Tara Browne’s fatal crash: ‘Like a death knell sounding over London’

Tara and Nicki Browne

More than half a century on, though Sixties London may conjure up ideas of hedonism, rebellion, and freedom, there was always a darker side to it. Death came for some, like Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones, while others, like Syd Barrett and Peter Green lost their minds through drugs. And yet it was an accidental death more than any other tragedy that symbolized the decade’s sense of Et in Arcadia ego. Tara Browne was rich, good-looking, the son of a baron, the heir to the Guinness fortune, and a prominent member of the Chelsea Set. His fatal car crash inspired two songs, one by the Beatles and the other by the Pretty Things. Late one December night in 1966 Browne lost control of his light-blue Lotus Elan at the junction of Redcliffe Square and Redcliffe Gardens and smashed into a van. His girlfriend Suki Potier survived the crash, thanks in part to Browne’s swerving the car just before impact so that he took the full force of the collision. He was just twenty-two years old when he died. (Potier was to die in another car crash fifteen years later.)

The poet Hugo Williams was a teenage friend of Browne’s and remembered him in a piece written for the Spectator magazine in 2001: ‘At 15, in 1960, Tara was barely literate, having walked out of dozens of schools. He smoked and drank but he hadn’t got on to joined-up handwriting yet…Tara was two years younger than me but years ahead in sophistication and fun, dealing jokes, insults and ridiculous boasts from an inexhaustible deck like a child delightedly playing snap. In his green suits, mauve shirts with amethyst cuff-links, his waves of blonde hair, brocade ties and buckled shoes, smoking menthol cigarettes (always Salem) and drinking Bloody Marys, he was Little Lord Fauntleroy, Beau Brummell, Peter Pan, Terence Stamp in Billy Budd, David Hemming in Blow-Up.’

Browne epitomised the glamour of the Chelsea Set. He owned a house in a Belgravia mews, a motor repair shop in Chelsea, and Dandie Fashions, a men’s boutique on the King’s Road. He was a part-time racing car driver and a regular at the Ad Lib. It was Browne who introduced Paul McCartney to LSD and who took Brian Jones and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg UFO hunting in the English countryside while stoned. He straddled the worlds of old and new money, an aristocrat who befriended upwardly mobile bands like the Beatles and the Stones.

Six months before his death, his doting mother arranged a lavish twenty-first birthday party for him at the family’s Gothic pile in the Wicklow mountains in Ireland. The Lovin’ Spoonful, his favourite group, were flown in from California to perform, a snip at $10,000. The Rolling Stones were all there but the Beatles had to pass as they were in the thick of recording the Revolver album. It was a druggy do. Mick Jagger took LSD for the first time, though he didn’t enjoy it, Anita Pallenberg remembered it as ‘all pretty heavy’ and Marianne Faithfull saw it as a kind of turning point for many of the party-goers: ‘the start of a quest for decadence among these people.’

Even at the time his friends viewed Browne’s death as signifying something larger: a loss of innocence, a reminder of their own mortality, a realisation that the party couldn’t go on forever. Faithfull, who’d had a fling with him, described the news of the crash as ‘like a death knell sounding over London’. Pallenberg claimed that after Browne died, ‘the Sixties weren’t the Sixties any more’.

It’s generally accepted that John Lennon, who tended to be contemptuous of the upper classes even while McCartney was befriending them, was musing on Browne’s death when he wrote the opening verse of ‘A Day in the Life’, about the man who ‘blew his mind out in a car’. Lennon’s tone is detached, almost sardonic. (It’s worth noting that McCartney later claimed that he had co-written the verse with Lennon and that, in his mind at least, it had nothing to do with Browne.) The Pretty Things song ‘Death of a Socialite’ put Browne’s death centre-stage, and in a more a sympathetic way than Lennon’s take.

Down the years the Beatles were the subject of many odd stories and Tara Browne was involved in one of the oddest. On Boxing Day in 1965, Browne and Paul McCartney, both stoned, went out for a moped ride. McCartney took a tumble, slipping over the handle bars, and split his lip and cracked a front tooth. A few years later, rumours began that he had actually died in this accident, and that Browne, with the help of a little plastic surgery, had taken his place in the Beatles. Of course, this story failed to explain the identity of the man who died on that cold night in Redcliffe Gardens.

[Photograph of Tara and Nicki Browne © Condé Nast]

[This post is an extract from my book City of Song: A London Sixties Music Trail, available on the Amazon, Apple Books, and Kobo ebook stores. Click here for more information.]