The drugs don’t work

<strong>The Act You've Known For All These Years</strong>

Clinton Heylin <em>Canongate, 336pp, £16

Picture yourself in a boat on a river: there’s no way off, the life jackets have fallen overboard, and you’re trapped in conversation with Clinton Heylin. Towering overhead are mysterious shapes, gleaming in the Kodachrome colours of 1967. You wonder if you really can see that girl with kaleidoscope eyes, the tangerine trees, the marmalade skies . . . at which point Heylin leans over and whispers: “No, it’s just drugs.”

The Act You’ve Known For All These Years is a timely re-evaluation of the Sgt Pepper myth, now pushing 40. Heylin is no sentimentalist, desperate to relive the summer of love. Instead he aligns himself with the punks he grew up with: “Imagine my disappointment when the gut-punch vocals of Joe Cocker . . . were replaced by the vaudeville vocals of Billy ‘Ringo’ Shears.”

Heylin’s journey takes in the social and musical contexts that gave rise to Britain’s highest-selling album. But there’s something underwhelming about his attempts to push LSD as the central concern of the era. “The new Pink Floyd sound”, he explains, consists “entirely” of “reflections from an acid-induced aesthetic”. Entertaining as he is, Heylin ultimately diminishes the ambiguities that made the music so beguiling in the first place.