Before he became Patti Smith’s bass player, Lenny Kaye compiled the 2 album set, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era. Released in 1972, the two-LP set covered American garage rock and psychedelia from the years from 1965-1968 and was a major influence on punk rock. Rhino Records reissued an expanded version of the set in 1998, with 118 tracks in total. I’m profiling and rating each of these 118 tracks, working backwards.
Track 100: Codine by The Charlatans
Release Date: 1966 (but release cancelled)
From: San Francisco, California
Aphoristical Rating: 7/10
The song ‘Codine’ is known by a number of different titles, including ‘Cod’ine’, ‘Codine Blues’, and ‘Codeine’, and it was much-covered during the 1960s. It was written by folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, an indigenous Canadian-American artist who’s also known for writing ‘Universal Soldier’, ‘Until It’s Time for You to Go’, and ‘Up Where We Belong’. Sainte-Marie spent time in the early 1960s playing in coffeehouses in Toronto and New York’s Greenwich Village, alongside fellow Canadians Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen. In 1963, after a throat infection, she became addicted to codeine. The song ‘Cod’ine’ (as Sainte-Marie originally titled it) was written about her experiences with addiction and recovery and is an anti-drug song.
The foreknowledge of death and the recapitulation of the life which made that death inevitable; a tale of drug addiction told within the mind but in the voice of the ancient (or prematurely aged) addict desperately seeking some justification for her existence; the pathetic repetition that she has avoided the additional sin of alcohol, thus keeping faith with the creed of her parents; a characterization so extraordinary and many-levelled that all consciousness of its having been “created” is lost; a macabre waltz which tetters on the edge of the grave.Producer Maynard Solomon, on ‘Cod’ine’
The Charlatans were among the earliest bands to emerge from the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury scene. They wore 19th-century clothing – they look like they’ve beamed out of the Wild West in the ‘Codine’ cover art. They Charlatans were reportedly the first band to take LSD immediately before performing, but don’t play the kind of psychedelic rock you’d expect based on that factoid. Their music is more traditional than their San Francisco contemporaries, based around acoustic country, folk, and blues.
The obvious precedent for taking a song by an acoustic folk artist and transforming it into electric folk-rock is The Byrds’ 1965 hit with Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. The Byrds supercharged Dylan’s tune with their sublime harmonies and Roger McGuinn’s jangling 12-string electric guitar. But The Charlatans’ version of Sainte-Marie’s tune isn’t as effective – they lose the intensity of Sainte-Marie’s original and don’t offer enough pop accessibility in compensation. They planned to release ‘Codine’ as a single in 1966, but it was vetoed by their record company who misread it as a pro-drugs song. Despite their pioneering reputation in the San Francisco scene, the group’s career faltered – they didn’t record a studio album until 1969, by which time they’d lost key members and their sound was out of date.
The Charlatans spawned several successful careers, most notably Dan Hicks who started as the group’s drummer but moved to rhythm guitar and vocals in 1967. Hicks found post-Charlatans success with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, playing a music he labelled as “folk swing”. George Hunter became a graphic designer, with his work appearing on the LP covers of other notable bands, while Mike Wilhelm went on to play lead guitar with the Flamin’ Groovies in the late 1970s. The band reunited periodically – in 2015 they played their final two dates – Hicks and Wilhelm have since passed away. They’re not the most famous band named The Charlatans – a West Midlands alternative rock outfit with the same name have released 13 albums to date, with three topping the UK charts.