Monday, December 3, 2007

Brewer & Shipley - "One Toke Over The Line" (1971)

It's not every day that a very catchy folk rock song about dope running cracks the Top 10 charts. Brewer & Shipley's one hit song managed to pull off that feat but trust me, it wasn't done quietly.

Epitomizing the Grateful Dead and the hippie culture that had blossomed in the late 60's, the duo recorded this single on the Kama Sutra label, better known for bubblegum and mainstream pop acts.

It's hard to imagine this song being a smash today because of not fitting into today's strict style formats, along with that touchy subject matter. On the surface, the song seems to be about a dashing young man, traveling from town to town, meeting women, and living a carefree life. But it's the rather obvious chorus with the title in it that gives the plot all away:

One toke over the line, sweet Jesus, one toke over the line
Sittin' downtown in a railway station, one toke over the line
Waitin' for the train that goes home, sweet Mary
Hoping that the train is on time
Sittin' downtown in a railway station, one toke over the line

The "toke" part was not lost on many people at the time, and in a beautiful case of reverse psychology, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew condemned the song, sending its sales soaring. WNBC-AM in New York banned the song as well as some other stations, but that just fed the curiosity.

Just to show you the strong drug connection this song has, on the soundtrack to Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, they dub a rather memorable little speech from the film before the tune kicks in: "We had two bags of grass,
seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole multi-colored collection of uppers, downers, laughers, screamers.... Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyl's. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can."

If you take away all the controversy, though, what you have is an irresistible country-rock anthem, with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, about as catchy as "This Land Is Your Land." Brewer & Shipley have marvelous voices that really peak out when they are repeating the chorus over again towards the end, with counter harmonies running at the same time.

In the strange but true department: when this song was a hit, despite the hubbub, schmaltzy bandleader/TV host Lawrence Welk arranged two of his singers to perform it on his ABC-TV show. Welk's accordionist introduces it as "one of the newer songs." Welk calls it "modern spiritual" when the song is done. Yes, indeed it is.

So below you have Brewer & Shipley lipsynching through "One Toke Over The Line" followed by the insane sight of the same song being performed on "The Lawrence Welk Show." Must be seen in order to be believed.

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