When was it recorded? Apr. 17 & 19, 1966
When was it first released, and on which album? Aug. 5, 1966 on “Revolver”
Who wrote it? Lennon
Have I heard this song before? Yes
What my research dug up:
Seguing from a song inspired by Disney’s “Snow White” to what my sources all hail as “the first amphetamine song in rock history” (About.com) may not be my brightest move, but by God am I going to attempt to do it.
John wrote “Doctor Robert,” which according to Wikipedia, “is notable for containing The Beatles’ first explicit references to drugs, although at the time of release they went largely unnoticed.” That’s no secret. The real point of contention – who was the titular Doctor Robert? (This could get long, so if you want to just skip down to the song I won’t judge you.)
To begin, here’s a list of possible suspects. Doctor Robert is…
- No one person in particular
- (Robert) Bob Dylan (an American musician and a friend of the Beatles who more or less introduced them to marijuana)
- Robert Fraser (a British art dealer/gallery owner “known as ‘Groovy Bob’ for his endless supply of mind-altering substances” [Wikipedia])
- John Riley (a dentist and acquaintance of the Beatles who “slipped their first hits of LSD in cups of coffee” [Wikipedia])
- Doctor Robert MacPhail (a fictional character from Aldous Huxley’s book Island, published in 1962)
- John Lennon
- Doctor Robert Freymann
I’m going to talk about the last two options.
In David Sheff’s “All We Are Saying,” John said “Doctor Robert” was autobiographical.
“Another of mine. Mainly about drugs and pills. It was about myself. I was the one that carried all the pills on tour. Well, in the early days. Later on the roadies did it. We just kept them in our pockets loose. In case of trouble.” — John Lennon (David Sheff, All We Are Saying)
I have to admit I find this angle intriguing. Something about John being Doctor Robert makes him singing the song that much discordant and trippier. That said, most scholars (and Paul) agree “Doctor Robert” was probably about Freymann.
Dr. Robert Freymann, AKA “Dr. Feelgood,” was a German-American physician (I guess) who ran a practice in New York City on East 78th Street in Manhattan. This, as Paul’s biographer Barry Miles wrote, “was conveniently located for… wealthy Upper East Siders from Fifth Avenue and Park to stroll over for their vitamin B-12 shots, which also happened to contain a massive dose of amphetamine. Dr. Robert’s reputation spread and it was not long before visiting Americans told John and Paul about him.” Unsurprisingly, Freymann lost his medical license in 1975 and died in 1987 (probably not related to drugs though). Paul noted that as far as he knew neither he or John ever actually met Freymann.
There’s some contestation over Freymann-as-Robert since the lyrics to “Doctor Robert” note the eponymous man “works for the National Health,” a service only provided in British countries. The lyrics are most likely only clever wordplay.
Allan Pollack gleefully noted, “The lyrics make constant wordplay with the title phrase; mostly as an interjection at the end of lines, but also, for the sake of avoiding foolish consistency, you find it surprisingly fitting in within the flow of the narrative just once in a while, and, best of all, you also find it popping up at the start of lines, where you’d least expect it.”
Quoth Wikipedia, “John’s lead is automatically double tracked with each of the two slightly-out-of-phase tracks split onto separate stereo channels; creating a surrealistic effect supporting the lyric about drug use.” Groovy. There was also reportedly 43 seconds of jam at the end that got clipped and faded out, which is less groovy.
(I feel kind of bad for having all that build up and then only one version of the song to listen to.)
I still really like this song, but knowing some of the background casts a creepier light on it. It’s a kind of creepy I can dig though – then again not much could stop me from rocking out to this number.