Liz Kershaw: Turn on, tune in, drop out

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The Independent Online

Thank you, BBC. I now know more about getting stoned than I could ever have imagined! "You may not know this, but the reason you can even hear this show is down to an illegal drug," John Peel pointed out as he opened The Kids Are All High (8pm, Saturday, Radio 2), the series that aimed to get its head round the relationship between mind-altering substances and the music we all love. Hello. What's he suggesting? That the programme was going out only because someone at Radio 2 was sufficiently off their head to commission it? Oh, no, no, no. Simply that radio fans owe their listening pleasure to LSD. For frequency modulation (FM) and the microchips in our receivers "were both conceived by guys on acid". And, of course, many of the tunes we tune in for were dreamt up by dudes on drugs. Marijuana and LSD have given us some of the past century's most significant songs. As we were about to hear. Eventually.

But before we became too euphoric about rock stars and their recreational habits, we were given the health warnings: "the misery drugs cause", "families torn apart", "disease spread by dirty needles", "young people foolishly imitating their idols" etc, etc, etc. Surely that should have seen off anyone stumbling across this anarchy and feeling incensed enough to complain about a show that appeared to be blatantly promoting the artistic and creative benefits to mankind of illegal substances. Probably; but just to be on the safe side, we were treated to an extensive trawl through the pharmaceutical industry's past. And fascinating it was, too. A fact-packed potted history of cannabis and its more chemical cousins. If you'd tuned in for the meanderings of a bunch of middle-aged musos, forget it. This was an education. A real trip (through time). Here, no stone was left unturned. Come to think of it, no turn was left unstoned. But more on Keith Richard later.

Apparently, it all started with the apes. Their "use of hallucinogenics may have kick-started the increase in brain activity" that led to man's evolution from the primates. By 6000BC, opium was all over the Mediterranean. Two millennia later, the Chinese were on cannabis and the pharaohs on fags. Well, nicotine has been found in Egyptian mummies. And cocaine. And hemp. In the ancient world, its seeds were thrown on to the fire and the fumes inhaled to induce "howls of pleasure".

Moving swiftly on to 1693, and the housewife's choice, according to the herbalist Culpeper, was cannabis. So much so that he "couldn't be bothered to list all its uses"! A century later, no self-respecting Romantic poet would attempt an ode without opium. And then came the time of those "warehouse parties crammed with bright young things out of their heads on cocaine". The roaring Twenties. The jazz age. The music, at last. We were told: "Some of the greatest jazz was recorded by people on drugs." We heard Cab Calloway sing "The Reefer Man" and Ella Fitzgerald's "Wacky Dust", and that Louis Armstrong used to boast that he smoked pot every day of his life. And he said to himself, what a wonderful world.

But in a way, he was a victim, you see. Because, long before the Mexicans introduced marijuana and Satchmo had his stash, slaves in the southern United States were kept coked up to make them work longer and eat less. By the time they were free, they were hooked. Still, putting our contemporary culture into a historical context, Peel then related how, during the war, Hitler (not known for his musical hits) was on eight amphetamine shots a day, while British troops alone were issued with 72 million tablets. When they were demobbed, American troops turned into truckers. So? Well, they popped pills to keep awake and developed a taste for faster and faster music. That gave the world rock'n'roll, with the most famous GI of them all, Elvis, probably on coke and purple hearts.

Then, London, we heard, sniffed its way through the Sixties on benzedrine, "a nasal inhaler noted for its stimulatory effects". Amphetamines were nothing new. The parents of the day had had them prescribed for weight loss and depression. "Their real horror was that the kids were enjoying themselves." But it was LSD that "kept London swinging and defined it culturally". Although only a small "elite" took it, "clothing, typefaces and music were all influenced by psychedelic experience." And Pete Frame, the writer of Rock Family Trees, was on hand to outline who led whom into temptation: Dylan to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. "I was hooked on adrenalin," Richard claimed. "I needed heroin to fill the gap between gigs."

Bill Wyman didn't. "It was a very difficult time," he told us in his distinctive, dopey, deadpan way. "You didn't know who'd be in jail that week." We heard someone in the background titter. "No, it's true. Somebody would get out, and then someone would get busted and go back again. Friends, people in the shop you bought your clothes in."

Wow! That's really amazing. No, it is. They were hounded. So what did all that do to the music? They may have had a good time, but just what, exactly, has the record-buying public got out of all this? Well, because of the "abstract, non-linear thinking" brought on by drugs, the Beatles came up with Sergeant Pepper and we still enjoy the works of Dylan, the Doors (who took their name from Aldous Huxley's musings after experimenting with acid) Syd Barrett, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin, Brian Jones, Eric Clapton and Kurt Cobain. All fab. Mainly dead. And then there's the long-playing album. Well, just think about it. The record companies had to come up with something when everyone was so stoned that they couldn't be bothered to get up and change the record. And so, for practical rather than artistic reasons, the long-player, or "LP", was born. And so were "the 10-minute track, the track that lasted a whole side, and the triple concept album"! Only Frank Zappa, we heard, was immune to all this – "clean". Although, as Peel so rightly said, "you would be forgiven for thinking that calling your kids Dweezil and Moon Unit and your album Weasels Ripped My Flesh is not the behaviour of a regular guy."

And after two fact-packed hours with the man who brought us much of this music, who saw it all, who's seen them all come and go, I'd like to have liked more of his take on drugs and music. Has it brought out the best? Or is it, as he would say, all a load of dreadful old tosh? What does he really make of those uppers and downers and hangin'-arounders? This week, Peel is on four networks and celebrates 40 years on air. Try getting your head round that.

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