Music and drugs: They’re so enmeshed that you might well call them co-dependent. Drugs have been used both as subject matter—whether it’s Neil Young lamenting “The Needle and the Damage Done“ or Pete Tosh imploring the powers-that-be to “Legalize It“—and as tools to unlock hitherto unexplored sonic landscapes.
Without LSD’s mind-twisting influence we probably wouldn’t have the freaked-out beauty of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” and it’s doubtful whether the jittery aggression of The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK“ would have been quite so frantic without copious amounts of amphetamine. And as for MDMA’s relationship with dance music, or the cloud of ganja smoke that hangs over the history of reggae, it’s fair to say that those substances are embedded in those genres’ very DNA.
Before songs like The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” kicked the lyrical doors open, drug references were generally veiled to evade prudish sensibilities. The subterfuge is a tradition as old as recorded music itself, and also applied to that other great human obsession: sex. Back in 1937, when blues singer Robert Johnson suggested, “Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg,” it’s unlikely that a cool glass of lemonade was uppermost in his mind. But while American views of sex have loosened up over the years, prohibitionist attitudes have ensured that when it comes to drugs, the thaw has been slower.
Thanks to this, the tradition of the hidden drug reference is still alive and kicking. Here are 10 shining examples, of wildly varying degrees of subtlety, from the ’70s and onwards.
1 “Golden Brown” — The Stranglers
With its lilting harpsichord riff, tender vocal and hypnotic waltz-time melody, The Stranglers’ 1981 hit was the closest the Guildford punk band would ever come to producing something your mom could sing along to. The band once notorious for performing with strippers on stage and writing feminist-baiting lyrics found themselves named Single of the Week by that bastion of middle-of-the-roadness, BBC Radio 2. The song has remained a perennial favorite, recently beating out The Beatles’ “Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever” and The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” in a poll of Britain’s favorite ever number two singles. It keeps popping up in ads and movie soundtracks, despite the fact it’s a barely-concealed ode to the potent Afghan brown heroin that was flooding London back then. “Never a frown / With golden brown,” indeed.
The band were originally evasive on the song’s meaning, with drummer Jet Black once claiming it was about Marmite. However in his 2001 book The Stranglers Song by Song, singer Hugh Cornwall confirmed it was about a girl and about heroin—both of whom, in Cornwall’s words, “provided me with pleasurable times.”
2 “I Know” — Jay Z
The third single from Jay Z’s 2007 American Gangster album was this Neptunes-produced number 18. At first listen it seems to be a love song, albeit one with a slightly more aggressive edge than most. But on closer examination it turns out that “I Know” is that rarest of beasts: a hip hop song about smack. Hip hop is hardly short of drug songs, but when you start looking for examples that aren’t about weed or cough syrup, the field narrows dramatically.
In “I Know,” when Jay raps, “Just for one night baby / Take me in vein [...] Nose wide open and its drippin’ / I know what you like / I am your prescription / I’m your physician / I’m your addiction” there’s little doubt what he’s talking about. The track is also notable for being told from the drug’s perspective—an unusual device that casts smack in the role of the jilted lover trying to win back his newly clean girl.
3 “Gold Dust Woman” — Fleetwood Mac
Stevie Nicks has done more cocaine than you. It’s just a fact. I don’t care who you are, or how much coke you’ve done over the years—Stevie has you beat. Urban legend would have us believe that once her nose was out of action she made a roadie blow the stuff up another orifice, for Chrissakes. Whether that’s true or not, rumors of that nature tend not to swirl around you unless you’re doing some serious blow.
Given her one-time enthusiasm for the old nose candy, it’s hardly surprising that it would turn up in her songs now and then: 1977′s “Gold Dust Woman” lays its cards on the table fairly quickly, with Nicks telling the Gold Dust Woman in question to “take your silver spoon and dig your grave.” In 1997, none other than Courtney Love interviewed Stevie Nicks for Spin magazine and quizzed her on the song’s meaning. “I knew there was cocaine there,” Nicks mused, “and that I fancied it gold dust somehow.”
4 “Ebeneezer Goode” — The Shamen
Scottish dance act The Shamen found success with Ebeneezer Goode—three-and-a-half minutes of irritatingly catchy dance/pop that hit number one in the UK and stayed there for four long weeks in 1992, despite being banned by the BBC. The single was eventually withdrawn from sale after the British tabloids lifted their collective skirts in horror over the song’s not-so-subtle ecstasy references.
By that time it was too late: The entire country had the phonetically risqué chorus, “Eezer Goode / Eezer Goode… / He’s Ebeneezer Goode!” lodged in its collective brain like something from a bad sci-fi novel. By the time the media was done hyping it, there wasn’t a single person left in the country who didn’t know what an “E” was. The Shamen never enjoyed a similar level of success again. Rumors that they’re currently performing alongside 2 Unlimited and Haddaway on a ’90s nostalgia cruise to Hell are unfounded.
5 “Semi-Charmed Life” — Third Eye Blind
San Francisco’s Third Eye Blind dominated the US airwaves back in 1997 with this, their debut single. With its groan-worthy frat-rap verses and chorus of “Do-do-do / Do-do-do-do,” the song’s massive popularity is as much of a head-scratcher now as it was then. I like to imagine that somewhere, a room of musical mysteries contains the secret behind Third Eye Blind selling so many records—as well as answers to other puzzles like, Just what is a “funky cold medina”? and Pink: Why?
Few people realized back then that this relentlessly upbeat track was actually about crystal meth—hardly a surprising mistake given that Semi-Charmed Life is more Hanson than Manson. But despite its chipper vibe, the references to “chopping lines” and doing “bumps” are there. Singer Stephan Jenkins even actually claimed the track was written as a direct response to Lou Reed’s druggy masterpiece, “Walk on the Wild Side.” Just think about that for a moment. No amount of drugs could make that sentence make sense.
6 “There She Goes” — The La’s
This lovely track somehow still shimmers, despite being pimped out to every commercial and soundtrack album going since it charted back in 1990. The best known song from enigmatic Merseyside quartet The La’s, “There She Goes” has soundtracked everything from So I Married an Ax Murderer to a montage the BBC put together when Margaret Thatcher shuffled off this mortal coil. Rumors that the lyrics are a paean to the joys of heroin (“There she goes again / Coursing through my veins”) have been common currency for years, a notion fueled by front man Lee Mavers’ reputation for drug use and eccentricity.
Apparently the whole “Everybody-knows-There-She-Goes-is-about-heroin” thing didn’t extend to Texas, where turgid Christian Rock outfit Sixpence None the Richer had a US hit with a cover version that expertly stripped out everything there was to like about the song—leaving behind the aural equivalent of warthog vomit. The band were reputedly horrified to learn that they’d unwittingly recorded a romanticized tribute to skag. No corresponding heroin spike among the tone-deaf 20–to-40 demographic has yet been confirmed.
7 “Mary Jane” — Rick James
Ok, I think you’d better sit down for this one… You remember back in 1978, when that upstanding young fellow Rick James released his tender love song, dedicated to one Miss Mary Jane? Well, it turns out that he may have been talking about the other Mary Jane.
I know. I could barely believe it either. Rick James was not an artist known for subtlety in matters of stage outfits, lifestyle or lyrics. The godfather of punk funk lived it like he sang it, and during his glorious career his lyrical eye never strayed too far from twin obsessions of getting high—”Below the Funk (Pass The J)”; “Busting Out”—and getting laid—”Super Freak”; “1,2,3 (You, Her and Me).”
Those of us who worship at the altar of Mr. James’s funkiness can only lament that Mary Jane did not remain Rick’s “main thing.” When he got into crack cocaine it was the beginning of the end for Rick, whose 1983 album Cold Blooded marked the last creative gasp of a man who had once ruled the charts. The ’90s were a decade of cracked-fueled insanity and incarceration, and by the time he washed up as a living punch line on Chappelle’s Show the original Super Freak was a shadow of his former self. He finally died of heart failure at the age of 56.
8 ”Beetlebum” — Blur
With its woozy guitar, about-to-nod-out tempo and half-asleep vocals, Blur’s second number one single certainly sounds like it was recorded while under the influence. On first listening, this 1996 hit seems like a slice of psychedelic whimsy in the tradition of English eccentrics like Syd Barrett. However the song’s oblique lyrics are referring to drugs—in particular, heroin. Singer Damon Albarn confirmed this was the case in 2007, when he was interviewed for the documentary No Distance Left To Run. Albarn said, “That whole period of a lot of people’s lives was fairly muddied by heroin.” The title refers to “chasing the beetle”—a slang term for smoking heroin.
9 “Another Girl, Another Planet” — The Only Ones
London’s Only Ones never really fit in with the whole punk thing. Front man Peter Perrett’s mop of shoulder length hair marked him out as being different from the whole “spikes ‘n zippers” brigade, and musically they painted with a much wider palette than most of their contemporaries. Unfortunately Perrett’s rampant heroin addiction handicapped the band and they never quite got the success they deserved.
“Another Girl…,” from their eponymous first album in 1978, remains their best-known song, often popping up in ads and compilation albums. While the title and chorus would suggest it’s just about love, the verses tell a skagged out tale in short bursts: “I always flirt with death / I look ill and I don’t care about it.”
In 2004 Blink-182 had a minor hit with a cover version, which managed to get the lyrics wrong and strip away the druggy swagger of the original, leaving a paint-by-numbers pop punk track with all the bite of an enraged My Little Pony.
10 “Perfect Day” — Lou Reed
Whether or not “Perfect Day” is really about drugs is almost irrelevant at this point: The legend has persisted for so long that no discussion of the track can avoid the issue. Reed himself denied it. But the ex-Velvet Underground front man was famously fond of issuing contradictory statements, so what we’re left with is an incredibly beautiful song that may or many not be about lying in the park fucked out of your noodle on narcotics.
Originally released as the B-side to Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which peaked at number 16 in the Billboard chart in 1972, the track has enjoyed amazing longevity while suffering the ignominy of countless dreadful covers. An all-star choir featuring such unlikely bedfellows as David Bowie, Bono, Laurie Anderson, Elton John, Tammy Wynette and Dr. John performed the song for charity, resulting in an unlikely UK Christmas number one. However the nadir came in 2010 when YouTube phenomenon and Britain’s Got Talent runner-up Susan Boyle recorded the song for her sophomore album, turning one of the more famous “Is-it-or-isn’t-it?” heroin songs into background music for a boring dinner party.