John Lennon Called Out a TV Star for Misinterpreting Beatles Songs

“With a Little Help from My Friends” is a jaunty, upbeat Beatles tune which might sound innocuous but once got called out on television by a popular singer. The often-outspoken John Lennon called out this singer for his interpretation of the song. Regardless, “With a Little Help from My Friends” has been interpreted in many ways by everyone from the National Coordinating Council on Drug Abuse Education to Vice President Spiro Agnew. 

John Lennon on ‘gobbledegook’ interpretations of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

John gave a wide-ranging interview to Rolling Stone’s Jann S. Wenner in 1971. In it, John discussed everything from Bob Dylan to Roman Catholicism to Frank Zappa. In addition, John discussed fans’ tendency to read a lot into the Beatles’ work.

“I was having a laugh because there’d been so much gobbledegook about [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band], play it backwards and you stand on your head and all that,” John replied. “Even now, I just saw Mel Torme on TV the other day saying that ‘Lucy [in the Sky with Diamonds]’ was written to promote drugs and so was ‘[With a] Little Help from My Friends’ and none of them were at all – ‘[With a] Little Help from My Friends’ only says get high in it, it’s really about a little help from my friends, it’s a sincere message.”

Torme may have misinterpreted a pair of classic Beatles tracks but he still recorded his own interpretations of the Beatles’ work. Specifically, Torme released covers of both “P.S. I Love You” and “She’s Leaving Home.” Interestingly, these songs clearly aren’t about drugs. 

How pop culture associated ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ with both an anti-drug campaign and drug use

Regardless of how John or Tome interpreted the song, there’s still a major association between the song and both anti-drug campaigns and drugs. For example, the book The Media and Drug Abuse Messages reports “With a Little Help From My Friends” was the theme song of the film It Takes a Lot of Help. It Takes a Lot of Help is an anti-drug film produced by the National Coordinating Council on Drug Abuse Education. It was designed to teach people about rehabilitation. 

On the other hand, culture has reinforced the association between “Friends” and drugs. For example, Vice President Spiro Agnew said the song was about drugs in a speech he gave in 1970. Agnew said the friends in the song were “Mary Jane,” “Speed,” and “Benny” — all slang terms for types of drugs. In a similar vein, “Friends” is used in a scene from the Beatles jukebox musical Across the Universe. That scene features several characters drinking alcohol and getting high together at a college fraternity. Regardless of what John thought of the song, the world interpreted it in different ways.

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