LSD and the Psychedelic Music Explosion

Hoffman LSD

Hoffman LSD

LSD and the psychadelic music explosion

Tune in, turn on, drop out. Timothy Lear’s famous exhortation to take lysergic acid diethylamide. Funny thing about that. 1966, LSD is made illegal. 1967, summer of Love and over the next few months millions, I think its safe to say millions, take LSD for the first time.

It was known about before that of course. Discovered in the ’40s, it was a rage in Hollywood in the ’50s. Beatniks tried it. The intelligentsia dabbled. The army experimented with it. THE FUGS sang about it in 1965.

In 1966 THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION released their first album Freak Out! To freak out was to take LSD. A Freak-out was a party where everyone took LSD. Ken Kesey was holding his “electric Koolaid acid tests” large parties where everyone took LSD served in Koolaid.

summer of love 1967

LSD’s appeal was intellectual and seen as a new door of perception. It was also seen as spiritual creating as it did intense introspection. And by 1966 it was coming to be seen as a huge party that people were curious about and wanted to go to themselves. Being made illegal did nothing to slow down interest in this drug. Possibly even hastened its use by millions in the ensuing months.

San Francisco was the early epicenter of the psychedelic explosion. A strange, almost psychic lure conveyed in poster graphic design impelled hundreds of thousands of young people to The City in the summer of 1967. There was brotherhood and sisterhood and bonding in tripping together. It was all so radically new. People said “Wow” alot.

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Musicians were there from the start. Dropping regularly and sometimes playing high. They were making music geared specifically for people to listen to while tripping on LSD.

This is why stylistically psychedelic music had such a wide range. It was currently popular music suddenly being played by psychedelic hands for psychedelic ears.

There was in general a characteristic sound, increased heaviness, increased electricity, lengthy soaring guitar leads, drug references in the lyrics. This sound gave rise to the term “Acid Rock” which later became Heavy Metal. You still occasionally hear some geezer call a modern metal band “Acid Rock”.

One early San Francisco psychedelic band THE GREAT SOCIETY, included Grace Slick and a couple of other Slicks, her husband and his brother I think. This was JEFFFERSON AIRPLANE in embryo, already performing “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” but in rawer, more interesting versions than the later cleaned up slicker versions. They also did an excellent long hypnotic “Sally Go Round the Roses” sounding somewhat Middle Eastern. Recordings of this band exist and are seminal psychedelic artifacts.

One of the best psychedelic bands BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY included the great singer Janis Joplin who did her best work with this band. Also in the band, and taking no back seat to Joplin, guitarist James Gurley. While their first album is not very good by their own admission, Big Brother’s “Cheap Thrills” album is a nearly perfect marriage of passion, sincerity, and technique.

Janis Joplin’s greatness is history. But James Gurley’s guitar on “Ball and Chain” is utterly transporting. Screaming, dirty, soaring, and very psychedelic.

Another great record is Electric Music for the Mind and Body by COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH. Later recordings by this band had a satiric protest folk sound but 1967’s “Electric Music…” is fully imbued with the feel and sound of the times. Everything on the album works that way. Standout songs include “Flying High”, “Death Sound Blues”, “Happiness is a Porpoise Mouth” and “Bass Strings”.

haight street 1967Another record found in many a freak’s collection in 1967 would have been MOBY GRAPE’s first album Moby Grape. The sound was folksy, definitely psychedelic as well. THE GRATEFUL DEAD of course date from this period.

An important innovation in the San Francisco scene that spread worldwide was the psychedelic light show. Besides colored lights, film and slides would be projected on the band and on the walls.

But most important was the opaque projector. A glass dish filled with water and colored oil (or two oils of different viscosities) could be manipulated in time to the music.

The result giant blobs of color projected on a wall, oozing, sliding, and jerking could have quite a dramatic effect on a person for whom the walls were already breathing and dripping. A total experience of sound and vision was thus created. One odd little thing I remember about these shows was the number of times I remember the word “Pyrex” projected on a band.

With very little doubt the most important psychedelic record of 1967 would have to be THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE’s Are You Experienced? The fire and invention of this record startled the already well-formed scene. Although psychedelic music had been around for a couple of years by then, many felt that this was its first perfect expression. This was Acid.

Psychedelic music shattered the three-minute song format. Some songs were short. Others long rambling jams, album sides in length. THE SEEDS’ fourteen minute “Up in Her Room” is a great example. THE SEEDS were a psychedelic band whose big hit was “Pushin’ Too Hard”. But check out “Evil Hoodoo”, “Tripmaker” and “March of the Flower Children”. There is a STEPPENWOLF album called Early Steppenwolf which was recorded live at the Matrix in San Francisco in 1967. One whole side is a moving, twisting, seeping, serpentine piece of music, a twenty-one minute version of “The Pusher”. Wow!

Vanilla Fudge

An important but not well remembered psychedelic group was VANILLA FUDGE. Their first album Vanilla Fudge was ubiquitous in freak households. I think they made a conscious effort to make music that sounded like music sounded on LSD, distorting time dramatically.

The idea seemed to work best on songs that people already knew so that their only hits were covers, particularly THE SUPREMES’ “You Keep Me Hanging On”. A favorite of mine, tho’ not a hit, was Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning”. As a psychedelic country song it was strange to begin with. In Fudge hands, it reached the outer edges.

The psychosexual imagery of THE DOORS made their first two albums; The Doors and Strange Days important psychedelic artifacts and a must for the well accoutered acidhead. Established bands also jumped in. Not always to their credit. Others made the transition quite well. THE BEATLES’ music from Rubber Soul to Yellow Submarine is strongly psychedelic with well publicized Beatle LSD forays and George Harrison’s adaptation of the sitar. A classic “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver .

1967 sheet of lsdTHE ROLLING STONES also had an interesting psychedelic oddity, Their Satanic Majesties Request. Probably the best English psychedelic band, reputably bringing the first light shows to England; PINK FLOYD.

Not the dinosaur rock of Dark Side Of The Moon but the heavily drenched in psychedelia first albums The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, and Uhima Gumma. All excellent extreme records.

Many a freak tripping on LSD 25 lost his last toehold on reality for a couple of hours listening to Umma Gumma.

There were also many one-hit wonders. Among them and most notable THE ELECTRIC PRUNES’ I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night). Psychotic Reaction by THE COUNT FIVE, the pop sounding Incense and Peppermints by THE STRAWBERRY ALARM CLOCK, Journey to the Center of Your Mind by THE AMBOY DUKES (Ted Nugent’s first band), Time Has Come Today, THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS, Pictures of Matchstick Men by THE STATUS QUO, the seventeen minute In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by San Diego’s IRON BUTTERFLY featuring possibly rock’s most famous drum solo.

There were many others. Also many interesting oddities. KIM FOWLEY’S Trip of a Lifetime is a must for serious students of the genre. KENNY ROGERS first hit song Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) with thinly veiled drug lyrics is quite contrived but very amusing and proveded great theme music in The Big Lebowski. Thousands of bands between 1965 and 1968 were playing psychedelic music from the most saccharine pop band to the most obscure, LSD’s influence on music was pervasive.

One of rock’s most durable and popular forms, Heavy Metal, was born from Acid Rock. CREAM and LED ZEPPELIN, godfathers of metal, were early acid taker favorites. Neo-psychedelic bands today consciously try to revive the sound and even mainstream bands such as PRINCE and more pointedly P.M. DAWN use psychedelic motifs.

Its nearest modern counterpart tho’, is acid house. More popular in Europe than America, groups such as LORDS OF ACID used mechanical techno beats and repetitiveness for a purpose similar to what original psychedelic was used for, to dance and trance out to while high on LSD.

It would be difficult to sight a single outside influence having quite so profound an effect on music. Two hundred and fifty micrograms of a simple chemical compound, LSD.


This article originally appeared in Sin Magazine. Big props to James Call!