It’s no shock that the eighties brought a plethora of songs about drug usage. Cocaine was in its prime, serving as the drug of choice for Hollywood stars and Wall Street stockbrokers alike. Unfortunately, blow was even responsible for the death of comedy legend John Belushi. Let’s explore how cocaine and other drugs made their way onto the Billboard Hot 100 throughout this decade, and what that says about American (and European) culture during this time.
Tip: Click on the song titles to listen to these one-hit wonders in all their glory!
- “Der Kommissar” by After the Fire (1983, Billboard #5): This song first emerged from Austria in 1981 when Falco wrote it as commentary about the struggle between German and Austrian cocaine-addicted youth and the communist Stasi who were known for spying on and punishing their own citizens. The German word “kommissar” translates to “government official,” and the titular character serves as the embodiment of domestic control and punishment during this time. The line “the more you live, the faster you will die” is an apt synopsis of the youthful perspective in this area of Europe. They wanted to have fun and take risks, but lived under the constant fear of surveillance from their government. Falco was well-known for his struggle with drug addiction and was sadly under the influence of cocaine and other drugs during the car accident that caused his death in 1998. Weirdly enough, this song did not find success in the United States until the British band After the Fire covered it in 1983, though they and their country had little to do with the Iron Curtain or its fall a few years after the song’s release. The song’s American success likely stemmed from its music video, which MTV played frequently. While Falco’s original track did not resonate with American listeners, he later topped American charts in 1986 with “Rock Me Amadeus,” a song dedicated to the life of another Austrian musician.
- “White Horse” by Laid Back (1983, Billboard #26): This bizarre and repetitive song actively tells its audience to “ride the white pony” instead of the “white horse,” which essentially encourages people to do cocaine instead of heroin. The song also briefly references cocaine usage in corporate America and its effects on users, proclaiming “if you want to be rich, you’ve got to be a bitch.” Truly profound. While this song isn’t exactly a work of genius, it does say a lot about the time in which it was written. It’s hard to imagine any other era in which the radio would allow a song encouraging cocaine usage to be become a hit, but evidently the slang terms went over some listener’s heads. The band’s keyboardist, Tim Stahl, gushed about a letter he received from a little girl thanking him for writing a song for her white pony. Who knew the whole family could enjoy this ode to drugs?
- “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead (1987, Billboard #9): I was shocked to find out that the Grateful Dead are technically a one-hit wonder. While they’ve dominated the rock charts plenty of times, this is their only song to top the Billboard Hot 100. Despite its sunshiney melody, it’s actually pretty bittersweet. Lyricist Robert Hunter admitted that he wrote the song after his last night using cocaine, a momentary setback after a long period of abstinence from drug usage. The line “every silver lining’s got a touch of grey” refers to the empty sad feelings leftover after a euphoric drug binge. He assures the listener that he can “get by” and “survive” despite faltering. Paradoxically, the song can also be seen as a promise of future sobriety. While the experience of leading a straight-edge life is full of grey moments like withdrawal and facing the world as it truly is, there is a silver lining in overcoming addiction. Speaking of facing the world as it is, the song’s third verse highlights national struggles rather than individual ones, such as livestock who are “given kerosene” by the large corporations who have taken over local farming and the illiterate youth who “can’t read at seventeen.” Still, Hunter’s message is that we as a country will survive these hardships. It is quite an accomplishment to produce a song that is both an intimate look into the personal battle fought by Hunter and a beacon of hope for moving forward as a country in a time of great hopelessness.
- “Toy Soldiers” by Martika (1988, Billboard #1): This song is incredibly eerie, featuring echoey children’s vocals and using the famous “Ring Around The Rosie” lyric “we all fall down” to illustrate the devastating effects of drug addiction. Although Martika herself has never stated this, it all lends itself to the theme of losing one’s innocence. What Martika did say is that this song was written for a close friend of hers who struggled to overcome his battle with cocaine. Apparently the song felt so personal to her friend that he couldn’t even listen to it. Similar to “Touch of Grey,” this song clarifies that as addicts, “we never win, but the battle wages on.” However, Martika later clarified that her friend has largely overcome his own addiction. Unlike the victims of the Great Plague who “fell down” in “Ring Around the Rosie” originally according to popular folk etymology, the toy soldiers Martika sings about have the chance to get back up.
Are there any fun (or not-so-fun) drug-fuelled songs that you love? Considering how many music artists sadly fall victim to the allure of drug usage, I’d be surprised if there weren’t. At least we have some great art to show for it!