Just say nope: Rock Against Drugs’s ‘suspiciously trippy’ anti-drug PSAs from the 1980s

By on December 15, 2015

Joe Blevins, over at A.V. Club, recently reminded us of a public service announcement campaign, circa late 1986, that was meant to warn impressionable teens to stay away from drugs, but, as they pointed out in their new post, “the PSAs themselves are suspiciously trippy.”

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KISS’s Gene Simmons, then a 12-year campaigner against substance abuse

In an editorial for the L.A. Times, entitled “To Reach Teens: Rock Stars Speak Against Drugs” (published on June 14, 1987), Danny Goldberg, the then-36-year-old president of Gold Mountain Records, writes that the RAD campaign — a joint venture of the recording industry and the state Department of Justice — grew out of the failure of Nancy’s Reagan’s ineffective “Just Say No” campaign, which, he wrote at the time, “just does not work.”

President and Mrs. Reagan had criticized the music industry for glamorizing illicit substances in the eyes of impressionable young people, and Goldberg said that attacks on rock ‘n’ roll by authority figures hurt the fight against drug abuse.

The idea for the video PSAs, Goldberg said, had come from testimony he and rocker Des Barres gave in January 1986, to the state of California’s Commission on the Prevention of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. He told California Attorney General John Van de Kamp’s drug-abuse panel commissioners that he and his friends had fought against drug use for years, simply because that was the only way to succeed and to avoid watching people kill themselves.

Van de Camp’s office came up with the initial funding of $50,000, and the Pepsi-Cola company also provided a sizable grant, with additional funding coming from a variety of outside sources, including video producers and record companies. Van de Kamp’s staff praised the music industry participation as “a significant milestone in the fight against drugs.”

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The first series of ads began airing “relentlessly on MTV,” in Blevins’s words, launching on November 21, 1986 with a broad range of stars issuing warnings about abusing drugs in different ways. The first batch featuring Jon Bon Jovi, Ronnie James Dio, Richard Page (the singer from Mister Mister), Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil, Andy Taylor, guitarist with Duran Duran, the former Sex Pistols’s guitarist Steve Jones, and, in Blevins’s words, “two of rock music’s most infamous jerkasses,” Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons (then a 12-year campaigner against substance abuse), who apparently encouraged rockin’ and rollin’ all night, just as long as you didn’t party everyday. He’s seen wearing in horror film make-up, which A.V. Club’s Joe Blevins says “makes him look a bit like Warwick Davis in Leprechaun (he could have just worn his KISS stage makeup, no?).

A second wave of RAD PSAs featured a few lesser-known artists mixed in, including Belinda Carlisle, former lead singer with the Go-Go’s, The Bangles, with Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross, Genesis, Michael Des Barres, lead singer with Power Station, Dee Snider of Twister Sister, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Bob Seger, Paul Stanley of KISS, ’til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann, Dennis De Young, formerly with Styx, the Pointer Sisters, and, Moon Unit and Dweezil Zappa, the daughter and son of Frank Zappa, among others.

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Of these, one of the memorable PSAs include the one with Vince Neil saying “You know, I’ve been playin’ rock and roll for a lot of years, and I’ve done it all. Now I do it without drugs. Don’t get me wrong, I still party with the best of ‘em. But now I do it clean. Now Im on top of everything I do.” We also liked the blunt approach from Steve Jones, ex-Sex Pistols guitarist, who says: “I nearly died from drugs…Drugs suck.” (There was a rumor goin’ round at the time that they only reason some of these artists did these PSAs was that they were between tours and needed money to buy drugs).

Goldberg — who had worked with Led Zeppelin in the 1970s — was, at the time the PSAs were airing, managing the career of “Miami Vice” actor Don Johnson, as well as Belinda Carlisle, Michael Des Barres and many others. A year earlier formed the Musical Majority, a pop coalition meant to fight the Washington, D.C.-based Parents Music Resource Center’s demands for a records rating system to ferret out “objectionable” lyrics.

It may have been his original intention to focus on the harder side of the rock spectrum at first. In an earlier article about the PSAs, in July 1986, Goldberg had told the L.A. Times: “Heavy metal is one of the types of music that particularly appeals to teenagers and especially teen-aged males….and if you want to reach that audience, that’s the language that they trust and they speak.”

By November, however, Goldberg was singing a different tune: “One of the great appeals of rock music is its diversity. The lightheartedness of the Bangles is far removed from the angry heavy metal of Mötley Crüe or the gentle inspiration of Bruce Hornsby. In RAD commercials, artists talk in their own idiosyncratic language to their particular audiences.”

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The MTV cable network offered to play the PSA videos in regular rotation, donating about $3 million dollars worth of air-time in order to play the anti-drug messages, although the PSAs were non-exclusive and Goldberg’s campaign were hopeful that they would air on other TV networks (although honestly, we can’t remember seeing them anywhere else).

Here’s another excerpt from Goldberg’s Times editorial:

“As producer of the RAD commercials, I get phone calls from well-intended anti-drug organizations wanting to involve rock stars. Many are connected to the White House campaign. But most rockers have rejected any association with ‘Just Say No’ because they believe its condescending tone conflicts with what they feel is the emotional honesty of rock ‘n’ roll. The callers often cannot understand why rock fans and other teenagers are so unattuned to authority. While no one has the solution for combating self-destructiveness or insecurity, rock fans seem to know that the answer is not in ‘quick fix’ approaches offered by many anti-drug campaigns, nor is it achieved by criticizing the celebrities most popular with teen-agers.

President Reagan, for example, recently attacked the film and music industries again, saying the music industry ‘has a responsibility to keep those who glorify drug use away from minors.’ Nancy Reagan, whose campaign urges school kids to sign anti-drug pledges, has attacked several films, including Desperately Seeking Susan, because Madonna, as the title character who constantly flouts authority, smoked a marijuana cigarette in the film.

Such criticism is consistent with the Administration’s pattern of combating drug abuse–attacking symptoms without getting to cause. In similar fashion, money is directed toward drug interdiction instead of drug education.”

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The backlash against the Reagans — and particularly Nancy Reagan, who was involved in the anti-drug cause before reaching the White House — was pretty fierce at the time, criticized for being simplistic and as the 80s generation grew up, the slogans of the campaign turned into satirical, cynical catchphrases. Radical activist and opportunistic prankster Abbie Hoffmann likened Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign to “the equivalent of telling manic depressives to ‘just cheer up’.”

It even led to a hilarious short 16mm film parody, The Reagans Speak Out On Drugs, made in 1988 by teacher and filmmaker Cliff Roth, who got his hands on the famous “Just Say No” anti-drugs speech by the Reagans, dating back to September 1986, courtesy of a student who worked at ABC News. Roth then spent almost two years painstakingly matching the film up to an audio reel that his students had created.

You can watch it here.

(h/t A.V. Club)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Amanda_Huggenkiss

    Loved the one with Vicki Peterson & Jeff McDonald. Were they actually an item at the time?