Psychedelia and Other Colours by Rob Chapman

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My mother thought well enough of The Beatles in the 1960s to buy two of their albums—Beatles For Sale and Help!—and she continued to enjoy the Fab Four’s songs up to the point when (in her words) “they went funny”, by which she meant the period after Rubber Soul when they dropped the beat stylings, picked up sitars and took to recording drums and guitars in reverse. They were also taking drugs, of course, hence the funniness, and this rapid evolution—from loveable moptops to freaked-out weirdos in a matter of months—is the subject of Rob Chapman’s huge study of psychedelia as a cultural phenomenon, the period from around mid-1965 to late 1969 when Western youth “went funny” en masse.

This isn’t an undocumented era but Chapman’s book provides an overdue counterweight to the American focus of earlier studies such as Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987). Psychedelic art evolved in San Francisco but it’s an irony of the form that many of the wildest, most typically psychedelic concert posters were promoting acts that were only marginally psychedelic in their sound or, in the case of the older jazz, soul and blues acts, weren’t psychedelic at all. Chapman is more interested in the multi-media light shows than the poster art, and he reaches back in his early chapters to the origin of the San Francisco light shows in the avant-garde art of the Modernist era (especially László Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator of the 1920s) and the art schools of the 1950s; he also traces the familiar journey of LSD from the Sandoz laboratories in Switzerland and the clinics of America to the front pages of newspapers and magazines. One of the most remarkable and unlikely aspects of psychedelia was the way in which a short-lived poly-cultural phenomenon maintained an aura of danger and illegality late into the 1960s even while psychedelic aesthetics were filtering into every facet of mainstream life: films, fashion, decor, advertising, even children’s television—all bloomed briefly with vivid colours and melting typography.

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Playboy gets hip to the trip, December 1967. Art by Wes Wilson.

Chapman touches on all of this but the bulk of his study is concerned with the music which was always the core of psychedelic culture, even if many of the artists involved were only following a trend (or, to be less charitable, jumping on a bandwagon). American groups are given their due, and Chapman has some smart things to say about the often neglected surf boom of the early 60s; as noted here last month, the first piece of popular music to use “LSD” in its title was LSD-25 (1960), a surf instrumental by The Gamblers. Surf bands and garage bands mutated into psychedelic groups but there was often little change in the overall sound beyond adding an effect or two to the instrumentation. Adulterated or processed sound is what I usually look for in psychedelic music, the psychedelic experience being one of distorted or exaggerated perception. Adulteration (or lack of it) is the most obvious factor that differentiates American psych from its British equivalent: White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane is a great song (its final line is fixed to every page of this blog) but is psychedelic only as a result of its lyrical context. Musically, the song is a simple rock bolero next to which Strawberry Fields Forever sounds like a broadcast from another planet.

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Oz magazine online

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Oz 4. Cover art by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat.

From a television series out of time to a magazine very much of its time. The Prisoner and Oz magazine are exact contemporaries: issue 4 of Oz (June 1967) would have been on sale when Patrick McGoohan and co. were busy turning Portmeirion into The Village. In the past anyone interested in Oz had to either scour eBay for expensive paper copies or content themselves with the incomplete scans made available several years ago. But no longer, thanks to the University of Wollongong and editor Richard Neville who have made the entire run available as downloadable PDFs. These are much better quality than the previously available copies, and they also have poster inserts available as separate downloads. The wonderful set of Tarot designs created by the late Martin Sharp for issue 4 were faded and torn in the old scans so it’s a real pleasure to see this and other artwork looking so good.

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Tarot designs from Oz 4 by Martin Sharp.

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Weekend links 176

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This week PingMag was looking at Czech film posters. This one by Bedrich Dlouhy is for the belated 1970 release of Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

• In October Alison Goldfrapp curates an exhibition for The Lowry, Salford, featuring her favourite art. Examples will include work by Leonora Carrington, Lotte Reiniger and Henry Darger so I’ll definitely be seeing this one. The new Goldfrapp album, Tales of Us, is released this week. Alison Goldfrapp & Lisa Gunning’s film for Annabel is here.

Michael Glover profiles artist Tom Phillips who has a new show of his paintings at the Flowers Gallery, London. The indefatigable Phillips also talked to Tracy McVeigh about his design for the new 50 pence coin which celebrates the centenary of Benjamin Britten.

Get Carter director Mike Hodges remembers re-teaming with Michael Caine for the island-set crime thriller Pulp, and shares a letter that JG Ballard wrote to him in admiration of the film.

Dismantling the surveillance state won’t be easy. Has any country that engaged in mass surveillance of its own citizens voluntarily given up that capability? Has any mass surveillance country avoided becoming totalitarian? Whatever happens, we’re going to be breaking new ground.

Bruce Schneier on how to deal with the total surveillance state.

• Babel/Salvage presents The Midnight Channel, the newest montage of poetry by Evan J. Peterson, inspired by cinema of the horrific, fantastic and bizarre.

• Mixes of the week are from composer Amanda Feery at The Outer Church, and Pinkcourtesyphone (Richard Chartier) at Secret Thirteen.

• At Dangerous Minds: Kimberly J. Bright on the psychedelic poster art of Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Related: LSD may not be bad for you, says study.

Queer Zines: a 400-page study edited by AA Bronson & Philip Aarons.

• Justin Abraham Linds on The Walt Whitman of gay porn.

• Designs for theatre and print by Oskar Schlemmer.

Beautiful Mars: a Tumblr.

Catleidoscope!

• Goldfrapp: Lovely Head (2000) | Strict Machine (2003) | Caravan Girl (2008)

My White Bicycle

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My White Bicycle (1967), poster by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Too risqué for EMI.

In what passes here for spare time I’ve been working on a private project that concerns events in London during a single week in 1967. I won’t elaborate for now but the research has been fun, and has led down byways where it’s easy to get lost in a profusion of historic detail. The International Times archive is a great time-sink if you want to see London’s psychedelic culture evolving from one week to the next. Oz magazine covered much of the same ground but in broader strokes; IT being a weekly paper was the closest thing the underground of the time had to a journal of record which means you’ll find things there which weren’t reported anywhere else.

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International Times, Volume 1, issue 13, 19/05/1967.

A brief item about a poster for the debut single by Tomorrow caught my eye, the artwork being an early piece by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat (Michael English and Nigel Waymouth) who we here discover were briefly known by another name:

MY WHITE BICYCLE

EMI join the long and growing list of those self-censors who still believe that the younger generation are going to continue to support them. The above poster for the Tomorrow record, MY WHITE BICYCLE, was rejected by EMI on the grounds that the titties might provoke “complaints from certain organizations…” So Jacob and the Coloured Coat (Mick English and Nigel Weymouth [sic]) put on their crocheted boots and manufactured a poster design from every phallic image they could. Subliminal pornography triumphed where open indecency had failed and the prick within sustains where the exposed breast falters.

Tomorrow were one of the first British psychedelic bands. My White Bicycle is their most memorable song but the rest of their self-titled debut album still holds up today. Ace guitarist Steve Howe became a lot more famous in Yes a few years later, while drummer Twink was in a host of bands in the late 60s and early 70s, Hawkwind included. My White Bicycle sounds superficially like a typical piece of psych whimsy à la Pink Floyd’s Bike (both songs were recorded at Abbey Road) but according to Twink there’s an anarchist subtext:

“My White Bicycle” was written out of what was actually going on in Amsterdam. One of the owners of Granny Takes a Trip, Nigel Weymouth [sic], had gone there and come back with a Provos badge which he gave to me. They were kind of like a student anarchist group that believed everything should be free. In fact, they had white bicycles in Amsterdam and they used to leave them around the town. And if you were going somewhere and you needed to use a bike, you’d just take the bike and you’d go somewhere and just leave it. Whoever needed the bikes would take them and leave them when they were done.

What would have been dismissed as pure utopianism now looks like prescience when bike-sharing schemes have become a reality. As to the redrawn poster, there’s a copy here which is described as very rare, hence its absence from other Hapshash galleries. Not really as phallic as the IT report implies; Aubrey Beardsley got away with a lot more priapic subterfuge in the 1890s when the strictures were also more severe.

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My White Bicycle (1967), the replacement poster by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat.

On the same page of IT there’s a brief announcement that The Beatles will have a new album out in June, something entitled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That album also gave EMI a headache with both Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and A Day In The Life being accused by “certain organisations” of promoting drugs. If the record company could have seen the greater headache that was coming less than ten years later from Malcolm McLaren and his King’s Road scallywags they might not have been so uptight.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Hapshash Takes a Trip
Michael English, 1941–2009
The Look presents Nigel Waymouth
The New Love Poetry

Weekend links 73

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Johnny Trunk of Trunk Records reissued the soundtrack to The Wicker Man in 1997. Mr Trunk’s latest delve into the cultural past is Own Label: Sainsbury’s Design Studio, a book from Fuel examining the supermarket chain’s packaging design of the 1960s and 1970s. Creative Review shows some examples while I have to note the uncanny similarity between one of the posters for The Wicker Man and an old Sainsbury’s corn flakes box. Now we see that the Old Weird Britain wasn’t only hiding in the fields and the folk songs but was also lurking on the supermarket shelves.

Related: a new DVD set from the BFI, Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow: A Century of Folk Customs and Ancient Rural Games. And let’s not forget the ley lines of Milton Keynes, and a new edition of Ritual by David Pinner, said to be the novel which inspired The Wicker Man.

• “He wrote me…” Sans Soleil (1983), Chris Marker’s beguiling accumulation of memories, dreams and reflections, is recalled in a Quietus piece entitled Things that Quicken the Heart. Not the first time on DVD as it says there (Nouveaux Pictures released it with La Jetée in 2003) but it’s good to know it’s being reissued.

• Marker’s film references Tarkovsky’s Stalker a couple of times, most notably in the comment, “On that day there will be emus in the Zone.” Geoff Dyer has what he describes as “a very detailed study” of Stalker out next year.

I don’t like those commentators who keep on saying that London will never be the same again. London is always the same again. I remember those comments were made very loudly after the [July 2005] terrorist attacks – “London will never be the same again, London has lost its innocence” – it was all nonsense. London was exactly the same again the following day. Rioting has always been a London tradition. It has been since the early Middle Ages. There’s hardly a spate of years that goes by without violent rioting of one kind or another. They happen so frequently that they are almost part of London’s texture. The difference is that in the past the violence was more ferocious, and the penalties were more ferocious – in most cases, death.

Peter Ackroyd, reminding us that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse don’t wear hoodies and ride bikes.

Wolf Fifth: “rare vinyl records from the golden era of avant garde and experimental music”. And in FLAC as well, not crappy mp3; I want to hear all those scratches uncompressed, dammit!

Another great mix at FACT, this time compiled by snd who throw together Morton Feldman, Siberian shamen, Einstürzende Neubauten, Dome, Oval and many others.

• Colin Marshall asks “how weird is Australia?” in an appraisal of Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.

A Comprehensive Solution to the Tokyo Umbrella Problem.

• More poster art from Hapshash and the Coloured Coat.

Morbid Excess, a series of drawings by May Lim.

Conrad Schnitzler (1937–2011) by Geeta Dayal.

Neopolitan cephalopods.

Willow’s Song (1973) by Paul Giovanni & Magnet | The Willow Song (1989) by The Mock Turtles | Wicker Man Song (1994) by Nature and Organisation.