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I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

The short and gilded life of Tara Browne, the man who inspired The Beatles’ greatest song
Paul Howard


From the Prologue

It was a never-to-be-forgotten night. And true to the Sixties cliche, hardly anyone who was there can remember anything about it. Or at least they recall it in little broken shards of memory. It was one of those parties that would define a moment in time. There was drink and there were drugs. There were wispishly thin girls in mini­skirts with geometrically cut hair, and groovy young men in impeccably tailored suits who spoke in short, staccato sentences: 'Yeah, cool, man!'

Mick Jagger and Chrissie Shrimpton were there. So were Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg. And a black man in native African robes who kept performing a peculiar toast: 'Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, - I drink again, I die,' before pouring a linger of whiskey onto a drawing-room carpet that cost more than an average family car.

And there was half a Magritte. Mick Jagger couldn't stop laughing when he saw it. Years later, others thought they might have imagined it. Was it something they smoked? But no. It was there, on the wall. The legend had it that an elderly housemaid noticed what she thought was dust on the modern masterpiece but was in fact a cluster of stars. She gave the canvas a rub with a chamois and, hey presto - a humble domestic's ironic twist on the work of an artist who set out to challenge people's preconditioned observations of reality. There was something about it that was so of the moment, so wacky and satirical, so surreally surreal. And, of course, very, very funny, especially if you'd dropped enough acid or smoked enough grass, which many of the guests most assuredly had.

On Saturday, 23 April 1966, there was a party at Luggala, the mind-expanding possibilities of LSD in his Mayfair flat, turning heads in his psychedelically coloured AC Cobra, or gadding about London's West End with a Beatle or a Rolling Stone or perhaps Peter Sellers or Roman Polanski by his side.

In the context of the decade, he wasn't as vital a figure as Mick Jagger, or Mary Quant, or Michael Caine, or David Bailey, or Robert Fraser, or Terence Stamp, or John Lennon, or Vidal Sassoon. He didn't write a song, or star in a movie, or take a photograph, or design an item of clothing, or invent a haircut, or discover a guitar riff that defined the era in which he lived. In fact, he didn't produce anything more enduring than the memory of him as a young man who seemed unusually in harmony with the spirit of the times, a social butterfly who fluttered prettily across Sixties London and then was suddenly gone.

Fifty years on, he is familiar to many as John Lennon's lucky man who made the grade, only to blow his mind out in a car. But while 'A Day in the Life' immortalized the life of Tara Browne, it also succeeded in reducing it, for he was more than just another slumming aristocrat who lived too fast and died too young.

Swinging London, much like any popular social movement, was built on a serendipitous coming together of unique individ­uals. Some were unique for what they did. Others, like Tara, were unique for simply being themselves. Part of what gave the city its extraordinary creative energy in the 1960s was a new spirit of class unconsciousness that was embraced by Tara and many of his young blueblood friends. Just over a decade and a half after the Second World War, the hidebound social divisions that had been a feature of British life for centuries suddenly seemed not to matter. A new generation of confident young men and women gave the class system a vigorous shake, and for a few years, until the sediment settled again, no one cared if you were Penny from Kensington or Penniless from Hull.