Pepper’s historiography: The Debates on Drugs

(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!

Works Cited:

[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

 

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16 thoughts on “Pepper’s historiography: The Debates on Drugs

  1. Rob Geurtsen says:

    With all these wonderful sounds in my head of 1) the tracks of the Giles Martin’ remix that already emerged and 2) the mono vinyl version on the turntable I really appreciate your review.
    This week I read a superficial article on the influence of drugs on Dylan called: ‘How Cannabis Influenced Bob Dylan’s Musical Career’ – it could dig deeper.
    .
    You use the following phrases:
    1. “it appears that Lennon and McCartney were each embracing those separate drugs which highlighted and intensified their own individual personality traits. ”
    2. “As a stimulant, we can theorize that cocaine may have intensified these same traits.”
    .
    If indeed Paul’s cocaine use came at the same time as Lennon’s drugs induced laziness became dominant, this potentially suggests a relevant causal relation to the problems The Beatles as a band were confronted with later, both creatively and personally.
    .
    We assume it is true and commonly accepted that cocaine is a stimulant and heroine takes away ability to assess situations, including your own experiences and perceptions of these, and execute tasks.
    .
    What we need is more specialist and (verifiable and falsifiable) experimental understanding of the influence of drugs on creativity and the execution of tasks like playing your instrument and rigorous recording discipline.
    A fine example for this is the influence of amphetamine and booze during Dylan’s electric tour during the 65/66 period.
    .
    I have no recollection on what Mark Lewisohn writes in Tune In about the Beatles’ use of drugs in the pre-Epstein and Hamburg days, and how deep he goes and has the myths verified.
    .
    Thanks for bringing up the point again…

    an now let’s listen and all have a great time.

    Like

  2. Karen Hooper says:

    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.”

    I think the frequency of LSD use is less a factor than the effect of the hallucinogenic experience, especially when shared with a significant other. Paul, George, and John have all recounted the singularly profound effect LSD had upon them as individuals and as artists. (Cocaine, on the other hand, was described by Paul as “a dumb drug”, not worth the potential addiction.)

    My sense is that cocaine may have fuelled the energy of the album (a cocaine-fuelled McCartney–egads), but the power of those shared hallucinogenic experiences–however infrequent–had a profound impact upon the relationship between John and Paul, and upon the Beatles as individuals and musicians.

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  3. linda a. says:

    I don’t think their shared LSD experience had much of an impact on Pepper but I do tend to believe that the experience did bring them closer together after a brief period of not being as close. This new closeness seemed to then have a positive influence on their partnership. As for the cocaine use I am wondering how that fits into the dynamic. It does seem to turn the whole theory of this hallucinogenic closeness onto its head. I think I agree with Karen, that it fueled the energy of the album. If McCartney was obnoxious and hard to deal with perhaps John was to high to notice?

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    • Erin says:

      “I don’t think their shared LSD experience had much of an impact on Pepper but I do tend to believe that the experience did bring them closer together after a brief period of not being as close.”

      Which begs the question: was it a closeness spurred by sharing identical chemicals, (which Paul’s cocaine use would seemingly work against) or was the closeness the result of Paul’s willingness to follow John’s narcotic lead and, implicitly, defer to John’s leadership in their bizarre power-dynamic?

      The evidence now indicates that Paul first took LSD in late 1965, but there’s also evidence that John and George continuously needled Paul about his refusal to take in throughout 1966, to the point that it may have resulted in Paul walking out of the “She said/She Said” sessions at the end of Revolver. If true, were they needling Paul because of his refusal to take LSD period (in which case Paul had presumably taken it, but was simply refusing to tell them he already had) or were they needling him because he kept refusing, for a year, to take it with them?

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      • linda a. says:

        So many interesting questions Erin!

        ” or was the closeness the result of Paul’s willingness to follow John’s narcotic lead and, implicitly, defer to John’s leadership in their bizarre power-dynamic?”

        I think this sounds right. Because their relationship was very complicated indeed. And after all, during their trip Paul did see John as an Emperor filling up the entire house. I’ve always found that very telling. I also think it describes John pretty well.

        “The evidence now indicates that Paul first took LSD in late 1965”

        Late ’65? Oh wow I always thought it was ’66. You’re referring to his first trip with Tara Brown? Or is this a different incident?

        “If true, were they needling Paul because of his refusal to take LSD period (in which case Paul had presumably taken it, but was simply refusing to tell them he already had) or were they needling him because he kept refusing, for a year, to take it with them?”

        Paul seemed pretty reticent sometimes, almost to the point of being non communicative. Or was he also secretive? But if they were needling him relentlessly it’s hard for me to believe he would continue to let them think he hadn’t tried it. I’m thinking it was probably because he hadn’t taken it with them. And why not? It’s interesting that he chose to trip with strangers and a casual friend, than with his best “buddies, pals and mates”. Was he afraid of something? Maybe he was afraid of what might be revealed to him about them, or what they would see in him.

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        • Erin says:

          Late reply: sorry; today is the kid’s birthday party.

          Dating Paul’s first LSD trip (with Tara, and ever,) to late 1965 is based on the new evidence in Steve Turner’s new book, Beatles ’66. He interviewed one of the witnesses/participants, who put a firm date on that event. It’s not definitive evidence, but it does put a new spin on the timeline. (gotta run — time to bake birthday brownies). I’ll hopefully have a chance to reply more later.

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        • Erin says:

          (My egregiously late, post-vacation reply):

          (As for Paul refusing to take it with his friends, I did read somewhere — no idea where — that many people preferred to take their first trip with more casual friends, so that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed with the emotions and issues attached to their loved ones. So it may not have just been a Paul issue).

          My reading of the situation, from John, George, and Paul’s statements, has always been that the needling involved Paul’s refusal to take the drug, period: that he was being too “straight” and refusing to expand his consciousness in the way that George and John already had. To be glib, they had entered some “higher plane” and Paul’s continuing refusal to take LSD meant that they were now on a different level than he was. So none of the actual evidence that I’m aware of indicates that it was Paul’s refusal to take LSD with thembut more of his reluctance to take the drug at all. (Which, again, if he did take in 1965, would indicate that he may very well have taken it with Tara and the others and never told John and George. For whatever reason, I don’t find that OOC, but that’s pure speculation).

          However, I think there’s a telling moment in “Tune In” when Lewisohn is describing John and George’s reaction to prellies in Hamburg, and how it differed to Paul’s. John and George gulped them down to the point that they weren’t sleeping and were foaming at the mouth, whereas Paul held out for approximately 6 weeks to a couple of months (I think the timeline is iffy) refusing to take them. (And, when he finally did take them, took far less than the other two – again, just like with LSD). And John and George’s response to Paul’s refusal was a preview of the LSD issue: Needling. Teasing. Pressuring. (Pete also wasn’t taking them, but they didn’t bother to hector Pete, because he wasn’t really one of the group). Lewisohn interprets it as the Beatles’ hive-mind: John and George saw Paul resisting, to an extent, the collective identity concept that was so integral, and that was why they teased him so mercilessly; they saw it not as badgering their friend to take a drug he didn’t really want to take but wearing down his unreasonable resistance to joining them in this collective experience. Re-unifying them by ensuring that they were all experiencing the same events and chemicals.

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          • Erin says:

            And given the pattern we see with the Beatles over the decades, where this same issue crops its head up again and again, with Paul, more than any of the others, balking at the collective identity requirements: the living in the suburbs, the speed, the exile of Cynthia, the choice of Klein – I think you can make a case that LSD was another of those moments where Paul’s reluctance was seen, esp. by John, as some sort of betrayal of that collective identity. There’s a part in that Composing the Beatles Songbook documentary where either Anthony DeCurtis or Peter Doggett ( I can’t remember which one ) declares that, while Paul probably loved the Beatles more, John needed them more, psychologically; needed the group, the collective identity, in a way that Paul did not. And Paul’s repeated refusals to accept the requirements of that collective identity probably wouldn’t have sat too well with John. The very contrast between his constant pressure of Paul in Hamburg, pushing him to join in on the experience, and his utter lack of interest into whether Pete took the drugs at all proves how much it mattered to John that they all share the same experiences.

            So that’s a very long-winded post whose ultimate conclusion is ambiguous. I don’t know. I can see Paul refusing to tell them he’d taken LSD – esp. if he didn’t have a very good experience with it the first time, and they’d evidently had great trips – and them needling him about it that he was being square. I can also see it as the collective identity issue, or as a combination of both.

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            • Rob Geurtsen says:

              Oh dear oh dear, so much speculation. The dilemma of speculation whether Paul told his bandmates he used LSD, or not, leave gaps to fill in. Sooooo was the relation between John and Paul not so close, as Lewisohn and fans suggest, and some of the fans speculate they (P&J) even had an erotic relationship. Of course we all understand that either one of them might require empathy, male bonding and emotional closeness (think old fashioned relationship) or think of Hanya Yanagihara’s perspective on loyalty and relationships as an alternative to family-love and life in ‘A Little Life’, really worthwhile. I would avoid to keep on speculating this far out.
              .
              A few other things though. First, mind expanding experiences tend to be done by experimentation by accident or indeed with people who care (either in a relationship or professionally, with relevant knowledge or skills).
              Frequent use together of drugs does NOT increase intimacy between those who do it together, there is no proof for that in research, whatsoever, it is that romantic notion that was vehemently denied, when I expressed this earlier.
              .
              Erin, in you footnote page 223/n260 you refer to Peter Brown and Hunter Davies and less convincing to Pete Shotton when you tried to explain, using Peter’s words: “Paul, it should be noted, was the first Beatle to show any distance or privacy from others.”
              And it shows in many examples, including staying in town, while the others were stupid enough to follow the stockbrokers, the drugs in Hamburg.
              Trying to explain that by experiences and upbringing, as Ian MacDonald did, is far too simple. Of course Paul’s own explanation by referring to his social-emotional response to the death of his mother, is BS too. Now we are living in the 2017 and we are wiser than that. We know there are far more factors playing in, experiences, as well as biological, epigenetic, and whatever… There are however complex but easy to understand models for that. I advice to Robert Sapolsky and his latest world ‘Behave’ as a first reference…
              .
              Writing the Beatles’ story doesn’t require explanations of the causes for behaviour, what we need is what happened when, by whom, and with whom, and how events influence each other… Biographers rarely are able to provide a reliably sourced personality profile, that is for novel writers, and I can only hope there will be movie makers and novel-writers or other who will attempt to do this.
              For me Peter Brown’s ‘The Love You Make’ brought the persons in The Beatles alive… For that we should be great full, and I don’t need it to love the music.

              Like

              • Erin says:

                I want to stress that I think speculation can be very valuable, and, more importantly, that there’s nothing methodologically wrong with it. So long as speculation is clearly labeled as such — not as fact, or evidence, or even interpretation, really, but speculation — that’s okay.

                I attended an historian’s conference this spring, where one of the presenters — a Classicist historian — was discussing the Roman policy regarding using poison as a weapon. The general rule is that the Roman’s didn’t support it: it was unsporting, it was capricious, and it was something “barbarians” did. However, in this particular instance, a Roman general chose to poison a city’s springs in order to defeat an insurrectionist, rebelling army. Where other generals had tried similar tactics only to be condemned by Roman historians/politicians, this one was celebrated. Without enough evidence, the historian was forced to speculate on why, in this particular instance, the powers that be regarded it as acceptable. And her speculations on “why” were fascinating and informative.

                I think most of our contributors at this blog know that, unless they’re distinguishing it as a fact and/or evidence, much of the conversation we’re going to have will be speculation. And I welcome that.

                “Writing the Beatles’ story doesn’t require explanations of the causes for behaviour, what we need is what happened when, by whom, and with whom, and how events influence each other”

                We’ll have to agree to disagree on this issue, because I think that’s exactly what Beatles historiography did in the 1960s and 1970s, and through much of the 1980s, and why so many of those sources and the narratives they created are flawed: people like Coleman or Wenner relayed information without any analysis regarding why John behaved the way he did and said the things he did, and everything John uttered was regarded as gospel. It matters immensely, when you’re dealing with someone as volatile and psychologically damaged as John Lennon, or as defensive and egotistical as Paul McCartney, to take those issues into account when looking at their behaviors, because their behaviors influenced their actions and/or statements and all Beatles historiography. For example, in the book review of Schafner I intend to write, there are two gaping errors in his “john” coverage, primarily because of the timing of his publication: in none of his discussions of John’s artistry/actions does he mention 1. heavy drugs and 2. John’s conflicted psychology, esp. insecurity and jealousy. No current author would even begin to discuss a semi-Beatles bio without introducing those elements and how and why they influenced John’s behavior.

                Like

                • Karen Hooper says:

                  I want to stress that I think speculation can be very valuable, and, more importantly, that there’s nothing methodologically wrong with it. So long as speculation is clearly labeled as such — not as fact, or evidence, or even interpretation, really, but speculation — that’s okay.

                  I agree wholeheartedly. “Speculation”, or hypothesis formulation, is actually key in developing an understanding of the data in front of you. And certainly for this blog, it generates interesting and enjoyable dialogue.

                  The other thing I would add is that we never discussed drug use and intimacy per se; we speculated about Paul’s perception of how the shared experience of LSD enhanced his relationship with John.

                  Drug use is typically a social undertaking because its use isolates the user from his/her broader, normative social context (Opium Den, anyone?) It isn’t surprising that users experience a sense of enhanced intimacy with a fellow user. This doesn’t mean, however, that using drugs together is “enhancing intimacy”, in the normal sense. It simply refers to the users’ perceived experience.

                  Like

      • Karen Hooper says:

        “Which begs the question: was it a closeness spurred by sharing identical chemicals, (which Paul’s cocaine use would seemingly work against) or was the closeness the result of Paul’s willingness to follow John’s narcotic lead and, implicitly, defer to John’s leadership in their bizarre power-dynamic?”

        The latter, in my view. As Erin has pointed out, Paul had been very reluctant to try drugs, and felt an enormous amount of peer pressure to do so during the latter days of touring. “Getting with John”, as George Martin described, was a huge psycholgical boost to their relationship during the making of Pepper.

        Like

      • Karen Hooper says:

        “…or were they needling him because he kept refusing, for a year, to take it with them?”

        That’s a really good question. It strikes me that another reasonable hypothesis is that Paul resented the needling, and took it with Tara Brown as a kind of defiant gesture.

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    • Erin says:

      Oh, I think John noticed. Maybe not the obnoxiousness, but you do have John in 1969 bitterly declaiming how, during Pepper, he was going through murder, but “Paul wasn’t.” John discusses how confident Paul was in 1967, and Paul has never retrospectively indicated that that summer/album was anything but brilliant for him. In fact, that’s the tidbit DeCurtis ended his Pepper presentation on at the conference: Paul enthusing about how wonderful the Pepper summer was, both before and after the album’s release.

      Liked by 1 person

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