The Beatles went through hundreds of songs in their day and that’s just the ones they officially released. Much like any artist has a sketchpad, many of the Fab Four’s songs were mere early drafts or unwanted sketches that were resolutely forgotten about by the band. Some of those rejected songs, however, would go on to become incredible tracks away from the group. While George Harrison can claim most of those, John Lennon also had a song rejected by the band.
‘Cold Turkey’, a song with a couple of different interpretations, was originally recorded by John Lennon with the help of longtime Beatles confidant Eric Clapton and would later be released by the Plastic Ono Band. The song would go on to become a defining piece of iconography for Lennon and was his second solo single, though it could have easily been another Beatles release too.
The song is, according to Lennon himself, an unabashed look at the horrendous extremes one must go through to kick heroin. Lennon and Yoko Ono had both picked up the filthy habit during a particularly difficult time for the pair, “It just was not too much fun. I never injected it or anything. We sniffed a little when we were in real pain. I mean we just couldn’t – people were giving us such a hard time,” Lennon to Jann Wenner in 1970.
“I’ve had so much shit thrown at me and especially at Yoko,” continued Lennon. “People like Peter Brown in our office, he comes down and shakes my hand and doesn’t even say hello to her. Now that’s going on all the time. And we get in so much pain that we have to do something about it. And that’s what happened to us. We took H because of what The Beatles and their pals were doing to us. And we got out of it. They didn’t set down to do it, but things came out of that period. And I don’t forget.”
1969 would be a tough year for The Beatles and Lennon’s way of coping was to lose himself in heroin every so often. It accounts for a lot of his ambivalence during the recording of Let It Be and also his growing disinterest in anything but his own determinations. But by the end of the year, Ono and Lennon chose to kick the habit and go through the process known as ‘cold turkey’, it was enough to spark the idea for the song in the Liverpudlian.
“‘Cold Turkey’ is self-explanatory,” began Lennon when discussing the song with David Sheff in 1980. “It was banned again all over the American radio, so it never got off the ground. They were thinking I was promoting heroin, but instead… They’re so stupid about drugs! They’re always arresting smugglers or kids with a few joints in their pocket. They never face the reality. They’re not looking at the cause of the drug problem. Why is everybody taking drugs? To escape from what? Is life so terrible? Do we live in such a terrible situation that we can’t do anything about it without reinforcement from alcohol or tobacco or sleeping pills?”
“I’m not preaching about ’em. I’m just saying a drug is a drug, you know,” concluded Lennon with some progressive ideas on narcotics. “Why we take them is important, not who’s selling it to whom on the corner.” In early September 1969, Lennon began putting down the first notes of his new track and called on a special friend to help out too, Eric Clapton.
Lennon and Clapton’s friendship was well-known and the duo were always only a few degrees of separation away from creating their own band. But in September of 1969, Lennon was still very much a Beatle so there were a certain amount of dues to be paid. The singer laid down three takes of the song, one as just a run-through with Lennon and an acoustic, one included Eric Clapton laying down a guitar line and the final recording featured Yoko Ono on vocals. Lennon took them to the other principal songwriter in the group, Paul McCartney, to see what to do next.
Lennon suggested the song could be recorded as The Beatles next single with a sincere glint in his eye. The band’s leader knew full well that it would be too risky for the group to release the song about heroin withdrawals but that didn’t stop him paying lip service to McCartney with the offer. Macca turned the song down and Lennon’s plan kicked into action—he would release the song under his own name, without the songwriting credit of McCartney attached. At the time this was a huge move to signify Lennon’s intent on leaving the group.
After finally getting the song right, even welcoming Ringo Starr to the studios to lay down the drums after the Plastic Ono Band debuted the song in Toronto, the track was released on October 20th, 1969. It came complete with a label that had “PLAY LOUD” printed in large bold type. We’re going to do just that and listen to the inner workings of John Lennon’s soul via his song ‘Cold Turkey’.