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The song The Rolling Stones wrote about the evils of 'Big Pharma'


Sometime in the early 2000s, the term ‘Big Pharma’ took on a newly sinister dimension. Used in reference to major pharmaceutical manufacturers, today, the term is practically synonymous with an increasingly widespread distrust in the institutions designed to help us. The idea that certain pharmaceuticals are doing us more harm than good has been around for a long time. Indeed, The Rolling Stones were already exploring the dangers of Big Pharma in their 1966 track ‘Mother’s Little Helper’.

Since the 1940s, the American pharmaceutical industry has gradually tightened its grip on the population. During the Second World War, the discovery of penicillin massively accelerated the development of supposedly ‘ethical’ therapeutic and psychiatric drugs available on prescription. The mass production of penicillin during the war, alongside things like cars, tanks, guns and planes, made America incredibly rich. After the war, the middle classes made the most of this newfound affluence by spending money on the many consumer products now available to them.

While these products sold an image of domestic bliss, the reality was far from blissful. As life became increasingly restricted to the domestic sphere, more and more of the stay-at-home population began suffering from anxiety and insomnia. Doctors were met with the same complaints day in, day out: feelings of emptiness, dread, and boredom that no amount of gardening could quash. In an attempt to combat this invisible health crisis, pharmaceutical companies began pushing a variety of depressants, the most widely prescribed was benzodiazepine, commonly known as benzos.

The drug was particularly popular among housewives, hence The Rolling Stones’ track ‘Mother’s Little Helper’. In the Aftermath single, Mick Jagger sings: “What a drag it is getting old ‘Kids are different today,’ I hear ev’ry mother say/ Mother needs something today to calm her down/ And though/ she’s not really ill/ There’s a little yellow pill/ She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper.”

Jagger’s acknowledgement that the mother “isn’t really ill” might be a comment on the non-visible nature of mental illness, but it also hints toward the dark reality of benzodiazepine prescription to women in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, whose sadness was frequently a result of their socially-accepted imprisonment. But rather than admitting that the role assigned to women – i.e. to raise a family and keep the house in order – might be contributing to their disaffection, the pharmaceutical industry used drugs as a quick fix.

Benzos are designed to latch onto a key receptor in the brain, which releases a neurotransmitter known as GABA. A rush of GABA makes the individual feel immediately calmer, which made Benzodiazepines the perfect drug for a portion of a society riddled with existential worry. It was only later discovered just how addictive benzos really were. But already in 1966, Jagger seemed to be aware of the similarities between his drug-addled friends in the music industry and the hollow-eyed American housewife. “I get inspiration from things that are happening around me – everyday life as I see it,” the singer said in 1966. “People say I’m always singing about pills and breakdowns, therefore I must be an addict – this is ridiculous. Some people are so narrow-minded they won’t admit to themselves that this really does happen to other people beside pop stars.”

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