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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]).

Sgtpeppergatefold

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

Further reading

The Beatles (1988). The Beatles Lyrics: The Songs of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr. London: Omnibus Press.

Davies, H. (2009). The Beatles: The Authorised Biography. London: Ebury.

Goldman, A. (1988). The Lives of John Lennon. W. Morrow.

Lewisohn, M. (1990). The Complete Beatles Chronicle. London: Harmony Books.

Janov, A. (1970). The Primal Scream. New York: Dell Books.

Janov A (1977). Towards a new consciousness. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 21, 333–339.

Janov, A. (1980). Prisoners of Pain: Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering. New York: Anchor Books.

Norman, P. (2011). Shout! the Beatles in their generation. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sheff, D., & Golson, G. B. (1982). The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York: Penguin Group.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M. & Griffiths M.D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161–1180.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Current trends in mindfulness and mental health. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 113-115.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M.D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Does mindfulness work? Reasonably convincing evidence in depression and anxiety. British Medical Journal, 351, h6919 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h6919.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2016). Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction. New York: Springer.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for the self and psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, in press.

Van Gordon W., Shonin, E., Griffiths M.D. & Singh, N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Wenner, J. (2001). Lennon Remembers. Verso.

Wikipedia (2017). Arthur Janov. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Janov

Wikipedia (2017). Primal therapy. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy

“Turn and face the strange”: A personal goodbye to David Bowie

“There is a well known cliché that you should never meet your heroes but if David Bowie or Paul McCartney fancy coming round to my house for dinner I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be lost for words”.

This was the last sentence I wrote in my blog on the psychology of being starstruck less than a month ago. I, like millions of others, was deeply shocked to learn of Bowie’s death from liver cancer earlier this week (January 10) two days after his 69th birthday.

I first remember hearing David Bowie on a 1975 edition of Top of the Pop(when the re-release of ‘Space Oddity’ reached No.1 in the British singles chart). Although I heard the occasional Bowie song over the next few years (‘Golden Years’, ‘Sound and Vision’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ being some of the songs I taped off the radio during the weekly chart rundown) it wasn’t until ‘Ashes To Ashes’ reached the UK No. 1 spot in the week of my 14th birthday (late August 1980) that I became a Bowie convert.

I still vividly remember buying my first Bowie album – a vinyl copy of his first greatest hits LP (Changesonebowie) on the same day that I bought the third album by The Police (Zenyatta Mondatta) and the latest issue of Smash Hits (that had Gary Numan on the cover with a free yellow flexidisc of the track ‘My Face’ by John Foxx). It was Saturday October 4th, 1980. Ever since that day I’ve been collecting David Bowie music and now have every single song that he has ever commercially released along with hundreds of bootlegs of unreleased songs and live recordings.

My collection of Bowie books is ever growing and I have dozens of Bowie DVDs (both his music and films in which he has appeared). In short, I’m a hardcore fan – and always will be. Like many other fans, I’ve spent all this week listening to his final studio LP (Blackstar) and poring over the lyrics knowing that he wrote all these songs knowing that he had terminal cancer. The first line of ‘Lazarus’ appears particularly poignant in this regard (Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now/Look up here, man, I’m in danger/I’ve got nothing left to lose”).

Anyone who’s been a regular reader of my blog will know that when I get a chance to mention how important he has been in my life, I do so (and do so in writing). I mentioned him in my articles on the psychology of musical preferences, on the psychology of a record-collecting completist, on record collecting as an addiction, and on the psychology of pandrogyny. I’ve also mentioned him (somewhat predictably) in my articles on the psychology of Iggy Pop, and the psychology of Lou Reed (two more of my musical heroes).

I’ve also been sneaking the titles of his songs into the titles of my blog articles ever since I started my blog including ‘Space Oddity’ (in my article on exophilia), ‘Holy Holy’ (in my article on Jerusalem Syndrome), ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (in my article on ‘cremainlining‘), ‘Under Pressure’ (in my article on inflatable rubber suit fetishism), and ‘Changes’ (in my article on transformation fetishes).

When I started writing this article I did wonder whether to do ‘the psychology of David Bowie’ but there is so much that I could potentially write about that it would take more than a 1000-word blog to do any justice to one of the most psychologically fascinating personalities of the last 50 years (Strange Fascination by David Buckley being one of the many good biographies written about him).

Trying to get at the underlying psychology of someone that changed personas (‘the chameleon of pop’) so many times during his career is a thankless task. However, his desire for fame started early and he was determined to do it any way he could whether it was by being a musician, a singer, an actor, a mime artist, an artist, or an entrepreneur (arguably he has been them all at one time or another). Being behind a mask or creating a persona (or “alternative egos” as Bowie called them) was something that got Bowie to where he wanted to be and I’m sure that with each new character he became, the personality grew out of it.

As an academic that studies addiction for a living, Bowie would be a perfect case study. Arguably it could be argued that he went from one addiction to another throughout his life, and based on what I have read in biographies a case could be made for Bowie being addicted (at one time or another) from cocaine and nicotine through to sex, work, and the Internet.

Bowie also had a personal interest in mental health and various mental disorders ran through his family (most notably his half-brother Terry Burns who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and committed suicide in January 1985 by jumping in front of a moving train. A number of his aunts were also prone to clinical depression and schizophrenia). Bowie first tackled his “sad [mental] inheritance” in ‘All The Madmen’ (on his 1971 The Man Who Sold The World LP) and was arguably at his most candid on the 1993 hit single ‘Jump They Say’ that dealt with is brother’s mental illness and suicide.

Like John Lennon, I’ve always found Bowie’s views on almost anything of interest and he was clearly well read and articulate. He described himself as spiritual and recent stories over the last few days have claimed he almost became a Buddhist monk. Whether that’s true is debatable but he was certainly interested in Buddhism and its tenets. Now that I am carrying out research into mindfulness with two friends and colleagues who are also Buddhist monks (Edo Shonin and William Van Gordon), I have begun to read more on the topic. One of the things that Buddhism claims is that identity isn’t fixed and nowhere is that more true than in the case of David Bowie. Perhaps the chorus one of his greatest songs – ‘Changes’ from his 1971 Hunky Dory LP says it all:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange/Ch-ch-changes/Don’t want to be a richer man/Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/Turn and face the strange/Ch-ch-changes/Just gonna have to be a different man/Time may change me/But I can’t trace time”

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK 

Further reading

Buckley, D. (2005). Strange Fascination: David Bowie – The Definitive Story. London: Virgin Books.

Cann, K. (2010). Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974). Adelita.

Goddard, S. (2015). Ziggyology. London: Ebury Press.

Hewitt, P. (2013). David Bowie Album By Album. London: Carlton Books Ltd.

Leigh, W. (2014). Bowie: The Biography. London: Gallery.

Pegg, N. (2011). The Complete David Bowie. London: Titan Books.

Seabrook, T.J. (2008). Bowie In Berlin: A New Career In A New Town. London: Jawbone.

Spitz, M. (2009). Bowie: A Biography. Crown Archetype.

Trynka, P. (2011). Starman: David Bowie – The Definitive Biography. London: Little Brown & Company.

A world of disc-overy: Record collecting as an addiction

Regular readers of my blog will know that (a) some of my friends describe me as a music obsessive and (b) that I have written blogs on both compulsive hoarding and ‘collecting’ as an addiction‘ (including a separate blog on murderabilia). Today’s blog briefly looks at a really interesting 2008 paper I came across on ‘record collecting’ as an addiction written by Professor Kevin Moist in the journal Studies in Popular Culture. (Moist also has a new co-edited book – Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things – that has just been published by Scarecrow Press).

According to research papers and books by Dr. Russell Belk, around one in three people in the United States collects something – yet one of the observations that Moist makes is that collectors (in general and not just relating to record collectors) are often portrayed negatively as obsessive, socially maladjusted oddballs in thrall to acquisitive drives”. I have to admit that those closest to me certainly see my passionate interest in collecting music by certain recording artists as “obsessive” (although arguably not “socially maladjusted”). I’ve also been described as “no different to a trainspotter” (but said in such a way that it obviously relates to something negative).

Research by Dr. Susan Pearce (published in her 1998 book Contemporary Collecting in Britain) shows that collectors as a group are “quite average, socially speaking”. Additionally, Dr. Belk claims that the image of a ‘collector’ acts as “an unwitting metaphor for our own fears of unbridled materialism in the marketplace”. Belk then goes on to say that his research has led him to the conclusion that collectors cherish things about objects “that few others appreciate” and are not necessarily materialistic in their motivations for collecting. Belk also talks about collecting behaviour being on a continuum of the ‘heroic passionate’ collector at one end of the spectrum and the ‘obsessive-compulsive type’ at the other with most collectors falling somewhere between the two. I briefly dealt with the motivations to collect things in my previous blog but in her book Museums, Objects, and Collections, Dr. Pearce argues collecting falls into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) types. As Moist summarizes:

“One of these she calls ‘souvenirs’, items or objects that have significance primarily as reminders of an individual’s or group’s experiences. The second mode is what she calls ‘fetish objects’ (conflating the anthropological and psychological senses of the term), relating primarily to the personality of the collector; the collector’s own desires lead to the accumulation of objects that feed back into those desires, with the collection playing a central role in defining the personality of the collector, memorializing the development of a personal interest or passion. The third mode, ‘systematics’, has the broader goal of creating a set of objects that expresses some larger meaning. Systematic collecting involves a stronger element of consciously presenting an idea, seen from a particular point of view and expressed via the cultural world of objects”.

When it comes to record collecting, I appear to most fit the second (i.e., fetish) type. The artists that I collect are an extension of my own personality and say something about me. My tastes are diverse and eclectic (to say the least) and range from the obvious ‘classic’ artists (Beatles, David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed), the not so obvious (Adam Ant, The Smiths, Bauhaus, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Divine Comedy), the arguably obscure (Art of Noise, John Foxx, Propaganda, David Sylvian, Nico) and the downright extreme (Throbbing Gristle, Velvet Underground). Arguably, most people’s conceptions of record collecting (if they are not collectors themselves) are likely to be based on media and cultural representations of such individuals (such as John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity, or Steve Buscemi in Ghost World). I agree with Professor Moist who asserts:

“Most record collectors fit well within Belk’s definition, passionately acquiring sets of records both as objects and cultural experiences. As with most types of collecting, the ‘thrill of the chase’ is a major part of the experience…[However] today, with eBay and other online resources, the amount of time required for the hunt has been reduced, and collecting is also less of a face-to-face social activity since one can search in private rather than actually traveling to find records…Music writer Simon Reynolds notes that record collecting also ‘involves the accumulation of data as well as artifacts’, a factor that can be seen in magazines devoted to record collecting such as Goldmine and Record Collector, and that has only increased as collecting has gone online”.

The above paragraph could have been written about me. I am one of those record collectors that collect as much for the cultural experience as for the object itself. I have loads of mint condition singles and LPs that I haven’t even played (but listen to the music on my i-Pod). I have bought Record Collector magazine every month for over 30 years and have never missed an issue. Every month I buy a wide range of other music magazines including Mojo, Q, Uncut, Vive Le Rock, Classic Rock and Classic Pop (as well as the occasional issue of Rolling Stone, NME, The Wire, Future Music and Shindig). In short, almost a lot of my disposable income goes on buying music or reading music. My records, CDs and music magazines can be found in almost every room in my house. To me, my collection is priceless (and I mean that in an emotional sense rather than a financial one). I am an archivist of the artists I collect as much as a collector. Professor Moist comments that: “While such fanatical and obsessed collectors do exist…they are clearly outliers on the scale of collecting passion…For such people collecting is a real problem”. However, I am a true fanatic of music but don’t believe I am addicted (based on my own criteria). My love of music and collecting it adds to my life rather than takes away from it. As Moist also notes (and which I again wholeheartedly agree:

“Most record collectors collect as much for the content as for the object: one is far less likely to find a collector whose collecting criteria is ‘records with yellow labels’ than to find one whose focus is ‘west coast jazz’ or ‘pre-war blues’. Collectors might follow particular artists (Charlie Parker, the Sex Pistols), musical genres (reggae, soul, classical), records from certain cultural/geographic areas (New Orleans, South Africa), records from specific labels (Sun, Stax, Rough Trade), records for special types of use (sound effects, ‘library’ music), records from a historical era (the 1960s), records with covers by particular graphic artists, special editions of records (first/original pressings are again popular), particular types of records (45s, LPs), records that embody memory on a more personal scale (those played by a favorite local DJ, or listened to in one’s youth, etc.), and many more besides. For many collectors, records’ status as bearers of personal and/or collective meaning is most significant”.

Moist’s chapter also features a number of case studies of people that appear to be addicted to record collecting – an activity that completely takes over (and conflicts with) almost every area of their lives. Moist concludes:

“Is there something about recorded music that lends itself to this sort of collecting? It could be that records’ dual levels of significance – objects themselves, and materializations of sound – make such types of activity more likely, that the status and possibilities of the object itself provide for certain approaches to collecting it…more research is needed on other types of collecting before such conclusions can be reached, though certainly the era of mass production has seen popular collecting expand greatly, and the digital era should see even further changes”.

I (for one) would love to carry out research in the area of record collecting but I guess I would get little research funding to carry out such studies. To me, the psychology of record collecting is fascinating but I know only too well that most others I know simply cannot fathom what it is I love about music and collecting music.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Belk, R.W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W. (2001). Collecting in a Consumer Society. New York: Routledge.

Moist, K. (2008). “To renew the Old World”: Record collecting as cultural production. Studies in Popular Culture, 31(1), 99-122.

Pearce, S. (1993). Museums, Objects, and Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Pearce, S. (1998). Contemporary Collecting in Britain. London: Sage.

Reynolds, S. (2004). Lost in music: Obsessive music collecting. In E. Weisbard (Ed.), This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project (pp.289-307). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.