We recently spoke with Joe Goodden, author of Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs. The book is the only full-length study of the Beatles extraordinary journey into the world of marijuana, LSD, and other mindbending experiences. We asked Joe how he came upon the subject, and how he perceived the band's relationship with drugs. Here's what Joe had to say — and a tip o' the hat to the Rock and Roll Chemist for some of the questions!
Back in 2008 I set up the Beatles Bible, which was my modest attempt to write about absolutely everything to do with the Beatles. OK, I was never going to manage that, but I did write a bunch of features including one on the Beatles and drugs. I wanted to explore aspects of the band that I felt weren't covered particularly well online. To my surprise the drugs feature attracted huge traffic, and has always been in the site's top-five most popular articles. I've had more college students asking if they could cite it in projects and dissertations than anything else I've written.
A couple of years later I was having a meal with my wife, and thinking aloud about how I'd like to write a book. I knew it had to be on something that hadn't been covered before, and that would attract a decent readership. I still recall the lightbulb moment, knowing that I'd already unwittingly done the market research. So, the plan was to write a comprehensive history of what they were using and when. Some stories are well told, but there was also much to be uncovered, particularly around Lennon's heroin addiction and the police raids of the late 60s.
But then I had to write the thing. I was working as a senior web producer at the BBC – it took me five years to write about half of it, whenever I could find the time. The other half was written in five months after I'd left my job at the end of 2017. It's amazing what a difference having some spare time can make!
How do you think drugs contributed to the music of the Beatles music, given their legendary experimentation in the studio?
It's really impossible to say. Firstly, they were hugely creative people, and had ambition and songwriting skills beyond any of their contemporaries. But drugs were also there from the very beginning, and were used throughout their recording career. Before they'd even signed to EMI they were heavy users of Preludin, a German stimulant, which they used both in the studio and on tour. That gave way to other forms of speed, and subsequently cannabis, LSD, cocaine and heroin.
They did mostly stay clean inside the studio, with the main exception of cannabis, and they rarely drank while working. There's an infamous incident where Lennon accidentally took LSD during the Sgt Pepper sessions, believing he was taking an upper. And there's a tragic clip of him and Yoko Ono being interviewed while on heroin in 1969, during the Let It Be sessions. It's known as the Two Junkies interview. Other than that, they mostly preferred to keep their faculties intact. I'd say drugs opened up creative possibilities which they were able to draw on while working, but they were equally influenced by other stimuli including the music of their peers, modern art, theatre, film and the whole spirit of optimism in the 1960s.
How about in the lyrics? Some of the apparent drug references, such as “Lucy In The Sky…” seem to have been questioned. Do you think they knowingly provided that double meaning? Any other examples?
The LSD acronym in the title of "Lucy..." really does seem to have been accidental, although it's fairly certain that the drug did help inspire the imagery in the song. But there were many other references that were intended. "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" were both inspired by acid, and "Doctor Robert" and "Got To Get You Into My Life" were about pills and cannabis respectively. There were less obvious examples, although in retrospect they're fairly clear, such as "Turns me on when I get lonely" in "She's A Woman," "I get high when I see you go by" in "It's Only Love", and even the "Roll up! Roll up!" intro to "Magical Mystery Tour." There are also phrases such as "It's time for tea and Meet The Wife" and "When are you free to take some tea with me?", both on Sgt Pepper, which made oblique reference to smoking cannabis, but also had perfectly innocent meanings. They knew what they were doing, and loved trying to speak to the counterculture as well as mainstream audiences.
By the end of their days they seemed less worried about people noticing, hence "Get Back'"s reference to "California grass". Later that year, 1969, Lennon offered "Cold Turkey" to the Beatles as a single, although he would have known they'd never go for it. Still, the idea of someone as famous as Lennon putting out a single about hard drug addiction and withdrawal still seems remarkable. I can't imagine many mainstream pop stars doing something similar nowadays.
Which of the four Beatles do you think drugs had the most detrimental effect on, both personally and professionally? How about the least, and do you think drug use contributed in any way to their breakup?
John Lennon was always the one who took things further, although Harrison was a close second. Lennon had been a vicious drunk in Liverpool, and was often crazed after taking too much speed in Hamburg. In 1967 his LSD use really started becoming noticeably detrimental to his mental health, though he eventually eased off the acid and began to get his fighting spirit back. Unfortunately that led to a descent into an on-off heroin addiction which lasted for several years.
McCartney was the most wary of new drug experiences, though he was the first to use cocaine, around the time of Sgt Pepper, which the others cautioned him against. He also had an enduring love affair with weed for several decades, which resulted in numerous arrests and, at one point, imprisonment. Ringo, meanwhile, mostly kept a low profile, and although he went along with the others he rarely seemed to get mired in excess during the 60s. Unfortunately he struggled with cocaine and alcoholism after the band's break-up, though he eventually managed to turn his life around spectacularly.
What was the most surprising new thing you learned — or their fans should know — while writing this book?
I think the sheer scale of it. The drug use is often segregated into discrete periods of their career, but really there was a lot of crossover and it endured throughout their time together. Drugs were normal for the Beatles, right from their teenage experimentation with cigarettes and alcohol. Much of the time they were largely innocent of the dangers of what they were taking, and often naive about the effects. Their approach to drugs was much like their attitude to anything new – what can we get from this? Then, when the stimulus failed to deliver, they moved on and rarely looked back.
The book also covers the solo years, up to the present day. I wasn't too familiar with McCartney's various run-ins with the law, and hadn't realised that Paul and Linda had faced drugs charges on six different occasions in six different countries. I also delved in quite deeply into Ringo's recovery and sobriety, which I found truly admirable. I doff my hat to him.
#joegoodden #ridingsohigh #beatlesbible #thebeatles #drugs #lsd #rockandrollchemist