It’s easy to think of The Beatles as the four mop-top suited lads from Liverpool, who took the pop charts by storm with a mixture of charm and dancefloor-ready tunes.
It was their fresh faces that epitomised what it was to be the Fab Four but things changed after 1965, the band moved away from trying to top the charts and instead chose to represent the changing world around and within them. It would end up defining the band’s continued success.
From that moment on John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr began writing songs that affected them personally and saw them as individuals connect with the material more and more. It meant that as they experienced new and interesting things, things they had never known before, those such topics usually found their way into the lyrics sheet and some of their best songs.
Like any four young people in the cradle of swinging London, one of those experiences was LSD.
The group tried the drug at different points in their careers with Harrison and Lennon first trying it together in 1965 alongside the demon dentist John Riley, while McCartney would dabble with acid himself a few years later. But there can be no doubt that it affected the band’s writing and infiltrated a huge chunk of their work between 1966 and 1968, seemingly slowing as the band reached their natural conclusion.
As such, some of The Beatles most beloved songs are the psychedelic ones, the tracks which could transport you from your dingy bedsit in the lower end of Crapsville to a new higher plain, one where you could join the paisley patrons and get lost in the lucidity of losing your mind.
While The Beatles were certainly so much more than acid, there’s still a hefty dose of it to be enjoyed in their music.
The Beatles most psychedelic songs:
‘She Said, She Said’
Back in August 1965, The Beatles were holed up in a rented mansion hidden deep within the mountains above Beverly Hills, California. It was the perfect breeding ground for the newly famous Beatles to open up the taps on their celebrity and head straight for hedonism.
One such celebrity was Peter Fonda who somehow broke into the mansion to join the band during a particularly deep acid trip. For both Lennon and Harrison, this acid trip wasn’t their first rodeo and, while believing in their new-found LSD enlightenment, the duo pushed both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to join them on their journey into the mind-melding trip. While Starr agreed, McCartney refused, Macca later shared his maiden voyage with his pal, Lennon.
As Harrison descended into a deep fear of death, Fonda tried to lighten up proceedings by recalling his own near-death experience. It stuck with Lennon and became the basis of the Revolver song ‘She Said, She Said’, the song was written about Peter Fonda being suitably “uncool, man”.
‘A Day in the Life’
One track that may not necessarily be entirely descended from an acid trip like ‘She Said, She Said’ but is certainly dripping with psychedelia is ‘A Day In The Life’. A track imbued with the same mysticism as the best of Beatles work, the song is a fragmented retelling of the day’s papers.
Lyrically it doesn’t necessarily imbue you with the sense of ‘what-the-fuckery’ as some of the band’s other pieces, but musically, the track is one of the band’s most expansive.
Beginning as a simple acoustic guitar and piano piece, the sonics continue to move up and up before a swirling climax finally explodes.
It is rightly regarded as one of The Beatles’ finest moments on tape and is a perfect example of just how well the two principal songwriters of the group could patch their styles and motifs so effortlessly together.
‘Within You Without You’
Written by George Harrison for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the track has widely been seen as one of the most obviously acid-inspired tracks of the band’s canon.
While there’s certainly elements of psychedelia in the song, we think the majority of that ‘vibe’ can be put down to Harrison’s own spirituality.
Often thought of as ‘Paul McCartney’s record’, Sgt. Pepper wasn’t a pleasant experience for Harrison. “Sgt Pepper was the one album where things were done slightly differently,” he said in Anthology. “A lot of the time… we weren’t allowed to play as a band so much. It became an assembly process — just little parts and then overdubbing.”
It was misaligned with Harrison’s newfound spiritualism, having just returned from six weeks in India, his songwriting style which was far removed from a costumed concept album. “After [the India trip], everything else seemed like hard work,” George said. “It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do, and I was losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.”
That wouldn’t stop the guitarist from contributing one of the finest moments of the album in the beautiful ‘Within You Without You’. It is deeply ingrained with the new Eastern identity Harrison had gathered and was an accurate reflection of where his music would eventually go without the band.
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
Featuring on the band’s 1967 album Magical Mystery Tour, Lennon drew on his life in Liverpool to add a certain sentimentality to this otherwise trippy number, “Strawberry Fields is a real place. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie who lived in the suburbs in a nice semi-detached place with a small garden and doctors and lawyers and that ilk living around… not the poor slummy kind of image that was projected in all the Beatles stories.”
For Lennon, the time spent around those houses and fields, losing marbles and having fun was all the symbolism he ever really cared for: “We always had fun at Strawberry Fields. So that’s where I got the name. But I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields forever.”
While ‘Penny Lane’ is a similar song in tone and sentiment, Lennon takes this track into a brand new realm and rather than reminiscing about his home as an unattainable place, Lennon pictures it as his own personal heaven, his safe place.
‘I Am The Walrus’
Lennon was quick to lean heavily on his inspirations when writing songs and the words for ‘I Am The Walrus’ leapt right up from the page. The song was directly inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and sees Lennon use an allegory to create a mystifying point.
“Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy. Like many dreams, the song is actually a composite of a few different themes. The basic rhythmic pattern came from one song about inner-city police which Lennon had based on a police siren. The other two threads were dreamed up when Lennon was high on acid, with one being written as if he was on a cornflake.
In the same 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon confirmed: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko… I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘Element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.”
It sees Lennon put down on paper the fuzzy drug-fuelled sessions that underwrote the band’s output at this time and also showed that songs don’t necessarily have to mean anything to be considered great.
‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’
The Rubber Soul track is often considered Lennon’s first real acid-rock tune but the truth is a little way off. Instead, this track is the first time he establishes that sound as part of his own musical vocabulary. Of course, he needed help for the sitar part on the song, luckily he had Harrison on hand. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, John Lennon explained why it was decided to use the sitar on this song.
He recalled: “I think it was at the studio. George had just got the sitar and I said ‘Could you play this piece?’ We went through many different sort of versions of the song, it was never right and I was getting very angry about it, it wasn’t coming out like I said. They said, ‘Well, just do it how you want to do it’ and I said, ‘Well I just want to do it like this.’”
Adding: “He was not sure whether he could play it yet because he hadn’t done much on the sitar but he was willing to have a go, as is his wont, and he learned the bit and dubbed it on after. I think we did it in sections.” But the real story behind the song is one a little more scandalous. He disclosed: “I was trying to write about an affair without letting my wife know I was having one. I was sort of writing from my experiences – girl’s flats, things like that. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn’t want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household.”
Lennon then honestly stated: “I’d always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair, but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn’t tell. But I can’t remember any specific woman it had to do with.”
‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’
The title is about all you would need to spark theories that this song was about acid. The fact that it came equipped with some of Lennon’s most visually inspiring and kaleidoscopic lyrical imagery only added to the misconception, but Lennon was always resolute in his defence that he had no idea the song’s title, spelt out LSD, “I had no idea it spelt LSD. This is the truth: my son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around. I said, ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and I thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote a song about it.”
It’s a track that was largely written by Lennon but also sought advice and guidance from Paul McCartney who remembered writing the song for The Beatles Anthology, saying, “I showed up at John’s house and he had a drawing Julian had done at school with the title ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ above it. Then we went up to his music room and wrote the song, swapping psychedelic suggestions as we went.”
So while the song may not have been ‘about drugs’ it was certainly inspired by them, “I remember coming up with ‘cellophane flowers’ and ‘newspaper taxis’ and John answered with things like ‘kaleidoscope eyes’ and ‘looking glass ties’. We never noticed the LSD initial until it was pointed out later – by which point people didn’t believe us.”
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
He was the man behind ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ but it’s not the first one Lennon wrote, according to the man himself, that was ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. “This was my first psychedelic song,” said Lennon in 1972 in reference to the track.
Lennon was a vicious critic of his own work and confessed just two years later that despite his epic vision he couldn’t bring the song to fruition. “‘Tomorrow Never Knows’…I didn’t know what I was saying, and you just find out later. I know that when there are some lyrics I dig, I know that somewhere people will be looking at them.”
Adding: “Often the backing I think of early on never comes off. With ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ I’d imagined in my head that in the background you would hear thousands of monks chanting. That was impractical, of course, and we did something different. It was a bit of a drag, and I didn’t really like it. I should have tried to get near my original idea, the monks singing. I realise now that was what I wanted.”
It may not have been a part of Lennon’s vision but the song really shines as one of his best.