The issue of drug-taking has been around pop music a long time. It is an emotive subject and one not to be dismissed lightly, whether one is of the “marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and it’s never done me any harm” school or the “just say no – drugs are drugs and they’re bad” persuasion.
There are three basic categories of songs about drugs:
- I’m doing it and I don’t care
- I’m doing it and I wish I could stop
- Don’t do it
There is also the misunderstood group: songs that don’t condone the use of drugs but are accused of it anyway.
So, group one: I’m doing it and I don’t care. The 60s was the decade when it all came out into the open. The Beatles’ music became intentionally strange, with sounds we had never heard before and lyrics that were not exactly nonsense but didn’t apparently make sense. While most people were attempting to make drug references without attracting the attention of the police, John Lennon deliberately gave the game away with LSD in the first letters of words in the title of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Jimi Hendrix took up the baton in the same way with (The stars that play with) Laughing Sam’s Dice. This was a world away from the covert references in songs like Doctor Robert and the Small Faces’ Here Come The Nice (‘he’s always there when I need some speed’).
Bob Dylan had gleefully announced on Rainy Day Women nos. 12 & 35 that “Everybody must get stoned”, but while every pop and rock musician on the planet was using cannabis, marijuana, pot, grass, weed or whatever you wanted to call it, it was only the big boys who felt secure enough to come right out with it. Then on the Woodstock album at the end of the decade, Country Joe and the Fish shouted “Marijuana” and it was plain to all that there was a lot of it about.
But that was just marijuana, widely regarded as nothing to worry about, while LSD was damaging brains in the most high profile way. The first guitarist, singer and leader of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, was noticeably impaired almost before the band became famous, with the extent of his illness disguised by the childlike persona he assumed on much of their first album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. His solo work gives us a vivid insight into his problems, as he can barely get through even short songs, and his own awareness of his condition in Vegetable Man could almost be funny if it weren’t tragic.
More harrowing was the decline of Peter Green, who had the same role with Fleetwood Mac. The acclaimed blues guitarist who brought us the heavenly tranquility of Albatross revealed a darker side on Man of the World, before the self-disparaging Oh Well and the nightmarish Green Manalishi, which sound like the final desperate flourishes of a man falling overboard.
Meanwhile in the US, while the Grateful Dead were happily smoking and tripping and playing marathon guitar solos, The Velvet Underground were mired in the cold, terrifying world of heroin.
Some of the greatest figures in rock found themselves out of their depth as the drugs that broadened their musical palate took away their control. When The Who’s leader Pete Townshend sought professional help he was told by one specialist that she could cure his problem “but I might cure your talent too”.
As the 70s developed its own character, out of Jamaica came the rolling, bouncing, booming phenomenon of reggae, which celebrated the use of marijuana so loudly that it gave the impression to the rest of the world that it was legal there. In fact it wasn’t and isn’t; it was just rampant, but the likes of Bob Marley, only slightly less godlike in life than he is in death, epitomized all that was good about smoking heaven’s herb.
Sadly, while a generation was telling its parents and less cool friends that it was all about peace and love, not all rastas turned out to be such positive role models as Marley.
Next Friday: the chemicals get more sophisticated but political correctness takes over.