In 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.
Paul 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.
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.
Alluding 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.
Another 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.
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.
One 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.
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.
Top 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!
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.
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!