In 2021, there isn’t much dynamism to writing a song off the back of a drug-induced experience. In fact, going through the latest releases it could be very easy to pinpoint exactly what drug each artist was on when writing the track, such is the prevalence and wider public acceptance of art and narcotics going together like eggs and bacon. From The Beatles to Drake and everyone in between, nothing is off-limits for music.
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. However, there is something extra special about the songs written when inspired by LSD.
The very nature of LSD, or acid as it is more colloquially known, is that it transports the user through visual changes and mind-altering experiences, into a brand new plane of thinking. Ask anyone with experience of the drug and they will likely tell you just how much it changed their life, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad, but a seismic change nevertheless. Below, we’re picking out five classic songs which capture the essence of this transformation.
Apple co-founder and one of the century’s most brilliant minds, Steve Jobs once said, “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.” It is this massive change of one’s mind’s eye that invigorated much of music in the 1960s and 1970s as the drug became a prolific influencer on the pop charts. While ‘acid rock’ arrived in the mid-1960s, perpetrated by bands like Jimi Hendrix Experience and Pink Floyd, its presence can be felt in every decade since.
Of course, drugs quickly go in and out of fashion but it would seem there is something holy about the hallucinogen, LSD. In every decade there is some reference to its power, some nod to the notions it helped to forge and a realisation that it provides many artists with the escape from reality they need to fully achieve their creative vision.
Below, we see five of those visions unfurl as we pick out our favourite songs inspired by acid.
Seven songs inspired by LSD:
‘I Am The Walrus’ – The Beatles
Of course, no list about LSD would be complete without the addition of The Beatles and their seminal acid anthem. Though not directly written about drugs, they certainly influenced this piece as the words for ‘I Am The Walrus’ leapt right up from the page. The song was directly inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and sees Lennon use an allegory to create a mystifying point. “Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy.
In the same 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon confirmed: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko… I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words ‘Element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.”
It sees Lennon put down on paper the fuzzy drug-fuelled sessions that underwrote the band’s output at this time and also showed that songs don’t necessarily have to mean anything to be considered great.
‘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!”
‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ – The Flaming Lips
While we may have noted that the mystification of drugs has been so neatly washed away from pop music that much of the modern chart is littered with drug references that have simply slipped by you, that doesn’t mean every artist is willing to label their track as such.
Far from the mark of commendation drugs were in the 1960s and beyond, to have an explicitly drug-related song in modern times is just a little passe. One such track is The Flaming Lips ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’, which, despite being clearly flecked with the wild imagery of acid, has never been specifically declared as an LSD anthem.
Not only is the story that unfurls with Wayne Coyne’s lyricism a little on the odd side, but the singer is a known admirer of the drug. Couple this with the air-filled joy of the track and it isn’t hard to draw a line between the two references.
‘She Said, She Said’ – The Beatles
One more addition from the Fab Four and while there are plenty of their songs inspired by drugs, and acid, in particular, this one was so neatly connected to the song we just had to add it in. Back in August 1965, The Beatles were holed up in a rented mansion hidden deep within the mountains above Beverly Hills, California. It was the perfect breeding ground for the newly famous Beatles to open up the taps on their celebrity and head straight for hedonism.
One such celebrity was Peter Fonda who somehow broke into the mansion to join the band during a particularly deep acid trip. For both Lennon and Harrison, this acid trip wasn’t their first rodeo and, while believing in their new-found LSD enlightenment, the duo pushed both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr to join them on their journey into the mind-melding trip. While Starr agreed, McCartney refused, Macca later shared his maiden voyage with his pal, Lennon.
As Harrison descended into a deep fear of death, Fonda tried to lighten up proceedings by recalling his own near-death experience. It stuck with Lennon and became the basis of the Revolver song ‘She Said, She Said’, the song written about Peter Fonda being suitably “uncool, man”.
‘Black Peter’ – The Grateful Dead
What list about the musical effect of LSD would be complete without The Grateful Dead. Outwardly and openly honest about their consumption of the drug, before, during and after their infamous shows, the band rarely directly referenced it. Instead, Jerry Garcia et al would play their cards close to their chest.
The band’s lyricist, Robert Hunter was also a well-known lover of the drug but was caught on the wrong side of it one fateful night when he drank an apple juice that contained a gram of crystal LSD, apparently worth over $50,000. During his trip, he experienced the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, JFK and many other assassinated figures.
When he had recuperated, it was enough to send Hunter to the drawing board with his pen and paper ready to write up the Dead’s tune ‘Black Peter’. It recalls the deaths of the aforementioned figures as well as his own as he writes: “All of my friends come to see me last night / I was laying in my bed and dying / Annie Beauneu from Saint Angel / Say ‘the weather down here so fine.’”
‘Lysergic Bliss’ – of Montreal
There is a paisley passion to of Montreal that quickly confirms their penchant for the drug. Their addition to the list is one of the most painstakingly obvious. Titled ‘Lysergic Bliss’ in reference to the drug it leaves no questions to be asked of lead singer, Kevin Barnes as he lays it all out.
“If we were a pair of jigsaw puzzle pieces / We would connect so perfectly,” sings Barnes perhaps suggesting that he not only sought out experience with the drug but comfort too, he provides a new vision of the narcotic. While most songwriters focus on the mind-altering visuals or transportation cognitive behaviours, Barnes seemingly pens a complete love song to the warmth and comfort the escape gives him.
‘Acid Tongue’ – Jenny Lewis
Released in 2008 as the titular track of Jenny Lewis’ album, ‘Acid Togue’ was directly inspired by one fateful evening. Most of the songs on our list have a positive edge to their sound, Lewis’, however, focuses on her first acid trip as a teen and how it shaped her life.
“It culminated in a scene not unlike something from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—the scene where Hunter S. Thompson has to lock the lawyer in the bathroom.,” recalled Lewis when speaking to Rolling Stone. “I sort of assumed the Hunter S. Thompson character and my friend – she had taken far too much – decided to pull a butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and chase me around the house.” That is not exactly what you need.
“At the end of that experience,” she continues, “my mom was out of town on a trip of her own and she returned to find me about 5 lbs lighter and I had—I was so desperate to get back to normal I decided to drink an entire gallon of orange juice. I saw that it was in the fridge and decided that this would sort of flush the LSD out of my system, but I didn’t realise that it did exactly the opposite.”