Pop Culture
Nov 30, 2023, 06:24AM

Why Are 1960s Drug Songs So Popular?

Exploring the mystery uncovers rare cuts and classics.

Drugart.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Art: Michael Gentile.

The other evening, I caught the premier episode of A Murder at the End of the World. The first scene features tech-savvy snooper Darby Hart walking down a street at night. As the music fades in, Robby Krieger's guitar emits mantra sparks with every note of The Doors song “The End.” It’s happened before in one of the most incredible openings ever, the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. When heard in the right context, this song—while not exactly a drug song—becomes a principal element with its distinct 1960s vibe.

Breaking down the decade, if you were a 14-year-old tripping balls on LSD, hope your brains weren’t fried. Congratulations if you made it back enlightened. Although we said goodbye to the times, we still treasure them. Entering our time machine reveals a counterculture enrichment process that questioned and challenged mainstream wisdom. Even mediocre efforts had a bit of depth, though not every musical creation was a piece of gold.

The 1960s brought forth the 1970s—the dress-for-success, money grab generation of resentment—while others saw the period as a carefree, fun-loving greatest hits package. For them, that much is true—it was the heyday of psychedelic music. We all like different kinds of entertainment. That being the case, we can’t fit everyone in the pool, so our jukebox willfully has loose ends.

The age was one of transition. Today we have different twists: wider generational gaps, increased drug use, an obsessive dependence on technology and insane threats of violence. Addiction among the general public and musicians spiraled out-of-control. Perfectly understandable, we’ve never been able to get away from it all.

Drugs reshaped our artistic boundaries. Not to be overshadowed by the Surrealists or the Beats, The Beatles entered new musical horizons in 1966. With tape loops and lyrics on “Tomorrow Never Knows” the last track on Revolver; they celebrated Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner by going lysergic. In 1967, The Rolling Stones gazed into the future with their telescope and noticed a parallel universe. While there was no Mick Jagger handclap or strut, Brian Jones’ pristine mellotron on “2000 Light Years from Home” demonstrated that they too were ahead of the times.

Nowadays, Grace Slick continues to sing “White Rabbit.” The song’s been used in over 57 movies and TV shows. How about copping dope with the Velvet Underground on “I’m Waiting for the Man” or Lou Reed’s cautionary note on “Heroin?” Or perhaps precision harmonies with 12-string guitar on “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds.

A double-record set of 1960s garage rock appeared on the music scene in 1972, launching a franchise and coining a new pseudonym Nuggets, thanks to creator Lenny Kaye. There’s a cut on Nuggets 2: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond from a band called Tintern Abbey.

The group’s history plays out like an episode of The Monkees. Active in 1967, a bunch of London guys once stood in a dole line then formed a band. An original 45 of their first and only single release is a major score for any vinyl junkie. “Beeside” is the pun intended A-side. Flip over for “Vacuum Cleaner.” A video clip shows the “Peacock Revolution” in action, British young men in capes play in the woods. The band’s demise occurred a year later in 1968. The height of mod London fashion pollinated its own style. You can hear The Eyes’ grind their fuzz guitar on “You’re Too Much.”

Rock music went crazy over garage songs. “When I look up to the sky, I see your eyes, a funny kind of yellow.” The Status Quos delivered an acid hit on the 1968 British tv show Top of the Pops. Take a refined guitar riff, wah-wah pedals and phasers and you get “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”  Back in the USA, look for hidden deep meanings in tracks from Michigan’s Coopersville High School students as The Psychotics play “If You Don’t Believe Don’t” or how about “Every Night” from The Human Expression, a Los Angeles band. Don’t forget to go nuts over early Alice Cooper, there’s The Spiders on “Don’t Blow Your Mind”, all three recordings made in 1966.

Sky pilots experienced an unforgettable ride. Can you imagine how difficult it was for troops flying over Vietnam? The Box Tops “The Letter” had a profound effect on the soldiers. Their letters stopped after they got bad news from home about ex-girlfriends who were pregnant and married a local guy.

In May 1967, 16-year-old Alex Chilton stood on a television studio stage that could’ve doubled for a CYO dance hall on a Friday night. The lanky, second-time-around 10th-grader looked like he’d pulled an all-nighter. With a tambourine close to his side, a smile broke through his messy hair. Gazing into the camera, he delivered a glorious gruff vocal “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane.” The short, under two-minute song marked his arrival.

Chilton’s feverish career never found mainstream success afterwards but achieved major status in the independent music scene. Originally from Memphis, he crossed paths with Charles Manson once while staying at Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Palisades home. Following the Box Tops, he pursued other projects such as becoming a member of the band Big Star, producing rockabilly for the Cramps, and hosting The Dead Boys and the Feelies at CBGB’s. At 59, he died of a heart attack in 2010.

Decades later, a different approach exists regarding hallucinogenic use for struggling veterans. Recent drug studies in controlled settings reveal war survivors receive benefits from treatments for PTSD problems. That could serve as an antidote to untangle trauma and rebuild lives. Other researchers say we’re in the middle of a psychedelic hype bubble.

It’s hard to escape history. No one has ever had a drug-free society.

In the East Village the other day, I noticed there’s a modest brass plaque on the old Fillmore East at 105 2nd Ave. The declaration read: “Site of The Fillmore East 1968-1971. Fans of live rock, folk and blues streamed through this entrance for a brief but memorable life of the Fillmore East. The great concert promoter Bill Graham brought The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and many more into a concert hall beloved by artists and audiences alike for its intimacy, acoustics and psychedelic light shows.” The sheer volume of creative activity in such a short period of time and how quickly it all happened was phenomenal. Everybody is a star.


Register or Login to leave a comment