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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Us Down By The Riverside, a film by Jud Yalkut

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More psychedelic freakery from American filmmaker Jud Yalkut. Us Down By The Riverside (1966) is short and sweet: three minutes of acid visuals accompanied by a muddy recording of The Beatles playing Tomorrow Never Knows. Groovy. For a very different take on John Lennon’s psych-out, see the penultimate episode of cartoon show, The Beatles.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Turn, Turn, Turn, a film by Jud Yalkut
Mothlight, a film by Stan Brakhage
Walter Ruttmann’s abstract cinema
7362, a film by Pat O’Neill
Here and There, a film by Andrzej Pawlowski
Power Spot by Michael Scroggins
Kusama’s Self-Obliteration, a film by Jud Yalkut
OffOn by Scott Bartlett
The Flow III
Chris Parks
Len Lye
Matrix III by John Whitney
Symphonie Diagonale by Viking Eggeling
Mary Ellen Bute: Films 1934–1957
Norman McLaren
John Whitney’s Catalog
Arabesque by John Whitney
Moonlight in Glory
Jordan Belson on DVD
Ten films by Oskar Fischinger
Lapis by James Whitney

Spare things

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Cthulhu Cultus: The Sun is Sick (no date) by Austin Osman Spare.

I’ve been telling people about this drawing for years but I’ve not posted it here before. Spare produced this piece after Kenneth Grant gave him some of HP Lovecraft’s stories to read. I’ve never seen it dated but it’s probably from the mid-50s when Kenneth and Steffi Grant were corresponding with Spare and commissioning new artworks. What’s notable for me is that this is probably the first Lovecraft-derived drawing that wasn’t either a magazine or book illustration, or something done for one of the horror fanzines.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1987) by John Coulthart.

Lovecraft aficionados have never seemed aware of Spare’s drawing since Lovecraft studies tended until very recently to remain fixed on popular media and the often parochial world of genre fandom. When I came to draw the swamp scene for The Call of Cthulhu in 1987 I borrowed the faces from Spare’s pillar for the column in the centre of the picture.

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Bulldog Breed.

While we’re on the subject, and in the spirit of showing how all the obsessions here connect in one way or another, Phil Baker’s excellent biography of Austin Spare notes a surprising reference to the artist that predates Man, Myth and Magic via the psychedelic music scene. Bulldog Breed were a short-lived London group, one of many being promoted by the Deram label in the late 1960s. The group’s one-and-only album, Made In England, was released in 1969. The cover art is dreadful but the final song is a number entitled Austin Osmanspare [sic], a paean to the artist that turns AOS into a typical character from British psychedelia: an eccentric, oddly named, Victorian type with a sinister and mysterious glamour. According to Baker one of the band members had an aunt who knew Spare. It’s not a bad song, and the choice of magus gave them an edge over the Beatles who went for the more obvious Aleister Crowley. “They said he was before his time…”

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dreaming Out of Space: Kenneth Grant on HP Lovecraft
MMM in IT
Intertextuality
Abrahadabra
The Occult Explosion
Murmur Become Ceaseless and Myriad
Kenneth Grant, 1924–2011
New Austin Spare grimoires
Austin Spare absinthe
Austin Spare’s Behind the Veil
Austin Osman Spare

Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part Two

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Carnaby Street circa 1967.

Continuing the psychedelic mega-mix based on Jon Savage’s list of “100 mind-expanding masterpieces” (see this post). The second of the six mixes is where British psychedelia is in full swing after shedding its R&B/Mod/Freakbeat origins: what was black-and-white a year before is now blazing colour. There’s much I enjoy about US psychedelic music but I’ve always favoured the British variety. The sound of US psychedelia is less adulterated than its British equivalent, and even the later examples are often little more than country or folks songs with suitably dreamy lyrics. The gravitational mass of The Beatles so overwhelmed the UK scene that the experimentation at Abbey Road was endlessly copied and refined by the younger groups, some of whom—like Pink Floyd and The Pretty Things—were working in the same studio with the same engineers.

It’s the adulteration of the sound that I enjoy, the audacity of recording an orchestra at great expense then feeding the result through a phaser, as Nirvana (UK) did on Rainbow Chaser. (See next week’s mix). The Who’s Armenia In The Sky is an excellent example of studio pyrotechnics. Pete Townshend had complained that some of The Beatles’ arrangements were slight so this song can be regarded as his riposte. At the end of the mix the Fab Four fire back with I Am The Walrus.

Everything here dates from 1967, and as before the listing is roughly chronological bold type indicating the selections from the Savage 100. Given the choice I’d take See Emily Play over Mathilda Mother—the former being a particular favourite—but Savage’s choice works very well as a melodic come-down after the cosmic racket of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. David McWilliams’ one-hit-wonder is an odd choice and not especially psychedelic but once again I defer to Savage’s selection. The Kinks are also notable by their absence although they never adopted any of the studio trickery that might have spoiled their exceptional songwriting.

UK Psychedelia, Part Two by Feuilleton on Mixcloud

The Fairytale — Guess I Was Dreaming (An obscure single that can be taken as being about dreams, drugs or both.)
The Rolling Stones — We Love You
The Small Faces — Itchycoo Park
The Jimi Hendrix Experience — Radio One
The Jimi Hendrix Experience — The Stars That Play With Laughing Sam’s Dice
Pink Floyd — Mathilda Mother
Traffic — Hole In My Shoe (Their other great psychedelic single.)
The Who — Armenia In The Sky (The Savage 100 has Relax but this is much more tripped out with surreal lyrics flying through squalls of backwards guitar.)
The Herd — From The Underworld
Svensk — Dream Magazine
Dantalian’s Chariot — Madman Running Through The Fields
Kaleidoscope (UK) — Flight From Ashiya
The 23rd Turnoff — Michaelangelo
The Hollies — King Midas In Reverse
David McWilliams — The Days Of Pearly Spencer
The Idle Race — Imposters Of Life’s Magazine
Eric Burdon & The Animals — San Franciscan Nights
The Troggs — Love Is All Around
Family — Scene Through The Eye Of A Lens (Savage has Me My Friend from their first album. This substitute is a mini-epic that was their first single.)
The Accent — Red Sky At Night (Their only release, and a song that turns up on many compilations.)
Simon Dupree & The Big Sound — Kites
The Pretty Things — Defecting Grey
Tintern Abbey — Vacuum Cleaner
The Beatles — I Am The Walrus

Previously on { feuilleton }
Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part One
What Is A Happening?
My White Bicycle
Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake
Tomorrow Never Knows
The Dukes declare it’s 25 O’Clock!
A splendid time is guaranteed for all

Listen to the Colour of Your Dreams: Part One

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Blame these things: the Jon Savage booklet, and Mojo Presents Acid Drops, Spacedust & Flying Saucers (design by Phillip Savill).

One of the commissions for the New Year is psychedelia-related so to get in the mood I’ve been listening to the six CD compilations of psychedelic songs I made some years ago. I must have spent about five years gathering everything on these discs which comprise 132 selections in all, three for UK music and three for the USA, covering the years 1966–1969. The impetus was an annotated booklet listing “100 mind-expanding masterpieces” that Jon Savage had compiled for Mojo magazine in 1994; a revised list was published in 1997 along with some debatable contemporary additions. Things came to a head (so to speak) in 2001 when Savage and fellow Mojo journalists put together a four-CD collection of prime UK psychedelia for EMI, Acid Drops, Spacedust & Flying Saucers, which included many of the songs from Savage’s list. That collection and the Rhino Records Nuggets box began the mania to accumulate everything on Savage’s list. Once I’d started burning my own compilations the Savage 100 quickly expanded when I realised that I ought to include more favourites of my own.

To start the year, then, I’m uploading all six compilations to Mixcloud beginning with the UK selection. Despite all the effort and the number of songs this still isn’t a definitive collection. As Savage observes in his notes, the late 1960s was a time of massive over-production by record companies with hundreds of singles released, especially in the UK. Many one-off releases by obscure bands are as good as those that topped the charts which is why psychedelic compilations are so numerous, and why omissions are unavoidable.

With that proviso here’s the first part of the UK collection covering the years 1966 to 1967. The tracklist below indicates in bold the songs from the Savage 100 with notes about my additions. The listing is by order of release although this isn’t strictly accurate throughout. I’ll be uploading the rest of the compilations over the next few weeks.

UK Psychedelia, Part One by Feuilleton on Mixcloud

Dialogue — Alice In Wonderland (From Jonathan Miller’s BBC film, 1966.)
The Beatles — Tomorrow Never Knows
The Rolling Stones — Paint It Black
The Creation — Making Time
Craig — I Must Be Mad (A ferocious single by a band that only released one other 45 before splitting. Carl Palmer is on drums.)
Donovan — Season Of The Witch
The Yardbirds — Happenings Ten Years Time Ago
The Misunderstood — I Can Take You To The Sun (An American band who moved to London in 1966. This was their second and final single, and one of John Peel’s all-time favourites.)
Cream — I Feel Free
The Beatles — Strawberry Fields Forever
Pink Floyd — Interstellar Overdrive (Savage has the version from Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London which runs for almost 17 minutes. The version here is the shorter one from Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.)
The Smoke — My Friend Jack
The Poets — In Your Tower
The Move — I Can Hear The Grass Grow
The Troggs — Night Of The Long Grass
Traffic — Paper Sun
The Jimi Hendrix Experience — Are You Experienced?
Tomorrow — My White Bicycle (Savage has a later single, Revolution, but I much prefer this earlier 45.)
John’s Children — Midsummer Night’s Scene
Dialogue — Yellow Submarine
The Beatles — It’s All Too Much
The Attack — Colour Of My Mind
Small Faces — Green Circles

Previously on { feuilleton }
What Is A Happening?
My White Bicycle
Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake
Tomorrow Never Knows
The Dukes declare it’s 25 O’Clock!
Yellow Submarine comic books
A splendid time is guaranteed for all