Ripped from the Headlines?: three songs on the classic Sgt. Pepper album

Needless to say, there was ample coverage around the globe last summer concerning the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There was a highly praised special on PBS entitled Sgt. Peppers Musical Revolution , in addition to countless articles in major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Daily Mail. However, what was not addressed in the media coverage of the 50th anniversary was the fact that some songs on this groundbreaking album were “ripped from the headlines”. The songs “She’s Leaving Home”, “A Day in the Life” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” were inspired by news articles or announcements.

The term “ripped from the headlines” was thrown at some high-profile American television shows which based their scripts around actual news events. The first such show, Lou Grant, which ran weekly from 1977-1982 on, saw actor Ed Asner reprise the character Lou Grant from the seven year run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) though not in a comedic role. In the show Lou Grant, the character Lou Grant had shifted from television news in Minnesota back to print news and was the city editor of the fictitious daily newspaper the Los Angeles Tribune. Some of the show’s episodes were based on actual situations that had faced newspapers in the U.S. However, the term ‘ripped from the headlines” is most heavily identified with the show Law & Order, which ran on NBC from 1990-2010 and spawned a franchise of other similar Law & Order type shows. Episodes of Law & Order many times were based on high-profile news stories that appeared on the front page of the New York City tabloid newspapers the New York Post and the New York Daily News.

Similarly, the song “She’s Leaving Home” was taken directly from a newspaper article that Paul McCartney read. Paul said the following of the song:

“John and I wrote ‘She’s Leaving Home’ together. It was my inspiration. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found, there were a lot of those at the time, and that was enough to give us a story line. So I started to get the lyrics: she slips out and leaves a note and then the parents wake up … It was rather poignant. I like it as a song, and when I showed it to John, he added the long sustained notes, and one of the nice things about the structure of the song is that it stays on those chords endlessly. Before that period in our song-writing we would have changed chords but it stays on the C chord. It really holds you. It’s a really nice little trick and I think it worked very well.

While I was showing that to John, he was doing the Greek chorus, the parents’ view: ‘We gave her most of our lives, we gave her everything money could buy.’ I think that may have been in the runaway story, it might have been a quote from the parents. Then there’s the famous little line about a man from the motor trade; people have since said that was Terry Doran, who was a friend who worked in a car showroom, but it was just fiction, like the sea captain in “Yellow Submarine”, they weren’t real people.”

The front page newspaper article in question was in the Daily Mail about a teenaged girl named Melanie Coe who had run away from her parents. Coe subsequently said that the song was fairly accurate though she did not meet “a man from the motor trade.”

What was ironic was that McCartney had actually met a young Melanie Coe three years earlier in 1963 when he served as a judge on ITV’s Ready Steady Go! and proclaimed her the winner of a dance contest.

A May 2017 article in Real Clear LifeMeet the Real-Life Runaway Who Inspired the Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’” gives further details of this circumstance of an article ripped from the headlines.

The final track on the classic 1967 album, “A Day in the Life”, written primarily by John with Paul adding the midsection, was similarly based on newspaper articles, mainly reports on the death of Tara Browne, the 21 year-old heir to the Guinness fortune. A friend of both Paul and John, Browne died when he crashed his Lotus Elon. Of course, the song starts off with the opening lyric, “I read the news today, oh boy”.

The main article on Browne’s death which inspired the song was a 17 January 1967 article in the Daily Mail which centered on a ruling on custody of Browne’s two small children.

“I didn’t copy the accident,” Lennon said in a BBC interview. “Tara didn’t blow his mind out, but it was in my mind when I was writing that verse. The details of the accident in the song—not noticing traffic lights and a crowd forming at the scene—were similarly part of the fiction.” McCartney expounded on the subject: “The verse about the politician blowing his mind out in a car we wrote together. It has been attributed to Tara Browne, the Guinness heir, which I don’t believe is the case, certainly as we were writing it, I was not attributing it to Tara in my head. In John’s head it might have been. In my head I was imagining a politician bombed out on drugs who’d stopped at some traffic lights and didn’t notice that the lights had changed. The ‘blew his mind’ was purely a drugs reference, nothing to do with a car crash.”

In his 1988 biography Yesterday: The Unauthorized Biography of Paul McCartney, author Chet Flippo wrote about how two articles on Browne were the catalyst for the song, and how an entirely different article in the 17 January Daily Mail fueled the song:

“He got the germ of it when he picked up the Daily Mail on December 19. John knew one story he would find. The previous day a good friend of the Beatles named Tara Browne had been killed when his Lotus Elan hit a truck at high speed in South Kensington. He was twenty-one years old, an heir to the Guinness fortune, and now he was dead in a car wreck. The subject stayed with John. On January 17, 1967, he settled down on his settee with the Daily Mail and read the following short item: ‘There are 4,000 holes in the road in Blackburn, Lancashire, or one twenty-sixth of a hole per person, according to a council survey.’

“John started writing, combining the two items and adding a reference to his recent war movie. It was still not a complete song, so John took what he had to Paul. In what was undoubtedly the last time they would sit down and work on a song together, Paul produced his own unfinished song that he thought would fit with John’s unfinished piece of the puzzle. Paul’s portion was, he said, about his memories of ‘what it was like to run up the road and catch the bus to school, having a smoke and going to class. We decided, ‘Bugger this. We’re going to write a turn-on song.’ This would become ‘A Day in the Life.’”

The Daily Mail ran an article on 22 November 2012 entitled “A Day in the Life: Tragic true story behind one of the Beatles’ one of the Beatles famous hits revealed in new book” gives further insight into the scenario surrounding the car crash death of Tara Browne.

While “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” was not ripped from a news story, the lyrics were lifted almost word-for-word from a circus poster. There were a collection of unusual things at John’s Kenwood estate in the London suburb of Weybridge that he had collected. One was a 19th century circus poster for Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal appearance in Rochdale.

While Paul has claimed over the years that he aided a small bit in the writing of the song, John always maintained that it was entirely his. The poster’s second headline was “Being for the benefit of Mr. Kite”; William Kite worked for Fanque. Mr. J. Henderson was a wire-walker, equestrian, trampoline artist, and clown; he performed with his wife, Agnes Henderson, thus the invocation of “The Hendersons”. A brilliant article on the subject appeared a 24 May 2017 Rolling Stone article entitled “Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: How an Old Circus Poster Led to ‘…Mr. Kite