It was a moment of cultural significance when The Beatles, who were deemed as four whiter-than-white personalities that could never put a foot wrong, admitted their affinity for the psychedelic drug LSD.
The drug, which had only emerged as a common recreational party enhancer during the mid-1960s, entered the worlds of John Lennon and George Harrison, who took their first hit under the tutelage of the ‘Demon Dentist’ John Riley. In a period of counterculture revolution, Riley apparently ‘dosed’ the two Beatles during a night on the tiles in the spring of 1965. From there, the Liverpudlians would never look back, and the world would be forever thankful for the renewed creative vigour.
While The Beatles were no strangers to drug use before Riley’s dosage in 1965, having experimented with a range of stimulants and cannabis over the years in the lead up to this moment, it was their introduction to LSD that would have the most significant effect on their career. It not only caused a major shift in the sound of their music – which can be heard notably on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper – but it also caused a chasmic shift in public opinion of the band and their public personas.
The pivotal evening, which saw Riley invite John and Cynthia Lennon, George Harrison and Pattie Boyd to dinner at his central London apartment, would be one of the most significant in the history of The Beatles. The evening was a usual dinner party until the mood changed shortly after the meal, a moment in which Riley handed out coffee that had been secretly laced with LSD. At the time that Harrison and Lennon consumed the mind-altering drug, it was still legal, and the general public remained blissfully unaware of its existence.
After a particularly mind-bending evening, The Beatles expanded on their exploration, taking on their second LSD trip a few months later while attending an afternoon party in Los Angeles, a time in which they were on a break from a chaotic US tour. Although Paul McCartney refused to take part in proceedings, that didn’t stop Ringo Starr from joining George and John — and they were in an esteemed company, too, as the likes of Eleanor Bron, Pete Fonda and The Byrds all rubbed shoulders.
This trip would be one that provided the source of inspiration for John Lennon song ‘She Said She Said’, an effort that later featured on Revolver. Lennon was inspired by the actor Peter Fonda who, during the party, told the bespectacled Beatle on numerous occasions throughout the trip, “I know what it’s like to be dead,” which ended up being a focal lyric of the Beatles classic.
The frequent trips gave the Fab Four a new sense of mindfulness and freedom, one that not only poured itself into their music but also made them more honest with the press in the process. After Paul McCartney was convinced to join his bandmates into the world of acid, he was later famously quizzed by a newspaper about his psychedelic indulgence, and he chose to tell the truth rather than take the easy route out. It was a decision that ultimately made The Beatles public enemy number one, calling an end to their already fading clean-cut image.
“I never felt any responsibility, being a so-called idol,” John Lennon said to Hunter Davies in 1967. “It’s wrong of people to expect it. What they are doing is putting their responsibilities on us, as Paul said to the newspapers when he admitted taking LSD. If they were worried about him being responsible, they should have been responsible enough and not printed it, if they were genuinely worried about people copying.
“LSD was the self-knowledge which pointed the way,” Lennon said in the same interview. “I was suddenly struck by great visions when I first took acid. But you’ve got to be looking for it before you can possibly find it. Perhaps I was looking without realising it. Perhaps I would have found it anyway. It would have just taken longer”.
The swirling and changing culture that The Beatles had found themselves engrossed within first made its way into their music on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, a song that featured lyrics adapted from Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s 1964 book, The Psychedelic Experience. Delving deeper still, that effort was itself a reworking of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead, work that is considered the bible in the aforementioned sub-culture. There are references throughout Revolver relating to acid and, building on that, Sgt. Pepper is a remarkable slice of psychedelia that remains an utter delight from start to finish.
The Beatles’ use of LSD decreased after the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’, and the band publically denounced the drug on August 26th, instead pledging their belief in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s system of Transcendental Meditation. The world of hallucinogenics was one that John Lennon would carry on revisiting – even if it was only on a few occasions a year – as he sought out a form of resetting his mind and demons as well as providing the world with gorgeous music along the way.