It was a moment of cultural significance when The Beatles, who were deemed as four whiter than white characters who could never put a foot wrong, admitted their affinity for the psychedelic drug LSD. The drug had only just become somewhat common as a recreational party enhancer during the mid-sixties and, when John Lennon and George Harrison took their first hit under the tutelage of the ‘Demon Dentist’ John Riley—who apparently ‘dosed’ the two Beatles during a night on the tiles in the springtime of 1965—they would never look back and the world would be forever thankful for the renewed creative vigour.
While The Beatles were no strangers to drugs prior to Riley’s dosage in 1965, having experimented with a range of stimulants and cannabis over the years in the lead up to this moment, but it was their introduction to LSD which would have the biggest effect on their career. It not only caused a major shift in their music, which can be heard especially on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, but it also caused a chasmic shift in public opinion of the band as well as their public personas. That evening which saw Riley invite John and Cynthia Lennon, George Harrison and Pattie Boyd to dinner at his central London flat would be one of the most pivotal in the history of The Beatles. The evening was a standard dinner party until it all changed shortly after the meal when Riley gave them coffee laced with LSD. At the time that Harrison and Lennon consumed the mind-altering drug, it was still legal and the general public was blissfully unaware of its existence.
The Beatles had their second trip on LSD a few months later at an afternoon party in Los Angeles, a time in which they were on a break from a particularly chaotic US tour. Although Paul McCartney refused to take part in proceedings, that didn’t stop Ringo from joining George and John—they were in an esteemed company too as they were joined by the likes of Eleanor Bron, Pete Fonda and The Byrds.
This trip would be one that provided the source of inspiration for John Lennon’s ‘She Said She Said’, a song which 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 key lyric in the track which became a Beatles classic.
These frequent trips gave The Fab Four a new sense of mindfulness and freedom, one which not only poured itself into their music but it also made them more honest with the press. 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—this made The Beatles public enemy number one and their clean-cut image had faded.
“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.”
This counter-culture that they found themselves engrossed in 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 this sub-culture. There are references throughout Revolver relating to acid and Sgt. Pepper is a remarkable slice of psychedelia that is an utter delight from start to finish.
The Beatles’ use of LSD decreased after the 1967 Summer of Love and they publically denounced the drug on 26th August when they pledged their belief in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s system of Transcendental Meditation instead. 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.