The Oral History of the First Two Times the Beatles Took Acid
A few months after George and John were unexpectedly dosed with LSD, the whole band decided to try psychedelics properly. This is what went down.
Image by Lili Emtiaz
Lead image by Lili Emtiaz. All other illustrations by Alley Cat
This article originally appeared on VICE US
It was while Gillian McCain and I were working on sixty-nine: An Oral History, our new book on the 60s music scene, that we got the idea to create chapters where we hadn't done any of the interviews ourselves. Rather, the material came from a variety of secondary sources that we edited together, such as interviews from magazines like Rolling Stone and books like Peter Fonda's Don't Tell Dad. Not many chapters were created this way—just two or three—and since LSD played a major role in the music scene, we chose for one of our "experimental" chapters in the book to use this bricolage style to detail the first time the Beatles willingly experimented with acid on their own. Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
The Beatles took their first acid trip by accident. In the spring of 1965, John Lennon and George Harrison, along with their wives Cynthia Lennon and Patti Boyd, were having dinner over their dentist's house when they were first "dosed" with LSD.
Dentist John Riley and his girlfriend, Cyndy Bury, had just served the group a great meal, and urged their distinguished guests to stay for coffee, which they reluctantly did...
Riley wanted to be the first person to turn on the Beatles to acid, so the couples finished their coffee, and then Riley told Lennon that the sugar cubes they used contained LSD, a powerful new drug with incredible hallucinogenic effects.
Lennon said, "How dare you fucking do this to us!"
As George remembered, "The dentist said something to John, and John turned to me and said, 'We've had LSD.' I just thought, 'Well, what's that? So what? Let's go!'"
Cynthia Lennon was much more sensitive. As she recalled the event, "It was as if we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a horror film, the room seemed to get bigger and bigger...."
"This fella was still asking us to stay," George continued, "and it all became a bit seedy, it felt as if he was trying to get something happening in his house; that there was some reason he didn't want us to go. I think he thought that there was going to be a big gang bang, and that he was going to get to shag everybody. I really think that was his motive."
The two Beatles and their wives split from John Riley's flat and sought refuge at the Ad Lib Club, where the full effects of the drug came on. As Lennon remembered it, "We were just insane. We were just out of our heads. We all thought there was a fire in the lift, but it was just a little red light, and we were all screaming, all hot and hysterical!"
While John started freaking out, George had an entirely different experience. "I had such an overwhelming feeling of well-being, that there was a God, and I could see him in every blade of grass," he said. "It was like gaining hundreds of years of experience in 12 hours."
The night ended at George's house in Esher, where John was beginning to reconsider his attitude toward acid. "God, it was just terrifying, but it was fantastic, George's house seemed to be just like a big submarine," he said. A few moths later, on the Beatles' second tour of the United States, John and George decided to take LSD again during time off in Los Angeles.
Join us now through the immediacy of the Narrative Oral History format, as we relive that day, August 24, 1965, at Zsa Zsa Gabor's house at 2850 Benedict Canyon in Beverly Hills, when popular music was changed forever. It was a day of tranquility and terror, of good vibes and death talk, of sex, swimming and songs, when the coolest of the cool hung out with the most famous band in the world, and provided John Lennon with the idea for a new tune....
George Harrison: John and I had decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid because we couldn't relate to them any more. Not just on the one level, we couldn't relate to them on any level because acid had changed us so much.
John Lennon: We just decided to take LSD again on tour in 1965, in one of those houses, like Doris Day's house, or wherever it was we used to stay...
George Harrison: It was a horseshoe-shaped house on a hill off Mulholland.
John Lennon: It was something out of Disneyland.
Peter Fonda: The Beatles stayed on Benedict Canyon in a stilt house. I was asked to come over and I went in my Jag. I had been instructed to give a password to the police who were guarding the house, but the reason for such protection only sank in when I came to a bend in the road, just before their rented house, and saw that the entire wall of the canyon was filled with screaming young people. [via Peter Fonda's memoir Don't Tell Dad]
Roger McGuinn: We went in and David Crosby, John Lennon, George Harrison, and I took LSD to help get to know each other better.
John Lennon: We just took it, Ringo, George and I, and Neil Aspinall and a couple of the Byrds, what's his name? The one in the Stills and Nash thing? Crosby, and the other guy, who used to do the lead, McGuinn.
George Harrison: But Paul wouldn't have LSD; he didn't want it. So Ringo and Neil took it, while Mal stayed straight in order to take care of everything. Dave Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds had also come up, and I don't know how, but Peter Fonda was there.
Peter Fonda: As soon as I was in the house, David Crosby gave me my "dose" of LSD. [via Fonda's memoir Don't Tell Dad]
George Harrison: I had a concept of what had happened the first time I took LSD, but the concept is nowhere near as big as the reality when it actually happens. So as it kicked in again, I thought, "Jesus, I remember!" I was trying to play the guitar, and then I got in the swimming pool, and it was a great feeling; the water felt good.
John Lennon: We were in the garden, it was only our second time doing LSD, and we still didn't know anything about doing it in a nice place, and cool it, and all that... we just took it. And all of a sudden we saw the reporter, Don Short, and we're thinking, "How do we act normal?" Because we imagined we were acting extraordinary, which we weren't. We thought, "Surely somebody can see?"
George Harrison: I was swimming across the pool when I heard a noise, because it makes your senses so acute, you can almost see out of the back of your head. I felt this bad vibe, and I turned around and it was Don Short from The Daily Mirror. He'd been hounding us all through the tour, pretending in his phony-baloney way to be friendly, but was really trying to nail us.
John Lennon: We were terrified waiting for Don Short to go, and Neil Aspinall, who had never had acid either, had taken it, and still had to play road manager, so we said to him, "Go get rid of Don Short..."
George Harrison: We were in one spot, John and me and Roger McGuinn, and Don Short, who was probably only about 20 yards away, talking. But it was as though we were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. And Don seemed to be in the very far distance, and we were saying, "Oh fuck, there's that guy over there..." Neil had to take him to play pool, trying to keep him away.
Ringo Starr: Neil had to deal with Don Short while I was swimming in jelly in the pool.
Don Short: Neil Aspinall escorted me downstairs to the pool room, because I was the only journalist on the premises. His job was to divert my attention from the fact that everyone else was taking acid.
George Harrison: LSD's s definitely not the kind of drug you'd want to be playing pool with Don Short on.
John Lennon: Paul felt very out of it, cause we were all a bit cruel, like, "We're taking it and you're not!" But we couldn't eat our food; I just couldn't manage it. Picking it up with the hands, and there's all these people serving us in the house, and we're just knocking it on the floor.
Peter Fonda: David Crosby came and got me, I don't know why it was me, and said, "George is in trouble..." So I had to go over there and say, "Don't worry about it, George, this is what this drug does, it puts your mind, your brain, out of activity of the function you think it's in... It unlocks the doors of perception..." [via Peter Fonda's memoir Don't Tell Dad]
George Harrison: Fonda kept saying, "I know what it's like to be dead, because I shot myself." He'd accidentally shot himself at some time, and he was showing us his bullet wound.
Peter Fonda: When I was ten 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'd lost so much blood.
John Lennon: Peter Fonda kept sitting next to me, and whispering, "I know what it's like to be dead...." We were saying, "For chrissakes, shut up, we don't care! We don't want to know!"
George Harrison: Fonda was very uncool.
Peter Fonda: Lennon was just glaring at me and said, "You know what it's like to be dead? Who put all the shit in your head? You know you're making me feel like I've never been born..."
Roger McGuinn: Lennon couldn't take it and said, "Get this guy out of here!"
George Harrison: They brought several starlets in, and set up a movie for us to watch in the house. By the evening, there were all these strangers sitting around with their make-up on, and acid just cuts through all that bullshit.
The movie was put on, a drive-in print of Cat Ballou with the audience response already dubbed onto it for when you're all sitting in your cars, and don't hear everybody laugh. Instead, they tell you when to laugh and when not to. It was bizarre watching this on acid.
Roger McGuinn: We were watching Cat Ballou, and John didn't want anything to do with the Fondas.
George Harrison: I've always hated Lee Marvin, and listening on acid to that other little dwarf bloke with a bowler hat on... I thought it was the biggest load of baloney shite I'd ever seen in my life; it was too much to stand!
So I noticed that I'd go "out there"; I'd be gone somewhere, and then, bang! I'd land back in my body. I'd look around and see that John had just done the same thing. You go in tandem, you're out there for a while and then, BOING!
Like, "Whoa! What happened?"
Oh, it's still Cat Ballou...
Roger McGuinn: There was a large bathroom in the house, and we were all sitting on the edge of a shower passing around a guitar, taking turns playing our favorite songs. John and I agreed "Be-Bop-A-Lula" was our favorite 50s rock record.
Peter Fonda: McGuinn and Harrison played their electric twelve-string guitars with no amplification, but the hard surfaces of the bathroom acted as a booster for the sound. George played some Bach riffs that blew my mind. [via Peter Fonda's memoir Don't Tell Dad]
Roger McGuinn: I showed George Harrison some Ravi Shankar sounds, which I'd heard because we shared the same record company. I told him about Ravi Shankar, and he said he had never heard Indian music before.
David Crosby: George told somebody that I'd turned him onto Ravi Shankar. I know I was carrying one of Ravi's albums around and turning people onto him whatever chance I got. I was saying, "You ain't heard nothing, try this..."
Peter Fonda: I went to the kitchen for something to drink, and ran into Peggy Lipton, who I knew, and was sitting in the living room, looking lost.
She said, "I don't know why I'm here...."
I went back to the boys and told them there was a pretty blond sitting in the living room. Someone asked if I was tripping, and I said, "No, I sniffed her crotch, and she was definitely a blond..."
So Paul went to be the host. And, as it turned out, he was the only one who wasn't on LSD. [via Peter Fonda's memoir Don't Tell Dad]
Peggy Lipton: I was the only girl there, and John Lennon definitely didn't like that. He didn't like me being there at all. He was mean and sarcastic. At one point, they were handing around a scrapbook, looking at pictures of that first tour, and John made some snide comment like, "What is she doing here?"
I got the idea that John thought Paul was an idiot to take a girl so seriously he'd actually invite her to dinner, when all he needed to do was fuck her after dinner.
We ended up smoking a joint in the bathroom before other people arrived; Ringo, George, Paul—and Peggy. We were having fun. I'd been temporarily cowed by John's attack, but it wasn't until I got high that I got really paranoid.
Paul and I emerged from the bathroom and floated into the living room where he held my hand, and we had a few laughs in the dark.
But I was way too high.
A sinking feeling began to take over, Paul was tuning out. [via Peggy Lipton's memoir Breathing Out]For more drug stories, re-watch our old doc 'Monster Trucks... on Acid!'
Joan Baez: They'd sent their people out to bring in groupies so they could pick who they're gonna, you know, "hang out" with. And these poor girls were just sitting downstairs, waiting to see whether they're gonna be picked by somebody, they didn't talk, they didn't even knit.
Peggy Lipton: Paul became silent in bed. We made love, and for a while my anxieties receded, but as he drifted in and out of sleep, I knew I was losing him. I lay there for a while crying, without Paul knowing, and then got up, gathered my clothes, and silently slipped out the door.
Joan Baez: There weren't enough bedrooms for everybody, so John told me I could stay in his room. So I went to sleep and he came in during the middle of the night, and I think he felt compelled, and he started coming on to me, very unenthusiastically.
Peggy Lipton: Did Paul care the way I did? Would I be able to captivate him enough sexually? Would he ever want to be with me again? [via Peggy Lipton's memoir Breathing Out]
Joan Baez: I said, "John, you know, I'm probably as tired as you are, and I don't want you to feel you have to perform on my behalf..."
And he said, "Oh, luvly! I mean, what a relief! Because you see, well, you might say I've already been fooked downstairs...."
So we had a good laugh and went to sleep.
Peggy Lipton: I knew that Paul didn't want me anymore, and that it was all over, my life was over.
Ringo Starr: It was a fabulous day. The night wasn't so great, because it felt like it was never going to wear off. 12 hours later, and it was, "Give us a break now, Lord..."
For more of Lili Emtiaz's illustration work, visit her website.
And for more batshit stories like this, check out the 20th Anniversary Edition of 'Please Kill Me' by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain.