Illegal substances

Photo of drugs and a bottle of scotch on a table

© Cozart

Music scenes have been closely connected with the consumption of illegal substances.

Narcotic drugs have been criminalised in the UK since the 1920s but scenes based around particular styles of music have often been associated with a certain type of drug. For example:

  • Ecstasy - acid house and rave scenes
  • Amphetamines and speed - mod, punk and northern soul scenes
  • Marijuana - reggae scenes
  • LSD - hippies, acid rock and progressive rock scenes

Drug-taking has influenced activities and events within such scenes. Mods and ravers, for example, used amphetamines and ecstasy to help them keep going at all-night music events and to create a sense of community.

Drug-taking has also been connected to the sounds of certain music scenes. For example, the energizing effects of ecstasy have been connected to the quick tempo of rave music; the slowed-down beats of reggae have been associated with the effects of marijuana; and LSD has been associated with the progressive rock scene and held responsible for the innovative sounds on the Beatles' progressive rock album 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' released in 1967.

Musicians involved with these and other music scenes have used drugs to assist creativity or to help them cope with the demands and lifestyle associated with music-making. The use of heroin was common among jazz musicians from the 1930s onward (Charlie Parker being a well-known example) and certain jazz venues (such as the Cotton Club) were associated with drug-taking and other criminal activity. From the 1960s the use of heroin was commonly associated with rock musicians. Famous users included Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious.

The drug-related deaths of rock stars have been notorious, as have the ecstasy-related deaths of club-goers in Liverpool and elsewhere. Whilst such events are few and far between they have nevertheless influenced public attitudes towards the music scenes concerned and reinforced familiar associations of popular music with deviant or anti-establishment behaviour.

Music scenes have also been affected in various ways by the availability or lack of alcohol, and the consumption of both drugs and alcohol has been the focus of many popular songs. In nineteenth century Britain, for example, music halls doubled as drinking venues for their audiences. Meanwhile pubs have commonly acted as live performance venues, whilst music festivals are often sponsored by breweries and other drinks companies.

Music sites and scenes have also been affected by the banning of alcohol. Liverpool's beat scene of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, was supported by alcohol-free clubs including the Cavern Club. In the US the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s affected sites and scenes related to jazz and blues music, and alcohol, crime and music became closely related.