STORIES

Beatles and Drugs Author on Pills, Pot and LSD

By David Jenison on October 20, 2017

Joe Goodden, the former BBC producer who started the Beatles Bible, has a provocative new book with a title that says it all: Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs. The book takes a comprehensive look at the Beatles' use of prohibited pills, pot, psychedelics and other drugs, from cracking open Vicks inhalers to access the Benzedrine to taking Valium intravenously. The author also highlights the band's extensive history with cannabis and psychedelics, even diving into both overt and coded references found in the band's musical canon. To learn more about the book and his research, PRØHBTD spoke with Goodden about the Beatles' many tickets to ride. 

What motivated you to write a book about the Beatles' relationship with drugs? 

When I started Beatles Bible [online] in 2008, I came up with a list of feature ideas, one of which was the Beatles and drugs. I wrote about 8,000 words on it, published it, and it's always been one of the most popular features on the site. I also found that, whenever I've put something out on social media about the subject, it always gets shared widely.

I'd always wanted to write a book, and I remember sitting in a restaurant with my wife and having the lightbulb moment. I knew it was a popular topic and one that hadn't been covered in a single book. It took a few years to finish it, though. I was a BBC producer until 2016, and I used to write in my spare time, but I left the corporation at the end of that year and had some time to pull it into shape.

Your Liverpool Echo reference exemplifies how the media helped stigmatize cannabis. How did the Beatles, the beatniks and other pop culture figures help transform how the public viewed cannabis—for better or worse—in the 1960s? 

Before 1967, the Beatles were always careful not to go public on their drug use. They were worried about the negative consequences among their fan base and wary of being teen idols and having people copy what they did. By the Summer of Love, more people were openly discussing cannabis in the media, and it had become more widely used among ordinary people. The Beatles dropped a few lines about getting high into their songs, so the undercurrent was there from late 1964 onward—"She's a Woman" contained the first reference—but really they were following the current rather than making the waves. Certainly they would never have been brazen enough to release a song like [Bob] Dylan's "Rainy Day Woman," which was pretty explicitly about getting stoned.

The band put their name to a petition in 1967 calling for the legalization of cannabis, which would have legitimized the drug in many people's eyes. It also helped kickstart a national conversation in the U.K. about drug laws. So in that respect, they helped change people's attitudes, but I doubt it would have happened before cannabis had already been widely used.

The Beatles' time in Hamburg started 15 years after the end of World War II. How would you describe the drug culture in post-war Germany at the time the band started it residencies there? 

They went to Hamburg on five occasions between 1960 and 1962. For the first trip, they got by on cigarettes and alcohol and had the times of their lives. But when they returned in March 1961, they discovered Preludin, a stimulant which seemingly everyone in the clubs was using. Prellies had been popular for years, so it's not entirely clear why they missed out on the first trip, but they soon made up for it.

You wrote about a general shift from stimulants in the 1950s to cannabis in the 1960s. What factors helped facilitate this change? 

I think it was a subtle cultural shift rather than a major quake. Jazz musicians had been using cannabis for decades, as had writers and artists, but it took a while for it to become mainstream. Its availability increased in the U.K. in the post-war years, and crucially it transcended class boundaries. At the start of the '60s, weed was viewed by many as a hard drug, but its growing availability led to a wider acceptance.

The Beatles were always absorbing influences, turning them into art of their own, then moving on. Pills had fueled the early years of Beatlemania, and they did wind down their use after 1964, but really they never stopped taking them—they just became one of several substances which could get them through the days and nights.

Why do most people believe that Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to cannabis, and what is the real story

The Beatles had used cannabis a few times before that meeting with Dylan, but for some reason, it had never really chimed with them. Perhaps they'd been given bad gear, or they'd been too drunk to really appreciate it. They met Dylan at a New York hotel room in August 1964, and he famously believed the line "I can't hide" from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to be "I get high." He was incredulous that they weren't stoners, so set about changing that.

By all accounts, each of the Beatles had an epiphany that night, and they finally saw in cannabis what some cultures had known for centuries. There were ten people in the hotel room—Dylan, his manager Victor Maymudes, the writer Al Aronowitz, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr, their manager Brian Epstein and their assistants Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans. But all were sworn to secrecy, and none of the journalists traveling with the Beatles on tour had the slightest idea what had happened. By the following year, though, they were smoking cannabis at every opportunity. "We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period," John Lennon said of Help! "Nobody could communicate with us because it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world."

Is it possible any of the Beatles smoked for the first time that night? 

It's possible that Ringo did. He was the last to join the band and missed out on some of their early experimentation. But I couldn't say for sure.

The Delmonico Hotel where Dylan got the Beatles high is now a Trump Hotel. How do you think John Lennon would have felt about that? 

Ha! I didn't know that! I'd like to hope Lennon still kept some of his radical firebrand nature into his later years, but I wouldn't want to second guess the guy. Certainly I don't think Donald Trump embodies any of the positive aspects of the 1960s counterculture. The world could certainly do with a little bit more peace, love and understanding, rather than hate-fueled rhetoric. The Beatles were always on the side of peace and love.

You mentioned that the Beatles included cannabis-related code words in the lyrics. What would be a few examples? 

As I mentioned before, the first was "She's a Woman" in 1964. That included the line, "Turn me on when I get lonely," which Lennon later confirmed was written with marijuana in mind. The next one was "It's Only Love" on Help!, which begins, "I get high when I see you go by." Often there was a double meaning, such as "Roll up! Roll up!" in "Magical Mystery Tour," and of course they were "riding so high" in "Ticket to Ride." Everyone knows that Ringo was getting "high with a little help from his friends," and that "Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona for some California grass." There reached a point in the late '60s where they just didn't try to hide it.

Rubber Soul and Revolver marked transitionary albums from the old Beatles to the new. To what extent do you feel LSD and cannabis influenced these album and in what ways? 

Rubber Soul is primarily a cannabis album, with minimal LSD influence. Revolver really showed how the acid had got to all four Beatles, but it wasn't the only drug. "Tomorrow Never Knows" was their aural approximation of the LSD experience, and "She Said She Said" was about an encounter with the actor Peter Fonda during a trip in LA. But they sang about other drugs on the album. As well as "Got to Get You into my Life," which was written by Paul McCartney about cannabis, there was "Doctor Robert" about a Manhattan doctor who liberally dispensed pills to his patients.

From the interviews you combed through, how do you think cannabis helped them creatively, and how do you think it helped moderate their moods? 

On a personal level, it helped slow them down and gave them a more meditative mindset, which was essential at a time when they were exhausted through extensive touring and recording. That new attitude seeped its way into their songs, which started becoming more contemplative around the time of Help! [in 1965]. And they began to think of themselves as artists rather than just performers, which resulted in the creative breakthrough of Sgt. Pepper's [Lonely Heart Club Band in 1967]. As well as the timeless melodies, they were forging a new path with studio and lyrical innovations, working with fine artists, and working on multimedia releases.

Of course, it would be wrong to put any of their achievements down to cannabis or any other drug. They were extraordinarily curious and creative people and would surely have made amazing music without any chemical enhancements. We'll never know how they might have sounded like without the drugs, but we do know that they were a key influence. McCartney has put the success of Sgt. Pepper's down to cannabis, describing it as "a drug album" and saying they were smoking weed throughout the recording.

For me, one of the highlights in the book was the Dental Experience. Can you provide a brief preview of the story? 

The Beatles had a dentist named John Riley in the mid-'60s who, according to George Harrison's wife Pattie, would routinely put them under with intravenous Valium no matter what treatment they were having. One night John, George and their wives went for a meal at Riley's London apartment, at the end of which they were served coffee laced with LSD. They had no idea until Riley advised them not to leave. Lennon was furious, the others didn't understand what the fuss was all about, and they left to go clubbing in central London—with Riley and his girlfriend in hot pursuit, worried about having four world-famous people tripping in the middle of a major city. If it sounds farcical, it was, but also with huge repercussions for popular music. Lennon and Harrison, in particular, found it life-changing, although they didn't manage to get hold of any more acid until they toured the U.S. four months later. They knew the experience was deeply significant and wanted to involve the other Beatles because that's the way they operated for much of the '60s.

In what ways did the Beatles embody the growing drug use of the 1960s? 

Drugs were there from the start—they were always willing to try new things and moved on when they stopped helping—just as they did with all sorts of stimulus. Whether it was pills in Hamburg or cocaine and heroin in London towards the end of the decade, some or all of them were willing to experiment. Their manager Brian Epstein, one of the true tragic sides of the story, warned them against drugs in the early days but eventually fell in too deep with uppers, downers, alcohol and psychedelic drugs.

So drugs were just a normal, everyday thing for them. They weren't on them all the time, but they knew people who could procure whatever they wanted. As one of their staff, Kevin Harrington, told me: "They had friends and assistants who I’m sure would have got what was needed. They had many people over many years who would do their bidding, because if a Beatle wants something, you try to get it."

But that doesn't mean they were on drugs all the time. They tended to stay clean in the studio, with the main exception of cannabis. The Beatles were hard workers who kicked back when they could.

I think they reflected rather than led the changing attitudes to drug use in the '60s. They dropped hints into their songs before 1967, but it was only after the release of Sgt. Pepper's that they came clean to the media. That surprised many people who still saw them as lovely innocent moptops, but plenty of others would have had their suspicions—particularly in the wake of the police raids on Donovan and the Rolling Stones and the tabloid exposés of pop stars happening around the same time.

Britain was a socially conservative country, and many people went through the '60s without encountering anything stronger than spirits and painkillers. The studio staff who worked on those amazing records were as straight as they come, as were Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, the creators of the Sgt. Pepper's artwork. So there were two parallel worlds, with the Beatles managing to straddle the two. Plenty of non-famous people were turning on with drugs, and a good portion of famous people were sticking to beer and tobacco. It can be tempting to look back on the '60s as a decade when everyone was constantly off their heads, but that simply wasn't the case for the majority.

Lastly, tell me about the Beatles Bible website. 

I started the Beatles Bible in 2008. I was an online producer at the BBC and wanted a side project and a place to dump all the Beatles trivia I had rattling around my head. It turned into something much larger than I'd envisaged, and it now has articles on the songs, albums and people, plus worldwide discographies and a day-by-day history section. There's a lot I still need to add, too!

The site's tagline, "Not quite as popular as Jesus…," is a play on John Lennon's famous pronouncement that the Beatles were more popular. There's no other religious aspect to the site, but all the other good domain names were taken!

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Inline illustration: ShagRiding So High: The Beatles and Drugs is available on Amazon here.

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