Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: The Beatles, Elton John and William Shatner

Hello there! This week’s post will review the great Beatles tune Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. This is one of the most memorable songs from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, and it remains controversial even today. We will also discuss two covers of this song; one is the result of a collaborative effort between two British musical icons, and the second is a spoken-word piece that has become a cult classic.

The Beatles and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds:

In fall 1966 the Beatles, the world’s greatest pop band, found themselves at a crossroads. In 1963 they had exploded in Britain, and the following year their conquest spread to the U.S. and the world. Their incredible global popularity was buoyed by a series of increasingly impressive albums. Nevertheless, at this time the band members were extremely frustrated. They had received death threats prior to a tour of Japan. In addition, a throw-away remark by John Lennon that “the Beatles are more popular than Jesus” had provoked a vicious reaction in the States.

To add to their issues, the Beatles were sick of touring. They had endured exhausting touring schedules, and to make matters worse their final tour included no songs from their latest album Revolver, because the four-person band was unable to reproduce the impressive effects they achieved in the studio. Thus in August 1966 the Beatles announced that they would no longer go on tour.

The Beatles were very conscious of records produced by other major artists. They were impressed by the most recent Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, and they took the innovative production values of that album as a challenge. It seemed to John and Paul that their next album should raise the bar in terms of creativity and special effects.

As a result of their tremendous commercial success, the Beatles had essentially unlimited access to the Abbey Road studios, where they could collaborate with their genius producer George Martin to experiment with any number of special effects in the lab. For their next album, the Beatles spent hundreds of hours in the studio trying out any number of new sounds and techniques. And speaking of experimentation, at this time most of the Beatles were seriously into recreational drugs, and in particular LSD.

So in fall 1966

Paul McCartney had an idea for a song involving an Edwardian era military band that would eventually form the impetus of the Sgt. Pepper concept … In February 1967, after recording “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, McCartney suggested that the Beatles should release an entire album that would represent a performance by the fictional Sgt. Pepper band. This alter ego group would give them the freedom to experiment musically. During the recording sessions, the band endeavoured to improve upon the production quality of their prior releases. Knowing they would not have to perform the tracks live, they adopted an experimental approach to composition

In June 1967 the Beatles released the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Everything about the album was an immediate sensation – the concept that the album had been produced by a military band; the inter-relationship of various songs to one another; the art-work on the cover; and the psychedelic references and apparent veiled meanings in several of the songs. Here is a photo of the group decked out in full military-band regalia, that appeared in the gatefold to the album Sgt. Pepper.

The Beatles, in the gatefold to the "Sgt. Pepper" album, June 1967.

The Beatles, in the gatefold to the “Sgt. Pepper” album, June 1967.

My friends and I were then in graduate school at Oxford and relatively jaded when it came to pop culture, but nevertheless we became completely caught up in the hype. We listened to the songs non-stop, committing the lyrics to memory and contemplating their significance, and we scoured the album searching for arcane references to illegal drugs. We stared at the album cover, memorizing the names of the historical figures and famous people in the tableau. And we followed the intense public interest in Sgt. Pepper and in what direction the Beatles were taking pop music.

Although we argued for hours over the best songs on the album, there seemed to be no question that the song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds represented the perfect distillation of a psychedelic experience. Everything about the song reinforced this idea.

Most of the song is in simple triple metre (3/4 time), but the chorus is in 4/4 time. The song modulates between musical keys, using the key of A major for verses, B♭ major for the pre-chorus, and G major for the chorus. It is sung by Lennon over an increasingly complicated underlying arrangement which features a tamboura, played by George Harrison, lead electric guitar put through a Leslie speaker, played by Harrison, and a counter melody on Lowrey organ played by McCartney and taped with a special organ stop sounding “not unlike a celeste”.

To help accentuate the dreamlike quality of the song, John Lennon’s vocals were recorded at 45 Hz and then played back at 50 Hz. And Lennon’s lyrics, inspired by his reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, mesh perfectly with the music for this song. Apart from the chorus, the lyrics include

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
Towering over your head
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes
And she’s gone

What a fantastic, vivid word-picture! It seemed clear that the song title contained a sly drug reference. Lucy … Sky … Diamonds: LSD! Could it be any more obvious? So it was a big shock when John insisted that the title had nothing to do with drugs, but was simply the title that John’s son Julian had given to a pastel drawing he had made at school. “Yeah, right,” we responded, unconvinced. But John always insisted that the title was merely a borrowing of the title of Julian’s drawing, and George and Ringo both backed him up on this story.  Simply an incredible coincidence??

However, it really doesn’t matter what the song depicts, it is a beautifully surreal word-painting with fascinating sound effects. In my opinion this is one of the most successful and intriguing pop songs of all time.

Here are the Beatles singing Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. The accompanying video is from the Beatles’ 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine, and the audio is from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Yellow Submarine was directed by Charles Dunning, and the wonderful cartoon sequence was created by a team of illustrators working under the supervision of the film’s art director Heinz Edelmann. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream!

Elton John and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds:

In 1971 I was a postdoc at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. When the Beach Boys scheduled a concert in Cleveland, I was eager to attend. I had followed the Beach Boys’ career for several years. Dick Hull, the guitarist in our hometown group Johnny Dee and the Kings, spent many hours perfecting the Beach Boys West Coast surfing guitar sound. But now I was working as a professional physicist, trying to amass enough publications to induce a university or research lab to offer me a job. In addition we had an eighteen-month old daughter, so I reluctantly gave the concert a pass.

I knew every song on the Beach Boys play-list, so I was surprised when a friend announced that the concert was a knockout and a revelation. But he was raving about a young British singer whose opening act completely upstaged the headliners. The performer came onstage wearing a shirt covered with stars and signs of the Zodiac, reminiscent of the “magician’s assistant” cap popularized by Mickey Mouse in Disney’s 1940 movie Fantasia. He proceeded to rock the house down, culminating with a song where he lay on the floor doing one-hand push ups while flailing away on the piano with his free hand. Legend has it that the Beach Boys didn’t want to come onstage to follow this amazing performance!

When told that the musician in question was “Elton John,” I replied “No frigging way!” At the time I was aware of only one Elton John song, the soporific soft-pop ballad Your Song, complete with its lush harp accompaniment. I absolutely could not imagine Elton John as a rocker. Silly me. As proof, below is a photo of Elton John in 1971 doing his “piano-pushup” routine!

In 1967 Reginald Dwight adopted the stage name “Elton John,” a composite of Elton Dean, the saxophonist in his first band, and blues singer and mentor Long John Baldry. Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the greatest, most prolific and enduring careers in rock music. As his Wikipedia bio expresses it, Elton John

has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100 … He has received six Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards … an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award, a Disney Legend award, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004. … In 2008, Billboard ranked him the most successful male solo artist on “The Billboard Hot 100 Top All-Time Artists.”

In addition to the honors listed above, Elton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998. He is currently the Queen’s “go-to guy” for important royal events, including Princess Di’s funeral in 1997 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert in 2012.

John with Bernie Taupin, California, 1973. Photograph: Ed Caraeff.

John with Bernie Taupin, California, 1973. Photograph: Ed Caraeff.

Another unique feature of Elton John’s career is his decades-long collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The two were introduced in 1967 when each of them answered an ad for musicians in the British magazine New Musical Express. When Elton arrived for his first meeting, he was handed a sheaf of lyrics by Taupin; he wrote music to several of these and mailed them back to Taupin. So began a four-decade music-lyrics collaboration which Elton

cheerily describes as “probably the strangest relationship in pop history”: in 46 years, the two have never written a song in the same room, and John never reads Taupin’s lyrics before setting them to music. “I just go into the studio, look at the lyrics for the first time when I put them on the piano, and go. If I haven’t got it within 40 minutes, I give up. It’s never changed, the thrill has never gone, because I don’t know what I’m going to get next. I don’t know what’s going to land in front of me.”

Following his first big hit Your Song, Elton John embarked on an incredibly productive and versatile career. During the 70s Taupin and John came out with one blockbuster album after another; their work ranged from ballads to hard-rocking tunes to funky cross-over hits.

From 1970 until about 1990 was what I would call Elton John’s ‘manic phase.’ In addition to his phenomenal productivity, Elton favored some of the most flamboyant costumes in the music industry. Nothing seemed too outrageous for Elton – gigantic embossed glasses; feather boas; powdered wigs; ruffles and lace; you name it, Elton appeared in it. In 1988 some 2,000 items of his memorabilia were auctioned off at Sotheby’s and raised $20 million.

During that period, Elton John’s over-the-top style was fueled by a voracious cocaine habit. Elton has also admitted that he was dealing with an eating disorder, and at this same time he was sorting out his sexual preferences. In a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine he admitted to being bisexual. He married Renate Blauel in 1984, but following their divorce four years later Elton came out as gay. In 1993 he began a relationship with Canadian advertising executive David Furnish. They entered into a civil partnership in 2005 and were married in England in 2014. They are the parents to two sons. This relationship appears to have brought stability and happiness to Elton.

Elton John has been an outspoken and articulate advocate for the GLBT community and in particular for AIDS sufferers. He has been quite courageous about combating public prejudice in this arena, particularly since his advocacy might have negatively affected his career. Elton has stated that he has great sympathy for people affected with HIV/AIDS, in part because he considers himself extremely fortunate not to have contracted the disease during a period when he was quite careless about unprotected sex. His Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research and HIV/AIDS research and education.

Below we present the audio of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds by Elton John and John Lennon that took place at Elton John’s November 28, 1974 Madison Square Garden concert. Ronnie Friend summarizes the story behind the collaboration between Lennon and Elton John that culminated in this live performance.

in 1974 [Lennon] invited Elton to help him out on a couple of tracks … This was around the same time they also worked together on Elton’s releases “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “One Day at a Time” … As Elton and Lennon were enjoying themselves greatly during the recording session, Elton asked Lennon if he would do “Whatever Gets You Thru” with him on stage.

Lennon, who no longer performed live, jokingly promised to do so when the song became a #1 hit single. In November that year, it did hit #1 … Elton called him up and reminded him of the promise, and Lennon appeared on stage for three numbers at Elton’s concert at Madison Square Garden, New York City in 1974. Lennon was terrified, and nearly backed out several times … When he came on stage, the audience of 18,000 rose to their feet and applauded for several minutes before they were able to perform the three songs … Elton has said many times that this whole event was one of the high points of his career.

Here is the live performance of Elton John with John Lennon; the photo above shows the pair at the Madison Square Garden concert. The audio clip contains a fascinating set of still photos of Elton during the performance, featuring his trademark flamboyant costumes; there are also some terrific photos of John Lennon with Elton at the concert. It’s amazing to contemplate Lennon with stage fright, but at this point he had pretty much abandoned live performance for a few years, so one can imagine that getting back on-stage may have been a bit traumatic.

William Shatner and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds:

William Shatner is a Canadian actor born to a family whose grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Europe who settled in Montreal. Shatner graduated from McGill University where he became interested in the theatre. According to his Wikipedia bio

Trained as a classical Shakespearean actor, Shatner began performing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, beginning in 1954. He played a range of roles at the Stratford Festival … [Tyrone] Guthrie had called the young Shatner the Stratford Festival’s most promising actor, and he was seen as a peer to contemporaries like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Shatner was not as successful as the others, however, and during the 1960s he “became a working actor who showed up on time, knew his lines, worked cheap and always answered his phone.”

Shatner’s big break came in 1966 when he was cast as Capt. Kirk in the TV series Star Trek. At the time, the show was only modestly successful and it was cancelled by NBC in 1969. However, the show has since become a cult classic. Its imaginative concepts regarding the values that might be espoused by alien civilizations have captured the imagination of millions.

"Astronaut Salutes Nimoy From Orbit" by NASA Astronaut Terry W. Virts - nasa.gov.

“Astronaut Salutes Nimoy From Orbit” by NASA Astronaut Terry W. Virts – nasa.gov.

This was particularly evident in the character of Spock, the half-man, half-Vulcan who served as first officer on the spaceship Enterprise. Spock’s calm rationality served as an effective counterpoint to Kirk’s raw emotions. One of the hallmarks of Spock’s character was the Vulcan salute “live long and prosper,” that was invented by the actor Leonard Nimoy who played Spock. Nimoy died in February of this year, and I can think of no greater honor than the “Vulcan salute” photographed by NASA astronaut Terry Virts as the International Space Station passed over Nimoy’s hometown of Boston.

Star Trek’s cancellation in 1969 marked a low period in Shatner’s career.

Shatner experienced difficulty in finding work in the early 1970s having been somewhat typecast from his role as Kirk. With very little money and few acting prospects, Shatner lost his home and lived in a truck bed camper in the San Fernando Valley until small roles turned into higher-paying jobs. Shatner refers to this part of his life as “that period”, a humbling time during which he would take any odd job, including small party appearances, to support his family.

Things were not helped when Shatner’s wife divorced him at about the same time as the cancellation of his TV show. However, Shatner eventually rebounded, and he became a pop culture icon as Star Trek’s popularity soared in syndicated re-runs of the show. Shatner subsequently reprised his role as Capt. Kirk in six Star Trek motion pictures. He has since landed starring roles and acting awards in the TV series T.J. Hooker, The Practice and Boston Legal.

In 1968 William Shatner released an album The Transformed Man. This was a spoken-word concept that utilized his classical training and included an amalgam of Shakespearean dialogue from characters such as Hamlet and Romeo, alongside spoken verses from popular tunes such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Mr. Tambourine Man.

We have no reason to believe that this album was not an entirely serious enterprise, a creative cutting-edge intellectual endeavor. However, the popular response was rather scathing.  Critics used Shatner’s spoken-word versions of pop tunes as an example of truly bad ‘singing’ from a pompous celebrity. Shatner could have taken this as a slap in the face; however, he took the criticism in stride and showed an endearing ability to laugh at himself.

William Shatner’s ability to take a joke has not only persisted, but he has taken this to the bank in his later career. He poked fun at his Capt. Kirk role in appearances on Saturday Night Live and subsequent spoofs in movies like Airplane II and National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1. His character Denny Crane on The Practice and later Boston Legal is sufficiently self-referential that it is sometimes hard to separate the character in the series from the Shatner send-up. For several years now he has been starring, and parodying himself, as the spokesperson for Priceline.com.

So here is William Shatner’s recording of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds from the album The Transformed Man. This is the audio of Shatner’s spoken-word version of the song, together with a series of extremely witty graphic images assembled by a fan. Look for mash-ups of Shatner and the Beatles, appearances of ‘Lucy’ in the form of Lucille Ball and finally Lucy van Pelt from Charles Schulz’ cartoon series Peanuts.

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Wikipedia, Elton John
Wikipedia, William Shatner
Ronnie Friend, Elton John & John Lennon LIVE – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
This entry was posted in Rock and roll and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: The Beatles, Elton John and William Shatner

  1. Pingback: With a Little Help From My Friends: The Beatles; Joe Cocker; John Belushi | Tim's Cover Story

  2. Pingback: Mr. Tambourine Man: Bob Dylan, The Byrds, William Shatner | Tim's Cover Story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s