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"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is one of the most visually enticing songs ever written. From start to finish we are instructed to "picture" everything that John Lennon describes, from "tangerine trees" to "marmalade skies."
However, when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1st, 1967, the BBC instantly banned "Lucy" from the radio for its supposed drug references. The song's title, after all, forms the acronym LSD, which can also stand for Lysergic acid diethylamide, or the drug better known as acid. John Lennon said in many different interviews that the song title was simply inspired by a drawing that his four-year-old son, Julian, brought home from school, saying, "My son Julian came in one day with a picture he painted about a school friend of his named Lucy. He had sketched in some stars in the sky and called it 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,' Simple." (Source)
The other Beatles and even the real Lucy herself (a former schoolmate of Julian's who recently passed away) have since confirmed this story…but that isn't necessarily to say that the song is entirely acid-free.
About John's claims on the song's origins, Lennon biographer Philip Norman sarcastically notes, "It is a plausible enough explanation if one accepts that John never took acid or encouraged its use, that he was completely word blind, and that he took an ongoing and responsive interest in Julian's schoolwork." (Source)
All of these points could not be farther from the truth: Lennon dropped acid many times and talked his friends into it, read voraciously and was always obsessed with wordplay and puns ("incredibly high," "head in the clouds," etc.) and was often barely present as a father to Julian while the youngster was growing up. So, Norman's point is precisely that Lennon's explanation is not entirely persuasive, and that the song was indeed probably drug-inspired, at least in part. Lennon also claimed that he had no intention of spelling out "LSD" with the title, but that is a little hard to believe considering how smart and witty he was.
However, Norman is also quick to point out:
Ironically for an album that would be so much identified with LSD, the Beatles took almost no acid while making Sgt. Pepper. The sense of forging into new territory each day, and infallibly conquering it, gave a high that no drug ever could. The only lapse that John would remember happened purely by accident: one night he swallowed a tab of acid by mistake for an upper to keep him going… Since he was clearly in no condition to return to Weybridge, Paul took him home for the night to nearby Cavendish Avenue. Though by now also initialed into LSD, Paul had never taken a trip with John, and decided this was the moment.… They stayed up most of the night, Paul remembers, and 'hallucinated a lot…John [was] sitting around very enigmatically and I had a big vision of him as a king, the absolute Emperor of Eternity…in control of it all.' (Source)
Just so we're clear here, we're not trying to say that LSD has anything to do with intellect or musical innovation.
John Lennon would have been a lyrical and musical genius with or without the help of acid. Plenty of middle-of-the-road intellects drop acid hoping for some brilliant epiphany, but are left with nothing more than some mediocre thoughts and a vague memory. Lennon isn't exactly your typical guy.
He was far-out from his earliest memories:
I was hip in kindergarten. I was different from the others. I was different all my life… Therefore, I must be crazy or a genius—'I mean it must be high or low,' the next line. There was something wrong with me, I thought, because I seemed to see things other people didn't see. I thought I was crazy or an egomaniac for claiming to see things other people didn't see. As a child, I would say, 'But this is going on!' and everybody would look at me as if I was crazy. I always was so psychic or intuitive or poetic or whatever you want to call it, that I was always seeing things in a hallucinatory way. It was scary as a child, because there was nobody to relate to. Neither my auntie nor my friends nor anybody could ever see what I did. It was very, very scary and the only contact I had was reading about an Oscar Wilde or a Dylan Thomas or a Vincent van Gogh—all those books that my auntie had that talked about their suffering because of their visions. Because of what they saw, they were tortured by society for trying to express what they were. I saw loneliness. (Source)
So, for a guy like John Lennon, who from the very earliest of ages knew that he was different from all the other kids, drugs simply opened up new avenues of expression and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable or even thinkable in a song.
As you can see, it's hard to pigeonhole "Lucy" into one specific meaning. It's not explicitly about drugs; never once is acid mentioned in the song, yet it describes a dreamy adventure that sounds suspiciously like a hallucinatory experience. It mimics Alice's Wonderland but with a Lennon twist. It's visually startling and musically daring, yet at times has the simplicity of a child's nursery rhyme.
The miraculous thing about the song is that it maintains its coherence and chronology while guiding us through this acid-trip-inspired journey of the imagination. Like Through the Looking Glass, it has a beginning and an end, with lots of traveling and movement, taking us for quite a ride without ever losing us completely. The song is slow and drowsy at first (the intro was played by Paul McCartney on an electric organ), but the chorus is fast and guitar-driven, jarring you out of your trance into a more hyperactive psychedelic experience.
The recording of Sgt. Pepper was one of the last times that the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo would collaborate so wholeheartedly in the studio. Lennon had already met Yoko Ono and was mentally half-checked-out from the whole Beatles thing, but still he threw his whole heart and soul into the Sgt. Pepper project. It was as if he could sense its immense importance:
Lennon and McCartney still composed together, as in hotel rooms of old, for instance hammering out 'With a Little Help from My Friends' as a vocal for Ringo (who otherwise spent most of the prodigal studio time learning to play chess). And the light and shade of their respective natures could still grab perfect harmony out of thin air. One day John happened to walk into the studio while Paul was at the mic, singing, 'It's getting better…' 'It couldn't get much worse,' his partner added, and the line stuck. Whatever John's opinion of Paul's 'soft' numbers, he threw his whole weight behind them now with backup vocals that remained totally faithful to their intent while adding a dash of vinegar to the honey. (Source)
When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, after four months and a whopping £25,000 in the making, the public was thrilled with the result. The cover for the album was destined for pop history. The Beatles, dressed as psychedelic bandsmen, were surrounded by a collage of cultural icons, high and low, from Bob Dylan and Marlon Brando to Karl Marx, Carl Jung, W.C. Fields, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Laurel and Hardy, Tommy Handley, and Diana Dors.
Lennon even wanted to have Jesus and Hitler on the cover but was, perhaps understandably, overruled. The album came with two innovations that had yet to catch hold in the recording world. One was its artistic packaging, which included giveaway novelties (paper mustaches and sergeant gear that the fans could cut out and wear). The album also had the full lyrics of each song printed in a booklet.
Sgt. Pepper's was truly an album of its time. It came out during the 1967 Summer of Love that would forever be a milestone in the hippie movement. It was a time that the free-love flower children of the '60s would look back on with a fond glow. When the Beatles' former press liaison, Derek Taylor, showed up at Heathrow Airport for the album's release party "they were met by John, Ringo, and Terry Doran, all in full hippie regalia, strewing flowers and ringing little bells…'This is the new thing,' [John] explained. 'You hug your friends when you meet them and show them you're glad to see them. Don't stand there shaking hands as if everyone's got some disease. Get close to people.'"
Though "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was banned in the UK, it managed to garner a huge following abroad. It eventually proved to be the track on the album with the most impact. Indeed, it inspired a Peter-Pan-esque revolution:
For it set the pattern for British psychedelic rock as a marriage of self-consciously poetic language with visions of earliest childhood. Thus Pink Floyd's concept album The Piper At the Gates of Dawn would borrow a chapter heading from Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Keith West would make the Top 10 with an Enid Blytonish song about children mourning a village grocer, and Traffic's Hole in My Shoe uses a lisping Alice voice-over to evoke 'a place where happiness reigned all the year round and music played ever so loudly.' At time the UK charts would seem positively silted up with dragons, magic spells, rocking horses, smiley-faced kites, and tin soldiers.
There is a reason that children's literature affects us so profoundly. On the surface it can seem simplistic and colorful, even silly. However the mark of a great children's book is that it leaves a lifelong imprint on its young readers. Children's literature can break through our tough adult exteriors to draw out the starry-eyed little kid that we try so hard to hide. Yes, we can go on for days about literary giants like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, William Wordsworth, William Blake and William Faulkner, but what we often forget is that they, like Maurice Sendak, Rosemary Wells, and Roald Dahl, really got it when it comes to kids.
Just because you're not ostensibly writing for a young audience does not mean that your literature, lyrics, or poetry cannot touch the inner child that is within us all. We are so quick to dismiss books like Where the Wild Things Are or Goodnight Moon as sheer fluff, but where would we be without them?
Lewis Carroll made brilliant social commentary in his work while under the guise of following a seven-year-old girl around Wonderland. Many other writers have recognized the power and depth of wordplay and crazy imagery. (Dr. Seuss, anyone?) It's hard to explain exactly what draws us to children's stories and children's rhymes. We're pretty sure that it has something to do with a desire to reclaim the lack of responsibility, curiosity, and sense of wonder that defined our own childhoods, something that we neglect all too often in our serious, scheduled, "important," adult lives.
It's fitting, therefore, that the inspiration for "Lucy in the Sky" initially came from the imaginative drawing of a little boy. Lennon saw in his son's artwork what most adults would fail to notice: potential.