Acid Rock: the candy-coloured story of music designed to blow minds

A surrealistic abstraction created in 3d graphics
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“When the blues ran up against psychedelics, rock'n'roll really took off.” And Ken Kesey should know. The author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and driver of the infamous Magic Bus, he was sitting in the control tower when acid rock – rock music directly influenced by LSD – took off in the mid-1960s on the US West Coast, a product of the flourishing hippy movement.

A combination of distorted sounds and improvised playing, acid rock mirrored the spaced-out experiences of its audience, creating a whole new musical landscape. It changed the course of rock music as much as the electric guitar did, or indeed the blues.

But first a word from our sponsor. Lysergic acid diathylamide was discovered in 1938 by Swiss chemist Dr Albert Hofmann while working on a new heart stimulant. Five years later he accidentally ingested some after it came into contact with his fingertips and experienced “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense kaleidoscopic play of colours”. 

Deciding that the LSD had to be responsible for the effects, he conducted a self-experiment, dissolving what he thought was a microscopic amount in water and swallowing it. He promptly suffered the world’s first bad trip.

When Hofmann published his research, the CIA got interested. They were busy looking for a ‘truth drug’ and, having tried and failed with alcohol, caffeine, barbiturates, marijuana and mescalin, they figured LSD could be the answer. They started slipping it to their own agents without their knowledge, and later to unsuspecting army personnel. One person is known to have died from these unauthorised experiments, after falling from a tenth-floor window, although it took 20 years for the story to emerge.

Outside of the paranoid confines of the US security apparatus, however, LSD was getting a more favourable reaction, especially when it was allied to creative minds. Actors Jack Nicholson and James Coburn and conductor Andre Previn were among those who sampled it in the 1950s (LSD was not made illegal until 1965), and news soon seeped into the jazz community where the use of mind-altering drugs was endemic.

In 1960 Harvard doctor Timothy Leary set up a research project into hallucinogenic experiences, but this soon turned into an evangelical crusade to ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’. Needless to say the CIA were not amused, and Leary found himself harassed relentlessly.

But it was too late. The word, not to mention the ‘tab’, had reached America’s Beat Generation of writers and poets – notably Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady – as well as college boy Ken Kesey, who took part in one of Leary’s ‘experiments’ at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital before becoming a night attendant at the hospital’s psychiatric ward and liberally sampling the Aladdin’s cave of pharmaceuticals he found there. Then he sat down and wrote One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

On the proceeds of that book, in 1964 Kesey set up an artists’ commune near San Francisco, and set out to subvert the youth of America with his band of Merry Pranksters, driving around the country in a magic bus daubed with psychedelic swirls, wearing strange clothes, playing The Beatles, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Bob Dylan, offering spiked Kool-Aid orange juice to all and sundry and then throwing a party known as the Acid Test.

But it was in San Francisco that the Pranksters’ party goodie bags were received most enthusiastically. The city’s bohemian subculture of writers, poets and theatre troupes and jazz, blues, folk and country musicians was a perfect melting pot. And among those who started hanging out with the Pranksters was a young bluegrass musician called Jerry Garcia.

The first acid-rock band to emerge were The Charlatans (no, not Tim Burgess’s indie boys). They played rootsy jug-band blues with the occasional distorted guitar and wore dandy clothes bought from thrift shops. In the summer of ’65 they took acid before passing the audition to become the house band at a Wild West Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. Their mates came out to visit them and had some lively interactions with the local rednecks.

Musically, however, The Charlatans talked it better than they walked it. Nothing they recorded got released until 1969, by which time they’d broken up. When the early stuff finally emerged a decade later, it sounded tame. Nevertheless, the Charlatans were the catalyst for a sudden surge in new San Francisco bands, probably because other musicians were convinced they could do it better.

Jerry Garcia was also finding the bluegrass scene restrictive, and put together an R&B covers band called The Warlocks with shit-hot drummer Bill Kreutzmann, music graduate Phil Lesh on bass, Bob Weir on guitar and Robert ‘Pigpen’ McKernan on keyboards, harmonica and greasy biker looks.

They started playing local bars before becoming the house band at the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests and changing their name to the Grateful Dead. The band were bankrolled by chemist Owsley Stanley, who manufactured what is by common consent the finest acid ever made, giving his batches names like White Lightning and Purple Haze. He also designed a state-of-the-art sound system for the Dead.

Grateful Dead's Micky Hart

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Unlike The Charlatans, the Dead walked it just like they talked it. They lived in a commune in Ashbury Street, playing free concerts and generally acting as the hub around which the San Francisco scene revolved. Out of their folk/country/blues roots, The Dead fashioned a spacy rock music that regularly tipped over into elongated jams as they developed the art of communicating with each other on stage, regardless of how ripped they were. It gave them an almost mystical aura.

It took them a while to capture that aura on record, though. Their first, self-titled album in 1967 was an uneasy affair, partly because they found it hard to condense their open-ended style into the short, snappy songs that their label Warner Brothers wanted and partly because their benefactor expected them to test each new batch of acid he produced.

For their second album, Anthem Of The Sun, they tried working with live tapes, building on the atmosphere in the studio. But to the unconverted it was all a bit dense and forbidding. Adding lyricist Robert Hunter to the band for the Aoxomoxoa album gave their songs more of a focus, although musically they were still looking for an identity.

They finally nailed it with the double Live Dead in late ’69. Given the space to expand, their trance-like songs took off into a parallel musical universe where normal rules of navigation no longer applied. The awesome, 23-minute Dark Star summed up what the Dead were about: a musical trip into the unknown, taking risks while under the influence, and a blind faith that they would be able to bring the song (and themselves) back in one piece. Live Dead is the benchmark by which all other Grateful Dead albums – there’s nearly a hundred, and that’s before you get to the bootlegs – can be measured.

If the Grateful Dead were self-appointed acid ambassadors, it was Jefferson Airplane who got the message across to the nation. Formed by folk musicians Marty Balin and Paul Kantner around the same time as the Dead, the Airplane had a much clearer idea of their musical direction: poetic rock. They brought in folk chanteuse Signe Anderson, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, his friend Jack Casady on bass, and drummer Skip Spence who was actually a guitarist but apparently “looked like a drummer”.

They signed to RCA for a $25,000 advance (five times the going rate) and recorded their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, at the end of ’65. But the label freaked out when they heard the song Runnin' Round This World and specifically the line ‘The nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips.’ The pressing plants were halted, the track was removed, the album was delayed, the band were pissed off.

By the time the album emerged, Skip Spence had been fired for missing rehearsals and Signe Anderson’s husband had become incompatible with the band. But no matter, Spencer Dryden was a proper drummer, and Grace Slick was a feisty singer who made up in gall what she lacked in grace (so to speak). She also brought two songs with her from her previous band the Great Society: Somebody To Love (written by her brother-in-law on acid after being dumped by his girlfriend) and White Rabbit, which queried what Alice was up to in Wonderland.

Both became US Top 10 hits in the summer of ’67 and were among the highlights of Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, the album that epitomises the era with its hallucinogenic worldview and vaguely left-wing politics. It contained some of the sweetest songs they ever wrote – Today, My Best Friend, How Do You Feel – along with some of their most rugged – 3/5ths Of A Mile In 10 Seconds and Plastic Fantastic Lover.

Having been anointed the voice of the San Francisco underground, Jefferson Airplane immediately blew it with the wilfully self-indulgent After Bathing At Baxters. “Pure LSD, among 13 other things,” was Paul Kantner’s description – and he was the only one straight enough to come up with any decent songs. 

The rest of the band were busy losing the plot, putting more emphasis on sound effects, distorted guitars, spaced-out jams and incoherent lyrics. Grace Slick was imperious but aimless, while Marty Balin, whose achingly beautiful tenor voice had been such a potent element of the band, was almost invisible.

Crown Of Creation in 1968 wasn’t nearly as dosed. There were still plenty of weird effects and overdubs, but the jams were replaced by better tunes including Slick’s witty, trippy Lather and David Crosby’s notorious Triad (eloquently asking for a threesome). Volunteers, in 1969, got more political as Paul Kantner took an increasingly dominant role in the band, with anthems like We Can Be Together and the title track. 

Balin, meanwhile, continued to lose interest. Slick could still get freaky on Hey Frederick, but collectively Jefferson Airplane had shot their bolt, and the musical powerhouse of Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady were increasingly involved in their blues-jammin’ side project, Hot Tuna.

The Dead and the Airplane were the cream of the San Francisco scene, much of it interrelated. Quicksilver Messenger Service was started by Paul Kantner’s squat-mate David Frieberg and guitarist Skip Spence before he became Airplane’s drummer (remember?). They were originally formed to back singer-songwriter Dino Valenti, who wrote the hippy anthem Get Together, covered on Jefferson Airplane’s first album and later a Top 10 hit for The Youngbloods.

When Valenti was jailed for possessing marijuana the band decided to get their own act together, rehearsing endless Bo Diddley jams at a shack in Mill Valley which even in those newly enlightened times became known as a den of iniquity. They also built up a reputation as one of San Francisco’s best live bands, based on the contrasting styles and sublime interplay between guitarists John Cipollina and Gary Duncan. Their self-titled debut caught it in flashes, but 1969’s Happy Trails is a quintessential acid rock album, dominated by a visceral, 25-minute version of Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love; for light relief there’s a seven-minute version of Diddley’s Mona.

When Duncan left the band the spell was broken, and Shady Grove in 1970 was a disappointment until you got used to the mellower style of his replacement, English keyboard player Nicky Hopkins. Even Duncan’s return the following year did not restore the magic.

The continuing adventures of guitarist/drummer Skip Spence took him to Moby Grape after Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane. The array of talent within Moby Grape got them 13 record company offers before they settled on Columbia. Their self-titled debut in ’67 was a fine mixture of hard rock and laid-back songs, and the psychedelia was kept well under control.

Unfortunately, however, nothing else was. The record company over-hyped Moby Grape by releasing five singles from the album simultaneously. They all flopped. That same week three members of the band were arrested for drugs offences and ‘contributing to the delinquency of minors’ (you may care to let your imagination run riot over that one). Then somebody noticed that the album sleeve featured a raised digit, which was obviously a threat to the American Constitution, and so the record had to be withdrawn.

Columbia decided it would be better if Moby Grape recorded their second album in New York where they could keep a closer eye on them. But that did not prevent Skip Spence from running amok with a fire axe during an acid binge. For this indiscretion he was confined to a mental hospital. When another member quit to join the Marines, Moby Grape should have known the game was up – but they struggled on for another decade.

Spence had another throw of the dice when he emerged from hospital: a solo album called Oar, recorded inside a couple of weeks and on which he sang and played everything. According to taste, you will find it ‘visionary’ or ‘schizophrenic’; it is definitely out on the edge.

The only competition for the throne occupied by Grace Slick came from Janis Joplin, who had arrived in San Francisco from Texas in 1963 and started singing in bars, sometimes accompanied by future Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. 

But when Janis’s other job as a speed dealer got too much she had to be invalided back home for a while. When she returned to Frisco in the summer of ’66 she hooked up with Big Brother And The Holding Company, a bluesy band with a weekly residency at the famous Family Dog jam sessions.

She’s not much in evidence on their self-titled debut, mainly because she’d only been with them a few weeks, although Down On Me is no mean introduction. Cheap Thrills, released in ’68, a year after her mesmerising Monterey Festival appearance, is Joplin’s acid-rock album. 

Her desperate, emotional voice on Ball And Chain, Summertime and Piece Of My Heart stunned white folks the same way Elvis had done a decade earlier – but this time it was a woman. However, she had already been snapped up by Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, who took her out of Big Brother and rather hamfistedly tried to turn her into a ‘star’.

Country Joe And The Fish were another bunch of former folkies who made a big impact with their first album. Electric Music For The Mind And Body, in 1967, combined trippy stuff – swirling, fuzzy guitars and keyboards – with politics, humour and free love. Unfortunately Joe lost his sense of humour for the second album, I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die, and replaced it with a load of, frankly, cosmic bollocks. But in the title track it did have the definitive anti-Vietnam war protest song that helped galvanise the Woodstock generation.

The most radio-friendly acid rocker was Steve Miller, the space cowboy who arrived in San Francisco in 1966 via Dallas, Wisconsin, Copenhagen (that’s Copenhagen, Denmark) and Chicago. His debut album Children Of The Future (recorded in London) was the most melodic psychedelia thus far, swinging between the clever pop of Baby’s Calling Me Home and the blues freakout of Steppin’ Stone

That paved the way for the genial Sailor which roamed from the heavily atmospheric Song For Our Ancestors (with sound effects to make Pink Floyd jealous), through shimmering slow ballads like Dear Mary and Quicksilver Girl, to the swinging Gangster Of Love and the hard-rocking Living In The USA.

Psychedelic metal fans should check out Blue Cheer, another band managed by Owsley Stanley. They crashed through early in 1968 with a heavy cover of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues and an album, Vincebus Eruptum, which was noisy and extreme. They were unable to capitalise on it, however, as they were quickly crippled by line-up changes. They also lacked the instrumental prowess – or a guitar hero – to take their music to the next level.

And while you’re at it, try It’s A Beautiful Day’s self-titled debut from ’68, not just for the furious fiddle playing of David La Flamme, the haunting harmonies on White Bird or the druggy Bulgaria, but also for the dotty little instrumental Bombay Calling that Deep Purple ripped off lock, stock and groovy, smoking barrel for Child In Time.

Other bands worth checking out include Sopwith Camel, who in ’67 had the first national hit out of San Francisco with the good-time Hello Hello, and whose self-titled debut album featured the captivating Frantic Desolation; Mad River, whose debut had promising shades of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe; and the Sons Of Champlin, who were heavily soul influenced and added a horn section that later became the Tower Of Power.

And then there’s The Trip by Electric Flag, the soundtrack to Peter Fonda’s movie about an acid trip as seen through a TV commercial director’s eyes. Electric Flag were the hot-shot group of musicians formed in 1967 by guitar hero Mike Bloomfield after he’d quit the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Even before they’d played a gig they were asked to supply the music for The Trip, which had a script by Jack Nicholson and roles for Dennis Hopper and Susan Strasberg. 

The movie’s soundtrack was the sound of a supergroup rehearsing for their first album – relaxed, flowing, jazzy rock that caught the mood without being particularly trippy. By the time their first ‘real’ album, A Long Time Coming, appeared in 1968, Bloomfield had quit. Typical supergroup behaviour, really.

The Trip movie poster

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Acid rock also spread into Frisco’s black district of Fillmore, with Sly And The Family Stone and Santana providing a soul and Latin twist respectively. But while acid was undoubtedly a significant part of the creation of great albums like Sly’s Stand and Santana’s Abraxas, so were cocaine, heroin and guns. Groove to the music, but tread warily around the group – as Carlos did but Sly didn’t.

Four hundred miles to the south of San Francisco, Los Angeles was never as evangelical about acid as San Francisco was. Their musical take on LSD was more fragmented, a bit like Tinseltown itself. But Los Angeles did play host to a meeting which would have repercussions as dramatic as anything San Francisco provided.

One evening in August 1965, the visiting Beatles invited the resident Byrds up to their rented house in Benedict Canyon for an LSD party that went on into the following day. They had started a mutual admiration society earlier that year when The Byrds had toured Britain. 

Among the guests at the LA party was actor Peter Fonda, who flashbacked to a life-threatening operation he’d undergone and kept repeating, “I know what it’s like to be dead” until a spooked John Lennon told him to shut up. Out of that party John Lennon wrote She Said She Said (incorporating Fonda’s line) and The Byrds wrote Eight Miles High (about their UK visit, but with a deliberate double meaning). Both songs turned the pop world on its axis.

The Byrds were folkies Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke, who had got together at the LA Troubadour hootenanny nights, and developed their distinctive high harmonies and jingle-jangling guitar style in the studio – and while tripping. Hillman remembers that “we were all on acid” while recording The Bells Of Rhymney.

Once Bob Dylan had given his seal of approval to their version of Mr Tambourine Man (which gave them a No.1 hit) The Byrds took flight, plastering their trademark hooks over their own songs, traditional folk songs and any passing Dylan song that took their fancy.

They were a fractious, truculent bunch who could be mean to each other off and on stage. But before McGuinn’s autocratic control streak provoked Crosby’s regal ego into joining Messrs Stills and Nash, The Byrds released the questing, occasionally spiky Fifth Dimension in 1966 (including Eight Miles High, Mr Spaceman, Hey Joe and 5D, which takes Einstein on a trip) and the sublime Younger Than Yesterday in 1967. 

Crosby’s parting songs were the delicate Renaissance Fair, the haunting Everybody’s Been Burned and the embarrassing Mind Gardens; McGuinn delivered the sardonic So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star and the spacey CTA-102; Hillman flowered with Thoughts And Words, a postcard from an LSD trip; by the time he got himself together and arrived back McGuinn was steering The Byrds towards country rock and another chapter in their illustrious career.

Meanwhile, down on Sunset Strip, local bands were picking up what The Byrds had started. Chief among them was Love, a multi-racial band that revolved around the mercurial black freak Arthur Lee, who brought a dark edge to their psychedelic R&B/folk rock. Their self-titled debut in 1966 sounded like they’d been listening to Fifth Dimension on acid. In fact guitarist Bryan MacLean had been a Byrds roadie. They pissed all over The Byrds’ version of Hey Joe, delivered a sinewy cover of Bacharach and David’s My Little Red Book, and developed their own style with the subtly unnerving Softly To Me.

Later that summer Love became the toast of the town when the fuzzy, manically agitated and lyrically obscure Seven And Seven Is became a Top 40 hit. The genial Da Capo album, released early in ’67, was a masterpiece of gothic psychedelia; the musical splendours contrasted with a lyrical paranoia that gave songs like Stephanie Knows Who and She Comes In Colours (later ripped off by the Stones for She’s A Rainbow) a brilliant but unsettling edge. It was just as well the first side was so good, because the second side contained 19 minutes of mutating, spacy jazz and garage pop called Revelation – which it wasn’t, really.

Love retreated to Bela Lugosi’s old mansion in the Hollywood Hills and worked up their third album, Forever Changes. It remains one of the most critically lauded albums ever made. The haunting melodies (notably Bryan MacLean’s sublime Alone Again Or), Lee’s trembling vocals and the carefully woven string arrangements gave the album a shimmering beauty that not even the occasionally psychotic lyrics could disturb. Indeed, it was the album that inspired a whole raft of British bands in the early 80s including Echo And The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and Monochrome Set.

Back in 1968, however, Forever Changes didn’t even chart. And up at Lugosi’s old pad, Love were making a horror movie of their own. Amid a miasma of acid, cocaine and heroin, both Lee and MacLean temporarily turned blue. When their road manager turned blue, though, it was permanent. After one more, brilliant single, Your Mind And We Belong Together, the band disintegrated.

When Lee noticed, he recruited another band, signed a new record deal with Blue Thumb and recorded 27 songs. When Elektra pointed out that he still owed them one more album, he told them to choose 10 tracks. They came out as Love Four Sail (geddit?). The remaining 17 emerged on Out Here On Blue Thumb four months later. Lee’s genius was still there, but buried in an appalling mix. And while the musicians are good, all sense of cohesion is gone.

Lee made a rare sortie out of LA to London to record his next album. Jimi Hendrix dropped by to contribute his finest to The Everlasting First, but the rest of False Start, released in 1970, was a mess.

Which was the story of the late Arthur Lee for the following 30 years, culminating in a jail sentence for gun offences in the early 90s. But his final years saw a spirited revival and a couple of well-received British tours, for which we should all be truly thankful.

Despite his abrupt departure and the fact that Love never made a cent for the label, Elektra still have reason to be grateful to Arthur Lee for recommending that they check out another band causing a stir in the Sunset Strip clubs in 1966, called The Doors.

Drop-out student Jim Morrison was living on someone’s roof in LA’s Venice Beach, dropping acid and writing poetry, when he bumped into Ray Manzarek, who was trying to decide between a career in film or music. The problem was solved after they worked up Moonlight Drive together with Jim’s acid-soaked lyrics. For their first residency at the London Fog on the Strip, Manzarek remembers that they played “stoned every night. It was the great summer of acid, and we really got into a lot of improvisation.”

By the time they graduated to the Whisky A Go Go, Morrison’s daily routine was to smoke dope all day, drink beer in the evening, level off with shots of speed, and then drop acid shortly before going on stage, where he would regularly wave phials of amyl nitrate under the noses of the band and audience. On this regime The Doors developed the songs that made up the first couple of albums. Morrison later said that “some of the best musical trips we took were in clubs”.

One night Morrison failed to show up at the Whisky. After the first set the band tracked him down to a nearby motel, where he was incoherently muttering “10,000 mikes [micrograms]”. The band eventually realised this referred to his acid intake – which was more than 20 times the normal dosage.

They got him to the club, and the second set was, not surprisingly, a mess. He was coming down during the third set as they played The End, when he suddenly came up with the dramatic lyrical finale: ‘Father.’/‘Yes, son?’/‘I want to kill you.’/‘Mother, I want to… fuck you!’ It got them fired from the club, but it gave their first album an unforgettable climax – even with the last two words omitted.

For The Doors the rest, as they say, is legendary. Significantly, they were about the only LA band to conquer San Francisco.

Matching both Jim Morrison and Arthur Lee for stoned genius and charisma was Sky Saxon (né Richard Marsh), who had Apache blood – and a picture of Jesus on his ID card. Saxon slapped his wicked but beguiling aura and his sneering, nasal vocals all over The Seeds, a tight, punkier Doors-style quartet, and they scored a Top 40 hit with Pushin’ Too Hard, from their self-titled debut in 1965 which is now regarded as a garage/psych classic.

Just as intriguing were tracks like Evil Hoodoo: five minutes of tense, stuttering guitar and rhythmic keyboards, held together by little more than Saxon’s repetitive tambourine. Their second album, A Web Of Sound, pushed the boat out further, notching up another hit with Mr Farmer and extending the freak-out to 14 minutes on Up In Her Room.

Their manager tried to market them as California’s answer to the Rolling Stones. But Saxon looked and sounded more sinister than Jagger ever could, even when he embraced Flower Power with a vengeance on ’67’s Future album, which had a cut-out-and-paste cover of flower drawings, and songs like March Of The Flower Children and Flower Lady And Her Assistant.

When Saxon decided to get shot of the independent label The Seeds were on, he recorded A Full Spoon Of Greasy Blues with the expectation that the label would reject it. But they released it and killed the band’s career instead.

After a live album that some said was not very live, Sky Saxon disbanded the group and changed his name to Sky Sunlight. (It’s for certain that Neil Young listened intently to every single guitar solo The Seeds ever did.)

The LA band that came closest to matching San Francisco’s spiritual take on acid was Spirit. This eclectic bunch featured teenage guitarist Randy California (his nickname was given to him by Jimi Hendrix, with whom he’d played in the Blue Flames) and his stepfather, drummer Ed Cassidy, bald as a coot and with a jazz pedigree that stretched back to Thelonius Monk and Art Pepper.

Randy’s heavy, sustained guitar tones were the link between the band’s wide-ranging rock, jazz, blues, folk and country styles on their self-titled debut in 1968. And Led Zeppelin fans will think they’re tripping when they get to track four, the instrumental Taurus; the opening riff is eerily reminiscent of Stairway To Heaven. Jimmy Page, who was at Spirit’s first London gig, has also acknowledged the influence (some might say ‘sample’).

Spirit’s second album, The Family That Plays Together, was even better, and I Got A Line On You had a particularly fine riff. When they started to run out of songs on Clear it looked as if they’d peaked – despite Randy delivering one of the great guitar solos of all time on Dark Eyed Woman. But the songs returned with interest on The Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus; catchy hooks and melodies that carried politically conscious songs ranging from ecology to pornography. Dr Sardonicus was the name they gave the studio mixing desk.

The album seemed like a perfect blend of the group’s varied talents. But in fact they were fighting all the way through, the differences being mainly musical. The band started falling apart in 1971. Randy came over to England to escape, but ended up falling off a horse and having a nervous breakdown.

The Stones/R&B vibe loomed large in the aspirations of many LA garage/psychedelic bands, not least because seminal Stones albums like Out Of Our Heads and Aftermath were recorded at RCA’s Hollywood studios.

The Electric Prunes must have thought they’d struck lucky when they signed a production deal with Dave Hassinger, who had engineered those two albums. And when the Prunes charted in ’67 with their first two fuzzy guitar-drenched singles, I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night) and Get Me To The World On Time, the future looked so bright they were going to have to wear shades.

But neither their self-titled debut album or its follow-up, Underground, were commercial enough, and before they knew it the group had become a backing band for up-and-coming composer/arranger David Axelrod and his Mass In F Minor. If they’d hung around a couple more years they might have seen the benefit, when the opening track, Kyrie Eleison, soundtracked the New Orleans acid-trip-in-the-graveyard sequence in the Easy Rider movie. But they didn’t, and the Electric Prunes that cashed in on that were a completely different band.

Likewise, The Standells looked set for success when their Dirty Water single – full of Stonesy riffs, raunchy guitar and raunchier vocals – made the Top 20 in ’66. But despite churning out four albums in two years, plus the soundtrack to the ‘psychexploitation’ movie Riot On Sunset Strip, and getting their Try It single banned for ‘obscenity’, The Standells couldn’t crack it.

They had been produced by Ed Cobb, an unlikely psychedelic entrepreneur who had previously been a member of white doo-wop band the Four Preps. He tried again with the Chocolate Watch Band, a bunch of druggy punks from San Jose with a Stones fixation, whose No Way Out album in ’67 featured the spacey Gossamer Wings and Dark Side Of The Mushroom. Their heavier sound ensured a cult status, but they couldn’t keep it together personally or professionally, and Cobb frequently had to resort to session musicians.

At least The Chocolate Watch Band knew the way to and from San Jose. The Count Five refused to leave the place, despite a Top 10 hit in ’65 with Psychotic Reaction, a Bo-Diddley-meets-The-Yardbirds rave-up. It’s a gem that has never lost its sparkle, but the band couldn’t repeat it and faded away.

Another producer/writer/arranger/fixer behind the scenes was Gary Usher, who had grown up as a neighbour of Beach Boy Brian Wilson and co-wrote several early ’60s Beach Boys greats including 409, before opening Brian’s ears beyond surfing and hot-rod ditties with In My Room. Usher joined Columbia Records as a producer, guiding The Byrds through Younger Than Yesterday and their switch towards country rock.

He also hooked up with Peanut Butter Conspiracy, who were being touted as LA’s answer to Jefferson Airplane – so much so that drummer Spencer Dryden had left to join them. PBC’s two albums, …Is Spreading and The Great Conspiracy, had class, but none of the singles generated more than airplay.

It was the same with Usher’s part-time project, Sagittarius. My World Fell Down, sung by Glen Campbell with Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, was one of the great experimental psychedelic pop singles of ’67 – delicious harmonies and arrangements mixed with sound effects from a bullfight. But the album, Present Tense, was so relentlessly happy it drowned in its own syrup.

Drowning in a different kind of syrup was his childhood co-writer Brian Wilson. And not even the consolation of having recorded one of the greatest albums ever made was any help.

Brian was already becoming estranged from the rest of the Beach Boys even before he suffered a nervous breakdown on a flight to Houston in December ’64. He just wasn’t made for the rigours of touring, and increasingly withdrew to his home, his barely 16-year-old wife and his instruments.

Early in ’65 he wrote California Girls while coming down from his first acid trip. And while he continued to churn out pop hits on demand, he was hearing another music in his head. When the band headed off on tour without him later that year Brian lay back, waited for the flashbacks to kick in and conceived the Pet Sounds album. The other Beach Boys were not particularly enamoured with the elaborate demo of the album Brian prepared for them. Mike Love called it “ego music”. The result was that the band didn’t play on the album, and Brian even overdubbed some of their vocals.

The record company were so confident of it that they rushed out a Greatest Hits ahead of it. What swung it round was a track that Brian had started working on towards the end of Pet Sounds: Good Vibrations lasts three minutes 35 seconds; it took 20 sessions in four studios and 90 hours of tape recorded over six months. But the impact it created in the pop world was worth every second.

Pet Sounds has been called, among many other things, ‘Phil Spector on acid’. Certainly most of the musicians are the same. And now it’s the consolation for Brian that it never was at the time. After listening to the album, The Beatles replied with Here There And Everywhere. But by the time Brian started his next project, the legendary aborted Smile album, acid had been largely replaced by Nepalese temple balls and whipped cream aerosol cans – after he’d eaten the whipped cream of course, otherwise what’s the point?

But in commercial terms nothing from Los Angeles approached Iron Butterfly, who had stomped up from San Diego in their proto-metal boots and shook the Hollywood Hills as they recorded their second album in ’68. Their first album had been called Heavy – too heavy for most of the band; keyboard player Doug Ingle had to find a new line-up for his weighty vision.

The riff of the title track, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, was the finest that came out of any Californian garage, and they pummelled it into oblivion for 17 minutes and five seconds which included the world’s only danceable drum solo.

The album sold more than four million copies in a year, much of which the band spent on tour with The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. It was in the Top 10 for 81 weeks, and a year later it was still in the Top 100.

And where are Iron Butterfly? Still going, since you ask. You can’t call them one-hit wonders, either – they had three more Top 20 albums. But how many of those who bought them can remember the titles? They collapsed in 1971, burnt out, exhausted. And no, they didn’t make any money.

We can’t leave LA without mentioning Frank Zappa and his childhood and student chum Captain Beefheart, two of the city’s most famous freaks. Zappa was caustically anti-drugs, and albums like Freak Out, Absolutely Free and Lumpy Gravy with the Mothers Of Invention took the piss out of the hippies while defying them to see through his own avant-garde music. The fact that most hippies didn’t get the joke enabled him to keep on playing it. Some of them still don’t.

Captain Beefheart was more ambivalent about drugs. He was an artist, apparently, so he was allowed to take them. He described LSD as an “awfully overrated aspirin and very similar to the old people’s Disneyland”. He took a singular delight in breaking rock’n’roll conventions, and was outraged and disgusted when record company executives altered his strange rhythms and stranger harmonies to try to make them palatable.

His first album, Safe As Milk, sounded like a tripped-out Howlin’ Wolf as the Captain’s voice gear-shifted instantly from a soprano squawk to a sub-woofer growl while his band (including a 16-year-old Ry Cooder) beat out a bluesy grunge. But behind the gruff, almost menacing exterior there were plenty of deft touches that suggested this was no ordinary punk. Thanks to John Peel, the album was more popular in Britain than America. For the Captain, however, it was just the beginning.

There are many reasons why more than 90 per cent of American acid rock came out of California, and most of them are related to the climate. The sunshine state was conducive to creative tripping in a way that the claustrophobic skyscrapers of New York and the variable weather of the East Coast could not match.

And it showed. There was something disturbing about the cast of artists, actors and freaks that populated Andy Warhol’s famous Factory in the mid-60s, as there was about the band he recruited for his Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, an artistic version of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. The Velvet Underground’s music was more about bad-trip paranoia than the voyage of discovery that Timothy Leary preached. And there was more than one ingredient in the recipe, as the opiated tones of the Velvets’ debut album clearly demonstrated.

Similarly, it’s hard to classify Bob Dylan as acid rock, although his LSD experiences were a major factor in his transformation from protest singer to expanding his own and everybody else’s consciousness. Scholars are still debating precisely when the change took place. Many opt for Mr Tambourine Man, although you can read a whole thesis on Lay Down Your Weary Tune if you really want to. 

Most agree that the Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde albums represent his most acidic – and acerbic – period. If you want a snapshot of the impact you should check out the updated version of I Don’t Believe You on the Albert Hall 1966 album, where Bob turns his folk song into an hallucinogenic Buddy Holly number.

Not surprisingly, most New York musicians who wished to pursue their acid dreams trekked over to the West Coast. The Byrds were on an early wagon train, and they were followed by The Mamas And The Papas, although the latter took the scenic route.

John Phillips formed The Mamas And The Papas out of the Greenwich Village folk scene with his mate Denny Doherty, his wife Michelle (who secretly had the hots for Denny) and the voluminous Mama Cass (who also had the hots for Denny). They all took acid for the first time together, during which Denny made John listen to With The Beatles lying on the floor with a speaker next to each ear. Then he leaned over him and said slowly and deliberately: “No more folk. Folk is dead. You got it?”

A month later Phillips had written 30 new songs. Using a previous band’s credit card they gathered up some other musician friends, John’s five-year-old daughter from his first marriage, and a Gucci bag full of acid and headed for the Virgin Islands. There they worked up The Mamas And The Papas’ Greatest Hits in between snorkelling on acid, stoking the romantic soap opera and generally causing mayhem on the island, all of which was duly commemorated in song. They even remembered to look after little Laura Phillips occasionally.

They returned to New York, pausing only to offload Laura and reload the Gucci bag before driving to California. They kept the wipers on all the way because they made such pretty rainbow patterns on the windscreen. By the time they’d landed a record deal in LA, Michelle and Denny had been unable to resist each other, which was bad news for John and Mama Cass.

But in the studio and on stage the harmony remained immaculate. That is until Michelle and Denny broke it off and Michelle took up with Gene Clark of The Byrds. She was outraged when the others fired her. But a few months later she got back with John, and normal drug-addled behaviour was resumed. John was so happy he even wrote a song for his first wife’s boyfriend, Scott Mackenzie, called San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)

The Mamas And The Papas were a driving force behind putting together the 1967 Monterey Festival, and only disbanded when John and Michelle split – again – the following year. This time John slid into a decade-long, drug-induced hell.

Of those bands who failed to make the Westward trek from New York, the Lovin’ Spoonful managed to convince themselves that the sun shone through the dingiest Greenwich Village apartment window. 

Singer John Sebastian and guitarist Zal Yonavsky had been in The Mugwumps with Mama Cass and Denny, and the Spoonful scored a succession of hits with their jug-band good-time music – Do You Believe In Magic, You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice, Daydream and Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind – before Zal and bassist Steve Boone got busted in 1966 and, in return for getting off, allegedly shopped their dealer.

The outrage of the moral majority was eclipsed by the outrage of the immoral minority, but the hits kept rolling for a while – Summer In the City, Rain On The Roof and Nashville Cats – before Zal was fired. Without him, the Lovin’ Spoonful survived less than a year.

The Left Banke came closest to being a proper New York acid-rock band. Formed by classically-trained, highly-strung prodigy Michael Brown who wrote Walk Away Renee when he was 16, the band scored a US Top Five hit with it in 1966 – which is better than the Four Tops managed a few years later. Allegedly, an equally young Steven Tyler sang backing vocals on the track.

After an album featuring some fine songs and haunting vocals, Brown decided he wanted to “do a Brian Wilson” and stay in the studio. His behaviour was becoming unpredictable; he’d taken to carrying a brown paper bag around with him, and when someone asked what was in it he ran out of the studio screaming. 

He reappeared two days later, explaining that he’d been kidnapped by Mongolians who’d implanted a transistor in his head. Whatever. His new studio role did not produce a Pet Sounds; instead it produced two bands arguing over the name, which within a year wasn’t worth arguing over anyway.

But New York did produce the greatest acid metal covers band… ever: Vanilla Fudge, the Long Island quartet having discovered the joys of deconstructing a classic song and reassembling it at half the speed and twice the intensity. Organist Mark Stein and guitarist Vince Martell played on the edge of feedback, anchored by bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice.

Their self-titled debut was a riot of wild arpeggios, overblown crescendos, heavily reverbed vocals and exaggerated backing vocals, swirling beats and histrionic climaxes as they lumbered through The Beatles’ Ticket To Ride and Eleanor Rigby, Cher’s Bang Bang and their piece de resistance, an eight-minute demolition job on The Supremes’ You Keep Me Hanging On, with Mark Stein crying over Diana Ross’s throwaway aside ‘And there ain’t nothing I can do about it’ like he’s having a nervous breakdown. An edited version of their You Keep Me Hanging On cover even buzzed briefly around the Top 20 in the summer of ’67.

Such a grandiose beginning almost begged a catastrophic fall, and in 1968 Vanilla Fudge duly supplied it with The Beat Goes On, which covered the history of music in 18 minutes, followed a lengthy collage of voices from great statesmen of the 20th century, all linked by the Sonny And Cher classic – naturally. It’s fair to say that Vanilla Fudge never really recovered, although Messrs Bogert and Appice later found gainful employment with Jeff Beck.

The counter-culture traditions of New York’s 50s and early 60s beat poets were hauled into the psychedelic era by Ed Sanders and The Fugs. A poet and publisher of the ‘literary magazine’ Fuck You (literary title eh?), Ed started The Fugs in 1964 to amuse the radical hippies and outrage everyone else with cynical satire, acerbic humour and obscenity, backed by barely competent musicians.

Early songs included Slum Goddess, I Couldn’t Get High, Boobs A Lot, Bull Tongue Clit and Coca Cola Douche. Those last two mysteriously missed the cut on their First Album in 1965. Even their avant-garde label balked at some of the material on The Fugs. So the band picked softer targets like Vietnam (Kill For Peace), pop idols (Frenzy) and LSD itself (Skin Flowers).

Enough freaks were digging The Fugs for the major labels to show an interest in this bunch of bohemian subversives, and the lucky winner, Reprise, got a psychedelic-folk concept album, Indian War Whoop, as their prize. They also got more Fugs than they bargained for, as nobody who showed up seemed to get turned away, and even ‘guru’ Allen Ginsberg got to contribute the world’s worst harmonica solo during the Tenderness Junction album, which included Exorcising The Evil Spirits From The Pentagon October 21 1967 featuring the famous ‘Out, demons out’ chant.

The problems started when good musicians started showing up, and soon they were arguing over style more than content. Despite its great title, It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest flopped as studio technology neutered their anarchism. At least the live Golden Filth lived up to its title, though.

The only other major acid state in America in the late 60s was Texas. And most of the acid in Texas appears to have been consumed by the 13th Floor Elevators. In fact they were the first band to advertise themselves as ‘psychedelic’ (beating the Grateful Dead with the tag by a few weeks).

Austin philosophy student Tommy Hall formed the band in late ’65, and his quivering jug sound – created by using the jug as an echo chamber for his voice and holding a microphone against it – gave the band a distinctive trademark. He had already finalised his line-up when he ran across Roky Erickson, from local group The Spades. 

The pair’s shared belief that hallucinogenics were the key to the universe led to an immediate rapport. Roky also had a classic garage-band song called You’re Gonna Miss Me, which was the band’s first single and the closest they ever got to a hit. The demonic edge to Roky’s high, whining voice gave the song a driven urgency, even before he added a crazy harmonica solo in the middle. The band made no secret of the fact that they rocked on acid, and their reputation grew rapidly as their compulsive live shows, all pulsating rhythms and stomping beats, ebbed and flowed to the flashbacks.

They practised what they preached on their first and finest album, The Psychedelic Sound Of The 13th Floor Elevators, which had such self-explanatory numbers as Kingdom Of Heaven, Reverberation and Roller Coaster (which some people allege Pink Floyd reworked for Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun), along with Fire Engine, which fantasised about taking a trip while the sirens wailed all around. For many The Psychedelic Sound Of The 13th Floor Elevators is the purest acid-rock album ever made.

The band’s reputation also reached the law enforcement authorities in Texas – not exactly America’s most liberal state – and just as the album came out the whole group was busted when police raided Hall’s apartment and found marijuana. They escaped jail on a technicality, but it was enough to freak out the band’s rhythm section, who quit.

Easter Everywhere, their second album, released in the autumn of ’67, rivalled the first although the production toned down the more frenzied edges. By now Roky’s erratic behaviour was giving cause for concern. Worse, he was busted again for possession of one joint. This time his lawyer decided to get him off ‘by reason of insanity’. Unfortunately the court agreed, and Roky found himself in the state mental hospital, where he was subjected to electric shock therapy along with heavy doses of Thorazine and other psychoactive drugs. 

Whatever state he was in when he was sent there, he was a lot worse when he came out three years later. When guitarist Stacey Sutherland was busted soon afterwards he decided not to play the insanity card and went straight to jail instead.

By now the Elevators had disintegrated, but that didn’t stop the record company from issuing two more albums: Live consisted of a batch of studio tracks (many previously released) ineptly overdubbed with audience noises; Bull Of The Woods was an abandoned album they found lying around, only some of which included Roky. You could say the same of the rest of Roky’s career.

The Texas psychedelic scene had limited opportunities in such a redneck culture, and many of the bands survived by regular trips to the West Coast (where the 13th Floor Elevators were greatly revered). Some of them even got mistaken for Californian bands, like the baroque-metal Fever Tree, who brought it upon themselves by having a minor hit called San Francisco Girls. Their self-titled debut was a sparkling blend of vivid melodies, ornate rock and psychedelic metal. And then they lost the plot.

The Moving Sidewalks stayed home and racked up a series of local hits all over Texas with hot rockers like 99th Floor and Need Me, featuring freaky lyrics and Hendrix-style guitar. They made just one album, Flash, but after they broke up guitarist Billy Gibbons went on to redefine Texas rock with ZZ Top.

But the other Texas band closest to Roky Erickson’s frazzled heart were Red Crayola, who pioneered their own ‘free-form freak-out’ with little heed to such ‘straight’ conventions as melodies or time signatures. Roky even guested on their 1967 debut album The Parable Of Arable Land. Many of Red Crayola’s shows ended prematurely at the audience’s request; at Berkeley College in California, one of the more enlightened educational establishments of the time, they were paid $10 to stop.

Needless to say, when founder Mayo Thompson re-formed the band a decade later he was hailed as a visionary. 

But by then it was no longer the acid rockers who were wearing rose-tinted spectacles.

Hugh Fielder

Hugh Fielder has been writing about music for 47 years. Actually 58 if you include the essay he wrote about the Rolling Stones in exchange for taking time off school to see them at the Ipswich Gaumont in 1964. He was news editor of Sounds magazine from 1975 to 1992 and editor of Tower Records Top magazine from 1992 to 2001. Since then he has been freelance. He has interviewed the great, the good and the not so good and written books about some of them. His favourite possession is a piece of columnar basalt he brought back from Iceland.