‘Cold Turkey’, John Lennon’s second non-Beatles single, was a raw depiction of the experience of heroin withdrawal.
Lennon and Yoko Ono had become addicted to the drug in 1968, while The Beatles were making the White Album. He referred to his habit in songs including ‘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”).
Lennon’s heroin use accounted for much of his ambivalence during the Let It Be sessions in January 1969, although his addiction came and went. He was, for example, reportedly clean during the two bed-ins for peace in March and May 1969.
By the end of summer that year he and Ono chose to withdraw from heroin, undergoing the process known as cold turkey in which the habit is kicked without gradual reduction or supplements. Although both Lennon and Ono occasionally lapsed in subsequent months and years, the experience inspired Lennon to write what became the second Plastic Ono Band single.
‘Cold Turkey’ is self-explanatory. It was banned again all over the American radio, so it never got off the ground. They were thinking I was promoting heroin, but instead… They’re so stupid about drugs! They’re always arresting smugglers or kids with a few joints in their pocket. They never face the reality. They’re not looking at the cause of the drug problem. Why is everybody taking drugs? To escape from what? Is life so terrible? Do we live in such a terrible situation that we can’t do anything about it without reinforcement from alcohol or tobacco or sleeping pills? I’m not preaching about ’em. I’m just saying a drug is a drug, you know. Why we take them is important, not who’s selling it to whom on the corner.
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
In 1970 Lennon put his usage of heroin 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.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
Lennon recorded acoustic guitar demos of the song in early September 1969. The first take was a simple run-through; the second had double-tracked vocals and an embryonic version of the guitar line later added by Eric Clapton in the studio. This version was later released on the 2004 album Acoustic. A third version featured Yoko Ono on backing vocals, adding cackles and screams to Lennon’s.
Lennon took these demos to The Beatles, and brazenly suggested they record it as the group’s next single. Well aware they would turn it down, he elected instead to issue it himself under the Plastic Ono Band mantle.
Cold Turkey was performed on 13 September 1969 at the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival festival. The show was the Plastic Ono Band’s debut, and ‘Cold Turkey’ was introduced as a brand-new song. So new was it that Lennon read the lyrics from a sheet of paper held by Ono.
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.
Lennon Remembers, Jann S Wenner
The Toronto version lacked the biting guitar of the later studio recording, and was marred by Ono’s wailing backing vocals. It did, however, feature a tremulous vocal by Lennon which was presumably a throwback to the pain of withdrawal. The crowd’s response to the song was muted, and afterwards Lennon demanded of the crowd: “Come on, wake up”.