When it comes to the magical, swirling, mind-opening (and sometimes intimidating) world of drugs and music, it is often associated with the flower power decade of the 1960s. In the year of 1967, the Beatles proclaimed, “Smoke Pot, Smoke Pot, Everybody Smoke Pot!” within the ending of “I am the Walrus,” while Jefferson Airplane leaked vibes of intoxication through their Alice in Wonderland inspired hit, “White Rabbit.” Even Bob Dylan was writing about drugs in his 1966 song, “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” aka “Everybody Must Get Stoned.” Dear Rainy Day Woman, what is 12 multiplied by 35? 420.
Once this decade of peace, love and flower crowns ended, a multitude of new bands began to take shape and take charge in the realm of songs about drugs. Just because the Woodstock audience of the sixties cut their long locks did not mean that the drug experience ended. It just altered, became a little more of a secret. The sixties were simply a gateway into an entirely new realm of intoxication.
1. “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground (1968)
Though this song was released on the Velvet Underground’s 1968 album White Light/White Heat, the time and place of this seventeen minute long track is an exception. While the music making the news existed in sunny California, Lou Reed and the Velvets were singing about amphetamines, violence and transsexuals to an audience dressed in black leather inside the dingy, dark basements and empty gymnasiums of New York City. “Sister Ray” is the sixth and last track on the album, and perhaps the most incomparable, pure example of rock n roll—it was unlike anything being created at the time.
In an interview, Reed said, “Sister Ray’ was done as a joke—no, not as a joke—but it has eight characters in it and this guy gets killed and nobody does anything. I like to think of ‘Sister Ray’ as a transvestite smack dealer. The situation is a bunch of drag queens taking some sailors home with them, shooting up on smack and having this orgy when the police appear.”
Amidst the sound of Sterling Morrison’s distorted guitar, John Cale’s heavy organ playing, and Maureen Tucker pounding on the drums, Reed paints the picture of Rosie and Miss Rayon waiting for their “pink and leathered” sailor, Duck and Sallie “cooking for their downpipe” and the infamous line, “Just like Sister Ray said…whip it on ‘em.” One of the best verses occurs when the character Cecil shoots his gun at the sailor and Reed melodically sings, “Oh, you know you shouldn’t do that, don’t you know you’ll stain the carpet?”
During recording, John Cale, the Welsh viola player known for his avant-garde style, pounded on the organ keys so hard, it became a competition between the band mates to outplay each other. You can hear this progression toward explosive volumes as the rhythm becomes faster and almost incoherent. As Reed sings, “I’m searchin’ for my main line/ I co-co-couldn’t hit it siiiiiideways” the drumming becomes harder, the organ is even more haunting, and the guitar sounds even fuzzier—as if that were possible. Like many Velvet Underground gems, “Sister Ray” is one train that once you hop on, it is impossible to jump off.
2. “Drugs” by Talking Heads (1979)
Imagine yourself sitting on the floor inside a friend’s apartment. You look around you and see both boys and girls—most likely your friends—some making a mess, some laughing. You feel different. You don’t know what the people are saying. Things don’t appear the same as normal; visions are less comfortable. You see spots, colors. You know it’ll be over eventually. You’re on drugs.
Released in 1979 on the Talking Heads’ third album, Fear of Music, “Drugs” encapsulates exactly what the title suggests—the experience of being on drugs. The track itself has a strong feeling of anxiousness, from the shakiness of David Byrne’s voice to the sounds reminiscent of a marble falling on a glass floor, or perhaps what drugged brain waves might sound like if they made noise. This is exactly the sound that Talking Heads executes so well; an abstract paradox of clarity and confusion paired with simple lyrics that indicate bigger meaning.
Byrne’s lyrics reflect the inner monologue of someone who has just taken drugs—from the visual changes, “And all I see is little dots/Some are smeared and some are spots” to the acknowledgement of reality, “It’ll be over in a minute or two.” As the song progresses, Byrne’s lyrics capture a living, breathing picture: “The boys are worried, the girls are shocked/they pick the sound and let it drop/nobody knows what they’re talking about”— and in comes Tina Weymouth’s trembling bass guitar.
This song also went by another name, “Electricity,” giving way to the chorus, “I’m charged up…electricity.” We don’t really know what drug Byrne is on, though it perfectly details the portrait of a young 20-something experimenting for the first time.
3. “Can’t Find My Mind” by the Cramps (1981)
If I ever ride a motorcycle underneath a midnight black sky, this is the song I want to be listening to. Off their second LP, Psychedelic Jungle, “Can’t Find My Mind” exemplifies the idea of being all dressed up and ready to go—except singer Lux Interior can’t find his mind. Interior sings “I’ve got a black skin suit/Alligator shoes/Now I found success/And I paid my dues” accompanied by a sinister mind-melting bassline. What makes this song so intoxicating is the mystery within it. Perhaps his mind is gone because of drugs, perhaps something else. Though when Interior claims, “There’s only one thing to do…” we know he’s up to no good.
4. “Things’ll Never Be The Same” by Spacemen 3 (1987)
Feedback? Fuzzed-out bass? Distorted guitars? Check, check, check. This song was released as part of Spacemen 3’s concept album, The Perfect Prescription, meant to be a portrayal of a drug trip—from the highs and lows to the inevitable comedown. In “Things’ll Never Be The Same,” the lyrics suggest a drug user with no girl, no religion, no heart. The most explicit of drug-related lyrics spew from Jason Pierce‘s mouth: “If you let me know when your life gets too real/ We’ll put some love deep in our veins” as the instruments continually grow louder and more distorted.
This song was also released on the 1994 album Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. The title is self-explanatory.
5. “Sue” by the Brian Jonestown Massacre (1997)
With albums titled “Strung Out in Heaven” and “Methodrone” the boys of BJM possess a talent for clever, drug-induced rhythms that have lasted over a decade. Their sixth studio album Give it Back! contains the track “Sue”—an eight minute psych rock trip that begins with singer Anton Newcombe’s lyrics, “I know a girl, her name is Sue/ she says she really digs making love to you/ here she comes…” Mainly an instrumental song, the guitar inches along with the bassline to establish a song that seems to rise and fall in volume with each verse. The song is about—you guessed it—a troubled girl named Sue who “tries so hard to stop her pain/ as she sticks a dirty needle deep into her vein.” The most notable part of the song occurs when Newcombe sings, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, no, little Sue” and a woman’s voice softly replies, “It’s okay” and thus launches into instrumental bliss. Sessions of the recording for this album exist within BJM’s documentary, Dig!, which also gives insight into Newcombe’s own addiction to heroin. Listening to this song, one can’t help but sympathize with little Sue while getting lost within the steady drumbeat.