I put a poll up on the Audiophiles UK. Hi-Fi and Music Facebook page the other day asking which cables members thought made most difference in a system and someone added options for magic mushrooms, certain green Dutch products and booze and so this naturally got me thinking about the connections between music and drugs and their origins. Note, I’m not suggesting anyone takes any drug that is not prescribed by a doctor in any way! Drugs are BAD, Ok kids?

Now I, like many I reckon, assumed that this whole debauched hedonism thing kicked off with the advent of rock ‘n roll some time around the late forties and into the fifties. It’s widely reported that Elvis used speed to cope with his early exhaustive touring schedule before he became a caricature of himself to the point of not being able to remember the words to songs, slurring his speech on stage and eventually dying in a morphine/codeine/Demerol/Valium supernova. Jerry Lee Lewis was a bit of a fan of Desbutal (a mix of methamphetamine and Nembutal), Placidyl (an insomnia drug) and black Beauties (amphetamine mix) all washed down with copious amounts of whisky… that was never going to end well! The music reflected this too!

But then I thought what about the likes of Charlie Parker and many other great jazz names that were ravaged with heroin and alcohol addiction way before rock ‘n roll burst onto the airwaves. Miles Davis is widely known as having being able to kick his heroin addiction only to substitute it with epic amounts of cocaine. Billie Holiday is another great name who succumbed to her addictions. Marijuana/cannabis is known to have been freely available on the jazz circuit as early as the 1920s and joints were often referred to as “Jazz Cigarettes”.

So, it all started in the 1920s and not later as I had assumed. But hey, what about the great classical composers, perhaps they liked a bit of cheeky once in a while, so I did a bit of research. Berlioz, who pegged it in 1869, and Chopin who ceased to be in 1849 were apparently both a bit partial to opium.  Martin Geck, professor of musicology at the Technical University of Dortmund, in Germany says that Robert Schumann was “…an addict of mind-altering drugs,” in his book ‘The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer’. So drugs and music go way back further than I initially assumed. Whodathunk?

This had me further scratching my head about the styles of music that certain drugs are associated with and this took me further back in time. Mexicans have been tripping out on mushrooms, Salvia divinorum and Peyote and Amazonian Indians have been downing hallucinogenic ayahuasca for donkeys’ years…many, many donkeys’ years. In Europe people have been altering their mental state with psilocybin (the active compound in magic mushrooms) for thousands of years too. Africans have used Ibogaine (another hallucinogen) for millennia. The music associated with the cultures mentioned above would have been ceremonial, tribal, drum and chant based – a hypnotic beat to help intensify and guide the user. Flash forward to the 1960’s hippy movement, and more recently rave culture and the associated use of psychedelics and again you find hypnotic and repetitive beats being used. Indeed, I’d go as far as to suggest from personal experiences that raves were/are little more than modern day psychedelic rituals…just with more modern and electronic repetitive beats and different drugs. In the hippy movement the drugs of choice were LSD and marijuana (I’m speaking broadly here as I’m well aware lots of other drugs were consumed with gusto), resulting in music being made that was often long, complicated and meandering – The Grateful Dead are especially known for their extended on-stage jams and Sergeant Pepper by the Beatles could only have been the product of several hundred mics of Augustus Owsley Stanley III’s finest output. One of the finest records of this period for me is Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow which includes the brilliant White Rabbit urging listeners to “feed your head” with psychedelic mushrooms. It is driving, relentless, building and hypnotic; no wonder Dr Gonzo requested the tune whilst I in a bit of a state in the bath in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. In a recent interview with Variety Grace Slick mentions the drugs, but it’s not the psychedelics that she claims to miss the most saying “If Quaaludes came out again, I’d buy a big dark amber glass bottle and keep it in the refrigerator.” Rave culture embraced MDMA, otherwise known as Ecstasy, that whilst being somewhat psychedelic also had a speed element…and hence the desire for faster beats… with a chill out room for the inevitable comedown.

Punk burst onto the scene in the seventies and was in some circles fuelled by the cheap high of sniffing glue. Indeed, there was a UK fanzine out in 1976 produced by Mark Perry (Danny Baker was also a writer) called “Sniffin’ Glue and Other Rock ‘N’ Roll Habits…” and the Ramones even had a tune called “Now I wanna Sniff Some Glue”. Speed (amphetamine) was also widely used in the punk scene – it was cheap and effective – and of course the ubiquitous drug alcohol was never far away (There’s a well known photograph of Sid and Nancy circa 1977 where Mr Vicious is clasping a tin of Carlsberg Special Brew and holding a knife to Ms Spungen’s throat). Needless to say the drugs reflected the music, or perhaps it was the other way round, resulting in a fast and furious riot of sound delivered in short bursts to a very enthusiastic audience. British punks also embraced the burgeoning reggae scene in the late seventies which is understandable. On the one hand you’ve got the explosive sound of punk, whilst on the other you’ve got the ganja soaked, heavy bass line and laid back beats of reggae which, if you think about it, actually compliment each other very nicely; get of your nut on speed and pogo around then bring yourself slowly down with weed. There are a lot more complex reasons as to why punk and reggae came together (they were both rejected from venues) but it was inevitable punks would take up pot with some enthusiasm.

Whether drug use is an aid to the creative process is obviously up for debate and the world of music has seen more than its fair share of casualties, with Heroin being perhaps the most insidious of all the drugs. It may be that in some cases heroin has been used initially to “get the creative juices flowing” with Brit Popster Damon Albarn being reported in 2014 as saying that heroin helped his creativity and was “Very agreeable” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” (oddly chosen by the BBC as their 1997 Children In Need money raiser) being largely accepted as an ode to his addiction to heroin…there are lots of Velvet Underground tunes that are specifically related to heroin use including “Waiting For My Man” and of course “Heroin”. Whatever good artistic intentions Mr Albarn and others may have started out with in their use of smack, there is no denying that heroin has resulted in countless deaths in the music world: Janis Joplin, Zeke Zettner (The Stooges), Tim Buckley, Gary Thain (Uriah Heep), Gregory Herbert (Blood Sweat and Tears), Sid Vicious, Tommy Bolin (Deep Purple), Lowell George (Little Feet), Pete Farndon (The Pretenders), Phil Lynott, Paul Butterfield, Rob Jones (The Wonder Stuff), Kurt Cobain…the list goes on. Without doubt, not all these musicians will have started out taking heroin for its alleged enhancement of creativity, most will have taken heroin for the first time simply to get out of it and experience a different high, but with heroin it never seems to end particularly well for those involved. Heroin Music, to my mind, is epitomised in the tunes of Spaceman 3 and the Shoegaze phenomenon; droning, sparse and monotonous, not unlike the aforementioned Velvet Underground track. As well as those musicians, to some extent, celebrating the effects of heroin there are many that denounce it to a greater or lesser extent. The first tune that’s springs to mind with regards the latter is Neil Young’s “The Needle And The Damage Done” and the specific line “But every junky’s like a setting son”. That line to me can be read a couple of ways; either every junky is on an inevitable and unstoppable fade into darkness and death, or that they’ll be round again tomorrow as sure as the sun will rise for their next fix. Perhaps the greatest anti heroin tune of all for me is, somewhat surprisingly to many I’m sure, Motorhead’s “Dead Men Tell No Tales” written by that greatly missed pillar of the community, Lemmy. Now Lemmy was no angel when it came to his ingestion of drugs with booze and speed being his poisons of choice (Motorhead is slang for a speed freak, referring to their non stop jibber jabber), but Dead Men gets to the heart of the matter with Lemmy’s typically no-nonsense style. “Shooting up away and back, A bit of guts is all that you lack, Far behind the stable door, I know you’ve met that horse before” and “Cause if you’re doing smack, You won’t be coming back, I ain’t the one to make you bail, Dead men tell no tales”.

Gil Scott-Heron, himself no stranger to the use of white powders (take a listen to Home Is Where the Hatred Is), has a tune called Angel Dust (PCP – a powerful dissociative psychedelic) that urges young people to steer away from a drug that by 1978 was called by People magazine “the number one drug problem in America”, and apparently it’s making a bit of a comeback too. The chorus goes “Angel Dust, Please children would you listen, Angel Dust Just ain’t where it’s at, Angel DustYou won’t remember what you’re missin’, but down some dead end streets, There ain’t no turnin’ back”. More recently in 2017, rap star NAS denounces angel dust when he sings “Angels with broken wings / The devil’s dust, PCP, invaded bloodstreams.” on his single Angel Dust.

Cocaine to me is synonymous with over self confident professional types talking utter bollocks in swanky bars that serve over priced beers and rare and exotic spirits, but in fact it has been used by indigenous South American Indians for ages. For me cocaine spelled the end of the club/rave scene: Cocaine flooded in at a very specific time in the nineties, MDMA took a backseat and the club vibe changed from a friendly and inclusive feel to an edgy (not in a good way) and aggressive tone. There are loads of tunes dedicated to Cocaine: Bob Dylan’s “Cocaine Blues”, Dillinger “Cocaine” and JJ Cale’s “Cocaine”…there are a lot more including Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” from Melle Mel (credited to Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, though Flash had left Sugar Hill Records a year before the ‘83 release date). White Lines talks of the dangers of cocaine with lyrics like “Ticket to ride, white line highway, Tell all your friends, they can go my way, Pay your toll, sell your soul, Pound for pound costs more than gold, The longer you stay, the more you pay, My white lines go a long way, Either up your nose or through your vein, With nothin’ to gain except killin’ your brain”, but the tune also led to the demise of Sugar Hill Records due to lawsuits brought by the band Liquid Liquid as much of the tune, including the bass-line is lifted directly from their tune Cavern.

The image that surrounds coke is one of glamour and sophistication…showbiz sherbert…but what goes up must always come down. Whilst speed, acid and ecstasy spawned, to a greater or lesser extent, youth movements, Bolivian/Columbian Marching Powder isn’t really associated with a particular musical scene from the listeners perspective. From the music creation perspective I’m pretty sure cocaine has been at the forefront of many, many records. The folklore that surrounds Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” is legendary and the whole West Coast scene has more than a sniff of coke about it…The Eagle’s “Life In The Fast Lane” is a case in point. The aforementioned Neil Young had to have footage of his performance of “Helpless” at The Band’s 1976 “Last Waltz” show ‘edited’ because he had a sizeable bump of coke hanging from one nostril. Eric Clapton was fan and covered JJ Cale’s tune (more cynical folk may say much of Clapton’s output was a JJ Cale cover) but, by his own account, this led to his addiction to heroin…he had to buy heroin from his dealer to be able to buy cocaine…that was never going to end for the better!

In the mid-eighties crack burst into the poorer areas of US cities and the ‘epidemic’ that ensued was widely reported just about everywhere at the time. Think crack and, from a music perspective, you think rap but the most poignant song about crack cocaine addiction comes from none other than Ed Sheran and his tune “A Team”: “And she don’t want to go outside tonight, And in a pipe she flies to the Motherland, And sells love to another man…”

As mentioned previously, drugs have been intrinsically involved in the growth of many sub-genres in music:
Stoner Rock is described by Wikipedia as being “typically slow-to-mid tempo and features a heavily distorted, groove laden bass-heavy sound, melodic vocals, and “retro” production” and is obviously referencing the use of cannabis. Space Rock (I’d feel bad if I didn’t reference the mighty Hawkwind here), Psychedelic Rock, Psychedelic Soul, Psy Trance, Acid Rock, Psych Pop are all influenced by, needless to say, the psychedelic drugs LSD, mushrooms etc. And whilst you may think that the genre of music that references drug use most often would possibly be rap music, a recent study carried out by Addictions.com found that country, yes you’re not tripping and yes you read that right, has the highest number of references to recreational drug use, though I’m sure they must have made some kind of mistake and not included the tunes of Snoop Dogg in their research!

So there you have it. Drugs will always be used to a greater or lesser extent by the community as a whole and it seems from a casual, anecdotal standpoint that the music scene has a greater proportion of folk who dabble in one form or another. Drugs have spawned whole movements through their use and associated music, but they have also led to the deaths of many great musicians.

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