This week in rock history, the Beatles arrived in India to study meditation, the Who recorded Live at Leeds, Debbie Harry announced her first solo album, Frank Zappa guest-starred on Miami Vice and U2 played in a Kmart.
February 15, 1968: John Lennon and George Harrison arrive in Northern India to study meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
George Harrison’s interest in Eastern music and religion impacted pop culture tremendously, from his sitar playing on the Beatles’ material (notably Revolver) to his hand in organizing the Concert for Bangladesh, the first wide-scale rock charity concert. The rest of the Beatles did not share his ardor, though; when they joined him in Rishikesh, in northern India, to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi, they mostly hated the experience.
John Lennon accompanied Harrison to India first; Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr arrived four days later. The group spent days meditating and playing music with a strange array of pop culture notables, including the Beach Boys’ Mike Love and actress Mia Farrow. The pacific charm wore off quickly for all but Harrison. McCartney objected to the religious leader’s management suggestions for the Beatles’ career, later calling their involvement with the Maharishi a “public mistake.” Starr left early, likening the food to that of a cheap Butlins holiday camp, and Lennon expressed his own disillusionment in the Maharishi and his promises by penning the song “Sexy Sadie.”
Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper‘s Magazine and founder of Lapham‘s Quarterly, stayed in the same meditation compound as the Beatles. As he detailed in his book With the Beatles:
There was a good time coming, the Maharishi said, the rebirth of mankind on the bank of the sacred river, Ganges. Ever since he‘d seen George Harrison and his blessed friends, he‘d known that a great new hope was abroad in the world, that his movement must succeed, that men would no longer suffer. Angels were vibrating with the good news; great prophets in different lands and hemispheres were sending the same message, that on George Harrison‘s twenty-fifth birthday, all creation had been awakened to the certain promise of bliss eternal.
February 14, 1970: The Who record their Live at Leeds LP
After the great success of their ambitious double-album Tommy, the Who tasked themselves with releasing a live album, and their fans expected it to be a similarly complex outing. Instead, the band cast aside the recordings of their world tour and taped one full concert: a performance at Leeds University in England.
The move was a brilliant one. The Leeds concert captured the band at their most unadorned and powerful, with no showy excess compromising their rock & roll ethos. Faulty sound even mars the recording of “My Generation,” a flaw that would surely prevent most other bands from releasing such a track. Their musicianship was unstoppable: furiously loud, enthusiastically together and, after conquering the world, exploding with the potential for even more greatness. Most of all, it captured the band’s classic lineup at a high point, especially in the riotous covers of the R&B standards “Fortune Teller” and “Young Man Blues.”
Live at Leeds, released in May 1970, ranks at Number 170 on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Albums of All Time.
February 12, 1981: Debbie Harry announces her first solo album
The stunning lead singer of Blondie surprised fans in more ways than one with the creation of Koo Koo, her first solo record. After topping charts with the New Wave rockers, the singer’s solo album was a bold step in an ambitious new disco direction – not to mention a visual shock, as its cover art featured the singer’s cheeks skewered with long steel pins (created by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, of Alien fame).
For the album, Harry collaborated with New York dance act Chic to create a light, very danceable funk beat. The experimentalism paid off more in the United Kingdom than in the States: KooKoo (and its lead single, “Backfired”) was a hit on the London club scene, peaking at Number Six on the charts. In the United States, the album only reached Number 25 – noticeably lower than Blondie’s efforts to date.
February 14, 1986: Frank Zappa guest-stars on Miami Vice
One of the premier innovators of avant-garde rock, Frank Zappa loved toying with the more surreal elements of life. Naturally, when he found himself with some time to kill and his taste for the spotlight unwhetted, he turned to one of the most bizarre spectacles of Eighties pop culture: Miami Vice.
Zappa appeared on an episode of the extremely popular crime drama in 1986 as the kingpin of a drug ring that dealt “weasel dust.” His theatrical turn mainly required him to stroll menacingly on a yacht and ride in a speedboat with pastel-clad lead actor Don Johnson. Of course, for all his intimidation tactics, Zappa’s character was eventually brought to justice for his cocaine-dealing ways.
Sadly, Zappa’s dialogue did not include the line “Weasel dust ripped my flesh.”
February 12, 1997: U2 hold a press conference in a New York Kmart to announce their Popmart world tour
When U2 decided to stage a world tour to accompany their 1997 album Pop, they chose an unlikely location to announce the news: the lingerie section of a Kmart discount store in downtown New York City.
Flanked by hundreds of reporters and music industry staffers, the band took to their makeshift stage to perform the b-side “Holy Joe,” then announced the specifics of their world tour. They also answered questions for half an hour, during which they explained that the store stunt was meant to further the upcoming tour’s satirical take on materialism and consumerism.
The PopMart Tour was a tremendous moment in U2’s career: over 90 shows and nearly 4 million tickets sold across North and South America, the Middle East and Africa. The set design included dozens of television screens, as well as a moving mirrorball, a racetrack of trucks and bikes and an LED device that cost millions of dollars to create.
In 1998, for the 200th episode of The Simpsons, the PopMart tour even stopped in the family’s fictitious Springfield. The real-life tour remains one of the most successful concert events in modern rock history.
Last week: The Beatles Land in New York