There’s nothing quite like the influence of hard drugs to foster an aura of mysticism and meaning around music; for example, everything the Doors ever recorded. Or at least that’s the myth – in practice, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, musicians abusing drugs leads to indefensible, self-indulgent garbage suitable only for uncreative middle-schoolers (again, q.v. the Doors). Today, we look back at some of those rare outliers – legitimately great albums whose substance flows directly from the substances abused by the musicians behind them.
David Bowie, Station to Station
Along with alcohol, cocaine has been one of the great pharmaceutical constants throughout the history of music. Blow appeals to musicians for the same reason steroids appeal to baseball players: it gives you the power to tirelessly hone your craft, the confidence to explore new musical directions, and the freedom to act like an out-of-control asshole whenever the mood strikes you. As early as 1930, the Memphis Jug Band had a hit with “Cocaine Habit Blues”; the drug would later be present during the recordings of such seminal works as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” (ever wondered why such a so-called outspoken anti-coke song would end in a cascading chorus of “DO IT!”?).
And then there’s David Bowie, a rock star whose coke intake was considered dangerously heroic even by the standards of Los Angeles rock stars in the mid-seventies. Consider the following evidence:
And believe it or not, Bowie’s coke habit would only get worse from there; he’d spend much of the next two years having his semen stolen by witches, subsisting on a diet consisting mostly of peppers and milk – oh, and recording Station to Station, quite possibly the best album he’d ever record. Ironically, despite the title track’s pleas that “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” Station to Station is also one of the few albums where the album is clearly richer for coke’s motivational efforts; it might only be six songs long, but each one sounds polished, refined, and perfected to within seven decimal places. Unfortunately, Bowie paid for his inspiration with his memory; he now claims to remember absolutely nothing about the recording sessions for Station. If only he’d written down his doses; it sure sounds like he got he got them right.
Ecstasy spent most of the 1980s and 1990s gradually becoming increasingly mainstream thanks to the enthusiastic evangelism of artists like Primal Scream (Screamadelica), Soft Cell (Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret), and, well, everyone who ever made house or rave music (even legendary killjoy Moby). By 2000, e was such a ubiquitous club drug that the type of club didn’t even matter – black kids in Atlanta’s after-hour spots were rolling just as hard as white kids at the Ministry of Sound in London. Rap pioneers Outkast even started tailoring their music to the drug, modeling songs like “Bombs Over Baghdad” on the e-addled rhythms of London’s drum and bass scene:
Astonishingly, the rest of Stankonia, the album for which “B.O.B.” served as lead single, proved just as ecstatic in a variety of ways – from “Mrs. Jackson”‘s earnest, teary sentimentalism to the squelchy acid-house squiggles on “Snappin’ and Trappin'”, every song had at least a subtle nod to the effects of MDMA. (Of course, that’s not to say Stankonia gives blanket approval to drugs – it’s rather avowedly anti-coke.)
Todd Rundgren, A Wizard, A True Star
The upside of psychedelics for artists is the idea of exploring the inner workings of your mind and the universe and other impenetrable hippie nonsense; the downside, of course, is that psychedelics literally exist to render the people who take them utterly incoherent. As a result, even a lot of the best music made under the influence of psychedelics tends to be rather tiring as you struggle to keep up with these deranged lunatics; Sly & the Family Stone’s PCP-fueled There’s a Riot Goin’ On, for instance, is unquestionably one of the greatest records in the history of music, but it’s certainly not something you casually throw on every now and again. Then there’s all the psychedelic-derived stuff which is most emphatically not the best, a category which includes Dave Matthews Band and Phish and I’m just going to stop typing now.
A Wizard, A True Star, however, is the antithesis of tiring; it is 55:56 (a length which bumped up against the maximum amount of music a record could hold) of musical stream-of-consciousness, rocketing back and forth between genres ranging from heavy metal to doo-wop to children’s music. The entire first side of the record is one contiguous slab of psychedelic studio tricks and resolute genre nonconformity; it sounds like the same kind of sonic patchwork quilt as the Avalanches’ Since I Left You. As for whether Rundgren was on anything or not, well:
Spiritualized, Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
We conclude with another tough choice; heroin has, after all, been directly responsible for masterpieces in genres ranging from art rock to hard rock to grunge rock to punk rock to industrial rock to the complete absence of rock. And yet the choice can only be Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, Jason Pierce’s 1997 outspoken loving ode to – if not outright justification for – heroin. The band even went so far as to release a special edition packaged like medicine complete with a pamphlet explaining the side effects, foil blister packaging around the album, and impossibly low “dosage” suggestions. “Listen to this album once-twice a day”? It’s like they’re inviting recreational abuse among their – OH WAIT, I GET IT NOW. Fortunately, in spite of the heavy-handedness of its central concept, Ladies and Gentlemen remains an artistic success largely because the songs are so solid; it’s almost a shame that the title track will be doomed to an eternity of soundtracking awkward freshman-dorm boob-grabs for generations to come (especially thanks to its inclusion in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind):