Drugs and rock ’n’ roll have a long and storied history and have accomplished a great deal together. Among their most famous collaborations is the entire 1970s. But all long-running marriages have their occasional rocky patches, and one such patch occurred in the late 1980s, at the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” crusade, when a group of prominent and then-prominent musicians were recruited to appear in a series of oddly hallucinogenic PSAs as part of a campaign called Rock Against Drugs. The ads were created in response to a direct rebuke from the President and Mrs. Reagan, who criticized the music industry for glamorizing illicit substances in the eyes of impressionable young people. Madonna, that polluter of minds, had even smoked marijuana in Desperately Seeking Susan. As demonstrated by a seven-minute montage of vintage PSAs, Rock Against Drugs attracted an eclectic lineup of musicians. Here, you’ll find Lou Reed, Aimee Mann, Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross, Jon Bon Jovi, and two of music’s most infamous jerkasses, Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent.
Though the message of these commercials, which ran relentlessly on MTV, is that teenagers should stay far away from mind-altering substances, the PSAs themselves are suspiciously trippy. Patrick O’Hearn of Missing Persons goes full-on surrealist in his wordless ad, in which a shirtless man in a desert finds himself wrapped in a human-sized cocoon. Gene Simmons, ever the showman, dons horror movie makeup that makes him look a bit like Warwick Davis in Leprechaun. But each celebrity clearly took his or her own unique approach to the assignment. Aimee Mann is earnest and sincere in her ad. Lou Reed is minimalist in his. And Ted Nugent is Ted Nugent. Perhaps the most effective message is the one delivered by ex-Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, shown polishing his motorcycle. “A good friend of mine, Sid Vicious, died from drugs,” he tells the camera. “I nearly died from drugs. Drugs suck.” All the ads end with the image of shattering glass, revealing the campaign’s logo spray-painted on a brick wall. So rock was clearly cool with vandalism, just not drugs.