Crankin' Music: 12 Great Amphetamine Anthems
Uppers. Bennies. Diet pills. Pep pills. Crank. Crystal meth. Speed. By any nickname, amphetamines have been around for nearly a century now, and people have been using them to get tweaked out of their minds for nearly as long. Students at the University of Minnesota who served as subjects in early Benzedrine asthma experiments in the 1930s quickly turned their inhalers into study aids and party favors, and people haven't stopped cranking ever since.
Amphetamines create feelings of energy and exhilaration, inspiration and creativity, and they allow you to stay up all night babbling incoherently even when the pitcher of margaritas you sucked down should have knocked you out. And you can talk and dance the night away, dream up grandiose schemes or ridiculously intricate art projects. Or rebuild a motor.
But speed's popularity was never just about partying. Those lively-uppers were favored by foot soldiers and pilots in World War II (and conflicts beyond), they fueled Japan's post-war industrial boom (and the world's first recorded amphetamine "epidemic"), and they were no stranger to America's long-haul truckers and blue-collar workers, let alone harried homemakers, especially before Nixon cracked down on them in the late 1960s. They may not have been smoking marijuana in Merle Haggard's 1960s America, but they were tweaking in Tulsa.
Of course, uppers have their down sides. Driving across the continent on little white pills is all fine and dandy until you start seeing little green men. There's the hallucinatory danger of too much speed and too little sleep. Then there's the paranoid ideation, the hours spent peering out the blinds to see who's peering back at you. And the weird sexual obsession/compulsions. Who doesn’t remember CNN's toothy British correspondent Richard Quest getting busted in Central Park in the wee hours of the morning with meth in his pocket, his penis roped to his neck, and a sex toy stuffed in his boot?
For the past three or four decades, amphetamine use has been seen as the vice of the stereotypical toothless trailer park tweaker, and meth certainly has proven popular in some of the poorer and more remote parts of the country. But there's a different wave of amphetamine use going on these days in the legions of Adderall and Ritalin kids. Now they're grown up and successful professionals, and they're gobbling down the pep pills just like those "damned blue-collar tweakers" before them.
Speed's role in popular culture, for better and worse, has been reflected in American music. Whether it's laudatory odes, matter-of-fact confessionals or fervent admonitions, amphetamines have inspired an entire oeuvre of speed songs across a wide variety of musical genres. Here are a dozen of the best about this most all-American of drugs.
1. Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine?" (1947)
Where did she get that stuff?
Now she can't get enough. …
She never, ever wants to go to sleep,
She says everything's solid, all reet.
The white New York City jazz and boogie musician derailed his career with this jumpy little number about a woman who was the chemically enhanced queen of the night clubs. The record company didn't go for the druggy lyrics, and Harry had a few bad habits himself. Today the record company is long gone, and Gibson's tune lives on. The guy also claims to have invented the term "hipster," so there you go.
2. Dave Dudley, "Six Days on the Road" (1963)
I've got 10 forward gears and a Georgia overdrive,
I'm takin' little white pills and my eyes are open wide.
I just passed a Jimmy and a White,
I've been passing everything in sight,
Six days on the road, and I'm gonna make it home tonight.
The song often considered the definitive celebration of the American trucker is also a celebration of amphetamine-fueled chewing up the highway. Penned by Earl Green and Muscle Shoals songwriter Carl Montgomery, "Six Days" was a major rock-inflected country hit for Dudley in 1963, hit the Billboard country charts again for Sawyer Brown in 1997, and has been covered by everybody from Boxcar Willie and Merle Haggard to Motorpsycho and the Incredible String Cheese Incident. Faced with road obstacles ranging from highway patrolmen to weigh stations and ICC inspections, our truck drivin' man is still flying high on those little white pills. And by the way, "Jimmy and a White" refers to GMC and White Freightliner diesel trucks.
3. Canned Heat, "Amphetamine Annie" (1968)
Your mind might think it's flying, baby, on those little pills, But you ought to know it's dying, 'cause speed kills! But Annie kept on speeding, her health was getting poor, She saw things in the window, she heard things at the door. Her mouth was like a grinding mill, her lips were cracked and sore. Her skin was turning yellow, I just couldn't take it no more. She thought her mind was flying on those little pills, She didn't know she was going down fast, 'cause speed kills!
Truckdrivers may have been singing the praises of those go-fast pills, but the cranked-up vibe was harshing the mellow of peace- and love-seeking hippies in the Haight-Ashbury era. The LA-based blues chooglers in Canned Heat basically created their own anti-speed public service announcement with "Amphetamine Annie," with her rapid descent into twitchy tweakerdom and their shouted chorus of "speed kills!" Ironically, Canned Heat front man Bob "Bear" Hite died of a heroin overdose after performing a live gig at the Palomino in LA in 1981.
4. It's a Beautiful Day, "Wasted Union Blues" (1969)
The spirits all tell me, you gotta keep driving on
And my brothers all tell me I can do no wrong
But the universe tells me I can't leave myself alone.
The San Francisco-based band was best known for its sweetly soothing pastorales, such as "White Bird," driven by bandleader David LaFlamme's violin virtuosity. But LaFlamme put his fiddle to evil use on this tune, its screeching descents painting a sonic sculpture of someone jumping out of his skin after too long on speed. It opens with quavering, dissonant guitar licks and an achingly high-pitched "So tiiiiiiiired," followed by a pause and a breathy "and wasted." The song never actually mentions speed, but it's an achingly accurate aural depiction of coming down after staying up too long. And the ending is pretty tripped out, too.
5. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, "Semi-Truck" (1973)
Well, I haul my rig out of San Jose, better be in Cincinnati Monday morning 'fore I draw my pay.
I can't waste no time in this all night grill,
So I jumped in my Jimmy and I popped a few little white pills.
Now, here I sit, all alone with a broken heart,
I took three bennies, and my semi-truck won't start.
Written and sung by the band's inimitable guitarist Bill Kirchen, "Semi-Truck" is another of the Airmen's tongue-in-cheek paeans to the truck-drivin' song tradition. And it is a true truck driver's lament: Facing a deadline, running late, all wired up and ready to go, and the load ain't moving. This is another great tune from one of America's most overlooked cultural resources, with the Commander and the boys demonstrating the instrumental virtuosity, stunning chops, humor, and irony-tinged homage to tradition that made them great.
6. Little Feat, "Willin'" (1970)
I've been from Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonapah
Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made
Driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed
And if you give me, weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign I'll be willin', to be movin' on.
Written by the band's leader and vocalist Lowell George, this tune bridged the gap between traditional country trucking song and hippie folk-rock traditions. Beautifully played and soulfully song, the ne'er-do-well narrator also notes that he's "smuggled some smokes and folks from Mexico."
7. Jerry Edwards, "Caffeine, Nicotine, Benzedrine" (1980)
I need a pocket rocket to pick me up, Caffeine, nicotine, Benzedrine, wish me luck.
The veteran country songster was hungover coming out of Chicago in his big rig, and he wasn't going to make it in the shape he was in. He needed a thermos full of strong coffee, a full pack of smokes, some country music on the radio, and some "pocket rockets" so he could indeed be "Texas Bound and Flyin'."
8. Primus, "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers" (1991)
I've seen them out at Soco
They're pounding sixteen penny nails
The truckers on the interstate Have been known to ride the rails
The sweat is beating on the brow
Can't keep these fellas down
'Cause those damned blue-collared tweekers
Are runnin' this here town!
Bay Area bad boy bassist Les Claypool and company got that amphetamine industrial groove down with this cut praising working-class speed freaks from their "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" album. With its machine gun beats and punchy lyrics, you couldn't help but bop to this. Bonus points for referencing the failed drug policies of President Bush the Elder: "Curious George's drug patrol was out there hunting snipe," the mythical bird that hunters send greenhorns to search for.
9. Tad, "Wired God" (1991)
I'm thinking, I'm God's son, I'm drinking, I'm driving.
CB calling me, don't sleep, don't eat
Got that smell on my clothes,
Wired God, no one knows.
The Seattle grungesters provided the perfect soundtrack for hour 28 of an amphetamine binge. The hard-charging "Wired God," with its machine-gun riffage and anguished vocals has you practically smelling the ketone-drenched sweat, and on the second day in, paranoia is setting in. "They're after me," Tad sings, without ever specifying who. "I'm grinding." I bet you are, dude, or is that just your teeth?
10. Green Day, "Brain Stew" (1995)
My eyes feel like they're gonna bleed
Dried up and bulging out my skull
My mouth is dry
My face is numb
Fucked up and spun out in my room.
Billie Joe Armstrong, the lead singer for the Bay Area punkers, suffered from insomnia, and this catchy cut appeared on the Green Day album of the same name. But what he's describing sure sounds like the bad end of a speed run, and that "spun" reference almost certainly alludes to amphetamine use. If it doesn't, it might as well.
11. Third Eye Blind, "Semi-Charmed Life" (1997)
Smiling in the pictures you would take
Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break.
This massive hit (and Grammy Award winner for Rock Song of the Year) was about meth, but those millions of soccer moms and teenie bopper girls who swooned to it never knew it, because the lyrics were usually bleeped out on the radio. But they should have had a clue when lead singer Stephan Jenkins opens the tune with "I'm packing and I'm holding." The YouTube video below also garbles the key words.
12. Danny Brown, "Adderall Admiral" (2007)
Eating on an Adderall, wash it down with alcohol
Writing holy mackerel, actual all factual.
This under-two-minute rap ditty by the Detroit hip-hopper gets a mention just for the amphetamine-inspired silliness of its lyrics. In the same song, Brown also gets in "my dick was like a lasso" and rhymes it with "Tabasco." Brown is a real-life former drug dealer, and he was still keeping the spirit alive with last year's "Smokin' and Drinkin'."