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From Neil Young to John Lennon: 7 classic songs written about the crippling effects of drug addiction

“They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said, ‘no, no, no’.” That line, famously sung by Amy Winehouse on her 2006 classic ‘Rehab’, is one of the most pertinent lines ever sung in music. Aside from the obvious, tragic implications of the words, there’s a universal quality to the line that makes it applicable to so many of our favourite musical artists. Everyone from the members of Blur to Iggy Pop has, at one point, checked in to rehabilitation clinics attempting to kick one drug addiction or another.

There’s something about musicians, and particularly ones that make the most enduring music, where it seems to come as a given that excess will rear its ugly head at some point or another across their careers. Facilitated by money and the yes man culture of the music industry as well as personal demons, if you quickly try and count the number of icons that have endured the troubles of escaping from the hedonistic stereotype of a musician, you heed that the list is innumerable.

Due to the fact that any addiction is a terrible thing for those affected, there can be no surprise that it has given rise to some of the most iconic songs ever written. A deeply personal and often very bleak subject, music has proven itself time and time again to be what we all know it truly is, the greatest healer.

Some of the best songs have come out of the darkest times, and as the journey from addiction to recovery is often a very tortuous and never-ending time for the beholder, in many ways, lyrics and music have acted as another mode of therapy, helping those affected on their way to the light. Luckily, these days, rock ‘n’ roll excess seems to be a dying trope due to just how many casualties its very futile, gung-ho outlook has had. This is not to say it’s completely gone, and it probably won’t for as long as music is made up of idealists, enquiring minds, and those with a story to tell.

This got us thinking, then, what are the best songs written about addiction? The list was so extensive, to strip it down to seven was no easy feat. The list should be a thought-provoking starting point for discussion. Join us as we list the top seven.

Seven songs about addiction:

‘Under The Bridge’ – Red Hot Chili Peppers (1992)

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1992 classic is widely hailed as one of the ultimate songs about addiction. Dealing with the loneliness and despondency it brings as well, the song is a concise lesson of the pitfalls and emotional confusion that addiction brings, discussing both addiction and the anathema of recovery.

Frontman Anthony Kiedis had used a wide range of narcotics from an early age, but at the time had been sober for three years. He felt far away from his bandmates who still continued to use different drugs. This, added to the fact that school friend and the band’s first guitarist, Hillel Slovak, died aged just 26 owing to a heroin overdose, makes the song’s message even more real.

The lyrics in the chorus display the song’s sentiment clearly: “I don’t ever want to feel / Like I did that day / Take me to the place I love”.

‘The Needle and The Damage Done’ – Neil Young (1972)

Taken from Canadian minstrel, Neil Young‘s iconic 1972 record Harvest, the lyrical content of ‘The Needle and The Damage Done’ is perhaps the bleakest Young ever written, and he’s not exactly known for his optimistic songs.

The lyrics describe the effects of heroin addiction on many musicians Neil Young knew, namely his Crazy Horse bandmate and close friend, Danny Whitten, who passed away from a sedative overdose that same year. In fact, this is a theme Young would explore again on the 1975 record Tonight’s the Night.

The closing lyrics are heartbreaking: I’ve seen the needle and the damage done / A little part of it in everyone / But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun”. On the handwritten liner notes for the compilation Decade, Young wrote of the song: “I am not a preacher, but drugs killed a lot of great men.”

‘Cold Turkey’ – John Lennon (1969)

Said to have been written by John Lennon in a “creative outburst” after he and Yoko Ono’s brief heroin addictions, the title of this entry could not be any clearer.

A defiant groove, it is strange that Lennon claimed the song was actually about food poisoning he and Yoko suffered after eating Christmas leftovers, as the lyrics of the song make it very clear that this was not the case. An odd bloke.

One portion reads: “Can’t see no sky My feet are so heavy / And so is my head / I wish I was a baby / I wish I was dead Cold turkey has got me on the run”.

‘Master of Puppets’ – Metallica (1986)

Who knew that one of Metallica’s most hard-rocking songs is about drug addiction? Frontman James Hetfield said in 1988: “It deals pretty much with drugs. How things get switched around, instead of you controlling what you’re taking and doing, it’s drugs controlling you.”

Hetfield has struggled with addiction before and had openly discussed it over his career. This makes the song’s twisted lyrics even more foreboding: “Master of puppets, I’m pulling your strings / Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams / Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing / Just call my name ’cause I’ll hear you scream / Master”.

‘Jane Says’ – Jane’s Addiction (1988)

A sunny sounding classic with all its sparkling acoustic guitars and steel drums, it may come as a surprise to some that the song is actually about addiction. The title directly refers to singer Perry Farrell’s ex-housemate, Jane Bainter, who was actually the muse, and namesake of the iconic LA rockers.

In a famous 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bainter confirmed herself that the song was indeed written about her. She revealed that she was actually dating an abusive man named Sergio, who Farrell mentions in the lyrics of the first verse.

The recurring line “I’m gonna kick tomorrow”, alludes to Bainter wanting to get clean of heroin, which in the triumphant 2001 interview she said she eventually did. By that point, she had been clean for eight years and even managed to get to Spain, her one dream that is laid out in the song.

‘Song to Say Goodbye’ – Placebo (2006)

Placebo are a great band, but they’re not exactly known for their happy-go-lucky lyrical themes. Always dealing with the darker sides of the human condition and somewhat controversial subjects, for these reasons, Placebo are one of the most unique and necessary outfits out there. This 2006 anthem explicitly deals with heroin addiction and the effect it has on everyone involved.

It also seems to reference Neil Young’s entry on this list: “Your needle and your damage done / Remains a sordid twist of fate / Now I’m trying to wake you up / To pull you from the liquid sky”.

The Drugs Don’t Work – The Verve (1997)

Possibly the most explicit reference to how excessive behaviour will kill you, The Verve’s heartfelt classic also took on another life for a nation in mourning, as it was released the day after Princess Diana died. Lyrically the song couldn’t be any further away from the death of a Princess, but the solemn sentiment is something we can all find solace in, regardless of circumstance.

Introducing the track for the first time in 1995, frontman Richard Ashcroft said: “There’s a new track I’ve just written. It goes ‘the drugs don’t work, they just make me worse, and I know I’ll see your face again’. That’s how I’m feeling at the moment. They make me worse, man. But I still take ’em. Out of boredom and frustration, you turn to something else to escape.”