Love ‘em or hate ‘em, drugs and music go together like peas and carrots. It is what it is. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Clapton, Bob Marley, The Mamas & The Papas, Jefferson Airplane… Jesus, and we aren’t even out of the 70’s yet. And throughout music history, for as many songs as there are out there with overt drug references, there are probably twice as many whose nods to the good stuff are just a liiiiiiiittle subtler. Here are 8 songs you probably didn’t know are about drugs:
Lou Reed – “Perfect Day”
Proto-punk Lou Reed was absolutely, positively, unequivocally one of the pioneers and heroes of rock and roll music, and “Perfect Day” is a pretty tame example of his talents. The song, a catchy and seemingly lighthearted diddy about a day in the park and going to the zoo, is actually a song highlighting Reed’s problems with heroin, his sexuality, and his romantic relationships. No, really…
Ed Sheeran – “The A Team”
We really need to give it up for a kid who can write what is essentially an upstroke-driven acoustic pop song about people struggling with substance abuse and get nominated for an Emmy Award for it. We’ve never heard smoking crack described as “breathing in snowflakes,” but gosh darnit, it just sounds so cute now.
Jay Z – “I Know”
Hov, you beautiful, beautiful bastard. “I know,” one of three singles released from Jay Z’s American Gangster LP, is, on first listen, a romantic love story about someone who’s madly in love. Awww, cute! In actuality, the song is about a woman’s drug addiction, and—plot twist—the song is narrated by her drugs of choice: Heroin, pills, and cocaine. Notice the references in bars like, “She wants that old thing back / She wants those heroin tracks, she likes me / She fiends for me nightly, she leans for me” and “Just for one night, baby, take me in vein / Now that feelin’ got you trippin’ / You no wanna feel no differently / Nose wide open and it’s drippin’” found throughout the track.
The Stranglers – “Golden Brown”
This ’80s hit from The Stranglers is a song about how great heroin is, but also how great some girl is. It’s a trippy song as-is, with its crazy chord progressions and reverb’ed singing, but the wild and unconventional use of a harpsichord makes it one for the record book. If there was a single song that might inspire us to fly just a liiiiiiiiittle too close to the sun, this would probably be it.
Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”
When we learned that this song, a popular ’90s hit that made the top 10 on every worthwhile chart in the world, whose music video featured all those weird Vespa kids jamming around on their scooters, was actually about crystal meth, our minds were 100-percent blown. Just in case lines like, “Chop another line like a coda with a curse” or, “I was taking sips of it through my nose” don’t help you along to the realization, the part where he literally says, “Doing crystal meth / will lift you up until you break” should bring it all into perspective. I mean, the song is a total bummer, but we’d still be down for whatever if it meant being able to be a part of that scooter gang. Just imagine it: Meth-headed Vespa mods, running around, yelling at children. To what more could we possibly aspire?
Elliott Smith – “Needle in the Hay”
Oh man, oh man. How could you make a song list about substance indulgence/abuse and not consider the late, very great, Elliott Smith? This agonizingly good classic is a song about a couple walking down to the dopeboy to get heroin, and is littered with great, great lines, including our favorite: “I’m taking the cure / So I can be quiet whenever I want / So leave me alone / You ought to be proud that I’m getting good marks.” Ugh. Get it? Good marks? Needle marks? Ugh.
MGMT – “Time to Pretend”
Hipster kid anthem, MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” was sold across commercial airwaves as a poppy, upbeat, and dance-y little diddy when it was first released in 2007. The reality is that it’s a song about doing drugs—lots of them. Take a critical listen to the track and you’ll find it interspersed with lyrics like, “I’ll move to Paris, shoot some heroin and fuck with the stars. / You man the island and the cocaine and the elegant cars” and finishes strong with, “We’ll choke on our vomit and that will be the end. / We were fated to pretend.” Like, what the fuck, MGMT?!
Talking Heads – “And She Was”
One of the most popular singles ever released by the legendary Talking Heads, “And She Was” is another catchy, poppy, rock and roll jam. But the entire song—from front to back—is about a hippie girl from Balitmore that David Byrne used to know, who’d take acid in a field near the Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink factory, of all places. It’s kind of ridiculous that so many people fail to catch on to this song’s meaning because the very first line is “And she was lying in the grass / And she could hear the highway breathing.” No, really…