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.
Great music + They were high = Drugs had a positive effect. Shall I walk you through it again?
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
Drugs expanded their consciousness and informed their dress sense
George: In ten minutes I lived a thousand years
Ringo: It brought me closer to nature...and you dress differently, too!
It's believed that drugs did them no lasting harm - no one in the band died* - and to this day McCartney is a low-key poster boy for long term marijuana use. So it's odd to cite the Beatles as proof that recreational drugs are bad news for creativity, songwriting and a lasting career in music.
Drugs helped the Beatles make great music. But how much did it help? Did it ever hinder them? 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
Barry Miles: Most of their recording...was assisted by cups of tea, fish and chips or chinese takeaway, and maybe marijuana
Paul: We had a certain attitude towards EMI, that it was a workplace ... most of our best stuff was done under reasonably sane circumstances … you've really got to get the miracle take if you're stoned
Ringo: We found out very early on that if you play it stoned or derelict in any way it was really sh**ty music
When they did get high in the studio the result were generally poor. Lennon took acid during sessions for Getting Better and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da but the only results were a bad trip and slightly better piano intro.
From '67 onwards Emerick posits their drug intake as the reason they were becoming “a bit complacent and lazy” spending “hours in a stoned haze, jamming endlessly... and pointlessly ... it was the first Beatles session I'd ever attended where absolutely nothing was accomplished”
Ringo speaking many years later would concur
When we did take too many substances, the music was sh*t, absolute sh*t
The reason such sessions were the exception was because the strung out musicians always had straight engineers and producers in charge
George Martin: There's no doubt that, if I too had been on dope, Pepper would never have been the album it was ... they often got very giggly, and it frequently interfered with our work
[Pot] got in the way of songwriting because it would just cloud your mind up
So getting high while the tape is rolling is a bad idea. But one of the few times the Beatles wrote while high (in true pot-head style) they spent hours creating a multi-coloured illuminated manuscript for The Word instead of just noting the lyrics down.
Beer and Preludin - that's how we survived
Marijuana, alcohol and nicotine may have helped them relax but arguably the most helpful drugs the Beatles took were Benzedrine and Preludin which allowed the boys to cram their '10,000 hours' of practice in Hamburg into an insanely short period of time. Cocaine had a similar (but more limited) impact on Paul.
I did cocaine for about a year around the time of Sgt Pepper ... eventually I just started to think ... this doesn't work. You've got to put too much in to get too little high out it.
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.
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 didn't believe I could do anything. I let Paul do what he wanted
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 night he recorded the Two Virgins album with Yoko Ono, Marking the start of their relationship. Lennon became addicted to heroin shortly after, partly in an attempt to wean himself off acid.
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.
John had a similar but shorter bender, the infamous 'Lost Weekend' (1973-75), Harrison “Snort[ed] mountains of cocaine to keep going” and “absolutely shredded” his voice during the Dark Horse album and tour (1973–74).
Paul's drug busts in the 70's and 80's have caused massive financial losses and cancelled tours and his pot habit has arguably been a factor in the poor quality of his later solo output - “he would go upstairs and smoke a joint...then he'd come down and sit there for hours trying to play the bass” says producer Hugh Padgham.
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.
Crediting any Beatles song to the drugs they took is as almost as ridiculous as crediting Balzac's novels to caffeine. It's is the person who creates the art, not the drugs.
Based on a novel by a man named Lear
The Beatles Bible says “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 book The Psychedelic Experience. As his own books prove, Lennon was creating psychedelic prose long before he dropped acid.
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. Acid trips provided the first two lines for I Am The Walrus but the rest came from Carroll, nursery rhymes and police sirens.
To get really high you have to go it straight
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.
For a full list of sources and footnotes, see the expanded version of this post
Read what other artist have to say about the intersection of drugs and creativity here