Tag Archives: drugs

On Music, And Drugs

A study by a professor at Cambridge University has found that people with enhanced musical abilities are more likely to take drugs.

On the face of it, this should not surprise. People who are gifted musically are more likely to make a living playing music, and musicians, jazz or rock, have tended to live on the fringes of society, where drugs are part of a non-conformist lifestyle. (As far as I am aware, this is not true of specialists in early lute music or the sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Though who knows?)

QED then. Except that I think there is more to it than that. Music is an attempt to induce and inhabit an altered state of mind. This is as true of Scarlatti as in the mosh pit at a Linkin Park gig. Rock music, and to some extent jazz, certainly in the latter’s early days, is Dionysian. It attempts to break the shackles of everyday life, often by subsuming the ego within a group, and by means of wild, irrational, cathartic behaviour.

Again, think of that mosh pit. Or, perhaps, Scarlatti, if a more peaceful performance in a concert hall can be seen to serve the same function, of subsuming the individual within a mass experience.

No surprise, then, that religions have so often used music to enhance the religious experience, again among a mass of worshippers. The first primitive forms of music, comprised of rhythmic drumming and crude bone pipes, would have been used by shamans to allow early people a way of escaping, for a time, their difficult everyday lives. Drugs were often a feature of such ceremonies, in cultures as far apart as the original inhabitants of North and South America and the ancient Scythian steppe nomads.

(The writer Mick Farren, who knows a fair bit about the subject, once wrote a book that drew parallels between a music festival and a mass religious event.)

The Cambridge study set me wondering, though. To what extent is music affected or influenced by the particular drug fashionable at the time. Or, to what extent does the style of music influence the choice of drug?

I do not use drugs and believe the world would, on balance, be a better place if they did not exist. Except for my drug of choice, which requires a corkscrew to access it. Call me hypocritical.

Bebop: a frantic, jittery form of jazz, highly stylised. Drug of choice: heroin. It kept musicians going through the antisocial hours they kept. Did it influence that jittery, restless style? Possibly.

The Mods: fast, frantic, short songs, influenced by American soul. Choice of drug; amphetamines, in pill form. These, initially developed to keep combat pilots awake, were ideally suited to the Mod lifestyle. And the music.

Psychedelia: and LSD, under whose influence 20 minute song cycles about purple lizards eating the sun probably make perfect sense. The sound effects, heavy reverb, phasing, echo, were designed to mirror the LSD experience. Or so people who have tried it tell me. See also prog rock.

Along comes marijuana. This has the effect of distorting the time sense. Minutes seem like hours, or pass immediately. Ten minute guitar solos? Any form of drum solo? Case proven.

Cocaine: imparting a sense of invulnerability, and a tremendous sense of self worth. Creating some of the worst monsters in the history of drugs or music as a side product. Pretty well any 70s dinosaur band playing to a stadium of 60,000 people, then. Bombastic, huge, overwhelming. Point made.

Fast forward, very fast, to punk, and bathtub-produced amphetamine. Very fast, very short songs, using two or at best three chords. Case proven again.

 Then we come to the second Summer of Love, and commercially produced MDMA. Which induces a state in which long, simplistic, repetitive music can be endured and danced to for hours at a time. Which engenders strong feelings of affection for strangers within the group experience, the rave.

I once asked a schoolfriend, whose experience of drugs sat somewhere between mine and Keith Richards’, what sort of drug early rock and roll should ideally be accompanied by. He thought for a moment. “Alcohol.”

(One day I shall write my piece on the influence of technology on musical styles.)


Of Drugs, And The 1960s

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, you will have read elsewhere, was found dead with a syringe nearby.

Such deaths are not that common today. The last two people in the public eye to die in apparently similar circumstances I can remember were  the actor Heath Ledger and the singer Whitney Houston, and those were some while back.

They were not uncommon several decades ago. I read recently Wild Tales, the autobiography of the singer Graham Nash. Like most music autobiographies, it is about half of it interesting and half of use only to obsessives who want to know exactly which tunes the Hollies played at the Free Trade Hall, circa 1961.

But Nash’s journey was a strange one. Born to a poor Mancunian family in the war years, he found himself by the end of the 1960s living in Laurel Canyon, California, a place as unlike the rain-sodden Manchester of his youth as it is possible to imagine while still being on the same planet.

Nash by his account was one of the more balanced ones, though by comparison with the egomaniacs and weirdos he was surrounded by this may not have been difficult. But the drugs, the drugs… Did they have any idea what they were doing?

The answer is, no, they didn’t. Most of us today know that drugs occupy a spectrum from, Not So Bad For You In Moderation, through to Really, Really Not A Good Idea, Ever. Even people like me, whose drug of choice is accessed by means of a corkscrew.

Then, drugs were illegal, so you were prevented from taking them by The Man, so their consumption was pretty much mandatory. All of them. They didn’t make such distinctions. Anything goes. Nash didn’t take heroin. Plenty of others did.

Nash and his confreres, Steven Stills and David Crosby, would be smoking dope most of the time. To get themselves upright and sufficiently awake to produce music in the recording studio, they took cocaine. All those light, gossamer harmonies were produced by people out of their trees on one of the nastier options available. Crosby was famously found by the cops travelling at high speed down a California freeway, steering the car with his knees to keep his hands free for freebasing. Don’t try this at home.

It is a wonder no more of them died. These days at least people appreciate the risks involved. Some of them.

Drugs In The City

An academic has been on his well-meaning hind legs to call for mandatory drug testing of City employees. This is a regular suggestion, a way to limit excessive risk-taking which is often claimed to be caused by those in positions of authority on the trading floor being out of their trees and talking to the pink giraffes, to the detriment of their trading positions.

I am not convinced that drug taking in the City is any worse than in other areas where well remunerated and generally young staff are under extraordinary pressure to perform in a culture of few moral restraints where anything goes. Think fashion. Or TV and film.

The call for mandatory testing has been strengthened by the emergence of the former head of the Co-Op Bank as a regular user. Paul Flowers was not a City type at all, barely known there; indeed, he seems to have operated well below the radar of the regulatory authorities, which tells its own tale.

There is one huge problem with all this, which of course no one discusses. At MegaBank, you employ a massively successful trader, to whom you pay several millions a year in salary and bonuses, confident that he will pull in ten times’ that in new business every year. He tests positive for  weekend marijuana use, say, or even a little light cocaine abuse to help with those 14-hour days.

You promptly tell him he must desist. He has the choice of agreeing to give the stuff up, or heading off down the road to MegaCorp, where they are not quite so sniffy, sorry about that, and will pay him the same amount to bring in all that lovely new business.

Frankly, in such situations most City employers would rather not be required to ask too many questions.