Rx, drugs and rock & roll: when pharma and music share the same stage

By Dan Stanton contact

- Last updated on GMT

Medical records? Photo - alexandre17/iStock
Medical records? Photo - alexandre17/iStock

Related tags: Pharma industry, Pharmacology, Us

If ‘Love is the drug’ should Roxy Music be subject to regulatory scrutiny? Can The Verve say ‘The drugs don’t Work’ without conducting a clinical trial? We explore the harmonious worlds of pharma and music.

Earlier this year the BMJ searched its ‘Back Pages’ of biomedical literature​ and found 213 references to Bob Dylan lyrics, suggesting that many scientists love music and perhaps that some have too much timeout of mind on their hands.

Gangster RAPS

But in an exploration of Pharma’s musical culture, this publication has discovered it’s not just R&D folk who harbor melodic passions.

First up is ex-Turing Pharma CEO Martin Shkreli. He emerged as the ultimate pharma pantomime villain in 2015 after raising the price of decades old parasitic infection treatment Daraprim (pyrimethamine) by 5,000%.

The move saw him accused of price gouging by potential candidates​ for the US presidency, criticized on twitter and - according to Shkreli - prompted US authorities to launch an investigation of his activities at former company, Retrophin​.

In a bizarre subplot​ it also emerged that Shkreli paid $2m for the only copy of the latest album by decades old East Coast rap outfit the Wu-Tang Clan.

Shkreli has claimed to be a hip-hop fan on a number of occasions. For example he cited lyrics by Eminem, aka Marshall Mathers, aka Slim Shady in response to negative media comments.

Mr Mathers himself seems to be a fan of the pharma industry, citing a vast array of (actual) pharmaceuticals across his back catalogue.

The lyrics from the song Deja-Vu, from the 2009 album Relapse, mentions a small pharmacy’s worth of drugs including Sanofi’s Ambien (zolpidem), Roche’s Valium (diazepam), AbbVie’s Vicodin (Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen) and Procter & Gamble’s OTC cold medicine Nyquil.

Symbicort for the Devil

Sticking with Valium, Hoffmann-La Roche’s benzodiazepine drug was launched in 1963 and by 1975 had become the number one prescription drug​ in the US, scooping the Swiss firm upwards of $250m in sales for that year alone.

The drug’s alleged popularity with housewives led the Rolling Stones to give it the moniker ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ in a 1966 song of the same name. The ease of gaining a prescription and the popularity of the drug for conditions including anxiety, alcohol withdrawal syndrome and ennui was captured in the song through such lyrics as:

Kids are different today, I hear ev'ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she's not really ill, There's a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper

“Shooting up prescriptions”

Another Stones tune, the 1971 hit ‘Brown Sugar,’ may have been partly inspired by a pharmaceutical product.

In 1995​, Jagger told Rolling Stone magazine Heroin (diacetylmorphine)​ may be one of a number of risqué subjects alluded to in the song. 

However, he also told the magazine "God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go​" which leaves room for doubt.

Four years before "Brown Sugar" The Velvet Underground had been far less circumspect in their references to Bayer’s 1898 product.

This year, roughly fifty years on from Lou Reed’s largely pro-pharmaceutical song, US rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were far less positive.

Their recent single ‘Kevin,’ is a tragic story of a 21 year old whose “wings [were] clipped by the grip of 80 milligram sniffs of Oxycontin.”

The rest of the song criticizes US pharma firms, blaming them for the country’s rise in prescription drug dependency:

"First dealer was his mom's medicine cabinet. Got anxiety, better go and give him a Xanax. Focus, give him Adderall, sleep, give him Ambien. 'Til he's walking 'round the city looking like a mannequin. Ups and downs, shooting up prescriptions you're handing him, So America, is it really worth it? I'm asking you."

IND-ie Music

But what about the pharma industry’s own musical efforts?

Sadly, our attempts to track down the ‘legendary’ Pfizer corporate song ‘Excel and Exceed’ failed.

One person who has heard the song - drug discovery chemist and blogger Derek Lowe​ - speculated that the song had been pulled from Youtube “possibly out of sheer embarrassment." 

Lowe told us that after watching "Excel and Exceed" he “made sure never to see that video again.”

Pfizer did not respond to a request for an archived copy.

We did discover this impressive punk effort by an ex-Pfizer employee describing the 2007 closure of the firm's Ann Arbor, Michigan research facility.

The site, where the best-selling drug Lipitor was discovered, was one of a number closed by the firm under the tenure of CEO Jeff Kindler​.

According to the song “[Original site owner] Parke-Davis rocked a lot, our statin got us bought. Then Kindler hatched a plot: Ann Arbor site will rot!”

But not all drug industry-made music is so critical.

Take for example physician and self-described “Purveyor of Fine Medical Satire”ZDoggMD​.

His musical parodies see him tackle everything from last year’s Ebola crisis (with a little help from The Kinks​) to Electronic Health Record (EHR) software​. ZDoggMD's latest is this hip-hop number about Big Pharma c/o the Notorious B.I.G.

RBM’s Greatest Hit

And finally, to the world of CROs, and a word or two - and a catchy little tune courtesy of Gilbert & Sullivan – from Polaris Compliance Consultants.

If you ever wanted to know exactly what risk-based monitoring (RBM) is then you could read this beautifully written article about two early adopters​, or listen to this sublime ditty:

But what's next? The Beatles' 'Dr Robert​?' The song 'Mononucleosis'​ by the alternative rock band Ween? And what about Siouxsie and the Banshees' 'Placebo Effect?'

Well those are for you to explore, as our musical foray into the world of pharma ends here, but the comments are open over the holidays so feel free to get in touch with your own musical suggestions, or a link to where one can hear Pfizer’s Excel and Exceed in its full glory!

Related topics: Downstream Processing

Follow us


View more