Cocaine, a wise philosopher once said, is “a helluva drug.” Certainly, it’s a very influential one: by my completely unscientific estimation, coke comes second only to pot in the drug-music mindshare. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: as both a “glamour drug” and a “street drug”–albeit in very different respective forms–cocaine bridges the manifold demographics of 20th- and 21st-century popular music, from jazz and blues to arena rock, disco, hip-hop, and electronic music; plus, as a “party drug,” it’s a lot more conducive to conventional pop subject matter than, say, heroin (though that substance certainly has its musical proponents as well). We here at Dystopian Dance Party don’t partake ourselves–our mutual drugs of choice are caffeine, chocolate, and chemical hair relaxers–but we do have a certain weakness for coke music, which is why this is a playlist I’ve wanted to do since I started the blog five months ago. So sit back, relax, put your dirty cowboy boots all over your friend’s suede couch, and enjoy this mix of songs inspired by the preferred high of psychoanalysts, businessmen, and ex-presidents alike. It might not make you feel as good as an old-fashioned bump of toot, but I guarantee that it’s both cheaper and less habit-forming.
1. David Bowie: “Station to Station”
(from Station to Station, 1976)
We’re kicking things off, appropriately enough, with a track from the man who very nearly became pop music’s most notorious coke casualty. Between 1974 and 1976, David Bowie lived in a haze of prodigious cocaine use, often tipping into full-blown psychosis: holed up in the attic of a Los Angeles mansion, his already slight frame becoming frighteningly emaciated as he subsisted on a diet of red peppers and warm milk, scrawling cabalistic symbols on the floor and refrigerating his bodily fluids to keep them out of the hands of the Rosemary’s Baby-esque occultists he believed were out to get him. The lyrics to Bowie’s Krautrock-inspired epic “Station to Station” practically read like a diary from the period: his grandiose pronouncements (like “one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth,” surely the coolest lyric ever to be inspired by Kabbalah) capturing the soaring heights of coke-induced euphoria, even as his alternately mannered and unhinged vocal performance evokes the darker, dissociative and paranoid sides of the drug. And then there’s that immortal line, “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking that it must be love,” which sounds like it should have been written by an android (or, fittingly, given his contemporaneous role in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, an alien), not one of the biggest rock stars of the 1970s. What other artist could take a drug-soaked nadir as depressing as Bowie’s and encapsulate it with a line that’s both wryly funny and effortlessly cool?
2. Grandmaster & Melle Mel: “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”
(1983 single; available on Message from Beat Street: The Best of Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel & The Furious Five)
Though it was released at the dawn of the “Just Say No” era, the brilliance of this classic solo cut by Furious Five “Grandmaster” Melle Mel is the way it accounts for the drug’s seductive pull, even as it urges the listener “don’t do it.” Mel’s lyrics alternate between sounding like an anti-drug P.S.A. and an advertisement for “China White, Mother of Pearl, Ivory Flake, what you need”–sometimes even in the same verse: “The money gets divided / The women get excited / Now I’m broke and it’s not joke / It’s hard as hell to fight it, don’t buy it!” Plus, you’ve got to love any song that includes both rhythmic sniffing noises and a chorus that builds to a shouted, “FREEBASE!”
3. Phuture: “Your Only Friend”
(from Acid Tracks, 1987)
But if “White Lines” is a little too ambivalent for your tastes, there’s always this B-side by Chicago acid-house legends Phuture, which basically is an anti-drug P.S.A.–though to be fair, none of the ones I remember from my youth had a beat this hard. The stark track opens with a slowed-down voice intoning “This is cocaine speaking / I can make you do anything for me,” before elaborating: “I can make you cry for me / Fight for me / Steal for me / Kill for me / And in the end, I’ll be your only friend.” It’s pretty bleak stuff, but again, at least you can dance to it.
4. Johnny Cash: “Cocaine Blues”
(from At Folsom Prison, 1968)
Still not scared off the stuff? Here’s the Man in Black with another cautionary tale. Originally written by Western Swing singer T.J. “Red” Arnall in 1947–with liberal “inspiration” from the Ozark folk ballad “Little Sadie“–“Cocaine Blues” was given its definitive interpretation by Johnny Cash on his legendary 1968 live album recorded at Folsom State Prison. Cash, fueled by the raw energy of his inmate audience (and possibly also amphetamines), pairs Arnall’s lyrics about a jilted lover who “shot his woman down” while under the influence with an appropriately frantic, lurching arrangement, capturing the Tennessee Three at their rockabilliest. The story, as you might guess, doesn’t end well: Cash’s antihero “runs too slow” and is cornered in Juarez, then hauled into court and sentenced to “99 years in the Folsom pen”–a fate that surely hit close to home for the real-life prisoners. But just in case they didn’t get the message, Cash ends the song with a mournful plea: “Come on, you gotta listen unto me / Lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be.”
5. Dillinger: “Cocaine in My Brain”
(from CB 200, 1976; available on Cocaine in My Brain: The Anthology)
Not all coke stories have to end in death, destruction, or life sentences; some, like reggae toaster Dillinger’s “Cocaine/Cokane in My Brain,” just begin and end in a lot of senseless cokehead babbling. I like to think of “Cocaine in My Brain” as a kind of Beckettian one-act play starring Dillinger’s character and his friend/victim, the long-suffering “Jim,” who is forced to endure endless strung-out jive-talk like “A knife, a fork, a bottle, and a cork / That’s the way you spell New York”–all punctuated with repeated, cloying cries of “Hey, Jim… Hey, Jiiiiiiiiimmm… Just a minute… Just a miiiinuuuuuute…” On second thought, to be honest, this might be the most effective anti-drug song on the list after all: if having “cocaine running around your brain” really makes you as annoying as Dillinger, I’ll never touch the shit.
6. Pusha T featuring Kendrick Lamar: “Nosetalgia”
(from My Name is My Name, 2013)
A highlight from last year’s My Name is My Name, “Nosetalgia” finds Clipse M.C. Pusha T and guest wunderkind Kendrick Lamar swapping stories about the formative influence of cocaine on their respective lives. This is familiar territory for Push, whose deft reflections on “crack in the school zone… Black Ferris Bueller cutting school with his jewels on” offer continued proof of his ability to elevate “crack rap” to an art form. But it’s Kendrick, despite his comparative lack of street cred, who steals the show, as his verse builds to a confrontation with his “washed-up” drug-dealer father: “Go figure, motherfucker, every verse is a brick / Your son dope, nigga / Now reap what you sow, nigga / I was born in ’87, my granddaddy a legend / Now the same shit that y’all was smoking is my profession.” It’s, for my money, one of the most powerful verses in recent memory, and a complex reflection on the deeply ambivalent role crack–and its glorification–have played in rap music, from today all the way back to “White Lines.”
7. Black Diamond Heavies: “White Bitch”
(from Every Damn Time, 2007)
One of the more flowery euphemisms for cocaine is “the White Lady.” But John Wesley Myers of Nashville punk-blues duo Black Diamond Heavies isn’t one to mince words, and he calls it like it is: a “White Bitch.” The song’s guttural refrain, bellowed over a cacophony of drums and severely overdriven Fender Rhodes, is similarly to the point: “Fuck cocaine.” But as usual with the underrated Heavies, there’s soul and substance beneath the chest-beating, with lyrics that channel the haunted simplicity of a great blues: “She make my world so small / Tell me ‘Daddy, we’re fine, but it’s just a ball’ / Well you never done nothin’ but lie to me / Lord God Almighty, won’t you let me be.” It’s a great break-up song that just happens to be addressed to a controlled substance, which in a way makes it even better.
8. The Rolling Stones: “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”
(from Sticky Fingers, 1971)
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” isn’t really about cocaine, per se, but it has one of the great coke, ahem, lines; when Mick Jagger yelps “Y’all got cocaine eyes,” you can picture exactly what he means (and if you can’t, well, just consult your Ted Nugent album cover of choice). Plus, it might just boast the greatest Keith Richards riff ever committed to wax–which is saying something when the same album opens with fucking “Brown Sugar.” If that’s not enough for you, well, Juelz Santana sampled it for his song “Blow“–and if that’s not enough, just think of all the rails that have been snorted off the Sticky Fingers LP sleeve over the last 40-odd years. See? I rest my case.
9. Motörhead: “White Line Fever”
(from Motörhead, 1977)
It should come as no surprise that Motörhead’s “White Line Fever” is about cocaine: this is, after all, a group named after the British term for a speed freak, founded by a man who was kicked out of space-rockers Hawkwind for “taking the wrong drugs”–which is sort of like how the Islamic State was reportedly denounced by al-Qaeda for being “too extreme.” And “White Line Fever” lives up to its pedigree, with a pummeling riff that isn’t as fast as the speed-metal progenitors’ better-known later material, but is plenty heavy to make up for it. It’s clearly a song close to Lemmy’s own heart, too: he borrowed the title for his 2002 autobiography.
10. Cameo: “Candy”
(from Word Up!, 1986)
I broke an unwritten rule of sorts in including this song on this playlist, since we already gave it the spotlight during Jheri Curl June. Fortunately, nobody gives a shit about unwritten rules (or written ones) for a blog with a readership of approximately two, because “Candy” is a thinly-veiled coke anthem so great it simply cannot be snubbed. And I do mean thinly veiled: if the leotards and codpieces Larry Blackmon was sporting at the time weren’t enough of a clue that he was getting into the (nose) candy, lyrics like “You look real nice, wrapped up tight” and “You’re givin’ me a heart attack / It’s the kind I like” are pretty much dead giveaways. And then there’s that music video, the actual production budget of which was almost certainly dwarfed by the “craft services” budget for cast and crew. “This stuff is starting now,” indeed.
11. Lead Belly: “Take a Whiff on Me”
(recorded 1934, available on Midnight Special: The Library of Congress Recordings Volume 1)
It’s easy to forget, given its close association with the 1970s and ’80s, that cocaine existed long before the so-called “drug revolution” of the late ’60s. But Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, knew what was up, and his “Take a Whiff on Me” remains one of the definitive cocaine songs even after 80 years. Recorded while Ledbetter was still in prison for allegedly stabbing a white man during a fight, the jaunty number finds the narrator “tryin’ to bum a nickle, just to buy cocaine” and thinking ahead to his marriage, when he’ll “get a whiff for my baby / That she can’t get higher.” Say what you will about Lead Belly, but he clearly knew how to party.
12. Buckcherry: “Lit Up”
(from Buckcherry, 1999)
Yeah, yeah, I know, this is a major blight on my hipster cred, even worse than that one time when I included a Lenny Kravitz song on the Mother’s Day mix. But I can’t help myself: “Lit Up” just wallows so unapologetically in ’70s-inspired rock excess–right down to the guitar riff, which all but plagiarizes “Shock Me” by KISS–that it would still be redolent of cocaine, even if the vocal hook wasn’t literally “I love the cocaine, I love the cocaine.” P.S. How fucking weird is it that this was on the radio? I think that tells you everything you need to know about the decline of rock and roll counterculture in the late 20th century.
13. Migos: “Hannah Montana”
(from Y.R.N.: Young Rich Niggas, 2013)
Ever since mid-2013, when Miley Cyrus discovered that she had a posterior and the means to jiggle it (thus opening the first gate to Pandemonium), rap songs name-checking her have become something of a mini-genre unto themselves. So it’s easy to forget that “Hannah Montana,” released by Atlanta trio Migos in June of that year, actually technically predated–if only slightly–the Great Twerk Calamity of 2013. Instead, the “Hannah Montana” referred to by Migos is a euphemism for–you guessed it–cocaine, with the “whiteness” and “purity” of her Disney-era image representing the corresponding qualities of the product. And hey, if Hannah’s not your thing, Migos still has you covered: they’ve also got “Lizzie McGuire,” “Lindsay Lohan,” and even “Katy (Perry!)”. It’s the “White Lady” paradigm taken to its crassest conclusion: “that white girl” as pure commodity.
14. Black Sabbath: “Snowblind”
(from Black Sabbath Vol. 4, 1972)
Black Sabbath are truly a band for all seasons, if by “seasons” you mean “drugs.” They have their anthems for weed, heroin, and, with “Snowblind”–aw, fuck it, you know what “Snowblind” is about. And just in case it wasn’t clear–because God forbid the band that brought us “Sweet Leaf” would make their drug references subtle for once–Ozzy is kind enough to loudly whisper “cocaaaaaine” at the conclusion of the first verse. Also, the liner notes to parent album Black Sabbath Vol. 4 include a dedication to “the great COKE-cola.” So what are you trying to tell us, guys?
15. Glenn Frey: “Smuggler’s Blues”
(from The Allnighter, 1984)
There are a few reasons why I’m including Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues” on this mix. First, there’s the lyrics’ rare acknowledgment of cocaine not only as an intoxicant, but also as international big business: “It’s propping up the governments in Colombia and Peru / You ask any D.E.A. man, he’ll say there’s nothin’ we can do,” Frey sings. “It’s a losing proposition, but one you can’t refuse / It’s the politics of contraband / It’s the smuggler’s blues.” Then, there’s the fact that the song provided the title to an episode of the ultimate mid-’80s cocaine show, Miami Vice–in which Frey guest-starred as the titular smuggler. Most importantly, though, just listen to this shit: it’s practically the Sound of Cocaine, 1984. If you can listen to this song without picturing everyone involved doing lines off the mixing board in the studio, then you’re not trying hard enough.
16. Public Enemy: “Night of the Living Baseheads”
(from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1987)
By 1987, the problem of freebase cocaine in American inner cities, previously touched upon in songs like “White Lines,” had escalated into a full-blown epidemic. Public Enemy‘s classic single “Night of the Living Baseheads” took on the issue in typically incisive fashion, protesting the ways crack turned African American communities against themselves: as Professor Griff puts it, “Selling drugs to the brother man instead of the other man.” But arguably the most powerful part of the song is the story Chuck D recounts at the end, about a crack fiend who strips a “brother”‘s jeep “to fill his pipe,” leaving only “the sneakers on his feet.” “The culprit used to jam and rock the mic,” Chuck mourns, suggesting that the crack epidemic could prove to be the downfall of hip-hop as a positive force in Black urban life, with B-boys now rocking to “a different kind of bass”–i.e., “base.” It’s a statement that remains unfortunately relevant to this day.
17. Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb and His Orchestra: “Wacky Dust”
(1938 single, available on The Early Years – Part 1)
But let’s leave things on a lighter note, with this truly bizarre early swing number from the First Lady of Song that, if I didn’t know any better, I’d suspect was a paid advertisement for the National Cocaine Commission. Yes, Ella is extolling the virtues of “Wacky Dust,” and despite her unconvincing insistence that it comes “from a hot cornet,” it sounds an awful lot like the same “wacky dust” we’ve been discussing for the last 2800 words: “Oh, I don’t know just why it gets you so high / Putting a buzz in your heart / You’ll do a marathon, you’ll wanna go on / Kickin’ the ceilin’ apart.” It’s the kind of unabashed endorsement of a dangerous narcotic you just can’t seem to pull off in pop music these days; and while I’m not going to say that’s a bad thing–I think the other songs on this list are proof enough that cocaine use deserves its many caveats–there is a certain charm in the song’s sunny outlook. Just don’t freebase, Ella; I don’t think that’s the kind of “wacky” you’re looking for.