David Bowie was one of the most influential musicians of all time. The chameleonic artist inspired countless generations with his unfettered attitude and unwavering dedication to his ever-expanding creative vision. He was a real character to whom experimentation came as second nature, and anyone who knows his story will understand that this experimentation also led to Bowie trying almost every narcotic under the sun.
It turns out that Bowie began using drugs as a teenager in the early 1960s, and as was customary for the mod scene at the time, he used amphetamines and a host of other stimulants, including cocaine, long before he had even tried marijuana, which may come as a surprise to many, as it defies the ‘gateway drug’ argument that is rammed down our throats in school.
During a September 1976 interview with Playboy, Bowie explained how his journey with drugs began: “I’d done a lot of pills ever since I was a kid,” he said. “Thirteen or fourteen. But the first time I got stoned on grass was with John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin many, many years ago, when he was still a bass player on Herman’s Hermits records. We’d been talking to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot somewhere and Jonesy said to me, ‘Come over and I’ll turn you on to grass.’ I thought about it and said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a whirl.’ We went over to his flat – he had a huge room, with nothing in it except this huge vast Hammond organ – right next door to the police department.”
He continued: “I had done cocaine before but never grass. I don’t know why it should have happened in that order, probably because I knew a couple of merchant seamen who used to bring it back from the docks. I had been doing it with them. And they loathed grass. So I watched in wonder while Jonesy rolled these three fat joints. And we got stoned on all of them.”
Bowie concluded: “I became incredibly high and it turned into an in-fucking-credible hunger. I ate two loaves of bread. Then the telephone rang. Jonesy said, ‘Go and answer that for me, will you?’ So I went downstairs to answer the phone and kept on walking right out into the street. I never went back. I just got intensely fascinated with the cracks in the pavement”.
Totally enamoured by drugs during these early years, Bowie would then write his first song about them as an 18-year-old, and it would be the first of many, including ‘China Girl’. His first song to mention narcotics was ‘The London Boys’, which was originally recorded in November 1965 but was allegedly rejected by his label Pye due to the line, “you tried a pill”.
In David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection, Bowie’s bandmate at the time, Phil Lancaster, explained: “Tony Hatch, who was our recording manager, was happy with it. But in those days things were a bit staid and they had a committee of some sort to sanction new releases, so Pye wouldn’t let Tony release it, which was a big disappointment. We had to go back in with another number.”
Famously Bowie re-recorded the song in both 1966 and 2000, and it has since become a coveted moment in his extensive back catalogue.