Group therapy: The psychology of the Beatles
Although I love many musical groups and singers, the Beatles have always been (and always will be) my all-time favourite band. Being an obsessive fan of the group is not cheap because there is almost a never-ending supply of products that can be bought including records, CDs, DVDs, books, and other merchandise such as mugs, t-shirts, coasters, and games. I’m a sucker for it all and as a record collecting completist, I have to have every single track they have ever recorded on both official releases and bootlegs (my latest acquisition being the 6-disc collector’s edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). It’s both fun and expensive (but thankfully I have few vices) and the Beatles are one of the few artists that I have spent thousands and thousands of pounds indulging my passion for their music (others include David Bowie, Adam Ant, The Smiths [and Morrissey], Gary Numan, Velvet Underground [and Lou Reed and John Cale], John Foxx [and Ultravox], Art of Noise [and other ZTT bands], and Iggy Pop [and The Stooges]).
One of the reasons I chose to study psychology at university was because John Lennon underwent primal therapy (a trauma-based psychotherapy) in 1970 with its’ developer (US psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov). I read Janov’s first book (The Primal Scream) in 1983 just because of my love of Lennon’s work, and psychology sounded far more interesting than the ‘A’ levels I was doing at the time (maths, physics, chemistry and biology). As the Wikipedia entry on primal therapy notes:
“The musician John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, went through primal therapy in 1970. A copy of the just-released The Primal Scream arrived in the mail at Lennon’s home, Tittenhurst Park (sources differ about who sent the book). Lennon was impressed, and he requested primal therapy to be started at Tittenhurst. Arthur Janov and his first wife, Vivian Janov, went to Tittenhurst in March 1970 to start the therapy, which continued in April in Los Angeles. Arthur Janov went to Tittenhurst after giving instructions in advance about the isolation period and giving instructions to Lennon to be separated from Ono. Lennon and Ono had three weeks of intensive treatment in England before Janov returned to Los Angeles, where they had four months of therapy. According to some sources, Lennon ended primal therapy after four months…Lennon commented after therapy, ‘I still think that Janov’s therapy is great, you know, but I do not want to make it a big Maharishi thing’ and ‘I just know myself better, that’s all. I can handle myself better. That Janov thing, the primal scream and so on, it does affect you, because you recognize yourself in there…It was very good for me. I am still ‘primal’ and it still works.’ and ‘I no longer have any need for drugs, the Maharishi or the Beatles. I am myself and I know why’”.
Lennon didn’t undergo primal therapy until just after the Beatles had split up and it was his 1970 solo LP (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) that included many songs that were rotted in his primal therapy experiences including ‘Mother’, ‘My Mummy’s Dead’, ‘God’, ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Remember’, and ‘Well Well Well’. Many describe this LP as Lennon at his most raw and the album is all the better for it.
At university, one of my favourite topics was Gestalt psychology and its basic tenet that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’ to me encapsulates The Beatles as a whole. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were all brilliant in their own musical sphere but little of their best solo work – with the odd exception – was ever as good as the best of their work with the Beatles. For whatever reason, the Beatles working as a foursome – even when the songs had been written individually – produced music as a group that was better than music on their solo LPs. The Beatles early solo recordings (1970-71) included songs that had typically been written while they were still in The Beatles. For instance, many of the songs on George Harrison’s brilliant (and best) album, All Things Must Pass, had been practiced and rehearsed during the making of the Beatles’ final LP Let It Be.
In previous blogs I have looked at celebrities’ use of illicit drugs (one on celebrities in general and whether they are more prone to addiction, one on David Bowie, The Beatles and addiction, and a third one looking at the use of psychoactive substance use on the process of creativity). My first awareness of illicit drugs was reading about the Beatles’ use of various substances in many biographies I read during my early adolescence. When it came to drugs, the Beatles appeared to have seen and done it all. In their pre-fame days in early 1960s Hamburg they all lived on a diet of pills, poppers, and stimulants just to get through their hours of playing every single day. Like many hard working musicians they used a combination of ‘uppers’ and ‘downers’ to regulate their day-to-day living. By the mid-1960s they were all smoking marijuana and taking LSD which may or may not have helped the creative juices to flow. By the end of the 1960s, Lennon was hooked on heroin and recorded one of his most infamous hits about its withdrawal symptoms (‘Cold Turkey’).
By the late 1960s, the Beatles (along with many of the big pop stars of the day) were also searching for other mind altering experiences and the ‘meaning of life’ which led them to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (‘Maharishi’ meaning ‘great seer’) and his teachings on transcendental meditation (TM). I myself dabbled in TM during the early 1990s, and over the last few years I have developed a new line of research on mindfulness meditation with my colleagues Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon (see ‘Further reading’). The Beatles (and George Harrison particularly) stimulated me to learn more about Buddhist philosophy. One of the Beatles most innovative songs ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – the final track on the 1966 Revolver album – was written by Lennon after reading The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert. However, it was Harrison who was most swayed and his spiritual beliefs rooted in Buddhism stayed with him until his dying day. Although I am not religious in the slightest, the lyrics to some of Harrison’s best songs while he was in The Beatles dealing with Buddhist philosophy are simply beautiful (‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘The Inner Light’ being the best examples; arguably you could add Lennon’s ‘Across The Universe’ to this list).
When I first started listening to The Beatles at the age of around 5 or 6 years of age, it was the music and the melodies that I loved (particularly the 1962-1965 period). By my late teens it was the later songs (1966-1969) and the more sophisticated musical layers that I loved (and still do). Now when I listen to their songs I am most interested in what the songs are trying to say and their philosophical or psychological underpinnings. Any analysis of their songs over time demonstrates that they went from a repertoire dominated by songs about love and relationships (‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’, ‘From Me To You’, ‘She Loves You’, and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’, ‘Eight Days A Week’) to a much wider range of topics many of which covered psychological topics such as childhood nostalgia (‘In My Life’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and ‘Penny Lane’), mind-wandering (‘Fixing A Hole’), domestic violence (‘Getting Better’), jealousy (‘Run For Your Life’, ‘You Can’t Do That’, ‘What Goes On’), casual sex/one-night stands (‘The Night Before’, ‘Day Tripper’), prostitution (‘Polythene Pam’, ‘Maggie Mae’), [alleged] drug use (‘Dr. Robert’, ‘A Day In The Life’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, ‘What’s The New Mary Jane‘), running away from home (‘She’s Leaving Home’), homelessness (‘Mean Mr. Mustard’), insomnia (‘I’m So Tired’), depression due to relationship troubles (‘I’m Down’, ‘I’m A Loser’, ‘Help’, ‘Baby’s In Black’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘For No-One’), suicide (‘Yer Blues’), murder (‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’), and death (‘She Said She Said’, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’).
There were also those songs that were overtly political (‘Taxman’, ‘Revolution’), self-referential (‘Glass Onion’), and autobiographical (‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, ‘Julia’, ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Norwegian Wood [This Bird Has Flown]) to songs that were rooted in surrealism (most notably ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘What’s The New Mary Jane‘) and the experimental avant garde (‘Revolution 9’, ‘You Know My Name [Look Up The Number]‘, and – the yet to be released and holy grail for Beatles collectors – ‘Carnival of Light’).
In short, repeated listening to The Beatles’ output brings me continued pleasure. I feel good when I listen to the Beatles. I can listen to The Beatles and create playlists to reflect the mood I’m in. I can simply read the lyrics to their songs and look for meanings that probably weren’t intended by the songwriter. In short, I am constantly rewarded by listening to (and analysing the lyrics of) The Beatles. For me, listening to The Beatles is quite simply “group therapy”!
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addictions, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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