Considering it was widely dismissed at the time as merely another momentary fad, and erroneously presumed to be pretty much dead in the water by the middle of 1968, the influence of psychedelic rock runs long and deep. If one is to broadly interpret the term as a catch-all synonym for expansion of the consciousness, psychedelia has been a significant (often drug-assisted) cultural pursuit since ancient times, whether conducted with the utmost ritualistic discipline and seriousness as a means of attaining spiritual enlightenment, or simply as a hedonistic derangement of the senses.
For entire swathes of the record-buying public, their first encounter with psychedelic music was provided byÂ RevolverÂ â€“ the game-changingÂ BeatlesÂ album, released in August 1966, that contained so many of the exotic elements that came to define the form. It beguiled, ensnared and, in some cases, disturbed the listener with its fresh, unorthodox textures: reality-shifting tape reversal techniques, tape loops, undulant sitars and opaque lyrics.
Of course, nothing simply materialises out of nowhere. The mind-remapping initiatives eagerly showcased onÂ RevolverÂ represented aÂ flowering that couldnâ€™t help but burst forth; in a beneficially reciprocal loop, contributors to The Beatlesâ€™ expanded worldview included musical peers such as the coolly enigmatic Byrds and the previously surfing-fixatedÂ Beach Boys.Â Bob Dylan, too, though musically far removed from the psychedelic sounds of The Beatles and co, exerted his influence as a conundrum-generating lyricist, and, crucially, as the genial hostÂ who allegedly turnedÂ John,Â Paul,Â GeorgeÂ andÂ RingoÂ on to marijuana in a room of New Yorkâ€™s Hotel Delmonico in August 1964. Furthermore, when George Harrisonâ€™s dentist irresponsibly spiked the coffees of Harrison, John Lennon and their wives with LSD at a dinner party in April 1965, his recklessness would have profound implications.
As is well known, the concluding (and most extreme) track onÂ RevolverÂ was actually the first to be tackled when sessions began in April 1966. â€˜Tomorrow Never Knowsâ€™ drew its eerie Â lyric (â€œLay down all thought, surrender to the void â€“ it is shiningâ€) from Timothy Leary and Richard Alpertâ€™s bookÂ The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The DeadÂ â€“ a much-discussed tome of the day which Lennon had picked up in Londonâ€™s Indica bookshop in Masonâ€™s Yard. (The bookshop in question, a beacon for Londonâ€™s arty inner set, was also supported by Paul McCartney.)
Lennonâ€™s desire to sound like â€œthe Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain topâ€ inspired producer George Martin â€“ a meticulous and ingenious facilitator â€“ to route the vocal through a rotating Leslie speaker, normally used in tandem with Hammond organs. Lennonâ€™s startling, otherworldly declamation consequently sat atop a forbidding edifice of super-compressed drums and chirruping, pinging tape loops, ridden on separate faders during the mix to form the trackâ€™s hallucinatory sound collage. In addition, a hard, bright, backward guitar solo bisects the track like ribbon lightning, while others entwine themselves around the mushily enticing somnolence of â€˜Iâ€™m Only Sleepingâ€™.
The Beatlesâ€™ first experiment with reversed tapes on the vocal coda to â€˜Rainâ€™, the B-side to the bandâ€™s â€˜Paperback Writerâ€™ single, had been released two months previously. Lennon always claimed that the notion came about as he accidentally played the tape backwards on his Brenell recorder at home, but George Martin maintained that it was he who suggested applying the technique â€“ an equally credible claim.
Clearly, the ingredients that would constitute psychedeliaâ€™s distinctive sonic vocabulary were now almost all in place. (Apart from phasing â€“ but weâ€™ll come to that.) In this, as with so much else, The Beatlesâ€™ seismic influence cannot be overestimated: where they led, a generation followed. The example they set â€“ that pop music could accommodate all manner of sounds, shapes and caprices â€“ was exceptionally empowering: it threw open the gates to the playground and invited musicians to go figuratively (and sometimes, sadly, literally) nuts.
So, which fellow explorers were quickest out of the traps? The Byrds had laid down a formidable marker with the epochal,Â John Coltrane-indebted â€˜Eight Miles Highâ€™ in March 1966 â€“ an appropriately lofty reverie which recounted the LA-based bandâ€™s August 1965 trip to London through a serenely sinister, heavy-lidded filter of magic realism. â€œYouâ€™ll find that itâ€™sâ€¦ stranger than known,â€ they sighed, over a keening tangle of 12-string Rickenbacker â€“ and one could sense the doors of possibility swinging open. The adjectival â€œhighâ€, of course, could be effortlessly interpreted as a not-so-covert code word for a herbally or chemically induced altered state; and the song was duly banned by several influential US radio stations. (Over the next few years, a similar fate would befall any number of records perceived to be peddling drug allusions.)
Also keenly aware of the prevailing swirls in the upper atmosphere were The Beach Boys. â€œPsychedelic music will cover the face of the world and colour the whole popular music scene,â€ Brian Wilson enthused in a 1966 interview. â€œAnybody happening is psychedelic.â€ As ambassadors of universal love, brotherhood and spiritual betterment, they were theoretically bang on trend with the tenets of â€œflower powerâ€ (psychedeliaâ€™s entry-level adjunct), while October 1966â€™s â€˜Good Vibrationsâ€™ deserves a seat at the very head of the table for the audacity of its multi-layered construction and its impressionistic shimmer alone. The Americana-encompassingÂ SMiLEalbum project â€“ which Wilson embarked upon after being introduced to erudite fellow songwriter Van Dyke Parks in early 1966 â€“ promised to boldly broach a whole new series of frontiers.
Though the project was ultimately abandoned, a long-deferred happy ending came about when Wilson revisitedÂ SMiLEÂ for a 2004 concert tour and studio album. Thirty-seven years earlier, however, fragments of the recording sessions found their way onto September 1967â€™sÂ Smiley Smile. â€˜Wind Chimesâ€™ and â€˜Wonderfulâ€™, in particular, captured an openly psychedelic mood of rapt, childlike, time-suspended contemplation which chimed closely with the early output ofÂ Pink Floydâ€™s Syd Barrett.
Among other pioneering psych adopters were Texasâ€™ 13th Floor Elevators â€“ raving garage-rockers in essence, but lent a philosophical mystique by the studiously earnest LSD evangelism of lyricist and electric jug player Tommy Hall. Their November 1966 debut album,Â The Psychedelic Sounds Of TheÂ 13th Floor Elevators, couldnâ€™t have nailed their freak flag to the mast any more overtly. Hall, by no means an acid dilettante, anonymously penned a provocative sleevenote which countenanced a â€œquestâ€ towards a higher consciousness â€“ and the churning, roiling â€˜Fire Engineâ€™ contains a punning paean to the intensely hallucinogenic drug DMT (dimethyltryptamine). â€œLet me take you to the empty place in my fire engine,â€ yowls vocalist Roky Ericksonâ€¦ but, as Ben Graham notes in his bookÂ A Gathering Of Promises, â€œthe way he phrases it, itâ€™s clear that heâ€™s actually singing, â€˜Let me take you to DMT placeâ€™â€.
The Elevatorsâ€™ unstinting acid regimen â€“ actually taking to the stage tripping as a matter of principle â€“ contributed in no small part to Ericksonâ€™s pitilessly swift mental decline. The Elevators even shocked the emblematic Grateful Dead, the key figures in San Franciscoâ€™s psychedelic scene, when they gigged in the city in August/September 1967. No mean acid crusaders themselves â€“ guitarist Jerry Garcia was affectionately nicknamed Captain Trips â€“ the Dead came to epitomise cosmic freedom for generations of festival-going, tie-dyed Deadheads, right into the 21st Century. From the Deadâ€™s July 1968 second album,Â Anthem Of The Sun, â€˜Thatâ€™s It For The Other Oneâ€™ represents an exploratory peak, with instruments panning giddily back and forth across the stereo spectrum, and bluff electronic elements surfacing through the mix like monsters from the id.
If the Dead personified a wantonly indulged alternative lifestyle, Jefferson Airplane were their closest San Franciscan cohorts in terms of counterculture heft. Their third album, November 1967â€™sÂ After Bathing At Baxterâ€™s, saw them engage most explicitly with the trappings of psychedelia (as on the musique concrÃ¨te of â€˜A Small Package Of Value Will Come To You, Shortlyâ€™), bearing as it did a title that equated to â€œafter tripping on acidâ€. However, their June 1967 single â€˜White Rabbitâ€™ â€“ a Top 10 US hit â€“ remains their most strikingly effective contribution to psychâ€™s hall of infamy. Over a tense bolero rhythm, Grace Slick invoked the disquieting imagery ofÂ Aliceâ€™s Adventures In WonderlandÂ to suggest the inquisitive pursuit of unknown pleasures â€“ and, in the process, slipped pills, a hookah and â€œsome kind of mushroomâ€ past the censors.
Honourable mentions should also be given to the Airplaneâ€™s less high-profile neighbours,Â Quicksilver Messenger ServiceÂ and Country Joe & The Fish. Pealing exemplars of SFâ€™s acid-rock guitar sound, Quicksilverâ€™s John Cipollina and Gary Duncan boasted a finely honed precision which contrasted with the Deadâ€™s more organic, open-ended improvisations. Their disciplined interplay is demonstrated to dramatic, transcendent effect on â€˜The Foolâ€™, the 12-minute showpiece of their self-titled May 1968 debut album, streaked with controlled feedback contrails.
Country Joe & The Fish, meanwhile, based in Berkeley, on the other side of the Bay Bridge, were driven by the politicised conscience of songwriter Country Joe McDonald. More a subversive, unruly protest group than a streamlined rock entity, they nevertheless set forth for psychedeliaâ€™s foggiest shores with the likes of â€˜Bass Stringsâ€™, from 1967â€™sÂ Electric Music For The Mind And Body, lit only by a thin corona of organ.
The above-mentioned bands were only the tip of a colossal West Coast iceberg, of course, with Moby Grape, Big Brother & The Holding Company and The Sons Of Champlin particularly deserving of further investigation. And, before leaving the Bay Area, Fifty Foot Hose warrant a gold star (or a death star) for the unnerving, avant-garde title track of 1967â€™sÂ CauldronÂ album â€“ not one to be listened to in the dark, or alone.
This outpouring of exciting new music was facilitated by a proliferation of amenably hip venues, notably the Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore West and Matrix, and counterculture â€œtribal gatheringsâ€ such as the Trips Festival â€“ a January 1966 bacchanal co-devised by the renegade author, Merry Prankster and folk devil, Ken Kesey. (Keseyâ€™s exploits are immortalised in Tom Wolfeâ€™s seminal 1968 book,Â TheÂ Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.) Also of crucial importance were FM radio stations such as the groundbreaking KMPX, KSAN-FM and KPPC. Unafraid to include new-era long-form songs on the playlist, these stations simultaneously fed into and reflected the generational tipping point, circa 1968, wherein albums started to outsell singles for the first time.
Nearly 400 miles south, Los Angeles had its own burgeoning music scene â€“ one capable of accommodating the psychedelic soul of The Chamber Brothers (whose â€˜Time Has Come Todayâ€™ nearly cracked the US Top 10 in December 1967), the fitful brilliance of the ill-assorted West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band (â€˜I Wonâ€™t Hurt Youâ€™ fromÂ Part OneÂ being a faintly creepy, low-glowing highlight) and the opportunistic psych-lite of the exuberantly overdressed Strawberry Alarm Clock, paisley-bedecked human soft furnishings whose â€˜Incense And Peppermintsâ€™ went all the way to No.1 in May 1967.
Two of LAâ€™s most original acts, however, only skirted psychedelia by default. Love, the well-ahead-of-the-curve multiracial ensemble fronted by the redoubtable Arthur Lee, may have sported a modishly bendy logo and cover art on 1968â€™s unimpeachableÂ Forever ChangesÂ â€“ but in its gentle, troubled introspection, the album was already looking over the next hill. â€˜The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like Thisâ€™ does at least constitute an interlude of experiential wonder (â€œHummingbirds hum, why do they hum?â€), and even features a token wrap of tape manipulation as the track ends.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band,Â meanwhile, were already well on the way to reconfiguring the psychogeography of gutbucket R&B, convincingly elevating it to a boundary-breaching Dadaist realm. When producer Bob Krasnow applied then state-of-the-art studio effects to Beefheartâ€™s October 1968 second album,Â Strictly PersonalÂ (ie, the backward cymbal and treated vocal on â€˜Beatle Bonesâ€™nâ€™Smokinâ€™ Stonesâ€™), an initially acquiescent Beefheart quickly went on record to decry what he saw as an unnecessary, gimmicky dressing-up of music that was sufficiently edgy in its own right. (Nevertheless, many listeners are just fine with those gimmicks.)
Among the effects in question was phasing, arguably psychedeliaâ€™s single most obvious identifier â€“ and, for once,Â The Beatles were only indirectly responsible. While holed up in Londonâ€™s Olympic Studios in June 1967 to record the backing track for â€˜All You Need Is Loveâ€™, their producer George Martin asked for â€œADTâ€ (automatic or artificial double-tracking, a technique originated at EMIâ€™s Abbey Road Studios) to be placed on Lennonâ€™s vocal. Unable to comply because Olympicâ€™s tape machines operated differently to EMIâ€™s, tape operator George Chkiantz pledged to devise his own outlandish tape effect â€“ and came up with the sense-warping, harmonic frequency sweep which became known as phasing or flanging.
Olympic pressed phasing into swimmy service almost immediately onÂ The Small Facesâ€™ August 1967 single â€˜Itchycoo Parkâ€™ â€“ a larkish, high-summer, Top 3 hit from the freshly acid-initiated flower mods whose round-sleeved 1968 album,Â Ogdensâ€™ Nut Gone Flake, also included phased drumming on its instrumental title track. Olympic Studios subsequently hosted TheÂ Jimi HendrixÂ Experience, fronted by the envelope-pushing guitarist who, more than anyone, became psychedeliaâ€™s most aurally and visually flamboyant avatar. â€˜Bold As Loveâ€™, from the bandâ€™s December 1967 second album,Â Axis: Bold As Love, has a scorching corkscrew of phasing applied to its outro â€“ while â€˜1983â€¦ (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)â€™, from the Experienceâ€™s October 1968 double-albumÂ Electric Ladyland, is a lucid, fully realised, mixing-desk-as-paintbox triumph.
Oddly enough, The Beatles themselves only ever deployed phasing onÂ Magical Mystery Tourâ€™s entranced â€˜Blue Jay Wayâ€™ (apart from a fascinating, accidental pre-echo of the effect on the drum fill six seconds into 1963â€™s â€˜From Me To Youâ€™). Their brief psych chapter nevertheless took in such indomitable glories as â€˜Strawberry Fields Foreverâ€™, â€˜Lucy In The Sky With Diamondsâ€™ and â€˜Itâ€™s All Too Muchâ€™, so their pre-eminence in the pantheon is inarguable.
IfÂ Sgt Pepperâ€™s Lonely Hearts Club BandÂ and Procol Harumâ€™s magisterial â€˜A Whiter Shade Of Paleâ€™ formed the twin pillars of 1967â€™s so-called Summer Of Love, The Beatlesâ€™ long-standing rivals,Â The Rolling Stones, appeared to be slightly on the back foot. In relation to their December 1967 albumÂ Their Satanic Majesties Request, drummer Charlie Wattsâ€™ mother is said to have mordantly remarked that they were â€œat least two weeks ahead of their timeâ€ â€“ yet its sepulchral, decadent atmosphere has lasted admirably down the years. The clangourous â€˜Citadelâ€™ is enveloped in a whirling, sexy miasma, while the apocalyptic August 1967 single â€˜We Love Youâ€™ blows a leering, ironic kiss towards the forces of law and order in the wake of Mick Jagger and Keith Richardsâ€™ arrests on drug charges earlier in the year.
During the short period when a psychedelic makeover was an essential sartorial and cultural statement, the blues-rock supergroupÂ CreamÂ unleashed Martin Sharpâ€™s Day-Glo sleeve toÂ Disraeli Gears, while guitaristÂ Eric ClaptonÂ saw fit to append a raga-tinged solo to the yearning â€˜Dance The Night Awayâ€™. The Ingoes, meanwhile, were renamed Blossom Toes at the behest of manager Giorgio Gomelsky, decked out in paisley finery and installed in a house in Fulham until they could write some voguish material. The uncanny â€˜Look At Me Iâ€™m Youâ€™, from their debut albumÂ We Are Ever So Clean, ranks alongside anything from the era.
In Britainâ€™s singles racks, you couldnâ€™t move for psych-pop pearls. Inscrutable one-offs such as Tintern Abbeyâ€™s haunted â€˜Beesideâ€™ vied for space with â€˜Defecting Greyâ€™, a compellingly wayward construction by the rejuvenated Pretty Things. The tightly processed â€˜Imposters Of Lifeâ€™s Magazineâ€™ by Jeff Lynneâ€™s Idle Race nestled alongsideÂ the urgent â€˜My White Bicycleâ€™ by Tomorrow (featuring future Yes guitarist Steve Howe), whileÂ Trafficâ€™s contentiously blissed-out â€˜Hole In My Shoeâ€™, became a UK No.2 hit in August 1967.
Kudos also to those who just missed the bus â€“ not least July, whose self-titled 1968 album included the elliptical â€˜Dandelion Seedsâ€™, and The End, produced by Stones bassist Bill Wyman, whose wonderfully soft-centred albumÂ IntrospectionÂ was recorded in early 1968 but not released until November 1969.
The toast of Londonâ€™s psychedelic underground were Pink Floyd: wilful experimentalists whose audio-visual ambition, not to mention their spectacular incongruity where conventional touring doctrine was concerned, anticipated the festivals and dedicated concert events that proliferated in the following decade. With the precociously talented Syd Barrett at the helm, Pink Floyd produced psychedeliaâ€™s most matchless, concise Top 5 snapshot, â€˜See Emily Playâ€™, while their mysterious August 1967 debut album,Â TheÂ Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, showcased Barrettâ€™s uniquely charming, childlike muse (â€˜Matilda Motherâ€™, â€˜The Gnomeâ€™, â€˜The Scarecrowâ€™).
Tragically, Barrettâ€™s psyche unravelled with distressing rapidity, his prodigious LSD intake the major (if not sole) factor, and by April 1968 his place in the band had been taken by David Gilmour. The Mk II Floyd ostensibly blazed a trail for progressive rock with their penchant for extended pieces and commensurately lengthy live performances, but it was a member of Canterbury Scene godheads Soft Machine â€“ Pink Floydâ€™s regular accomplices in Londonâ€™s underground clubs â€“ who carried the flame for psychedelia into the 70s and well beyond.
Daevid Allen, Soft Machineâ€™s original guitarist, formed his next band,Â Gong, in France, and steadfastly constructed a jocularly intricate mythology around the band itself and its spiritually inquisitive repertoire. The â€œRadio Gnome Invisibleâ€ trilogy â€“ 1973â€™sÂ Flying TeapotÂ andÂ Angels Egg, and 1974â€™sÂ YouÂ â€“ accordingly bubbles with mischievous, seditious lyrics, giggles, shrieks and some titanic playing. From the latter album, â€˜Master Builderâ€™ is a typically heady and fervid Gong assemblage, a third-eye projection pinballing between the planets.
Thereafter, various noble bodies kept psychâ€™s antic spirit alive in the 80s and 90s. The largely LA-based â€œPaisley Undergroundâ€, for instance, saw bands such as The Rain Parade, The Three Oâ€™Clock and Green On Red flirting heavily with psychedelic tones and textures. In the UK, XTC embarked on a psych side-trip as The Dukes Of Stratosphear, and delivered such an inspired, pitch-perfect homage that their output (as compiled onÂ Chips From The Chocolate Fireball) outstripped the heroes they sought to salute. In broadly similar vein, The Godfathers tipped their hats towards The Creationâ€™s abyssal â€˜How Does It Feel To Feelâ€™ (the US mix, specifically) on 1988â€™s â€˜When Am I Coming Downâ€™ â€“ the same year that the nominal Second Summer Of Love began in the UK, fuelled by acid house and the fledgling rave culture.
Today, psychedelia is in eminently safe hands. Oklahomaâ€™s Flaming Lips continue to plough a distinctly humanistic, existential, strobe-lit psych furrow; Australiaâ€™s Tame Impala sit on a beautiful event horizon permanently illuminated by the after-image of â€˜I Am The Walrusâ€™; Ty Seagall fearlessly stares down the swarming acid horrors that bedevil psychâ€™s dark underbelly â€“ and a coterie of believers, including The Coral and Jane Weaver, prove, time and again, that thereâ€™s still limitless scope in the well-starred union of psychedelia and pop. Long may that be so.