The Relationship Between Music and Drugs

The History Of Simultaneous Development

From Jim Morrison to Franz Ferdinand, it was always a lot about being high in the music industry. Whether they were the so-called flower children or the members of a rebellious punk scene, drugs were often associated with their music, lives, and fans. Theoretically, it’s easy to understand — musicians are known to be impressionable and emotional people, often with an interest in experimenting with their consciousness, looking for inspiration. At the same time, the majority of them were — and still are — struggling with mental issues, which also leads to the use of various substances.

Jazz and Junk

The 1940s, after the Great Depression in the USA, were the years when drugs became some kind of pop cultural element due to the breakthrough of jazz music. Heroin, which had replaced morphine, quickly became the most popular drug and the curse for music idols of that time. Musicians like Charlie Parker became ‘drug trendsetters’, so it’s no wonder that heroin use took over American youth.

Charlie Parker by Herman Leonard

photo: Herman Leonard

Charlie Parker himself tried heroin for the first time at the age of 15. By the age of 16, he was already a veteran drug user and ‘looked like 38’, as one club manager once said. But according to Martin Torgoff’s book ‘Bob Apocalypse,’ his relentless drug use only seemed to sharpen his talent: “The truly astounding aspect of this period of his life is how the onset of addiction coincided with such a quantum leap in his musical abilities.” He was mixing heroin with speed and practicing like crazy, but at the same time, he managed to miss his own gigs or spend all his money on drugs. He had nervous breakdowns, was committed to a mental hospital, got arrested for heroin possession and finally damaged his reputation so much that the manager refused to book him. But in his short life — he died at the age of 34 — he still found time to create history in jazz music.

Teenagers wanted to improvise like Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, so they ditched classes, bought vinyl and instruments, but first of all — they tried junk to look like their icons. Authorities were trying hard to weaken the influence of these musicians on their audience, so a lot of them were banned from performing in city cafés. Sometimes this pressure could go to the ridiculous lengths. When Billie Holiday was on her deathbed in a New York hospital, police searched her room and confiscated heroin, a radio, flowers, chocolate, and magazines. Policemen also took a photo of her on her deathbed, to make her last days unbearable. Such cruelty was a part of a prohibitive policy aimed to disgrace drug addicts and expel them from society.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

But later, with the Beat Generation and then the hippies, it became clear that there would be no decrease in drug use. America in the 60s found itself in the middle of the Vietnam War and a threat of nuclear war. At the same time, the traditional views on family, sex and the role of women in society became outdated and created disaffection amongst the young people, especially students.

The hippies stood for nonviolence and absolute freedom, against the consumptive society and suppression of personality by the power structures. They challenged the Puritan ideas of those days with the concept of free love. It’s no wonder that at the end of the day, all these principles created a rough confrontation between flower children and the body politic.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

photo: Apple Corps

The hippies were heavily influenced by psychedelic drugs such as LSD. Many of them thought that LSD was the key to the inner space and that it makes you a better human being. Writers and artists of those days became the real psychedelic gurus. They popularized the drugs in their books, music, and performances. For example, author Ken Kesey founded one of the first hippie communes called the Merry Pranksters, where he often organized gigs, featuring the young Grateful Dead and free distribution of LSD.

The majority of songs at the time had various drug references in their lyrics. However, one of the most popular songs to become a symbol of the psychedelic movement — “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” by The Beatles — wasn’t a reference to LSD as we used to think. It was inspired by a drawing in which John Lennon’s son pictured his classmate Lucy, and the visual imagery of the song was actually influenced by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. The song nevertheless helped lead to the acceptance of LSD as a psychedelic drug.

However, it eventually became obvious that LSD wasn’t harmless, and in 1966 it was banned in the USA and Europe — which, of course, only made it even more popular. All the more music idols avowed their use of LSD and were later accused of promoting drugs, which caused a great number of scandals.

Speed Against The Machine

With the emergence of the punk scene, music became more aggressive and loud, and the drugs cheaper and often DIY. Glue sniffing and homemade speed were the drugs of choice for underground punk clubs. The music and the drugs were both used against the current sociopolitical system: they were some kind of statement of angry nihilistic and totally broken youth. Even if the musicians themselves had moved on from cheap treats to proper drugs, they were still using an Evo-Stik image in their songs. “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” by The Ramones is an example of such a song, although Dee Dee Ramone later commented: “I hope no one really thinks we sniff glue. I stopped when I was eight”.

Ramones by Lex Van Rossen

photo: Lex Van Rossen

But being a truly all-or-nothing subculture, the punk scene created a totally opposite mode of life — straight edge. This philosophy of hardcore punk culture refrained from using alcohol, tobacco or any kind of recreational drugs, and also often included vegan or vegetarian nutrition.

At the same time, the growing reggae culture was delivering a similar anti-system message, but in a more relaxed way. Bob Marley’s songs criticizing “Babylon” and ‘politricks’ still created a feeling of hope — hope that was generously covered in marijuana smoke.

Sorted For E’s & Wizz

Historically, each music genre was followed by a particular drug. These two things developed so simultaneously that it’s often hard to say which appeared first. And that’s especially true about ecstasy and rave parties, which blew up in basement clubs in the mid-80s. It was all about stimulating and recreational drugs, aimed to make you feel euphoric and to turn your endless party into an even more endless one. It’s humorously pictured in Pulp’s classic song “Sorted for E’s & Wizz”, referring to ecstasy and speed respectively. Explaining where the song came from, Jarvis Cocker once said that “It’s a phrase a girl that I met in Sheffield once told me… and she went to see The Stone Roses at Spike Island and I said ‘What do you remember about it?’ And she said ‘Well, there were all these blokes walking around saying, Is everybody sorted for E’s and Wizz?’’ It’s still fairly common nowadays in the electronic scene: sometimes techno parties can last for a few days in a row, and the partiers don’t hesitate to try a little speed to help the party along.

Jarvis Cocker Pulb band

photo: BBC Music

Music as a Drug

Recent research has discovered that the same chemical system that produces feelings of pleasure as a result of having sex or taking drugs is also stimulated by listening to your favorite music. So, basically, music is affecting our brain in the same way as drugs do. And while attitudes towards drugs are very complex and ever-changing, music is still free and legal. And can definitely provide you with it.

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