Narcotica: Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To

Psychedelia is the genre of music that evokes the experience of taking psychedelic drugs. But with so many varieties of drugs, you’d think there would be more accompanying musical genres. Teetotaler Jeff Merrion begins to bridge this gap by describing a genre of droney, down-tempo rock: narcotica.

In the 1960’s, musicians began to produce music that was inspired (explicitly or implicitly) by the use of psychedelic drugs. This music is called psychedelia or psychedelic music. According to lysergia.com, the first song that qualifies as “psychedelia” is “Hesitation Blues” by the Holy Modal Rollers (it qualifies because it contains the word “psychedelic”). The movement spread, and now any music that is (or seems to be) influenced by psychedelic drug use is called psychedelia (or, more recently, neo-psychedelia). Most psychedelic music shares similar musical characteristics: long songs, electric guitar freakouts, hallucinatory lyrics, and terrible cover art.

Today, I am going to attempt (surely in vain) to label a new genre of music: narcotica. The term applies to any music that is influenced by the use of narcotic drugs (e.g., heroin, opium, morphine, etc.) Because of the influence of narcotics, most narcotica has a lethargic tempo, few chord changes, droning melodies, minimal percussion (dense percussion is more effort than a heroin user can muster) and lyrics describing how the feelings produced by narcotics surpass even the fullest of earthly love. “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground is the seminal song of narcotica. Its lyrics (though ostensibly sardonic) extol the beauties and joys of heroin. The song’s centerpiece is a seven-minute viola drone, and Moe Tucker’s broken-dryer drumming is minimal.

If “Heroin” is the seminal narcotica song, then Spacemen 3 is the seminal narcotica band. Their credo was expressed as an early album title: Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. In a sense, they failed, because their music is enjoyable even without drugs. The much-overlooked band had entire concept albums about heroin (“Let me tell you ‘bout this life / you got yours / I got mine / we’ll put some love deep in our veins”). With their sluggish tempos, drone-based chord progressions, and mumbled lyrics, Spacemen 3 spawned this new subgenre of rock.

Spacemen 3 grew stranger as time marched on; they released Dreamweapon, which is an hour of a single guitar note played through a tremolo pedal. As the members of Spacemen 3 descended into dissent and addiction, narcotica evolved with bands like Spiritualized, Low, and Mogwai. If Spacemen 3 was all about the joys of heroin, then Spiritualized, the band of Spacemen 3’s Jason Pierce, is all about the harrowing addictions, ruined relationships, and decidedly unglamorous track marks of heroin use (“Little J is sad and fucked / first he jumped and then he looked / these tracks of time / these tracks of mine”). Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is the best Spiritualized album; it sounds like someone replaced Brian Wilson’s LSD stash with heroin and let him loose in the studio with a 100-member choir.

Low is perhaps the best narcotica band of all time; the Duluth trio formed as a reaction to shitty grunge music by playing the slowest, most harrowingly sad songs they could muster. They are devout Mormons, so the direct influence of narcotics on their music is questionable. However, Low’s music is an aural opiate if I’ve ever heard one. Songs like “Laser Beam,” “Mom Says,” “Whitetail,” and “That’s How You Sing Amazing Grace” drift along (often at less than 60 beats per minute), shrouded in a fog of reverb at once blissful and sad. (Also worth checking out is Low’s unbelievably touching rendition of Spacemen 3’s “Lord, Can You Hear Me?”)

The Scottish band Mogwai also appeared around the time of Spacemen 3’s demise, and they carry the torch of Spacemen 3’s spacier, dronier songs. However, they also add the element of volume; they are rumored to play so loudly live that listeners’ pants flap with the vibrations. I’ve always thought that their album Come On Die Young was their best, but just about every music critic and reviewer disagrees with me, saying it is too torpid (as if there could be such a thing within the marvelous subgenre of narcotica).

So there they are, the lions of lethargy, the heroin-addled heroes, and dons of drone that comprise the godfathers of narcotica. For the patient (or doped up) listener, they provide countless rewards.

When I was seventeen, I contracted viral meningitis. While not a fatal case, it was certainly the most painful few days I’ve ever experienced. During my four-day hospital stay, the doctors kept me on a hefty drip of morphine, and I remember thinking, “Wow. Things are really bad right now, and I could die very soon, but I don’t care. Everything is wonderful.” Similarly, in Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs says that a heroin addict could be happy staring for hours at his shoelaces. That, to me, epitomizes the paradoxical bliss of narcotica music: sad, happy, and shrouded in reverb.

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.