The Beatles and drugs

Heroin

The Beatles’ first exposure to heroin is believed to have taken place in 1965. While filming Help! on Huntington Hartford’s estate on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, director Richard Lester witnessed two women attempting to introduce Paul McCartney to the drug.

[Lester] accidentally overheard two of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, dressed in identical, stunning black swimsuits, try to coax Paul into taking heroin. The combination of their sexual come-on and the enticement towards hard drugs was one of the most chillingly evil moments Lester has ever encountered … His sense of relief when Paul rebuffed the twosome was profound.
The Man Who Framed the Beatles: A Biography of Richard Lester
Andrew Yule

In a 2004 interview with Uncut magazine, Paul McCartney described how he did take heroin, albeit unwittingly, in the 1960s.

I tried heroin just the once. Even then, I didn’t realize I’d taken it. I was just handed something, smoked it, then found out what it was. It didn’t do anything for me, which was lucky because I wouldn’t have fancied heading down that road.
Paul McCartney
Uncut magazine, 2004

The account contradicts a passage in McCartney’s authorised biography, in which he recalls snorting the drug with art dealer Robert Fraser.

I was very frightened of drugs, having a nurse mother, so I was always cautious, thank God as it turned out, because I would be in rooms with guys who would say, ‘Do you want to sniff a little heroin?’ and I would say, ‘Well, just a little.’ I did some with Robert Fraser, and some of the boys in the Stones who were doing things like that. I always refer to it as walking through a minefield, and I was lucky because had anyone hit me with a real dose that I loved, I would have been a heroin addict.

Robert Fraser once said to me, ‘Heroin is not addictive. There’s no problem with heroin addiction, even if it is addictive, you’ve just got to have a lot of money. The problem with heroin is when you can’t pay for it.’ Which of course is absolute bullshit! You’re a junkie, of course you are. This was the way he put it to me and for a second I was almost taken in but then my northern savvy kicked in and said, ‘Now don’t go for all of this. This is all very exotic and romantic but don’t go for all of it.’ There was always a little corner, at the back of my brain, that ‘knock! knock! knock!’ on the door – ‘Stop!’

A lot of his friends messed around with heroin. A lot of his lords and ladies were heroin addicts and had been for many many years. And give Robert his due, he knew I wasn’t that keen. He knew I wasn’t a nutter for that kind of stuff. So I did sniff heroin with him once, but I said afterwards, ‘I’m not sure about this, man. It didn’t really do anything for me,’ and he said, ‘In that case, I won’t offer you again.’ And I didn’t take it again. I was often around it when they’d all be doing it. They’d repair to the toilet and I’d say, ‘I’m all right, thanks, no.’ One of the most difficult things about that period was the peer pressure to do that.

Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

From around the middle of 1968 through to the latter months of 1969, John Lennon was addicted to heroin. While never made as explicitly public as The Beatles’ use of LSD, it found its way into his songs, chiefly Happiness Is A Warm Gun (“I need a fix ’cause I’m going down”) and Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey (“The deeper you go the higher you fly”), both on The Beatles (White Album).

He was getting into harder drugs than we’d been into and so his songs were taking on more references to heroin. Until that point we had made rather mild, oblique references to pot or LSD. But now John started talking about fixes and monkeys and it was harder terminology which the rest of us weren’t into. We were disappointed that he was getting into heroin because we didn’t really know how we could help him. We just hoped it wouldn’t go too far. In actual fact, he did end up clean but this was the period when he was on it. It was a tough period for John, but often that adversity and craziness can lead to good art, as I think it did in this case.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

Lennon’s heroin addiction peaked during the protracted sessions for Let It Be, which saw him largely withdraw creatively from the band. In 1970 he put his usage down to the treatment Yoko Ono received from the others in The Beatles’ circle.

Heroin. It just was not too much fun. I never injected it or anything. We sniffed a little when we were in real pain. I mean we just couldn’t – people were giving us such a hard time. And I’ve had so much shit thrown at me and especially at Yoko. People like Peter Brown in our office, he comes down and shakes my hand and doesn’t even say hello to her. Now that’s going on all the time. And we get in so much pain that we have to do something about it. And that’s what happened to us. We took H because of what The Beatles and their pals were doing to us. And we got out of it. They didn’t set down to do it, but things came out of that period. And I don’t forget.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner

Lennon later admitted he was addicted to heroin at the time of the Plastic Ono Band’s performance at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival festival on 13 September 1969.

We were full of junk too. I just threw up for hours till I went on. I nearly threw up in Cold Turkey – I had a review in Rolling Stone about the film of it – which I haven’t seen yet, and they’re saying, ‘I was this and that.’ And I was throwing up nearly in the number. I could hardly sing any of them, I was full of shit.
John Lennon, 1970
Lennon Remembers
Jann S Wenner

It has been suggested that heroin withdrawal was one of the reasons behind Yoko Ono’s miscarriage, which she suffered on 12 October 1969.

In her June 2007 appearance on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs, Ono suggested that the low purity of their heroin or lack of regular supply made it easier for them to kick the habit.

Luckily we never injected because both of us were totally scared about needles. So that probably saved us. And the other thing that saved us was our connection was not very good.
Yoko Ono

Cold Turkey, released in October 1969, detailed the couple’s experiences of withdrawal. It had previously been rejected by Paul McCartney as a potential Beatles single, and so was released by the Plastic Ono Band. Recorded and released before The Beatles had officially split, it featured Eric Clapton on guitar, Klaus Voormann on bass and Ringo Starr on drums.

41 Responses to “The Beatles and drugs”

  1. Elsewhere Man

    Great article. However, Paul is well known as a pothead – or at least he used to be. I’d be curious to read a bit more on that…

    Reply
    • AlfinaHawaii

      I can’t help giggling – sorry…

      I have TREMENDOUS respect for Paul moreso than the rest of the Beatles, I have to say. And yet, you are probably correct. He WAS indeed fond of the Weed, and even known to publicly defend it as he (claims that he) was able to control the effects of the weed and never really experienced withdrawal associated with its disuse.

      And to be fair, it was probably true for Paul. He might have indeed been proud of the fact that he could use Marijuana at will, and not missing it nor having any withdrawals when he didn’t.

      Pothead and Proud of it? Or should we make it Proud Pothead Paul…? ::giggles::

      That doesn’t diminish my great admiration of the man – HONEST!

      Reply
      • Charles Smith

        Nobody ever has withdrawal when they stop smoking pot man. I do it all the time, and so does everyone else who smokes. I doubt Paul was unintelligent enough to think that weed was addictive, when he clearly realized other drugs, such as heroin, are the ones that lead you down the wrong path.

        The point is, everyone knows grass is docile and harmless, including Paul, and if someone smoking pot has a chance of diminishing your image of someone, you are simply ignorant.

        Reply
        • jnehbfhbn

          Not true. I smoked weed 3 times a day for 6 months. Had constant anxiety and paranoia, and symptoms of schizophrenia emerge. I was high 24/7, I didn’t care about anything anymore, life felt meaningless, and I would get stuck in my head with these long inner monologues. I felt like every day was a fight to keep my consciousness from dissolving. And even when I quit cold turkey, I had wicked bad withdrawals. I craved it as much as it tortured me.
          I don’t think cannabis is entirely bad or good. I just think it’s really ignorant to claim that it’s great for everyone, or not great for everyone. It effects everyone differently. And it is possible to have terrible trips on weed and withdrawals. I think people with already thin boundaries of self and delicately formed egos can’t handle something that really puts your mind to the test.

          Reply
          • I, Pot Head

            Very sensible. For me, it’s penicilin; that stuff almost killed me three times, but neither I nor my doctor realized it. Marijuana I like. And I don’t think you can get addicted to it–not in the same way as alcohol, tobacco, heroin, barbituates, cocaine, speed, caffeine, sugar, television, sex, power, or chocolate. Marijuana: I can smoke it or leave it alone. I’d rather smoke it, and I did off and on–mostly on–for 32 years, but I finally got so fed up with having to be a criminal, and hassle to find it and afford it WHEN IT IS A WEED THAT CAN GROW FOR FREE!, that I just gave it up. Someday, I profoundly hope, the power-addicted people will get the hell out of the way, and leave people alone, and then I’ll smoke it legally. Hurry the day.

            Reply
          • Matty D

            I’m affraid that you fly in the face of ALL medical opinion.
            You my friend are too wrapped up in yourself.

            Reply
    • Charles Carpenter

      Ringo said on The Beatles Talk Drugs {FROM A DOCUMENTARY OF SOME SORT} that when they took more than just a little pot there music was shit,and theyd be happy withit till they came in straight the next day

      Reply
  2. robert

    My understanding is that John’s heroin addiction continued on and off into the mid seventies. Can’t site my source, just remember hearing/reading this many times.

    Anyone else ever this?

    Reply
    • Joe

      I believe Yoko has said they had four separate periods on heroin. She also said the hardest to kick was methadone, which they’d heard was like heroin but non-addictive. So they started taking it, not as a substitute to heroin, as they weren’t addicts at the time. After finally kicking that she said they never became addicted to anything again.

      Reply
    • Michael McCullough (@OxyMick)

      I too heard this – far from baking bread and being a househusband (as told to Andy Peebles Dec 1980), don’t ask me where, but at LEAST two, maybe three sources have John hanging out with Uncle Henry, and especially heavily during the period when Jack Daniels and Harry Nilsson were his other constant companions.
      Personally, when I first became acquainted with Henry, it was mid-70s and greyish-white, water soluble, very strong stuff from Thailand, with the brandname “Double Globe” on every compressed slab wrapped in clear plastic with red printing, each a little more than 250g. From 1981, all that could be had in UK was this brown, adulterated, much weaker stuff from Afghanistan, paid for by the CIA & US Govt; a result of their allies like Osama bin Laden maximising the millions given to them to aid their anti-Soviet campaign.
      I had developed a reaction to cannabis which made it unpleasant and often frightening. And just as I was thoroughly enjoying the best H made, this USA funded Afghan brown arrived, and has been with us ever since. I pray for the day I find a containerload of Double Globe (which is still, even post- Khun Sa, still available, grown and processed by the same hill tribes.
      Heroin is benign. It does no damage to the body and vital organs, unlike any other social relaxant. It clears my mind and aids my thinking; other drugs screw it up. Fraser was correct in that the only real problem is running out when you have a habit on. Great for physical and emotional pain, it is obvious to me that John would be the most likely Beatle to indulge. And “Cold Turkey” (whilst being the worst way possible to break a habit) SOUNDS LIKE IT FEELS!! That painful descending riff tells the eight-day horror story perfectly.

      Reply
  3. robert

    that’s how I remember it as well. And this went into the mid-seventies.

    I often wondered if this was partly behind the 18 month separation – they had to get away from each other in order to get clean.

    Reply
  4. Vonbontee

    Interesting how all four ex-Beatles had their own preferences, drugwise: Paul liked weed, booze for Ringo, heroin for John and apparently George was quite fond of coke for a time, something I only learned recently and found somewhat surprising.

    (Fun druggie nicknames/memory aids: Pothead Paul, Junkie John, Rummy Ringo, and I can’t think of one for George.)

    Reply
    • AlfinaHawaii

      ::giggles::

      I LOVE your druggie nickname! I’d make it Proud Pothead Paul – since he was known to defend the use of the substance and throughout the 80s he constantly maintained that he could use and discontinue using at will, with no effect nor withdrawals whatsoever.

      Potheaded – and Proud of it. ::giggles::

      Reply
        • Aaron

          I’m a huge advocate for legalization. In fact, I’m in favor of ending drug prohibition and The War On Drugs entirely (as there is ample evidence this does more harm to society than good.) And further, I believe that marijuana is the safest of all the recreational drugs, and I agree that it also has some wonderful properties which make it useful as medicine, as well. HOWEVER, that being said, your comment is untrue.

          You need to understand that everyone is different. Both in terms of their specific neurochemistry, and their psychology. Addiction and habituation are both physiological and psychological phenomena. In a physiological sense, if you use something daily, for a period of YEARS, your body and mind are going to become used to it. There is no way around this (that we know of, yet). This is why a new user can take a few puffs and get so stoned it’s almost psychedelic, and someone who has been smoking daily for years, can smoke a joint and then take an exam.

          When one smokes for so long that the normal effects of the substance are muted, abrupt cessation CAN cause some issues, for some people.

          And in a psychological sense, a person can become “addicted” to anything. While very different than, say, the physiological addiction that opiates cause, this psychological addiction can still have a powerful grip, making cessation challenging. And you need to understand that a person’s PROPENSITY for addiction is a very important factor, and will vary considerably from person to person.

          Have you never known “that person” who could smoke a cigarette, or take a drink, once in a blue moon… then stop and not touch it again for many weeks, or months? I’ve known a small handful of these people over the decades. They exist, and they annoy the bejeezus out of easily-addicted types such as myself. (I say that playfully, of course. I wouldn’t wish addiction on anyone.) Then of course there are the people who seem, if they touch it once, will want to keep going forever. Far too many of us fall into this category.

          I have seen some of the worst that addiction can bring. And even for someone with a propensity for addiction, stopping long term marijuana use is a walk in the park compared to quitting an opiate addiction. But it is still challenging. And if it’s not for you, then you are one of the LUCKY ones. Some people have a hard time quitting POTATO CHIPS, or SODA, let alone a powerful mind-altering substance which calms our nerves and helps us relax.

          And I understand that people like yourself just get upset to see something you enjoy slandered, made to look bad. And there has been so much ridiculous anti-drug propaganda for so long, that there seems to be a tendency among advocates to swing toward the other extreme– as if the stuff is the Salve Of The Gods and could “do you no harm.” I think the truth, as with most things, lies somewhere in between. Most adults can use cannabis safely. Used once in a while, its effects seem to be mostly positive and pleasant. More frequent use increases likelihood of negative effects, or possibly habituation in some individuals.

          Just try to understand that everyone is different, and not everyone is like you. Hopefully you understand where I’m coming from.

          Reply
    • Selt anczak

      Er hash man Harrison obviously and to the ” no I freaked out on canabis and got paranoid ” we’ll on sorry to sound harsh but you argument holds no water only 1.5 people on 10 have that sever of a traction the rest of us don’t hide in a closet and stab everything that comes. Near you we just feel calm and relaxed and we can stop and start at will with no adverse affects

      Reply
  5. A fool on a mountain

    Absolutely awesome article. A few spelling mistakes, but still very good. Some great quotes in it. I think that one of George’s saying that its all about your acceptance of the world really struck me. Like really struck me.

    But bloody good article.

    Reply
  6. Taryn Andrew MUS103

    This is a fascinating intro into their experiences with drug abuse. I was suprised to hear how a doctor actually helped Paul use Benzedrine. Its interesting to see the parallel’s with today’s society since parents also get caught providing their kids with drugs and alcohol.

    Reply
  7. RedLennon

    Is there any information out their regarding Paul’s first LSD trip with Tara Browne? I can’t imagine it to have been good if he never really got back into it.

    Reply
  8. Mickey Michaels

    Interesting article though maybe it has too few sources albiet impeccible ones. People can get addicted to water let alone pot. That said pot is one of the least harmful things you can take including cigarettes and booze. While I do think people can abuse it, it in itself is a farily docile drug.

    Reply
    • Marina Valerio

      That’s who they were mainly about. Weren’t they? The fact that they were a “legend” to many doesn’t take away who they intrinsically were. Just my personal opinion.

      Reply
  9. Mikey of Mason Summers

    As someone who prefers their early albums and believes that they peaked at A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack this is very interesting information. I knew a good deal of this history but now I feel much better educated. I love many types of music but the genres I know best and hold dearest are 70′s British punk and 50′s rock n roll. That being said, it’s easy to picture why I would prefer a band on uppers as opposed to a band on psychedelics or downers. Best option of course is to avoid the lot of em altogether.

    Reply
  10. Bryan

    I have LONG suspected it was John’s heroin addiction that actually did in the Beatles- brought on by Ono’s introduction of heroin to Lennon. I think the lyrics to the song “Too Many People” on McCartney’s Ram album spells it out in a not so cryptic fashion.

    “Too many people going underground…

    Too Many People Sharing Party Lines
    Too Many People Never Sleeping Late
    Too Many People Paying Parking Fines
    Too Many Hungry People Losing Weight

    That Was Your First Mistake
    You Took Your Lucky Break And Broke It In Two
    Now What Can Be Done For You
    You Broke It In Two”

    I have been listening to the Beatles for years and suspected John Lennon of heroin abuse, but until the Internet came around with great articles like this, I never really had any sources to confirm my suspicions.

    Honestly, the more I read about the darker side of the Beatles, the more my adoration and respect for McCartney and his talent has grown. While I really like a lot of Lennon’s solo music, it REALLY becomes apparent McCartney was the driving force behind the Beatles and their best music from a little before the mid-point of their collaboration. His control just kicked into high gear at the Pepper album.

    I’ve read in several places Lennon started to withdraw from the partnership and resent Paul and his talent when it became apparent to him that he could no longer keep up with him creatively.

    I, personally, think Ono was a rock around Lennon’s neck, but he did himself and the Beatles in all by himself.

    Reply
    • robert

      I agree Bryan – and I have stated so on different spots on this site – the single greatest issue leading to The Beatles’ breakup was John’s heroin addiction. As Paul has said and others have intimated – it made John impossible to deal with – they couldn’t communicate with him (FYI – I’m more a Lennon fan than McCartney fan).

      Remove the heroin and I assert that they would have stayed together a few more years, amicably have wound down, and remained friends with probable reunions from time to time.

      Yes it’s conjecture but it’s my conjecture. But it’s heroin that did them in – and yes that was Yoko’s doing.

      Reply
      • Joseph Brush

        John Lennon contributed to the last 3 albums the Beatles made while on heroin. He did quit the habit in July 1969 (at least for awhile) and wrote Cold Turkey as a result while continuing to work on Abbey Road until the sessions ended.
        The biggest reason for the break up IMO was the revelation that Paul had been buying shares of Northern Songs behind John’s back. At the same time Paul was trying to get his in-laws to become the Beatles’ manager. John was outraged at this betrayal and walked out of the meeting.
        Therefore their Northern Songs negotiations fell apart. Paul to this day has never commented on his actions.
        After their last tour, there still would have been Beatles music, including the overrated Pepper, whether Paul was the leader or not. But Paul’s great” ideas” such as the Magical Mystery Tour movie fiasco and the Get Back sessions (while being filmed) were also big nails in the Beatle coffin.

        Reply
        • Bryan

          The entire concept and most of the songs on Pepper and the albums which followed were from Paul. It’s well documented. To say there would have been a Pepper without Paul is flat out wrong. There would have been no Beatles without Paul holding them together the last few years.

          Reply
          • Joseph Brush

            Most of the songs which followed Sgt. Pepper were from Paul?
            On Abbey Road half of the songs were written by the combination of the other three Beatles.
            More than half of the songs on the White Album and Let It Be Naked were written by the same combination.
            Paul was the main person behind Pepper but without the contributions of the other three the album would not be the same.
            Please quote the documentation which you say proves that Paul wrote most of the songs which followed Pepper.

            Reply
  11. Mickey Fischer

    My name is Mickey Fischer. I traveled with led zep at 18 yrs. old. Royston Ellis was on the tour and got me on it too. All he would say is” These guys are always high on something”. And the last thing I would have ever thought is that he first gave the beatles benzedrene!! He actually stopped taking me to Jimmy Pages house In plumpton England because he said I idolized them too much and he was worried I would consume drugs like them.

    Reply

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