In 1966, American psychologist, author and neuronaut Timothy Leary addressed a crowd of 30,000 hippies in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. His speech, received by the attendants of the Human Be-In, included the famous phrase: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” In his book Flashbacks, Leary, a strong advocate of the use of psychedelic drugs, explained that ‘Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end.” The Beatles also helped to popularise the phrase.
After being introduced to the sultry world of marijuana by a wiry folk singer called Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr became fascinated with the world of psychedelics, adopting the burgeoning belief that hallucinogens could be used to revitalise one’s inner world and, by extension, transform the outer world, to heart. While some misinterpreted this as an excuse to get high and give up on all constructive activity, The Beatles remained as creative as ever, producing tracks like ‘She’s A Woman’, which is generally believed to feature The Beatles’ first drug reference.
The bulk of the 1964 track was written by Paul McCartney. Recalling the origins of the bluesy number, he said: “I have a recollection of walking round St John’s Wood with that in my mind, so I might have written it at home and finished it up on the way to the studio, finally polished it in the studio, maybe just taken John aside for a second and checked with him, ‘What d’you think?’ ‘Like it.’ ‘Good. Let’s do it!’”
As usual, Lennon felt his contribution to be more substantial than Paul had made out. Of ‘She’s A Woman’, John said: “That’s Paul with some contribution from me on lines, probably. We put in the words ‘turns me on’. We were so excited to say ‘turn me on’ – you know, about marijuana and all that, using it as an expression,” he said in All We Are Saying.
The Beatles may have been introduced to the phrase – included in the line “Turn me on when I get lonely” – by Dylan, with whom they’d got preposterously high in a room of the Delmonico Hotel. It had been floating around for some time, with Leary being introduced to it during a lunch with philosopher and academic Marshall McLuhan.
However, for now, we’re looking back at the song which saw The Beatles first use the phrase.