"No offense, but today's music doesn't have a whole lot to say."
"Is that right? You're going to tell me 'Purple Haze' says something?"
"Purple Haze" actually does say something, and Jimi Hendrix would have been wounded by the accusation that it didn't.
In Hendrix' time, songs were expected to be meaningful as much as they were expected to sound good - maybe more so. It was a particularly ambitious time for popular music, and a drug named lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) played a particularly important part in that particularly ambitious time.
Today, this period stretching from 1965 to 1969 is called the Psychedelic Era. The phenomenon can't really be bound so neatly, however. Its impact didn't end with the '60s, or even with LSD. It rippled through the following decades, giving rise to new genres that dominated the radio waves. Progressive Rock, Heavy Metal, and the '70s singer-songwriter all owe something to the psychedelic influence.
Strange as it is to think that we owe so much to a few micrograms of a Swiss chemist's failed migraine remedy, the fact is, we do. Whether it was for the better or not is debatable, but there's no denying the effect LSD had on the Western world's musical legacy. Like it or not, a bunch of hippies laced the music in 1965, and we've been sipping it ever since.
The Red Dog Saloon
It started in a teepee in April, 1963.
Chandler A. Laughlin III (more commonly known as Travis T. Hipp) and roughly 50 friends and associates travelled to the Nevada desert to take part in a Native American peyote ceremony. Like many of their generation, they were looking for an alternative to their parents' world. They wanted something revolutionary, but no one could have foreseen the broader impact their quest would have.
In recalling that peyote ceremony in Rockin' at the Red Dog, Milan Melvin (subject of Joan Baez's "Sweet Sir Galahad") recalls that "nobody came out of that meeting the same as they went into that teepee. Everybody, most of us city-oriented, city-raised people, we connected with the Earth, and there was no turning back. Ever."
They emerged not only personally transformed but also determined to bring their experience to their own culture. This time, however, the music would be American, and the sacramental drug would be LSD.
Partially in pursuit of that mission and partially in pursuit of making money without succumbing to a 9 to 5, Hipp, his wife Lynn Hughes, and Don and Roz Works opened up the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada.
The saloon was sort of a living Wild West time capsule. Everyone was armed, and the discharging of firearms indoors was a regular occurrence. When some rednecks came looking to work over the Red Dog longhairs, the longhairs responded by firing warning shots into the roof.
For all its weird and wild charm, however, the saloon wasn't the goal. Really, it was just the vehicle to the group's real aim, which was creating the Red Dog Experience.
That experience entailed dropping acid communally and listening to live music while Bill Hamm visually amplified the scene with his "lightbox," a device presaging the elaborate liquid light shows that would one day come.
The latter one-sentence summary of the Red Dog Experience sounds goofy and trite, but for those actually immersed in it, the happening was profound. It was a way to have fun and to break free of the mental, sexual, and spiritual constraints society put on them – nothing less than a road to freedom in its deepest existential sense.
One act that participated in the Red Dog Experience was Big Brother and the Holding Company, famous for their time as Janis Joplin's backing band. "Piece of My Heart" is their most iconic song, but "Combination Of The Two," with its wild, ecstatic energy, is a more fitting artifact of the psychedelic scene birthed at the Red Dog.
An act largely forgotten today, however, is the one that became most indelibly intertwined with the Red Dog Experience. They were called the Charlatans, and they began a six-week residency at the Red Dog on June 21, 1965. The poster promoting the event is the first psychedelic poster ever created, today called the "Seed."
The Charlatans don't sound psychedelic to modern ears. Their music has none of the distortion or spaced-out vocals associated with the genre today. Still, they deserve the mantle of "first psychedelic band ever."
Over the course of their residency, the Charlatans dropped acid along with the audience and tripped in tune with everyone else. There was no distinction between performer and listener at these events. It was more than a show: It was a revolutionary socio-spiritual statement, an evocation of a living alternative to corporate jobs and the atomic bomb.
The Charlatans never made much money, but they were instrumental in what was to follow.
Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, California
At the end of the Red Dog's first summer, the intense energy and excitement of the new psychedelic experience exploded outward. Members of the Red Dog family formed a promotional company named The Family Dog and took their business to the Haigh-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
The Family Dog's first act was to host A Tribute to Dr. Strange at the Longshoreman's Hall on October 16, 1965. It was the first full-blown psychedelic rock performance ever held, featuring Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society, and The Marbles. The Family Dog put on two more such shows before the season was out.
The Trips Festival of January 21–23, 1966 set things on another plane. Also held at the Longshoreman's Hall, it received upwards of 10,000 participants. Featured acts included Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead. The punch was spiked with LSD.
The Longshoreman's Hall, the Fillmore, and the Avalon Ballroom all became staple venues for the evolving scene.
By now, with the San Francisco Sound in full gear and the Psychedelic Era truly taking root, artists started making music specifically to amplify the LSD experience. This might sound criminally reckless to modern readers, but the participants of the time had a different perspective. For them, LSD was a doorway into a richer experience of life and expanded levels of consciousness. It was nothing short of instant enlightenment. It was also just a hell of a gas.
Before going on about music amplifying the trip, our terms need to be clarified. In his course The History of Rock, University of Rochester's Professor John Covach does this succinctly.
Pretty much from the start, Covach explains, the LSD experience was likened to "tripping," or going on a journey. To this day the term remains ubiquitous to the drug, and can be found in multiple songs, from the Beatles' "Day Tripper" to the Doors' "The Soft Parade." Sample lyrics:
This the best part of the trip
This is the trip, the best part
I really like
The music, as well as the light show and tribal atmosphere of the Family Dog's shows, was meant to heighten the trip. This notion didn't stay within the walls of the Longshoreman's Hall or the Avalon Ballroom for long, though. Rather quickly, songs like "White Rabbit" appeared, with blatant drug references and a rising, hypnotic sound mimicking the "peaking" experience of LSD.
A distinct divide was soon drawn between the teeny bopper music of radio and the underground psychedelic sound coming from the Haight. Though the mainstream hadn't yet caught on, musical ambitions were growing larger and weirder than they'd ever been before, and their tie-dyed tentacles would soon grow to cradle the entirety of the popular music world.
The Dead, the Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service
No band better exemplified the spirit of the Haight-Ashbury than the Grateful Dead. The improvisational live performances they became famous for were extrapolated from those early San Francisco psychedelic shows.
Dead lyricist Robert Hunter was on a Rimbaud-inspired vision quest, and his words aspired to the great poetry of the ages. Hunter later admitted the shortcomings of drug-induced enlightenment, but for a time, he took the visionary experience of LSD seriously.
Songs like "China Cat Sunflower" were obviously concerned with LSD (though Hunter never came out and said so), but it was songs such as "St. Stephen" that more subtly conveyed the psychedelic scene's quest for a spiritual experience more direct than the one offered by the church.
"Truckin'" was an anthem for the freewheeling, rootless existence that became part of psychedelic culture, with the double-entendre of "What a long strange trip it's been." Similarly, "Sugar Magnolia" chronicles the back-to-nature simplicity idealized by the hippies.
"Dark Star," meanwhile, summarizes where the Dead and the psychedelic scene was coming from. With T.S. Eliot-inspired lyrics full of mystery and intimations of something Earth-shatteringly profound just below the surface, the song exemplifies the potential that the counterculture perceived in their music.
Quicksilver Messenger Service was a staple band of the scene, though they never broke through commercially or achieved the cult status of the Dead.
In terms of impact on the broader music scene, no San Francisco act was bigger than Jefferson Airplane. They headlined many of those psychedelic shows, and on February 1, 1967, they released a landmark psychedelic album, Surrealistic Pillow, which included psychedelic staples like "She Has Funny Cars," "Embryonic Journey," and, of course, "Somebody To Love."
Outside the Haight
While the Haight-Ashbury was the cosmic hub of the psychedelic scene, there were also things happening outside of it.
In Austin, Texas, Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators (who toured California and the Haight in spring 1966) were crafting their own LSD-infused sound. "Postures (Leave Your Body Behind)" may embody the spirit of the "trip song" better than any other tune out there, as it guides listeners through their acid trip and encourages them to detach their psyche completely from their body. The Elevators' lyricist Tommy Hall was a devoted LSD philosopher (a 2009 interview found him still psychedelic after all these years).
A few hours away from San Francisco, in Los Angeles, the Doors were exploring a whole different side of psychedelia. They drew their name from an early book on psychedelics, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, which itself drew from a line from visionary poet William Blake. The Doors explored the darker side of human nature and the shadow of the tie-dyed Haight scene.
Doors frontman Jim Morrison likened himself to a tribal shaman as he entered a trance state onstage. "Break On Through (To the Other Side)" was an anthem for heads of that time (though Morrison was dodgy about the song's implications). "The End," meanwhile, explored Freudian and literary themes with an artistic ambition that had rarely if ever been explored in popular music before. It might not be distinctly LSD oriented, but the dark weirdness and high ambition of the song definitely owe to The Doors being opened up by the drug.
Across the sea from San Francisco, bands like Pink Floyd were also experimenting with LSD. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was a landmark in psychedelic music. Their songs "Astronomy Domine" and "Interstellar Overdrive" exemplify the madness of the LSD experience, as well as the increased interested in astrology and esotericism that came from the drug's influence on culture.
Pink Floyd turned towards a more professional sound following the loss of Syd Barrett, but they continued exploring psychedelic themes. Really, there may be no band that refined the genre more expertly than Floyd. As a side note of interest, "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" was an ode to Syd Barrett, the Pink Floyd frontman from those strange early years, and along with Roky Erickson, one of the era's LSD casualties.
There were too many Psychedelic Era acts to include them all here, but what drew them together was a deliberate desire to make music to amplify the LSD trip. The music, the drug, and the counterculture gave them a new sense of the possibilities of music.
The Top 40 wasn't enough. The music had to stand up in the infinite. No longer satisfied with being the hit of the week, musicians sought to make music for the ages.
Beatles, Beach Boys, and Stones
In 1965, the Beatles had what John Lennon called their "pot album," with Rubber Soul. It was a groundbreaking work, yet was only a hint of what was to come once the Beatles got their hands on LSD.
John Lennon and George Harrison, along with their wives, were the first band members to take the drug, after dentist John Riley slipped some into their after-dinner coffee. The experience was initially very unpleasant. "It was as if we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a horror film," Cynthia Lennon recalled.
Both Beatles were furious over being unwittingly dosed. While they'd expressed some degree of curiosity in LSD in the past, they were wary of the drug's damaging reputation. They left the Riley's house in a rage and headed to Leicester Square's Ad Lib club. Once there, they freaked out after thinking that the elevator they were in was on fire.
Things mellowed out once they got to their table, and a profound experience slowly took hold. Harrison told Rolling Stone, "I had such an overwhelming feeling of well-being, that there was a God, and I could see him in every blade of grass. It was like gaining hundreds of years of experience in 12 hours."
Lennon and Harrison went on to experiment with LSD more often. Lennon, particularly, developed a taste for the drug – so much so that it came to seriously threaten his mental health. Eventually, Ringo Starr also partook. McCartney was last to try it, and did so only after a long period of resistance. "Day Tripper" can be seen as Lennon's teasing of McCartney for his fears.
LSD's effect on Lennon and Harrison led both of the men on the path towards Indian philosophy and notions about the illusory nature of life. These revelations quickly seeped into their music with the album Revolver, one of the Beatles' great masterpieces.
Those new perspectives of Lennon and Harrison are nowhere more evident than in "Tomorrow Never Knows," which Lennon called his "first psychedelic song." Another track, "I Want to Tell You," touches on the difficulties Harrison was having expressing this wild new range of thoughts.
Revolver led to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, possibly the most influential popular music album ever made. It set a new standard for the degree of studio work that could tastefully be done on an album. It also incorporated non-rock-influences, such as classical music, in inventive ways. Pepper's marked the clearest declaration yet that popular music was now officially the stuff of high art.
The Rolling Stones felt they had to respond to Sgt. Pepper's, and they did so, somewhat disastrously, with Their Satanic Majesties Request (which may have been inspired by actual Satanism as much or more than LSD).
Satanic Majesties has earned a better reception since its 1967 release, and some critics have even come to laud it. At the time, though, many wrote it off as a pale, derivative attempt to copy the Beatles. With songs like "She's a Rainbow," it struck critics and public alike as an insincere attempt to hump the success of psychedelic music.
The album was crucial in the band's evolution, however, as it showed the Stones what they didn't want to do. In 1968, they really stepped into their own with Beggar's Banquet. As Covach observes, "This is the Rolling Stones that we really think of as being the group that they developed in to the 1970s."
So, even if the Stones could never be rightfully called a psychedelic band, psychedelia did help shape their sound in a reactionary sort of way.
The Beach Boys, meanwhile, were unequivocally effected by LSD. Brian Wilson first heard the music for "California Girls" while on his acid trip. The band's sound, as well as Wilson's obsessive studio work which led to the doomed Smile sessions, were all heavily shaped by Wilson's LSD use.
But the drug also nearly destroyed him and the band. Years later, he said, "I've told a lot of people, don't take psychedelic drugs. It's mentally dangerous to take. I regret having taken LSD. It's a bad drug."
Wilson's take is a sober reminder of the flipside of this story, but it doesn't detract from the fact that, for better or worse, LSD played a critical role in the music of the '60s. Whether it was the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury scene or the elder statesmen that were the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones, the drug indelibly shaped popular music.
For the experienced, the tunes were trips into higher consciousness and unimaginable kicks. To the uninitiated, things had just gotten inexplicably bizarre. Regardless, in one form or another, no one with a radio was spared.
Liquid Enlightenment Sees No Color
In the 1960s, music was still starkly divided along color lines. There was "white music" and there was "black music," and rarely did the two mingle. Similarly, the LSD-fueled music and culture revolution was initially isolated to middle-class white kids. This would quickly change.
George, Joe, Lester, and Willie Chambers were four brothers from a family of 13 siblings. Born and raised as sharecroppers in Carthage, Mississippi, they grew up performing gospel music at church and family gatherings. They continued this tradition even after moving to the radically different environment of Los Angeles. The band backed Bob Dylan and performed plenty of rock and roll, but they always considered gospel to be their core. Their conservative religious roots, however, didn't change an acid-crazed declaration of psychedelic revolution from becoming their most successful calling card.
"Time Has Come Today" came about after Joe Chambers attended a Timothy Leary lecture on LSD at UCLA. According to Willie Chambers, Joe experienced LSD that day (it's not clear if it was administered directly by Leary, which crazy as it sounds is actually a possibility because Leary legally conducted LSD experiments at universities before becoming a wandering prophet of the drug) and wrote most of the lyrics for "Time Has Come Today."
The Chambers Brothers were already part of the hippie scene by this point. Willie Chambers remembers it well and fondly. "The hippie thing," Chambers told Songfacts, "that was one of the greatest times we will ever experience. I don't think any of us living today will experience anything like that again. There was the Roaring '20s that we all heard about, but then came the '60s, the hippies. The hippies consisted of young, wealthy, white kids who walked away from their assurances because they couldn't' understand what their parents were trying to each them, and they didn't want to know."
Willie contributed one line to the song, but it was the most iconic of them all – "My soul has been psychedelicized."
Just as the Chambers came out of a gospel traditional, a young fellow named Jimi Hendrix started out in the blues. Born on November 27, 1942 in Seattle, Washington, Hendrix revolutionized American music in just 27 years of life. He was also the most prominent black face in the psychedelic "hippie" revolution.
When Hendrix performed a psychedelic version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, the song was received as something much more than a novelty or a cutesy little bit of intentional irony. It was a political and spiritual statement that "something new has come." Whether or not that movement had any real long-term influence (as well as whether or not that influence was positive or negative), the statement sounds as powerful today as it ever did before. While the politics and the philosophy of the time are debatable, the raw emotional optimism is not.
George Clinton didn't invent funk, but by bringing psychedelic elements into the sound with his Parliament-Funkadelic, he steered its evolution more than any other artist in the genre's history. For a time, the hippies had the Haight and the black musicians had Motown, but those worlds eventually collided, and Clinton did more to steer that head-on collision than just about anyone else.
"The trendy chemical substance of the time was LSD," Clinton told Songfacts. "Right up until like, '72 or '73, was when we stopped doing that. But that was the era."
Clinton-powered songs like "Atomic Dog" and "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)" shook up the airwaves and underground music scene alike with a dose (pun intended) of wild weirdness and soulful liberation. The songs were often political, but this was a different sort of politics than anyone had ever seen before. For Clinton and for funk, the fight wasn't about winning or losing elections - it was about total revolution of the psyche itself, breaking free of the norms and creating one's own space in the world.
The Chambers Brothers contributed a rallying cry for their generation. Hendrix and Clinton altered the musical landscape forever. Their work is still regularly cited as a formative influence among countless new musicians. These and many other black musicians showed the world what happens when you bring LSD to Motown, Memphis blues, and Mississippi gospel.
The Psychedelic Sound Resounds
To the eternal regret of many, the '60s eventually ended, and with them the Psychedelic Era.
Some say it was over the day "Helter Skelter"-obsessed hippies went on a murderous rampage in the Los Angeles hills. Others say it ended the moment the Hells Angels stabbed Meredith Hunter to death while the Stones played "Under My Thumb" at Altamont. Some others say it was dead before the Summer of Love began, a zombie already hollowed and soulless long before Woodstock was anything more than an anonymous mountain town secretly full of rock stars.
Whatever the date of psychedelia's death, its ghost persisted. Even as musicians and audiences alike moved on to new drugs and new sounds, the general elevation of conversation continued. Music continued to mean a great deal to the audiences of the early '70s.
Important bridges were made. Led Zeppelin, especially, carried the psychedelic influence into new territories. With the surreal poetry of songs like "Stairway To Heaven," Zeppelin portrayed a sensibility that was distinctly psychedelic, even as they gave it a harder edge.
The LSD influence is even more obvious in forefathers of heavy metal such as Iron Butterfly ("In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida") and Steppenwolf ("Magic Carpet Ride").
Whether metal, progressive, or some other genre, the exploratory sounds of the '60s splintered off into different specializations in the '70s. Even bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, which went in the opposite direction towards roots and simplicity, did so in reaction to the general evolution of the music.
By the time the '80s rolled around, there were so many amalgamations and reactions-to-reactions tangled together that it became difficult to draw clear lines of influence in the music. Still, however difficult any particular example may be to define, in one way or another LSD's warped tendrils reached into every nook and cranny of popular music.
The Psychedelic Era was a unique time in music and cultural history. There'll probably never be another era where music so intimately shaped the times, or where a specific drug so intimately shaped the music. If you think that statement's hyperbolic, give "Horse Latitudes" a listen and get back to me.
February 27, 2018
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