It is no mystery by now that The Beatles experimented with drugs throughout their career. From uppers to downers, from cannabis to LSD, The Beatles did it all. The extent of how much it influenced their music is a more interesting question. While drug use was a part of the Fab Four’s lives, when it came to working in the studio, they rarely ever let drug use dictate their work.
“We did take certain substances, but never to a great extent at the sessions, we took a little, but whenever we overdid our intake, the music we did was absolutely shit,” Ringo Starr commented in an interview.
The Beatles’ experimentation with drugs started fairly early on with benzedrine – this progressed into their frequent use of other amphetamines which helped them stay up all night when playing just about 24/7 in Hamburg, Germany. While they did try cannabis a few times here and there in Liverpool, they wouldn’t really start using it until they became acquainted with Bob Dylan.
Their LSD phase would have the most significant impact on their music, and specifically, the mystique surrounding their 1967 psychedelic trip of an album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was during this time that the band would start getting heat from the press for their explicit drug use.
Towards the end of The Beatles, things got a little darker, especially for John Lennon who had a propensity to use more. Allegedly, along with Yoko Ono, he would start to use heroin – although he claimed that he never used it intravenously, but instead by snorting it.
Unlike The Rolling Stones, whose identity was closely connected to drug use and mischief, The Beatles were able to keep a relatively low profile when it came to drugs – until Paul McCartney outright told a reporter that he had used LSD four times. Looking back now, The Beatles’ various drug phases can be elucidated in chronological order of their albums; Lennon called Rubber Soul (1965) “the pot album,” Revolver was heavily influenced by LSD while Sgt. Pepper’s was highly publicised as the quintessential LSD record, mostly to do with Lennon’s song ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, of which its acronym could be abbreviated to ‘LSD’, a facet that Lennon had dismissed as purely coincidental. Nevertheless, it still added to the mystique.
When was the first time The Beatles used drugs?
“The first drugs I ever took, I was still at art school, with the group – we all took it together – was Benzedrine from the inside of an inhaler,” Lennon said. The Beatles were first introduced to uppers by Beat poet Royston Ellis, whose girlfriend Lennon would dedicate ‘Polythene Pam’ to.
“Ellis had discovered that if you open a Vick’s inhaler you find Benzedrine in it, impregnated into the cardboard divide,” Harrison commented, according to the Beatles Bible.
When the group began their residency in Hamburg, they would often find themselves playing in front of people from all walks of life. This is where the Fab Four cut their teeth in many ways, including the consumption of uppers, which would come in handy throughout their career. They found they could play all night without stopping and with very little sleep while taking them. The Liverpool lads were given Preludin, or otherwise known as ‘prellies’.
“In Hamburg the waiters always had Preludin – and various other pills, but I remember Preludin because it was such a big trip – and they were all taking these pills to keep themselves awake, to work these incredible hours in this all-night place. And so the waiters, when they’d see the musicians falling over with tiredness or with drink, they’d give you the pill. You’d take the pill, you’d be talking, you’d sober up, you could work almost endlessly – until the pill wore off, then you’d have to have another.”
The darker aspect of Preludin – and by extension the Beatles’ time in Hamburg – was that they played in front of all sorts of characters at the time. “The speed thing first came from the gangsters. Looking back, they were probably thirty years old but they seemed fifty… They would send a little tray of schnapps up to the band and say, ‘You must do this: Bang bang, ya! Proost!’ Down in one go. The little ritual. So you’d do that, because these were the owners. They made a bit of fun of us but we played along and let them because we weren’t great heroes, we needed their protection and this was life or death country. There were gas guns and murderers amongst us, so you weren’t messing around here. They made fun of us because our name, the Beatles, sounded very like the German ‘Peedles’ which means ‘little willies’. ‘Oh, zee Peedles! Ha ha ha!’ They loved that.”
While Lennon took a liking to the drugs, McCartney was a little reticent as would be the case later on as well. “I knew that was dodgy,” McCartney began, before adding: “I sensed that you could get a little too wired on stuff like that. I went along with it the first couple of times, but eventually we’d be sitting there rapping and rapping, drinking and drinking, and going faster and faster, and I remember John turning round to me and saying, ‘What are you on, man? What are you on?’ I said, ‘Nothin’! ‘S great, though, isn’t it!’ Because I’d just get buoyed up by their conversation.”
Did Bob Dylan introduce The Beatles to pot?
While the Fab Four had experimented here and there with cannabis in Liverpool, it wouldn’t be until the 28th of August 1964, when the group were introduced to their hero, Bob Dylan, at the Delmonico Hotel in New York by the writer Al Aronowitz. While the party commenced with plenty of drinks, the question of which drug to take eventually arose, with The Beatles offering Dylan and Aronowitz some purple hearts (amphetamines), to which they declined and instead offered up some grass.
After a puzzled look Brian Epstein (who took drugs as well – and overdosed on them later) and The Beatles exchanged, Epstein finally offered some clarification: “We’ve never smoked marijuana before.”
Bob Dylan returned the puzzled look and responded, “But what about your song? The one about getting high?” he said. “Which song?” Lennon then asked, according to Peter Brown. Dylan then said, “You know…” and then he sang, “and when I touch you I get high, I get high…”
You can imagine the looks of horror on the lad’s faces when they had to cough up the truth. Lennon took the plunge and said, “Those aren’t the words,” he admitted. “The words are, ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide…’”
Did The Beatles love cannabis?
Nonetheless, the Beatles’ lives forever changed when cannabis slid into their picture frame. While the group didn’t ever need drugs to make great music, it influenced their creative pathways as well as impact their everyday lives – yes, sometimes negatively.
“The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast,” Lennon said, according to David Scheff. “We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.”
The Fab Four’s new love for cannabis caused a few problems on Richard Lester’s film set during the shooting of the motion picture, Help!. “In the afternoon we very seldom got past the first line of the script,” Ringo Starr commented, before adding, “We had such hysterics that no one could do anything. Dick Lester would say, ‘No, boys, could we do it again?’ It was just that we had a lot of fun – a lot of fun in those days.”
Did The Beatles do LSD?
While Rubber Soul came out of their wonderful cannabis-induced dreams, Revolver was a deeper dive into the psyche – a dive into a place from which one could never come back out of; when John Lennon and George Harrison took acid for the first time, unbeknownst to them at the time, they knew they had to convince the other two to take it as well because they weren’t on the same page anymore.
“John and I had decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid,” Harrison said, “Because we couldn’t relate to them anymore. Not just on the one level – we couldn’t relate to them on any level, because acid had changed us so much. It was such a mammoth experience that it was unexplainable. It was something that had to be experienced, because you could spend the rest of your life trying to explain what it made you feel and think. It was all too important to John and me.”
This first experience that Harrison and Lennon shared is an infamous one that influenced a couple of songs on Revolver: ‘Doctor Robert’ and ‘She Said She Said’. Doctor Robert was, of course, the dentist John Riley, who allegedly dropped acid onto the sugar cubes that ended up in the teacups of John and Cynthia Lennon and George Harrison and his girlfriend at the time, Pattie Boyd. When it became clear that the dentist was trying to keep them there, Lennon had assumed that it was for an orgy, when in fact, he was aware that they were about to be blasted off into deep space.
“He laid it on George, me and our wives without telling us at a dinner party at his house,” Lennon recalled. “He was a friend of George’s, and our dentist at the time. He just put it in our coffee or something. He didn’t know what it was, it was just, ‘It’s all the thing,’ with the middle-class London swingers. They had all heard about it and didn’t know it was different from pot or pills. And they gave it to us, and he was saying, ‘I advise you not to leave,’ and we thought he was trying to keep us for an orgy in his house and we didn’t want to know.”
“It was as if we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a horror film,” Cynthia Lennon said. “The room seemed to get bigger and bigger.”
Later that night, they ended up in a nightclub. Afterwards, Harrison mustered up the courage to drive everyone home. “It was daylight and I drove everyone home – I was driving a Mini with John and Cynthia and Pattie in it. I seem to remember we were doing 18 miles an hour and I was really concentrating – because some of the time I just felt normal and then, before I knew where I was, it was all crazy again,” Harrison remembered.
He added, “Anyway, we got home safe and sound, and somewhere down the line John and Cynthia got home. I went to bed and lay there for, like, three years.”
LSD would have the greatest influence on The Beatles, more so than any of their other drug experiences. It greatly impacted Lennon and Harrison’s relationship in particular – one could say they were the closest in the group in regards to their artistic sensibilities and songwriting than any of the other members.
“After taking acid together, John and I had a very interesting relationship. That I was younger or I was smaller was no longer any kind of embarrassment with John,” Harrison said. “Paul still says, ‘I suppose we looked down on George because he was younger.’ That is an illusion people are under. It’s nothing to do with how many years old you are, or how big your body is,” Harrison commented. It wasn’t only their similar songwriting styles that brought Harrison and Lennon together, but also their sense of spirituality.”
Harrison added, “It’s down to what your greater consciousness is and if you can live in harmony with what’s going on in creation. John and I spent a lot of time together from then on and I felt closer to him than all the others, right through until his death. As Yoko came into the picture, I lost a lot of personal contact with John; but on the odd occasion, I did see him, just by the look in his eyes I felt we were connected.”
On several occasions, Paul McCartney would continuously decline offers to do LSD. “It alters your life and you never think the same again. John was rather excited by that prospect. I was rather frightened by that prospect – never get back home again. I was seen to sort of stall…because there was a lot of peer pressure,” Macca remembered.
Ironically, when McCartney did eventually do it, the cat came out of the bag on the whole thing. In a televised interview, the press was hammering McCartney about how many times he had done LSD. He eventually conceded: “I’ve taken it four times.”
When answering a question on whether the Beatles had ever encouraged the use of drugs, Macca observed, “I don’t think it will make any difference. I don’t think my fans are going to take drugs just because I did. But the thing is that’s not the point anyway. I was asked whether I had or not, and from then on, the whole bit about how far it’s going to go and how many people it’s going to encourage is up to the newspapers and up to you, you know, television. I mean you’re spreading this now at this moment, this is going into all the homes in Britain and I’d rather it didn’t. You’re asking me the question, you want me to be honest and I’ll be honest.”
While Macca’s comments proved to be sensible and logical, The Beatles’ work would consequently be judged too much through the lens of drug use. Sgt. Pepper’s ‘A Day In The Life’ was banned from the BBC for a while due to its suggestive repeating lyric, “I want to turn you on…”
Of course, Lennon’s other Sgt. Pepper’s song, ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’, was interpreted as an ‘LSD’ song, which Lennon had refuted. Psychedelia was and is intrinsically linked with LSD, however, it seems to have some cultural stigma attached to it.
Starr, in his usual independent kind of way, said: “I’d take anything.” Lennon once referred to him as his “royal taster.” But like McCartney, Starr was turned on to acid a little later. “John and George didn’t give LSD to me. A couple of guys came to visit us in LA, and it was them that said, ‘Man, you’ve got to try this.’ They had it in a bottle with an eye-dropper, and they dropped it on sugar cubes and gave it to us. That was my first trip. It was with John and George and Neil and Mal. Neil had to deal with Don Short while I was swimming in jelly in the pool. It was a fabulous day. The night wasn’t so great, because it felt like it was never going to wear off. Twelve hours later and it was: ‘Give us a break now, Lord’.”
While LSD did influence the group at the time, they never took acid while in the studio – except for one time when Lennon thought he was taking some uppers but it turned out to be some LSD. The group’s producer, George Martin, took Lennon up to the roof to get some fresh air, although Martin didn’t really know what was going on. “I was aware of them smoking pot. I wasn’t aware that they did anything really serious. In fact, I was so innocent that I took John up to the roof when he was having an LSD trip not knowing what it was.”
In the bigger picture, The Beatles were influenced by a whole array of life experiences – drugs just happened to be another facet in the grand picture of the Beatles’ mythology.