Joe Goodden founded the Beatles Bible, one of the most comprehensive Beatles sites on the Internet. Last year he published Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs, a fascinating exploration of the chemicals the Beatles used and their impact on the band.
The story begins with schoolboys, alcohol, and cigarettes. Ringo says he got drunk for the first time at age 9 and started smoking at 11. Paul remembered that John smelled of beer on the day they met in 1957. All four Beatles smoked cigarettes by the time they were teenagers. The boys discovered benzedrine in 1960 and the stimulant Preludin not long after that, on a trip to Hamburg. Uppers were their drug of choice for the next several years: although John consumed them like popcorn, all four Beatles powered through the early 60s on pep pills, often mixed with alcohol and always with cigarettes.
According to Goodden, the famous story about Bob Dylan being the first to introduce the Beatles to marijuana isn’t true. John told an interviewer that he had first smoked it in 1960, although it’s unclear whether any of his bandmates did. Early in 1962, all four Beatles smoked with some fellow musicians in Liverpool, but George claimed to have been unimpressed, just as John had when talking about his 1960 experience. Whatever weed Dylan scored for them in 1964 was far more impressive than what the boys had had before. Paul and George both spoke of the night as a pivotal one in their lives; within months, “She’s a Woman” contained the Beatles’ first overt drug reference: “turn me on when I get lonely.”
In the spring of 1965, John, Cynthia, George, and Pattie attended a dinner party hosted by their dentist, John Riley. Without telling them in advance, Riley dosed them with LSD, and then he accompanied them on what turned into an extremely bizarre night on the town in London. Lennon was entertained by what George came to call “the dental experience.” George, however, called his first trip “a very concentrated version of the best feeling I’d ever had in my whole life.” He viewed the experience as a key to greater enlightenment. “I took [LSD] lots of times,” he would joke in later years, “but I only needed it once.” Later that year, John, George, and Ringo tripped again, at a party in Los Angeles attended by such luminaries as Peter Fonda and members of the Byrds. John’s Los Angeles experience led him to write “She Said She Said,” which would appear on Revolver in 1966 along with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and “Doctor Robert,” all of which were inspired by various drugs.
Paul remained an LSD holdout for several months, finally taking it for the first time in December 1965, although he would never embrace it as fervently as John and George. Marijuana was his drug of choice, although he sometimes tripped in the seclusion of the house he shared with Jane Asher. He and John didn’t trip together until 1967, after the famous incident during the recording of Sgt. Pepper, in which a tripping Lennon went to the roof of Abbey Road Studios and the other Beatles feared he might try to fly off of it. In later years, John would claim to have been tripping when the Sgt. Pepper cover photo was taken.
(Ringo says he took “everything” in the 60s, although Goodden says cigarettes and scotch were the primary drugs of choice for Ringo and his then-wife, Maureen.)
The Beatles had been introduced to cocaine as early as 1961; in A Hard Day’s Night, John holds a Coke bottle to his nose and takes a sniff. Paul became the first Beatle to use cocaine regularly, in 1966 and 1967, and surprised his bandmates at his eagerness to use it, in contrast with his reticence about LSD. John took up cocaine in 1968 and got into heroin at about the same time. Both he and Yoko were straight-up heroin addicts for much of 1969 (snorting instead of shooting, John claimed) before deciding to kick in August. Getting clean didn’t take, however, until Yoko got pregnant early in 1970.
Goodden’s story of the Beatles and drugs continues after the breakup to the present day. Riding So High contains a lot of stories I’d never heard before and additional detail about stories I thought I knew. Goodden doesn’t glorify the Beatles’ drug use, but he doesn’t judge, either. He leaves that for his readers—and you should become one of them.