No matter which way you cut it, drugs have been a pillar of rock and roll since its inception. Throughout the 1950s boom, the ’60s proliferation, the ’70s decadence, the profiteering of the ’80s, the mania of the ’90s and the burst of artistic endeavour since the 21st century, narcotics are often a piece of the weird and wonderful pop culture puzzle. Of course, such hedonism has its issues, and there are countless tragic casualties littered across the history of rock and roll that should bear warning for anyone aiming to emulate similar journies.
Of course, many different drugs have been woven through specific genres. Whether it’s The Grateful Dead and LSD, the moment The Beatles turned to marijuana, the heroin of New york’s punk scene or the ecstasy of the rave culture that swelled in the north of England in the early 1990s, particular drugs are a penchant for certain musicians. However, it would seem that almost every genre of music has had its dalliance with cocaine.
Previously, the drug wasn’t reserved for the elite of celebrity culture as it seemingly was in the 20th century. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was famously addicted to the drug and would prescribe it to many of his patients as a miracle worker, once writing a paper on the drug he described as “a song of praise to this magical substance.” In 1886, John Stith Pemberton included the stimulant in his new sugar tonic he would name Coca-Cola, and within three years, his clientele had moved from the middle classes to the poor working class. The company removed the cocaine from the drink in 1903, and it was criminalised in 1914 via the Harison Narcotics Act.
Seemingly, the drug has been wildly glamorised ever since that moment in time. Usually, in films and television, the drug is the choice of criminals or celebrities and not many others in between. However, cocaine has always delicately powdered pop music like the finest cake at the village bake sale. Below, we’ll be looking at the ten greatest songs ever written about cocaine.
There is an array of tracks listed below that play both sides of rock and roll’s dangerous love affair with coke. Some songs speak of the wild enjoyment and creative impetus it gives them, while others give fair warning of cocaine’s ability to cripple a human.
10 best songs about cocaine:
‘White Lines’ – Grandmaster Flash 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 drug 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, highlighting the dangers and pitfalls surrounding drug life. At the time of the release, the crack epidemic was beginning to set in, and inner-city neighbourhoods were becoming plagued by cocaine.
‘Cocaine’ – J.J. Cale
There’s probably one song that everybody thinks of when they think about ‘best cocaine songs’, and J.J. Cale’s bouncing bluesy number hits the nail on the head. With a chorus that simply repeats the narcotic over and over, the song has a habit of being a welcomed earworm for all those looking to revel in the drug’s pretence of danger.
Written and recorded in 1976, as the ’70s provided rock stars with enough marching powder to ski down, Cale’s ode to the drug was a minimal hit. But it found huge fame when Eric Clapton covered it for his 1977 album Slowhand.
‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ – The Rolling Stones
Appearing on Sticky Fingers, the band’s most notoriously drug-fuelled escapade, ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin” has always landed as a classic coke anthem. It’s also one of Richards’ favourite riffs from the band: “On that song, my fingers just landed in the right place, and I discovered a few things about that [five-string, open G] tuning that I’d never been aware of. I think I realised that even as I was cutting the track.”
The luck continued as the iconic final jam sessions were never meant to be recorded. “And then that jam at the end – we didn’t even know they were still taping. We thought we’d finished,” Keef continues, “‘Oh, they kept it going. Okay, fade it out there – no wait, a little bit more, a bit more…’ Basically, we realised we had two bits of music: there’s the song, and there’s the jam.” However, the song’s lyrics have endeared it to snorters across the land as it reflects the many struggles users find when trying to rouse a sleepy dealer.
‘Snowblind’ – Black Sabbath
While conservative folk were chasing down Black Sabbath for their apparent satanic leanings, it should have been the NDA who had tabs on Ozzy Osbourne and co. The band were notorious for their cocaine habit and spent thousands of pounds on the drug, often devising elaborate ways of smuggling it across borders to facilitate their songwriting.
On the titular song of their legendarily coke-fuelled album Snowblind, the band make a plainly obvious plea for the drug to never leave their side. In the track, Osbourne portrays the drug as both magical and intensely isolating, perhaps even vampiric in its power to drain him. “My eyes are blind, but I can see / snowflakes glisten on the trees/ The sun no longer sets me free/ I feel there’s no place freezing me.”
‘Life in the Fast Lane’ – Eagles
If you thought Black Sabbath were the kings of coca, you’d be dead wrong. The story goes that when the Eagles left a studio, they left behind “about a pound of cocaine” trapped within the mixing desk nooks and crannies. Don Henley has often noted how cocaine operated as a “writing tool” for the band before admitting that “at the end, it brought out the worst in everyone”. However, on this occasion, it wouldn’t be the drug that enabled Henley to write a song but the experience of going to pick it up.
Don Henley recalled the moment his drug dealer said those infamous lines as part of the 2013 documentary The History of the Eagles: “I was riding shotgun in a Corvette with a drug dealer on the way to a poker game. The next thing I know, we’re doing 90. Holding! [cocaine] Big time! I say, ‘Hey man!’ He grins and goes, ‘Life in the fast lane!’ I thought, ‘Now there’s a song title'”.
‘Just Like Honey’ – The Jesus and Mary Chain
‘Just Like Honey’ is another beauteous anthem whereby things sound so heavenly you can only imagine that it’s about the stars aligning and orchestrating a love liaison of the most optimistic sort. It’s also one where the band have kept their cards close to their chest regarding its inception—perhaps because it somewhat taints it when the whispered eudemonia is twisted with the irony of a sorry addiction.
However, it is the title of the album that contains the track that reveals the truth. Psychocandy is a far less veiled reference to cocaine. Given that context, references to “Dripping” and the lines like “Walking back to you/ Is the hardest thing that / I can do” seem much more akin to an addiction that renders you a plastic toy to a substance.
‘Pusherman’ – Curtis Mayfield
Sometimes songs stick with you not for the enjoyment you necessarily derive from it but for the thrill that it gives others. Well, that was certainly why I started listening to Curtis Mayfield and his anthemic depiction of the murky New York night, ‘Pusherman’. It was TV chef and cult icon Anthony Bourdain‘s persuasive description of the tune that grabbed my attention.
“Ahhh…cocaine. I wanted it,” writes Bourdain. “And even though the Superfly soundtrack (unlike the film) is decidedly anti-drug and cautionary, it sure made coke sound desirable to me. The lush arrangements are timeless, whatever your position. This is still in heavy rotation on my iPod long after I gave up the powders.” Be careful kids; iPods are still incredibly dangerous bits of kit.
‘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 powdered 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 from providing a defining look at its powers of destruction.
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. Zeppelin takes aim at the drug and its widespread influence on music in this track.
‘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 vast amounts of the drug. At this stage, before her snorting burned a huge hole in her nose that threatened to collapse it, Nicks was still enraptured by the possibilities taking coke offered her as a songwriter.
‘Gold Dust Woman’, which is 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.
‘Cocaine Blues’ – Johnny Cash
In the 1960s, Cash held a concert at the Folsom State Prison in California, where he performed ‘Cocaine Blues’, among many other songs, to an audience mostly comprised of inmates. The song featured on his live album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison alongside 16 other tracks. A reworking of the original T. J. Arnall song ‘Little Sadie’, Cash altered the lyrics to make a somewhat less-provocative version of the song for his initial performance.
The story behind the song, as it went, was of a man who, under the influence of whiskey and cocaine, murdered his girlfriend, who had been unfaithful to him. This man, Willy Lee, was later sentenced to prison, and the song ended with Willy imploring his listeners to “drink all you want to, but let that cocaine be”. Cash, however, changed “drink all you want” to “lay off the whiskey”.
Although Cash developed a certain romantic outlaw image for himself through his song, the drugs and the alcohol often got the better of him. In the late 1950s, Cash’s addiction got pretty severe, causing him to become jittery and erratic. A long and arduous road of mishaps and an epiphany later, Cash managed to dig himself out of the deep, dark pit of addiction that had consumed and controlled him for the longest time. Despite his growth, the song has remained the qualifying mark of any playlist devoted to the drug and its effects.