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.
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.