New Evidence Reveals How Drugs Influenced The Beatles’ Music
Anyone familiar with The Beatles knows the world’s best band (I.D.S.T.) spent their time in the limelight Riding So High – both in the charts and their physiological state.
You only have to listen to Octopus’s Garden or peruse the iconography of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to imagine the group of four merry men had a little help from their friends to achieve creative excellence and new sounds through mind-altering means.
Their experience is documented in Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years:
Yet new evidence has detailed how The Beatles – and their inimitable oeuvre – were influenced by drugs, put forward by the founder of The Beatles Bible, Joe Goodden, in his book Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs.
Despite self-imposed restrictions on drug-taking in the studio and periods of sobriety, drugs were a part of everyday life for John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Paul McCartney.
But how drug-fuelled was their music?
Speaking to UNILAD, Goodden explained their ‘biggest artistic leaps coincided with new chapters in their drug-taking’, from well-documented everyday encounters with cannabis and speed, to lesser known experiences on LSD, cocaine and heroin.
Goodden described two particularly profound changes, saying:
The first was in 1964 when they really fell in love with smoking cannabis, thanks to an infamous night in New York with Bob Dylan.
It led to their music becoming slower, more reflective and often autobiographical – think of songs such as I’m A Loser and In My Life.
The second breakthrough was after they first had LSD. Lennon and Harrison had their drinks spiked in 1965, not knowing much at all about the drug and immediately realised its significance and potential.
Ringo joined them for their second trip in Los Angeles that summer and by the end of the year, Paul had also succumbed.
With Paul, John, George and Ringo’s ‘minds expanded and open to new ideas, they were poised and primed to make Revolver and Sgt Pepper‘ – arguably The Beatles’ most ground-breaking albums.
Saying that, all four were smokers and drinkers in their teenage years, he added, first using Benzedrine in 1960, after an English beat poet, Royston Ellis, showed the group how to extract drug-soaked strips from Vicks inhalers.
By this time, they’d had A Taste Of Honey. In 1961 the band went to Hamburg for the second time, and were introduced to Preludin, German stimulants commonly known as ‘Prellies’.
Throughout the psychedelic wave of the 60s, however, drugs left lasting damage on some members, most notably Lennon, who ‘suffered quite significant psychological damage’ towards the latter half of the decade, when he used LSD extensively and fell into heroin addiction.
The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, who became a heavy user of pills and alcohol, struggled with personal demons and eventually succumbed to an accidental but fatal sedative overdose in 1967.
In spite of this tragedy, Goodden says ‘drugs certainly allowed The Beatles to think differently’.
In the first extensive published research into the topic, he writes:
Cannabis in particular gave them an escape from the pressures of Beatlemania and allowed them to enjoy life in their own little bubble.
They used drugs throughout the 1960s much as they seized upon any new stimulus – music, sex, art, theatre, meditation and so on – taking what they could, then moving on when they ceased to deliver.
Goodden, a ‘second-generation Beatles fan’ recalled being a teenager in the 90s and falling in love with ‘the music, the image, everything’, devouring all the books he could get his hands on.
The fandom came pretty handy when writing the book, he mused:
I have a writing room crammed with dozens of Beatles books and went through various old magazine and newspaper cuttings, TV and radio interviews, Hansard transcripts, police reports and more.
So, to ask an expert, did drugs really influence The Beatles and their music?
In part, certainly, but it’s impossible to determine the extent, because there was never a sober Beatles to compare. There were many bands in the 1960s who were using the same substances but never managed to make a Revolver.
They also had the support of a studio team at Abbey Road, led by George Martin, who had no interest in drugs. The production team were driven by creative progression and were the perfect foils for the band.
No one would contest The Beatles’ creativity and ambition – which Goodden credits largely with their success, adding ‘Lennon and McCartney – and later Harrison – were among the best songwriters of their generation, which had little if anything to do with drugs’.
Musing on what The Beatles’ discography would look like had the band never got their hands on illegal narcotics – which at times landed them in trouble with the police and divided public opinion – Goodden concluded it would ‘look partially different, but not entirely’.
The devotee and former BBC music journalist added:
There might not have been songs such as Tomorrow Never Knows or Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, and Lennon probably wouldn’t have sung ‘I need a fix’ on Happiness Is A Warm Gun.
But there were also a lot of very conventional, even old-fashioned, songs on their albums which might not have been any different.
I think drugs helped them, opened doors and suggested possibilities, but they didn’t provide the answers. The Beatles went looking and found their own way.
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Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs is available now from Amazon.