The ballad of Madame Geneva: Gin and music

The Wolverines with Beiderbecke

The Wolverines with Beiderbecke

In the eighteenth century, gin was at the heart of an unprecedented craze, spilling into every corner of politics, the arts and popular culture. In the nineteenth century, it became a symbol for Britain’s imperial might - our flagship export, mingling with exotic tonics, and charging its way into the 20th century in the cocktail glasses of the rich. But in the ten decades that followed, its popularity began to dry up. In this episode, we’re going to look at these difficult decades through the lens of music.

Gin in the jazz age

In the 1920s, gin was the drink of bright young things, both in Europe where it was legal, and in the States where prohibition was in effect. Jazz and gin held a close bond. The gangsters who traded in bootleg booze consumed jazz like a tonic, and early American Jazz is littered with gin references. One musican named Bix Beiderbecke encapsulates the mythology perfectly. One afternoon he turned up at Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana for a recording session. During the course of the session they - or probably mainly Beierbecke - consumed three quarts of gin, rendering half of the material unusable.

Gin in blues music

Blues singers of the 1920s also took to gin. One particularly notable reference can be found in Bessie Smith’s Gin House Blues, which goes:

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith

My man keeps me cryin' all night
My man keeps me cryin' all night
I'm goin' to the gin house, sit there by myself
I mean to drown my sorrows
By sweet somebody else

So here we see gin associated with sorrows, hardships and suffering. Smith also recorded a different song of the same name - Gin House Blues - a few years later, in which she gives it some good old fighting talk:

Don't try me nobody cos you will never win
Mm yeah don't try me nobody cos you will never win
I'll fight the army and navy somebody gives me my gin

The most famous version of this song was recorded in 1961 by Nina Simone. Though there were four decades between these two songs, gin continued to feature in blues music in the intervening years. From Ligtnin’ Hopkins Gin Bottle Blues, in which the protagonist swears he’s given up the demon drink, to the delightful stomp Good Gin Blues by Bukka White, in which his woman leaves him and he immediately hits the bottle.

Gin in 20th century British music

But with all these wonderful American references to gin, what of Britain? This was our national spirit, so surely there is a vat load of references to gin in 20th century British music? Well, not really. It seems gin was ready to swap its purple passport for an American green card. Sure, in the 1930s it was still going strong, as Britain’s imperial legacy lingered on. This is evident in the Debutante’s chorus in Noel Coward’s 1933 Words and Music, when gin was still the thing:

The gin is lasting out,

No matter whose,

We’re casting out

the blues

For gin in curel sober truth

Supplies the fuel for flaming youth

But as World War II approached, gin’s presence in British popular culture began to wane. And when the war brought rationing of luxury goods, spirit drinking was inevitably affected. An important clue to the changing geography of gin drinking is provided by none other than Britain’s banjo-bashing wartime favourite, George Formby. Here’s an extract from the song Our Fanny’s Gone All Yankee, in which he sings about a woman from Wigan who is desperately trying to ‘act American’:

Woodbines she used to smoke, now she thinks that there a joke,
With a Camel in her mouth shes very swanky.
She drinks whisky, gin and rum and shes always chewing gum, cause
Our Fanny’s gone all Yankee.

Gin in 1960s popular culture

When the swinging 60s approached, British youth culture underwent possibly the biggest revolution in decades. Kids didn’t want to emulate their parents’ politics, culture, fashion and buying choices. The fusty old colonial Britain was dying out, to be replaced by mini skirts, Rock n Roll and free love. But surely there must have been more than just this cultural shift behind gin’s demise. I spoke to Iain Gately, a historian who has written extensively on the history of alcohol. I asked him for his take on why Gin died such a death in popular culture post-1960. He highlighted the fact that the legacy of World War II was still affecting the spirit market, but also the fact that the amount of choice available in the gin market was so limited. He said advertising of the period gives some insight into this lack of consumer choice - “It’s got to be Gordon’s”!

Plus there was a new kid on the block - Vodka. Vodka was relatively new. As Olivia Williams writes in her book Gin Glorious Gin, Vodka was a blank canvas from a cultural point of view, with none of gin’s historical baggage. It was also a blank canvas from a flavour point of view - you could mix it with coke or lemonade.

Gin in modern music

For these reasons, as far as British music goes, we draw a bit of a blank in this era. Over in the states, gin stayed alive in song throughout the 20th century, but again, not so much in Rock N Roll. Many of the gin references post-1970 are in modern Blues or Jazz songs, that harked back to the heyday of both the musical genre and of gin itself. Gin Soaked Boy by Tom Waits. It tells the tale of a Whisky-drinking man whose woman leaves him for a gin fiend:

I come home last night
Full o' a fith of Old Crow
You said you goin' to your ma's
But where the hell did you go?
You went and slipped out nights
You didn't think that I'd know
With some gin-soaked boy that you don't know

A classic blues riff chimes out on electric guitar, while Waits’s growls into the microphone. It was released on his was released on his 1983 album Swordfishtrombones.

Similarly You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was released in 1998, and includes the lyrics:

Hey Jack...I know what your thinking. That now's
As good as any to start drinking. Hey
Scotty...Yeah...What's it gonna be? A gin &
Tonic sounds might mighty good to me.

So we can conclude that between 1960 and 2000, gin was kept alive in music that re-conjured the spirit of prohibition era America, right? Not quite.

Gin’s association with hip hop music

In 1993, Snoop Dogg released Doggy Style, a ground-breaking, controversial and widely acclaimed album that brought the g-funk subgenre of hip hop to a wider audience. In typical g-funk style, the album featured funk samples, heavy baselines and hard-hitting lyrics about hustling to make money, clashing with police, drinking, making music and hanging out in the urban neighbourhoods of Greater Los Angeles.

Gin and Juice was produced by Dr Dre, and featured the lyrics:

Rollin' down the street, smokin' indo
Sippin' on gin and juice, laid back
With my mind on my money
And my money on my mind

And it wasn’t just Snoop talking about gin. Dr Dre had talked of Puffin’ on blunts and drinkin’ Tanqueray in his 1992 single of the same name. In 1995 DJ Quik pays homage to Tanqueray, with the lyrics:

Tanqueray’ll have ya feelin’ so fine,

little green bottle got you outta ya mind.

Later Wiz Khalifa incorporated his favourite gin brand - Bombay Sapphire - into his lyrics on O.N.I.F.C, saying: “Drinking Bombay so I'm slizzered”.

So why were hip hop artists from the late 90s onwards so into gin? Snoop - now an official Tanqueray brand ambassador - sums it up in an interview with Hip Hop DX:

“Gin is upper echelon. I do believe it’s a step up. You just don’t find — and no disrespect — regular winos just drinking Tanqueray. That go back to back in the days when I used to go to the liquor store and they be out there standing out there and they be like, ‘Give me a few dollars, little man. Give me something to get me something to drink.’

“And I get them something to drink … and they wouldn’t get this! They would get that Mad Dog, Dub Dub or that Ripple or that Night Train or that Thunderbird,”

This links in with an important element of hip hop - displays of wealth. Subversive as it is, you’ll find hip hop lyrics as littered with references to fancy cars, drinks and clothing brands.

So we have American music, and particularly music with its roots in African American culture, to thank for keeping the spirit of gin alive in popular culture. Without them, it might be a long-forgotten symbol of a faded British empire, with one or two staple brands to choose from.

Gin makes a comeback in British popular culture

Since gin’s resurgence at the beginning of the 21st century, music is littered with gin references too numerous to list here. So instead we’ve made you a playlist, with some of the old classics mentioned here, as well as some more recent references. One great example is the Divine Comedy’s Gin Soaked Boy (no relation to Tom Waits’s song of the same name). The song is a list that starts with:

I'm the darkness in the light
I'm the leftness in the right
I'm the rightness in the wrong
I'm the shortness in the long
I'm the goodness in the bad
I'm the saneness in the mad
I'm the sadness in the joy
I'm the gin in the gin soaked boy

This song was released in 1999, the same year that Hendrick’s was launched, marking the return of gin’s ‘cool’ status in British culture. In an interview, when asked to explain the meaning of the song, Divine Comedy singer Neil Hannon replies:

“You know what, the first person who got it was my mum, which I thought was brilliant as she clearly knows the workings of my mind! The answer is ‘spirit’.

And so the ghost of gin returned to life in Britain.

Sarah Donnelly