Spirituality in and out of focus – hellhounds on the trail? (ii)

In the next couple of episodes in our ongoing series of posts on the spiritual dynamics of 1960s counter-culture I find myself confronted with the unenviable task of trying to say something coherent about rock music’s bizarre fascination with a man whom I consider to be one of the most unattractive figures in modern British intellectual history, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Why Britain’s most infamous occultist, pornographer and drug addict should have been elevated from relative obscurity to the status of a cult hero in the late 1960s is something I have always found strange. Perhaps stranger still, however, is the fact that the revival of occultism was not confined to hard rock acts such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, nor to patently Dionysiac bands such as the Doors and Rolling Stones. Although all these bands made explicit reference to Crowley, arguably the most significant moment in the renaissance of posthumous interest in the self-styled ‘Beast’ was his puzzling inclusion in the top left-hand corner of the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What this post will hopefully demonstrate is that this bizarre reference to Crowley can only be understood in the context of the Beatles’ growing alienation from Christianity, in which the year 1966 emerges as pivotal.

At first sight Crowley might seem a highly unlikely candidate for membership in the club of  ‘people we like’ on the packaging for an album by the one 1960s group to attain immediate respectability outside countercultural circles. In April 1967, by which time the Beatles had acquired a status in Britain comparable to that of the Royal Family, no less than Leonard Bernstein was already waxing lyrical about the Beatles on American Public Television in a CBS broadcast entitled Inside Pop – the Rock Revolution. In this compelling documentary, which also features remarkable historic performances by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Surf’s Up) and 15 year-old Janis Ian (Society’s Child), Bernstein, who had been turned on to the Fab Four by his children, went as far as to compare the melodic sweep of Paul McCartney’s Got to get you into my life on the album Revolver to Schumann.

That the composer of West Side Story should have been so impressed by the Beatles ought not to be surprising; it is likewise understandable that his admiration should have focused on the evident points of contact between Lennon & McCartney’s songwriting and ‘classical’ compositional techniques (Bernstein for example makes much of their deft asymmetries in phrase construction and piquant tonal shifts, as well as noting the use of a ‘high Bach trumpet’ in Penny Lane and string quartet in Eleanor Rigby).[1] Many of  the Beatles’ songs, at least prior to 1966, are after all far more assimilable to classical melodic and harmonic analysis than the blues-derived rock of ‘harder’ amplified groups of the period such as, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This is not to say that Bernstein views the Beatles through an exclusively classicizing prism, but it is clear that his approving nods towards Love You To‘s use of Hindu raga[2] (or the ‘sensuality of Arab café music’ he finds in the Rolling Stones’ Harrison-influenced Painted Black) are essentially expressions of ‘orientalism’, the Western fascination with the ‘exotic’ that has been a part of European art-music ever since the ‘Turkish’ idiom of the late eighteenth century exemplifed by works such as Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Bernstein’s remarks give no indication of a deeper significance to be found in the Beatles’ turn to the East, one that becomes apparent on closer examination of Revolver‘s startling finale in which Asian religion meets psychedelia, modern technology and musique concrète, generating one of the most musically and philosophically radical tracks in the Beatles’ output, Tomorrow Never Knows.

Leonard Bernstein, 1973 (photo: Allan Warren)

Recorded in April 1966, Revolver‘s final number perhaps embodies the fusion of drugs and monistic thought better and more consistently at every level than any other song of the era. Shortly after their first experimentation with LSD in 1965, the Beatles discovered The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner. This had made its way to London via the efforts of Michael Hollingshead, an acquaintance of Aldous Huxley’s who claimed the dubious honour of having introduced Leary to LSD and subsequently carried out psychedelic research with him at Harvard. Hollingshead had established a ‘World Psychedelic Centre’ in London’s fashionable Belgravia district and brought a considerable amount of psychedelic literature with him for the launch of what he dubbed ‘Operation London’. In his 1973 confessional autobiography The man who turned on the world (by which point the author described himself as a ‘confessed Franciscan’)[3] Hollingshead later gave a description of experimental neo-Tibetan rituals in London in which LSD was administered in conjunction with readings from The Psychedelic Experience and an interesting selection of music:

‘Shortly after dropping the acid, I played a tape of Buddhist Cakra music, followed by Concert Percussion by the American composer, John Cage. […]Next I played some music by Ravi Shankar and some bossanova. Interval of fifteen minutes. Then some music by Scriabin and part of a Bach cello suite. Interval. Some Debussy, and Indian flute music by Ghosh. Interval. Bach organ music and some John Cage ‘space’ music. Interval. The Ali Brothers and Japanese flute music.'[4]

It was the manager of the fashionable Indica Bookshop in Southampton Row who, according to his own account[5] introduced John Lennon to Leary’s and Alpert’s book on April 1, 1966. Following its instructions to the letter, Lennon composed Tomorrow Never Knows with its famous opening lines taken straight from Leary’s introduction:

Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

These words (fed through a rotating Leslie speaker inside a Hammond organ) were integrated within an unprecedentedly dense musical texture featuring multiple tape loops, distorted sitar, reversed guitar and treated percussion over a C drone, with the non-developmental structure mirroring an Eastern, circular approach to time.[6] If the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen (concerts of whose music Paul McCartney had attended) is evident, so to are the striking parallels with American minimalism (Terry Riley’s and La Monte Young’s In C pieces).

It is in this context of the Beatles’ involvement with the thought of Leary/Alpert, drug culture and Asian mysticism that Crowley’s inclusion within Sergeant Pepper‘s pantheon of Beatles influences begins to become comprehensible. To this however needs to be added the Beatles’ extremely negative experience of institutional Christianity in the violent backlash towards the band in the Southern U.S. during their tour of August 1966, which has to stand as one of the defining moments in the history of the divorce in recent decades between the Church and popular culture. The vociferous opposition of conservative Christians towards the Beatles was sparked by John Lennon’s London Evening Standard interview with Maureen Cleave of March 4 of the same year (immediately prior to Lennon’s reading of The Psychedelic Experience). In this interview  he had made the now legendary statement that

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.'[7]

Lennon’s reference to the ‘twisting’ of Jesus’s message by his disciples was influenced by his reading of the 1965 bestseller The Passover Plot by New Testament scholar Hugh Schonfield (one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls team), who claimed that Jesus had planned to fake his own death on the Cross, but that the plan failed when a Roman soldier ran a spear into his side.

It needs to be emphasized that Lennon’s remarks caused no outcry in Britain but set off an international furore when reprinted out of context by the American teenage magazine Datebook; following the boycotting of the Beatles’ music and effigy-burning by the Ku Klux Klan, Lennon attempted to defuse the crisis at the outset of the Beatles’ summer 1966 U.S. tour by issuing an apology at the Astor Towers Hotel in Chicago on August 11.[8] He asserted that he had basically been making a descriptive sociological comment on the decline of Christianity in England, not a value judgment on the relative merits of Christ and the Beatles. He maintained his belief in the accurary of his factual assessment of the state of the Church in Britain as ‘shrinking and losing contact’, a verdict supported by George Harrison who agreed that it was ‘on the wane’. Intriguingly, Lennon claimed that he had been ‘deploring’ the demise of British Christianity in the Evening Standard interview, and that he was was not impressed by Church attempts to be relevant to the younger generation:

‘Well, my reaction is that I was deploring it, you know. I was pointing it out. I mean, if somebody like us says it, people sort of do take notice, you know – even church people are trying to be ‘with it’ with pop groups and things. They’re still doing it the wrong way, and I was just stating a fact as I saw it.’

Stating that all the Beatles had received an essentially Christian upbringing, Lennon defined his own religious views in immanentist terms that could easily have been culled from a superficial reading of Tillich and Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God: ‘I believe in God, but not as an old man in the sky. I believe what people call ‘God’ is something in all of us’.[9] Clearly struggling to express himself coherently, Lennon voiced his opinion that ‘I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right; It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.'[10]

Beatles record-burning, Birmingham, Alabama, 1966

Having encountered the full fury of the most conservative U.S. Christians it is understandable that the Beatles’ negative position with regard to institutional Christianity should have been reinforced in the months following the release of Revolver and continued in the direction of an exploration of Indian religion seen as more experientially authentic than an ossified Church. As George Harrison commented on his first visit to Bombay in September 1966, “The religions they have in India I believe in much more than anything I ever learned from Christianity […] Their religion is not like something which Christianity seems to be, which is you turn it on Sunday morning and go to church because you’re supposed to go rather than because you want to go. It’s every second and every minute of their lives. It’s them – how they act, how they conduct themselves, how they think.”[11] Lennon would echo this sense of the inadequacy of the Church in 1967: ‘The youth of today are really looking for some answers, for proper answers the established church can’t give them, their parents can’t give them, material things can’t give them’.[12]

In the context of the Beatles’ alienation from the institution of the Church they felt no taboos about including Aleister Crowley on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It seems evident that their (probably John Lennon’s) interest in him was not so much related to the lurid stories of his orgiastic rituals but rather his appropriation of Eastern philosophical thought and use of hallucinogens.[13] Viewed in such a light, it is not difficult to see how Crowley could be part of a narrative including other figures on the cover such as Huxley, Burroughs and various Indian gurus such as Yogananda. While Nietzsche was not featured among the Beatles’ ‘people we like’, there are hints of ‘beyond good and evil’ to the artistic and spiritual genealogy implied by the artwork, which (as photographic evidence attests) was initially to have included both Jesus and Hitler. The shadow of the author of Also sprach Zarathustra looms large over the aspect of Crowley’s thought which, more than any other, would be explicitly championed by Leary and others in the late 1960s, encapsulated in Crowley’s ‘Law of Thelema’ (a notion taken from Rabelais and derived from the Greek for ‘will’): ‘Do what thou wilst shall be the whole of the law’. With this creed Crowley was promoting the Nietzschean elevation of Will to the status of an absolute imperative; it may be questioned how seriously this was taken by the Beatles in 1967,  but Crowley’s Thelemic doctrine would be taken in absolute earnest by the most radical elements of the late 1960s counterculture, with extremely serious consequences.



[1] The ‘classical’ perspective on the Beatles is humorously shown by the four songs which a young Louis Andriessen (to whom we will be returning in subsequent posts) wrote for Cathy Berberian while studying with the Armenian-American singer’s husband, Luciano Berio, in Milan in 1966.

[2] George Harrison first heard Ravi Shankar’s ensemble in 1965, then studied with the Indian master in 1966 (having already collaborated with Asian musicians on Love You To). It should be noted that Bernstein was already familiar with the use of Hindu musical elements in a Western context, having premièred Messiaen’s Turangalîla with the Boston Symphony Orchestra back in 1949.

[3] In the conclusion of The man who turned on the world Hollingshead acknowledged the ultimate futility of his chemical pilgrimage (which had included a serious methedrine addiction and a spell in London’s notorious Wormwood Scrubs Prison):

‘And how do I now think of LSD et al.?—as certain truths about the nature of my inner self came to be manifest in my conscious mind, my interest in psychedelics began to wane proportionately, so that today I do not believe that LSD can help me towards self-realisation. It had never been more than preliminary, one may say, a pretext to me to explore inwardness and unfamiliar mental states for whatever they might reveal. But LSD has nothing more to give me. And I am therefore determined to return to the world, and in time, to integrate myself with it. In relation to any religious beliefs I now hold, I am a confessed Franciscan, though I freely admit that I have a very long way to go before I shall be able to express this outwardly—with my entire being—the love Saint Francis of Assisi showed was for all living creatures, and in respect to love of this kind, I must to this extent be regarded as clumsy. Yet in Saint Francis evolved Love of the very highest order for his delicate and feminine sensibility offered Love a unique possibility of manifestation. And thus, in the light of this knowledge, I can no longer take my psychedelic trips seriously. I know that many readers, and by no means the worst among them, would disapprove of such measures as taking LSD; one should be strong enough, they say, to exist by faith without the aid of drugs. Yes! One should be, but what if one is too weak?
And the impulse which now drives me back into the world is precisely the same as that which drives so many into monasteries or to keep the offices of prayer—the desire for self-realisation.’ (Michael Hollingshead, The man who turned on the world (London: Blond and Briggs, 1973)

[4] Ibid., ch. 5. Scriabin’s inclusion seems particular noteworthy given the Russian composer’s adherence to the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and his plans for his unrealized Mysterium to be performed during a mass ritual in Tibet.

[5] Barry Miles, The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years (London: Omnibus Press, 2001).

[6] A fascinatingly detailed analytical discussion of the recording of Tomorrow Never Knows, including transcriptions of the compositional sketches and tape loops, can be found in Walter Everett, The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[7] The Maureen Cleave Evening Standard interview is reprinted online at http://www.beatlesbible.com/1966/03/04/how-does-a-beatle-live-by-maureen-cleave/It is interesting to note that among ‘objects he still fancies’ in Lennon’s house, Maureen Cleave noted ‘a huge altar crucifix of a Roman Catholic nature with IHS on it; a pair of crutches, a present from George; an enormous Bible he bought in Chester; his gorilla suit.’

[8] Transcripts of the two Astor Towers Hotel press conferences can be found online at www.beatlesinterviews.org and www.beatlesbible.com/1966/08/11/travel-london-to-chicago/2/ .

[9] Quoted Larry Kane, Lennon Revealed (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2007), 118.

[10] Quoted Tony Barrow, John, Paul, George, Ringo & me: the real Beatles story (New York: Avalon, 2005). Barrow was the Beatles’ press officer, and it was in his 27th floor suite in the Astor Towers Hotel that the press conferences occurred.

[11] Quoted in Steve Turner, The Gospel according to the Beatles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 10.

[12] Ibid., 134.

[13] I have found no hard evidence to support the interpretation of the opening lines of the album’s title song, ‘it was twenty years ago today Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play’ as referring to the death of Aleister Crowley in 1947, a rumour which has been widely circulated by occultists and conservative Christians alike.



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