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The Conflation of Music and Drugs

Written by Johnny Proctor
Music & narcotics have went hand in hand since the days of blues singers such as Harlem Hamfats with their partiality towards the occasional jazz cigarette.
The combination of mind altering & creative drugs & musicians has been a marriage that has gifted the world too many timeless classics of songs to even begin to mention. To echo what the legendary comedian Bill Hicks that formed part of his infamous “Relentless” stand up routine "You see, I think drugs have done some good things for us. I really do. And if you don't believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor. Go home tonight. Take all your albums, all your tapes and all your CDs and burn them. 'Cause you know what, the musicians that made all that great music that's enhanced your lives throughout the years were rrreal fucking high on drugs. The Beatles were so fucking high they even let Ringo sing a few tunes." Fair point, he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles according to John Lennon so why hand him the microphone? Drugs, obviously drugs!

Musicians across all genres and of talent have continually drawn inspiration from intoxicants though from The Rolling Stones and their fascination with heroin. to Sting with his life changing trip to the Amazonian jungle finding himself off his tits with the local tribesmen while sampling the ominously titled “Dead Mans Root.” Like Bobby Gillespie, another singer who isn’t a stranger to dabbling, sang, ‘Aint no use complainin that’s the way it’s staying, baby.’ It’s cool Boaby, no one was, is or ever shall be. We love our musicians higher than the International Space Station and it’s terrifying to think just how bland our spotify playlists would be today had they not smoked, sniffed or injected along the way.

Drugs and music had been flirting with each other since the turn of the 1900’s but it was only in the 60’s that they officially tied the knot. Things turning covert to overt faster than Timothy Leary could say “Turn in tune in drop out.” For some, actually a lot of the 60’s bands. Mind expansion was the mood at the time and that was generally found by your Jimi Hendrix’ and Jerry Garcia’s of that era in the form of Lysergic Acid Diethyamide. The powerful hallucinogenic drug. They were in good company. While Jimi was being ever so polite and asking permission to go kiss the sky The Beatles were experimenting with the mind altering drug and giving the world, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Coming, of course from Sgt Peppers. The defining moment, for the band, and the game changer of an album for music in general. For John Lennon to say with a straight face to the world that the song wasn’t anything to do with acid and that it was based on a picture his son Julian had drawn at school was either the biggest miscalculation of the public’s intelligence or was simply a case of Lennon on a day when his trolling game was way strong. To say that the song wasn’t about LSD? Fair enough, to then go and come out with lyrics such as “Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain. Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies. Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers. That grow so incredibly high”? That’s when his argument starts to become as wafer thin as a Rizla.

Since The Days of Blues Singers Such as Harlem Hamfats

For the very fact that LSD was responsible for the change in The Beatles musical direction. It, on principle, should’ve been enough for the drug to be considered as something worthy of going into a time capsule. Sealed and ready for a whole future generation of people to sample, experience and enjoy. Stand out tracks from the decade in a sense that could be linked to LSD were the afore mentioned Jimi Hendrix track “Purple Haze” - one of THE iconic tripping songs from the era of free love and mind expanding drugs. White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. While Hendrix “pulled a Lennon” and tried to claim that his song was nothing to do with drugs and was in fact something that had came to him in a dream. Jefferson Airplane might as well have not even bothered protesting to anyone with lyrics that included. “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you. Don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she’s 10 feet tall.” Of course though, I’m sure that these lyrics (like all the other songs from this time) were simply one big coincidence and that Jefferson Airplane would lay the blame at the door of a top heavy with cheese portion of Welsh Rarebit before bed time. During this time it would be easy to associate the drug purely with the kind of bands such as your Beatles and Grateful Dead’s of that moment but to offer an example of how widespread acid was. One of the biggest advocates of opening the doors of perception was Ray Charles. Someone from a genre of music that would be deemed the polar opposite of any of these bands. Charles admitting in an interview that “LSD made the blind man see.” It was unique and a rarity to find a musician being so open about their LSD use as in these days it was deemed career suicide to admit to being a drug abuser.

Fast forward to the late eighties and early nineties and the goalposts had moved significantly. Instead of musicians scared to admit that their songs were influenced and written through and under the spell of LSD we had Manchester band "Northside" penning a tune for the summer of love acid generation with "Shall We Take A Trip." A song that wasn't afraid to nail it's colours to the mast of the good ship LSD!

While the ghost of Hendrix would've likely warned them of the pitfalls of drug references contained inside songs, the lads from Blackley and Moston turned out to play an absolute blinder. Backing up the professional career suicide that the acts from the 60's had feared and shied away from. Shall We Take A Trip was banned by the BBC, denying the song any airplay. With there being no such thing as bad publicity however, the song was to gatecrash the charts in spite of the barriers put up by the corporation. Handing the Mancunians their biggest hit. A song that would prove to be something that would capture the mood of a whole sub culture across the United Kingdom at the time. A composition that when all is said and done is something that will be forever looked back upon as a crucial time piece from the "Madchester" music scene and instantly memorable & recognisable as a Fools Gold by The Stone Roses or Wrote For Luck by The Happy Monday's. With attitudes to drugs changing by the 90's this wasn't by any stretch the last "drug song" ever written but with prices of ecstasy falling to the point that it was becoming more and more affordable to the British working class youth and by default consigning acid to the position of an afterthought when it came to choice of recreational drugs. As a result of this. Northside's pro drug message is still looked back on as the last great song for the acid generation.

To offer an analogy. If comparing drugs to football teams and the stature that they hold in European football today. Acid could be viewed as something in the ballpark of an Aston Vila or a Nottingham Forest. Yes, previous European Cup winners but as time has went on not really teams on the radar of anyone anymore. For drugs such as cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy however, these resemble your Real Madrid’s and Bayern Munich’s. Ever presents no matter which decade you find yourself in. Always relevant, always will be. While acid was a drug that came to prominence during the 60's and was evident through the very fabric of some of that decades music. It is not a drug that has lasted the distance in both recreational and musical senses. When it comes to marijuana it couldn’t be more the polar opposite and if anything despite it’s popularity back in the days of free love and more hair than a day of Hair Bear Bunch re runs on TV it, if anything. Is even more popular today in 2015.
The Hair Bear Bunch

It would really take someone who’s just returned from Mars to not be aware of how much influence weed has had on music throughout the years. Without any hint of hyperbole it’s an undeniable fact that there is not one musical genre that has not been touched by the 4/20 lifestyle in some way or other. Effortlessly bridging the gap between the varied cultures, traditions and beliefs strewn across music. From Folk to Hip Hop. Jazz to Punk and all the way through Reggae (obvious, I know) to Opera (less obvious.) the one constant that has always been there is Cannabis. With more referenced lyrics across genres than you can blow your bong smoke out at. It’s widely accepted that it has been the one drug prevalent in music more than any other. You’ll find it in the most unlikely of areas like Country Music. Willie Nelson, one of Planet Earth’s biggest tokers, can take the most credit for this. A man who never held back when it came to making the world aware of his passion for the herb. Telling Country Music Television’s “Inside Fame” show. “I used to smoke three, four packs of cigarettes a day. I used to drink as much whiskey and beer as anyone in the world. I would have been dead if it hadn’t been for pot, because when I started smoking pot I quit smoking cigarettes and drinking.” With his tokers anthem “Roll me up and smoke me when I die” as well as providing the inspiration for the Toby Keith ode to Nelson himself “I’ll never smoke weed with Willie again” in addition to his duets with hardened smokers from the world of Hip Hop like Snoop Dogg. Shotgun Willie has done more to bring awareness to weed in Country music than anyone else.

“I’ll never smoke weed with Willie again. My party’s all over before it begins. You can pour me some Old Whiskey River my friend. But I’ll never smoke weed with Willie again”

If Country Music is looked on as an unlikely musical source to find weed influenced material. Then so could Pop. Then again, once more. The Beatles set the tone for this back in the day. And I know it looks like more Beatles bashing from me but it really isn’t my fault that for an extended period of time The Beatles were taking shitloads of drugs. For a time Paul McCartney could hardly go two minutes without getting busted with a bit of smoke on him. “A bit of smoke,” a term to be used loosely when you think of him being pinched by the authorities when trying to bring half a pound of the stuff into Japan in 1980! Some of The Fab Four’s most famous songs were influenced by cannabis. Disagree? Well go listen to songs like “Got to get you into my life” or “ With a little help from my friends and then put that in your bong and smoke it! Their main competitors to the throne of top British boy band at the time, The Rolling Stones matched them every step of the way in the musical and in the taking copious amounts of drug stakes. Keith Richards personally is widely accepted to have taken approximately a 1/4 of all drugs ever manufactured in the world between the 60’s and present day. Richards, years ago telling the world that he thought kids shouldn’t do drugs in what was the biggest show of someone keeping a straight face whilst taking the piss since John Lennon tried to “explain” Lucy in the sky with diamonds.

By comparison in 2015 we can almost weep for the pot smoking "potstars" in pop music of yesteryear. Instead we're left with such "illuminares" like Timberlake, Bieber, One Direction & Miley Cyrus. If anything, an example that Bill Hick's pro drugs music statement is something that could be a topic left slightly open to debate. At the very least that an argument could be raised for to bring dope testing into music in the same way that it is required in sports.

If the apparent squeaky clean world of pop engineered by the Simon Cowell’s of the music industry then the world of Reggae and Jazz would be considered the antithesis. Reggae being a byword for marijuana consumption whilst the Jazz musicians of the early 19th century were unjustly demonized by the American authorities who based their anti drug propaganda campaign on the lifestyles of the artists within the Jazz community. Since the 60’s. Reggae’s Rastafarian artists have endlessly promoted the healing properties of Mary Jane in their lyrics. Decades ago this resulted in an organic campaign to decriminalise weed in their homeland of Jamaica. Epitomised by the track “Legalize It” from the legendary Peter Tosh taken from his 1976 debut album of the same name. It was instantly banned on the Island but years later is looked at as THE tokers anthem. Tosh, one of the founding members of The Wailers along with a certain Robert Nesta Marley carried on the fight to “legalise it” right up to his death in 1987.

On the Bob Marley “One Love Peace” concert in 1978. Tosh lit a joint on stage and entered into a lecture on legalising cannabis. Laying into attending politicians from the government, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga for their failing in this area. Months later when leaving a Kingston dancehall he was grabbed by a number of police officers and suffering from an “he slipped down the stairs” style police beating while in custody. Given the fact that Tosh, for many years, worked with Bob Marley. It’s a frightening thought as to how much ganja the two of them must have went through when writing and performing. Marley himself being the biggest name that Reggae has ever produced. And also the most famous toker the world has ever seen. Decades after his death the iconic images of him puffing on the scariest looking reefer you’ve ever seen is still found on bedroom walls and on t shirts across the world. One of the cast iron rules to smoking marijuana is that you will listen to Bob Marley at some point in your life when you’re stoned. It is unavoidable. Such is the strong link between artist and narcotic. His most famous weed tune “Kaya” written in the 60’s along with Lee Scratch Perry is an ode to the herb from start to finish. Although, that is far from his only tune that has heavy overtones of marijuana advocation.

So widespread the use of the drug was inside Reggae. The English artists have never slipped when it has come to promoting their lifestyle choice either. Most famously, Musical Youth, who gatecrashed the UK singles charts in 1982 and reaching number one with their debut track “Pass The Dutchie.” The song itself, a cover version of two separate songs. “Gimme The Music” by U Brown and “Pass The Kouchie” by Mighty Diamonds. For the cover version, in an attempt to render the track more commercially viable. The song title was amended to “Pass The Dutchie” ( Kouchie being a slang term for hash pipe) and all drug references changed. Musical Youth sang “How does it feel when you got no food” where as the original asked “How does it feel when you got no herb.” It was a beautiful thing to witness a Reggae band almost speaking in code to avoid being banned from the radio while at the same time being cheekily blatant about things. Since the early 80’s the term Dutchie has become a reference in itself in relation to weed rolled inside the wrapper from a Dutch Masters cigar.

While the Rastafarians who form the Reggae alliance automatically get a pass for smoking, singing and promoting the herb. What with it being their religion and all. Spare a thought for the poor downtrodden Jazz singers of the early 1900’s who found themselves targeted by an American government smear campaign purely due to the fact that they enjoyed the occasional puff now and then. While famous Jazz artists like Louis Armstrong were releasing songs such as his weed powered and inspired “Muggles.” A country led by ignorance and racism tried to highlight the dangers of marijuna use. Using the example of Jazz musicians of the pitfalls of smoking the drug. In hysterical public information films. The artists were portrayed as sex addicts prone to irrational crazy behaviour. Through this campaign, anti marijuana activists were able to see a bill passed through congress to criminalise the drug.

The whole of the musical spectrum has links to marijuna. All with it’s own references and stories to tell. Attitudes occasionally have shifted as times have changed. The best example of this being the change in tact from Dr Dre. A rapper who famously told millions of people on the timeless NWA track “Express Yourself”

“I don’t smoke weed or sess cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage and brain damage on the mic don’t manage" Dr Dre 

Only to then release his seminal solo album “The Chronic” which could not have been more weed related and marketed had it been sold complete with a return flight to Amsterdam and a gift voucher for Barney’s Coffeeshop. After his public statement on “Express Yourself” about avoiding “weed or sess” it would’ve been easy for his pride to get in the way of then performing a 180 degree flip and suddenly become Mr Marijuana. Instead he pressed on and gave the world the masterpiece that “The Chronic” was. In doing so, launching the rap career of “Snoop Doggy Dogg” into the stratosphere ahead of his debut album. Doggystyle the following year. Snoop himself going on to become a modern day Bob Marley of the Hip Hop game. Synonymous with weed as much as he is for the great music that he has made over the years.

With over half a century of music and drugs being irretrievably linked together it would be fair to assume that this is a status quo that will forever be a fixture in our lives. We probably should all do ten Hail Mary Janes as we praise god that it is.

"You see, I think drugs have done some good things for us. I really do. And if you don't believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor. Go home tonight. Take all your albums, all your tapes and all your CDs and burn them" Bill Hicks

Read 5139 times Last modified on Monday, 06 November 2017 17:24
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