Like many of the White Album’s tracks, “Sexy Sadie” dates from the Beatles time in India studying under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. During this period, rumors began circulating that the Maharishi had been seducing female devotees (according to Paul, Alex Mardas—better known as “Magic Alex”—informed the group of the gossip). Disenchanted, the Beatles decided to leave, with John Lennon feeling the most betrayed.
As he told Rolling Stone in 1971, “So, we went to see Maharishi, the whole gang of us, the next day, charged down to his hut, his bungalow – his very rich-looking bungalow in the mountains – and as usual, when the dirty work came, I was the spokesman – whenever the dirty work came, I actually had to be leader … and I said ‘We’re leaving.’ ‘Why?’ he asked, and all that shit and I said, ‘Well, if you’re so cosmic, you’ll know why.’”
While John and George waited for ride out of Rishikesh, John began jotting down lyrics to the song. “That was written just as we were leaving, waiting for our bags to be packed in the taxi that never seemed to come,” he said in Anthology. Overall, “John wrote ‘Sexy Sadie’ to get it off his chest,” Paul added.
According to Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, John’s original lyrics seethed with anger: “Maharishi, you little twat, who the fuck do you think you are? Who the fuck do you think you are? Oh, you cunt.” In one of his final interviews, Lennon admitted: “I was just using the situation to write a song, rather calculatingly but also to express what I felt. I was leaving the Maharishi with a bad taste. You know, it seems that my partings are always not as nice as I’d like them to be.”
In Many Years from Now, Paul told author Barry Miles that he believed Lennon’s anger toward the Maharishi was unwarranted. “Perhaps [the other Beatles] had been looking for something more than a guy and found he wasn’t a god, whereas I’d been looking at a guy who was saying, ‘I’m only giving you a system of meditation,” he said. According to Paul,John originally titled the song “Maharishi,” even using the name in the lyrics (“Maharishi, what have you done?”). George and Paul persuaded John to drop the name; to maintain the rhythm, Lennon changed the title to “Sexy Sadie.”
In retrospect, Paul stated, they had heard rumors about the guru from Magic Alex — not the most reliable of sources. Therefore altering the name to protect the innocent was a wise move.
An interesting relic of the original lyrics still exists: After returning from Rishikesh, Lennon carved the “Maharishi” version into a piece of wood, the words “the private mind of John Lennon” inscribed at the top. According to NME, Maureen Cox subsequently owned the wood; a collector later acquired it, and the memorabilia finally hit the auction block on September 23, 2013.
Another figure greatly influenced “Sexy Sadie”: Smokey Robinson. In later years, it was revealed that Lennon was a fan of Robinson and the Miracles’ “I’ve Been Good to You,” a 1961 single he enjoyed playing on his personal jukebox. The opening lines of the song – “Look what you’ve done; You’ve made a fool of everyone” – directly inspired the opening verses of “Sexy Sadie,” according to Jonathan Cott’s book Days That I’ll Remember. “Smokey Robinson has the most perfect voice,” John told. “A beautiful piece. … I go wild every time I hear it.”
After recording a demo of “Sexy Sadie” — possibly as part of the “Esher demos” — John brought the song to Abbey Road on July 19, 1968. The Beatles recorded 21 takes of the track, with take six later released as part of the Anthology 3 collection. This version featured vocals by John, Paul and George; electric guitar by George; drums by Ringo;and Hammond organ by John. The Beatles returned to the track on July 24, recording 23 takes.
Dissatisfied with those attempts, they tried to master “Sexy Sadie” once more on August 13; they completed eight more takes; the final take (labeled 107, counting all previous attempts) was chosen as best. They completed all overdubs on August 21, with Lennon rerecording his lead vocal. Organ, bass (courtesy of McCartney), piano, tambourine, and all backing vocals were also laid down.
The distorted, delayed piano (an effect similar to Phil Spector’s production on Imagine) creates an unsettled atmosphere, intensified by the swirling background vocals that sound as if they were recorded underwater. Harrison’s lead guitar slithers through the track, adding bite to Lennon’s bitter words. “Sexy Sadie you’ll get yours yet – however big you think you are,” Lennon snarls, his anger palpable. One can hear how John Lennon felt betrayed by his onetime guru: “You gave her everything you owned just sit at her table. Just a smile would lighten everything,” he complains.
Interestingly he changes the sex of this charlatan, suggesting that this character used sexuality to seduce. “She came along to turn on everyone. Sexy Sadie, the greatest of them all,” he admits, clearly stating that he had fallen under this figure’s spell.
The Maharishi’s alleged sin – seducing female followers — can be inferred from the lyrics, along with his apparent charisma. Sexy Sadie chiefly relied on feminine wiles and sexuality to lure apparently unsuspecting men. Similarly, Lennon seemingly argues, the Maharishi lured followers with power and personality.
George clearly disagreed with Lennon’s feelings toward the Maharishi, as he recorded not one but two response tracks. He originally wrote “Not Guilty” for the White Album (the Beatles recorded over 100 takes, with take 102 surfacing on Anthology 3), but eventually rerecorded it for 1979’s George Harrison: “Not guilty, nor leading you astray on the road to Mandalay,” he sings, vaguely referring to the Beatles’ sojourn.
On 1974’s Dark Horse, a telling track parodies the song: “Simply Shady”: “You may think of Sexy Sadie, let her in through your front door – and your life won’t be so easy anymore,” Harrison sings, demonstrating he had never forgotten the events behind Lennon’s composition.