Share |


This article discusses how drugs such as LSD and Ecstasy have been used both by rebelling rock musicians who wanted a change of politics and political systems and by the establishment such as the CIA to quell that very rebellion.

It is easy to believe that music is just an entertainment form, available to people for purposes of relaxation and amusement.  Some would say that it is a form that has content that has been created as a form of worship.  Most would however think music is just music, why even bother to go beyond that.  However, music is a medium that can used in order to convey ideas and not necessarily honourable ones at that.  Music has a murky past where agencies of the state have used it overtly for the gaining of covert results. The post Second World War scenario is one of insecurity in all parts of the world. Until the breaking up of the USSR, and other Eastern European countries which constituted the Iron Curtain, the world was polarized based in ideology.[1]The Western world was saddled with the reality of young people’s tendency of romanticizing left wing thinking and attempting to change the world on the lines of egalitarianism. The 1960’s saw the mushrooming of the flower generation which believed in flower power that was synonymous with complete positive freedom. Protests against war were mounting. Public demonstrations against American intervention in Korea and Vietnam were increasing. In France, students on university campuses were trying to usher in a revolution, and their inspiration was Mao Tse Tung and China. The establishment in the West was considerably unnerved by these developments for obvious reasons. The flower generation’s message of love and peace was being borne yet again by music. Music concerts of the Woodstock[2] variety were openly criticizing war and asking for soldiers to be brought back home.[3] Concerns were highest in United States of America, and it was during this time that the CIA was used to drug the revolutionaries, literally. A drug called LSD,[4] also popularly known as ‘acid’, was introduced into the ranks of music performers and audience, apparently with the explicit aim of numbing their revolutionary sensibilities.[5]The initiation of this process began on April 13, 1953, when Allen Dulles, director of CIA approved the MKULTRA programme for the covert use of biological and chemical weapons.[6] In January 1962, an American psychiatrist by the name of Dr. E. James Lieberman published an article in the bulletin of ‘Atomic Science.’ His article was titled ‘Psycho-chemicals as Weapons,’ and in this, he warned of what he called ‘catastrophic’ damage to the people. This damage, he claimed, could not be ‘humane’ and argued vociferously that it would be ‘irreversible’.[7] This article was immediately rebutted by Dr. Timothy Leary, who has the dubious distinction of being the father of LSD. Leary claimed that Lieberman was deliberately creating and spreading ‘serious confusion in the minds of a credulous public and a credulous military’. He claimed that chemical drugs like LSD were ‘consciousness expanding, and far from being dangerous weapons, they have the potential to produce dramatic changes in personality leading to unprecedented peace, sanity and happiness’.[8] He further claimed that if LSD was dropped into the water supply, then one would have a most educational experience. He wrote ‘if an enemy introduced a conscious expanding drug into a military command centre, our leaders - if they are accurately informed and (have) experienced awareness - might find that men in key positions could function better’. Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the then head of the chemical division of the CIA’s Technical Service Staff, began a programme of funding universities in LSD. Harold Abramson, a leading professor from the University of Columbia, was recruited into this process, and he was very enthusiastic about it. He encouraged his colleagues and students to try the new drug. By the late 1960’s, this had become a trend that drew the attention of the US Bureau of Narcotics. In a special report brought out by the Bureau in 1969, it was mentioned that LSD had become fairly rampant on University campuses and in society in general. The report claimed that it had all started among small groups of intellectuals at large Eastern and West Coast Universities. It further extrapolated that, most often, users have been introduced to the drug by persons of a higher status. It said “Teachers have influenced students; upper class men have influenced lower class men”.[9]

Strangely enough, the impetus for the support and acceleration of LSD research came unwittingly from Aldous Huxley book “The Doors of Perception”. The phrase ‘doors of perception’ is borrowed from a poem by William Blake, and it was used to symbolize the widening of the horizons of human thought.[10] The phrase found a similar application in Aldous Huxley but it was more in the nature of a parody. Huxley, also, had created the image of a ‘Brave New World’ where no one needed to take care of themselves but could rely on a system that could take care of everyone’s every need.[11] Three years after the process of making psychedelics[12] respectable had been started by Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’ and the LSD programme had been initiated by the CIA, a professional tennis player, Harold Blauer, became its first victim. Blauer was injected with mescaline against his will by a civilian psychiatrist. Blauer collapsed and died, almost instantaneously. General William Creasy, who ordered the programme that killed the tennis star, nevertheless declared afterwards: “I think the future lies in psycho chemicals”.[13] Incredibly, the doctors responsible were awarded a further grant of US$167,739 to continue their research. The Eli Lilly Company handed over the entire stock of the world’s first batch of totally synthetic LSD to the CIA. In November, 1953, a civilian biochemist by the name of Frank Olson unwittingly drank some Cointreau spiked with LSD at a three-day gathering of scientists organized by the special operations division of the Army Chemical Corps at an ex-Eagle Scout Camp at Deep Creek Lodge in Western Maryland. Ten days later, a deeply disturbed Frank Olson leapt out of the window of a New York hotel at 2:30 in the morning and fell to his death on a side walk below. He is considered to be the first known example of LSD induced defenestration.[14]

It is documented that, over the next ten years, various US Government agencies experimented upon nearly 1500 subjects and spent hundreds and thousands of dollars on the LSD programme. One of the people turned on to LSD during the tenure of this programme was Ken Mesey (who earned the nickname of Merry Prankster) the author of the famous book ‘One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ which also became a famous motion picture. Karl Dallas, who knew these people, says “The fact remains that the LSD was one of the main catalysts of the traumatic upheavals of the 1960s. No one could enter the world of psychedelics without first passing, unawares, through the doors opened by the Central Intelligence Agency”.[15] Dallas, because of his stature as a journalist, also was able to meet one of the figures of music rebellion, Frank Zappa. Dallas claims that Frank Zappa believed that the whole ‘mind expansion’ hype had been a clever ploy by the CIA, on behalf of the entire Western establishment, to undermine the potential threat of the emerging youth culture.[16] It has to be remembered that the CIA had its fingers in financing the heroin trade in South East Asia. It is even known to have flown supplies of heroin out of the opium growing anti-Vietcong areas during the Vietnam War. The CIA encouraged the cocaine trade in Bolivia and the production of heroin by anti-Russian rebels in Afghanistan. These drugs flooded markets in the US and Western Europe and became very affordable due to their availability in vast quantities.

Michael Hollingshead from Leary’s Millbrook centre introduced LSD or acid into London in the middle of 1965. This introduction had an immediate and instantaneous effect on music. It also led to the birth and fanning of a culture of the underground.[17]A famous promoter of an underground club in London, called the ‘Marquee,’ began organizing ‘spontaneous underground’ sessions from the February of 1966. The person concerned, Steve Stollman, created a flyer to evoke  interest in people. The headline of the flyer went ‘Who will be there?’ The text went ‘Poets, pop singers, hoods, Americans, homosexuals (because they make up ten percent of the population), clowns, jazz musicians, murderers, sculptors, politicians and girls who defy description are among the invited’.[18] It was hard to say who the performer was and who the audience, since all the audience were performing madly all the time, and the artists were so amateurish that anyone could get up on the stage and play along with them. This was a frequent occurrence.

When LSD arrived at London, the impedimenta came with it - the strobes, the slides in which solutions of oil and water paint swirled around, their movements the result of convection currents from the heat of the projector, all designed to create the illusion of a good trip, a psychedelic one at that. There were some social circumstances of that time that contributed to this process. At that time, unemployment was fairly high in London and the rest of the United Kingdom. Students with degrees were pouring out from various art schools and colleges in London, Cambridge and Oxford. Without employment they were potentially dangerous because they were easy targets for cooption into some kind of revolutionary movement or the other. LSD, music and light shows kept them occupied. The students of art found vocation and avocation in making slide projections that were used at the Marquee and other such places. They also found continuous employment due to the regular conduct of various music festivals like the Edinburgh festival. People who constituted a potential problematic were effectively diffused by keeping them active and providing them with adequate supplies of hallucinogens[19] like LSD. With all this, the sphere of music was firmly in the hands of the common population. Now there was no art criticism involved due to the blurring of lines between the audience and the performers. At that time, any person with a little musical talent and ability, coupled with a little imagination, found a stage and venue to perform. The performances were not sporadic but regular. Along with the opportunities, fan bases also grew. This was the time when certain bands were actually managed by academia. An instance is that of a fledging Pink Floyd being managed by Peter Jenner who taught politics at the London School of Economics. The situation was very similar to the one in San Francisco where teacher and student became one in the consumption of LSD.

Problems that were previously confined only to live concerts and outdoor venues slowly found their way into homes, pubs and restaurants. By the time the 1980’s set in, LSD made way for newer drugs like Ecstasy[20] and live open-air concerts made way for house music.[21]This is not to say that live music concerts stopped taking place. Since the concerts involved heavy policing and frisking, the incidence of drug abuse in them came down quite drastically. Also, contributing to this, was the corporatizing of live music concerts. More often than not, major sponsors of these events were big liquor businesses who managed to get police permission to actually sell their products. However, less harmful and more natural drugs like Marijuana (also called ‘grass’ or doobey in American slang) continued with a low key existence along with various forms of liquor. However, Ecstasy as a drug became very prevalent and launched its own cultural form – the Ecstasy culture.

When Ecstasy was first combined with house music, sometime during the 1980’s, the resulting reaction triggered off a very controversial youth movement. Authors like Mathew Collin and John Godfrey, who were supporters of this culture, liked to term these youth movements, especially in Britain, as the most vibrant and diverse.[22] Ecstasy culture, which is a combination of dance music in all of its myriad and various forms, and drugs, was the driving phenomenon of youth culture for more than a decade. It sent out shock waves that reverberated culturally and politically, affecting music, fashion, the law, government policy and many other areas of public and private life. The fundamental reasons why it became so widespread and all-pervasive, reaching into every city, town and village, and spreading far beyond the borders of countries, is actually quite simple. “It was the best form of entertainment on the market, a deployment of technologies - musical, chemical and computer - to deliver altered states of consciousness;

experiences that have changed the way we think , the way we feel, the way we act, the way we live”.[23]

There is constant friction between two competing perspectives in any culture: the elitist versus the populist, the avant garde against the mass. Although Ecstasy culture had phases marked by such conflicts, its prevailing ethos was essentially inclusive. It had an open-access formula rather than a defined ideology, and it represented a series of possibilities that could be adapted to every individual’s background, social status and belief system. It was almost infinitely malleable and always open to new meanings. “The recurring story within Ecstasy culture was of people coming into the scene, being inspired by the revelatory flash of the primal Ecstasy experience, then becoming involved and altering the direction of the scene itself by applying their own personal frame of reference to their experience. Clubbers, entrepreneurs, travelers, hippies, criminals and musicians all contributed new discourses to the scene by adapting it to suit their own desires and necessities – hence its relentless dynamism, its perpetual self-reinvention and, for a youth culture, its unprecedented longevity. The fact that the Ecstasy experience itself is so intensively personal - the impact of sounds and chemicals on the body and brain, the joy of dancing, the intoxication of release - further enabled people to define it on their own terms. It was a culture with options in place of rules”.[24]


At the heart of Ecstasy culture was a concerted attempt to suspend normal transmission, if only for one night. Ecstasy culture’s mission was to re-appropriate consciousness; to invent, even if it was for a brief while, a utopia or a fantasy land. This has been termed by anarchist philosopher, Hakim Bey, as a ‘temporary autonomous zone’. Bey believes that such zones are desirable because they are, in fact, “successful raids on consensus reality and breakthroughs into more intense and more abundant life”.[25] These moments are to be understood as situations where fantasies are made real and freedom of expression rules before the external intervenes. “Let us admit that we have attended parties where, for one brief night, a republic of gratified desires was attained. Shall we not confess that the politics of that night have more reality and force for us than those of, say, the entire US government?”[26]

The idea that Ecstasy culture had no politics because it had no manifesto or slogans or because it was overtly saying something or actively opposing the social order, misunderstands its true nature.  The very lack of dogma itself was a comment on contemporary society, yet at the same time, its constantly changing manifestations – ‘ravers’ or Ecstasy users fighting police to gain access to a party (most of which would be hosted in warehouses), criminals shooting each other in feuds over the music-dance-drug trade, teenage girls baring flesh, black market entrepreneurs selling records from the back of vans - served to dramatize the times.  Ecstasy culture offered a forum to which people could bring narratives about class, race, sex, economics or morality.  Again, its definition was subject to individual interpretation: it could be about the simple pleasure of listening to music or dancing to it; it could be about environmental awareness; it could be about race relation and class conflict; it could be about the social repercussions of the drug economy; it could be about changing gender relations or about reasserting lost notions of community – all stories that say something about life.  And in the few instances when it adopted an overtly political edge, to break away from regulation and challenge licensing laws or the vested interests that control the music industry, vigorous attempts were made to contain it.

It would be invidious to believe that any of this happened in a vacuum. The development of Ecstasy culture was shaped by time, place and very specific economic and social conditions. “Ecstasy culture was born out of the Margaret Thatcher years in Britain, when the psychic map of Britain was decisively redrawn, when old rules lost their meaning, old certainties evaporated and new ones had yet to take their place. The changes in society since Margaret Thatcher ascended to power in 1979 permanently altered the collective consciousness of the country, as, over four terms of conservative rule, the restructuring of economic relations led to a shift in social relations. The Thatcher dream was about breaking free from the past, casting off restraints, entering a paradise of untrammeled entrepreneurial and consumer materialism to a creed, Thatcherite assaults on collectivism, pursued through a whole range of policies, intentionally created a society that was fragmented and individualized. Its economic libertarianism was tempered with a grim authoritarian edge, its contradictions and harsh side-effects mercilessly policed. It simultaneously advocated and curtailed freedom”.[27]


The ethics that Thatcher instilled were intended to empower the individual, but at the same time, they actively encouraged a sweeping insecurity through mass joblessness, low pay, the spread of casual work and self employment, putting more power in the hands of the employers and more money in the pockets of the rich, as the income of the lower classes diminished. A post-war dream of full, lifetime employment and universal social welfare began to fade as Britain became harder and more unequal. A striking chasm emerged between the power of the individual as consumer and the individual’s lack of power in the employment market. The Thatcher years planted the seed of entrepreneuralising, yet fostering, materialist dreams that many would never be able to fulfill. Ecstasy culture provided an outlet for, and sometimes even amplified, entrepreneurial impulses. It enabled people to get involved in doing something, and more often than not, that something was making a record. From top to bottom, it was about participation rather than observation; a scenario reminiscent of the culture of the Underground in the 1960s.

“Youth cultures are necessarily infused with the prevailing ideologies of their time, whether espousing or reacting against them, or both simultaneously. Ecstasy culture seemed to ghost the Thatcher narrative – echoing its ethos of choice and market freedom, yet expressing desires for a collective experience that Thatcher rejected and consumerism could not provide. Thatcherite conservatism offered a blueprint for achievement with a Victorian morality built in; Ecstasy culture ran with the blueprint but inverted the morality, firing a vibrant black economy not only in illegal drugs but cash-in-hand deals for all manner of ancillary services, from Disc Jockey careers to home produced records, creating an unprecedented number of cultural artifacts”.[28]


The music-dance-drug scene re-appropriated libertarian capitalism and put it to uses for which it was not intended, in exactly the same way as it did with technology. Its entrepreneurialism recognized no legal boundaries. The simple act of passing one Ecstasy pill to a friend was a criminal act, and hence, the exponential increase in drug use from the late 1980’s onwards encouraged and endorsed by the arrival of Ecstasy, predetermined that the mainstream of youth culture became intimately bound up with law breaking. As drug use became normalized, criminality was democratized. An entire generation became a generation of outlaws. A very good way to chart the evolution of Ecstasy culture is through its main and premier art - its music. The music was a constantly changing sonic narrative conjuring a magic that goes beyond a language constituted by simple words. In the 1960’s, Dr. Timothy Leary had adopted the idea of ‘set and setting’ as the key to programming a successful LSD trip or experience. The word ‘set’ refers to the personality of the users, their social background, educational history, emotional state and motivations while ‘setting’ is the actual environment in which the drug experience occurs. A change in the set or setting produces a different outcome. People may take the same substance, yet because of a difference in the set or the setting, derive different meaning or inspiration from it. Factors like class, race, age and location created a wealth of responses and outcomes.

The story of Ecstasy culture is a mix or collage of facts, opinions and experiences. Different outlooks and interests combine to present its history; one that is part of an evolving narration of the development and refinement of the technologies of pleasures and music production that crossed continents and cultures before ultimately conniving and converging to establish a series of utopias in which national boundaries of culture have no significance. Actively helping these developments has been the quantum increase in music production technologies. The creation of electronic musical aids and instruments have given an opportunity for mediocre and less than mediocre talents to create what have now been described as ‘soundscapes’. Electronic key board synthesizers, in collaboration with computer software suites, like Cake Walk, Cool Edit Pro and ProTools have enabled the creation of home studios from which literally truck loads of music are being generated. These have helped perpetrate the Ecstasy culture well into the twenty first century. The liberalization of various economies in the world has opened up new markets for music. The process of cultural westernization, which is a natural ally of present day globalization, has been witness to the proliferation of western lifestyles. This, in turn, adds to the fillip of the Ecstasy culture. Music forms like rave, techno and trance are now global phenomena with global markets.

As much as Ecstasy culture was a product of the politics of the 1980’s, it was also an extension of the cultural trends of the 1970’s. One of the most identifiable cultures of the 1970’s was the birth of punk rock. The origins of punk rock can be traced back to Britain, though it later on became a very global thing. In the mid 1970’s, the British economy was struggling, and this produced problems of unemployment, violence and organized crime. Into this turbulent environment walked the early punk music bands, led mainly by the Sex Pistols, who were trashing British sensibilities with gobs of musical distortion and spewed invective. “Their clothes were elaborately contrived to make the wearer appear as terrifyingly repugnant as possible, alluding to anything that would induce immediate outrage in the eye of the beholder. Hair shorn close to the skull and dyed any colour so long as it did not look natural, spiked up with Vaseline; noses, ears, cheeks, lips and other extremities pierced with a plethora of safety pins, chains and dangling insignia; ripped and torn jumble sale shirts, strangled with a thin tie and mangled with predictable graffiti of song titles, perversions or social observations; black leather wrist bands and dog collars studded with silver spikes sometimes with leashes attached”.[29] This description is that of the Sex Pistols and other bands and fans of punk music at the London Punk festival venue, the Roxy. It was at this venue that the Sex Pistols performed their version of the British national anthem. It was a very pithy version that had only three lines and was performed for a while that was less than a minute. The lyrics were:

                            “God save the Queen

                              She ain’t no human being

                             There is no future in England’s dreaming”[30] 


It took less than two years for the Sex Pistols to disintegrate, but by then, numerous other bands had joined in the fun that would change the face of rock music forever. Even mainstream music acts eventually adopted many elements from Punk music, including lyrics, stance and style. In doing so, they rejuvenated the sagging fortunes of the music industry. The subsequent amalgam, which became known as the ‘new wave’, became a popular mainstay for many years to come. Punk music itself was a heterogeneous style, comprising a complex mélange of ingredients and orientations spread across a spectrum of artists. The music was generally driven by a frantic eight note pulse carried by the entire ensemble. Words were spewed forth by vocalists unconstrained by previous notions of pitch or melody. The majority of lyrics reflected feelings toward a disintegrating and corrupt society and plight of sub-cultural or subaltern compatriots. The music and lyrics were imbedded in a confrontational stance that reflected varying degrees of righteous anger, performance technique, avant-garde artistic exploration of shock value and intent to bypass the usual music production mores, values and institutions. The punk music worldview, stance and style (clothes and behaviour) had roots on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

The exploration so far may steep the reader into thinking that most musical actions with political ramifications took place from the 1960’s through to the 1980’s and that the offspring of these tendencies have found their way into the present. While the latter part is undeniably true, the initial part is not. It would be misleading to think that no activity prior to the 1960’s is of consequence to understanding politics. There have been instances of this, not only in the 1960’s, but also in the preceding centuries as well. Another impression that could have been generated by the exposition so far is that only popular forms of music, and that too only those based in rebellion and revolt, bore a content that was political in nature. Again, only the converse of that is true. Even elite cultural forms of music, such as classical music, have been used for the gaining of political objectives. During the Nazi regime in Germany, classical music composers were called upon to create pieces of music that would strongly inculcate pride in German culture and heritage, and consequently, in German Nationalism and the Nazi agenda. What has been seen so far emphasizes on the instrumentality of music from the point of view of deliberate and studied use of the medium.  Music therefore must be considered as a  valuable variable in the analysis of the substance of politics and the activities in the political realm.  This consideration would only add to a better understanding of what has thus far been considered only the domain of the State and its agencies.


[1]Ideology here is being used in its commonsensical form and not technical form as seen in Marx and Althusser.

[2] Woodstock: The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was an event held at Max Yasgur's 600 acre dairy farm in the rural town of Bethel, New York from August 15 to August 18, 1969. The festival exemplified the counterculture of the late 1960s – early 1970s and the "hippie era". Thirty-two of the best-known musicians of the day appeared during the sometimes rainy weekend. Although attempts have been made over the years to recreate the festival, the original event has proven to be unique and legendary. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest moments in popular music history and was listed on Rolling Stone's 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.

[3]Depicted in various media including cinema eg: Forrest Gump.

[4]LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) its history.

[5]Dallas, Karl, Bricks in the Wall, New York, USA, Shapolsky publishers, 1987,

    p. 31.


[7]ibid, p.30.

[8]ibid, p.p.30-31.

[9]ibid,  p.31.

[10]The title comes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."

[11]Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World: The Doors of Perception is a 1954 book by Aldous Huxley detailing his experiences when taking mescaline. This short book is considered to be one of the most profound studies of the effects of mind-expanding drugs and what they teach about how the mind works.

[12]Psychedelia is normally a mental high that is associated with the use of drugs and alcohol and heightened by strobe lights and high volume sound.

[13]Dallas, Karl, Bricks in the Wall,  New York, USA, Shapolsky publishers,

   1987, p.32




[17]Underground refers to that which is not main stream.  In the case of music, it refers to experimental styles that cannot be categorized completely as popular music.

[18]Dallas, Karl, Bricks in the Wall,  New York, USA, Shapolsky publishers,

   1987, p.33.

[19]Hallucinogens are chemical drugs that are supposed to produce an out of the body experience to its users.  Some people also call that expanded consciousness.


[21]House Music refers to the music that is played to a closed audience and is normally accompanied by the intake of drugs and other such chemical substances.

[22]Collin, Mathew, Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid

   House, London, England, Serpent’s Tail, 2004, p.4.

[23]ibid, p.4.


[24]ibid, p.4-5.

[25]ibid, p.25.

[26]Bey, Hakim, The Temporary Autonomous Zone: Ontological Anarchy,

   Poetic Terrorism, Brooklyn. USA, Autonomedia, 1991, p.37.   

[27]Collin, Mathew, Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid

   House, London, England, Serpent’s Tail, 2004, p.6.

[28]ibid, p.7.

[29]Burchill, Julie and Parsons, Tony, The Boy looked at Johnny: The Obituary

   of Rock and Roll,taken from Friedlander, Paul ‘Rock and Roll: A Social

   History’, Colorado, USA, Westview Press, 2006, p.43

[30]From the Sex Pistols, 1977