This week’s NME is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Primal Scream’s narcotic masterpiece ‘Screamadelica’ and running a countdown of the 50 druggiest albums ever. If you read through the feature you’ll notice some albums were improved by drugs and some were definitely not helped. We want to know what you think – is rampant drug use in music a good thing or a bad thing? Let us know below. Meanwhile, two NME writers put the case forward for either side.
The case for…
Tim Chester, Assistant Editor
Musicians on drugs? I’ll vote for that. Illegal substances of every which kind have helped create some of music’s finest hours since the blues days. From the most strung-out parts of the ‘60s to the trippiest corners of the 70s, the coke-fuelled indulgence pouring out of LA studios through the 80s and the 90s’ highly-strung high energy, chemicals have been inextricably linked with music’s progression, and its various meanders away from the boring middle ground. Like it or not, drugs’ various powers to stimulate, distract, motivate, inspire or sooth have either propelled musicians to greatness or propped them up in times of need.
Sure, there are plenty of people that are mad enough without the gear, and indulging is a dangerous game. For every ‘The End’ there’s a Morrison ending up in the bathtub. But I’ll take the rough with the smooth, and vote for a world populated with characters, altered perspectives, bizarre visions, variously inspired, surprising or downright comedic output and the rest over a dry, banal, straight edge landscape. And sometimes the fallout from drugs – the pain, the regret, the consequences – serve as the best material. (See: Bob Dylan’s ‘Cocaine Blues’, Johnny Cash’s ‘Cocaine Blues’, Eric Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’ and endless others).
Quite simply, drugs have made some of our best musicians and their output more visionary (‘Are You Experienced?’), more interesting (‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’), more visceral (‘Raw Power’), more bombastic (‘Appetite For Destruction’), more beautiful (‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’), more inventive (‘Revolver’), more heart wrenching (‘On The Beach’) and just plain more fun (‘Oracular Spectacular’) than they would have been with a straight head. Think life in The Flaming Lips would be a daily routine of pink robots and inflatable balls if the band hadn’t been raised on peyote? Would ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ exist without lorryloads of contraband, or would The Beatles still be pumping out more ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s?
Drugs may have turned a few creative relationships sour, and been the driving chemicals behind some proper duffs (Pete’s ramblings about Albion just the most recent casualty in that respect) but they’ve brought a lot of good into the world, from a listener’s perspective at least.
‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Golden Brown’, ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’, ‘White Rabbit’, ‘Sister Morphine’ ‘Pyschotic Reaction’, ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Rocket Man’, ‘Loaded’, ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Eight Miles High’, ‘I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ – even the explicit odes to narcotics are endless (we’ll leave Ali Love out for now).
Beyond the music, drugs give us stories: The Stones’ busts, Stevie Nicks’ anal snorting, Klaxons’ escapades on The Grid (and Jamie’s Glastonbury 2010 obsession with forward rolls), Brian Harvey’s breakfast Es, Pete’s in-and-out incarceration, to name but a few. I bet you’ve enjoyed features and interviews with drug users and abusers more than a chat with Coldplay. And whole cultures have sprung up from drug use. Where would the world be without the summer of love, the mid-90s rave scene, hip hop’s wake and bake, or the mid-noughties summer of Shroomadelica? Actually, maybe don’t answer that. Still, they’re all more interesting than an IDM convention.
This isn’t to say I’m suggesting you disappear down the rabbit hole yourself – your own chemical intake is your own decision (and the benefits of listening to music on drugs are another topic altogether). But the musician’s eternal penchant for snorting, sniffing, and smoking allows us to experience a glimmer of the far side whether or not we like to go a bit Winehouse every now and again. Stick on early Pink Floyd, the Velvets, or the Chemical Brothers and you’re off in a different world without having to clamber in anyone’s blacked-out Ford Escort or spend a night with Colonel Razzcocks. Try listening to this without feeling like you’re coming up on a dodgy pill.
So musicians, just say yes yes yes. That said, there’s no excuse for Afroman.
The case against…
Luke Lewis, Deputy Editor
We’ve all got our favourite rib-tickling musicians-on-drugs stories. Like the time Keith Richards was so zonked on heroin he sat motionless and uncomplaining while one of the Stones’ entourage set two strippers on fire. Or when David Bowie’s cocaine paranoia led him to store his piss in a fridge lest it be stolen by wizards. Or how Fleetwood Mac wanted to credit their drug dealer on the ‘Rumours’ sleeve, except – ha ha ha – he got executed before the album went to the pressing plant.
Notice a pattern? That’s right – these aren’t cheery anecdotes at all. They’re all horrifying, grubby little tales, and they illustrate what all right-thinking people instinctively know: excessive drug use makes people act like dicks. It’s not glamorous. It’s boring. And addiction has obliterated so many promising careers, we critics really ought to stop sniggering about it.
Sure, drugs have occasionally helped musicians unlock dormant creativity, leading to some great albums. But the buzz is always short-lived. Bands only ever make one or two good drug albums: think of MGMT (‘Oracular Spectacular’), Suede (‘Dog Man Star’), Guns N’Roses (‘Appetite For Destruction’). Those white-hot moments of narcotic inspiration can’t be sustained. Sooner or later you have to sober up. And then what?
Look at the biggest acts in the world – the ones who’ve (mostly) sustained their popularity and quality control over decades. U2, Radiohead, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. It’s telling that they’re all relatively clean-living bands (Thom Yorke famously forbade his bandmates from doing coke). Fry your synapses with chemicals and you might just pen a decent tune or two. Just be aware: it won’t last.
Not that a long career is necessarily what you want. And not that all drugs are the same. The Stones made some astonishing albums on heroin, and a really laboured one (‘Her Satanic Majesty’s Request’) on LSD. So let’s not be too sweeping or proscriptive. But we should also be wary of attaching too much significance to drugs.
‘Rumours’ is often spoken of as a “cocaine album”, which is really an insult to the brilliance of the songwriters involved. Those songs came about in spite of Fleetwood Mac’s drug intake, not because of them. Who knows – maybe if the band hadn’t spent much so much time snorting gak and talking rubbish, they might not have wound up hating each other so much by the end of it.
Still, it’s got to be better than smack. Thomas de Quincey wrote of opium that it brings to the mind “the most exquisite order, legislation and
harmony.” Try telling that to anyone who’s listened to ‘Down In Albion’ the whole way through. Heroin is the enemy of good music, and the albums it has ruined far outweigh the albums it has inspired.
Bottom line: you wouldn’t want to hang out with a dribbling junkie, so why would you listen to an album made by one? Shaun Ryder once said: “The problem with the rock’n’roll lifestyle is that you have to be in a band.” That pathetic sentence tells you everything you need to know about the fuzzy logic of drug-ravaged musicians.