What the hell is psychedelia exactly, and where on Earth did it come from? Both are very good questions and not necessarily easy ones to answer. Alas, if we start at the top and trip our way backwards, the author Ken Kesey wrote around the dawn of the era: “People don’t want other people to get high, because if you get high, you might see the falsity of the fabric of the society we live in.” And while that might seem a little misguided or somewhat grandiose, it is pertinent to mention it because he was a very influential voice in the period.
Part of the reason for this spiritual chatter catching on in a hurry, particularly in the States, was because, in 1963, the patent for LSD expired. There was a three-year period after that where the drug was legal and, although it seems very un-sixties-like to mention admin, it was this logistical oversight that defined an era as the kaleidoscopic headwind of acid blurred the zeitgeist in a tie-die hue of peace, love and utter psychedelic mayhem. The post-war promise of a scientific fix was waning, and every alternative being offered was snaffled up.
On the surface, the little-known band the 13th Floor Elevators are the unheralded pioneers of psychedelic rock following this acid-reflux. In fact, the first known use of the term actually appeared on a business card they had printed in January 1966, and the group’s electric jug player, Tommy Hall, is credited with coining the phrase. While business cards might not be in keeping with the oeuvre of psychedelia, every other kaleidoscopic, slightly maddening, acid-soaked trope is already present in their Promethean work.
Unlike other coined terms, whereby the genre passes through various permutations before the coinage finds the style that it becomes eponymous with, when it comes to psychedelia it was born sprinting and didn’t have time to undergo transmutation before finding its feet. This, however, did mean that it quickly bled into other genres and began the march towards prog pretty quickly itself, blurring the definition of the genre into a flashpoint in time with frayed edges.
While ostensibly this means that it simply erupted overnight when the acid started to drop at some point in the 1960s, there’s a school of thought that its origins are, in fact, as primordial as sound itself. If that seems like hippie-dippy-wackadoodle-talk then you ought to get with the programme and wise up with the genre we’re talking about here.
The pace of its emergence is one of the main elements that gives credence to the primordial nature that many hippies speak of. As Graham Coxon recently mentioned to us regarding its almost-incantation mimicking nature, “I like the idea of music being contemplative and very rhythmic, to serve as a vehicle to a sort of trance, rather like the way Pink Floyd used to with organ solos on stuff like ‘Saucerful of Secrets’.” The idea of rhythmic repetition bringing about some exalted mindset is something that links right back to West African Voodoo (Vodu) and, as a main influence on the blues, this notion offers a nice circular narrative of popular music returning to its roots in a weird way in the sixties.
This humming search for an altered state, however, is not the only thing that links it to the past; the musicology itself has links that stretch well beyond the birth of popular culture. In fact, when the Suli inventor and poet, Amir Khusrow, made the first sitar in an ancient Indian village over 400 years ago, there is no way that he could have envisioned the serpentine path that it would weave through musical history to become one of the most influential instruments of all time.
Initially, the sitar was confined to the realm of Hindustani music. Then –inspired to wander the world aimlessly in search of nothing in particular by beat literature – beatniks, hippies and the occasional recently divorced Geography teacher, waved a middle finger to the suburbs and clambered aboard a spiritual bandwagon weaving a path to the answer-chocked lands of the past in Nepal and India. This was the start of the sitar’s rise.
From the sitar’s beginnings in a land that seems older than time, it floated its way into the acid laden language of the counterculture movement. Peace, love and pretty things were in the air, and no instrument embodied this quite like the ubiquitous presence of the great Indian overture. Sadly, this is now often bleached out in the wash of the sixties tie-dye swirl as no more than a colourful footnote. It resides in the aeons of rock history as a snapshot in the corner of the room or as some crossed-legged tableau of hippy pretence, but in truth, it changed music indefinitely.
The hefty instrument typically has 18 strings and 20 moveable frets, which allows for an amorphous melodic sound with the frets creating a sonorous humming undercurrent. When listened to live, in isolation, it is easy to see how George Harrison and the likes were seduced into the oeuvre of its mystic beguiling. It undoubtedly has spiritual depth to the sound, which was the main factor that endeared it to the mindful milieu of the era. It also helps that it’s got the look – you don’t casually yield a sitar if you’re not plugged into the ether, dude.
And while the glossy-eyed nature of psychedelia might well be seen as tongue-in-cheek, there is academia that suggests that great aural hum that comes from the sitar and echoes right through the sonic realm of popular music, is an attempt to recreate the groovy roar of the universe or the peaceful din of the womb. And while all this sort of academia might seem a bit pretentious or misplaced amid the party of Woodstock, in actual fact, this sort of chat in the clambering cacophony of the sixties spread like wildfire.
As George Harrison once famously declared, “Ravi was my link into the Vedic world. Ravi plugged me into the whole of reality. I mean, I met Elvis—Elvis impressed me when I was a kid, and impressed me when I met him because of the buzz of meeting Elvis, but you couldn’t later on go round to him and say, ‘Elvis, what’s happening in the universe?’” The fact of the matter is, psychedelia was the sixties attempt to part the tumultuous clouds that came with the turmoil and reach someplace beyond, whatever the hell that is…
Alas, if that hasn’t cleared anything up, then you can read more about its defining anthem ‘White Rabbit’ here, and besides, it’s all about the music anyway; thus, we’ve created a playlist of 40 ultimate psychedelic anthems (never repeating the same artist twice).
The 40 ultimate psychedelia anthems through the ages:
- ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ by The Beatles
- ‘Somebody to Love’ by Jefferson Airplane
- ‘Riders on the Storm’ by The Doors
- ‘The Four Horsemen’ by Aphrodite’s Child
- ‘See Emily Play’ by Pink Floyd
- ‘Are You Experienced?’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
- ‘Talking About the Good Times’ by The Pretty Things
- ‘Eight Miles High’ by The Byrds
- ‘Time of the Season’ by The Zombies
- ‘Child in Time’ by Deep Purple
- ‘Nights In White Satin’ by The Moody Blues
- ‘White Room’ by Cream
- ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ by 13th Floor Elevators
- ‘Good Dancer’ by The Sleepy Jackson
- ‘Time (You and I)’ by Khruangbin
- ‘Holy Horses’ by Temples
- ‘Sense’ by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard
- ‘Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)’ by Unknown Mortal Orchestra
- ‘Trouble In The Streets’ by Goat
- ‘Something New’ by Babe Rainbow
- ‘I Won’t Hurt You’ by West Coast Pop Art Experiment
- ‘She’s A Rainbow’ by The Rolling Stones
- ‘Alone Again Or’ by Love
- ‘Holy Are You’ by The Electric Prunes
- ‘Aquarius / Let The Sunshine In’ by The 5th Dimension
- ‘For Your Love’ by The Yardbirds
- ‘Dark Star’ by Grateful Dead
- ‘Planet Caravan’ by Black Sabbath
- ‘Once I Was’ by Tim Buckley
- ‘Summer in the City’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful
- ‘I Can See For Miles’ by The Who
- ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition Is In)’ by Kenny Rodgers & The First Edition
- ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ by Vanilla Fudge
- ‘Peaches in Regalia’ by Frank Zappa
- ‘Venus in Furs’ by the Velvet Underground
- ‘Observatory Crest’ by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
- ‘Fire’ by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
- ‘Without Her’ by Harry Nilsson
- ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ by King Crimson
- ‘Conquistador’ by Procol Harum