Approbation of drug usage in rock and roll music
Start of the rock-drug phenomenon
" Psychedelic " becomes good copy
A few of the songs
Why the mass rock-drug movement happened
Why did the record companies allow it ?
Why radio stations played these songs
Possibles effect of drug-centred songs
Author: S. TAQI
Pages: 29 to 35
Creation Date: 1969/01/01
In the winter of 1962-1963 a song called Walk Right In [ 1] leapt into the number one place on the American " hit parade." This means that at that time more copies of Walk Right In were being sold than of any other record in the United States and, quite probably, the world. It was a lively, bouncy melody sung cheerfully by an urban folk music trio, the Rooftop Singers, to the zippy accompaniment of a twelve-string guitar. The lyrics to the song went:
"Walk right in,
Set right down,
Daddy, let your mind roll on...
'Bout a new way of walkin' -
Do you want to lose your mind ?
Walk right in, set right down,
Daddy, let your mind roll on."
The "new way of walking" mentioned in the song was a reference - though little known at the time and rather obvious in retrospect - to marijuana smoking. And the song, Walk R ight In, selling in the millions of copies, being played tens of thousands of times on radio stations around the world, re-recorded many times by songsters and songstresses (for the most part, surely, unknowing songsters and songstresses) in several different countries, was to set the first musical precedent for the injection of songs focusing on drug usage, and often approving of drug usage as recreation, into the world of Western Popular Music - music for the masses, especially the young masses, from ages 9 to 25. We are talking, mainly, of the pop music of the English-speaking countries, the United States, Canada, and Great Britain in particular.
Perhaps no other artistic outlet has as striking an influence on the lives of British and American youth as rock and roll music. Television and feature films, certainly, must also be considered influential over the young, but their potential power is somewhat diluted by the fact that they must cater simultaneously to both adult and teen-age tastes in order to survive financially: T.V. and movies strive basically to appeal to the 18 45 year old bracket, while the rock and roll music industry in contrast, depends almost exclusively on the youth market for its profits. Thus the rock and roll product is 100 per cent aimed at the ears of teenagers and young adults (a teenager or young adult, in music business terms, can be anyone from about the age of 9 to 24 or 25).
Youth for its part, responds well to this special treatment, buying a hundred million discs a year and more. As 45 r.p.m, records account for almost one-half of all the disc sales in the United States, for example, it can be estimated that since young people buy the great majority of 45's and a sizable number of LP's, they are responsible for buying a third to a half of all the records sold in the United States. One survey by an American music-trade paper, Billboard, has shown that 64 per cent of American youngsters living at college have their own phonographs, with average collections of 40 LP's and 79 45's. In fact, Frank Zappa, a noted rock and roll artist and Jazz magazine's musician of the year for 1968, has said that pop music is the real religion of young people today.
A "number one"45 r.p.m, record in the United States is usually bought by upwards of half a million youngsters, and can usually count on subsequent release in the United Kingdom and several European countries, where it will have a better than average chance of again becoming a best-seller. The odds are in favour of the song being translated (with varying degrees of accuracy) into one or more foreign languages (most commonly: French, Italian, German), and then being re-recorded, or "covered ", by several other artists.
Besides reaching hundreds of thousands of listeners via direct sales, a big record will be programmed in jukeboxes all across the American and European continents, and played innumerable times on radio stations around the world. In America, notably, most large cities have at least one station, and often more, which programmes rock and roll music exclusively for 20 to 24 hours daily, with only t rief pauses for news, weather, and commercial advertising. A station may play a best-selling record as many as ten times a day; a number one record may be played hourly. As every rock music station in America will programme a national hit, that single song's listening audience will number, not a few hundred thousand, not even several million, but tens of millions of young adults and adolescents. Thus when a recording like Walk Right In makes veiled references to drug usage it is not only revealing an aspect of popular culture, it has the capacity of becoming propaganda of the highest order.
In recent years the rock and roll industry has produced a consistent flow of records focusing on illicit drug usage and often approving of it as a form of recreation and relaxation. This paper attempts to examine how and why the rock and roll drug movement evolved, what type of songs it consists of, why major record companies and radio stations have promoted these songs, and finally, some possible effects that exposure to these songs might have on the rock and roll audience.
Walk Right In was not in any true sense a part of the rock and roll world. It was that rare folk recording that managed to appeal to a mass audience as well as to the ever-present folk music tribe. And judging from the song's unbridled popularity during the relatively proper-and-prim early 1960s the numerous cover versions of the song sung by many unquestionably respectable and wholesome artists, it is quite probable that the marijuana message of the lyrics was lost on the great majority of listeners.
Immediately after Walk Right In there was scant mention of drugs in pop music for two or three years, with the exception perhaps of Puff, the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary (another folk group with popular appeal). This song, also reputed to focus on marijuana (the "dragon" of the title being a play on the words "drag in ", i.e., to inhale), achieved a moderate commercial success.
The reason for the appearance of lyrics revolving around drug-use in folk music rather than in rock and roll was simply that the more socially and politically conscious musician was usually to be found in the folk field, singing personal songs with a strong emphasis on lyrical content. He was much closer to what was then called the "beatnik" world than to the teen-age rock and roll world, and hence closer to an iconoclastic social group that shunned the liquor-drinking establishment (the folksinger could usually be found in the Bohemian part of town, playing in the local espresso coffee house) and had been among the first to accept marijuana smoking as a social pleasure. The folk musician generally looked with sneering distaste upon the crass and commercial rock and roll world which churned out gimmicky dance beat records with lyrics traditionally dealing with the ups and downs of teen-age romance. The folk-singer's attitude however, was to change.
In 1965, the crown prince of the American folk field, writer-singer Bob Dylan, surprised his following with experiments in adding a rock and roll background to some of his newly composed songs. One of these tunes was called Mr. Tambourine Man and was soon recorded by a California quintet known as the Byrds: given a powerful electric guitar backing and an equally strong dance-beat, the song became a huge hit in both America and Britain with extraordinary swiftness.
The poetic Mr. Tambourine Man brought a lyrical thoughtfulness heretofore unheard of to the rock and roll field and brought also the rumour that the song was about a Greenwich Village drug pusher and the lyrics were an extravagant plea for a fix. This idea doesn't appear far-fetched when the words to the song are examined. In the first verse the narrator calls out to the" Tambourine Man "of the title and says he has nothing in particular to do, so won't the Tambourine Man please play a song and take him on a voyage away from the worries of the moment. In Dylan's own lengthened version of the song he continues for several verses in plaintive tones and remarkably vivid hallucinatory imagery.
Though the combining of thoughtful folk lyrics with the compelling beat of rock and roll had been tried several times before by others, Mr. Tambourine Man was the first record to employ the technique with unequivocal commercial success. Now, with the rock and roll oriented experiments of Dylan and other like-minded folk artists, and with the renewed, near-frenetic general interest in pop music instigated by the great success of the British rock and roll group the Beatles, there started a widespread movement towards more thoughtful lyrics in popular songs; scores of folk artists became " folk-rock " artists and injected the music with an unprecedentedly controversial flavour. The old-time beatniks who had previously snubbed the music began to champion it, while newcomers to the scene rarely even considered returning to the old rock and roll attitudes, and lyrics about drugs, sex, war, became the rule rather than the exception.
Soon after Mr. Tambourine Man had appeared, coincidentally and importantly, in the American and British Press there was a mass of publicity given to the drug experience in generally, with most of the emphasis falling on marijuana and LSD. The apparently growing use of these drugs by persons who fell out of the stereotyped image of the desperate, hard-core criminal drugaddict became very good material for newspaper and magazine articles. "Psychedelic" became a catchword for describing a state that totally overwhelmed the mind Approbation of drug usage in rock and roll music 31 and senses, as LSD was reputed to do. And in the beginning any use of the word seemed to evoke an immediate and provocative background image of drugs.
" Psychedelic" soon became such a handy word though, that it came to express a fashion and style: psychedelic dresses appeared, and psychedelic posters, psychedelic jewellery, - anything with a dazzling visual make-up could safely be called psychedelic. There also were psychedelic nightclubs, which tried to stun the senses with assorted visual effects (films, closed circuit television, slides, coloured lights, strobe lights) combined with psychedelic music.
But "psychedelic music" also was a confusing term as it could mean a number of different things: it might be music about drug-taking, or it might be music meant to enhance drug-taking, or it might be music meant as a substitute for drug-taking. Some considered highly complex electrically amplified recordings with strong rhythms and eerie sound effects to be psychedelic, while others thought the same of Indian ragas played on the sitar, an outwardly more simple and less noisy sound. The word psychedelic was so freely used, or over-used, that in effect it became meaningless. The songs that actually did deal with drugs can probably be given no over-all title as they vary a great deal in terms of style and sound. Some people though, have called the whole pop-drug phenomenon" acid-rock ", the word "acid" being slang for LSD.
But this massive "psychedelic" publicity plus the proven sucess of Mr Tambourine Man generated a flood of rock and roll songs clearly suggestive enough to be placed in the "all about pot, etc. " category. It should be said that the key word here is suggestive. Whether or not a song's author actually has drug-use in mind is, in the final result, of little actual importance: the key factor is whether or not the song is suggestive enough in tone and content to imply a drug-centred meaning (and hence, to trigger a drug-centred interpretation in the minds of the song's predominantly youthful audience). A good example of the importance of suggestion is Lothar and the Hand People's recording of a standard ballad from a bygone musical era: the song's writer must certainly have had no intention of describing a "pot" or LSD induced state when he composed it - but when this pop group gave a solemn, tongue-incheek reading to Looking At the World Through RoseColored Glasses, the old song took on a psychedelic meaning.
However, most of the suggestion and allusion to drug-taking in the majority of these songs was doubtless intentional. I know of no serious person who believes otherwise, and it is difficult to imagine a songwriter in these times releasing one of these tunes without having a clear idea of the chords it would strike in a "hipped" and alerted audience.
The songs described here all (with the exception of Acapulco Gold) achieved hit status on first release. There are dozens of other songs which deal perhaps even more concretely with drugs, but most of them achieved only a limited popularity. The records described here were often international hits and reached untold millions of listeners.
It must be said also, that this article does not seek to condemn any songwriters or singers as evil social beings. Most of these songs are good examples of rock and roll music and were well-written and wellperformed. The main question to be raised is whether or not these songs should have been aimed at an audience comprised largely of children.
Eight Miles High: the Byrds, Columbia Records; released in the United States in 1966.
The Byrds of Mr. Tambourine Man fame later followed this record with an exotic and hypnotic song with links to the Indian raga sound. Because of the song's title (" high" being the crucial word) and because of its esoteric lyrics, the record was quickly labelled as being about the effects of marijuana smoking. Jim Mc Guinn, leader of the Byrds and one of the song's authors, denied the rumour and said the record was about a jet aeroplane flight, and, no doubt, all of the song's lyrics could be explained as describing the hustle and confusion of landing at a crowded airport.
Along Comes Mary (by Tandyn Almer, Copyright acquired by Irving Music Inc., used by permission): the Association, Valiant Records; released in the United States in 1966.
Billboard magazine lists this record as one of the hundred most popular of 1966. The author of the song once quite candidly revealed that the Mary of the song's title is Mary Jane, the English transliteration for marijuana. The lyrics to the song go along the line of how each time the narrator feels depressed, as if he is "the only one who's lonely ", along comes Mary to quickly put the situation right. Along Comes Mary is also available on the Warner Bros. - Seven Arts LP The Association's Greatest Hits Vol. 1
Acapulco Gold: the Rainy Daze.
This was not a major hit record, though it did make an appearance on the American charts and was a hit in one or two isolated cities. The lyrics to the song - the word quickly spread - were a rather dreamy tribute to the marijuana plants of Acapulco, Mexico. These plants supposedly give the richest, most-satisfying smoke to be found anywhere in the pot-user's world. The very tips of the plants are the choicest parts and are golden in colour - hence the song's title.
The Pusher © Copyright 1968 by Screen Gems-Columbia Music, Inc., used by permission, reproduction prohibited: Steppenwolf, Dunhill Records (track from Dunhill LP DS-50029 Steppenwolf); released in the United States in 1968.
The album which contains this song was among the largest selling records of 1968 and it has been certified by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) as having accumulated a minimum sales-worth of $1,000,000. Steppenwolf is a young rock and roll group made up of Americans and Canadians. The opening line of The Pusher is rather blunt:
"I've smoked a lot of grass,
I've popped a lot of pills."
The Pusher goes on to be disapproving of heroin and its addictive qualities, but on the other hand, quite in favour of smoking marijuana.
Happiness is a Warm Gun: the Beatles, Apple Records (track from Apple double LP package SWBO 101 The Beathes); released simultaneously in the United States, Britain and Europe in December 1968.
This song, like all Beatle songs, has been played extensively on radio broadcasts the world over, while in a matter of days after release the LP which contains it was certified by the RIAA as having achieved $1,000,000 sales. The lyrics to Happiness is a Warm Gun could be quite meaningful to anyone familiar with basic drug jargon. The "gun" can quite easily be translated as the hypodermic syringe that heroin-users employ to "shoot" the heroin into their bloodstreams. The song's narrator continues at great length to describe the joy and security he feels when he has his finger poised on the trigger, and he repeats the title phrase several times. Toward the end of the song he mentions that he is in need of a fix since he is going down. Whether this song, despite its title, does actually approve of the use of hard drugs is explored briefly later on. The Mamas and the Papas, another top-selling group, two years earlier touched on the same theme in a song entitled Straight Shooter, also a track on a million dollar LP.
Up, Up and Away: the Fifth Dimension, Soul City Records; released in the United States in 1967.
This record, a hit in the United States (the same song was popular in Britain in a version by the Johnny Mann Singers), reached the sales charts at the time when the psychedelic style was beginning to receive publicity, and thus was labelled by some as a song about the joys of " turning on " with hallucinatory drugs. The lyrics are about flying among the stars in a balloon and thus making the world appear nicer. Whether or not the song's author was using the idea of flying simply to express an innocent and child-like exuberance is of little impor- tance here, as the timing of the song's release immediately and unmistakeably put it in the suggestive category.
Mellow Yellow, © Copyright 1966 by Donovan (Music) Ltd., sole selling agent Peer International Corporation; used by permission: Donovan, Epic Records, released in the United States and Great Britain in 1966-67.
This song perhaps best exemplifies how far a suggestion can go - intended or unintended - as it became the anthem of a short-lived American joke-fad known as banana-smoking (it had been discovered that one could get a "high" by smoking the baked, scraped-off insides of a banana peel: the joke was that perhaps the banana, like marijuana, should be outlawed, and the United Fruit Company prosecuted for pushing drugs). A line in Mellow Yellow is:
" Electrical banana is going to be the latest craze.
" Electrical banana is bound to be the very next phrase. "
Whether or not an " electrical banana " was meant to mean a smoked banana, Donovan's song was cheerfully taken to be prophetic and the idea of smoking a banana was very soon termed smoking "mellow yellow ".
Yellow Submarine: the Beatles, Capitol Records; released in the United States in 1966.
A yellow submarine is not a banana, but is in British slang, a small yellow capsule containing amphetamines or any other drug. One swallows down a capsule and hence it becomes a "submarine". The song's narrator comments simply about himself and his friends that they all live inside a yellow submarine. This record, as usual a huge hit for the Beatles, was a kind of prelude to the Sgt. Pepper album they were to release in the summer of 1967, which was to be one of the great highlights in the series of drug-centred songs in pop music.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: the Beatles, Capitol Records LP MAS-2653; released iternationally in 1967.
Sgt. Pepper is one of the largest selling records of all time; it was the number one LP of 1967 and, amazingly, was the number seven record of the following year. The Beatles, who were easily the most powerful and influential force in popular music, had evolved from clean-cut boyish figures into shaggy mystical underground heroes. At about the same time that Sgt. Pepper hit the sales racks, some of the Beatles admitted they had used LSD, and the album itself caused something of an uproar because of its alleged references to drugs.
The first song on the record (after the introductory Sgt. Pepper chorus) is With A Little Help From My Friends. The singer quaveringly tells us that he manages to survive with help from his friends, and he also gets high with their help. This idea of getting high leaves little doubt as to who exactly the friends are.
The next track on the record is Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. The initials of the song it was pointed out immediately, spell LSD, and the Beatles said this was a coincidence. The lyrics to the song nevertheless are a string of colourful, bizarre, and clearly hallucinatory images, with an equally strange musical backing.
The very last track on the album. A Day in the Life, is the one that perhaps stirred the most controversy. Some immediately said the song was about a drug experience, although one of the Beatles was quoted as saying it was only about a dream. Still, the song does have a line in which the narrator says he made his way up some stairs and then had a smoke, and shortly afterwards he began to dream. The song ends with Beatle John Lennon remarking that he would love to turn on the listener.
The Beatles, soon after the album's release, announced that they were through with their drug phase, and were now off to India to study meditation.
After Sgt. Pepper drug-usage themes in rock and roll visibly increased, and there was progressively less outcry against them, presumably because there were scores of such songs now; indeed, it is difficult to think of a contemporary pop group that has not explored the subject to some degree. A possible few: Mind Excursion (the Trade Winds); Flying High (Country Joe and the Fish); Stoned Soul Picnic (the Fifth Dimension); ItchyKoo Park (the Small Faces); Birthday Party (LP) (Steppenwolf); Comin' Down (the United States of America); Girl Called Sandoz (Eric Burdon and the Animals); White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane); Get Off on My Cloud, (the Rolling Stones); Electric Ladyland (LP) (Jimi Hendrix Experience); Song Cycle (LP) (Van Dyke Parks).
There are several basic reasons why the above songs, with at best, lyrics of questionable suitability for immature audiences, were written and released in the first place. The main reason revolves around the traditionally commercial nature of the music business: songs concerning the drug experience and having doubleentendre lyrics became a trend, and trends are feverishly spied for in the business and then followed scrupulously. A hit record, with royalties, the personal appearance fees the record brings in, subsequent follow-up album and follow-up single royalties, can easily net an artist a quarter of a million dollars and more - enough money to retire on, for singing one two-and-a-half' minute song. This is why, if drug lyrics seem to be popular in the national music surveys, one is going to get a large helping of other drug songs. It is not inconceivable that a writer who had never seen or heard of marijuana in his life would compose a song about getting high and getting stoned simply to cash in on the current trend. Young and new rock and roll artists became very quickly aware, when the "thoughtful lyrics" trend began, that to be signed profitably to a major company one had to write and sing controversial songs.
Another factor, an important one, in the drug trend was the Beatles attitude toward it. The Beatles maintain a god-like status in the eyes of many of the young people who produce so much of the record industry's material. They are earnestly considered extraordinary talents and even musical geniuses. If they had chosen to ignore the drug trend or to remain discreet about it, the course of the trend might have been somewhat different. The Sgt. Pepper album however, was a green light of sorts to their vast following, and indicated that the drug experience was indeed "in" as songwriter's material.
Yet another factor in the drug-music explosion was the continually solidifying trend of songwriters to be more introspective in their work, to write about personal matters and aspects of their own lives. Drug usage is a very real part of the rock and roll world; the frankness of many pop personalities when speaking on the subject, and the many arrests of major and minor pop figures for drug offences are testimony to this. And anyone who has lived, even for a short time, in rock and roll society can dispel any lingering doubts. Many artists quite sincerely believe in the pro-drug lyrics of their songs and feel that the drug experience is a meaningful and valuable one. The belief is often expressed that there is something seriously wrong with a society that bans marijuana and at the same time allows alcoholic beverages to flow freely. Though the competent international bodies have voiced opinions on this score, no one - the United Nations included - has yet answered this question to the pop world's satisfaction: and that is what counts.
It must also be pointed out that a few rock and roll artists, alarmed at the evolving mood of the music, attempted anti-drug songs. Most of these met with little success save for a record by an American group, Paul Revere and the Raiders, called "Kicks ". ( Kicks, Words and Music by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil). It's lyrics went:
" ...kicks just keep getting harder to find,
" and all your kicks ain't bringin' you peace of mind,
" before you find out it's too late
" girl, you'd better get straight..."
©1966 by Screen-Gems-Columbia Music, Inc., used by permission, reproduction prohibited.
Kicks was given a special award by the Synanon organization, an American body that attempts to cure addicts. Another anti-drug attempt was by Jonathan King, a British artist whose Round, Round warned drug-users that tomorrow they would be dead. This song was not a great success.
That young songwriters and singers in troubled and changing times should produce controversial material is almost to be expected. But that presumably mature business executives with the public interest, presumably at heart should allow pro-pot and pro-LSD records to bombard the minds of millions of youngsters the world over is a bit difficult to believe.
The basic reason why record companies allowed these songs to be released is that they, like the artists, want to make a lot of money, and they, probably even more than the artists, must scout for and follow trends. Besides, in the rough and rocky early days of the drug trend (there was some degree of protest about some of the songs) it was possible for company executives to sit behind covers of ambiguity: if somebody says Eight Miles High is about smoking pot, but Jim McGuinn says it is simply about an airplane ride - that's good enough for Columbia Records. Columbia Records, at least, has a clear conscience.
Some record companies profess to believe in the freedom of artistic expression, and wouldn't dream of tampering with anyone's material. (At least anyone's recorded material: Decca Records, which has permitted the top-selling, teen-idolized, Rolling Stones to release several records touching on drugs, has censored a Stonesdesigned LP jacket that pictures a toilet bowl and some blasphemous scribblings on the wall behind it.)
It should be noted however, that despite some clear instances of hypocrisy, there is honest anti-censorhip feeling among record company personnel in both the United States and Britain, and the general idea has been to give everyone as wide a lyrical berth as possible. The end result, sadly, of this "wide berth" approach, has been that through irresponsible use of freedom of expression the industry became something of an "audio junk lot ", and after one or two companies went on the line with drug-centred material, the rest of the industry had to follow or be left out in the cold. The larger companies were plagued by the fact that if they did not get on the bandwagon with "underground" material, the dozens of smaller companies with no such pangs of conscience would snatch a large percentage of sales away from them.
The final link in the pop music chain is the radio station: single records are not bought unless they are played on the radio and exposed to their audience. Why did hundreds of radio stations, who in dealing with a powerful mass medium might be thought to be quite socially responsible, play these songs ?
As a rule, radio stations in the United States screen out of their programmes records that are absolutely-without-an-atom-of-a-doubt pro-drugs. As another rule, stations in the United States are under continual and diversified pressure to play records that, although controversial, are ambiguous enough in content to be given simplified interpretations if necessary: it would be virtually impossible, e.g., for a radio station to block a single like the Beatle's Yellow Submarine.
In the first place, the rival station in town might very well decide to play the record and thus many of the towns' youngsters would probably switch to this rival station. If the youngsters switch, the Beatle-banning station will lose advertising money because it's audience has shrunk.
Besides this, because the Beatle record is not being played as much as usual, an unusually small number of copies of it will be sold in local record shops, and shop owners will lose a considerable amount of money as they have already ordered large quantities of the record. In retaliation, the embittered shop owners might possibly refuse to give the station information as to which other records are selling best locally. The station needs this information in order to make up an effective programme. The shop owner, since he already has too many Beatle singles in stock will not order any more from Capitol Records, and as a result, Capitol Records loses both money and face.
In retaliation, Capitol Records might send the Beatlebanning station the next Beatles single a day or two late, thereby giving the rival station a strong programming advantage once again.
On top of this, the station that has banned the everpopular Beatles might begin to take on a "square" or unsophisticated image in the eyes of the juvenile community. The possible loss of a swinging and sophisticated image is perhaps the most terrifying nightmare any rock and roll station can imagine. It is the one catastrophe that can make its audience dwindle away to nothing without warning. This loss of image has befallen stations before, with devastating results, so on the whole, most rock stations are obliged to broadcast almost anything that is clearly popular and almost anything by a big name artist.
Nevertheless, there was an attempt by part of the American radio world to do something about song lyrics, and it came in the summer of 1967, at about the time the Sgt. Pepper album came out. The multi-station Mac-Clendon Radio chain announced that it would not play any record unless it was received with a, supposedly interpretable, printed copy of the song's lyrics. When confronted by the idea of "split-level" lyrics, words that would seem innocent to adults but hold secret meanings for hip youngsters, MacClendon, rather amazingly, proposed hiring a screening panel to sift out the offending songs. The panel was to consist of a drug-addict, an ex-drug-addict, a prostitute, a drug pusher and the like. Most companies though, refused to comply with the MacClendon demand, and though this particular effort at censorship opened a few eyes and ears, it was not notably successful.
It is obvious that any meaningful conclusions about the effects of drug-approving music on its audience can only be made after extensive surveys.
One of the main facts to discern would be whether or not the audience has any idea of the meanings of many of the drug-centred songs, some of which have esoteric words and some of which have quite noisy musical backgrounds. With Walk Right In apparently, very few people had any inkling of the meaning of the song - but the rock and roll situation of 1965 and later is substantially different from the rock and roll situation of 1962. Even if a youngster is not hip enough himself to grasp the meaning of some songs, he has several possible ways of finding out.
First, as is well-known, youngsters have a news grapevine all their own that keeps them tuned in to current happenings to a remarkable degree. It is this "work of mouth" that record companies try desperately to analyse and appeal to, for seemingly out of nowhere, without any of the traditional company promotion, a fad will start and a new rock and roll superstar will be born.
Also, young people read. The teen-age publication business is an industry in itself - the lists of youthslanted magazines on both sides of the Atlantic are long and varied. A teen-paper like Britain's top-selling Disc will rarely avoid any drug or similarly controversial issues, preferring to meet them head on. And with issues as explosive and widely publicized as LSD or marijuana, very few teen-papers can completely ignore what is happening, and what is being said and done by pop personalities.
Besides the teen-age Press, there are the regular Press, and radio and television, which give continuing coverage to all aspects of the drug situation and the various connexions between the pop world and drug usage. News about pop stars, and sometimes information about drug references in pop songs, is reported by radio personalities.
If some youngsters then, are to some degree aware of the drug aspects of the music, what effect does it have on them ? It is a safe assumption that many of the same youngsters who bought Kicks, also bought Along Comes Mary, regardless of the song's ideological con tent. It seems highly doubtful that a youngster who has just listened to Eight Miles High will suddenly rush out in search of marijuana.
The true importance of the music perhaps, is that through the controversy it aroused, it bred among the young a great, easy-going familiarity with pot and LSD. If ten years ago Elvis Presley had been arrested for a narcotics offence, there doubtless would have been a profoundly shocked reaction and his career would almost certainly have been jeopardised. But today, when Beatle John Lennon is arrested for a drug offence, none of this shock is in evidence, and his career rolls cheerfully along. Being arrested for a drug violation is almost fashionable, and certainly nothing unusual.
Rock and roll stars of the stature of the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, or Donovan, hold an amazing power over the young. Anyone who has witnessed the thousands of spellbound, hysterical fans, with their long hair, boots, and moustaches can deduce this for himself. If a John Lennon or Mick Jagger is going to make music on record about something as serious as pot, his views are not likely to greatly affect in one way or the other the thinking of any reasonable adult; the person it would seem most likely he would affect would be the slightly less mature, greatly more impressionable person who faithfully buys all the current hits, follows pop stars in the Press, dresses like them and goes to their concerts: that great part of the pop audience made up of twelve to sixteen or seventeen year olds. If someone wanted to seriously communicate an attitude toward drugs to an adult audience, the safe and proper way to do it is through an adult medium. For all the ponderous analyses of the profundity of popular songs in the serious Press, rock and roll remains, perhaps more than ever, aimed at youngsters, at children.
Whereas some public figures are careful not to be seen smoking ordinary cigarettes for fear of influencing impressionable young people, the Beatles and other like-minded pop musicians have seen fit to be reported as having experimented with LSD and having smoked "pot" for fun. And they have musically reinforced their attitudes in the public mind by releasing a profusion of drug-slanted pop songs. The songs in themselves, certainly, can have done little harm; it is that they appeared to be advertisements of the singers' feelings and attitudes, and it is these feelings and attitudes which have repeatedly been shown to have an astounding influence over the youth of the world.
The end result of it all perhaps, is that when, sooner or later, an urban child - who lives in the ordinary world, not in the pop world where a drug conviction can be shrugged off - is offered a marijuana cigarette or a dose of LSD, he will remember them not as something his health and hygiene teacher spoke warningly about, but as something Mick Jagger, or John Lennon, or Paul MacCartney has used and enjoyed.01
Copyright 1930 by Peer International Corporation. Copyright enewed. Used by permission.