Psychedelic drug inspired their masterpiece – but also opened wounds that never healed.
The story of Revolver began in a night of hell and illumination. “We’ve had LSD,” John Lennon told George Harrison.
Lennon overheard Fonda and recalled the instance years later: “[Fonda] kept on saying, in a whisper, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead,’ and we said, ‘What?’ And he kept on saying it. We were saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, shut up! We don’t care, we don’t want to know!’ But he kept going on about it.” Fonda: “[Lennon] looked at me and said, ‘You’re making me feel like I’ve never been born. Who put all that shit in your head?’ ” Roger McGuinn of the Byrds – who described the day as “morbid and bizarre” – recalled Lennon insisting that Fonda leave the gathering.
Fonda’s words stayed in Lennon’s head. They frightened him, but also presented a problem to try to resolve.
It was spring 1965. Lennon and his wife, Cynthia, and Harrison and his wife, Pattie Boyd, were attending a dinner at the London home of dentist John Riley and his girlfriend, Cyndy Bury. Before the foursome left, Riley asked them to stay for coffee, then urged them to finish their cups. Shortly after, he told Lennon he had placed sugar cubes containing LSD in the coffee. Lennon was furious. “How dare you fucking do this to us?” He knew something about the drug: It was a powerful hallucinogen – termed a psychedelic – and it caused changes in thoughts, emotions and visions that frightened some observers. Psychologist Timothy Leary had famously been fired from Harvard University in 1963 for conducting experimental therapeutic sessions with the substance.
“It was as if we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a horror film,” Cynthia Lennon said. “The room seemed to get bigger and bigger.” The Beatles and their wives fled Riley’s home in Harrison’s Mini Cooper. (According to Bury, John and George had earlier indicated a willingness to take LSD if they didn’t know beforehand that it was being administered.) The Lennons and Harrisons went to Leicester Square’s Ad Lib club. In the elevator, they succumbed momentarily to panic. “We all thought there was a fire in the lift,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. “It was just a little red light, and we were all screaming, all hot and hysterical.” Once inside at a table, something like reverie began to take hold instead. As Harrison told Rolling Stone, “I had such an overwhelming feeling of well-being, that there was a God, and I could see him in every blade of grass. It was like gaining hundreds of years of experience in 12 hours.”
The couples ended up at the Harrisons’ home in Esher, outside London. John later said, “God, it was just terrifying, but it was fantastic. George’s house seemed to be just like a big submarine… It seemed to float above his wall, which was 18 foot, and I was driving it. I did some drawings at the time, of four faces saying, ‘We all agree with you.’ I was pretty stoned for a month or two.” This unwitting initiation into LSD would find its fulfillment the following year in Revolver, the Beatles’ bravest and most innovative album.
Musically, the Beatles were already changing, taking increasingly daring risks. They had inspired countless British and American bands – the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Beach Boys – with their uncommon chord changes, their curving, often sharp-cornered melodies and their commitment to writing their own songs. Lennon, for his part, envied the Stones’ permission to make dirtier and angrier music than the Beatles. But it was Dylan whom the Beatles heeded most. Dylan’s new electric music was majestic, in particular “Like a Rolling Stone,” and some wondered if hallucinogens had helped stimulate his surreal, stream-of-consciousness imagery. In December 1965, the Beatles upped the ante with Rubber Soul, seen as a major step in their artistic growth. McCartney leaned into his songs more: “Drive My Car” was feisty and witty; “You Won’t See Me” and “I’m Looking Through You” were surprisingly angry, like some of Dylan’s more acerbic songs. Lennon’s songs, though, were a whole new thing: “Nowhere Man” and “Girl” showed vulnerability; “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” was vengeful and musically unusual, featuring the first use of sitar on a pop record.
McCartney was aware of the growing competition and intended to keep the Beatles at a creative edge. Despite his reluctance about psychedelics, he was in some ways the most progressive Beatle. “All the other guys were married in the suburbs,” he said. “They were very square in my mind.” Remaining in London, he kept his tastes open, not just to cutting-edge popular music, but also to unorthodox ideas in the arts, politics and philosophy (Bertrand Russell turned him against the Vietnam War; McCartney, in turn, says he educated Lennon on the subject).
McCartney took an interest in the groundbreaking electronic music of classical composers and experimentalists Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Edgard Varèse, and in the free jazz of saxophonist Albert Ayler. “I’m trying to cram everything in,” McCartney said, “all the things I’ve missed. People are saying things and painting things and writing things and composing things that are great, and I must know what people are doing.” In early 1966, McCartney and his girlfriend, Jane Asher, helped her brother, Peter, and his partners John Dunbar and Barry Miles prepare the opening of Indica Books and Gallery, a site for counter-cultural interests. McCartney was also the shop’s first customer: He would pore over new books at night and had the shop send on copies of what intrigued him to the other Beatles.
In April, McCartney took Lennon to Indica, where he came across The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. The authors – who had researched psychedelics for both therapeutic and mystical potential – intended their adaptation of an eighth-century Buddhist text as a guide through the psychedelic experience of “ego-death” and personality reintegration as the drug wore off. One passage read, “Do not cling in fondness and weakness to your old self. Even though you cling to your old mind, you have lost the power to keep it. . . Trust your divinity, trust your brain, and trust your companions. Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.” Lennon now had a frame of reference to make sense of what the drug did to him. He read the entire book in the shop.
Within days, Lennon presented a new song to the Beatles and producer George Martin. At first referred to as “Mark 1,” and later retitled “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the song began, “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream/It is not dying, it is not dying/Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void/It is shining, it is shining.” The composition “was all on the chord of C,” said McCartney. “I can hear a whole song in one chord,” he told author Hunter Davies. “I think you can hear a whole song in one note, if you listen hard enough. But nobody ever listens hard enough.” …
Tomorrow Never Knows” set the standard for Revolver; the Beatles had given themselves something new to live up to. For the next 11 weeks, from April 6th to June 22nd – the longest continuous period they had yet spent on an album – they recorded in a remarkable array of styles, many of them newly invented. Some sounds – such as Harrison’s backward guitar passage, lines curling and entwining on Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping” – were entirely new to pop music. But they were backed up by peerless craftsmanship: McCartney’s slamming, Motown-infused ode to marijuana, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and his doleful “For No One” (like several of his songs in 1965 and 1966, a lament about his and Asher’s troubled relationship), which featured a haunting French-horn solo played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Alan Civil.
It was Harrison, though, whose art benefited the most. Until Revolver, he’d been a minor writer in the Beatles. It was daunting to try to play in the same field as the older, incredibly accomplished Lennon and McCartney, and his submissions were often treated with condescension. His melodies could be narrow, and his lyrics were insular as well – closed off and untrusting. But in 1965, as the Beatles were filming scenes for Help! in India, Harrison saw some local session musicians playing the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” and he first heard a sitar. When he picked it up soon after, it was large and unwieldy, and though it had frets loosely similar to a guitar, it also had as many as 21 strings, played in a semitone range of microtonal notes. Harrison was intrigued, and during the Beatles’ 1965 summer tour, the Byrds’ David Crosby and McGuinn introduced him to the recordings of sitar master Ravi Shankar. Harrison bought an inexpensive sitar at a London shop, and in October he used it at Lennon’s suggestion on “Norwegian Wood” for Rubber Soul. The sound resonated throughout rock & roll: Other bands started to use the instrument, including the Stones, the following May, on “Paint It, Black.”