Writing songs about drugs and taking narcotics used to be a covert operation. To create a track about one’s penchant for substances today would be a little bit vulgar. Censorship is now so relaxed that writing a song about drugs is almost pointless. Back in the 1960s, as recreational drugs became a part of the swinging culture, using the secret codes within pop music to hidden references became a mark of a band’s anti-establishment stance. Illicit songs soon became commonplace.
It means every different kind of artist has paid tribute to the wilder side of life. Whether it’s Eric Clapton and JJ Cale’s classic ‘Cocaine’ or the other side of the scale in Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Pusher Man’, the illicit nature of drugs has always made them a hot commodity within rock ‘n’ roll. After all, it does make up one a third of the ethos that so many people lived their life by; sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s a motto that has always gone hand in hand with music, and it will be a hard one to shake. Even though it is easy to get drug references past censorship authorities in the 21st century, it hasn’t stopped countless artists attempting to shoehorn their favourite tipple into the mainstream.
The seductive danger of drugs means it will always feature as a prominent theme for songwriting, but while they become more and more explicit references, we’re looking back at the foundational songs that set the tone.
Below, we’re bringing you the ten greatest drug songs of all time.
The 10 best songs about drugs:
‘For Your Life’ – Led Zeppelin
Taken from 1976’s Presence, ‘For Your Life’ isn’t the most famous Led Zeppelin song of all time but it certainly does pack a punch. The band had led a pretty wild existence by the time they came to write this reflective song, and they didn’t hold back.
Robert Plant, in particular, was reevaluating his life and his choices when it came to being a rock star and the trial and tribulations that go with it. One such constant cameo in a rock star’s life at the time was cocaine. In this track that Zeppelin take aim at the drug and its widespread influence on music.
‘Sister Morphine’ – The Rolling Stones
Though the song was originally released as a B-side to Marianne Faithfull’s single, The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sister Morphine’ comes from a place of sincere education. Released on Sticky Fingers in 1971, the song is truly disturbing at parts and captures the twisted nature of addiction and narcotic dependency.
Jagger is at his most ghoulish too. The singer uncharacteristically wails across the song about cocaine, drugs, doctors and everything in between. The slide guitar from Ry Cooder is tremendous but this track hangs on Jagger.
‘Cold Turkey’ – John Lennon
John Lennon was a menace to society during his heyday. Not only was he spouting out a reem of rhetoric about the benefits of peace, but he was also happy to write songs about the heinous habit of heroin. The singer had become hooked on the drug during particularly tough moments with The Beatles and reflected on the withdrawal process on ‘Cold Turkey’.
The song is utterly brutal. Where other tracks have moved to glamourise the taking of narcotics, Lennon’s view is an unflinching one that looks you dead in the eye and challenges you to disregard it.
‘The Needle and the Damage is Done’ – Neil Young
Taken from the now-iconic 1972 album Harvest, this is quite possibly the greatest anti-drug song you’ll ever hear. Considering it was written in the early ’70s, the idea of such a track was a dicey affair. Inspired by Danny Whitten’s heroin addiction, Neil Young exhibits some of his fines songwriting abilities.
Young has often claimed Whitten to have been his musical soulmate, but Whitten’s addiction got the better of him and he succumbed to an overdose on the night Young fired him from his touring band in what is a brutally tragic tale.
‘Gold Dust Woman’ – Fleetwood Mac
There’s no doubt that Stevie Nicks and the rest of Fleetwood Mac soon became monster cocaine snorters. The group wrote most of their acclaimed album Rumours while snorting huge amounts of the drug. At this stage, before her snorting ended up burning a huge hole in her nose, Nicks was still enraptured by the possibilities the song offered.
‘Gold Dust Woman’, which featured on the aforementioned record, sees Nicks describe the suit of armour the drug provided her. The potential cocaine offered her as a songwriter seemed huge for Nicks, and this perception would almost end up costing her her life.
‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ – The Beatles
Now, this one is a bit difficult, largely because if you asked any member of the Fab Four, they would happily tell you that this song was composed without conscious reference to the drug, as John Lennon once explained: “I had no idea it spelt LSD. This is the truth: my son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around. I said, ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and I thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote a song about it.”
However, with its kaleidoscopic lyrics and quite trippy sonics, it’s hard not to recognise the track as, at the very least, a drug-adjacent song. “I remember coming up with ‘cellophane flowers’ and ‘newspaper taxis’ and John answered with things like ‘kaleidoscope eyes’ and ‘looking glass ties’,” remembered Paul McCartney. “We never noticed the LSD initial until it was pointed out later – by which point people didn’t believe us.”
‘Heroin’ – The Velvet Underground
Unlike the aforementioned trippy Beatles number, The Velvet Underground were pretty explicit in their sentiment when they wrote ‘Heroin’. An ode to opiates is no new trick but Lou Reed and the band as they delivered perhaps one of the defining drug anthems. The 1967 effort is not only a cracking song in its own right but works as a piece of conceptual art too.
As well as being an explicit song in lyrical structure, sonically, the track attempts to take the listener into the warm cocoon of a shot of heroin. Droning may have become part of the band’s landmark sound, but they exemplify it here. In fact, the droning may be a chicken and egg situation.
‘White Rabbit’ – Jefferson Airplane
Grace Slick was widely known as one of the most prominent voices of the scene which flourished out of San Francisco in the ’60s, professing free thought and the utmost pursuit of creativity. The track, ‘White Rabbit‘, is one of her finest and became an anthem for narcotics but Slick says that beyond drugs the song “is about following your curiosity. The White Rabbit is your curiosity.”
The singer also revealed that the song’s references might have been shocking to some but seemed a natural progression to her, suggesting it may well be because of the previous generation’s own experimentations, “Our parents read us stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz,” Slick recalled.
She added: “They all have a place where children get drugs, and are able to fly or see an Emerald City or experience extraordinary animals and people… And our parents are suddenly saying, ‘Why are you taking drugs?’ Well, hello!”
‘Sweet Leaf’ – Black Sabbath
Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of Black Sabbath may well have become monster cocaine snorters but that didn’t mean they couldn’t pay homage to the gentler moments of narcotics life. ‘Sweet Leaf’ is a song written as an ode to marijuana.
The track begins with guitarist Tony Iommi allegedly coughing from taking a joint hit. Naturally, things only go more feral from there. While most weed songs are written with a lilting, laid back tone, to match the drug in reference, Sabbath kick things up a notch. It’s a powerhouse number that pulses with intensity and never really slows down.
‘White Lines’ – Grandmaster and Melle Mel
The 1983 song ‘White Lines’ was a revolutionary track when it came out. Not only was it an anthemic song about the drug that had begun to take over the entire world, but it was also one of the first hip-hop songs to gain wide recognition. While most drugs songs up until this point had been about the joy of taking them, this track was a serious reflection of the crumbling society drugs had built.
As well as talking about the dangers of taking cocaine, the song also moved to dispel the myths of selling drugs too, highlighting the dangers and pitfalls that surround drug life.