The Beatles’ story is inextricably linked with drugs. From their early pre-fame days on Benzedrine and Preludin, to the flower-power era of LSD, and onto harder drugs as the 1960s ended, here’s a broadly-chronological overview of what they took and when.
I never felt any responsibility, being a so-called idol. It’s wrong of people to expect it. What they are doing is putting their responsibilities on us, as Paul said to the newspapers when he admitted taking LSD. If they were worried about him being responsible, they should have been responsible enough and not printed it, if they were genuinely worried about people copying.
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
The Beatles’ first encounter with drugs was the stimulant Benzedrine, via a somewhat unorthodox method, in June 1960.
The first drugs I ever took, I was still at art school, with the group – we all took it together – was Benzedrine from the inside of an inhaler.
They were introduced to the drug by the beat poet Royston Ellis, whom The Beatles backed in Liverpool’s Jacaranda coffee bar one night for a poetry reading.
According to George Harrison, “Ellis had discovered that if you open a Vick’s inhaler you find Benzedrine in it, impregnated into the cardboard divide.” The chewed cardboard strip, known as a spitball, energised the users and had a euphoric effect. As Lennon recalled: “Everybody thought, ‘Wow! What’s this?’ and talked their mouths off for a night.”
In later years Royston Ellis claimed to have inspired The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’. He also played a part in ‘Polythene Pam’, which was about his girlfriend Stephanie. John Lennon reportedly had an encounter with the pair in Jersey in August 1963 following a concert.
[Polythene Pam] was me, remembering a little event with a woman in Jersey, and a man who was England’s answer to Allen Ginsberg, who gave us our first exposure – this is so long – you can’t deal with all this. You see, everything triggers amazing memories. I met him when we were on tour and he took me back to his apartment and I had a girl and he had one he wanted me to meet. He said she dressed up in polythene, which she did. She didn’t wear jackboots and kilts, I just sort of elaborated. Perverted sex in a polythene bag. Just looking for something to write about.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Paul McCartney had another experience with Benzedrine, though several years later. When living with Jane Asher’s family in London in the mid-1960s, her father, Dr Richard Asher, told McCartney once again how the drug could be extracted from an inhaler.
Dr Asher loved to shock his family. Once, when Paul had a bad cold, Dr Asher wrote him a prescription for a nasal inhaler and showed him how to use it. ‘You take off the top and place it on your little finger, like so.’ He demonstrated. ‘Then you take a sniff with each nostril as per normal; then, after you’ve finished with it, you can unscrew the bottom and eat the Benzedrine.’ Peter shuffled his feet nervously and Paul grinned, not knowing how much he could confide in the good doctor. Paul: ‘We learned about that stuff up in Liverpool but hearing it coming from him was quite strange.’
The Beatles were introduced to drugs in Hamburg. To get through the long nights performing in the drunken clubs of the Reeperbahn, they were given Preludin, or ‘prellies’ – German slimming pills which removed their appetites and gave them the energy to take their stage shows to new, often chaotic, levels.
In Hamburg the waiters always had Preludin – and various other pills, but I remember Preludin because it was such a big trip – and they were all taking these pills to keep themselves awake, to work these incredible hours in this all-night place. And so the waiters, when they’d see the musicians falling over with tiredness or with drink, they’d give you the pill. You’d take the pill, you’d be talking, you’d sober up, you could work almost endlessly – until the pill wore off, then you’d have to have another.
It has been claimed that Tony Sheridan introduced them to the pills in 1961, telling them: “Here’s something to keep you awake.” Other groups on the circuit used them too, and for many the uppers became the normal way to get through a series of lengthy shows. The club owners didn’t mind; Preludin caused dryness of the mouth, which led to more beer being drunk and better on-stage performances.
This was the point of our lives when we found pills, uppers. That’s the only way we could continue playing for so long. They were called Preludin, and you could buy them over the counter. We never thought we were doing anything wrong, but we’d get really wired and go on for days. So with beer and Preludin, that’s how we survived.
They were also given Preludin by Astrid Kirchherr, who took it from her mother’s medicine cabinet. The Hamburg club staff, too, would keep the groups supplied with the pills.
They were actually pills to make slimming easier for you. We used to take them with a couple of beers. They made you just a little speedy. But you can’t compare it to speed from today or cocaine or anything. It’s just baby food compared to that.
During their various trips to Hamburg, Pete Best stuck to alcohol, and Paul McCartney was reportedly less keen on indulging, but John Lennon, in particular, became a frequent user of stimulants.
The speed thing first came from the gangsters. Looking back, they were probably thirty years old but they seemed fifty… They would send a little tray of schnapps up to the band and say, ‘You must do this: Bang bang, ya! Proost!’ Down in one go. The little ritual. So you’d do that, because these were the owners. They made a bit of fun of us but we played along and let them because we weren’t great heroes, we needed their protection and this was life or death country. There were gas guns and murderers amongst us, so you weren’t messing around here. They made fun of us because our name, the Beatles, sounded very like the German ‘Peedles’ which means ‘little willies’. ‘Oh, zee Peedles! Ha ha ha!’ They loved that. It appealed directly to the German sense of humour, that did. So we’d let it be a joke, and we’d drink the schnapps and they’d occasionally send up pills, prellies, Preludin, and say, ‘Take one of these.’
I knew that was dodgy. I sensed that you could get a little too wired on stuff like that. I went along with it the first couple of times, but eventually we’d be sitting there rapping and rapping, drinking and drinking, and going faster and faster, and I remember John turning round to me and saying, ‘What are you on, man? What are you on?’ I said, ‘Nothin’! ‘S great, though, isn’t it!’ Because I’d just get buoyed up by their conversation. They’d be on the prellies and I would have decided I didn’t really need one, I was so wired anyway. Or I’d maybe have one pill, while the guys, John particularly, would have four or five during the course of an evening and get totally wired. I always felt I could have one and get as wired as they got just on the conversation. So you’d find me up just as late as all of them, but without the aid of the prellies. This was good because it meant I didn’t have to get into sleeping tablets. I tried all of that but I didn’t like sleeping tablets, it was too heavy a sleep. I’d wake up at night and reach for a glass of water and knock it over. So I suppose I was a little bit more sensible than some of the other guys in rock ‘n’ roll at that time. Something to do with my Liverpool upbringing made me exercise caution.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
The Beatles continued taking stimulants well beyond their Hamburg days. Pep pills kept them going through the long days of touring, recording, public appearances and interviews. The peaks of Beatlemania were fuelled by uppers, and their mood-changing properties did much to establish the exuberance that seduced and delighted so many fans around the world. Preludin was soon supplanted by dexies, black bombers, purple hearts and other amphetamines
“I was the one that carried all the pills on tour,” Lennon told Playboy in 1980. “Well, in the early days. Later on the roadies did it. We just kept them in our pockets loose. In case of trouble.”
Riding So High – The Beatles and Drugs
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Well done. Fascinating.