One version of rock history could be told by the many songs that have been written about the alluring dangers of drug use. From “Purple Haze” and “White Rabbit” to “White Lines” and “Under the Bridge,” there’s a bottomless supply of popular music about cocaine, heroin, marijuana and hallucinogens. What follows is a sample survey of 10 songs that may not be quite as obvious as Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine,” the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” or Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol” – but they’re no less about messing with your mind.
D'Angelo personifies his love for weed (a la Rick James' "Mary Jane") over a smoked-out groove that tells you the real story as clearly as lines like "my eyes are a shade blood burgundy." Soon he's tempted by her "big sister" Chocolate Thai and upset that his buddies want a toke, and the final verse is a How to Smoke a Blunt for Dummies that sounds as steamy as a make-out session, or maybe even a more intimate oral exploration. There are songs that treat sexual attraction like a drug addiction, and there are songs that treat drug addiction like sexual attraction, and the way D'Angelo sings, "I gets high off your love," makes it clear that this is the latter. Yes, of course marijuana isn't chemically addictive. Neither is sex, right?
Actual "yellow diamonds" do exist in gem form, and can be purchased at your local jeweler, but the kind Rihanna sings about are only available from less-reputable sources. Yes, what she found in a hopeless place was MDMA and the euphoric rush that drug provides, a high that's mimicked by Calvin Harris' highly pharmaceutical EDM break. In case the slang is too subtle for you, the pills and dilated pupils of the video imagery hammers that interpretation home. It's more than druggy enough to make you wonder what RiRi is singing about on "Diamonds."
With hip-hop and pop stars obsessing over new-fangled chemical experiences like MDMA and prescription cough syrup, it was refreshing to have a good old-fashioned song about being blasted out of your mind on cocaine topping the charts last year. Not that Abel Tesfaye explicitly mentions what drug has numbed his skull. Maybe it's not drugs at all – maybe it's sex. Or love. (Just kidding.) But he doesn't have to be explicit – the way he channels the jittery paranoia of "Billie Jean," it's as though all the struggle of teen superstardom and family psychodrama that went into making Michael Jackson a genius was available in powder form and the Weeknd just took a huge snort.
Intense and swelling, "Bad" was often the centerpiece of U2's live sets throughout the Eighties. The lyrics – grim and desperate in the verses, triumphant in the chorus – were impressionistic enough for listeners to read any personal struggle into them. By 1987, however, Bono was introducing it as a song about addiction. "I wrote the words about a friend of mine; his name was Gareth Spaulding, and on his 21st birthday, he and his friends decided to give themselves a present of enough heroin into his veins to kill him," he told an audience in Sweden that year. And at a Chicago performance, he focused on the societal effects of the drug, introducing "Bad" as "a song about a drug called heroin that's tearing our city in two, that's tearing the heart out of the city of Dublin, tearing the heart out of the city of Chicago."
This is a song about a man falling in love – with marijuana. "It's actually an ode to pot, like someone else might write an ode to chocolate or a good claret," McCartney explained to writer Barry Miles for the 1997 book Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. The earthy, horn-driven number was written "when I had first been introduced to pot.… So 'Got to Get You Into My Life' is really a song about that, it's not to a person." Fans and foes alike scoured the Beatles' lyrics for drug references in the Sixties, but this soul number, clearly influenced by the Motown songs the Beatles loved, isn't one they tended to focus on – after all, it wasn't exactly psychedelic. When McCartney discussed his earliest smoking experiences more than 30 years later, he sounded a lot like someone thinking back on his first sexual encounter – "It was mind-expanding, literally mind-expanding" – and you can hear the effects of that life-changing infatuation in his voice here.
The strange saga of Liverpool's La's, who seemed destined for greatness when their 1990 debut came out, seems apparent in retrospect, especially given the heavy clues dropped in the band's signature song. On the surface, "There She Goes" is about admiring a girl. Break the skin, however, and the song tells another story (albeit one that certain band members have long denied): "Racing through my brain, pulsing through my vein."
Spotting the late Elliott Smith's obvious struggle with substance abuse was not exactly like finding a needle in a haystack. Still, one of the songwriter's sweetest, most aching songs dodges the issue ever so slightly with double-entendres: "You ought to be proud that I'm getting good marks." Ouch.
When Courtney Love quizzed Stevie Nicks about writing "Gold Dust Woman," Nicks couldn't recall the details. "It’s weird that I’m not quite sure," she said. "It can’t be all about cocaine." Well, yes, it can, given Fleetwood Mac's legendary intake around the time of the Rumours album. "Take your silver spoon," Nicks sang, "and dig your grave."
"It's all too beautiful," sang the Small Faces' Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane on one of the all-time great psychedelic pop songs, and that just about sums up the Sixties: in the end, the drugs were overwhelming. The BBC banned the song until the band claimed it was just a harmless recollection of a childhood playground. "What did you do there? I got high," they sang, which seems clear-cut. But Marriott once claimed, "We didn’t smoke. We just got high from not going to school." Riiiight.
MGMT's Andrew VanWyngarden and Benjamin Goldwasser have said this song was inspired by a praying mantis that laid eggs in their college apartment. They put the egg case on a model pirate ship, "and the eggs hatched and all these baby praying mantises were climbing up the rigging of the ship." Oh, and the mama liked to dance to the Clash. You don’t need to check the lyric references to heroin and cocaine and choking on vomit to know what really inspired the song.
One of the most relentlessly sunshine-y songs of the Nineties was actually written from the dingy indoor perspective of a man and woman on a drug binge – crystal meth, to be precise. "Then I bumped again," sings Stephan Jenkins, whose refrain is the same as that of every drug user, ever: "I want something else/To get me through this life."
Damon Albarn says this woozy, Beatlesque Blur song from 1997 recalls his drug experience with former girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica. Besides the obvious title reference to the all-time Britpop band, the term "chasing the beetle" is a variation on "chasing the dragon," which describes inhaling the vapor from heroin or opium heated over tin foil.
David Byrne has said he wrote this 1985 MTV favorite about a girl he once knew growing up in the Baltimore area who took acid while lying in the grass near a Yoo-hoo factory: "And she was lying in the grass/And she could hear the highway breathing." The girl in the song has an out-of-body experience; Byrne, we're assuming, has been there once or twice, with or without chemical help.
U.K. songwriter Ed Sheeran earned a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year for his deceptively upbeat hit single "The A Team." Sheeran has explained that the song was inspired by a gig he played as a naïve 18-year-old at a homeless shelter, where he heard stories about women struggling with Class A substances – "breathing in snowflakes."
The Stones have written no shortage of songs about drugs over the years, from "Mother's Little Helper" and "Brown Sugar" to "Sister Morphine" and "Monkey Man." Somewhat less obvious is "Dead Flowers," the country tune from Sticky Fingers, which might sound like it's about ill-fated romance ("And I won't forget to put roses on your grave"), if heroin didn't come from poppies.