Let It Be: The Beatles and the Epiphone Casino
Four decades and a couple of generations later, the Beatles’ 1967 opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has only grown in stature. At the BBC, where one of the album’s signature tracks, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” was once banned during the time of the album’s release, an ensemble representing the elite of contemporary Brit pop now pays tribute to its enduring influence. Stateside, Cheap Trick, friends and orchestra performed the album in its entirety at two sold-out Hollywood Bowl shows, and the album is cited by artists of all genres and backgrounds—from the Flaming Lips to the Beach Boys—as a definitive influence.
But with what instruments did Sgt. Pepper teach the band to play all those years ago? While the album’s elaborate production techniques and often exotic instrumentation have been dissected ad infinatum, at its core was a sturdy electric guitar that would become the mainstay of the Beatles’ final years, the Epiphone Casino.
George Harrison and John Lennon had each acquired one of the hollow-bodied, originally sunburst-finished instruments—styled after Gibson’s stalwart ES-335, but without the guitar’s solid center block—in early1966, where it first saw action on the band’s Revolver album and “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” single and the latter’s accompanying promo clips. Paired in the hands of John and George, the instruments also played a key role in the Beatles world tour of 1966, including their famous stand at Tokyo’s Budokan and their final official live show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park at the end of August. Prior to beginning the Pepper sessions, Lennon spray-painted the back of his instrument for some as yet unexplained reason.
The Casino, the six-stringed backbone of those legendary sessions, would become more publicly visible later in 1967 when it appeared in promo films for the band’s “Hello Goodbye” single, also memorable as being the only time the Beatles were pictured actually playing instruments in their famous satin Sgt. Pepper band outfits. George Harrison’s may not have been as visible thereafter, but Lennon’s would continue to be his guitar of choice through the end of the band’s career.
Now professionally sanded down to its bare wood (Harrison once explained they thought doing so allowed the instruments to “breathe,” creating a richer sound) it would contribute significantly to 1968’s White Album sessions. The public would get a sense of how important the instrument was to Lennon when he used it in taping the promotional clips for both sides of the epic “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” single. In December of 1968, it would also feature prominently in Lennon’s contribution to The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, where John would perform the White Album’s “Yer Blues” with The Dirty Mac, a one-off collaboration featuring Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell, and Keith Richards (on bass!).
But after seeing regular use during the notoriously tension-filled weeks of filmed rehearsals and sessions the following month for a back-to-the-roots project—initially dubbed Get Back, but ultimately released a year later as the Let It Be film and album, Lennon’s sanded-down Casino would make arguably its most famous public appearance on a chilly January 30, 1969, during an impromptu live performance on the roof of Apple’s Saville Row offices in London.
John’s trusty bare-finished axe would make one final star turn at the end of the year during the raw, hastily-arranged live appearance featuring Eric Clapton chronicled on the Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace in Toronto. John’s Casino remained an integral part of his estate after his senseless murder, while George’s also held a special place in the guitarist’s collection for many years after.
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