The term psychedelic can be applied to the Beatles’ music and lyrics


‘At the bohemian fringe of our disaffected youth culture, all roads lead to psychedelia’

Theodore Roszak (1969, p155)

The psychedelic experience has been craved for centuries as human beings sought alternative consciousness experiences. At the turn of the 20th century, researchers such as William James and Havelock Ellis conducted experiments with the use of hallucinogenic agents, including nitrous oxide and peyote. Some fifty years later Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley undertook similar psychedelic studies, that as Theodore Roszak explained were “once again, the object was to gain a new, internal perspective on the modes of consciousness” (Roszak, 1969, p157). This was era when the term psychedelic was coined, between the early LSD pioneers but Dr. Albert Hoffman revolutionised the psychedelic experience in the 1940s when he discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD-25. The introduction of the drug would become a major catalyst in the evolution of the 1960s counterculture. The phrase psychedelic is commonly associated with the Hippie counterculture of the 1960s, with the movements’ peak at the Summer of Love in 1967. The subculture established their own communities as the “Hippie counterculture…strove primarily to develop a separate culture with its own morals, beliefs and lifestyles” (Wesson, 2011). This society of Hippies adopted the psychedelia culture; including psychedelic music, drugs and art. Psychedelic drugs, including LSD, were consumed to alter cognition and perception in order to explore the mind further than ordinary consciousness. The psychedelic music was inspired or influenced by the culture it was breaking out of as the purpose of the music was to reproduce and magnify the altered consciousness experiences by the use of psychedelic drugs.

The Beatles embraced the psychedelia culture into their own music, through their lyrics instrumentation use and album cover artwork. At the ‘Hippie’ stage of their career, during 1966 and 1967, they released two studio LPs. Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are viewed as two of the greatest albums of all time and through these LPs the band introduced many notable components of the psychedelic sound to a mainstream audience. These elements included non-Western instruments, innovative studio techniques and lyrics that made reference to drugs. Direct and indirect references to drug use can be found throughout the Beatles discography and the most prominent drug references can be found in the lyrics from 1965 onwards. This addition of drug references coincides with Lennon and Harrison both been introduced to hallucinogenic drugs such LSD at the start of 1965, although their use would not peak until 1967.

At the end of 1965 the band released ‘Day Tripper’ on a double A-side single with ‘We Can Work It Out’ on December 3rd. The term ‘day tripper’ is slang for a person who failed to fully embrace the hippy lifestyle, Lennon later explained the song was wrote as ‘an attack on ‘weekend hippies’ – those who donned floral shirts and headbands to listen to ‘acid rock’ between 9-to-5 office-jobs’ (Macdonald, 2005, p167). Lyrics like She was a day tripper, a Sunday driver yeah suggest a person who partakes in psychedelic drugs but on a Sunday for the day and then goes back to regular life on the Monday. McCartney goes on further to explain it was ‘a tongue-in-cheek song about someone who was a day tripper, a Sunday painter, Sunday driver, somebody who was committed only in part to the idea. Whereas we saw ourselves as full-time trippers, fully committed drivers, she was just a day tripper.” (Miles, 1998).  This song was known for the references to the rapidly increasing drugs based Hippie counterculture of the 1960s, but were disguised well as The Beatles clean cut image was still intact at the time of it’s release. Even though The Beatles and Lennon were not at the height of their use of hallucinogenic drugs, they embraced the counterculture from an early stage. The counterculture was influencing their own music as Macdonald explained ‘though Lennon had yet to launch himself into his full-scale LSD period, he evidently felt sufficiently versed in the ‘counterculture’ associated with the drug to poke fun at those who took without changing their outlook’ (Macdonald, 2005, p167).  In the next few years, the band’s music styles changed drastically as they completely incorporated and adopted the psychedelia culture, moving away from their boy band roots.

Revolver was released in the summer of 1966 on August 5th and is considered as one of the first psychedelic rock album. Many critics describe the LP as innovative and pioneering with DeRogatis explaining “Revolver, Pet Sounds and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn are relics of the first era of psychedelic rock and a shining testament to what can be accomplished in the recording studio when folks are fuelled on the potent drug of rampant imagination” (DeRogatis, 2003). Around the time of the release of Revolver, The Beatles had initiated a second pop revolution, associated with Hippies and the counterculture. MacDonald described this stage of the Beatles career as ‘The Top’ and further states that ‘In Britain, the fourteen tracks from Revolver were released to radio stations in twos and threes throughout July 1966, building anticipation for what would clearly be a radical new phase in the group’s recording career’ (Macdonald, 2005, p192). The album is known for its lyric and instrumentation diversity while also using new innovation in the studio with the latest technologies.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, most innovative song of the album, was only unveiled a few days before the LPs release but it was a fundamental track in the development of psychedelic music. Gilliland explains ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ was one of the first songs in the emerging counterculture genre of psychedelic music’ (Gilliland, 1969). The song was written by Lennon, with help from McCartney who proposed the insistent drum pattern and supplied the backwards guitar solo. The unconventional lyric was inspired by Timothy Leary’s book ‘The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and ‘yet of all Lennon’s LSD-driven songs, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is most directly about the drug, commencing with a line from The Psychedelic Experience.’ (Macdonald, 2005, p188). Lyrics such as Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, it is not dying, it is not dying refers to The Psychedelic Experience, that Lennon followed while taking LSD and on a trip. The direct referencing of the drug and the book in the song helped popularise LSD to a wider audience for significant public consumption. The song induced something of a social revolution as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows introduced LSD and Leary’s psychedelic revolution to the young of the Western world, becoming one of the most socially influential records the Beatles ever made’ (Macdonald, 2005, p188). Tomorrow Never Knows is considered as the catalysis of the psychedelia era for The Beatles, breaking away from their boy band image. It was also notable for being the first Beatles song not to use rhymed lyrics as they tried to branch away from the production of the conventional pop song.

The follow up to Revolver was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released June 1st 1967. After growing weary and bored of performing live on tour, the band wanted to experiment with their music from the studio. Sgt. Pepper displays the beginning of McCartney’s ascendancy as the Beatles’ dominant creative writer and ‘in February 1967, McCartney suggested that the Beatles should record an entire album that would represent a performance by the fictional band. This alter ego group would give them the freedom to experiment musically’ (Moore, 1997). Hallucinatory agents heavily affected the band and how they created their music, at the time of Sgt. Pepper’s release Lennon had been consuming LSD for nearly two years. The album became the soundtrack to the Summer of Love, in the height of using hallucinatory drugs for the Beatles and the wider counterculture population, even though the band had already stopped touring. One of the standout psychedelic songs from the album was ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and as MacDonald explained the songs ‘lyric explicitly recreates the psychedelic experience’ (MacDonald, 2005, p240). Even though John Lennon maintained the lyrics of the song were inspired by his son’s painting, there is strong evidence to suggest otherwise. The main reason why Lennon would protest the song’s innocence is that it was banned from being played on the radio by the BBC, but it is hard to argue for a song that contained the letters L, S and D that featured so prominently in the title during the peak of the Hippie counterculture at that time. Lyrics such as with tangerine trees and marmalade skies evokes a mystical, psychedelic countryside with the marmalade skies playing on the theme of marmalade can be made out of tangerines. The lyric suggest experiences of Lennon’s trips from LSD as ‘the imagery in the song is partly a reflection of John’s drug experiences’ (Turner, 2010).  Songs like ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ presents the audience a positive insight to the psychedelic experience which would appeal to a wide range of people both inside and outside of the Hippie counterculture.

The Beatles and other psychedelic bands of the mid 1960s frequently utilise non-Western sources such as the sitar and tabla as well as using melodies like ragas and drones of Indian music. There are many song examples of Indian influence throughout The Beatles discography, specifically noted in 1966 and 1967. ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is one such example as the song’s harmonic structure is derived from Indian music and is based upon a high volume C drone played by Harrison on a tamboura’ (Lavezzoli, 2006). Harrison was the one most influenced by India music and embraced Hindustani methodologies but Lennon’s captivation furthered the influences found in their music as ‘Harrison had been interested in this instrument since he’d heard it used to spice up of help! but it was new to Lennon who, sensitised by the ‘acid’ became fascinated by the exotic raga phrases Crosby played to him’ (MacDonald, 2005, p165). ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Within You Without You’ are the most known songs from The Beatles psychedelic discography, in which George Harrison plays the sitar in both. Within You Without You became a great success and achievement as MacDonald explains the song is ‘the most distant departure from the staple Beatles sound in their discography – and an altogether remarkable achievement for someone who had been acquainted with Hindustani classical music for barely eighteen months” (MacDonald, 2005, p244). The song only featured Harrison from The Beatles as the rest of musicians were Indian instrumentalists based in London, with George Martin arranging an Indian string section.

Many of the Beatle’s album covers contained psychedelic art and imagery, including Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. Features of psychedelic art included metaphysical and surrealistic subject matter, bright and highly contrasting colours, morphing of objects and themes into collages. The artist Klaus Voorman, a friend and sometime bassist of the band, created the photo collage cover for Revolver with a mixture of drawings and newspaper photos cuttings from various stages of the Beatles’ era. The cover art was a representation the type of music that was included on the LP as the cover ‘paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of a musical act pushing the boundaries’ (Jensen, 2011). The Revolver album is considered as a psychedelic surrealistic montage and the album cover symbolises this notion superbly with its striking collage of ink and photos. A year later, the more trippy, more colourful imagery of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was published to their audience. Just like the Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s cover artwork contained a photo collage that was representative of their new musical direction and as Julien explains ‘the idiosyncrasies of Sgt. Pepper’s cover were therefore a continuation of these new directions and a public announcement, of the most deliberate kind, that The Beatles, and their music, had undergone significant changes. (Julien, 2009, p198).  With the inclusion of their colourful military outfits, the band embraced the counterculture of the Hippies flower power. The representation can be seen in their trippy imagery, which was in full bloom by the summer of 1967. The multicolour military suits symbolised the psychedelic experiences of LSD trips while also representing the Hippie counterculture’s belief on the Vietnam War, by wearing opposing outfits of the American soldiers fighting for their country.

The term psychedelic can apply to the Beatles music during the years of 1966 and 1967. Around the Summer of Love, the band released material that carried heavy influences from psychedelic and Hippie counterculture. The Beatles already existing idolisation popularised the psychedelic culture to a wider scale and Marwick describes ‘key features of what began as a distinctive youth culture were welcomed into the wider culture’ (Marwick, 1999, p89). The albums Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s provided to a  mainstream audience the insight to the psychedelic experience through their lyrics, instrumentation use and album cover artwork. There had been no change in society as the future for psychedelic music carried through the generations. In the 1980s, rave culture swept across the world with similarities to Hippie movement of the mid-1960s as the youth and counterculture of the generation gathered together to partake in hallucinogenic drugs while trying to spread a message of love, indistinguishable to the 1960s. The Beatles publicised a psychedelic and Hippie counterculture to a mass audience which is still in effect today through influences on other cultures such the rave lifestyles of 1980s and the electro dance movements of 2010s.


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