When it came to major artistic leaps forward, The Beatles’ most drastic change between their mop-top teenybopper past and their psychedelic experimentation of the future came with 1966’s Revolver. Although catchy pop tunes were still part of the equation, wild shifts in genre that included Indian music, avant-garde, baroque pop, and R&B started to widen the band’s scope.
It was easy to sense that something was different about the band. Their relatively clean-cut image had been loosened on the previous year’s Rubber Soul, and there was a palpable sense that there was a change in the way the members perceived themselves. More closely aligning themselves with the burgeoning counterculture movement, there were rumours that the band were beginning to kick back at their squeaky clean image, including indulging in illicit drug use.
The truth was that the band had been using drugs since their earliest days. Their various residencies in Hamburg required them to play for hours a day, every day, often without adequate rest or sustenance. In came “Prellies”, stimulants that helped keep the band awake, and as their success led to increasingly hectic schedules, occasional amphetamine use wasn’t uncommon in the band.
But casual drug use took hold in 1965, once Bob Dylan introduced the group to marijuana a year prior. As the drug culture continued to grow, especially with the greater proliferation of LSD, The Beatles were at the forefront, especially John Lennon and George Harrison. The duo’s acid intake inspired songs like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘I Want to Tell You’, but when it came to the first explicit mention of drugs in The Beatles’ catalogue, the dubious honour went to the Revolver track ‘Doctor Robert’.
“There’s some fellow in New York, and in the States we’d hear people say: ‘You can get everything off him; any pills you want,'” Paul McCartney claimed in 1967. “It was a big racket, but a joke too about this fellow who cured everyone of everything with all these pills and tranquilizers, injections for this and that; he just kept New York high. That’s what Doctor Robert is all about, just a pill doctor who sees you all right.”
Beatles biography Barry Miles identifies this character as Dr. Robert Freymann, whose wealthy clientele may or may not have included Jackie Kennedy. Other candidates may have included art dealer/drug procurer Robert Fraser, John Riley (who first slipped Lennon and Harrison LSD), and Dylan himself.
However, when interviewed about the song in 1980, Lennon claimed that the song was instead another self-portrait. “Another of mine. Mainly about drugs and pills. It was about myself. I was the one that carried all the pills on tour. Well, in the early days. Later on the roadies did it. We just kept them in our pockets loose. In case of trouble.”
Despite containing one of the more transgressive lyrical topics for a Beatles, ‘Doctor Robert’ was one of the last conventional pop-adjacent songs that the band would rattle off before fully devoting themselves to the more eclectic sounds that Revolver as a whole would represent. Musically, ‘Doctor Robert’ was of the past. But lyrically, it was a sign of the future.