Love songs are a staple of popular music, but perhaps even more prevalent are songs that only tease their true meaning without making anything explicit. Within that category, you’ll find plenty of love songs that appear to be innocent but may in fact reference something a little more unsavory — like sex, drugs, or rock ‘n’ roll.
Let’s focus on the drugs for now and look at the surprisingly extensive catalog of faux-love songs that are actually about drugs, and drug songs that are actually about love, to see if we can get to the bottom of which is which.
1. ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ by The Beatles
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is notorious for its acid-referencing anagram, but John Lennon repeatedly denied the rumors that he wrote the song about LSD. Those looking for a Beatles song that is, in fact, entirely about drug use should look to Revolver for Paul McCartney’s sunny brass number “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
Lyrics like “Did I tell you I need you/Every single day of my life?” seem to fit the mold of a standard love song, but Paul admitted he wrote the song about “when I had first been introduced to pot. … So [it’s] really a song about that, it’s not to a person.”
2. ‘There She Goes’ by The La’s
This late ’80s single sounds like one of the least threatening songs in the decidedly non-threatening stable of jangly, power pop love anthems, but a few of the lyrics in this seemingly innocent love song seem to allude to heroin use: “Racing through my brain/Pulsing through my vein/No one else can heal my pain.”
There’s been enough speculation about the song’s meaning to prompt several of the band’s members to respond. The bassist John Power admitted he didn’t know the exact meaning, while lead guitarist John Byrne was more definite that the song was not about drugs, saying “It’s just a love song about a girl that you like but never talk to.”
3. ‘Day Tripper’ by The Beatles
On its surface, “Day Tripper” might seem to be about love, or rather about potential love lost now that the apparently jilted narrator “found out” about something unspecified. The title was a play on words, using “day tripper” to double as a person who takes day-long vacations and a girl who takes drugs but is not committed to the ideas of the drug-centric counterculture.
Lennon, who wrote most of the song with some input from McCartney, explained it best: “Day trippers are people who go on a day trip, right? Usually on a ferryboat or something. But [the song] was kind of … you’re just a weekend hippie. Get it?”
4. ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
The verses of this radio rock staple from Tom Petty make repeated references to the story of an “Indiana girl on an Indian night,” but how can a song with the words “Mary Jane” in the title be about anything other than smoking pot?
Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell weighed in during an interview with Songfacts, and it seems that the song was originally just about that Indiana girl with an original chorus beginning “Hey, Indiana Girl, go out and find the world.” Campbell believes Petty changed the title for the express purpose of making people debate about his intent.
“When it gets to the chorus [Petty] had the presence of mind to give it a deeper meaning. My take on it is it can be whatever you want it to be. A lot of people think it’s a drug reference, and if that’s what you want to think, it very well could be, but it could also just be a goodbye love song.”
5. ‘And She Was’ by The Talking Heads
Many of the best Talking Heads songs have impenetrable or at least confusing lyrics, including the sugary pop gem “And She Was, ” which features lots of dreamy imagery in lyrics like “And she was lying in the grass/And she could hear the highway breathing.” They make a lot of sense once you know songwriter David Byrne’s inspiration.
He wrote in the liner notes of a Talking Heads collection that the song was about a “blissed-out hippie-chick he knew in Baltimore, who once told me that she used to do acid and lay down in the field by the Yoo-hoo chocolate soda factory. Flying out of her body, etc etc. It seemed like such a tacky kind of transcendence … but it was real! A new kind of religion being born out of heaps of rusted cars and fast food joints. And this girl was flying above it all, but in it too.”
6. ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ by Third Eye Blind
How easy it is to hide an explicit story of heroin addiction and sexual deviancy in an upbeat single! “Semi-Charmed Life” is best known for its infectious “doo-doo” chorus and recognizable guitar riff, but according to songwriter Stephan Jenkins, all that sunny pop goodness was actually “not intended to be bright and shiny for bright and shiny’s sake.
It’s intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music.” Indeed, the song was written about “a time in my life when it seemed like all of my friends just sort of tapped out on speed,” and Jenkins further said, “It’s a dirty, filthy song about snorting speed and getting blow jobs.”
The funny thing is how explicit the song’s filth is when you bother to listen to dense lyrics like “I was taking sips of it through my nose” or “I took the hit I was given/Then I bumped again/And then I bumped again” or my personal favorite, “doing crystal myth.”
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf