Arguably the most influential British recording of the 1990’s was the debut by a collective from Bristol. Evolving from a sound system crew, Massive Attack had three core members ? only one of whom was a musician in the conventional sense of the word ? who had been involved in promoting the warehouse parties that had blown up into full-on raves with the advent of Ecstasy. But Blue Lines was hardly made for dancing: it’s too soporific.
The rhythms are downbeat, between reggae and hip-hop: spliff tempos. Torpid, but relentless, driven by immense bass figures that create a somber ambience (when Massive Attack launched their vanity record label, they called it Melankolic). The sweet vocals of guest singers, Shara Nelson and Horace Andy, lighten the mood, but a darker tone is set on the title track by another guest, Tricky, as he enunciates: “Can’t be with the one you love then love the one you’re with/ Spliff in the ashtray, Red Stripe, I pull the lid.”
Eventually, Blue Lines was acknowledged as the seminal masterpiece of a musical genre known as “trip-hop.” According to Harry Shapiro, author of Waiting for the Man ? The Story of Drugs and Popular Music, “Trip-hop in the 1990’s was explicitly designed to enhance the effects of marijuana in the way, for example, the down, sluggish tempos correlate to the way in which time appears to slow down under the influence of the drug ? or the way that perceptions of very small detail can be enhanced ? hence where the music is reduced to simply bass and drums, the mind focuses on the minimalism as it slips out of temporal consciousness.”1
According to Tricky, when it came to promoting his own solo debut in 1995, trip-hop was, “bollocks… I read this thing that said I was one of the innovators of trip-hop, and it’s so stupid.”2 The man had a point. Although Tricky had been partially responsible for creating a sound that became a clich? of 1990’s global cafe culture ? a breathless female voice over a slow hip-hop beat ? by the time he released Maxinquaye, his work was already sounding harsher, and its lyrical themes were heavy, man. Tricky ? real name, Adrian Thaws ? named the record after his mother, who took her own life when he was only four. “It’s a meaningless word,” he told Sean O’Hagan in The Face magazine.
“There is also an abiding sense of paranoia that, as Tricky has admitted before, often comes from his over-indulgence in the demon weed,” O’Hagan wrote. “On Maxinquaye, spliff seems to have been actively utilized as a creative catalyst that, unlike most of the stoned doodlings that comprise the trip-hop school of blunted beats, actually sharpened, rather than dulled, the protagonist’s point of view. ‘I used to be a preacher for spliff,’ Tricky tells me, ‘but something happened. Either it’s gotten a lot stronger than it used to be or my tolerance has gone down. Now, two spliffs and I get dark and insecure and I could do things to people.'”3
Tricky could certainly say nasty things about people, as he demonstrated when a reggae-styled singer called Finley Quaye burst onto the UK scene in 1997. He had a smash hit album, Maverick A Strike, backed by a press release put out by his record company that claimed him to be Tricky’s uncle, the half-brother of his dead mother. Although Finley played it down, Tricky was incensed. Now living in New York (and running his own vanity record label called Durban Poison after the wicked SA weed), he recorded a track called Can’t Freestyle, which consists of scratchy violin and suffocated beats with Tricky murmuring ominously about Finley.
Musically, Tricky and Finley were chalk and cheese. While both were known to smoke prodigious spliffs, onstage and off, Finley’s vibe was breezy and bright, happy and high, while Tricky was dark and queasy and deeply uneasy. However, as the millennium turned and Tricky released Blowback, he let it be known that much of his former bad temper had been due to dietary imbalance, but he’s lightened up now that he’s eating right. Meanwhile, Finley had done time at a celebrity rehab clinic and included a song about the experience on his more difficult second album, Vanguard.
Rave on. And on
When The Shamen reached number one in the pop charts in August 1992, with Ebeneezer Goode, Mr C’s speedy cockney rhyming slang rap satirical celebration of an Ecstasy dealer, rave had gone mainstream.4 By 1996, The Shamen’s founder, Colin Angus, was semi-retired to his rock star country house, where he recorded the group’s sixth album, Hempton Manor. Inspired by and dedicated to the planet’s most useful plant and including such track titles as Cannabeo and Indica, according to the press release, the record “hybridizes tripped-out techno, spacey dub and frenetic drum ‘n bass.” In other words, it employed three of the most cannabis-friendly forms of contemporary dance music.
“Tripped-out techno” is machine-made music with the bpm (beats per minute) turned down; it’s techno with tunes, known as “trance.” Evolving from chill-out rooms and at beach parties in Goa, trance is overtly psychedelic music, geared to the mind-bending effects of LSD and magic mushrooms rather than Ecstasy. Although one might assume that the trance-tripping fraternity smoked hash, the herbal influence was rarely explicit except in recordings such as Mystic Cigarettes by the Saafi Brothers, described on one web site as “a semi-chill album for getting stoned to.”
“Spacey dub,” also called “cyberdub” and “digidub,” is the kind of reggae-derived, digitally-produced music that William Gibson envisioned as far back as 1984 in his seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. In the book, the Rastafarian crew of the good ship Babylon Rocker measure time to the long pulse of “Zion dub.” In the 1990’s, smokin’ digidub was made, worldwide, by conscious collectives like the UK’s Zion Train, whose Passage to Indica was conceived as an aural “journey to a place where marijuana can be smoked. It could be Amsterdam, or anywhere in the world that you can smoke without fear.”
“Drum ‘n bass” is a style characterized by the breakbeat. At first these were hip-hop beats, sped up past 160 bpm, but DJ’s and artists of the “junglist movement” were soon creating more complicated breakbeats. Raw, tearing, in-your-face drum ‘n bass was hardly pothead music as we knew it, but influential junglist records like the Ganja Kru’s Super Sharp Shooter EP soon made the connection clear. Mature breakbeat, made by the likes of Roni Size and 4Hero, has established drum ‘n bass as one of the more cerebral of contemporary musical forms.
While the underground dance scene became ever more factionalized, the mainstream was dominated by hip-hop. As the old school hero, KRS-One, wryly noted on a rap from his 1993 album, Return of the Boom Bap, the entire hip-hop nation seemed to be living under a pall of pot smoke. On I Can’t Wake Up, the rapper dreams, “I’m a blunt gettin’ smoked and I can’t wake up.” Picked up by House of Pain and passed to Cypress Hill, the KRS-Blunt is smoked by Das EFX, relit by Black Sheep and passed around De La Soul and Redman until it finally reaches Fab 5 Freddy, host of Yo! MTV Raps. Of course, by the time it reaches him, there’s not much left to smoke…
Britpop blows up
Reggae music had been adding its flavor to the pop charts with increasing regularity throughout the 1980’s via groups like The Police and Culture Club, and with the dominance of hip-hop, reggae became a staple ingredient of pop hits. Records containing cannabis references were no longer confined to the fringes of popular culture but were frequently played on the radio and reached the top of the charts without censure.
Nobody blinked in October 1994, when Pato Banton, in league with UB40, briefly topped the British pop charts with a version of The Equals’ Baby Come Back, despite Mr Banton’s clear declaration to his lover of an illicit “bag of sensi,” the better to enjoy his “color TV” and “CD collection of Bob Marley.”
Another significant British pop single released in 1994, although it wasn’t a hit until a year later when re-released on a major label, was the debut by Supergrass, Caught by the Fuzz. The song tells the true story of singer Gaz Coombes getting busted at the age of 15. Supergrass (the name is a pun: “supergrass” is British slang for a criminal informer) were among a new breed of groups that came of age in the mid 1990’s and became identified with a musical movement called Britpop, or Britrock.
The prototypical Britrock and Britpop bands were The Stone Roses and the La’s, respectively. The Stone Roses came from Manchester, also known as “Madchester.” They wore baggy trousers and had taken Ecstasy. The La’s were from housing estates in Liverpool, where heroin addiction was endemic. Their one wonderful hit, There She Goes ? which was originally released in October 1988 and became chart hit when remixed two years later ? is, allegedly, an ode to smack.
Dodgy were firmly on the pop side of the hedge. From Birmingham, they made melodic music that sounds a lot like The Hollies. Their breakthrough second album, Homegrown, was released in October 1994, replete with titles such as Grassman, and was promoted with a grow guide and sent out to journalists with a little bag of seeds. The following summer, Dodgy had their moment in the sun at Glastonbury, a very British pop festival that was inaugurated in the early 1970’s as the archetypal hippie gathering, but grew up in the 1990’s to become the nation’s largest annual celebration of contemporary music and the performing arts.
Glastonbury, in 1995, officially attracted 80,000 paying revelers, but thousands more crashed through the fence. Fine weather and media reports of the lack of security ensured enthusiastic crowds to see groups like Jamiroquai, who topped the bill on the first night.
A high calibre jazz funk band, Jamiroquai is the vehicle of frontman, Jason Kay, who wore trademark silly hats and sounded like Stevie Wonder. Artwork advertising the second Jamiroquai album, Return of the Space Cowboy, showed a giant cigarette paper in the stylized shape of the singer’s silhouette. Onstage, Kay lit huge spliffs and passed them around as his band swung into their version of the old Peter Tosh tune, Legalize It.
Entertaining as these antics may have been, Jamiroquai’s audience was hardly likely to be mobilized into cannabis activism. As high-powered, homegrown hydro herb became increasingly ubiquitous throughout the 1990’s, its legalization was not an issue of burning relevance to a generation who had little trouble in scoring and were anyway preoccupied by a proliferation of so-called “dance” drugs. In a guide to “the sociology of getting stoned,” published by a Manchester drugs agency in 1995, a Liverpudlian dealer is quoted: “Legalize cannabis? Why? As far as I’m concerned, it’s already fucking legal, so what’s the point?”5
This point of view was echoed, sort of, by another Liverpudlian: Tommy Scott, the leader of Space (who were nominated as Best Newcomers at the 1996 Brit Awards, but lost out to pot-smoking public schoolboys, Kula Shaker). “I tried a bit of speed once, but I’ve never been into weed,” he told a journalist. “The thing is, I know I can out-weird anyone on any drug, just with what I’ve already got in my head. Maybe that’s why we’re different to a lot of bands around. Everyone in Liverpool’s a weedhead and I think it just makes them boring and unimaginative. I reckon the Tories invented it, like some people say the American government flooded their ghettos with smack, to keep people from doing anything constructive with themselves.”6
John Power, the bass player in the seminal Liverpudlian group, The La’s, went on to form a band called Cast, who were no doubt disappointed to miss Glastonbury in 1996, on account of there being no festival that year. Power was enthusiastic when interviewed for the 1997 Official Programme: “I’m an ardent experienced Glastonbury traveller,” he said. However, “I’ve not been in the mud bath thing, though. Not yet.” He was not to be denied a novel experience, as it rained for three days before the event. Many stayed away, but for those who did come determined to have a good time, Cast performed on the Pyramid stage, with Power changing the lyric to his hit, Guiding Star, to: “Skin up, skin up, skin up…”
No way, Sis
The biggest British band of the 1990’s was fronted by the Gallagher brothers. Liam was a Stone Roses fan who fancied himself as a singer. Noel had been a roadie for a Manchester group of psychedelic revivalists, Inspiral Carpets, and made music with the Inspiral’s sound man, Mark Coyle. The band’s biographer explained how Gallagher and Coyle would get together to write and record songs, but “a lot of the time, the boys got so out of it that they often forgot to press ‘record,’ or put in the wrong tape.”
Gallagher said, “I’d go home… stoned out of my head after three days of being round Coyley’s, and say, ‘You should hear this song we did, it was ace, only you can’t hear it because we taped over it because we were so stoned.'” All those who did hear these tapes testified that the ideas and songs were great.7
As Oasis, the Gallagher brothers and their cohorts quickly perfected the classic rock ‘n roll sneer and began to enjoy huge success with a sound that was defiantly up-front while simultaneously harking back to the melodies of their heroes, The Beatles. As Oasis went into (champagne) supernova, the increasingly notorious brothers were featured in Britain’s top Sunday tabloid: “Every other word is unprintable but brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher reckon they’re up there with Lennon and McCartney.”
The article quoted Noel’s recollection of his early songwriting efforts and his views on cannabis: “I was getting halfway through writing a line of a song and I’d fall asleep because I was stoned. The day I stopped was the day my life began. I was suddenly clear-headed. I wrote 50 songs in two weeks. People go on about smack and Ecstasy, but I think draw is the scourge of my generation. I know loads of talented musicians who are still sitting in Manchester in their bedrooms, stoned, because they can’t be bothered to get off their beep.”8
Apparently, Noel Gallagher dreamt up 50 songs over numerous sessions of smoking pot, but was only able to express them ? get the songs out of his head and onto tape ? when he stopped. Among this batch was the anthemic ode to those staples of the rock ‘n roll diet, Cigarettes & Alcohol: “You might as well do the white line/ Cos when it comes on top… You gotta make it happen!”
As Oasis got bigger and brasher, the brothers’ propensity for doing white lines hit the headlines when Liam was arrested in November 1996, after police found him wandering through the streets of London after a night on the town and with a smidgen of coke left in his possession. The following January, when called to comment on another incident involving a pop star’s drug habits, Noel Gallagher remarked that taking drugs was normal ? “like getting up and having a cup of tea in the morning” ? adding that, “as soon as people realize that the majority of people in this country take drugs, then the better off we’ll all be.”
Gallagher’s remarks were condemned in routine, knee-jerk manner by the usual array of reactionary commentators, but a succession of surveys in 1997 showed him to be correct. Taking drugs in general and cannabis in particular was seen as perfectly normal by a growing proportion of people.
Smoking pot had ceased to be seen as a radical gesture, so that even a middle of the road favorite like George Michael was frank about that aspect of his life. A couple of years before being charged with committing a “lewd act” in a public toilet, George came out as a pothead by telling the papers that his 1996 album, Older, “was pretty much recorded on cannabis.”
As the 1990’s flipped over into a new millennium, not only were the tunes we heard on the radio implicitly informed by cannabis, but the words of the songs often explicitly referred to cannabis. Decades of anti-pot propaganda, claiming that cannabis is a dangerous drug, is contradicted by the lyrics to innumerable pop songs that have lodged themselves into the consciousness of even the most casual listeners.
Everybody does get stoned these days, and we’ve got the music to prove it!
1) Harry Shapiro, Waiting for the Man ? The Story of Drugs and Popular Music, (Helter Skelter, 1999).
2) Ted Kessler, Tricky Up Your Ears, (New Musical Express, January 14, 1995).
3) Sean O’Hagan in The Face magazine (February 1995).
4) The song’s single, sly reference to cannabis is it’s last line, “Has anybody got any veras?” Veras = Vera Lynns = skins = cigarette papers.
5) Potology, a Guide to the Sociology of Getting Stoned, (Lifeline, 1995).
6) Johnny Cigarettes in The Face magazine (November 1996).
7) Paolo Hewitt, Getting High: The Adventures of Oasis, (Boxtree, 1997).
8) News of the World, March 24, 1996.