“One Toke Over the Line” by folk rock duo Brewer & Shipley was released in 1970 in an atmosphere of anti-war demonstrations and crackdowns on drug users. The song would become Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley’s biggest hit; so big that it caught the attention of Vice President Spiro Agnew, who termed the song – along with the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and “Monkey Man” by the Rolling Stones – “blatant drug-culture propaganda” that “threatens to sap our national strength.”
Agnew warned of FCC sanctions against radio stations that played songs that glorified or promoted illegal drug use.
While its reference to marijuana is no secret, Tom Shipley has said that Agnew misinterpreted the song’s meaning. For the duo, burned out by too many nights on the road, it was hardly a promotion of drug use. Instead, it was a cry for moderation in their lives.
“One Toke Over the Line” was written backstage between sets at Kansas City’s Vanguard Coffee House. Extremely bored and extremely stoned, Shipley blurted out, “Man, I’m one toke over the line tonight.”
The phrase clicked on some level because as they played together the next day, the duo remembered Shipley’s description of their clouded state of mind and in about an hour wrote “One Toke Over the Line.”
Brewer & Shipley didn’t recognize the song’s potential as a hit. It was not even part of their concert set list. The song’s first public performance was at Carnegie Hall in New York when they 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 included on Tarkio, their third album then in production. Still, the pair did not recognize the tune’s potential as a hit single.
“One Toke” was produced by Nick Gravenites of the Electric Flag and recorded at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, where members of the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead routinely dropped by the sessions. Gravenites put together a backup band of Chicago-area blues players like guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Fred Burton, keyboardist Mark Naftalin and Bob Jones on drums.
Pairing urban blues musicians with folk rockers like Brewer & Shipley caused some friction, but Shipley said a “hybrid sound” was produced that stretched everyone’s creativity.
Despite some radio stations banning the record, “One Toke” became a top ten hit and the song most identified with the duo. But Brewer said the song was uncharacteristic of their music.
“It pretty much pigeonholed us and categorized us in a way that wasn’t really valid,” Brewer said. “Actually Tom and I always thought that our ballads were our forte.”