Music and drugs - It's a hard habit to break

Amy Winehouse's popularity came in part, says Andy Gill, from the honesty with which she sang of her addictions. But pop hasn't always faced up to the dangerous reality of drugs

We all have our addictions. Who can get through the day without the crafty fag, the four o'clock chocolate, or the wee dram after dinner? But not all of us have to wear our addictions publicly, the way that Amy Winehouse and other performers have to. The tragic lass was, however, braver than most in confronting her weaknesses head-on in her art, most notably in her signature song "Rehab", the anthem which went on to win the Grammy for Song of the Year.

Winehouse was clearly no stranger to the tendrils of addiction, using the term as a romantic metaphor for obsession in "Addiction" itself, while some of the most striking songs on her Back to Black album, such as the title track and "You Know I'm No Good", are infused with the underlying sense of wretchedness and self-loathing which often accompanies the condition. Indeed, it could be said that it was in part this desperate self-knowledge that gave her performances such emotional authenticity. But it's for the directness and assertiveness of "Rehab" that Winehouse is liable to be most remembered: just as "Imagine" shot to No 1 the week following John Lennon's murder, so "Rehab" has topped the chart again.

"Rehab" was not the first song to confront addiction, but it was certainly unusual in refusing to regard addiction in a completely negative light. Drugs have long provided popular music with one of its more ambivalent subjects, with the image of the jolly "reeferman" a recurring figure in jazz lore, and Ella Fitzgerald's jocular "Wacky Dust" testifying to the properties of cocaine. But alongside this amused indulgence has always lurked an acknowledgement of the darker, less glamorous side of drug abuse, often dangerously intertwined with half-baked notions of creation. Even as Charlie Parker sank deeper and deeper into heroin addiction, countless lesser talents eagerly started on their own drug habits, deluded into believing that opiates might be the key to the seemingly superhuman realms of aesthetic wizardry inhabited by Parker.

By the 1960s, drugs were a fixture of bohemian culture on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, it was largely limited to marijuana, but by the middle of the decade heroin had become familiar enough for Bert Jansch to include on his debut album the sad lament "Needle of Death", about an overdosed youngster whose "troubled young life had made [him] turn to the needle of death". It remains one of the most moving songs ever written about drug abuse, sketching in a few brief lines the dark hinterland of depression which lies behind so many addicted lives, and the lure of narcotic oblivion: "Through ages man's desires/ To free his mind, to release his very soul/ Has proved to all who live/ That death itself is freedom for evermore".

It was the mid-Sixties' rise in tranquilliser use amongst housewives, however, that concerned Mick Jagger and Keith Richards when they wrote the Stones' "Mother's Little Helper". This was a barbed riposte to the contemporary condemnation of youth culture, implying that, compared to the thousands of housewives firmly addicted to state-subsidised prescription tranquillisers in order to get them "through their busy day", a few pilled-up mods were no problem at all. This time, the tone was not sympathetic, but mocking: "Doctor please, some more of these/ Outside the door, she took four more".

During the hippie boom of the late 1960s, there were few overt expressions concerning addiction. The general feeling was that most drugs were benign mood-elevators or creative spurs. Only a few dared confront the reality of addiction: one thinks of Love's Arthur Lee lamenting his friend Don Conka's situation in "Signed DC", and Steppenwolf's covers of Hoyt Axton's condemnation of "The Pusher" and depiction of his victim "Snowblind Friend".

None, however, transgressed as brazenly as Lou Reed on The Velvet Underground's debut album, where "Heroin" evoked the soothing rush of opiate in a matter-of-fact manner, and "I'm Waiting For the Man" celebrated junkie anticipation with an edgy, chugging eagerness and an eye for the telling detail – "he's never early, he's always late" – that spoke more of journalistic honesty than fantasy. Now regarded as classic rock, Reed's brutal realism at the time found scant acceptance.

It was almost as if addiction needed to be discovered by the West Coast hippie elite before it was acknowledged as either a problem or a topic for polite songwriterly investigation. For some time, the West Coast elite could barely see the forest for the trees, unwilling to accept that the blizzard of cocaine in which it operated constituted an addiction comparable to the sad junkie stereotype of heroin.

But this was, in actuality, addiction on a colossal scale: David Crosby's autobiography Long Time Gone recounts possibly the largest consumption of recreational drugs by a single individual in the entire history of the world, fuelling an addictive personality so intense it was able to steamroller through whatever "interventions" his friends attempted.

It was Crosby's friend Neil Young who proved the most astute observer of the drug culture raging around him. His hugely popular Harvest album contained the song "The Needle and the Damage Done", which offered the most sympathetic, non-judgmental view of the problem since Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death", particularly its concluding lines, "I've seen the needle and the damage done/ A little part of it in everyone/ But every junkie's like a setting sun". So shocked was Young by the demise of the song's subject, guitarist Danny Whitten, followed by the drug-fuelled death of his friend Bruce Berry, that his intended follow-up to Harvest would take the form of a cathartic rumination on drugs and death so relentlessly, brutally depressing that it was not released for several years.

For all their supposedly "confessional" approach, few of Young's peers amongst the West Coast singer-songwriter scene dared confront the harsh reality of addiction as he had. But while the hip-capitalist hippies lived it large in Laurel Canyon, partaking in only the finest cocaine and heroin, a tidal wave of cheap smack flooded the black ghettoes across America, bringing drastic social changes that simply could not be ignored. Pre-eminent among the black songwriters confronting this situation was Curtis Mayfield, who, with albums like Back to the World and Super Fly, depicted an existence in which returning Vietnam veterans struggled to reconnect with their social groups, and hard drugs offered a superficially attractive and readily-available escape from the realities of poverty, violence and despair.

Super Fly was just one of several "blaxploitation" soundtracks to appear in the wake of Shaft, but Mayfield managed to take the genre's basic tropes – the choppy wah-wah guitars, the gangsta-lean funk grooves, and so on – and make of them something much more significant. The album eventually out-grossed the film it accompanied. Which in a way was entirely appropriate, since the film's laissez-faire attitude towards drugs found little sympathy in Mayfield songs such as the jive-talking "Pusherman" and the stark, tragic "Freddie's Dead". "Why can't we brothers protect one another?/ Nobody's serious, and it makes me furious", sang Mayfield in the latter, a sentiment which sought to shift the blame for the situation onto a more overt political level.

Since the 1970s, addiction has become something which the music industry has, in the main, been happy to see swept under the carpet. Perhaps partly because the drug of choice during the "great rave explosion" of the late 1980s and 1990s was ecstasy, which is not considered physically addictive, the last few decades have been short on songs about addiction. There is a sizeable tranche celebrating drug indulgence, from bands like Happy Mondays, Black Grape and Primal Scream, but the only one I can recall confronting the possibility of addiction is Oasis's "Morning Glory", which deals with the need for artificial energy in ambivalent fashion, suggesting that "All your dreams are made/ When you're chained to the mirror and the razor-blade". The use of "chained" casts a shadow of dependency over what had, by the mid-Nineties, become the widespread recreational use of cocaine. The rest of the song, and the band's attitude at the time, suggest that this shadow is perceived with some reluctance – displaying an honesty that is one of the song's more attractive characteristics.

But when it comes to honesty, few can match Amy Winehouse's blunt disavowal of a problem which became all too obvious as time passed.

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf