Skip to main content

Freak flags proudly fly: a short history of psychedelia's strangest musicians

Wild Man Fischer
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images | Viscious-Speed/Pixabay )

Psychedelia is music meant to be felt, as well as heard. It can waft gently around the room, like a summer breeze, or it can shatter your fragile ego into a million shards with blasts of psychotic fuzz. 

Originally, it was a celebration of mind-expansion. A toad-licking, banana-peel smoking, acid-dropping ode to pills and powders and all the wonders they contain. But it soon morphed into a very accommodating “universe-of-groovy” that allowed everyone to swing from it’s hemp-fortified vines, even squares and half-pints. 

Unlike heavy metal, where Black Sabbath were to blame, or punk, which pointed its angry fingers at The Sex Pistols, there was no particular band or person to cite as the start of it all. There is no “Patient Zero” in psychedelia. 

All we know for sure is that it started somewhere between Tim Leary, who brought LSD to the people, The 13th Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson, who coined the term “Psychedelic rock” in 1966, and the entire city of San Francisco, who used to be very, very hip. And that it bloomed like some far-out poppy field all over the globe for nearly ten groovy years.

Alt

Of course, ‘Psychedelic’ is such a nebulous term that it invited an endless amount of hyphens. With a dash of fuzz, sitar, or even just one of those cosmic doorman jackets from Sgt. Pepper, just about anyone could be psychedelicised, and soon there was not only psych-rock to contend with, there was psychpop, psych-soul, psych-metal, psych-pepperoni and extra cheese, psych-everything. But even in the dreamy world of drug rock, there were kings and queens. 

The SF acid-rock scene that flourished around 1966 bore the sweetest fruit, and soon the entire world cast their ears westward to hear wild new sounds from the likes of Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. 

Pockets of psych began forming in other parts of the US, as well. Los Angeles had The Doors, The Byrds, Love, and Spirit. In New York, The Blues Magoos and The Electric Prunes blew minds. In Texas, it was The 13th Floor Elevators and Bubble Puppy. Boston had Ultimate Spinach, Detroit, The Amboy Dukes and so on. 

Many of these bands had hits and toured the country, spreading the messages of peace, love and acid far and wide. But for every psych band that made it, there were dozens that languished in virtual obscurity, freaking freely for no one in particular. Many of these bands would release a one-off album or single that went nowhere and then they’d disappear forever, getting haircuts and jobs and forgetting all about their dodgy past in the realms-of-fuzz. 

Amazingly, many of these now-ancient relics have been unearthed via charity shops, garage sales and attic rummages over the past four decades, giving birth to a sort of psychedelic archeology, where hardcore fuzz historians catalogue each loony find in fanzines, online blogs, long-running vinyl and CD compilation series like Nuggets, Rubble, and Lost Jukebox, and dense encyclopaedias like Vernon Johnson’s indispensable Fuzz, Acid and Flowers

It’s here, deep in the nearly bottomless well of regional US psych-rock, that you’ll find some of the wildest, weirdest and certainly the druggiest music that the 60s and its early 70s afterglow had to offer. From hopeless losers to quick-buck schemers, from obvious crackpots to mad-genius visionaries, there is still a wealth of bizarre treasures to be heard deep in the dusty bins of psychedelia.

Even amidst the free love, non-stop ecstatic dancing and freak flag-waving of the psych-rock era, there were a few morbid souls who refused to buy into the delirious notions of peace, love and understanding. 

One such outfit was the innocuously titled Changes, an acid-folk duo from Chicago (cousins Robert Taylor and Nicholas Tesluk) who got their start playing in a coffee shop run by members of The Process Church of the Final Judgment, a notorious religious sect that fused Christianity and Satanism into one ball of apocalyptic confusion. 

Their music reflected the tenets of the church, and over a quiet, graceful flickering of acoustic guitars, Taylor sang his plaintive death ballads: “Can’t you see the world is burning?/ Can’t you feel its fire burning? Don’t you know we are all burning?

Yikes. Changes toured coffee houses throughout the late 1960s, and developed a small but rabid following among jaded intellectuals and bleary eyed radicals (Taylor was also a member of proto-militia group The Minutemen) but, like the black church that spawned them, they didn’t survive the upcoming onslaught of polyester and smiley faces. 

Changes recorded extensively during their time together, but did not actually release any music while they were still active. A compilation album, Fire Of Life, was assembled from their original reel-to-reel recordings from 1969 to 1974, and released on Cthulhu Records in 1994. A sobering antidote to the relentless optimism of the hippy era, Fire Of Life unsettles in a most subtle and peculiar way. 

Alt

Another band obsessed with the end-of-all-things was Cromagnon, whose Orgasm album is certainly the first psych-industrial album ever released, and may very well be the most nerve-jangling and outright terrifying of the era. 

As with many one-offs from the 1960s, Cromagnon’s history is unclear and rife with speculation, but the prevailing rumour is that the band was formed by Austin Grasmere and Brian Elliot, two pop songwriters who claimed to have a string of unnamed bubblegum pop hits under their collective belts when they approached New York’s ESP-Disk label with the idea to record a far-out concept album with a mysterious “Connecticut tribe”, presumably of American Indians, but who knows. 

The ESP label was started in 1966. Initially, their plan was to produce albums recorded in Esperanto, a hopeful but rarely used ‘auxiliary language’ that failed to catch on in the US. When the Esperanto dream died, they became a free jazz label and experimental music label, the perfect place for a project as loony as Cromagnon. 

It’s difficult to hear where the bubblegum songwriters or the mysterious tribe are amidst the screaming and clamour of 1968’s Orgasm. Opener Caledonia sounds very much like Swiss Black metallers Celtic Frost wrestling a bagpipe to death. It’s followed by Ritual Feast Of The Libido, which sounds like a man being tortured to death while someone plays a game of ping pong in the next room. And so on. 

There is a semi-plausible theory that the members of Cromagnon later went on to form experimental rock giants The Residents and audio-tricksters Negativland, which would explain a lot, but nevertheless, Orgasm remains one of the wiggest-out albums of the 60s. Or any decade, really.

Beaming in from an entirely different astral plane was the late 60s wave of Jesus-psych bands, a natural extension of the “Jesus Freak” movement. These groups of back-to-nature hippies adopted the tenets of Christianity in communal environments, like the California-based Shiloh Youth Revival Centers, and spread throughout the US in the early 1970s, eventually growing to 175 centres and 100,000 members. 

There were a myriad of smaller Jesus-centric communes as well, such as the Jesus People Army in Seattle and the always-travelling Christ Is The Answer commune, who would periodically drop down in cities under a circus tent to host revivals and rock concerts. 

Inevitably, bands were formed from these communities, and while many of them would be considered straight folk, a few honest-to-God psychedelic bands emerged from the groovy jubilations. 

Some of the more notable entries include the self-titled album from The Last Call Of Shiloh, a femme-fronted sextet culled from members of the Idaho Jesus People Army. The lyrics were drippy Biblical interpretations filtered through a haze of purple smoke, but musically, they were a raw and garagey mix of Quicksilver Messenger and Jefferson Airplane. It would seem that this dreamy, free-flowing psyche band were intent on floating all the way up to heaven on good vibes and gentle riffs. 

Chicago’s own All Saved Freak Band also served up a tasty cocktail of Jesus-powered dream-psych, but tossed in a healthy dose of storming electric boogie. The band has not been hugely prolific over the years, but their 1973 album My Poor Generation stands as one of the finest examples of the Jesus-psych genre. 

Perhaps the grooviest of the Jesus-psych bands, however, is The Moonrakers. Originally known as The Surfin’ Classics, the Denver-based surf –cum-psych band formed in the early 1960s. After a name change they acquired some groovy new threads and scored a handful of local hits in the mid 60s, including You’ll Come Back and I’m All Right. But in the late 60s the band completely switched gears and released their Together With Him album in 1969. 

A minor masterpiece of sweeping, pastoral psych-rock, it jettisoned the love-gone-bad lyrics they had previously favoured replacing them with jittery, paranoid doom prophecies laced with references to God and his mighty sword of justice. Nutty, but rocking. The Moonrakers reunited in 2006 to what you can only imagine would be rapturous applause.

Jesus, Satan and brimstone-belching HarleyDavidsons all figure heavily in Lotti Golden’s 1969 biker-psych masterstroke Motor-Cycle. Lotti, now a successful record producer, released two albums of brass-heavy, soul-infused psych-rock between 1969 and 1971. Although her second, self-titled album was relatively sane, Motor-Cycle is an unforgettable descent into a very groovy sort of delirium, full of epic drug-ballads filled with odes to Satan, death and the mysterious Motorcycle Michael, a long-gone loser who obviously pushed Lotti to the edge. 

There’s a much-quoted poem on the back cover that offers a glimpse of the lunacy within: “Michael was a siren and a street god… and he said chicks called him Lucifer, because when he got wasted one eye would nod out in the corner… and when I wasn’t riding his truth machine, Anabell and Johnny and me… would go down to the Eastside docks and watch the jive sun do the boogaloo on the water...” Exactly. 

Of course, bikers were big business in the late 60s and early 70s so it was no surprise that biker-psych records began to flood the market. Surf kings Davie Allen and The Arrows became the go-to band for the scuzzy sub-genre, and they released a series of now-scarce but mandatory soundtrack albums. Movies from 1966 to 1968 like The Wild Angels, The Glory Stompers, Devil’s Angels and The Born Losers all featured The Arrows’ patented wall-of-fuzz plus choice dialogue bits, bongo freak-outs, and the occasional overwrought death ballad. Classic stuff. 

One leather-bound dude who offered no ballads whatsoever was Simon Stokes, the still-reigning king of biker-psych who released perhaps the last word on the subject with 1973’s The Incredible Simon Stokes And The Black Whip Thrill Band, a brawling, sprawling beast of acid-soaked blooze-rock full of born-mean ditties like The Boa Constrictor Ate My Wife Last Night and The Devil Just Called My Name. Even the cover was mean – it featured, as the title would suggest, an S&M tinged scene of women being whipped. It was, not surprisingly, banned from most stores.

By 1968, psychedelia was so enmeshed into the popular culture that even squares were getting into the act. Since anything covered in paisley was an instant-seller, cash-grabbing record labels began inventing faux-psych rock bands using session musicians who, most likely, were recording television ad jingles the week before. 

Most of these “Exploitopsych” albums featured sudden stereo panning effects, random noises, and fuzzed-out guitar solos that sounded suspiciously like Hendrix, only not as cool. 

Some of these almost-psych albums included A Musical Light Show by "The Mesmerizing Eye", Are You Experienced by "T Swift & The Electric Bag”, and the first-ever psych-sploitation album, 1966’s Psychedelic Moods: A Mind Expanding Phenomena By The Deep. Except there was no The Deep, you dig? 

Perhaps the most sought-after exploito-psych album of the era is the soundtrack to 1968’s Wild In the Streets, a curiously square counterculture movie about the teenage singer in a psych-rock band who becomes president of the United States and forces everyone over 30 to live in LSD concentration camps. 

In the film, the young prez’s band is Max Frost and The Troopers; their signature song in the film, Shape Of Things To Come, became a minor hit. However, there was no Max Frost and The Troopers, and the soundtrack claimed the songs were performed by The 13th Power. Except, you guessed it, there was no 13th Power, either. The songs were actually written by exotica band leader Les Baxter and recorded by session musicians including The Arrows. Kooky.

Perhaps the greatest album of this odd subgenre is 1968’s Singers, Talkers, Players, Swingers, and Doers by The Hellers. It was the brainchild of two advertising men, publicist Hugh Heller and commercial jingle writer Dick Hamilton, who wrote a dozen undeniably catchy light-psych songs and brought in Robert Moog – who invented the legendary spage-age organ that bears his name – to perform them. 

The result is a truly loony-cartoony collection of bright, shiny songs laced with brief spoken word segments and sound effects that coalesce into a seamless trip into a breezy day in 1968. The opening track is It’s 74 In San Francisco, and that’s exactly how it feels.

As the 60s wound down, psychedelia edged ever closer to the mainstream. By the early 70s, even cartoons got in on the act, and several kiddie shows featured musical interludes from bubble-psych bands like The Chattanooga Cats, Sugar Bears, Banana Splits and Groovie Ghoulies. 

Although their craftsmanship was mostly lost on the sugar-fuelled tykes who watched them every Saturday morning, a lot of the cartoon-band songs were crafted by gifted songwriters like Al Kooper, Barry White and Gene Pitney. 

Despite their juvenile trappings and mainstream associations, many of the bubble-psych albums out there are well-worth seeking out. But there were still a few psych-warriors out there on the edge, goggle-eyed freaks that were decidedly not ready for prime time. 

Like Hot Poop, for instance, an obscure gang of amateurish boys-from-nowhere whose sole 1972 album, Does Their Own Stuff, featured foul-mouthed fuzz-fests like My Baby’s Dead and I Always Play With My Food and a cover that shows the band in a barn, shooting heroin and/ or dying. 

Satan & His Deciples couldn’t spell correctly, nor could hey keep a steady job – the New Orleans band lost their house-band gig to Black Oak Arkansas when Jim Dandy and the fellas moved into town. But making freaky Satanic swamp-psych records? That, they did perfectly. 1969’s cleverly named Underground is narrated by the dark prince himself who, at one point in the record, attempts to start a new dance craze called, suitably, Devil Time. In a Cajun-accented falsetto, no less.

The king of the psyche-crazies, however, is undoubtedly Larry “Wildman” Fischer. Discovered on the streets of Hollywood in the late 60s by Frank Zappa, Wildman was the world’s worst busker, a tone-deaf, Beatles-obsessed loon who would scream in the ears of passers-by until they paid him a dime to stop. 

Zappa saw the potential for greatness in the man and put him in the studio. The result was the splendorous An Evening With Wildman Fischer (1968), a double gatefold album that sounds exactly like what it was: a complete nervous breakdown set to the tune of jittery psych rock. 

Although songs like The Taster and Which Way Did The Freaks Go? prove that Larry really did have a cock-eyed knack for writing catchy pop songs, his delivery is pure “un-medicated meltdown”, which makes sense, because that’s what was happening. 

The album sold approximately zilch and as a result, Wildman harassed Zappa for royalties to his grave. But between the hospital stays, Fischer continued to fitfully record through the 70s and 80s. In 2005 a gripping documentary, Derailroaded, told the whole sorry tale.

Of course, all this lysergic madness had to end at some point, and by 1974 psychedelia was all but dead in the US, having given sway to less adventurous forms of music like disco, heavy metal, singer-songwriter balladry and stadium rock. Out with the Wizards of Kansas and Friar Tuck and His Psychedelic Guitar, in with James Taylor and REO Speedwagon. So it goes. 

The dust barely settled, however, before the inevitable second-wave psych resurgence hit ten years later in Los Angeles, with paisley-powered jangle rock bands like The Bangles, The Dream Syndicate, Green On Red, and others. 

For many, however, there’s no substitute for the real thing, and the marketplace for vintage psychedelic vinyl has hit the metaphorical roof in the past decades. Rare records can sell for thousands, which is why a cottage industry for CD and vinyl reissues has flourished. 

It’s a never-ending journey into the weird that unearths startling new information all the time. Did you know the drummer from the Barbarians had a hook hand? Or that JJ Cale, the man who wrote Eric Clapton’s hit Cocaine, released an album under the nom de plume Leather Coated Minds in 1966 called A Trip Down the Sunset Strip that was created to replicate a stroll down The Strip with a head full of acid? 

It happened, man. Start digging and see what sort of lunacy you find. Your freak flag is back there somewhere in the psychedelic vaults, still waiting to unfurl.