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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

Primal suspects: The psychology of Tears for Fears

Because I am both a psychologist and self-confessed music obsessive, one of the questions I am often asked by my friends is ‘Who is the most psychologically influenced band?’ Based on my own musical tastes, I would have to say Tears for Fears (one of many bands named after something psychological – other contenders based on name alone include Pavlov’s Dog, Therapy?, Primal Scream, Madness, and The Mindbenders, to name a few).

Tears For Fears (TFF) were one of my favourite bands as a teenager and (if my memory serves me) I saw them support The Thompson Twins just as their third single (‘Mad World’) became their first British hit single. TFF were formed in 1981 by Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith after they left the Bath-based band Graduate (mostly remembered for their single ‘Elvis Should Play Ska’ from their debut – and only – LP Acting My Age). They briefly called the band ‘History of Headaches’ but eventually settled on TFF.

TFF’s name was inspired by primal therapy (as was the band Primal Scream). Even from a young age I was well aware of primal therapy as I was – and still am – a massive fan of The Beatles and John Lennon. Lennon underwent primal therapy in 1970 with its’ developer (US psychotherapist Dr. Arthur Janov). In fact, one of the reasons I chose to study psychology at university was because I had read Janov’s first book (The Primal Scream) just because of my love of Lennon’s work. As the Wikipedia entry on primal therapy notes:

“Primal therapy is a trauma-based psychotherapy trauma-based created by Arthur Janov, who argues that neurosis is caused by the repressed pain of childhood trauma. Janov argues that repressed pain can be sequentially brought to conscious awareness and resolved through re-experiencing the incident and fully expressing the resulting pain during therapy. Primal therapy was developed as a means of eliciting the repressed pain; the term Pain is capitalized in discussions of primal therapy when referring to any repressed emotional distress and its purported long-lasting psychological effects. Janov criticizes the talking therapies as they deal primarily with the cerebral cortex and higher-reasoning areas and do not access the source of Pain within the more basic parts of the central nervous system. Primal therapy is used to re-experience childhood pain – i.e., felt rather than conceptual memories – in an attempt to resolve the pain through complete processing and integration, becoming ‘real’. An intended objective of the therapy is to lessen or eliminate the hold early trauma exerts on adult life”.

The Primal Scream book recounts the primal therapy experiences that Janov had with 63 clients during a year-and-a-half period in the late 1960s (and who he claimed were all successfully ‘cured’ using his newly developed therapy). Unlike John Lennon, TFF never underwent primal therapy themselves (but read Janov’s work). It was actually Dr. Janov’s 1980 book Prisoners of Pain (Unlocking The Power Of The Mind To End Suffering) where he claimed “tears as a replacement for fears” (and hence the band’s chosen name). In a 2004 television interview, both Smith and Orzabal said they were disillusioned when they met Janov in the mid-1980s (claiming Janov had become quite “Hollywood” and asking TFF to write a musical based on his work).

Both Smith and Orzabal claimed to have had unhappy childhoods that led them to the work of Dr. Janov (they were too poor – unlike Lennon – to actually have primal therapy and described having such therapy as “an aspiration”). Most of their songs directly or indirectly referenced primal therapy. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the whole of their first album The Hurting was a concept LP. Orzabal claimed that “writing the title track was a strange piece of psychic osmosis…I had an acoustic guitar in my hand at the time and played [Curt] what he was describing: that’s how ‘The Hurting’ was written, and we knew for a long time it was the right name for our first album”.

A quick look at the album’s song titles shows how influenced they had been by primal therapy (such as the title track, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Mad World’, Ideas As Opiates’, ‘Watch Me Bleed’, ‘Memories Fade’, ‘Start Of The Breakdown’, ‘Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love’, and ‘Change’). As Paul Sinclair notes in his sleeve notes for the latest box-set reissue:

“Like all great art, ‘The Hurting’ connects. The emotion grabs hold of your heart and gives it a squeeze. The Primal Therapy and Janov influence provide a satisfying consistency, and the band are comfortable in using the ‘C’ word [concept] in reference to ‘The Hurting’…[Orzabal adds] It’s a very consistent album with its own personality. There’s a strong message running through it and some of the song titles were taken from Janov’s writing”.

A number of commentators (including Sinclair) have made the observation that the whole album is about the transition between childhood and adulthood. Maybe that’s why I bought it as a teenager. In contrast to lyrics in The Smiths’ ‘Panic’ (“It says nothing to me about my life”), The Hurting “said something to me about my life”. Sinclair also notes:

“Deep analysis of the songs and navel gazing is not a condition of entry. The genius of ‘The Hurting’ is that on one level, it is just an album of great, melodic, hook-filled pop songs…In the end. ‘The Hurting’ was the album that the band needed to make. There was never going to be an alternative debut. The basic idea behind Janov’s Primal Therapy – the impact that the trauma of childhood had on your character as an adult – was the blood running through the veins of the record”.

Of course, TFF haven’t been the only band to have songs and/or an album influenced by psychologists and/or psychological theory (and of course Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud were both on the cover of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). Arguably the most well known LP inspired by Dr. Janov’s therapy was John Lennon’s first ‘proper’ 1970 solo LP (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band). Other artists have had direct inspiration from Freud (Freudiana by the Alan Parsons Project, the song ‘Psychotherapy’ by Melanie), Jung (Synchronicity by The Police) and Wilhelm Reich (Kate Bush’s single ‘Cloudbusting’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Birdland’). However, I would still contend that TFF were more psychologically influenced as primal therapy was their life philosophy (at least for a number of years).

Most people would probably argue that it was only The Hurting LP that was influenced by Dr. Janov but their later singles off their second LP Songs From The Big Chair are arguably primal therapy-related including ‘Mother’s Talk’ and ‘Shout’ (“Shout, shout, let it all out” could be the mission statement of primal therapy). However, Roland Orzabal claimed that neither were rooted in primal therapy:

“A lot of people think that ‘Shout’ is just another song about primal scream theory continuing the themes of the first album. It is actually more concerned with political protest. It came out in 1984 when a lot of people were still worried about the aftermath of The Cold War and it was basically an encouragement to protest…The song [Mothers Talk] stems from two ideas. One is something that mothers say to their children about pulling faces. They say the child will stay like that when the wind changes. The other idea is inspired by the anti-nuclear cartoon book ‘When The Wind Blows‘ by Raymond Briggs”.

However, ‘The Big Chair’ (B-side to ‘Shout’ and the inspiration for the title of the band’s second LP Songs From The Big Chair) has undeniable psychological roots. The song was inspired by the 1976 film Sybil (based on the 1973 non-fiction book by of the same name by Flora Rheta Schreiber). Sybil is about US psychiatric patient Sybil Dorsett (actually a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason) who was treated for multiple personality disorder (now known as dissociative identity disorder) by her psychoanalyst (Dr. Cornelia Wilbur). ‘The Big Chair’ was in the therapist’s office where Sybil was treated and where she felt safest when talking about her traumatic childhood. Other songs hidden away on TFF B-sides cover aspects of traumatic psychology (‘My Life In The Suicide Ranks’) as well as ‘anti-science’ songs (‘Schrodinger’s Cat’ and ‘Déjà Vu & The Sins of Science’). However, like Christian historian Nathan Albright, I too believe the second LP and later 1986 single ‘Laid So Low’ are psychologically-based:

“Nor did the interest in psychology stop [with ‘The Hurting’]. Tears For Fears’ second album, “Songs From The Big Chair,” are a self-aware “multiple personality” exploration, a conceptual connection that is often forgotten because the hit singles from the album were so successful…Clearly, the musings about power and anger and memory that inform the work of Tears For Fears, the melancholy underpinnings of songs like ‘Watch Me Bleed’ and ‘Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)’ are fairly easy to recognize, and draw greater meaning the more one knows about the band and its personal histories”.

As the years have passed, TFF’s songs have been less psychological but we are a product of our pasts and I would argue that the band’s output is still likely to be shaped by both their conscious and unconscious ideology. Smith was recently interviewed and he admitted that he still had an interest in various psychologies but that he no longer believed in primal therapy:

“Primal theory blames everything on your parents. So that teenage angst we were going through at the time. Since then, I think I’ve moved on to various different psychologies, but it’s something we’re both interested in. Since then, certainly, I’m not a huge believer in primal theory anymore, but I think that comes from having children”.

Maybe their most recent album (Everybody Loves A Happy Ending) has at last brought the band’s traumatic past to rest. Maybe the music itself became a kind of psychological therapy. As Nathan Albright concluded:

“The fact that [Tears For Fears] have a popular and critically acclaimed body of musical work is itself remarkable, but the fact that their work is heavily influenced by psychology, serving as therapy, serves as an inspiration. Rather than self-medication through drugs or alcohol, the two chose music as therapy, turning their lives into the inspiration for hauntingly beautiful songs in their debut concept album, ‘The Hurting’…And that is the most powerful legacy of Tears For Fears, in providing a way for both commercial viability as well as personal therapy. Many creative people [use] creativity as a way to wrestle with our own demons, and the fact that Tears For Fears were able to do it openly and honestly and sincerely, and successfully gives hope to the rest of us who have chosen to deal with our issues in the light, rather than engaging in false pretense”.

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

Further reading

Albright, N. (2012). Suffer the children: Tears For Fears and musical therapy. Edge Induced Cohesion, May 2. Located at: https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/suffer-the-children-tears-for-fears-and-musical-therapy/

Comaretta, L. (2014). Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith: Back in The Big Chair. Consequence of Sound, November 6. Located at: http://consequenceofsound.net/2014/11/tears-for-fears-curt-smith-back-in-the-big-chair/

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.

Sinclair, P. (2013). Tears For Fears: The Hurting. (Booklet in the Deluxe Reissue of ‘The Hurting’).

Wikipedia (2015). Arthur Janov. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Janov

Wikipedia (2015). Primal therapy. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primal_therapy

Wikipedia (2015). Tears For Fears. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tears_for_Fears