A lot of bands today make the same mistakes when it comes to dealing with their influences. Whilst we have the ‘70s mockery of ‘Greta Van Whatever’, probably the worst cases are what I call the ‘60s recreationists,’ who drape themselves in kaftans, bowl haircuts, granny glasses and gently chime their 12 string guitars.
These equivalent-to-civil-war-re-enactors not only usually get it wrong - by inadvertently adding modern elements to their pastiche (which generally sounds more obvious in years to come) and occasionally anachronistic aesthetics - they also miss the entire point of what made the ‘60s cultural explosion so great and innovative that its ripples are still being felt today.
To be more specific, when I talk about the ‘60s (and even its recreators), I refer to the ‘psychedelic sound’ of the era, largely because it is impossible not to—actual mind-altering substances and philosophies were in the ethos, and these experiences and views were captured in the culture of the era.
Doubtlessly, we all know our history and that of the Vietnam war, assassinations of leaders, the hippie movement, and all the other massive changes that occurred as the world moved out of the firm and just plain dull repression of the ‘50s. But the musical changes that accompanied these shifts were vast as well; the initial threatening rockabilly/R ‘n’ B/blues-based forms of rock ‘n’ roll had given way to safe crooners, surf and beach music - exclusively for teenagers.
The British Invasion we all know and love came along to reinvigorate things here, but then all those bands fell under the spell of - psychedelic music.
But what is psychedelia?
It grew out of the aforementioned cultural landscape of social upheaval, but also technology - one aspect being the exposure to other cultures it presented. Also, tech in new instruments like the synthesizer, and in recording techniques, like phasing, that had never been dreamt up before. Then, throw in actual mind-altering substances which, whilst used in other cultures for musical ceremonies for centuries, was a relatively new practice in the Western World.
The oft-used term in the ‘60s, ‘mod’ was just short for modern, and in that decade, the truly modern band assimilated all these things, coming out from under their American Stax and Chess influences to embrace a truly NEW sound - not a recreation of anything made in the past.
That spirit still resides in music today, as the most truly sonically adventurous bands take into account everything that has happened in music - from ‘world music’ to hardcore punk; from ambient music to drum ‘n’ bass; and progressive rock to synth pop. I think this is the real expansive spirit of true psychedelia, not donning fringe and singing about flowers. At the very least, one should look at the utter diversity of sonics and genres being birthed in the ‘ 60s. That said, my belabored point here is that I believe nearly every form of modern music was created by psychedelic ‘60s and/or early ‘70s bands.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a guide:
Many weird ‘60s bands utilized early electronics in addition to their fairly typical-of-the-time acid rock vibe; one of these would be San Francisco’s 50 Foot Hose, which occasionally veered into dark terrain that one might even describe as ‘industrial’ (more on this later). But a few groups genuinely made huge leaps forward with new technology defining their sound, like Lothar and the Hand People, whose actual leader, Lothar, was a device called the theremin! Tracks on their Space Hymn LP sound like the electronic ambient ground Eno would later mine in the late ‘70s.
The heady NY band Silver Apples’s bandleader, Simeon, used a hand-built machine which bleeped out pulses that influenced all of techno, most immediately catching the ears of electronic forebearers Suicide and Kraftwerk. Danny Taylor’s metronomic drumming and songs about ‘Oscillations’ spoke of the future to come...
On the nightmarish end of electronic music, i.e. industrial, darkwave, etc. look no further than White Noise, whose Electric Storm in Hell would give Throbbing Gristle the shudders. A collaboration between groovy freak David Vorhaus and straight-laced Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the world has still not fully caught up with this classic bit of bad trip psychedelia. Equally as groundbreaking was Kingdom Come’s Journey, led by true ‘60s counterculture icon Arthur Brown. Known for his influential face paint (on all from Alice Cooper to Death Metal) and flaming helmet, his early ‘70s band broke new ground with use of drum machines, early synthesizers and a space-seeking vibe still true to the psychedelic ‘60s.
While many think it all started with the Eagles, the meeting of country and rock has its true roots in rockabilly and crossover artists like Ricky Nelson in the ‘50s, or even Johnny Cash’s rock ‘n’ roll spirit; but it blossomed into the creature we know today combining electric guitars, pedal steels and twangy vocals in the stony ‘60s.
Some of the earliest pioneers were the Byrds of 8 Miles High fame, whose Sweetheart of the Rodeo LP all but defined the country rock genre. With guitarist Clarence White in their later ranks, they had a true country pickin’ god who could also FREAK OUT! Also to join up with the Byrds was one Gram Parsons, who with the International Submarine Band and then the lysergic Flying Burrito Brothers, morphed countrypolitan with fuzzed-out psych.
Another earlier purveyor was Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, who was sneaking his backwoods-tinged songs into the pop group’s catalog by the mid-60s; always with a heady sheen. He would go on to form the completely ahead-of-its-time First National Band in the early ‘70s, who turned a high ‘n’ lonesome country sound into rural psychedelia.
Ok, this one is going to require a specific listen. Now, while most students of hip hop know, rap comes from ‘60s-’70s countercultural collectives like the insurrectional Last Poets; the downright angry Watts Prophets; and disparate characters like criminal-turned-author-turned reciter Iceberg Slim, dirty comedian Rudy Ray Moore, and radical tragic poet Gil Scott-Heron. But what many don’t know is that underground psychedelic band Love might’ve invented it, although no one knew it at the time.
Specifically, I speak of frontman Arthur Lee, whose urgent delivery was one of the most unique aspects of the early racially diverse band. There’s a bonus track on the Forever Changes reissue; an alternate version of the classic album’s closing track, You Set the Scene where suddenly an unheard Lee vocal comes in at the end - and the man is definitely rapping, as we know it today…no joke, 1967 full-on freestylin folks, if only it had been released in the day. Also it should be noted so many samples that are the core of rap songs were in fact sampled from ‘60s psychedelic songs like De La Soul’s using Of Friend and Lover’s Reach Out of the Darkness and the Beastie Boys commandeering the intro of young Hendrix’s Happy Birthday.
While many bands experimented with lengthy and at times like ambient jams like SF bands Grateful Dead or Quicksilver Messenger Service, or UK bands like Pink Floyd, it really took psychedelic Germans influenced by those bands to create it. These days called “Krautrock,” bands like Cluster (who also influenced Eno’s ambient phase) , Guru Guru (an early band to be influenced by “world music”), Tangerine Dream (who definitely moved synthesizers into the future) were all students of psychedelia—but two more obscure such acts basically created new age. Ash Ra Tempel, who started as an incendiary jamming acid rock band, honed their sound to pure magical tones for their “New Age of Earth” Lp, where the genre got its name. Another key practitioner was Deuter, who started with psychedelic soundscapes but moved into devotional minimalism.
I find this a touchy term, as it mostly alludes to white people becoming exposed to music of other cultures and using their influence; but rock ‘n’ roll, and music in general, has always been a game of assimilation. A few good examples of the cross-pollination of music that knows no borders would be the blues being influenced by Appalachian folk music and vice versa, and said folk music was descended from the UK.
Needless to say, the sitar found its way into psychedelic music often as Ravi Shankar became a popular figure in the ‘60s, as well as the Beatles’ eastern experiments (though the Kinks technically did it before them with See my Friends and the Yardbirds even earlier on a demo of Heartful of Soul).
UK hippie band Quintessence was an early band to shake off western music shackles completely for eastern sounds, as were their underground free festival-playing cohorts The Third Ear band, who looked and sounded like they’d walked off the streets of Morocco. The kings of whimsical and alchemical ‘acid folk’, The Incredible String Band, also traveled the world looking for unique instruments to add to their expansive musical vocabulary.
Progressive Rock, Heavy Metal, Punk Rock, and Goth
These all have more obvious forebearers since history is kinder to the psychedelic roots of all these categories. Progressive rock and psychedelia are so intertwined it’s hard to tell them apart at the beginning - from the epic suites of Sgt. Pepper’s…, to the early LPs by Yes; Keith Emerson’s nascent band the Nice, or Canterbury Floyd-competitors Soft Machine, the two genres of psychedelia and Progressive were created pretty simultaneously.
Acid Rock clearly was the antecedent to Heavy Metal, with the glorious heavy power-chorded riff perhaps invented by the Small Faces’ Song of a Baker; Cream, The Who, or Hendrix - all huge influences on Black Sabbath, who were still basically sweet-leafin’ hippies for their first 5 LPs (or was this chordage created by Link Wray with Rumble, recorded in 1954?)
Punk was just a return to the no-frills roots of rock, and while psychedelia got a tad excessive and perfumed for a bit, there were always bands who cut to the 3-chord rock chase. In fact, early Sex Pistols’ rehearsals hear the band running through songs by Alice Cooper (who were formerly a freaky band influenced by Syd Barrett on Frank Zappa’s label), Small Faces (see above), and most notably the Creation, who had such pop art hits as Painter Man and Biff Bang Pow in the ‘ 60s. The Pistols attempted a run-through of their malevolent Through My Eyes but failed midway through, naturally.
There are other frequent connections between psychedelia and punk, from Keith Levene of PIL starting as a roadie for Steve Howe; The Damned trying to get Syd Barrett to produce their LP (They got Dave Mason of Pink Floyd instead); Lemmy’s former heady groups Sam Gopal and Hawkwind; and psyched-out biker jammers the Pink Fairies who all but wrote the first punk song, Do it (covered by one Henry Rollins).
The first goth was clearly the aforementioned Arthur Brown singing about hellfire in corpse makeup (though he took a lot from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), but a few other close contenders would be Jinx Dawson of early acid rock-into-satanism band Coven, or Nico in her post Velvet Underground period of the brilliant dark Marble Index LP (when she shaved her brows and dyed her hair black!).
The great thing about all these highly debatable ‘firsts’ and about any category-restrictive tags, is that these already-vague and multi-faceted genres continue to mutate, combine, and grow. Could we have ever conceived of rap metal 30 years ago; trip hop, or the insane beats of Chicago-style footwork?
Music will continue to be the universal language, with new sonic words, paragraphs and even novels formed from influences and pieces of others’ work, but the wise and even progressive will always look back at the roots of the psychedelic music explosion in the ‘60s, because the seeds are all there.
PCW (aka Plastic Crime Wave) is a Chicago-based musician, artist and writer. When not artworking for Lush and Gorilla, PCW is the author of the hand drawn psychedelic magazine Galactic Zoo Dossier and bi-weekly The Secret History of Chicago Music infostrip, and performs with Plastic Crimewave Syndicate. For more information, visit: