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The Story Behind The Song: John Lennon's ode to the horrors of heroin 'Cold Turkey'

Love him or loathe him, one thing that cannot really be denied about John Lennon is that he was an authentic artist. Never one to shy away from including his darkest moments in song, the former Beatle was as happy to sing about the desperate need for love to heal the world as he was to acknowledge the violence within him. It’s part of what has made Lennon such a valuable component of rock and roll history. He’s a tumultuous character that rarely stays within the parameters of pop.

‘Cold Turkey’ is a perfect example of Lennon’s unfettered viewpoint reaching the masses. Released as the second single of Lennon’s then-burgeoning solo career, the track is firmly rooted in the hysteria of The Beatles, or perhaps more pointedly, in Lennon’s escape from it. Founded in the murky mist of 1968, as the band were recording The White Album, the title of the song leaves little to the imagination of the track’s content. This is Lennon’s ode to heroin or, more accurately, his withdrawal from it.

Two years after quitting touring to focus on their studio time, The Beatles were still suffering as a band. Having lost their enigmatic leader, manager Brian Epstein, in 1967, the band were left floundering. Initially, the group turned to a spiritual leader and the art of transcendental meditation, with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi providing cosmic comfort. However, soon enough, that bubble burst and most of the band became disillusioned with his teachings — Harrison would cherry-pick parts for his spiritual enlightenment. For McCartney, the choice was easy; he would throw himself into his music and create Sgt. Pepper. But for Lennon, the ability to withdraw from being one of the most famous men on the planet was always out of reach. Sadly, he turned to drugs for the respite he craved, namely, heroin.

“Heroin. It just was not too much fun,” he told Jan Wenner in 1970. “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. And I’ve had so much shit thrown at me and especially at Yoko.” It was clear that Lennon was trying to add weight to his life imbalances. “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.”

‘Cold Turkey’ wasn’t the first time he had referred to drugs. The Beatles had been dropping debauched hints for years by this point, and Lennon had even reportedly snuck in some heroin references into the Fab Four’s work, including on ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ (though he disputes it) and ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide But Me and my Monkey’. Lennon’s drug use can be charted right up until the end of the summer of 1969 where he and Yoko Ono decided to get clean and begin their cold turkey process.

Though the duo would occasionally lapse into using the drug here and there, they were never consumed by it again. So changed by the experience, Lennon decided to pay homage to the experience. This was a song about the heinous effect of the drug and how it had left Lennon internally damaged. “‘Cold Turkey’ is self-explanatory. 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,” the singer told David Sheff in 1980.

It was a good point. Lennon’s generation was the first to be genuinely proud of their drug intake and also the first generation who had to use the black market to get them. It led to dissatisfaction across the nation and saw conservatives begin a decades-long war on drugs. Lennon was clearly very enlightened on the subject as he told Sheff: “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. Why we take them is important, not who’s selling it to whom on the corner.”

With a clear message ready to be rolled out, Lennon employed some helpful musicians to lay down the track. As well as drafting in his old pal Ringo Starr to play on drums, he also asked Eric Clapton to deliver a searing guitar part and enlisted Klaus Voorman on bass guitar. It makes for one of the finest tracks of John Lennon’s impressive back catalogue. His second single proved that without the need to satisfy the commercial side of The Beatles, Lennon was able to be as visceral and vulnerable as he desired.

Despite the protestations and censorship, the song became one of Lennon’s defining moments on the charts. In fact, when returning his MBE to Queen Elizabeth II he name-checked the song: “I am returning this MBE in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”

‘Cold Turkey’ will never go down as Lennon’s defining anthem. But, in truth, it is perhaps the perfect distillation of his songwriting chops. Unafraid, unabashed and always willing to put himself on the line, ‘Cold Turkey’ is the very essence of Lennon’s humanity.

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