Music and drugs have long been linked, with shifts in genres often running alongside trends in narcotic consumption. Kevin Sampson tracks the history, from Miles Davis to Happy Mondays, and wonders if the link is still strong •Share46
•The Observer, Sunday 16 November 2008
When Jack Kerouac first coined the term 'the Beats' for his loose-knit group of world-weary bohemians, he meant it in the sense that they were outsiders - a dangerous, free-thinking underclass. But the Beats' empathy for jazz and, in particular, the free-form bebop of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, brought with it a glamorised fancy for heroin. As with so many working musicians, the pioneers of bebop eased their pressures with the needle. And just as the misadventures of Pete Doherty would be news today, Charlie Parker made the front pages in 1946 after a Sunset Strip binge led to his being committed for electro-shock treatment. The kids loved him for it. Assuming a direct correlation between their jazz heroes' habits and their inspired musical improvisations, the Beats began experimenting, too. In an era where teenagers were carving their own niche and so to be 'hip' was everything, a fledgling youth movement was, for the first time, fuelled by narcotics. As Miles Davis noted in his autobiography: 'People were considered hip if they shot smack.' With their subterranean fusion of radical jazz, their stream-of-consciousness compositions and their acquiescence to the languorous medications of smack, Kerouac redefined Beat's meaning to embrace the 'beat'-ific vibe of the time, and the drowsy ambivalence of heroin's afterburn. 'I'm beat' in Fifties New York would equate to 'I'm done in' today. But the laid-back, live-and-let-live philosophy the term espouses sowed the seeds of Flower Power when the Beats went West. But before Beat turned to free love, there was an equal and opposite reaction to the Beatniks' pretensions across the Atlantic in London's Soho. Annexing their moniker from the modernists first described in Colin MacInnes' 1959 novel Absolute Beginners, London's original mods started to congregate among the coffee bars and clubs of Wardour Street in 1960. Eschewing the threadbare, wayfaring look of the beatniks, the mods favoured neat, tailored clothing and a correspondingly upbeat philosophy for life. They bucked the trend for binge-drinking and generally getting 'out of it', preferring a music, lifestyle and drug choice based on mental and sartorial acuity. Where the beatniks preferred barbiturates or downers, the mods were all about uppers. Up until 1964, amphetamines with street names like Bennies and Dexies were both legal and commonplace, often prescribed for fatigue, weight loss, and respiratory and heart complaints. Universally known as Purple Hearts, Dinaml was the most popular high street pep pill of its time. Its side-effects, as described in moralistic detail in the accompanying use and dosage leaflet of the day, might just as well have been broadcast as a come-hither to the mod community: 'Do not exceed the stated dose. Can cause incidence of euphoria, enhanced wakefulness, increased physical activity, decreased appetite, increased respiration and feelings of power, strength, self-assertion and enhanced motivation.' All around the country, women were popping a couple with their elevenses to help chase away the cobwebs, the blues and those pesky extra pounds around their hips. All over London, their sons and daughters raided their medicine cabinets for night fuel. Above all, mods were night crawlers. They flocked to coffee bars instead of pubs, not just because they sneered at drunks but because most of these newfangled cappuccino bars boasted 2am licences (pubs shut at 10.30). They also had jukeboxes long before the boozers, allowing the young ones to wash down their Bennies with a frothy coffee and dance to the Who, Small Faces, the Kinks or the Pretty Things,...