Something like a phenomenon
White Lines, 40 years on
It starts with those pulses, as regular as a heartbeat, juddering like a ruler pinged off the side of a desk. Then the backing singers kick in, singing those ahhs in an ascending scale - stolen from the bridge of ‘Twist and Shout’, and also stolen in the same year by David Bowie for the start of ‘Let’s Dance’. When the ahhs hit the top B-flat, Melle Mel barks ‘Rock!’, as if to put an end to this tomfoolery, and another stolen riff kicks in: the bassline from ‘Cavern’ by Liquid Liquid.
My friend Nigel, who grew up in suburban Toronto (where, he claims, Nigel was ‘an exotic name’), says he remembers passing a house party during an evening walk in the ‘80s, and hearing that bassline rippling out into the street. And he remembers feeling jealous, as if the coolest party in the world was happening and he was stuck outside.
However, the brilliant bassline is only my second favourite thing about this song. What really blew my mind when it first turned up on my pirated copy of Now That’s What I Call Music 3 - sitting innocently between Nik Kershaw and the Thompson Twins - was the words.
Ticket to ride, white line highway,
Tell all your friends, they can go my way
Pay your toll, sell your soul,
Pound for pound costs more than gold,
The longer you stay, the more you pay,
My white lines go a long way
Either up your nose or through your vein
With nothing to gain except killing your brain.
I’d never encountered a first verse like this before. For a start, you could hear the lyrics. They weren’t smoothed into a whale-song croon, like Vic Reeves doing his club singer. It felt like performance poetry, but not the lazy free verse of jazz cafes; this was rich with wordplay (‘ticket to ride, white line highway’), full of clever rhymes (toll/soul), repetitions (highway/my way/long way), half-rhymes (soul/gold) and internal rhymes that piled up with greater and greater intensity until the final onslaught (‘Either up your nose or through your vein / With nothing to gain except killing your brain’). Melle Mel’s Bronx accent made that ain rasp like a chainsaw.
But of course it had brilliant rhymes and a pulsating rhythm. This was music with a message. That was also what made it different to most ‘80s chart music, which seemed to want nothing more than free drinks at Club Tropicana or a quick knee-trembler with San Pedro on La Isla Bonita. Yes, the anti-drug lyrics of ‘White Lines’ are hardly Public Enemy, but at the age of 12 I probably couldn’t have coped with Chuck D anyway. ‘White Lines’ was the perfect introduction to music with a social conscience.
A million magic crystals, painted pure and white
A multi-million dollars almost overnight
Twice as sweet as sugar, twice as bitter as salt
And if you get hooked, baby, it's nobody else's fault.
So don't do it!
Sorry, what just happened? I thought Melle Mel’s verses went like this: ‘Ticket to ride, white line highway/ Tell all your friends they can go my way.’ Words tumbling over themselves. But now he’s slowed right down and changed the rhythm completely, because - well, because he can. He’s the MC, he can do what he likes. Here beginneth the next lesson. Turns out a great song doesn't have to go verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. It can be a series of riffs, a cut-and-shut patchwork, with a singer responding to whatever the DJ throws in their direction. Here, it means Melle Mel starts describing the cocaine itself, complete with twinkling sound effects. There’s more wordplay, as the million magic crystals turn into a multi-million dollars.
And we need to talk about ‘baby’. Because Melle Mel likes saying ‘baby’. I mean - a lot. He says it at least ten times during the song (depending on the version). Sometimes he says it by itself (‘Don’t let it blow your mind away / Baby’), sometimes it’s part of an exhortation (‘Get higher, baby’), sometimes it’s in a sentence, as it is here: ‘And if you get hooked, baby, it’s nobody else’s fault’.
Who is this ‘baby’? Is it Melle Mel's life partner? Is it the cocaine? Or are we, the listener, ‘baby’? Ever the gentleman, Mel does not divulge. But the repetition of the word is bizarrely charming, as well as funny, and suggests a complete disregard for genre (‘This is Not a Love Song’, after all).
Next, perhaps the song’s most famous sequence.
A street kid gets arrested, gonna do some time
He got out three years from now just to commit more crime
A businessman is caught with 24 kilos
He's out on bail and out of jail
And that's the way it goes
Forty years on, that’s still the way it goes. Melle Mel was referring to a specific businessman (John DeLorean, of Back to the Future car fame), but let’s face it, it could be any businessman, any politician, any time. Illegal drugs are still primarily taken by the very poor and the very posh. In the UK, a ‘street kid’ can get up to seven years for possession, while a politician like Michael Gove can admit to having snorted white lines till his eyeballs liquefied, and become Lord Chancellor, the man responsible for enforcing the actual drug laws.
Notice too how Melle Mel doesn’t romanticise ‘the street kid’. He’s going to serve his three years, then commit more crime. He's angry for the kid, and angry with the kid. (That’s the way it goes - Raah!)
Athletes rejected, governors corrected
Gangsters, thugs and smugglers are thoroughly respected
This is my favourite part: even as I typed it out, my head started to bob. It’s not just the rhythm, it’s the rhymes (rejected/corrected/respected) and the internal rhymes (‘gangsters, thugs and smugglers’) and the way he makes athletes and smugglers three syllables (‘ath-e-letes’, ‘smug-er-lers’) so that nothing breaks the flow. Then there’s the meaning: so much is packed into those two short lines. The athletes failing drug tests, the governors getting intimidated or bribed, the gangsters becoming celebrities. It’s a world in miniature, the kind you can only create if you’ve actually lived it.
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There’s one final thing about this song I love, something I touched on at the start: the interplay between Melle Mel and the backing singers. They seem to be from two different worlds: Mel with his deep, confident tones, and the backing singers with their breathy, almost camp harmonising. All together now: Rang-dang-diggedy-dang-di-dang.
It took me a while to realise that this wasn’t just for comic effect, though it frequently makes me smile, like something from a Muppets sketch. This is evoking the two sides of drug addiction, with the backing singers articulating the dreamy, disconnected experience of being high and Mel the harsh realities of before and after. The usual pop dynamic, in which the backing singers echo the lead vocalist, is flipped. It is the backing singers who drive much of the song’s meaning, with Mel repeating, undermining or questioning what they say.
Pure as the driven snow
Connected to my mind
And now I'm having fun, baby!
It's getting kinda low
Cause it makes you feel so nice
I need some one-on-one, baby!
Don't let it blow your mind away
And go into your little hideaway
Cause white lines blow away.
The backing singers sing about a ‘pipeline connected to my mind’ and Mel reacts with: ‘and now I’m having fun, baby!’ The backing singers sing ‘High fry’, and Mel responds: ‘It’s getting kind of low’. In every exchange, we hear the backing singers almost becoming the drug (they sound like they’re blowing away when they sing ‘blow away’). Mel, on the other hand, brings us back to reality - needing one-on-one or, in this sequence, dealing with the comedown.
Don't you get too high baby!
Turns you on
You really turn me on and on
When you gonna come down
My temperature is rising
When the thrill is gone
No, I don't want you to go!
That ‘No, I don’t want you to go!’ is, ultimately, the heart of the song. It’s a sentiment that crops up in almost every drug song (‘Purple Haze’, ‘There She Goes’), but nobody performs it better than Mel. He packs longing, despair and love into that line. He loves that stuff. It’s the pathetic ‘don’t leave me’ of every jilted lover.
So, forty years later, I still think this song is brilliant. It’s not often namechecked by later groups as an influence, but I hear its sense of fun in De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, and its social awareness in NWA and Gang Starr. But maybe its main legacy is the fact that it was the first hop hop song that sounded like pop. Duran Duran covered it, for God's sake. Am I blaming ‘White Lines’ for MC Hammer and the John Barnes bit in ‘World in Motion?’ Partly. But I’m also crediting it for paving the way for crossover classics like ‘Walk This Way’, ‘Push It’ and ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’. Songs that can still get a party started decades later.
As for its message, did the song stop me from taking cocaine? Well, I never have, but that’s probably more to do with my petit bourgeois upbringing with its Puritan work ethic and intense risk aversion. Still, I like to give Mel some credit. We all need mind-altering substances of some sort to get us through the day. ‘White Lines’ taught me that the high from cocaine blows away, but there are other lines in the world - the kind you write, the kind you sing - and when you get hooked on one of those (baby), you ain’t never coming down.
For further sober warnings about drugs and close readings of lyrics:
Another great read from The Metropolitan.
Great analysis- loved that song