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How marijuana changed The Beatles forever

“I remember it pretty well y’know,” Paul McCartney explains on the Adam Buxton Podcast, “We were staying in that hotel [the Delmonico in New York City] and we were on tour, so we were all together in the hotel suite. We were having a drink and then Bob [Dylan] arrived and disappeared into a backroom. Then Ringo went back to see him and after a couple of minutes Ringo came back into the suite looking a little dazed and confused and we said, ‘what’s up?’ and he said, ‘oh Bob’s smoking pot back there’, and we said, ‘oh, well what’s it like?’ and Ringo said, ‘the ceiling feels like it’s coming down a bit’.”

It is a pop culture moment that has gone down in history as a seismic event, capturing the imagination and spawning thoughts well beyond the simple happenstance that it represented. “Because we had never had it before,” explained Paul on the podcast, and thus the meeting has been catapulted towards the rarefied tag of a cataclysmic moment. It is remembered in pop-culture publications as the first time that The Beatles delved into drugs, a magical mystery ride that would leave an indelible mark on the band’s back catalogue forevermore.

There is an argument to be made that Bob Dylan and The Beatles represent the two most influential forces of the counterculture movement. They are both lionised luminaries in their own right, whose influence transcends the field of music and manifests as an essential strand in the fabric of our everyday lives. It is this glossy-eyed narrative of two titans meeting and mutating the world of culture with a liberating toke that has transmuted the story from simple circumstance to urban legend status, a status that helps pave over some of the factual cracks. 

For instance, despite Paul McCartney’s assertion that “we had never had it before,” a George Harrison quote in Anthology seems to contradict this. “We first got marijuana from an older drummer with another group in Liverpool,” Harrison is quoted as saying. “We didn’t actually try it until after we’d been to Hamburg. I remember we smoked it in the band room in a gig in Southport and we all learnt to do the Twist that night, which was popular at the time. We were all seeing if we could do it. Everybody was saying, ‘This stuff isn’t doing anything.’ It was like that old joke where a party is going on and two hippies are up floating on the ceiling, and one is saying to the other, ‘This stuff doesn’t work, man.'”

These differing tales represent one thing and one thing only, that at one point in the swinging sixties, The Beatles were bound to meet with drugs; it was as much of a prognosticated certainty as taxes and death. The reason that Paul’s version of events is the celebrated story is because it’s a million miles away from being trite, with an undeniable underlining tale of truth – it may well have been the first time they had all shared a spliff together. “We dashed into the backroom to partake of the evil substance,” McCartney jokes, “And that was quite an evening. It was crazy, it was great fun. But I’m not sure Bob is too keen on being labelled as the guy who turned The Beatles on [to drugs].” And no doubt this begrudging was owing to all the baggage that such a title entails. Not to mention the fact that Dylan was also disbelieving at the time that the four-piece were about to pop their pot cherry. 

As Peter Brown, the music moguls present with the Beatles on the night explained, in the Steven Gaines novel, The Love You Make, “[Dylan didn’t believe the band had never smoked pot before] he looked disbelievingly from face to face. ‘But what about your song?’ [Dylan] asked. ‘The one about getting high?’ The Beatles were stupefied. ‘Which song? John managed to ask. Dylan said, ‘You know…’ and then he sang, ‘and when I touch you I get high, I get high…’ John flushed with embarrassment. ‘Those aren’t the words,’ he admitted. ‘The words are, ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide.'”

The direct effect of that evening – aside from a mild high and one hell of anecdote – is the song ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, which Paul explains is a veiled reference to the bands growing love of the devil’s lettuce and a burgeoning desire to smoke more of it. However, in a more nebulous sense, the reverberations of the fateful meeting with The Voice of a Generation were somewhat more impactful.

Whilst the Liverpudlians may well have already been dabbling in ‘Purple Hearts’, a diet pill that doubled-up as a mild party drug, cannabis represented a departure from the commonplace and a deep dive into different drugs that coaxed a slew of fantastic albums each influenced by a substance that helped inspire it, but also the inevitable comedown and the underlying impact that it may well have had one the band’s inevitable demise. 

Cannabis, in particular, imbued the band’s output with a mellower more introspective side. Around their spliff smoking peak, the four-piece put out Help! An album that saw a much more wistful approach to songwriting, with dreamy songs like ‘It’s Only Love’ sounding like they were plucked from the ether of a plume of puffed-out smoke. 

Creatively speaking, it wasn’t always a benevolent companion. As John Lennon told David Sheff in the novel, All We Are Saying, “The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.” The band could barely remember their lines for the Help! picture, and they spent most of their time on set gorging themselves on Cheeseburgers.

As ever, the band’s relationship with the drug brought forth the notion of harmless creative muse versus harmful gateway to more nettlesome substances. As Paul concludes on the podcast with a note of caution that encapsulates the dichotomy that the substance represented for The Beatles, “It was always to have something in your mind to lean on […]. Having said that, these days, it’s so much more potent, and you do have to warn kids, just to take it easy, whatever you do.”