When you spend time prowling the rock history archives, you find that certain factoids appear again and again, often described with the same sentence, as if they had been cut and pasted from one site to another, which they probably have been. One of them is that in April 1971, the Illinois Crime Commission released a list of songs it found to be “drug-oriented.” Sometimes the factoid mentions a few of the songs but never goes into more detail. Today, we’re going into more detail.
The commission was set up by the Illinois legislature during the 1960s to investigate organized crime in the state, but in late 1970, it held public hearings “on the narcotics and dangerous drugs problem.” Whatever else might have come out of the hearings is buried in the state archives. All anybody remembers is the list of “drug-oriented rock records” released to the public in April 1971. According to an article in Rolling Stone, eight records appeared on the list: “Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Joe Cocker, “Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, “Hi-De-Ho” by Blood Sweat and Tears, “With a Little Help From My Friends” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 (!), “White Rabbit” by the Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary
The one that jumps out first is “With a Little Help From My Friends”, not because anybody is surprised by its inclusion today, but because it’s listed as having been recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 (which the commission garbled to “Brash 66”), and not that more famous band from Liverpool. “With a Little Help From My Friends” would be cited by Vice-President Spiro Agnew during a speech later in the year. “It’s a catchy tune,” he said, “but until it was pointed out to me, I never realized that the ‘friends’ were assorted drugs with such nicknames as ‘Mary Jane,’ ‘Speed,’ and ‘Benny.'” You might wonder what Agnew was smoking, since the song contains none of the names he mentioned.
The commission observed that “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” “depicts the pleasure of LSD” and that “yellow submarine” was “street jargon for yellow, barbiturate capsules.” “White Rabbit” celebrates “the kicks provided by LSD and other psychedelics.” “Hi De Ho” is about “the joys of smoking marijuana,” presumably because of the phrase “I’m gonna get me some of that old sweet roll,” although the lyrics (written by noted counterculture figures Carole King and Gerry Goffin) are opaque enough to be about eating pastry. And speaking of opacity, the commission found that “Whiter Shade of Pale” praised “mind-bending characteristics of the psychedelics,” even though nobody has ever been able to say definitively what the hell that’s about.
The commission report strained credulity the most by including “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” noting that the “lyrics have a double meaning, referring to alcohol but also to drugs.” Those damn kids, perverting a perfectly good term for being drunk that was standard adult parlance in the 1960s, used on television without causing a second thought. The most laughable of them all, of course, was “Puff the Magic Dragon,” which the commission proclaimed was about “smoking marijuana and hashish.” “Puff” was based on a poem written in 1959 and had been released in 1963, several years before the other songs cited, although rumors about its “true” meaning began circulating in the late 60s. Peter Yarrow has spent over 40 years denying the rumors, saying that the song is about the loss of childhood innocence, which is plain from the words on the page.
In 1971, the Illinois Crime Commission’s list was no joke. It landed in a season during which drug-oriented lyrics were already controversial. The Federal Communications Commission had posted a public notice in March reminding stations that they were responsible for knowing the meaning of the songs they played, especially songs that might mention drug use or abuse. This was reported as being a ban on drug-oriented lyrics, so shortly after the Illinois report was released, the FCC clarified itself. It reminded stations that its earlier pronouncement had merely reaffirmed that each station’s license-holder was responsible for all speech heard on the station, including songs that possibly glorified drugs. While there was no blanket censorship, the reminder was enough to chill the climate, and many songs were indeed dropped from playlists, if only for a while. In the years since, the chill has occasionally returned, and it will probably do so now and then until the end of time, as long as there are adults inclined to worry about what the kids are listening to.
(From my WNEW.com archives, slightly edited.)