10 Rock Songs That Were Written About Drugs
December 31, 2022, 12 months ago
None of the big names in rock ‘n’ roll can necessarily call themselves choir boys behind the scenes. The whole mantra of this industry has been about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and bands have been known to indulge themselves a little too much on those first two. While it might not be the healthiest of lifestyles to lead by any stretch, it can also give us some decent music along the way as well. For most of the sessions for these records, it’s a miracle that these bands even remember what went on during everything. From the sheer amount of narcotics around, these album sessions almost read like horror stories, as the members remained hopped up on whatever they could get their hands on and wrecked themselves during the recording.
The name of the game is that none of these songs should work, and yet some of these records might be the greatest that these bands have ever written. After indulging themselves a little too much in the studio, the talent shines through in every one of these songs, as the band channels that negative energy into their music and let’s themselves loose on the record. Keep in mind though, this is not an endorsement for taking drugs to make your songs sound better. For all of the junk these rock stars may have been taking, it takes a special kind of talent to work through all of that darkness and find your own path.
“Nutshell” - Alice In Chains
Everything about Alice In Chains’ music has always been informed by drugs of some kind. Even though songs like “We Die Young” were heavy for the time, things started to change on Dirt, where Layne Staley began to get a little more candid about the kind of problems he was having. While “Would?” might be the more popular tune and “Them Bones” might have more crunch, you’re not going to find a more honest version of Layne than on “Nutshell”. While Dirt had been a way for the band to cleanse themselves of their demons by singing about them, Layne has reached the end of the line on this song, talking about just how much he’s hurting and how he’s fighting a losing battle with heroin.
Although he seems to be ready to give up on his habit, what we’re given here is just a lonely man who realizes that he’s probably going to die because of how far gone he is. Even though all of the distorted guitars are stripped away here, it’s still one of the heaviest tunes that the band ever made, if only to hear Layne talk about having no place to call home and knowing that he’d probably feel better dead than have to keep up with his heroin intake. Any band can get you going with one punishing riff after another, but it takes a special kind of artist to reach into their subconscious and pull out something this tortured.
“Sweet Leaf” - Black Sabbath
When hard rock was coming into its own, Black Sabbath were like the ugly sisters of rock ‘n’ roll. Even though metal didn’t have a name yet, the kind of disturbing bluesy sounds of Tony Iommi’s guitar sent shivers down the spine of everyone looking for something a bit heavier than Jimi Hendrix. The band did have their chemical inspirations though, and Master Of Reality kicks off with the ultimate pot anthem. Starting with a nice cough from Tony, “Sweet Leaf” holds nothing back when talking about the wonders of cannabis, as Ozzy sings about going off to another world and always having that sweet leaf to take him away from his troubles.
The riff has that same energy as well, as if it’s being fed through different speakers to make it sound a little bit fuzzy. Although Sabbath may get credit for creating heavy metal, this song also became the building block for stoner rock in the years since, having that same dank production that’s perfect to get chemically assisted with when you hear it. Metal has definitely evolved through the years, but bands like Sleep and Monster Magnet owe this song a beer for creating their style of music.
“Iowa” - Slipknot
Success can make you do crazy things once you reach the big time. Even though you can spend your whole life trying to make a classic record, there’s always going to be pressure when you have to live up to what you just did. And when you have 9 maniacs from Iowa locked in a room like that, things are going to get out of hand. After Slipknot’s debut set the world on fire, the band was determined to go back into the studio and make something that was a lot more gutteral than what they had done on the first record. Although Iowa may still be one of the heaviest records ever made, none of the band want to relive the experience, thinking that all of them were getting way too messed up on drugs during the recording process.
Both Clown and Corey Taylor talked about how tense the studio could get, like Sid Wilson screaming the opening of the album after his grandfather passed away and Corey eventually stripping naked and cutting himself up to complete the title track that closes out the record. There’s a lot of insane moments that can never be captured again on Iowa, but that’s probably for the best. Slipknot were always known for being slightly disturbing, but this is one of the few records where the screams feel genuinely insane.
“Kickstart My Heart” - Mötley Crüe
In the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, no one did more than Mötley Crüe. Right as the Sunset Strip started to blow up, Mötley were the kind of street gang that were up for anything they could get their hands on and partying like there was no tomorrow. Nikki Sixx had a bit of a dark streak though, and all that abuse caught up with him when he OD’d right after a tour. Just before Christmas, Nikki shot up heroin and turned blue. After being declared dead, he got revived Pulp Fiction style with two adrenaline needles being shoved into his chest.
While it would take a few more years for Nikki to get back on the mend, “Kickstart My Heart” was one of the few songs that he wrote about the experience, using that adrenaline running through his veins as his muse to keep the Crüe going through the years. Although the song was originally written as a punk song, it became something totally different with Tommy Lee’s drums driving everything, like The Sex Pistols if it were being played by Led Zeppelin. Nikki barely survived death back in the mid ‘80s, but that guitar revving at the beginning of the song might as well be his heart shifting back into gear.
“Warped” - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Right as the Red Hot Chili Peppers hit the big time, things started to unravel. John Frusciante’s guitar playing may have made them unique, but he wasn’t really ready for the media frenzy that came with being in a successful rock band. After quitting the band to get away from the music business, the band were on the hunt for a new guitarist. Once they found Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction though, Anthony Kiedis was going through a relapse, having gotten back on hard drugs after accidentally being prescribed Valium as a painkiller by one of his doctors. Starting off the Peppers’ new album One Hot Minute, “Warped” is one of the most savage tracks they ever released, sounding borderline metal with the loud blasts of Navarro’s guitar.
Although Anthony may have been back to his hard partying ways, he doesn’t seem particularly happy about it, talking about descending all the way down the spiral and never finding his way back again. The Peppers have always been about celebrating positivity, but this was the first time we got a taste of the real darkness that Under the Bridge was just hinting at. When Anthony talks about descending, he could be talking about his health, his mental state, or the entire band, but chances are the emotion would be the same.
“Draw The Line” - Aerosmith
After 1976, it looked like Aerosmith were finally coming into their own. Though the critics may have accused them of being a second-rate Rolling Stones, Rocks and Toys In The Attic put them in a league of their own, injecting a healthy dose of Southern style boogie into their take on hard rock. This was the ‘70s though, and the amount of drugs were about to hit a wall on “Draw The Line”. After coming off tour, the band were absolutely fried from the past few years, getting way too high and becoming borderline incoherent when working in the studio. After their managers had the idea of locking them away in an abandoned prison called the Centinel; that only gave them an excuse to party even harder.
When Joe Perry arrived, he barely even left his room for the first few days, wanting to just wallow in his heroin addiction. Without his writing partner, Steven Tyler’s songwriting grinded to a halt, making most of the record a painstaking process to create. “Draw The Line” might not be the best Aerosmith album, but it’s a good job that they at least finished the record when they did. Given the fact that they were also shooting off guns in the studio to let off steam, it was only a matter of time before any of them wound up dead.
“In Utero” - Nirvana
After Nevermind took over the world, Kurt Cobain wasn’t in the happiest place. He had conquered the world and become the voice of a generation, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re trying to downplay your music. You can hear that sadness on “In Utero”, but you can also hear him starting a love affair with heroin. Around the time Nevermind was released, Kurt was also dealing with an undiagnosed stomach problem which left him in pain most of the time, leading to him using heroin to numb himself out. By the time you listen to certain parts of this album, you can hear that kind of numbed out state on the tracks, as Kurt talks about the different medications that he wants to take on songs like “Pennyroyal Tea” or the post-injection haze that happens on “Dumb”.
Outside of the drug references though, you can hear him also signing off from his time in the spotlight, talking about just how uncomfortable he is with his newfound fame on “Serve The Servants” and missing the comfort in being sad on “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge…” Even though Kurt loved the result that he got with this album, there are more than a few times where you get to see the bleeding artist behind all of those flannel shirts. This may have been the record Kurt wanted to make, but you can also see his cry for help.
“A Passage To Bangkok” - Rush
Rush was never known as a very tongue in cheek band. Even though they could play circles around almost anyone in the prog scene, they were always about something deeper than your average rock and roll lyrics, telling elongated stories of people in far off lands. Right as you get done one of their masterpieces though, the guys decided it was time to get a little bit baked. After 2112 leaves you with your jaw on the floor, “A Passage To Bangkok” seems to start off just like any other Rush song, as Neil Peart talks about the band traveling through different regions of the world to find new scenery.
When you delve a bit deeper, this is actually about the guys going from one scenic place and finding the greatest reefers they can. Though there are some lyrical gems about the exotic nature of their stops, there’s still a playful side to it, like the band including one long toke off of…something before Alex Lifeson’s guitar solo starts, which sounds like someone half-baked ripping the greatest solo of their career. The fans definitely latched onto the meaning of the song too, with Alex being surprised at how much the atmosphere changed when they were playing it on tour. This song might be about traveling through different landscapes, but the real theme here is a ride of a different kind.
“The House Jack Built” - Metallica
The Load era is not really known as metalheads’ favorite period of Metallica. After the Black Album, the band were still working with different sounds and were starting to go more into hard rock and alternative territory than the thrash that we had known them for. Once they started to change though, James Hetfield started to be a little more open about his own inner demons. Right as the album starts picking up steam, “The House Jack Built” is one of the more downtempo songs, slithering around like a musical snake coming to destroy you. When you listen to James’ lyrics, every line is about the dependency that he has on alcohol, almost feeling naked without having a little bit of buzz before going on.
Though the band had been known as Alcoholica in some parts of the metal world, this is the first time where James seems to be genuinely scared of his demons, knowing that they have full control over him at this point and aren’t going to start letting up any time soon. What starts out slow and quiet in this song turns into something haunting once the lyrics unfold, as if James is having a conversation in his own head about whether to pick up the bottle one more time. It would take James until St. Anger to finally check himself into rehab, but this song might have been the first sign that there was a real problem.
“Hash Pipe” - Weezer
In the middle of grunge’s reign, Weezer was actually a lot fruitier than everyone else. While every other band was talking about how depressed they were, Rivers Cuomo was writing the kind of cheeky love songs that you would have found on a Beach Boys record decades before. They could rock out when they wanted to though, and Hash Pipe might be where they reached their most metallic sound ever. Although the song is practically incoherent from one verse to the next, Rivers actually admitted to being a bit out of it when he wrote it.
After downing a few shots of tequila and a handful of pills, Cuomo came up with the driving riff that starts the song, sounding like a more metal-fied version of what “Cat Scratch Fever” sounded like back in the day. Then again, some of the lyrics do sound like a guy who just took a bunch of pills, talking about wanting you to kick him, bears liking his behind, and knowing that tricks are for kids down on Santa Monica. When you look past some of the goofy lyrics though, the meaning behind the song doesn’t really matter. It’s all about that riff, and there’s no messing with it once it comes screaming in.