We first got marijuana from an older drummer with another group in Liverpool. We didn’t actually try it until after we’d been to Hamburg. I remember we smoked it in the band room in a gig in Southport and we all learnt to do the Twist that night, which was popular at the time. We were all seeing if we could do it. Everybody was saying, ‘This stuff isn’t doing anything.’ It was like that old joke where a party is going on and two hippies are up floating on the ceiling, and one is saying to the other, ‘This stuff doesn’t work, man.’
The DJ at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, Bob Wooler, claimed that The Beatles were occasional users of the drug when they started to play outside the city.
We didn’t have a strong drug scene by any means. Originally, it was just purple hearts, amphetamines, speed or whatever you want to call it. When The Beatles went down south, they sometimes brought back cannabis and gradually the drug scene developed in Liverpool.
The Cavern, Spencer Leigh
An early encounter with cannabis took place on 1 January 1962, prior to their unsuccessful audition for Decca. As they travelled from Liverpool to London on New Year’s Day, The Beatles’ endured a 10-hour drive through snowstorms.
Upon arriving in London, their driver Neil Aspinall became lost, and a pair of seedy men attempted to talk their way into the group’s van as a safe haven for smoking cannabis. At the time the drug was unknown to The Beatles, and still a little-used substance in mainstream society.
It is well-known that Bob Dylan fully turned The Beatles on to cannabis. On 28 August 1964 they were introduced by a mutual friend, the writer Al Aronowitz, at New York’s Delmonico Hotel.
Upon arriving at The Beatles’ suite that evening, Dylan expressed a preference for cheap wine. ‘I’m afraid we only have champagne,’ Brian Epstein apologised, although there were other expensive French wines and Scotch and Coke. The Beatles began asking Evans to get some cheap wine, but Dylan got stuck in to what was available. They also offered him purple hearts, but Dylan and Aronowitz declined and suggested they smoke grass instead.
Brian and the Beatles looked at each other apprehensively. “We’ve never smoked marijuana before,” Brian finally admitted. Dylan looked disbelievingly from face to face. “But what about your song?” he asked. The one about getting high?”
The Beatles were stupefied. “Which song?” John managed to ask.
Dylan said, “You know…” and then he sang, “and when I touch you I get high, I get high…”
John flushed with embarrassment. “Those aren’t the words,” he admitted. “The words are, ‘I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide…'”
After the room was secured, Dylan rolled the first joint and passed it to Lennon. He immediately gave it to Ringo Starr, whom he called “my royal taster”. Not realising the etiquette was to pass it on, Starr finished the joint and Dylan and Aronowitz rolled more for each of them.
The Beatles spent the next few hours in hilarity, looked upon with amusement by Dylan. Brian Epstein kept saying, “I’m so high I’m on the ceiling. I’m up on the ceiling.”
Paul McCartney, meanwhile, was struck by the profundity of the occasion, telling anyone who would listen that he was “thinking for the first time, really thinking.” He instructed Mal Evans to follow him around the hotel suite with a notebook, writing down everything he said:
I remember asking Mal, our road manager, for what seemed like years and years, ‘Have you got a pencil?’ But of course everyone was so stoned they couldn’t produce a pencil, let alone a combination of pencil and paper.
I’d been going through this thing of levels, during the evening. And at each level I’d meet all these people again. ‘Hahaha! It’s you!’ And then I’d metamorphose on to another level. Anyway, Mal gave me this little slip of paper in the morning, and written on it was, ‘There are seven levels!’ Actually it wasn’t bad. Not bad for an amateur. And we pissed ourselves laughing. I mean, ‘What the fuck’s that? What the fuck are the seven levels?’ But looking back, it’s actually a pretty succinct comment; it ties in with a lot of major religions but I didn’t know that then.
Evans kept the notebooks until his death in 1976, when they were confiscated and later lost by Los Angeles police.
By the time they came to make Help! in 1965, The Beatles’ cannabis use had reached a peak. It affected their songwriting, which became mellower and more introspective. During the filming they were often stoned on set, which caused them to forget their lines.
The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.
The Beatles’ colossal appetite for smoking dope inevitably caused problems for director Richard Lester and the rest of the Help! production crew. Since the musicians were too famous to fire, and the film could scarcely be made without them, it was necessary to work around four lead actors who were almost perpetually stoned.
The Beatles had trouble remembering their lines, particularly after midday, so most of their scenes were filmed in the morning. “In the afternoon we very seldom got past the first line of the script,” said Starr. “We had such hysterics that no one could do anything. Dick Lester would say, ‘No, boys, could we do it again?’ It was just that we had a lot of fun – a lot of fun in those days.”
Lester eventually adopted a technique of feeding the script line by line to the Beatles, then filmed their performances before they had time to forget. This necessitated quick-fire edits between shots, and lacked the extended witty interplay seen in A Hard Day’s Night. “I think we pushed Dick Lester to the limit of his patience,” said Harrison. “And he was very, very easygoing; a pleasure to work with.”
In 1970 Lennon claimed the group had smoked cannabis in the toilet of Buckingham Palace, on the day they collected their MBEs. In later years, however, George Harrison revealed it had been nothing stronger than a normal cigarette.
What happened was we were waiting to go through, standing in an enormous line with hundreds of people, and we were so nervous that we went to the toilet. And in there we smoked a cigarette – we were all smokers in those days. Years later, I’m sure John was thinking back and remembering, ‘Oh yes, we went in the toilet and smoked,’ and it turned into a reefer. Because what could be the worst thing you could do before you meet the Queen? Smoke a reefer! But we never did.
Cannabis had a significant effect on The Beatles’ music. It found its way into a number of songs, including ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ (described by McCartney as “an ode to pot”) and ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, which was condemned in some quarters due to its reference to getting high. Perhaps the first reference, however, was in ‘She’s A Woman’, which featured the line “Turns me on when I get lonely”.
On 24 July 1967 The Beatles and Brian Epstein added their names to an advertisement which appeared in the Times newspaper calling for the legalisation of cannabis. Sponsored by a group called Soma, the advertisement also demanded the release of all people imprisoned due to cannabis possession, and further research into the drug’s medical uses.
On 18 October 1968 John Lennon and Yoko Ono were arrested for cannabis possession while staying at Ringo Starr’s basement flat at 34 Montagu Square, London. He pleaded guilty on 28 November, absolving Ono, who was pregnant at the time.
The following year, on 12 March 1969, George and Pattie Harrison were similarly arrested for possession. Like Lennon and Ono, the Harrisons maintained that the drugs had been planted by London’s drugs squad, led by Detective Sergeant Norman Pilcher, a notoriously anti-drug zealot.
Riding So High – The Beatles and Drugs
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