One of the glaring weaknesses endemic throughout many of the major secondary sources and narratives in Beatles historiography is the failure to acknowledge the impact legal and illegal drugs had on the band’s story. For decades, according to most authors, the Beatles’ drug use seemingly occurred in a vacuum; while some secondary sources might acknowledge narcotic and drug influences on certain songs or albums, the idea that the chemical substances ingested by the band’s members impacted issues beyond their artistry was rarely, and only fleetingly, acknowledged.
Examples of this abound: One of the most influential works of 1970s, Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever, neglects the drug issue almost entirely and soft-pedals the few mentions it does contain. Another, the first edition of Phillip Norman’s Shout!, never once mentions Lennon and Ono’s breakup-era drug use. Such glaring omissions are not only consigned to the early decades of the band’s historiography; Fred Goodman’s recent biography Allen Klein fails to acknowledge, even once, that Lennon and Ono were taking heroin during the breakup period and particularly in the formative period of their relationship with Klein. Those books that have emphasized the band’s drug use, such as Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon, rank among the least popular and are widely regarded by fans as among the least credible works in all Beatles historiography. Peter Brown’s memoir The Love You Make has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on sex and drugs, as seemingly every piece of information is filtered through those particular muckraking lenses. Yet The Love You Make contains assessments and conclusions — “If there was a single reason the Beatles broke up, it was John’s heroin addiction” – which, while overlooked for decades, have begun to establish themselves as aspects necessary to explaining how and why the band’s story unfolded as it did.
This gaping absence has resulted in a Beatles historiography which attempted, for decades, to explain decisions, events and primary source statements, as well as striking behavioral and character shifts while failing to account for the fundamental and pervasive drug influence. This failure to acknowledge this necessary element therefore resulted in simplistic, trite analyses and conclusions – John quit the band solely because he got bored, (Schaffner) Paul was always an overbearing, bossy egomaniac, (Coleman) Ringo was an amiable mediocrity seemingly emotionally unaffected by the band’s split (Norman) – that provided, at best, an incomplete picture. Not only was the band’s drug use portrayed as mainly tangential to the story’s events and outcome; speculation of any kind implying that drug use prompted paranoiac decisions and/or muddled thinking was largely absent, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. The reality that all four members of the band made pivotal, history-altering decisions – decisions that fundamentally changed the band’s trajectory and future — while under the influence of heavy drugs and, at times, narcotics which potentially impacted their thinking and decision-making, was ignored by most writers.
In addition to this failure to acknowledge the impact drugs presumably had on some of the band’s key moments and members, there also has been a significant lapse by many authors regarding how drug use impacts the credibility and accuracy of numerous sources, particularly interviews. Some of the most widely-quoted primary sources in the band’s historiography were given by various Beatles who were either under the influence of drugs at the time they gave their statements, and/or were attempting to describe their personal eyewitness recollections of events which occurred while they were using drugs. Either aspect – whether an interview was given while the interviewee was using drugs, or one recollecting events which occurred during a time period in which the interviewee had been using drugs – impacts the credibility and accuracy of the source. According to historical methods, and particularly Marc Bloch in The Historian’s Craft, this is due to both the intense emotions and the decline in observational skills associated with drug use, particularly heavy drug use. Yet this basic level of source analysis has been largely absent. One of the fundamental flaws in much of Beatles historiography is the willingness of certain authors to analyze and interpret varying Beatles statements and decisions the same way they would analyze the actions and decisions of sober individuals. Simply put; to argue that the Beatles were fully capable of rational thought and therefore fully aware of the scope and impact of their decisions and statements made while under the influence of mind-altering drugs is a flawed premise. Yet this is a flawed premise upon which many Beatles writers have based their evidence, interpretations, and conclusions.
Acknowledgement of drugs’ importance has gradually emerged over the last fifteen to twenty years. Similarly, and not entirely coincidentally, the same time period has also witnessed increasing authorial speculation regarding the band members – and particularly Lennon’s – psychological issues. The mid-90s saw Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head directly tie Lennon’s excessive LSD use to his crumbling psychological health; this is an analysis with which Doggett broadly agrees in You Never Give Me Your Money. In the first volume of Tune In, Lewisohn also attempts to explain some of Lennon’s particularly violent, unstable behavior – such as the incident in Hamburg in which Lennon, upon finding McCartney engaging in sexual intercourse with a woman in their shared room, responded by screaming profanities at the woman, stabbing the wardrobe with a pair of scissors, slicing her clothes to shreds and driving her from the room – by noting Lennon’s mental instability and significant preludin intake. (One can only wonder what sort of interpretation Norman or Coleman would have made, in their earlier work, for the reasons behind this event). Most current Beatles authors (with Goodman as an obvious exception) such as Steve Turner in Beatles ’66 now incorporate acknowledgments of the band’s drug use while also offering informed speculation regarding the interpersonal, psychological, and musical impacts resulting from the Fab Four’s drug intake. Turner’s work also emphasizes the importance of drugs with its revelatory claim that McCartney’s first LSD trip occurred in December of 1965, significantly earlier than the timeframe provided by McCartney himself and indicating that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the musician had dropped acid before work began on Revolver.
The reasons for this initial, decades-long skittishness regarding acknowledging the band’s drug use and its impact are up for speculation. In the band’s early years, the press willingly turned a blind eye to the band’s chemical excesses in exchange for their own access to the Beatles. As the sixties advanced, “Turning on” was regarded as an essential element and point of identification with the counter-culture; and the rock press, which dominated the band’s historiography, may not have wanted to be seen as criticizing drugs. During and after the breakup, certain topics, such as Lennon and Ono’s heroin use, could and were used as weapons. As the 70s ended, acknowledging and emphasizing their continued drug use threatened to chip away at the preferred personas – Lennon the contented house-husband, McCartney the domesticated rock star, Harrison the spiritual seeker, and Starr the amiable celebrity — each man sought to present to the press and the world. It did not help that those secondary works – such as Goldman, Spitz, and Brown’s memoir (which qualifies as a primary source) — which did hammer away at the drug issue suffer from significant methodological errors. This, unfortunately, convinced some readers to disregard the entirety of the evidence and conclusions presented. Real life issues also presumably played a role: In 1984, McCartney lied regarding the extent of his and the other band member’s heavy drug use, citing his children as justification.
Whatever the reason behind this significant initial failure to acknowledge and analyze the drug issue, the result ultimately left Beatles readers with an incomplete and flawed picture. History is riddled with examples of famous men and women who made decisions and statements of historical consequence under the influence of drugs: Adolf Hitler would be one, Ulysses S. Grant another. No responsible historian would attempt to present an accurate portrayal of Grant – the business failure, victorious Union General, and eventual President over a corrupt administration – without first acknowledging Grant’s issues with alcohol and extensive use of the drug, and then providing informed and objective analysis and authorial speculation regarding alcohol’s impact on Grant’s life and, therefore, the history of the United States.
Like Grant, Beatles history and historiography cannot be clearly understood without acknowledging the pivotal role played by drugs, and their impact on the band’s artistry, relations, characters, decisions and statements. Certain authors such as Doggett and MacDonald provided a beginning: by devoting an entire book of informed, objective analysis to the subject Joe Goodden’s Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs (2017), proves itself to be an essential new work in Beatles historiography.
This introduction was far longer than I anticipated, but after finishing it, I concluded it offered a significant brief on how the Beatles’ drug use has been presented (or not presented) in the band’s historiography. Given that this was supposed to be a review of Joe’s book, the title of which I only mentioned in the last line, I have decided to break this review into two parts. Consider the purpose of this post to underline just how significant the drug aspect is: the second part, hopefully posted soon, will include the actual review of Joe’s book. Sorry: I only took you half the way there. Comments and questions are welcome.