Monday, 9 February 2015

Blessed Are The Drug Free (Or Why Bill Hicks Was Totally Wrong) - Extended Edition

Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid

If you believe drugs don't do anything good for us do me this favour; go home tonight, take all your albums and burn em, cos the musicians who made all that great music [were] real f**kin high on drugs. S**t, the Beatles were so high they let Ringo sing a couple of tunes. “We all live in a Yellow Submarine”? You know how f**kin high they were when they wrote that song? They had to pry Ringo off the ceiling with a rake to record that.

Great music + They were high = Drugs had a positive effect. Shall I walk you through it again?

Bill Hicks

It is a truth universally acknowledge that the Beatles took a lot of drugs. And the more drugs they took, the more original they became. You can even catalogue their albums by drug

John: Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid

Paul: For Sgt. Pepper I used to have a bit of coke and then smoke some grass to balance it out (MYFN p.384)

Drugs expanded their consciousness and informed their dress sense

George: In ten minutes I lived a thousand years...the only way I could describe it is like an astronaut on the moon...looking back at the Earth.

Ringo: It brought me closer to outlook certainly changed – and you dress differently, too!

It's also generally believed that drugs did them no real lasting harm. No one in the band OD'ed, drank themselves to death or even conked out on prescription meds*. To this day McCartney is a low-key poster boy for long term marijuana use.

Paul: Instead of getting totally out of it and falling over, as we would have done on Scotch, we'd [smoke pot and] end up talking very seriously and having a good time till three in the morning.

So it's odd to cite the Beatles as proof of the theory that recreational drugs are bad news for creativity, songwriting and a lasting career in music.

The Beatles made great music. Drugs helped them. But how much did it help? A lot or a little? Did it ever hinder them? And were the gains outweighed by the downside? Could they (or did they) gain the same benefit from other less chemical means?

Let's look at the evidence in three area - recording, writing and life in general.

Tuning up is a bit of a chore when you're stoned

Paul (MYFN p.192)

The Beatles used drugs far less often in the studio than is commonly believed

Geoff Emerick: The Beatles … rarely imbibed while they were working, and I certainly never saw any of them drunk in the studio (HTAE p.220)

Paul: most of our best stuff was done under reasonably sane've really got to get the miracle take if you're stoned. It can be done, just sometimes, but it may be one in a hundred (MYFN p.192-3).

Paul: We had a certain attitude towards EMI, that it was a didn't want to mess around. That was our controlling factor. We didn't want to be lying around unable to do anything...Once or twice we'd try a little wine ... but generally you'd f*** up solos and you couldn't be bothered to think of a little complex musical thing that would have sounded great.

Ringo: We took several substances, but not when we were actually playing, because we found out very early on that if you play it stoned or derelict in any way it was really sh**ty music - so we would have the experiences and then bring that into the music later (SOL p.110).

Barry Miles: The Beatles... had a very workmanlike attitude to the studio ... they smoked pot...there were occasions where coke was available in the studio, but they avoided anything that would blur their musical awareness so there was no alcohol to speak of, and no heroin or acid. Most of their recording...was assisted by cups of tea, fish and chips or chinese takeaway, and maybe marijuana (MYFN p.191, 385).

Sometimes, however, they did get high in the studio but the result were generally poor. On Mar 21 1967, during the vocal sessions for Getting Better, Lennon accidentally took acid in the studio and had a bad trip, prompting George Martin to innocently take him up to the roof for some fresh air (MYFN p.191) In 1968, Driven mad by the never-ending Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da sessions Lennon left and returned high

“I AM F**KING STONED!!” John Lennon bellowed from the top of the stairs. Swaying slightly, he continued, waving his arms for emphasis. “I am more stoned than you have ever been. In fact, I am more stoned than you will ever be!” … And this,” Lennon added with a snarl, “is how the f**king song should go” (HTAE p.247). He launched into the piano intro with a vengeance providing the high point of an average song.

From '67 onwards Emerick posits their drug intake as the reason they were becoming “a bit complacent and lazy”

The Beatles turned up at the Studio...near midnight and spent... seven hours in a stoned haze, jamming endlessly... and pointlessly ... Lennon had brought a big strobe light in, so at one point they turned out the lights and started running around as if they were in an old film. That lasted for about five minutes, after which everyone started complaining of a headache. All four of them were completely out of it – tripping on acid probably – and it was the first Beatles session I'd ever attended where absolutely nothing was accomplished (HTAE p. 194, 197).

Ringo speaking many years later would concur

It was good to take the day before – then you'd have that creative memory - but you couldn't function while under the influence. When we did take too many substances, the music was sh*t, absolute sh*t (RR p.49) and You can listen to my records go downhill as the amount of medication went up (Express)

High or not, the sessions didn't descend into total chaos because the strung out musicians always had straight engineers and producers to capture the music

George Martin: There's no doubt that, if I too had been on dope, Pepper would never have been the album it was. Perhaps it was the combination of dope and no dope that worked, who knows? The fact remains that they often got very giggly, and it frequently interfered with our work (AYNIE p.206)

You and me chasing paper, getting nowhere

Maybe getting high while the tape is rolling is a bad idea. But what about when you're kicking back waiting for the muse to show up? Well the Beatles rarely wrote while high either.

Paul: we normally didn't smoke [pot] when we were working. It got in the way of songwriting because it would just cloud your mind up (RR p.51).

One time they did smoke pot was when writing The Word, an average (and not very trippy) song. When the time came to note the lyrics down, in true pot-head style they spent hours creating a multi-coloured illuminated manuscript with Paul adding a wash of pink watercolor, a tree and other abstract details.

No one knows where inspiration comes from but if we can work out the chemicals we could literally bottle inspiration. Drugs are a simplistic, lazy way of explaining the magic. Drugs can get us into a state vital for creativity – that of switching off the inner critic. But as any who has completed the FAWM challenge will know, being forced to write quickly will achieve the same results just as effectively.

Beer and Preludin - that's how we survived

Ringo Anthology

What beneficial effects did drugs have on the Beatles as creative people? Marijuana, alcohol and nicotine may have helped them relax but arguably the most helpful drugs the Beatles took were Benzedrine and Preludin, the Hamburg uppers found in cold inhalers and diet pills. These allowed the boys to cram their '10,000 hours' of practice into an insanely short period of time, learning stagecraft, analysing hundreds of great songs and evolving into the 'four-headed monster' able to survive the pressure of Beatlemania. Cocaine had a similar (but more limited) impact on Paul.

I did cocaine for about a year around the time of Sgt Pepper. Coke and maybe some grass to balance it out... eventually I just started to think - I think rightly now - that this doesn't work. You've got to put too much in to get too little high out it. I did it for about a year and I got off it (Uncut).

Lennon agreed

I had a lot of [cocaine] in my day, but I don't like it. It's a dumb drug. Your whole concentration goes on getting the next fix (AWAS).

Though Lennon always spoke well of LSD it seems to have had a devastating impact on him

I got a message on acid that you should destroy your ego, and I did. I was reading that stupid book of Leary's and ... I destroyed my ego and I didn't believe I could do anything. I let Paul do what he wanted and ... I just was nothing, I was s**t (LR).

According to Ian MacDonald acid left Lennon “a mental wreck struggling to stitch himself back together” (RITH p.193). On 18 May 1968 he called a business meeting at Apple to announce he was Jesus Christ. The next day while his wife and son were on holiday he invited Yoko Ono to spend the night at his mansion, recording the Two Virgins album, and beginning their relationship (RITH p.449). Lennon became addicted to heroin from the middle of 1968 to the end of 1969, partly in an attempt to wean himself off acid (BB).

Ringo by his own admission “got lost in a haze of alcohol and drugs” and missed most of the 1980's

I’ve got photographs of me playing all over the world but I’ve absolutely no memory of it. I played Washington with the Beach Boys – or so they tell me. But there’s only a photo to prove it (Express).

John had a similar but shorter bender, the infamous 'Lost Weekend' (1973-75), where he spent his evening in the Troubadour getting into a brawls, heckling comedians and sellotaping tampons to his forehead.

Harrison's self-proclaimed "naughty period” (1973–74) coincided with the breakup of his marriage, the Dark Horse album and tour. “Snorting mountains of cocaine to keep going” the drugs and constant touring “absolutely shredded” his voice (UCR/RS). Ex-wife Pattie Boyd said

That whole period was insane. Friar Park was a madhouse. Our lives were fuelled by alcohol and cocaine, and so it was with everyone who came into our sphere ... George used cocaine excessively and I think it changed him (WT).

Though undoubtedly more benign than other drugs, Paul's pot habit has arguably been a factor in the poor quality of his later solo output. Producer, Hugh Padgham (Press To Play) says

We'd stop for lunch and... he would go upstairs and smoke a joint...then he'd come down and sit there for hours trying to play the bass... the tedium. Oh! (FAB p.404).

In 1972 a drugs bust in Sweden prevented him touring Japan and the US. His Japanese drugs bust in 1980 and subsequent imprisonment also resulted in massive financial losses, cancelling Japanese and planned US tours (FAB p.363).

Did Dylan Thomas write Under Milk Wood on beer?

Remember the way Lennon categorised the albums by drugs? Here's what he actually said in full,

Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid. I mean, we weren't all stoned making Rubber Soul because in those days we couldn't work on pot. We never recorded under acid or anything like that. It's like saying, 'Did Dylan Thomas write Under Milk Wood on beer?' What the f**k does that have to do with it? The beer [and] the drugs are to prevent the rest of the world from crowding in on you. They don't make you write better. I never wrote any better stuff because I was on acid or not on acid (BI).

Crediting any Beatles song to the drugs they took is as almost as ridiculous as crediting Balzac's novels to caffeine or Zappa's albums to nicotine. It's is the person who happens to be a smoker, caffeine addict or crackhead who is really creating the art.

Quincy Jones: A little toke now and then never hurt anyone...but as [Charlie Parker] said, 'if you can’t play it’s not going to help you' (Telegraph).

Based on a novel by a man named Lear

The Beatles Bible asserts “LSD had a profound effect on The Beatles' songwriting and recording” and “there is little doubt that the Through The Looking Glass imagery was the product of drug intake”. But surely the primary source of Lennon's “Through The Looking Glass imagery” is Through The Looking Glass itself, a book Lennon revered. Likewise, though acid inspired Tomorrow Never Knows, the lyrics came straight from Timothy Leary reworking of the Tibetan Book of the Dead***, a book available to straight and high alike. As his childhood writings and published books prove**, influenced by authors like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and radio performers like Stanley Unwin and The GoonsLennon was creating psychedelic prose long before he dropped acid. His later output owes more to the BBC than LSD.

The Beatles wrote songs about drugs (Yer Blues, Got To Get You Into My Life, Everybody's Got Something To Hide...) but that's not the same as writing on drugs. If you want to make a case for LSD helping you make music you have to do it from songs (like Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Getting Better) that were primarily written or recorded under it's influence. Acid trips provided the first two lines for I Am The Walrus but the rest came from Carroll, nursery rhymes and police sirens. A Day In The Life, Strawberry Fields Forever and Yellow Submarine all had similarly mundane origins.

To get really high you have to go it straight

George (RR p.54)****

The Beatles proved that recreational drugs have some benefits for creativity. But they also have a massive downside on life and mental wellbeing in general, and creativity and productivity in particular. Many, if not all, of the same benefits can be gained through limiting your options, writing to deadlines and reading great literature. As Frank Zappa said

I don't use any [drugs] and I've never encouraged it. The same state of psychedelic happiness can be induced through dancing, listening to music, holding your breath and spinning around, and any number of the old, easy to perform and 100 per cent legal means – all of which I endorse (EDQ p.68).


* Manager Brian Epstein died from an overdose of sleeping pills
** Lennon's published books In His Own Write (Mar 64) and A Spaniard In The Works (Jun 65) predate his acid use by 2-3 years.
***Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert: The Psychedelic Experience (1964)
****The full quote is “[Acid] can help you to go from A to B, but when you get to B, you see C. And you see that to get really high you have to go it straight” (RR p.54)


Bill Hicks - Watch the video here
MYFN - Barry Miles: Many Years From Now
HTAE – Geoff Emerick: Here, There And Everywhere
SOL – George Martin: Summer Of Love
RR – Robert Rodriguez: Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n' Roll (see also this video for Ringo's quotes on drugs)
Express – Article: Ringo Starr At 70
AYNIE – George Martin: All You Need Is Ears
Anthology – Beatles Anthology Book (via Beatles Bible)
Uncut - Uncut Magazine July 2004 (via Beatles Bible)
AWAS - David Sheff: All We Are Saying (via Beatles Bible)
LR - Jann S. Wenner: Lennon Remembers (via Beatles Bible)
RITH - Ian MacDonald: Revolution In The Head
UCR – Ultimate Classic Rock
RS – Rolling Stone
WP – Wikipedia Dark Horse and I Am The Walrus
WT - Pattie Boyd: Wonderful Today
FAB – Howard Sounes: Fab: An Intimate Life Of Paul McCartney
BI - Beatles Interviews
Telegraph - Quincy Jones Interview
EDQ - Neil Slaven: Electric Don Quixote: The Story of Frank Zappa


Other artists on drugs vs creativity


  1. A very informative and well-researched post, Matt. Since I personally don’t condone 'recreational' drug use, I never wanted to fully believe those people who credit marijuana/acid/heroin/etc. for the Beatles’ creativity. If anything, to say ‘it was because of the drugs’ insults their accomplishments, feats which I would rather attribute mainly to God-given talent (albeit *influenced* by drugs). It’s refreshing to see someone actually examine the ‘mind-altering substances’ claim and temper it with a dose of reality.

  2. Thanks Justice. It was Lennon's Dylan Thomas quote that blew me away when I found it

    1. Yeah, I don't think I'd ever read that one until seeing this post. I found it striking, too. Pretty much every Beatles fan has heard the "Rubber Soul was our pot album, and Revolver was acid" summary, but it seems the rest of the quote is usually just ignored -- probably, I suppose, to avoid the 'complication' of having Lennon refute the popular myth which biographers find it so easy to repeat endlessly. Just goes to remind one that digging up primary sources is the best way to research a subject...