Folk rock duo Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line” was released in 1970 in an atmosphere of pacifist demonstrations and repression of drug users. The song would become Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley’s biggest hit; so great that it caught the attention of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who called the song, along with “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds, “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and “Monkey Man” by the Rolling Stones, “blatant drug culture. propaganda “that” threatens to undermine our national strength. “
Agnew warned of the FCC’s sanctions against radio stations that played songs that glorified or promoted the use of illegal drugs.
While his reference to marijuana is no secret, Tom Shipley has said that Agnew misinterpreted the song’s meaning. For the duo, exhausted from too many nights on the road, it was hardly an endorsement of drug use. Instead, it was a cry for restraint in their lives.
“One Toke Over the Line” was written behind the scenes at the Vanguard Coffee House in Kansas City. Extremely bored and extremely high, Shipley blurted out, “Man I’m going to cross the line tonight.”
The phrase clicked on some level because while playing together the next day, the duo recalled Shipley’s description of his cloudy state of mind and in about an hour wrote “One Toke Over the Line.”
Brewer & Shipley did not recognize the song’s potential as a hit. It wasn’t even part of his concert song list. The song’s first public performance was at New York’s Carnegie Hall when it opened for singer-songwriter Melanie.
The crowd gave them a warm reaction, but by their second encore, they had run out of songs. That’s when “One Toke Over the Line” debuted.
The reaction was immediate. Buddha Records president Neil Bogart came backstage and insisted that “One Toke” be featured on Tarkio, his third album then in production. Still, the pair did not recognize the song’s potential as a hit single.
“One Toke” was produced by Nick Gravenites of Electric Flag and recorded at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, where members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead used to go through the sessions. Gravenites put together a backing band of Chicago-area blues musicians like guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Fred Burton, keyboardist Mark Naftalin, and Bob Jones on drums.
Pairing urban blues musicians with popular rockers like Brewer & Shipley caused some friction, but Shipley said it produced a “hybrid sound” that stretched everyone’s creativity.
Despite the fact that some radio stations banned the album, “One Toke” became a top ten hit and the song most identified with the duo. But Brewer said the song was not characteristic of his music.
“He pretty much pigeonholed us and categorized us in a way that wasn’t really valid,” Brewer said. “In fact, Tom and I always thought that our ballads were our forte.”