Lazy revisionist theory has tended to reduce psychedelia to a set of cosmetic symbols from the ‘60s underground - beads, bangles, acid tabs, peace signs and the rest of it. In reality, it was an era of complex and deep-rooted change in musical culture, with artists reshaping existing forms and mapping out entirely new ones in a sensory climate of freedom of expression. And while not everything was successful, or even worthwhile, in the right hands rock music could be as mind-altering as the drugs that often went with it. Here are ten shining examples…
Grateful Dead (Anthem Of The Sun, 1968)
Described by drummer Mickey Hart as “our springboard into weirdness”, the Dead’s second album is a mutable collage of rock, psychedelia and wayward blues. It’s based on what seems like an unwieldy premise – stitching together various live takes of the same song with new cuts – but somehow works as a vast, cinematic entity. The fact that Jerry Garcia and company were constantly stoned, and given unlimited studio time, only adds to the sprawly majesty of epics like New Potato Caboose and That’s It For The Other One.
The Zombies (Odessey And Oracle, 1968)
Such was their disillusionment with the music business that The Zombies split up before their second album was even released. Cut at Abbey Road’s Studio 2 in the immediate wake of Sgt. Pepper…, its title the result of a spelling goof by their sleeve designer, Odessey And Oracle was a psych-pop masterpiece, intricately arranged and woozy with melodic invention. Rod Argent’s command of Mellotron (supposedly left behind by John Lennon) enabled him to conjure rich orchestral textures, an effect heightened by piano and harpsichord.
Aphrodite’s Child (666, 1972)
European psychedelia never went further out than this weighty concept album about The Book Of Revelation, delivered by a mercurial band that included Vangelis and a pre-superstar Demis Roussos. Utterly at odds with the vaporous sunshine pop of Aphrodite’s Child’s earlier stuff, 666 brought great dollops of proggy weirdness, wildly experimental forms, eerie vocal chants and, via the imperious The Four Horsemen, heavy intimations of the apocalypse. All The Seats Were Occupied is a mammoth 20-minute jam, while actress Irene Papas simulates an orgasm on the genuinely startling Infinity.
The Flaming Lips (The Soft Bulletin, 1999)
Firmly placing the Oklahoma City trio at the forefront of postmodern psychedelia, The Soft Bulletin joined the dots between the day-glo ‘60s and the knowing ‘90s with some aplomb. Symphonic detail abounds – synthesizers, strings, choirs, spacey pedal steel, billowy freak-pop – as the Lips create a vivid soundtrack to a futuristic Summer of Love in which there’s hope for humanity after all. It also heralded the arrival of the band as a skewed commercial entity after years of cultdom.
The United States Of America (The United States Of America, 1968)
Ring modulators, musique concrète and arty electronica may not have been standard hallmarks of psychedelia, but The United States Of America were every bit as persuasive as West Coast peers like Love or the Dead. Driven by Joseph Byrd, a former pupil of John Cage, and cool-toned singer Dorothy Moskowitz, the band’s sole album is a connoisseur’s classic, fearlessly inventive and often strangely accessible. Pick of the bunch is The American Way Of Love, a three-part suite that deconstructs California’s entire hippie mythos.
Hawkwind (Hall Of The Mountain Grill, 1974)
The absence of lyricist Robert Calvert and electronics wizard Dik Mik didn’t prevent Hawkwind from uncorking arguably their finest studio album. The follow-up to 1973’s live Space Ritual, Hall Of The Mountain Grill doesn’t hang out, its space-rock manifesto made clear from the off with the cosmic skronk of The Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear In Smoke). D-Rider, You Better Believe It and Lost Johnny (co-written by Lemmy and Mick Farren) keep the riff count moving, while phased synths and more becalmed passages add a reassuringly trippy backdraft.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Axis: Bold As Love, 1967)
Released just seven months after their scintillating debut, the JHE’s second album cemented Hendrix’s reputation as a guitar virtuoso, but also illustrated his growth as a songwriter, offering visionary pieces that ingested the spirit of the psychedelic era. Axis… is freer and more experimental, the band making full use of the studio by harnessing backwards effects, phasing and glorious stereo pans. Bold As Love, Spanish Castle Magic and Little Wing are exemplary, though the standout is the trippy acid-blues of If 6 Was 9.
The 13th Floor Elevators (The Psychedelic Sounds Of…, 1966)
The splenetic proto-punk of lead-off single You’re Gonna Miss Me proved to be something of a false trailer for its parent album, an intense trip designed to approximate the LSD experience. Lead singer Roky Erickson would soon become a tragic figure in the Elevators’ story, incarcerated on a drug charge and subjected to electro-shock treatment that resulted in years of mental illness. But his raw howl was one of the defining features of the Texans’ mighty debut, alongside Stacy Sutherland’s fierce guitar and the disorientating wobble of Tommy Hall’s amplified jug.
Love (Forever Changes, 1967)
Love were in some disarray by the summer of ’67, hobbled by internal squabbles, lack of commercial success and drug addiction. Then there was the mercurial logic of leader Arthur Lee, who preferred Bela Lugosi’s old mansion in the Hollywood hills to the prospect of playing live. Lee pored his conflicted relationship with West Coast flower-power into Forever Changes, a baroque masterwork that managed to be as warm and rapturous as it was acidic and demented, full of brassy flourishes and semi-symphonic folk.
Pink Floyd (The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, 1967)
Before he became lost altogether, Syd Barrett was a source of child-like wonder at the head of Pink Floyd, his imagination disappearing down rabbit holes and coming back up with guileless songs about bikes, gnomes, scarecrows and mice called Gerald. The result was a very British distillation of the psychedelic encounter, the Lear-like playfulness of many of his lyrics finding a contrast in eruptive cosmic-blues jams like Astronomy Domine and freeform epic, Interstellar Overdrive. Nearly half a century on, Floyd’s debut still sounds like nothing else.