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Beatles’ Acid Test: How LSD Opened the Door to ‘Revolver’

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.

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.

For now, the group kept the event well-hidden. Since its February 1964 New York appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the band had been the most famous celebrities in the world, but aside from introducing young men to long hair, it had so far managed to avoid controversy. The Beatles had been regular smokers of marijuana since Bob Dylan introduced them to it in a hotel room in August 1964. The drug helped make 1965’s Rubber Soul – which Lennon called the band’s “pot album” – more inward-looking and mesmeric. Acid, however, would ultimately transform everything about the Beatles: their sound, their conception of themselves, their viewpoint and their influence on history.

Despite their initial mixed reaction to the psychedelic, Lennon and Harrison resolved that they wanted to take the drug again – and this time they wanted company. They took the opportunity during a five-day break in their summer 1965 North American tour, at a house they rented from actress Zsa Zsa Gabor in Beverly Hills. “John and I had decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid,” Harrison said, “because we couldn’t relate to them anymore. Not just on the one level – we couldn’t relate to them on any level, because acid had changed us so much. It was such a mammoth experience that it was unexplainable. It was something that had to be experienced, because you could spend the rest of your life trying to explain what it made you feel and think. It was all too important to John and me.” Starr joined them: “I’d take anything,” he later said. “It was a fabulous day. The night wasn’t so great, because it felt like it was never going to wear off. Twelve hours later and it was, ‘Give us a break now, Lord.'”

McCartney, though, declined the suggestion. “We’d heard that you’re never the same,” he said in Anthology. “It alters your life and you never think the same again. John was rather excited by that prospect. I was rather frightened by that prospect. . . never get back home again. I was seen to sort of stall. . .  because there was a lot of peer pressure.” Lennon and Harrison wouldn’t forget his refusal.

McCartney’s caution wasn’t unwarranted. LSD could, at least temporarily, unsettle a subject’s psychological bearing. At one point in the afternoon in Beverly Hills, Harrison got scared. Actor Peter Fonda, who attended the party along with members of the Byrds, later said, “I remember sitting out on the deck of the house with George, who was telling me that he thought he was dying. I told him that there was nothing to be afraid of and all that he needed to do was relax. I said that I knew what it was like to be dead because, when I was 10 years old, I’d accidentally shot myself in the stomach and my heart stopped beating three times while I was on the operating table because I had lost so much blood.”

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.

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.”

Lennon told Martin he wanted “thousands of monks chanting” on the song. Instead, the Beatles’ new engineer, Geoff Emerick, amplified Lennon’s vocals through a rotating Leslie speaker to achieve an echoic, spine-chilling effect. Lennon was ecstatic, but then wondered if they could achieve something better by suspending him from a ceiling rope and spinning him as he sang. (They could not.) Harrison, who was now studying Indian music, added a tamboura – a drone instrument that makes for an ethereal swirling harmonic undertow. It was McCartney, though, who came up with the sound of what happens when the spirit meets the void. Inspired by the music of Stockhausen, he came into the studio one day with a handful of tape loops that he’d made the night before: sounds of guitar-tuning and what seemed like odd shrieks, among others. Martin listened to them, played them forward and backward. Finally, he ran the results through several interconnected tape machines simultaneously at the Abbey Road studio, each helmed by an EMI employee who varied the speed just enough to make for a collective unearthly mixture. The tape collage ran as Lennon sang, “Listen to the color of your dreams/It is not living, it is not living.”

Their vision of the transmigration of the soul was an eerie and credible rendition of what taking LSD might sound like. Other bands – the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Doors and Pink Floyd – tried making music from within that state of mind itself, in extended improvisation passages. But the Beatles were deliberative about their sounds. “We found out very early,” Starr said, “that if you play it stoned or derelict in any way, it was really shitty music, so we would have the experiences and then bring that into the music later.”

“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.”

revolver sitar
Beatle George Harrison receiving instruction in playing the sitar from a Sikh teacher as the other members of the Beatles look on in quiet fascination.

The sitar and Harrison’s fast grasp of Indian music granted him new leeway with in the Beatles. None of the other Beatles figured significantly on Harrison’s first Indian foray, “Love You To.” Instead, he recruited Indian musicians from London’s Asian Music Circle. The song itself didn’t show any real understanding of Hindu beliefs; rather, it was about haste to make love all day long, and it displayed Harrison’s characteristic bitterness: “There’s people standing ’round/ Who’ll screw you in the ground/ They’ll fill you in with all their sins, you’ll see.” But in time, Harrison turned toward understanding modes of Hinduism and he maintained a sincere devotion for the rest of his life. With Lennon’s flirtation with Buddhism in “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Harrison’s new interest in Indian culture, there was an interplay going on between the two men that helped lend a philosophical dialectic to Revolver.

The other thing that Lennon and Harrison shared, of course, was LSD. “After taking acid together, John and I had a very interesting relationship,” he later said. “John and I spent a lot of time together from then on and I felt closer to him than all the others, right through until his death. As Yoko came into the picture, I lost a lot of personal contact with John; but on the odd occasion I did see him, just by the look in his eyes, I felt we were connected.”

That bond might have figured into something that happened during the last recording session for Revolver. The Beatles felt they needed one or two more tracks to complete the album. McCartney delivered “Here, There and Everywhere” – as beautifully sculpted as anything he had ever written or the Beatles had ever recorded – and Lennon brought in the angry and frightened “She Said She Said,” maybe the album’s most powerful track. The song was a rendering of the Los Angeles encounter with Fonda and how it had lingered for Lennon: “She said I know what it’s like to be dead/I know what it is to be sad/I said even though you know what you know/I know that I’m ready to leave/’Cause you’re making me feel like I’ve never been born.”

At the session for the track, McCartney made suggestions that Lennon rejected. “It was one of the only Beatle records I never played on,” McCartney told Barry Miles in the Nineties. “I said, ‘Oh, fuck you!’ and they said, ‘Well, we’ll do it.’ I think George played bass.” Possibly, what was really at issue was an understanding that McCartney couldn’t have a credible say on the track because he hadn’t participated in that incident’s acid trip. It was a breach that never truly healed, and it prefigured greater divisions to come, when Lennon, Harrison and Starr would be aligned on one side and McCartney on the other – all the way through legal suits – as the group ended. The Beatles could be fierce with one another, and Lennon particularly could be devastating. “Paul felt very out of it,” Lennon said, “because we were all a bit slightly cruel, sort of, ‘We’re taking it, and you’re not!’ … I think LSD profoundly shocked him.”

McCartney took LSD for the first time within the year, though it wasn’t in the company of the other Beatles. The drug, he said in a 1967 interview, “opened my eyes to the fact that there is a God… It is obvious that God isn’t in a pill, but it explained the mystery of life. It was truly a religious experience.” He also said of LSD’s effect, “It started to find its way into everything we did, really. It coloured our perceptions. I think we started to realise there wasn’t as many frontiers as we’d thought there were. And we realised we could break barriers.”

In the coming months, the Beatles would forswear LSD. Lennon, though, who had consumed it the most – frequently, sometimes to a degree that worried others (“We didn’t realise the extent to which John was screwed up,” said Harrison) – wasn’t always true to that word. One day in 1968, following a night of psychedelics, Lennon summoned some intimates to Apple Records and announced he’d had a revelation: He was Jesus Christ, come back to Earth, and he wanted a press release issued to that effect.

Two days after finishing recording and mixing Revolver, the Beatles set off on a summer world tour. In Germany, they heard the finished product. McCartney was briefly alarmed: He worried that the whole thing sounded out of tune. The Beatles had been so successful at achieving something unfamiliar that it even disoriented McCartney, who had the most precisely attuned ears in the group.

From the beginning, the tour was a comedown. The four young men had just spent three months making music that could not be translated to the stage; now, they were confined to playing older material that felt a million miles away to them. But worse lay ahead. In Manila, Philippines, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, declined an invitation from the country’s first lady, Imelda Marcos, to a presidential-palace garden party, and the Beatles had to flee the country after public sentiment turned vehemently against them. At a press conference back in London, the group seemed badly shaken. “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate,” said Harrison, “before we go and get beaten up by the Americans.”

His comment turned out to be prescient. Months earlier, in March, before the Beatles began work on Revolver, journalist Maureen Cleave wrote individual profiles of the group’s members for London’s Evening Standard. McCartney didn’t waste the opportunity. “[America’s] a lousy country to be in where any one who is black is made to seem a dirty nigger,” he said, adding, “There they were in America, all getting house-trained for adulthood with their indisputable principle of life: short hair equals men; long hair equals women. Well, we got rid of that little convention for them.” It was Cleave’s interview with Lennon, however, that would be lastingly famous. “Christianity will go,” he told her. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock & roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

On July 29th, two weeks before the Beatles’ first date of the summer U.S. tour, an American teen magazine published excerpts of Cleave’s interviews and emblazoned McCartney’s remarks about America and Lennon’s about Christianity on the cover. McCartney’s provoked no reaction, but Lennon’s made the air shatter. The re­action in the American South was especially harsh: Several radio stations announced boycotts and bonfires. The band received death threats. At a press conference in Chicago on August 12th, Lennon, almost trembling, tried to offer an apology: “I’m not anti-God, anti-Christ or anti-religion. I was not knocking it. I was not saying we were greater or better… I used the word ‘Beatles’ as a remote thing.” He later said, “When they started burning our records… that was a real shock. I couldn’t go away knowing I’d created another little piece of hate in the world… so I apologised.”

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Teenagers gather at a ‘Beatles Burning,’ staged by WAYX-AM, where records, books, and wigs are burned in a bonfire in response to John Lennon’s comment that the Beatles are ‘more popular than Jesus’ on August 12th, 1966.

The controversy arguably cost the Beatles Revolver‘s historic moment. The album appeared in the U.S. on August 8th and reached Number One, but the firestorm about Lennon’s comments got more attention than their new music. The band’s American label, Capitol, also didn’t serve Revolver‘s musical integrity well, cut­ting “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert” from the U.S. version and putting them on another album, Yesterday and Today, which was issued in mid-June. (Such alterations had become standard practice with the band’s American releases, which were often wildly different in content and running order from their U.K. counterparts. The Beatles hated Capitol’s interference and finally put a stop to it with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first Beatles album to appear in identical form on both sides of the Atlantic.)

Capitol issued “Yellow Submarine” and “Eleanor Rigby” – two McCartney songs – as flip sides of a 45­rpm single. “Yellow Submarine” – seen as a children’s song, though it came to signify a dream of collective sanctuary at anti-war rallies and other protests – reached Number Two, and “Eleanor Rigby” peaked at Number 11. The failure of either to achieve Number One may have owed to being musically unprecedented for the Beatles, but may also have been a result of Lennon’s remarks. Nonetheless, both songs played on Top 40 radio for weeks, a subversive feat in the case of “Rigby.” It was the story of two people: a lonely woman who lived in a dream, without hope for love or recognition, and Father McKenzie, a parson who delivered godforsaken sermons that no one heard because “no one comes near.” In the end, Eleanor dies in the church and McKenzie buries her, “wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave/No one was saved.” That final line is the most startling image in all the Beatles’ music, maybe in all popular music, and the Beatles had slipped it into the public’s mind in the dressing of a classical string octet. The song said the same thing Lennon had: Christianity was a cold comfort. In the end, there was no salvation for either the lonely or the faithful. Everybody goes into the grave and doesn’t come back. The revelation went uncommented on by the Beatles’ critics.

The religious dispute, the musical limitations of their live performances, the mix of anger and acclaim that now attended their every step, it all wore on the Beatles that summer. Danger felt close. In Memphis, a Ku Klux Klan member, dressed in his robe, appeared in a local interview and threatened the band before its impending concert. “We’re known as a terror organization,” he said, “and we have ways and means to stop this, if this is going to be the case. Yes… there will be a lot of surprises on Monday night, I believe, when they get here.” By then the Beatles seemed to know that the phenomenon of their public performances was coming to a necessary fast end. There was no more joy down that road. The band played its last concert on August 29th, 1966, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. On the flight home, Harrison announced, “Well, that’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore.”

Months later, McCartney helped fuel the possibility in a January 1967 interview that it was all over. “We’ve all of us grown up in a way that hasn’t turned into a manly way,” he said. “It’s a childish way. That’s why we make mistakes. We’ve not grown up within the machine. We’ve been able to live very independent lives. Now we are ready to go our own ways. We’ll work together only if we miss each other… I’m no longer one of the four moptops.”

McCartney’s comments were a ruse – the Beatles were already recording a new album – but it was true they could no longer be what they had once been. The crucible of Revolver granted them new freedom to define themselves and their purposes. In the months after the U.S. tour, McCartney wrote a soundtrack, The Family Way, and the Harrisons spent six weeks in India – where George studied sitar with Shankar and steeped himself further in his studies of Hindu beliefs. Starr visited Lennon in Spain, where he was appearing in an anti­-war film, How I Won the War, by Help! di­rector Richard Lester. Lennon found filming tedious and lonesome work. When the Beatles reconvened in fall 1966, they looked and sounded like transformed beings. They sported moustaches and hipper, more bohemian dress, and the three writers crafted songs and sounds that befitted a new life­ time. McCartney brought a grander sense of arrangement to bear with his uses of counterpoint in “She’s Leaving Home” and chaotic orchestration in “A Day in the Life,” and Harrison’s grasp of Eastern philosophy – part universal love, part condescension – and Hindustani classical music found fruit in the beautiful “Within You Without You.”

But it was the song that Lennon had begun writing in Spain, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” that most stunned the Beatles and producer Martin. It took a month to record, as they tried to make it the strangest pop song ever, though it would be retracted from the album in favor of release as a single in February. The album that resulted from these sessions, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, would be seen immediately as the greatest artistic expansion of the Beatles’ career – a surprise move from a band that some had thought was passé – and as the apotheosis of psychedelic imagination.

In truth, the Beatles had already accomplished that. Sgt. Pepper captured a moment, but Revolver created the context and motion that became that moment. Partly because it was swallowed by the events of the summer of 1966, and partly because of the shadow cast by Sgt. Pepper, it would take years – decades, even – before critics and fans would widely regard Revolver as the Beatles’ finest album. But the form-stretching possibilities it had unleashed would change popular music by giving it new and more blatant thematic range, matched by innovative and outrageous sounds. It introduced different angles in chords and melodies and gave other bands the courage to look at the risky moment as both internal and social unrest. The Beatles sneaked all of this into their music with flair and confidence, with beauty and dissonance. “It looks like the beginning,” the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne told Rolling Stone, looking back on Revolver in 2011. “From here, anything was possible.”

By 1967 psychedelia would take on a positivist aspect, the sort of sentiment the group served up in “All You Need Is Love.” The Beatles had no such preconceptions, though, with Revolver, which materialised out of shared motivation to understand sometimes disquieting experiences – even life’s negation – rather than to fit the mood of a time. It was essentially a philosophical work: What does it mean to live and die? What survives us? With Revolver, they sought and touched new depths.

But the Beatles’ way of working together also changed. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had each brought in his own songs that the others complemented, and sometimes improved; but in seasons ahead, the musicians increasingly became one another’s accompanists. Their group mind – the exemplar of its age – began to disjoin.

That night in spring 1965 when Lennon imagined them on a vessel, sailing off in mutual sanctuary, four faces saying, “We all agree with you,” also set in motion a turbulent odyssey. Revolver was the pinnacle that broke the Beatles’ story in two: The sensational act ended and something unforeseen replaced it. By the time it was over, the four faces no longer wanted to look at one another.