“It’s no use saying ‘I will never take drugs’ or ‘I WILL take drugs,’ because you don’t know.” — John Lennon
The Beatles had a long and varied relationship with drugs. Even as they were being sold to the world as the clean-cut cheeky chappies from Liverpool, the group had a somewhat sordid after party already being planned in their heads. It’s a fact that is rarely surfaced about the group and, instead, music critics prefer to focus on the group’s songs. However, if you look closely enough, one can note that there was more than one occasion that the group used those very songs to share their experiences with narcotics.
As such, below, we’ve collected the songs in which The Beatles make reference to, or in some cases, songs written as love letters to drugs. It’s a collection of songs that not only reaffirms the band’s penchant for a packet or two of powder, but also how those spells of substance abuse informed their songwriting too.
The truth is, The Beatles were always surrounded by drugs. Even as early as 1961, the group had begun experimenting with amphetamines. Taken as a way to ensure their eight-hour shifts as the venue’s band in Hamburg went off without a member of the band falling over, the pills were often handed out by the waiters in the cafes. It was a gateway for the group’s experimentation with narcotics from which they could never return.
Later, in 1964, the band were formally introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan who, after being left red-faced for thinking the ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ included a reference to pot, offered the foursome their first joint. It was an experience that many have pointed to as a pivotal moment in the group’s career. It opened up their minds (McCartney even proclaimed to have worked out the meaning of life while high) and enhanced their viewpoint for songwriting — Rubber Soul, the following album, was referred to by Lennon as their “pot album.”
As time moved on, the drugs of choice changed. Of course for Revolver, the drug preference was LSD, a fashionable hallucinogenic that had swept San Francisco and eventually reached London. After John Lennon and George Harrison first tried it in 1965, the band would all take the drug during their time together, using it as a bridge to their subconscious lyrical style which would permeate their work.
Later still, during the recording of Sgt. Pepper, McCartney would try cocaine, using it to keep his mind rigid and focused during sessions. The following album would see a darker turn as Lennon became addicted to heroin. It would mark much of their final years working together in sadness and it also, largely, ended the other members’ use of narcotics.
While focusing on the extra-curricular activities of an artist rather than the art itself is always a silly thing to do. Here, we have the combination of the two as we note down every song The Beatles wrote about drugs.
The songs The Beatles wrote about drugs:
‘Got To Get You Into My Life’
If there was one song that pointed directly to The Beatles increasing drug use then the image of Paul McCartney, the straight man of the group, writing an ode to marijuana is about as definitive as you get.
Speaking in 1994, Macca said of the track: “I’d been a rather straight working class lad, but when we started to get into pot it seemed to me to be quite uplifting. It didn’t seem to have too many side effects like alcohol or some of the other stuff, like pills, which I pretty much kept off. I kind of liked marijuana and to me it seemed it was mind-expanding, literally mind-expanding.
“So ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ is really a song about that. It’s not to a person, it’s actually about pot. It’s saying, ‘I’m going to do this. This is not a bad idea.’ So it’s actually an ode to pot.”
‘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 written about Peter Fonda being suitably “uncool, man”.
‘I Am The Walrus’
Though not directly written about drugs, they certainly influenced this piece as 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.
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.
John Lennon was never afraid to throw a bit of dark humour into a song and, on ‘Doctor Robert’, he and McCartney parodied the idea of a helpful doctor and the explosion of drugs in the sixties. It’s a perfect little toe-tapper and the flourish of wit is always an added charm.
Lennon told Playboy’s David Sheff back in 1980 that the song was, “Mainly about drugs and pills. It was about myself. I was the one that carried all the pills on tour… later on, the roadies did it. We just kept them in our pockets, loose, in case of trouble.” The band were well-versed in drugs before the song found a place on the record and this little ditty shows their ease.
A reference to the uppers the Fab Four took while on tour in Hamburg, the tune is still a welcome piece of relief on the band’s ‘LSD album’ Revolver.
‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’
This one is truly up for debate but seemingly only if you were a member of the band. While the song is resolutely championed as one of the Fab Four’s most obvious references to LSD, those within the band say otherwise. “I had no idea it spelt LSD,” Lennon confided in 1980. “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.”
As with any explosion of culture, there are bound to be some new additions to the scene that the old guard dislike or distrust. For The Beatles who, by the time they wrote ‘Day Tripper’ were self-confessed lovers of LSD, the drug being picked up by the upper classes was beginning to wear thin.
They did what any reasonable band would do and lambasted them in a song. “Acid was coming on the scene, and we’d often do these songs about ‘the girl who thought she was it.’ Mainly the impetus for that used to come from John— I think John met quite a few girls who thought they were it,” recalled McCartney in 1994.
“But this was just a tongue-in-cheek song about someone who was a day tripper, a Sunday painter, a Sunday driver, somebody who was committed only in part to the idea. Where we saw ourselves as full-time trippers, fully committed drivers, she was just a day tripper. That was a co-written effort— we were both making it all up but I would give John the main credit.”
‘With A Little Help From My Friends’
One of the most joyful songs in the entire Beatles catalogue, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ is an innocent track on the face of things. The Sgt. Pepper track is one of the band’s most beloved and not simply because it was sung by Ringo Starr.
“This was written out at John’s house in Weybridge for Ringo… I think that was probably the best of our songs that we wrote for Ringo actually. I remember giggling with John as we wrote the lines,” recalled McCartney. The song suggest countless things that with a little help from your pals can be achieved, including the famous line “I get high, with a little help from my friends”.
‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey’
By the middle of 1968, Lennon’s drug abuse had moved away from LSD and taken a far darker turn as he started using heroin with regularity. “He was getting into harder drugs than we’d been into and so his songs were taking on more references to heroin,” recalled Paul McCartney.
One shining example of which was The White Album‘s ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’, which made explicit references to taking the drug.
“Until that point we had made rather mild, oblique references to pot or LSD. But now John started talking about fixes and monkeys and it was harder terminology which the rest of us weren’t into. We were disappointed that he was getting into heroin because we didn’t really know how we could help him. We just hoped it wouldn’t go too far.”
‘Magical Mystery Tour’
There’s no doubt that the Magical Mystery Tour record is one of The Beatles weirder exports. The soundtrack to the film acts like a twisted turn around the fairground and while that can get us feeling a little giddy, the Fab Four made sure to compound the queasiness with the opening track which made some not so subtle references to marijuana.
Largely hanging on the continued use of the phrase “roll up”, the reality of the band sneakily adding drug references to their most accessible music can be seen in their previous mischievousness. Having snuck dirty words into their early records, we’re sure they enjoyed sneaking the weed references into this one too.
‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’
Though not musically gifted in a traditional sense, Lennon knew a hook when he saw one and when he glanced over at a magazine and saw the NRA advert with the tagline: ‘Happiness is a warm gun’ he knew he had something. Of course, McCartney certainly had a hand in the track, the complex time signatures should tell you that, but the motif and the sentiment of the track feels straight out of the Lennon playbook.
As one of the tougher moments of the band’s 1968 White Album, Lennon does a great job of adding in a potent dose of acid-rock amid the swirling blues and doo-wop crescendo. It’s a joyful track with a dark edge as the song is often thought of as another of Lennon’s heroin tunes.
“They all said it was about drugs, but it was more about rock ‘n roll than drugs,” said Lennon in 1972. “It’s sort of a history of rock ‘n roll… I don’t know why people said it was about the needle in heroin. I’ve only seen somebody do something with a needle once, and I don’t like to see it at all.”
‘She’s A Woman’
The only entry from the 1964 record The Beatles For Sale the album works as a bridge between the band’s clean-cut boyband image to their more rogue ways of Rubber Soul. The band had started smoking marijuana and were keen to make reference to the fact in their music.
“That’s Paul with some contribution from me on lines, probably,” recalled John Lennon in 1980. “We put in the words ‘turns me on.’ We were so excited to say ‘turn me on’ – you know, about marijuana and all that… using it as an expression.”
This entry into our list is a bit of an anomaly but is worth presenting, nevertheless. This is the only song in which we know that The Beatles were on LSD when recording. When we say The Beatles we mean, John Lennon who arrived at the Sgt. Pepper sessions a little worse for wear.
“I thought I was taking some uppers,” Lennon recalled of the ‘Getting Better’ session. “I was not in a state of handling it. I can’t remember what album it was but I took it and then [whispers] I just noticed all of a sudden I got so scared on the mike. I said, ‘What was it?’ I thought I felt ill. I thought I was going cracked. Then I said, ‘I must get some air.’ They all took me upstairs on the roof, and George Martin was looking at me funny. And then it dawned on me. I must have taken acid. And I said, ‘Well, I can’t go on, I have to go.’ So I just said, ‘You’ll have to do it and I’ll just stay and watch.’ I just [became] very nervous and just watching all of a sudden. ‘Is it alright?’ and they were saying, ‘Yeah.’ They were all being very kind […] They carried on making the record.”
Eventually, Paul McCartney would find a way to get Lennon home and the duo shared their first-ever trip together.
‘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.