From the fall of 1966 through to spring of 1967, The Beatles were in the studio recording what would become their eighth studio album, the critically acclaimed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album, which is still a staple to this day (Rolling Stone named it the best album of all time), was immediately a commercial and critical success, known for its innovative production, ability to bridge pop music and high art, and psychedelic sensibilities that came to represent the late 60’s counterculture. While all the tracks have gained their own life in the fifty years since, the creation of the fourth number on the iconic album, John Lennon– and Paul McCartney-penned tune, “Getting Better”, has become fabled in Beatles lore.
An extensive piece by Rolling Stone details the rich history behind “Getting Better”. The song, while innocently conceived by McCartney on a walk with his sheepdog, Martha, also was the cause behind a favorite Beatles story—the time that John Lennon accidentally dosed himself in the studio, which led to McCartney’s first acid trip with one of his Beatles bandmates.
Initially, McCartney came up with the idea for the song during a jaunt through London’s Regent’s Park with journalist Hunter Davies, with McCartney eventually telling the biographer “It’s getting better” was a reference to the coming spring. However, within the band, the phrase “It’s getting better” had previously become an inside joke—Jimmie Nichol, a drummer who played a ten-show run with the band in 1964 while Ringo Starr was sick, had earnestly replied “It’s getting better!” to inquiries about how he was adjusting to the fervent Beatlemania at the time, much to the delight of the other members of the group.
McCartney brought the potential song subject to John Lennon, who took the optimistic line and quickly made it darker and more emotionally rounded, offering up “It couldn’t get no worse” as a follow-up to the lyrics “Getting better all the time.” As noted in the biography Many Years From Now, McCartney later referenced that moment and the disparity between their two takes to highlight the perfection of their partnership, noting, “I thought, ‘Oh, brilliant! This is exactly why I love writing with John.” John also added in the dark confessional final verse about beating women—”‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved”—later telling Playboy during an interview in 1980 that the line was autobiographical, explaining that he “used to be cruel to my woman, and psychically, any woman. … I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and hit women.”
On March 21st, 1967, the band (minus Ringo Starr) went to the iconic Abbey Road studios to record the backing harmonies of “Getting Better”. To keep awake for the session, Lennon went to take an amphetamine from his pill box; however, rather than choosing an upper, he accidentally dosed himself with LSD. (In 1992, George Harrison joked “It’ll certainly keep him awake for a while!” on ITV’s The South Bank Show.) However, as Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, “I was not in the state of handling it. … I said, ‘What is it, I feel ill?’ I thought I felt ill and I thought I was going cracked … then it dawned on me that I must have taken some acid.”
As sound engineer Geoff Emerick noted in his book, Here There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, most of the other staff members were naive to drugs, thinking that John was acting strange but not knowing why. He recalls:
It seemed to take John a long time to get up the stairs; he was moving as if he were in slow motion. … When he finally walked through the doorway into the control room, I noticed that he had a strange, glazed look on his face. He appeared to be searching for something, but didn’t seem to know what it was. Suddenly he threw his head back and began staring intently at the ceiling, awestruck. With some degree of difficulty, he finally got a few not especially profound words out: ‘Wow, look at that.’ Our necks cranked upward, but all we saw was … a ceiling.
Realizing that something was off, John told Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘s producer George Martin that he didn’t feel well. The well-intentioned producer, oblivious to the psychedelic journey on which Lennon was about to embark, told John that he just needed “a good breath of fresh air,” bringing Lennon with him to the roof. As Martin explained in the Beatles Anthology documentary,
If I’d known it was LSD, the roof would have been the last place I would have taken him! But of course I couldn’t take him out the front because there were 500 screaming kids who’d have torn him apart. So the only place I could take him to get fresh air was the roof. It was a wonderful starry night, and John went to the edge, which was a parapet about eighteen inches high, and looked up at the stars and said, ‘Aren’t they fantastic?’ Of course to him I suppose they would have been especially fantastic. At the time they just looked like ordinary stars to me.
Martin eventually left Lennon up on the roof alone, unaware of John’s state of mind. Eventually, McCartney and Harrison realized that Lennon had been left alone on the roof and rushed to get him, knowing that he could have easily fallen off the narrow parapet and multiple stories to the pavement below. However, when the pair arrived at the roof, Lennon was sitting quietly, safe from harm and deep in thought.
Once inside, it became clear that Lennon was not going to get a lot of recording done, instead opting to just sit and watch—this became an awkward point, as Lennon kept getting nervous and asking “Is this all right?” with his band members reaffirming he was okay to sit in the studio. Clearly, with the session going somewhat off the rails, the group ended their night early. However, with Lennon’s ride not scheduled to arrive for a number of hours, McCartney took his friend back to his house, which was within walking distance. With Lennon tripping, McCartney decided in solidarity that maybe he should trip with Lennon, despite being afraid of acid and being relatively inexperienced compared to his creative partner. This also marked the first time McCartney had ever eaten acid with any of his bandmates. McCartney’s hesitance to experiment with the hallucinogen had previously caused some issues with the band, who questioned why he was so reluctant to join them.
As Paul McCartney recalled,
I thought, maybe this is the moment where I should take a trip with him. It’s been coming for a long time. It’s often the best way, without thinking about it too much, just slip into it. John’s on it already, so I’ll sort of catch up. It was my first trip with John, or any of the guys. We stayed up all night, sat around and hallucinated a lot. Me and John, we’d known each other for a long time. Along with George and Ringo, we were best mates. And we looked into each other’s eyes, the eye contact thing we used to do, which is fairly mind-boggling. You dissolve into each other. … And it was amazing. You’re looking into each other’s eyes and you would want to look away but you wouldn’t, and you could see yourself in the other person. It was a very freaky experience and I was totally blown away. John had been sitting around very enigmatically and I had a big vision of him as king, the absolutely Emperor of Eternity. It was a good trip.
[H/T Rolling Stone]
[Originally published 3/21/18]