As the TV show Noisey explores the geography that informs the creativity that births music, Nathan Jolly has explored the drugs that fuel musical movements.
Nathan Jolly

8 Dec 2016 - 12:36 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2016 - 12:41 PM

Throughout the history of pop music, the popular genre of choice has always gone hand in hand with the effects of whatever drugs are proliferated throughout the current youth culture. This is no mere coincide; it's hard to imagine a more perfect pairing than certain substances and certain sonic tempos, pitches, and rhythms. This was even the case during the 16th Century when the first coffee houses opened in Europe. Classical music became more uptempo and erratic; Bach even composed "Coffee Cantata" about an addiction to the stuff. Below we explore the link between drugs and musical movements.

Heroin, grunge, and jazz

The Space Needle in Seattle stands as an ominous reminder of the drug that wiped out scores of creative young artists in the Seattle music community during the early 90's, among them Kristen Pfaff from Hole, Layne Staley from Alice in Chains, and Andy Wood of proto-Pearl Jam band, Mother Love Bone, who were about to hit the big time when their flamboyant frontman died of an overdose. The drug's lethargic qualities can be heard in grunge's down-tuned, plodding sound, and a flood of the drug in the region from the late 80's onwards made it cheap and accessible. It was also extremely addictive.

The transgressive appeal of heroin no doubt attracted many of those into grunge music, although the problem was far from local, with the drug sweeping America throughout the late '80s, and hitting an apex in the mid '90s. Kurt Cobain had three times the usual lethal dose in his system when he violently ended his own life, marking a definitive ending to the bleak genre.

Half a century before Cobain's death, all the finest jazz musicians in America headed for the bright lights of New York City, the nightlife of which was experiencing a post-prohibition, post-depression boom. Jazz was all the rage, an underground musical style that disregarded previous musical motifs, and while many of the artists may have been freed by the format, they were under the iron grip of heroin - also experiencing a boom in the city.

The link between the loose lifestyle of a jazz musician and a junkie went hand in hand, with many of the genre's seminal recordings being performed while under an opiate haze. Charles Parker, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis were all raging addicts, Davis only realising so when he mistook withdrawals for the flu. A band-mate informed him he had unwittingly formed a habit, something Davis only realised when he snorted some heroin scored on the street in Queens and immediately felt fine. He advanced to needles when snorting proved financially unsustainable, and his addiction deepened. His playing became erratic, and he lost work - only kicking the habit four years later, after locking himself in an empty room for days. Other weren't so lucky, and couldn't escape the drug's grasp, with junk responsible for hastening the deaths of Parker, Coltrane, Baker, and Holiday.

Ecstasy and dance music

When asked by Tony Wilson on national TV why he moved his ultra-hip label Creation Records from London - the UK's centre of commerce - to the dreary working class Manchester, Alan McGee said, straight-faced, "It's a better class of drugs, Tony." For Wilson, whose own Manchester-based Factory Records and Hacienda nightclub had helped pioneer the then-burgeoning electronic dance scene, it was hard to disagree. (Blue Monday by New Order remains the highest-selling 12 inch record of all time).

The rise of ecstasy in the late '80s in the UK changed the music scene and the pop charts almost overnight, with pulsing, repetitive rhythms replacing standard song structures. Bands like The Stone Roses and Primal Scream were swept up in the…well, ecstasy, adapting their '60s-leaning sounds to incorporate drum breaks and electronic flourishes - see the 10-minute long Fools Gold or Primal Scream's 1991 'Screamadelica album for examples - while dance producers like The Prodigy, Chemical Bros, and Norman Cook - later to become Fatboy Slim - all suddenly found themselves on Top Of The Pops. The use of E became so widespread that the most popular clubs were losing money because nobody was buying alcohol. It's no surprise that the recent rise of EDM has coincided with another flourish in the use of MDMA or 'Molly' - which is basically E, re-stamped for a new generation.

Marijuana, LSD, and '60s psychedelic music

Here's a story for you. When the Beatles first met Bob Dylan, he had assumed they were all secret stoners because of the line in transatlantic hit 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' that goes, "I get high, I get high". The Beatles had to sheepishly admit the line was actually "I can't hide" (warped by their Scouser accents) and that they'd never smoked weed before.


Later that day, Dylan introduced the Beatles to weed, in a hotel room with a wet towel rolled under the crack in the door to mask the familiar scent, as fans camped below the window chanting their songs. Nothing was ever the same. A string of endlessly inventive records followed from the band, who felt unshackled, and empowered by their audiences, bringing them along in increments with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As pop music switched from a teenage fad to a legitimate art form, ambitious, meticulously-crafted concept albums blending every musical and literary influence imaginable began to emerge from all quarters of the industry. 

Marijuana use slid into LSD sometime between 1966 and 1967, and swept the youth of the Western world; before long we had songs with lyrics like "We skip the light fandango" and "No-one I think is in my tree" hitting number #1 on the charts. The introduction of colour TV in the UK in 1967 seemed perfect for a generation that had now began to see things in technicolour.

Of course, a lot of developing brains simply couldn't handle the massive doses of LSD being clumsily administered by car-park pharmacists, and some of the brightest musical minds, such as Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, and Jefferson Airplane's Skip Spence were permanent damaged. Then of course there was the Manson Family, who regularly dosed themselves with acid, and ended the dream of the '60s in the most horrible way imaginable.

Go deeper into the cultures surrounding music in the SBS VICELAND series Noisey, screening every Tuesday night at 9:20pm. Catch up on previous episodes on SBS On Demand:


More on The Guide:
Outstanding Rock: The Five Most Intriguing Music Docos On Demand
Our hunger for music films is limitless: these sagas of artists living lives devoted to their muse never lose their appeal.
How close are we to marijuana legalisation in Australia?
With the manufacture of medical cannabis now permitted in Australia, how much longer will Australians be waiting to see some form of legalisation?
Imperfect patriotism – States Of Undress in Russia
As States of Undress explores Russia, host Hayley Gates learns that fashion in the region has adopted nationalist tendencies.
SBS to air the most diverse dating show to hit Australian screens
Undressed premieres 16 January, 9.30pm on SBS
Dangerous obsession
State of Undress explored the beauty-obsessed Venezuela where the view of the female body is heavily distorted.