[Another great guest post from Ottawa-based music lover Mike Raine – we would love your thoughts on this one!]
I was reading a column by Allan Cross the other day where he made the argument that rock and roll is usually at its best when Republicans are in power in Washington. The argument goes that rock and roll is rebel music so therefore it is usually best when it has an authority to rebel against. There were great music scenes in America and around the world during the Nixon, Regan, and Bush Sr. administrations and a relatively low influx of decent rock and roll during the Carter and Clinton administrations. This got me thinking of another correlation in rock and roll, that between music scenes and the drugs that dominate them. However, in this case it is less clear which came first.
Let’s start in the 1960s, when the relationship between drugs and music left the jazz clubs and entered the mainstream. The communal feelings of sixties music was very evident in their music and in their choice of drugs. Marijuana, magic mushrooms, and LSD became increasingly popular. All three of these drugs lend themselves to communal setting where people are keen to see music as a revolutionizing force that could bring people together. These are not inherently selfish drugs and that is seen in the music. Rock and roll by bands such as Dylan, The Beatles, The Greatful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills and Nash promoted a people’s revolution and new era of community living. The music was about “we” and not “me”.
However, as the communitarians gave way to the hedonist, the drugs likewise became more hedonistic. Band such as Led Zeppelin and The Eagles brought hedonism to a new level with their stadium concerts, private jumbo jets, and endless groupies. During this time, marijuana and LSD gave way to cocaine, a very euphoric but isolating drug. The desired affect becomes less about a communal experience and more about instant gratification for the individual. As such, the popular music of the era stopped talking of a people’s revolution and became about have a good time in the here and now. When you are on cocaine, it becomes hard to think of revolution when you are so preoccupied with the magnificence of your fur coat.
In the late 1970s, as stadium rock became too overindulgent and punk music rose from the ghettoes of New York and London. Punk was a much more drug free scene than its predecessors and it was evident in the music. As the people in the scene came back down to Earth, punk brought music back to basics. The jumbo jets and fifteen minute drum solos were gone and two minute, three chord songs were emerging. Of course, this didn’t last. Singing about the reality of being poor (another reason for the lack of drugs, who could afford them?) could only last for so long before people wanted an escape. This brings us to the 1980s.
In the 80s, music became mind-numbingly selfish. With hair-metal, the airwaves were dominated by music that focused on womanizing and partying and unsurprisingly cocaine made a comeback. Like the mid-seventies, the 1980s needed a drug to match, a drug that gave people a self-congratulatory feeling such as cocaine and speed. This can also be seen in the Madchester scene of the late 80s lead by bands such as The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.
Madchester was scene that evolved in Manchester England and which created a fusion between rave culture and rock and roll. Like all music scenes before, it embraced a drug that could bring the desired effect, that drug was Ecstasy. Ecstasy created the communal yet surreal feeling needed to create a good rave. Bands such as The Stone Roses mixed rock, funk, dance, and number of other influences to create a truly original sound that couldn’t be fully understood without the right setting and the right mindset.
A little later in the early 1990s, Grunge was making headway in America with its depressing sound and lyrics. You can’t really write a song like Nirvana’s Dumb when you are on cocaine and think everything is bloody fantastic. Grunge music was matched with the equally depressing drug Heroin. While Heroin may be euphoric at first, that feeling quickly gives way to a major comedown and addiction which can be seen in the music of many early 1990s American bands such as Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Blind Melon.
This pattern of music scenes reflecting their drug of choice has continued since Grunge, whether it’s Britpop (cocaine) or American bubblegum pop (pills). However, unlike Allan Cross’ perceived cause and effect correlation between politics and rock and roll, the cause and effect correlation between drugs and music is less obvious. It is like the age old question of the chicken and the egg, except in this case it is what came first, the Ecstasy or the rave?