10 Songs About Drugs

Drugs are BadIn the spirit of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, here are 10 songs about drugs. Maybe I’ll do sex and rock n’ roll in another post. What did I just say?

Since time immemorial, people have used drugs, and for various reasons. From village shamans searching for god, to Romantic poets finding their muse, to leading scientists developing the tools of their trade, drugs have been there. From the earliest uses of natural substances like mushrooms and fermented fruit, to the more modern (and more harmful) chemicals put together in darkened laboratories, drugs – good or bad – have evolved along with civilization.

This being the case, it makes sense that the subject of drugs and drug use should be reflected in popular song. Drug songs are normally associated with the 60s, 70s and onward. But even the early blues and jazz performers had their own take on the evils/joys of dope. Reefer Man by Cab Calloway and Wacky Dust by Ella Fitzgerald are but two examples. Heck, even the traditional polka favourite ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ is all about getting wrecked.

So here they are; a selection of drug songs for your pleasure and edification. Some of them extol the demon drugs. Others condemn them. But each one puts the issue into perspective that if it makes sense to write about drugs, it makes even more sense to talk about them.

Got To Get You Into My Life – The Beatles

Paul McCartneyPaul McCartney was nervous about LSD, unlike his comrades in arms John Lennon and George Harrison, who’d tried it for the first time at a dinner party in 1966. They told him that once they’d tried it, everything changed about the way they viewed the world and even how they viewed themselves. Instead of inspiring him, it caused some doubts – once the pill is taken, there is no going back up the rabbit-hole.

Yet in line with the spirit of the time, McCartney was interested in change, in connecting with something that established society couldn’t offer – “another road that maybe I could see another kind of mind there”. This tune is a trace of this process, along with a great homage to soul music, closer to the genre than the group had ever gone before, thanks in part to the joyous horn section that makes this tune beam with (orange?) sunshine.

Ironically, the first Beatle to admit to taking acid was McCartney.

Mother’s Little Helper – The Rolling Stones

Maybe you knew that there would be at least one Stones tune on this list. But, maybe it was less expected that it would be an anti-drug song. This mid-60s tune condemned a real plague of the time – housewives using downers, the “little yellow pill” (probably valium) that mother needs to calm her down. And this by a quintet of speed users.

But, if there is hypocrisy to be read in there, then I think it’s overridden by the genuine tone of concern for the state of a woman trapped in a dreary life with nothing to look forward to. When the issue of misogyny it comes up in relation to the Stones, I always think of this song.

White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson AirplaneAlluding to Alice in Wonderland as a means of describing an acid trip is pretty commonplace in pop music. I think this is because it became a common assumption that author Lewis Carroll was a drug user. But, whether he was or not, this tune sure proved to be a compelling interpretation of his work, with the simplicity of swallowing pills to gain access to worlds where it wouldn’t otherwise have been possible being at its center.

The jump from this kind of imagery and metaphor to real life of course led to unpredictable conclusions in the counterculture. Yet, the song captured the zeitgeist of the late 60s, when drugs were not simply a means for recreation, so much as looked upon a means to gain a deeper meaning, a more complete picture of reality. It’s hard to fault the intention – a lot of people go to church for the same reason. Yet the idealism surrounding the use of psychedelics would be outdated by the 70s, when drugs became all about the party. And not everyone would make it out alive.

Superfly – Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield SuperflyAnother aspect of drugs in song is not only how they affect one person, but how drug use in general affects entire communities. There is an interesting interplay between the song ‘Superfly’ and the movie which carries some of its themes. Where the central character is a hero figure, he’s also engaged in activities which are causing harm to his community. Mayfield doesn’t let this pass.

In trying to escape a world of dope fiends and criminals, he must become a purveyor of that which creates that world. It is one of the many catch-22s of being poor in the city, and this is the sentiment that Mayfield uses to anchor the morality play which unfolds. This is the genius of it – it is hard-hitting because it doesn’t prettify drug culture; it just is what it is, with the consequences which follow as nothing less than expected. Plus, the song and the rest of the music on the soundtrack is funky as hell, with Mayfield acting like an angel on the shoulder of the titular Superfly, caught up as he is in a blizzard of blow and confused morality.

The Needle and the Damage Done – Neil Young

There is a misconception for many I think that all rock stars love the glamour of taking drugs. I think this is too simple to be true. In the case of Young’s ‘Needle and the Damage Done’ from 1972’s Harvest, the dual nature of drug use is made pretty clear – that there comes a certain point when the taking gets turned around on the taker.

Young’s song, it can be argued, is not really about drugs at all, but about loss. For him it meant the loss of friendship, loss of a collaborator for Young in Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten (about whom the song was written), and the loss of what the world might have gained if great artists hadn’t succumbed to their habits. Young would explore this theme on a larger scale with his albums Tonight’s The Night and On the Beach.

Heroin – The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground and NicoOne of the things about the Velvet Underground is that they didn’t shy away from talking about the seedier side of life. They were, in many ways, the anti-Beach Boys with an American landscape populated by junkies and drag queens, rather than surfers and school kids. They were certainly anti-hippy, with little talk about peace and love and universal connection. With songs like ‘Heroin’ serving as a flip side to the more idealistic strains of the Summer of Love, The Velvets talked about drugs as if they were a part of a physical world, not the key to a spiritual one. The irony of the lyrics like “I’m going to try for the kingdom if I can” is held against the image of heroin as “my wife, my life”, with the hint of the absurdities of the time embodied in the Vietnam conflict – with “dead bodies piled up in mounds” – serving to illustrate a nihilistic vision, rather than an idealistic one.

This approach of course carried over into respective solo careers, particularly for Lou Reed, who’s 1973 song ‘Perfect Day’ is purported to be a paean to smack. There are those who feel that if that song were about heroin, Lou wouldn’t have hidden it. Maybe the BBC thought so too, which is why they made it an all-star singalong single for the charity Children in Need in 1997.

Golden Brown – The Stranglers

It can be argued that drugs and British life, particularly its artistic life, has always been closely intertwined. British poet Samuel Coleridge‘s famous intake of drugs to fuel his creative fires is legendary, and possibly stands as a precursor to some of the rock greats and drug casualties of more recent times. Although not exactly writing about Kublai Khan, the Strangler’s song about heroin is cast as a romantic excursion to distant lands, “tied to the mast’ like the image in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

This is a drug song which puts an unsteady beat to a dreamlike lyric and melody, providing a sense of push and pull, yet with a disorienting pulse. And because of the Coleridge image, you get the impression that the voyage may not end well; that there is a price to be paid for such a voyage. But, the Stranglers leave it up to the listener to decide just where the ‘finer temptress’ is leading.

I Want A New Drug – Huey Lewis & The News

Huey Lewis & the NewsTop 40 radio in the 80s let a lot slip past the censors, but this one takes the cake for me. This song is about wanting to take drugs. Now, the drug is meant to be metaphor for the feelings of love and well-being that can be gained when in love. But, Huey sings that he wants a new drug, implying a huge stash of old drugs he’s already got going. Scandalous!

Underworld – Born Slippy

Much like the Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’, this song documents a time when drug taking was a part of a scene, when chemicals taken in pill form (or even in liquid grain form) went hand in hand with growing up. In short, this is a song about what it’s like to be a teenager, about the time in one’s life when one is confronted with rites of passage, with awkward feelings, strange feelings that you don’t know what to do with, and without the language to really express them. Is it about E, too? Maybe. But, it’s mostly a series of impressions that evoke the need to identify – a powerful drug indeed.

Because I Got High – Afroman

I remember when this one split the room with two polarized opinions; is this a pro-drug song, or anti-drug? The guys singing are clearly baked, or are meant to sound that way. They’re having fun. But, what are they singing about? Lost opportunities. By the end, they’re singing about the loss of everything, down to a single factor that grew into a single force to take everything away; that’s a pretty strong anti-drug sentiment.

Maybe overall, they’re saying that some people will make it in life, and some won’t when confronted with a world offering all kinds of temptations to distract us from what’s really important. Maybe they’re saying that anything you consistantly rely on to get you ‘high’ (whatever that might mean to you) is something which also has the potential to destroy you. I think this is, ironically, a sobering thought.

Or maybe they are baked. Pass the Cheetos, would’ja?

***

So, there you go – drugs. Love them or hate them, people are doing them, writing about them, singing about them, and talking about them. So, don’t let me Bogart this topic. Share your own favourite drug tunes and thoughts – comment away!

21 thoughts on “10 Songs About Drugs

  1. humanpunk January 13, 2008 / 11:15 am

    That’s a great selection Rob. Whatever anyone says, the best mix tapes could be made up of songs about drugs. In my opinion some of the best music has been written “under the influence”. If I had the time I’d make up a compilation of songs influenced by a particular chemical additive, you know CD1 “Cocaine”, CD2 “Heroin” etc, etc.

  2. Rob January 17, 2008 / 5:58 am

    Love is the drug I’d be thinking of. ;)

  3. NJ March 5, 2008 / 8:18 am

    One of my favs is Cocaine, which again is an anti drug song. Heard many more, but nothing particular springs to mind as of now.

  4. Rob March 5, 2008 / 2:30 pm

    Thanks for the comment! I like “Cocaine” too – a great J.J Cale number for Clapton – one of many by Cale that he would do.

    I remember hearing an interview with Stevie Nicks who talked about cocaine use in the mid-70s as being like having a beer. It wasn’t thought by many on the scene as something which would have so much impact on health. It’s incredible to me thinking about how perspectives can be so blurred when everyone around you is engaging in a habit. I suppose it would be very easy to get caught up in something like that.

  5. Steve Doyon May 8, 2008 / 5:28 pm

    Actually got to get you into my life is about pot.
    Paul mccartney said it so many times. Lennon THOUGHT it was about LSD but Paul corrected him.

  6. ninito08 November 15, 2008 / 8:41 am

    No one ever mentions “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds. It’s a song with an obvious double entendre. One can assume that it’s about being on an airplane or getting totaly hooped. My point is, that “Eight Miles High” was the first song about drug use that was actually played on mainstream radio. This song should be in your list or any list about songs that talk about drug usage.

  7. Rob November 15, 2008 / 9:38 pm

    Hi Ninito,

    The ‘Airplane kind of represented the West Coast Haight-Ashbury scene in this list. But yes – a great song about altered states of being is “Eight Miles High”, and a great 12-string Rickenbacker riff to boot. This is certainly my favourite song of theirs.

    I seem to recall that the Byrds denied that this song had anything to do with drugs, that it was more about the grind of touring. Yet, perhaps subconsciously, it was in there. Sometimes the intent of a songwriter is secondary to what is revealed in the song they’ve written.

    Cheers for comments!

    • seldom|seen May 2, 2009 / 3:21 am

      This conversation about drug influenced songs is all well and good, but let’s be honest here, what worthwhile album born in the transcendent age of music (read 65-73) wasn’t about drugs and wasn’t written with an intentional bias and nod to drug inuendo? Entire albums were crafted around the stuff and the Experience… aren’t you?. Take the Moody Blues, now ironically anti-drug, whose seminal “The Best Way To Travel” was all about the trip and the experience of reaching another plane. If you’ve never heard that track while being on “something” Jesus, man go grab yourself a hit quick and set your stereo to surround sound…

      It was never about the song titles by the way, but the content itself. Given time, I could come up with hundreds of songs that sound better (and intentionally made so) in four dimensions that they do in three, while the song titles give nothing away. Whole Zeppelin albums were meticulously crafted to that effect.

      Now where did I put my Floyd “Animals”, my Dogs are barking and they need some relief…

  8. Katie May 17, 2009 / 1:33 pm

    K’s choice – Not an addict
    Listen to that one, it’s one of the greatest songs about drugs and addiction.

  9. cjd June 1, 2010 / 8:01 am

    crystal blue persuasion by Tommy James and the Shondells
    ‘crystal meth’

    • Rob June 1, 2010 / 11:41 pm

      Hey cjd

      Interesting article from WIkipedia on that song here.

      Thanks for comments!

  10. TJ November 15, 2010 / 2:35 pm

    I’d include ‘One Toke Over the Line’ – Brewer & Shipley
    ‘I Got Stoned & I Missed It’ – either by Shel Silverstein or Dr. Hook
    ‘Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam’ – Steppenwolf
    ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 – Dylan
    & ‘Hot Knife Boogie’ by The Good Brothers (great party tune)

  11. smbunexpected April 29, 2011 / 6:11 pm

    NOFX “Drugs Are Good”

  12. AhmandahAnarchy November 19, 2011 / 8:07 am

    Jus wondering why “Blinded By the Light” isn’t on here.

  13. Daan March 14, 2012 / 9:41 pm

    Total eclipse by Bonnie tyler… So my song at this point in my life. Fell in love with a coke-head, and that hurts on every level….

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