Alternative music has become the stem of many an obsession and childlike curiosity since it began. We know NME love it – but why do we, as fans of alternative music spend our time digesting album after album of musical genius from Hendrix to The Hives, from the Beatles to the Beastie Boys? Well, because true music fans appreciate the depth and meaning to most of the lyrics and themes within a song, the insight into the artist. Whether its about love, hate, war, peace; relationships, or even politics, the artist has poured his soul; his very being into making the poetry appear before him; and as fans of ‘proper music’ we appreciate the attention to detail which makes the lyrics we love so powerful. This isn’t manufactured, bubblegum pop shite that we’re talking about here – this is real music, our passion and our lifeline.
Influence is a powerful thing. Without the influence of the Brit-Pop indie explosion of the nineties – Blur, Oasis and Pulp to name but a few (The Stone Roses anyone?) many of our favorite bands today – The Strokes, Ash and even Keane wouldn’t have become the successes they are today. Without The Smiths, we wouldn’t have Oasis – Noel said the second he saw The Smiths on Top Of The Pops he was sold. It launches creativity, and it’s clear from the bands and music we know and love that it played a major role in producing the album, the track, even the image of a band. When you listen to many artists, listen properly to an entire album, it tells a story: the life and soul of whomever wrote it is being laid out before you.
So what has influenced most of the music we have come to know as rock? Which has been the most creative influence? That’s right. Drugs.
In itself it’s quite a ‘taboo’ subject, down to the law and the boys in blue. Yet no one can argue the strength of its creative influence in the alternative music industry: so many acts and legends have passed before us, talented, free thinking, inspired – and considerably high the entire time! The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Pink Floyd, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, The Beach Boys, and even modern successes such as The White Stripes and Oasis have illegal substances to thank for part of their success and inspiration. Purple Haze, Sgt. Pepper, and Dark Side Of The Moon are legendary records we all have on our shelves – so again we must thank the highs that helped create them. What’s even more intriguing is how drug use has linked all these bands together – for example, remember The Who’s Keith Moon and his drug problems? Whilst under the influence, one of our favorite drummers drove a brand new Rolls Royce into Pink Floyd’s swimming pool, Pink Floyd being another band out of their tree from drug use. Oasis – the Mancunian indie heroes – covered the entire event via the artwork on their Be Here Now album.
Three different bands, different eras, different sounds – all linked together by drugs such as heroin, cocaine, PCP, mushrooms, and LSD. Drugs shaped the creative output of many successful alternative musicians – and here’s how.
Because I Got High
That line from the famous Afroman song, for a little while, became a catchphrase for the nation. It screamed ‘MARAJUANA’ at us, promoted its use (not that many of us needed converting anyway) – yet did many of the younger fans of the song truly understand the meaning of the term ‘high’? Probably not. But it’s not always obvious, despite your drunken boasting that you know everything about rock – we don’t always click when bands write drug related material, even if you are down with the ghetto terms for cocaine, mofo. Your favorite record could have been written when the artist was high on marijuana, LSD, or cocaine…and you probably didn’t realize.
Pink Floyd are an excellent example of this. In their song “Flaming,” they sing: “Alone in the clouds all blue… sitting on a unicorn… sleeping on a dandelion.” Reading those words now, you must be questioning whether they make sense at all. Talking about ‘unicorns,’ ‘sleeping on dandelions’ and ‘being alone in the clouds’ screams hallucinations – they must’ve been on the ceiling when they penned this tune. And in fact, when looking into a lot of lyrics that were written whilst the artists were ‘under the influence,’ it is noticeable that they weren’t really writing with a sober mind.
In a song by The White Stripes on the White Blood Cells LP, Jack White wrote:
“You thought you heard a sound
There’s no one else around
Looking at the door
It’s coming through the floor”
Obviously written about an experience under the influence a drugs; hearing sounds when there is no one else nearby, and ‘doors coming through the floor’ the lyrics describe the paranoia and visual deceptions that can be experienced from drug use. The Beatles song “Glass Onion” is another example of drug-influenced lyrics: “I told you about strawberry fields … to see how the other half live … looking through a glass onion.”
Again, descriptions of hallucinations (and we all know the Fab Four took LSD) similar to the ones on the Sgt. Pepper album – and to other Beatles tracks – “Strawberry Fields Forever” for example.
Some are more blatant than others for example “Lithium” by Nirvana – Lithium being a drug used to combat manic depression and schizophrenia. Cobain wrote, “I’m so happy, ‘cause today I found my friends / they’re in my head” – a reference to the effects of the drug and how it helped his depression – or at least, how it was supposed to.
Six Feet Under
Despite the surrealistic beauty of many of these drug-influenced tracks, the actions of the musicians are very real – and have often ended in serious illness if not in fact death. The death of a talented musician causes a huge splash in the industry – for example, Nirvana’s soar to fame after Kurt placed a pistol in his mouth. Drug related death causes an even bigger stir, due to the controversy surrounding the activities of the artist and the church-group worry that the fans will do the same. Classic icons of the ‘hippie movement’ of the sixties died from chronic drug use; big names such as Jimi Hendrix left us for barbiturate, Janis Joplin practiced the sins of heroin, alcohol and Valium, and Jim Morrison stopped his own ticker by heroin use.
A band that have suffered from drug- related trauma since their formation on 1983 has been the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Original Chilli’s guitarist Hillel Slovak (pictured right, with the Chilli Peppers) died after a heroin overdose in 1988, a death which deeply hurt the band and of course its members – Jack Irons, drummer, quit shortly after Slovak’s death to be replaced by Chad Smith. Anthony was affected deeply by the death of his best friend, and his own drug problems – “[I was] just hanging by a thread, I had been so demolished by drug use.” Kiedis was still battling heroin and Flea was a regular drug user when legendary guitarist John Frusciante joined…until 1995 when he left to become a full time junkie. Since the beginning, RHCP have enjoyed success after success, and are still selling out stadiums for their energetic live performances – but the death, destruction and damage caused by the bands drug abuse affected them all severely – well, if you lost your original guitarist, then his replacement through drug use you’d be bummed too! Maybe not in the lyrics (although “Under The Bridge” is based on Anthony’s heroin addiction) but as a band, drug related death and trauma has shaped their careers.
The Who’s Keith Moon died due to a Herminevrin overdose (a prescription drug, how very un-rock and roll) and The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson has severely damaged health following years of heavy drug use. Ska-punk band Sublime saw the death of their vocalist Bradley Nowell – heroin being the guilty party. Sublime may not ‘practice Santeria’ – but Brad certainly practiced heroin!
There are some artists, who, despite general drug abuse, have recovered and are now clean. Eric Clapton now runs a drug/alcohol rehabilitation centre – a contrast to his solo career days, when he recorded a song merely titled “Cocaine.” Stone Temple Pilots front man Scott Weiland went to rehab twice – firstly court ordered, then of his own accord. Anthony Kiedis, Flea and John Frusciante are now clean – not all drug use ended in tragedy…
Recent news has seen Pete Doherty, ex-Libertine struggle with drug abuse. He quit the band to move to Thailand to sober up. His addiction, as well as meaning he left the band, also earned him a brief spell in prison after he broke into a band mate’s house and stole some of his possessions out of spite – our Pete has lived the famous downward spiral and though his side-band Babyshambles are brewing a storm, The Libs will never be the same. They Cant Stand Him Now … (sorry, we had to).
The more blatant form of ‘drug music’ would be tracks that actually promote drug use – or at least, talk about it openly. Such records have caused major controversy within the music industry, namely “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” by The Beatles. The media at the time sparked rumours that the song title was actually a play on words for LSD…. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” As the Sgt. Pepper album had a psychedelic theme – and, supposedly, was greatly influenced by hallucinogenic substances – people naturally assumed that John Lennon chose the title specifically for that famous acrostic.
But in fact, the title was the name Lennon’s 4-year-old nipper had given to a painting he did at school. The Beatles did not publicly confess to taking LSD until two weeks after the Sgt. Pepper hit the shops, and in an interview with Rolling Stone, John, whilst never denying the song was inspired by countless acid trips, denied that the song title was supposed to reflect their use of LSD:
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” . . . I swear to God, or swear to Mao or to anybody you like, I had no idea spelled LSD . . .” Well, Rolling Stone believed you, Lennon…but we ask: was our John-boy just covering his own ass?
Other bands, however, have blatantly promoted substances such as marijuana (Cypress Hill wrote ‘Legalize it, Cypress Hill will advertise it’) and more famously heroin – Everclear wrote a song titled “Heroin Girl” – written about a past lover who died of a heroin overdose. The Velvet Underground, heavy drug users, wrote blatant, potentially controversial lyrics about their drug use in the track “Heroin;” “Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man / when I put a spike into my vein / ah, when the heroin is in my blood…”
However, The VU were an underground band, and probably didn’t pay attention to what the mainstream thought – good on them.
There is a contrast to have ‘taboo’ drugs are now at present times – marijuana is being campaigned to be legalized, and attitudes in general have softened since the LSD freak-outs of the sixties. However, the main contrast with the acceptance of drugs is between the pop scene and the alternative. Remember East 17? Well, Brian Harvey, lead singer of the group and probably the most obnoxious charv in the charts back in ’97, was kicked out of the band after taking up to twelve ecstasy pills in one night and then promoting the drug, claiming “if it brings out the better in someone – and really in the long run, it’s a safe pill and it ain’t doing you no harm – I don’t see the problem.” Big mistake for Mr.Harvey – and the end of East 17. Shame.
Yet in the same year, Noel Gallagher defended him: at an awards ceremony, Noel famously said taking drugs, and ecstasy was like ‘having a cup of tea in the morning.’ Yet was this the end of Oasis? Did the other band members kick Noel out? No. It was merely accepted – a controversial statement yes, but from a controversial musician. That is the major contrast in terms of acceptance.
Lyrics containing supposed ‘drug promotion’ have sparked major controversy within the music industry, particularly in the good ol’ U.S. of A, where attitudes towards drugs and alcohol are less lenient, and anti-substance abuse campaigns are more widely published than in the UK. The media, and anti-drug movements began linking pro-drug messages in the charts to the behavior of young people in America – lyrics from bands such as Oasis, who wrote “Where were you while we were getting high?” in “Champagne Supernova” – were deemed the reason that teenage drug use was on the rise. The number of high school students who saw ‘great risk’ in using marijuana or trying cocaine declined in 1995, a worrying statistic to anti-drug campaigners and American parents alike.
Since 1985, the RIAA have tried to warn parents and students about the contents of artists they listen to via the ‘parental advisory sticker’ – a system successful in both the US and the UK. However, some groups are still worried that the sticker doesn’t efficiently prevent young people from the influences of the bands and their messages. Some radio stations refuse to play tracks with blatant drug references – many radio stations declined “I Get High” by Dada both here and in America. Yet Michael Gurley, of the band, said that “I Get High” wasn’t necessarily about a ‘high’ from drug use. “That ambiguity is part of the song’s appeal. “I Get High” can be taken in many different ways, and as a writer, you want it to be taken in different ways. Sometimes, that’s good art.”
Attitudes towards drug-promoting records are definitely mixed – on reading a thread on a message board about this topic, some members disapproved of such tracks and the potential influence they could have on younger generations – whereas other users disagreed and said that listeners had the right to be informed about such activity. American comedian Bill Hicks, known for his political satire and criticism, summed up the argument in one hilarious sentence; “I think that drugs have done a lot of good things for us and if you don’t believe me then go home and take all your tapes, all your albums and all your CDs and burn them, cos the musicians that made them…reeeealll fuckin’ high on drugs!”
It’s Friday night. You text your mates, and choose the nights drinking venue. Bob, however, replies that he’ll be there, but he’s drinking coke, avoiding the Superkings and will NOT chat up lusty Laura behind the bar… Yeah – we were in shock too. Whilst it’s fair to say that many famous bands used illegal substances, and on occasion, benefited creatively from doing so, it is decidedly wrong to tar every alternative band with the same sticky brush. Not every successful rock/punk/indie band have used alcohol, marijuana, or heroin, or LSD – and in fact, led by Ian Mackaye in the early 1980’s, a group of bands from the punk/hardcore scene took this to an extreme and thus created the philosophy, or indeed the cult, that is the straight edge scene. The original philosophy meant no mind altering or illegal substances, no alcohol, and no promiscuous sex – ironically all features of stereotypical rock bands.
Symbolised by the four X’s (XXXX) bands such as The Teen Idles, SSD, Uniform Choice are all part of the movement. These amazing musical contributors prove that it doesn’t actually take drugs to make a decent alternative sound. Huge Welsh band the Manic Street Preachers are a tribute to this: Richey was a self-harmer, anorexic, alcoholic – yet didn’t partake in drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The band has produced some amazing political lyrics and messages, thus proving that without powders, needles and pills bands can be just as influential. Today, there are still bands, and indeed fans that live by the straight edge philosophy, and feel they benefit greatly from it. I bet their Friday nights out are cracking good fun, eh chaps?
What’s It To Be?
So, there you have it; the effects, influences, and disadvantages of drug use within the industry – and, on top of that, the people and the musicians who are against it.
Would the alternative music industry be a better place without drugs?
On one hand, without drugs, Jimi Hendrix would probably still be around, and Janice Joplin would probably be sat in a nursing home listening to her greatest hits. On a more controversial note, perhaps without drugs Kurt Cobain would have lived on and Nirvana would have to try a little bit harder to win the success they now have. Young people would not be hearing the lyrics to “Heroin,” by either Clapton or indeed the Velvet Underground, and the RIAA wouldn’t be going spare over Oasis talking about getting high. But … then again … without drugs, Pink Floyd probably wouldn’t have been so deliciously innovative, and Hendrix would have never written “Purple Haze.” The Beatles would have never dreamt up the surrealistic magic that is “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and the White Stripes would still be crooning about 7 nation armies alone, rather than strange sounds and imaginary doors.
Let’s face it; the alternative music industry would be a desolate place without drugs. Sure, we’d have the straight edge rockers leading a clean, sober revolution, but where’s the fun in that? We enjoy lyrics that confuse us, that were written when the artists were smashed; we loved reading about Keith Moon (pictured above right) crashing Rolls Royces into swimming pools, and when we play “Glass Onion” on the White Album, we’re secretly wishing we could visit those strawberry fields. So, the choice is yours – appreciate that yeah, maybe your favorite bands were total smack heads – or, start listening to The Spice Girls again, and pick up a copy of Ronan Keating’s latest drivel. You know what to do.