Much as I love rock’n’roll, the poor child has still, after 62 years, only a gcse level grasp of metaphor. Deciphering this is one of the joys of adolescence, precious information exchanged in hushed corners of dusty school corridors and handed down from one generation to the next like fragments of the holy cross. All rock’n’roll metaphor can however be placed in one of three categories:
- It’s about drugs.
- It’s about sex (sex with oneself could reasonably be given its own category so vast is the available material, but I don’t want to clutter the syllabus too much).
- It’s about Marianne Faithfull (or Mia Farrow or Ava Gardner or, heaven help us, Rosanna Arquette).
Praise be then to Talking Heads for simplifying things by naming a drug song, “drugs”. In fact the immense “Fear of Music” is chock full of syllabus simplifying titles, like a rock’n’roll Brodie’s notes. Air, Heaven, Mind, Animals and the song that inspired the teenage Slender and his cadre to spend an entire summer bellowing “electric guitar got run over by a car on the… hiiiiiigghhhwaaaaaaayyyy”. You had to be there.
Y’know, this may come as a bolt from the blue for many of you, but I’ve never been much of a drugs man. Beer’n’fags, sure. I even went through a phase of smoking, what my generation still refer to as, dope, although I suspect I’m showing my age here. And I’m fairly certain I was only doing it to appear tragic and self-destructive after being unceremoniously dumped immediately prior. But the real hard stuff, what I believe is known as charlie. Or whizz. Or horse. No. Neither have I tried skag. Or tweak. Or poppers, stash, woolies, nugget, ice, candle, bone, Baltic tea, mighty mez, Bristol crystal, nib, oxys, girl, happy flakes, special K, hydro, ching, combustible herbage, crank, buddha, disco biscuits, meow meow, eightball, puddle or whippet. As John Hurt’s character in “Scandal” put it, on balance I’d rather have a good stiff Pimms.
I have nevertheless had occasion to large it on a bottle of Night Nurse, that magic elixir, one part pain-killer, two parts alcohol, three parts placebo, that precludes the use of heavy machinery and it is here that Talking Heads’ version of narcosis resonates. “Drugs” is without doubt the sound of waking up at three in the morning in the first throes of influenza with a soaring temperature whilst the last traces of paracetemol leak out of your system. Echo mounts on the vocals and then instantly disappears like trying to tune into radio Prague during a hiking holiday in the Dales. Electric drills stick their heads round the door and monstrous alien voices articulating what sounds like “burgy-urgy-urgy” mutter threateningly. “Purple Haze” may have soundtracked the emerging 60’s counterculture, “Firestarter” was, for all I know, the aural equivalent of mashing it up in a field outside of Hertford at 04:30 am but it was “Drugs” that enabled us to experience the regret of not wrapping up warm the day before and the paranoia of that unfinished sociology essay that had to be in the next day.
Of course, if you’re going to sing something like this, it helps to look like David Byrne, ie a nervous sociopath. Similarly, anyone in 1967 looking like Jimi Hendrix was clearly no stranger to a left handed cigarette. Imagine then how truly mind-bending it can be to have a drug anthem performed by what appears to be a group of supply teaching staff from Stevenage. People, I present to you the rather wonderful Association.
Formed in 1965 by the prodigously talented Terry Kirkman and his naval buddy (not a rock’n’roll metaphor by the way) Jules Alexander the Association’s star blazed fiercely and quickly leaving us with a handful of classic slices of California sunshine (possibly a drugs euphemism, I’ll have to check). The speed with which said star imploded is easily explained by simply looking at a picture of them. “Uncool” shrieks at you with the same volume as their casual knitwear. In a period of such sartorial Stalinism nobody was ever going to forgive elbow patches, not while there was still cheesecloth to be tie-dyed. But I maintain that “weird” has a context. Even Syd Barrett must have struggled to stand out while everyone around him at Ally Pally was admiring the pretty colours. Six men at C&A singing a song about “Mary” mind you is always going to set alarm bells ringing.
Ah, yes. Mary. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, all songs containing the name Mary are about drugs. FACT. Spotify alone offers a staggering 82 artists who have recorded songs about a certain “Mary Jane”. But neither Nick Drake nor Stan Getz, no, not even Megadeth can match the Association’s “along comes Mary” for sheer life affirming joy. These men were clearly on a mission and that mission was to preach the message “Drugs. They’re really nice”.
It’s not with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia that I say they don’t make them like that anymore. They simply don’t. Intricate six part harmonies weren’t even in the rock vernacular when “Fear of Music” was recorded in 1979. It was David Byrne that shaped my vocabulary rather than Terry Kirkman which is why it seems entirely logical to me that a sober 50 something new swede would choose to interpret a New York post punk classic with recorder and twangy guitar. Create art in the medium which feels most natural. Talking Heads did. The Association did. All the best people do.