Vietnam War wasn’t at the top of the agenda. Racism wasn’t as big an issue. At that time, there was a feeling of seriousness and adrenaline in America, where in England, it was gentler, more hedonistic.”
Boyd’s UFO Club moved to bigger quarters at a North London space called the Roundhouse. “That was the most psychedelic,” says Burdon, who performed on opening night. “I used to sit outside in my 1964 Corvette, listening to the FM radio band for any police broadcasts, which would signal a raid.”
Boyd notes that as London’s club and drug scenes grew, the actual mood was changing. “By that summer, when school was out and everybody was flocking to London, the sudden surge in demand for drugs meant that quality deteriorated,” he says. “As you had a mass audience trying it out, the experience became less elevated, there were more bad trips. It was less fun, more about getting hammered. So after that wonderful atmosphere of the spring, by August or September there was an awful lot more aggression and problems.”
Indeed, the music started getting louder, heavier. Soon England would produce the formative heavy metal of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, a far cry from the optimism of psychedelia. The Beatles’ next project was the sprawling, scattered White Album. The Rolling Stones didn’t release a new album for a full year after Satanic Majesties, then began a run of menacing brilliance with producer Jimmy Miller, starting with Beggars Banquet.
In the end, the album that forever defines London in 1967 also provides an appropriate metaphor for the scene’s decline. “With Sgt. Pepper, the title and the whole idea was inspired by the times and this cross-fertilization with other artists,” says McCartney. “I wanted to take on these alter egos – we won’t be John, Paul, George and Ringo, we’ll be new people making this record, and we can live in these new bodies. And that had been very liberating. But after that, you didn’t feel that you could continue as this other band. You inevitably came back to earth.”
This story is from the July 12th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.