(This is a section I cut from the paper for my upcoming presentation at the Sgt. Pepper conference at the University of Michigan. It was cut in order to make my thirty-minute time limit, and because it didn’t fit well with the rest of the paper).
Intertwined with Beatles historiography, the historiography of Sgt. Pepper and the credibility of all three major sources – Lennon, McCartney, and Martin – is the crucial issue of illegal drug use. How Lennon and McCartney’s narcotics of choice impacted their observational skills, emotions, reasoning, and creative interactions merits further study. If we use Bloch’s standards, which list an observer’s “fatigue and emotion” alongside an impaired “degree of attention”[i] as two issues which impact a source’s accuracy and credibility, both the type and amount of drugs must be included in the source analysis discussion.
There are two primary debates regarding the impact of narcotics on Sgt. Pepper. The first concerns whether Lennon and McCartney could have written and conceptualized songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “A Day in the Life” without the influence of mind-altering drugs. This is a subject on which two of our three key sources – in this case, McCartney and Martin – disagree; an intriguing dispute, given that McCartney’s version of Beatles’ history overall tends to agree with Martin’s, and vice versa. McCartney downplayed LSD’s impact while identifying marijuana, his drug of choice, as the key ingredient in creating the album. When Martin disputed the extent of their drug usage and its influence in a joint interview, McCartney stressed that the Beatles were on pot “all the time” during Pepper’s creation, identifying it as “a drug album.”[ii] Despite McCartney’s claims, Martin, the only of our three figures not to use narcotics, continued to promote his belief the Beatles’ drug use did not augment their songwriting. “I don’t believe drugs made them any better than they would have been anyway.”[iii] In January 1971, Martin further argued that his own refusal to partake ensured how essential he was to the band’s ultimate product: “I know that if I had been on drugs I could never have got Sgt. Pepper together.”[iv]
The second debate involves evaluating drugs’ impact on the band and the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Authors such as Bob Spitz and Ian MacDonald[v] have argued that their common acid use during Pepper reinvigorated the Lennon/McCartney partnership and friendship: McCartney’s willingness to take LSD with Lennon for the first time during the Pepper sessions re-bonded the two men after a period of relative distance.[vi] However, this LSD angle may have been overemphasized due to a number of factors: McCartney’s vivid and memorable recollection of taking LSD with Lennon for the first time; his famous 1967 televised admittance of his LSD use;[vii] and Pepper’s own psychedelic aura.
Contrasting with this acid-saturated interpretation, in Many Years from Now, McCartney estimates he took only two acid trips during the entire three-month period of the Pepper sessions, ingesting the drug in total less than six times.[viii] Instead, the hardest and most frequent drug McCartney recounts using is not LSD[ix] but cocaine: “For Sgt. Pepper, I used to have a bit of coke, and then smoke some grass to balance it out.”[x] If we regard cocaine as McCartney’s primary chemical during Pepper, it appears that Lennon and McCartney were each embracing those separate drugs which highlighted and intensified their own individual personality traits. Various Beatles’ authors, including Steve Turner, argue that LSD exacerbated Lennon’s habitual laziness and sublimated his ego, contributing to a self-admitted decline in output, further stoking his resentment of McCartney’s increasing musical production.[xi] Less attention has been devoted to the impact cocaine had on McCartney’s behavior and productivity in this same period. McCartney is commonly identified, by numerous sources, as a naturally driven, workaholic personality; occasionally oblivious to the emotional impact his words and actions have on others. As a stimulant, we can theorize that cocaine may have intensified these same traits. Taking McCartney’s cocaine habit into account, his shared LSD use with Lennon may have had less impact on their relationship, partnership and Pepper itself than is commonly assumed.
Any reader thoughts or comments are welcome!
[i] Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, 101
[ii] Miles, in the Sixties, 177.
[iii] Steve Turner, Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, Harper Collins, NY, 2016, 416
[iv] George Martin, the Lost Interview, bestclassicbands.com 3/7/17, originally published Jan 30, 1971, Record World
[v] Bob Spitz, The Beatles: The Biography, Little Brown and Company, 2005, 671
[vi] Gabriel Lubell, in his essay “Spatial Counterpoint and the Impossible Experience of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” argues the opposite: that rather than binding them together, Lennon and McCartney’s differing reactions to LSD intensified their contrasting personality traits. Gabriel Lubell, “Spatial Counterpoint and the Impossible Experience of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” p. 95-111, Chapter 6 in New Critical Perspectives on the Beatles: Things We Said Today, Kenneth Womack and Katie Kapurch, eds. Palgrave, MacMillan, 2016, 98
[vii] McCartney Interview: LSD and Journalism, 6/19/1967, Beatles Interview Database, http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/db1967.0619.beatles.html
[viii] Miles, Many Years from Now, 383
[ix] However, it is also necessary to note that McCartney’s retrospective comments on his and the other Beatles’ drug use appear, at times, to be less than accurate. Examples include his 1984 statements to Playboy journalist Joan Goodman regarding heroin use, and Steve Turner’s evidence regarding the chronology of McCartney’s first LSD trip, which Turner dates to December 1965, months prior to the date given in repeated recollections by McCartney. (Turner, Beatles ’66, 31).
[x] Miles, Many Years from Now, 384
[xi] Turner, The Beatles ’66, 376