Psychedelic rock is a diverse style of rock music inspired, influenced, or representative of psychedelic culture, which is centred around perception-altering hallucinogenic drugs. The music is intended to replicate and enhance the mind-altering experiences of psychedelic drugs, most notably LSD. Many psychedelic groups differ in style, and the label is often applied spuriously.
Originating in the mid-1960s among British and American musicians, the sounds of psychedelic rock invokes three core effects of LSD: depersonalization, dechronicization, and dynamization; all of which detach the user from reality. Musically, the effects may be represented via novelty studio tricks, electronic or non-Western instrumentation, disjunctive song structures, and extended instrumental segments. Some of the earlier 1960s psychedelic rock musicians were based in folk, jazz, and the blues, while others showcased an explicit Indian classical influence called "raga rock". In the 1960s, there existed two main variants of the genre: the whimsical British pop-psychedelia and the harder American West Coast acid rock. While "acid rock" is sometimes deployed interchangeably with the term "psychedelic rock", it also refers more specifically to the heavier and more extreme ends of the genre.
The peak years of psychedelic rock were between 1966 and 1969, with milestone events including the 1967 Summer of Love and the 1969 Woodstock Rock Festival, becoming an international musical movement associated with a widespread counterculture before beginning a decline as changing attitudes, the loss of some key individuals and a back-to-basics movement, led surviving performers to move into new musical areas. The genre bridged the transition from early blues and folk-based rock to progressive rock and hard rock, and as a result contributed to the development of sub-genres such as heavy metal. Since the late 1970s it has been revived in various forms of neo-psychedelia.
As a musical style, psychedelic rock attempts to replicate the effects of and enhance the mind-altering experiences of hallucinogenic drugs, incorporating new electronic sound effects and recording effects, extended solos, and improvisation. Common features include:
- electric guitars, often used with feedback, wah wah and fuzzbox effects units;
- elaborate studio effects, such as backwards tapes, panning, phasing, long delay loops, and extreme reverb;
- elements of Eastern music, specifically Indian music,
- non-Western instruments, specifically those originally used in Indian classical music, such as the sitar and tabla;
- elements of free-form jazz
- a strong keyboard presence, especially electronic organs, harpsichords, or the Mellotron (an early tape-driven 'sampler');
- extended instrumental segments, especially guitar solos, or jams;
- disjunctive song structures, occasional key and time signature changes, modal melodies and drones;
- electronic instruments such as synthesizers and the theremin;
- lyrics that made direct or indirect reference to hallucinogenic drugs, as in Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" or Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit";
- surreal, whimsical, esoterically or literary-inspired, lyrics.
The term "psychedelic" was coined in 1956 by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond first as an alternative descriptor for hallucinogenic drugs in the context of psychedelic psychotherapy. As the countercultural scene developed in San Francisco, the terms acid rock and psychedelic rock were used in 1966 to describe the new drug-influenced music and were being widely used by 1967. The terms psychedelic rock and acid rock are often used interchangeably, but acid rock may be distinguished as a more extreme variation that was heavier, louder, relied on long jams, focused more directly on LSD, and made greater use of distortion.
Original psychedelic era
1960–65: Precursors and influences
In the popular music of the early 1960s, it was common for producers, songwriters, and engineers to freely experiment with musical form, arrangements, unnatural reverb, and other sound effects. Some of the best known examples are Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production formula and Joe Meek's use of homemade electronics for acts like the Tornados. XTC's Andy Partridge interprets the music of psychedelic groups as a "grown-up" version of children's novelty records, believing that many acts were trying to emulate those records that they grew up with; "They use exactly the same techniques—sped-up bits, slowed-down bits, too much echo, too much reverb, that bit goes backwards. ... There was no transition to be made. You go from things like 'Flying Purple People Eater' to 'I Am the Walrus'. They go hand-in-hand." Music critic Richie Unterberger says that attempts to "pin down" the first psychedelic record are therefore "nearly as elusive as trying to name the first rock & roll record". Some of the "far-fetched claims" include the instrumental "Telstar" (produced by Meek for the Tornados in 1962) and the Dave Clark Five's "massively reverb-laden" "Any Way You Want It" (1964). The first mention of LSD on a rock record was the Gamblers' 1960 surf instrumental "LSD 25". A 1962 single by The Ventures, "The 2000 Pound Bee", issued forth the buzz of a distorted, "fuzztone" guitar, and the quest into "the possibilities of heavy, transistorised distortion" and other effects, like improved reverb and echo began in earnest on London's fertile rock 'n' roll scene. By 1964 fuzztone could be heard on singles by P.J. Proby, and the Beatles had employed feedback in "I Feel Fine", their 6th consecutive No. 1 hit in the UK.
American folk singer Bob Dylan was a massive influence on mid 1960s rock music. He led directly to the creation of folk rock and the psychedelic rock musicians that followed, and his lyrics were a touchstone for the psychedelic songwriters of the late 1960s. Virtuoso sitarist Ravi Shankar had begun in 1956 a mission to bring Indian classical music to the West, inspiring jazz, classical and folk musicians; and by the mid-1960s, a generation of young rock musicians who would make raga rockpart of the psychedelic rock aesthetic and one of the many intersecting cultural motifs of the era. Meanwhile, in British folk, blues, drugs, jazz and eastern influences blended in the early 1960s work of Davy Graham, who adopted modal guitar tunings to transpose Indian ragas and Celtic reels. Graham was a "profound influence" on Scottish folk virtuoso Bert Jansch and other pioneering guitarists across a spectrum of styles and genres in the mid-1960s. Jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane had a similar impact, as the exotic sounds on his albums My Favorite Things (1960) and A Love Supreme (1964), the latter influenced by the ragas of Shankar, were source material for guitar players and others looking to improvise or "jam".
1965: Formative psychedelic scenes and sounds
According to music journalist Barry Miles: "Hippies didn't just pop up overnight, but 1965 was the first year in which a discernible youth movement began to emerge. Many of the key 'psychedelic' rock bands formed this year." On the West Coast, underground chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III and Ken Kesey (along with his followers known as the "Merry Pranksters") helped thousands of people take uncontrolled trips at Kesey's "Acid Tests" and in the new psychedelic dance halls. In Britain, Michael Hollingshead opened the World Psychedelic Centre and Beat Generation poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso read at the Royal Albert Hall. Miles adds: "The readings acted as a catalyst for underground activity in London, as people suddenly realized just how many like-minded people there were around. This was also the year that London began to blossom into colour with the opening of the Granny Takes a Trip and Hung On You clothes shops."Thanks to media coverage, use of LSD became widespread.
Molly Longman of mic.com writes that in terms of bridging the relationship between music and hallucinogens, the Beatles and the Beach Boys were the era's most pivotal acts. In 1965, the Beach Boys' leader Brian Wilson started exploring song composition while under the influence of psychedelic drugs, and after being introduced to cannabis in 1964 by Dylan, members of the Beatles also began using LSD. The considerable success enjoyed by these two bands allowed them the freedom to experiment with new technology over entire albums. Producer George Martin, who was initially known as a specialist in comedy and novelty records, responded to the Beatles' requests by providing a range of studio tricks that ensured the band played a key role in the development of psychedelic effects, including the drug-inspired drone on "Ticket to Ride" (1965).
In Unterberger's opinion, the Byrds, emerging from the Los Angeles folk rock scene, and the Yardbirds, from England's blues scene, were more responsible than the Beatles for "sounding the psychedelic siren". Drug use and attempts at psychedelic music moved out of acoustic folk-based music towards rock soon after the Byrds "plugged in" to electric guitars to produce a chart topping version of Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" in the summer of 1965, which became a folk rock standard. On the Yardbirds, Unterberger identifies lead guitarist Jeff Beck as having "laid the blueprint for psychedelic guitar", and the band for defining psychedelic rock's "manic eclecticism ... With their ominous minor key melodies, hyperactive instrumental breaks (called rave-ups), and use of Gregorian chants." All were present on Having a Rave-Up, the Yardbirds' U.S.-only album on which Beck "emerged as a full-fledged guitar hero", in the view of Guitar Player magazine. "Heart Full of Soul" (June 1965) was a hit single driven by a distorted fuzz guitar riff by Beck made to simulate the drone of a sitar, which "carried the energy of a new scene" and heralded the arrival of new Eastern sounds.
The Kinks would also incorporate guitars to mimic the drones of Indian music on "See My Friends", another Top 10 hit just a few weeks later. The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" from the December 1965 album Rubber Soul marked the first released recording on which a member of a Western rock group played the sitar. The song is generally credited for sparking the sitar craze of the mid-1960s – a trend which fueled the growth of raga rock as the India exotic became part of the essence of psychedelic rock. Rock author George Case recognises Rubber Soul as one of two Beatles albums that "marked the authentic beginning of the psychedelic era". Music critic Robert Christgau similarly wrote that "Psychedelia starts here", while San Francisco historian Charles Perry said the album became "the soundtrack of the Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley and the whole circuit", where pre-hippie students recognised that the songs were inspired by drugs.
A number of California-based folk acts followed the Byrds into folk-rock, bringing their psychedelic influences with them, to produce the "San Francisco Sound". The San Francisco music scene developed in the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in 1965 at basement shows organised by Chet Helms of the Family Dog; and as Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin and investors opened The Matrix nightclub that summer and began booking his and other local bands such as the Grateful Dead, The Steve Miller Band and Country Joe & the Fish. Helms and San Francisco Mime Troupe manager Bill Graham in the fall of 1965 organised larger scale multi-media community events/benefits featuring the Airplane, the Diggers and poet Allen Ginsberg. By early 1966 Graham had secured booking at The Fillmore, and Helms at the Avalon Ballroom, where in-house psychedelic-themed light shows replicated the visual effects of the psychedelic experience. Graham would become a major figure in the growth of psychedelic rock, attracting most of the major psychedelic rock bands of the day to The Fillmore.
1966: Growth and early popularity
Musicologist William Echard writes that in 1966, "the psychedelic implications" advanced by recent rock experiments "became fully explicit and much more widely distributed," and by the end of the year, "most of the key elements of psychedelic topicality had been at least broached." Author Jim DeRogatis says the birth date of psychedelic (or acid) rock is "best listed at 1966". Music journalists Pete Prown and Harvey P. Newquist locate the "peak years" of psychedelic rock between 1966 and 1969. 1966 saw the media coverage of rock music change considerably as the music became reevaluated as a new form of art in tandem with the growing psychedelic community.
In February and March, two singles were released that later achieved recognition as the first psychedelic hits: the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things" and the Byrds' "Eight Miles High". The former reached the top 10 in the UK and the top 20 in the US, and continued the Yardbirds' exploration of guitar effects, Eastern-sounding scales, and shifting rhythms that began with their 1965 singles. By overdubbing guitar parts, Beck layered multiple takes for his solo, which included extensive use of fuzz tone and harmonic feedback. The Yardbirds' lyrics, described as "stream-of-consciousness", have been interpreted as pro-environmental or anti-war. They became the first British band to have the term applied to one of its songs. Meanwhile, the Byrds moved away from their earlier folk rock with Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker guitar interpretation of free jazz (Coltrane) and Indian raga-sounding scales (Shankar). The Byrds' lyrics were widely taken to refer to drug use, although the group denied it at the time. "Eight Miles High" peaked in the top 20 in the US. and the top 30 in the UK.
Contributing to psychedelia's emergence into the pop mainstream was the release of Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (May 1966) and the Beatles' Revolver (August 1966). Often considered one of the earliest albums in the canon of psychedelic rock, Pet Sounds contained many elements that would be incorporated into psychedelia, with its artful experiments, psychedelic lyrics based on emotional longings and self-doubts, elaborate sound effects and new sounds on both conventional and unconventional instruments. The album track "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" contained the first use of theremin sounds on a rock record. Scholar Philip Auslander says that even though psychedelic music is not normally associated with the Beach Boys, the "odd directions" and experiments in Pet Sounds "put it all on the map. ... basically that sort of opened the door — not for groups to be formed or to start to make music, but certainly to become as visible as say Jefferson Airplane or somebody like that." Like Pet Sounds, Revolver explored musical soundscapes that could not be replicated in concert, even with the addition of an orchestra. The Beatles' May 1966 B-side "Rain", recorded during the Revolver sessions, was the first pop recording to include reversed sounds. It makes full use of an assortment of studio tricks such as varispeed and backwards taping, combining them with a droning melody that further highlights a growing interest in non-Western musical form. Author Simon Philo believes the song to be "the birth of British psychedelic rock". Author Steve Turner recognises the Beatles' success in conveying an LSD-inspired worldview on Revolver, particularly on "Tomorrow Never Knows", as having "opened the doors to psychedelic rock (or acid rock)".
In October 1966, the Texas band 13th Floor Elevators debuted with The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators. They were the first group to advertise themselves as psychedelic rock, having done so since the end of 1965. The Beach Boys' October 1966 single "Good Vibrations" was another early pop song to incorporate psychedelic lyrics and sounds. Upon release, the single prompted an unexpected revival in theremins and increased the awareness of analog synthesizers. As psychedelia gained prominence, Beach Boys-style harmonies would be ingrained into the newer psychedelic pop.
1967–69: Continued development
1967 was when psychedelic rock received widespread media attention and a larger audience beyond local psychedelic communities. From 1967 to 1968, psychedelic rock was the prevailing sound of rock music, either in the whimsical British variant, or the harder American West Coast acid rock. Since most of the US acts had yet to release records in the UK, most of the British groups based their sound on what they'd simply read or heard about psychedelic music. Compared with American psychedelia, British psychedelic music was often more arty in its experimentation, and it tended to stick within pop song structures. In February 1967, the Beatles released the double A-side single "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane", which Ian MacDonald says launched both the "English pop-pastoral mood" typified by bands such as Pink Floyd, Family, Traffic and Fairport Convention, and English psychedelia's LSD-inspired preoccupation with "nostalgia for the innocent vision of a child". According to Simonelli, the Beatles' single heralded the group's brand of Romanticism as a central tenet of psychedelic rock. Pink Floyd's "Arnold Layne" (March 1967) and "See Emily Play" (June 1967), both written by Syd Barrett, helped set the pattern for British pop-psychedelia.
Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow (February 1967) was the first album to come out of San Francisco during this era, which sold well enough to bring the city's music scene to the attention of the record industry: from it they took two of the earliest[contradictory] psychedelic hit singles: "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love". Soon, British clubs like the UFO Club, Middle Earth Club, The Roundhouse, the Country Club and the Art Lab were drawing capacity audiences with psychedelic rock and ground-breaking liquid light shows. A major figure in the development of British psychedelia was the American promoter and record producer Joe Boyd, who moved to London in 1966. He co-founded venues including the UFO Club, produced Pink Floyd's first single, "Arnold Layne", and went on to manage folk and folk rock acts including Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention.
Psychedelic rock's popularity accelerated following the success of the Monterey Pop Festival and the release of the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the same week of June. The album was the first commercially successful work that critics heralded as a landmark aspect of psychedelia, and the Beatles' mass appeal meant that the album would be played virtually everywhere. The Summer of Love of 1967 saw a huge number of young people from across America and the world travel to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, boosting the population from 15,000 to around 100,000. It was prefaced by the Human Be-In event in March and reached its peak at the Monterey Pop Festival in June, the latter helping to make major American stars of Janis Joplin, lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. Existing "British Invasion" acts now joined the psychedelic revolution, including Eric Burdon (previously of The Animals) and The Who, whose The Who Sell Out (December 1967) included psychedelic influenced tracks "I Can See for Miles" and "Armenia City in the Sky". The Incredible String Band's The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (July 1967) developed their folk music into full blown psychedelia, which would be a major influence on psychedelic rock.
According to author Edward Macan, there ultimately existed three distinct wings of British psychedelic music. The first was based on a heavy, electric reinterpretation of the blues played by the Rolling Stones, adding guitarist Pete Townshend of the Who's pioneering power chord style to the mix. Groups of this nature were dominated by Cream, the Yardbirds, and Hendrix. The second drew strongly from jazz sources and was represented early on by Traffic, Colosseum, If, and the Canterbury scene spearheaded by Soft Machine and Caravan. Their music was considerably more complex than the Cream/Hendrix/Yardbirds approach. The third wing was represented by the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, and the Nice, who were influenced by the later music of the Beatles, unlike the other two wings. Several of the English psychedelic bands who followed in the wake of the Beatles' psychedelic Sgt. Pepper's developed characteristics of the Beatles' music (specifically their classical influence) further than either the Beatles or contemporaneous West Coast psychedelic bands.
The US and UK were the major centres of psychedelic music, but in the late 1960s scenes began to develop across the world, including continental Europe, Australasia, Asia and south and Central America. In the later 1960s psychedelic scenes developed in a large number of countries in continental Europe, including the Netherlands with bands like The Outsiders, Denmark where it was pioneered by Steppeulvene, and Germany, where musicians began to fuse music of psychedelia and the electronic avant-garde. 1968 saw the first major German rock festival, the Internationale Essener Songtage [de] in Essen, and the foundation of the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in Berlin by Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and Conrad Schnitzler, which helped bands like Tangerine Dream and Amon Düül achieve cult status.
A thriving psychedelic music scene in Cambodia, influenced by psychedelic rock and soul broadcast by US forces radio in Vietnam, was pioneered by artists such as Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea. In South Korea, Shin Jung-Hyeon, often considered the godfather of Korean rock, played psychedelic-influenced music for the American soldiers stationed in the country. Following Shin Jung-Hyeon, the band San Ul Lim (Mountain Echo) often combined psychedelic rock with a more folk sound. In Turkey, Anatolian rock artist Erkin Koray blended classic Turkish music and Middle Eastern themes into his psychedelic-driven rock, helping to found the Turkish rock scene with artists such as Cem Karaca, Mogollar and Baris Manco. In Brasil the Tropicalia movement merged Brazilian and African rhythms with psychedelic rock. Musicians who were part of the movement include Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and the poet/lyricist Torquato Neto, all of whom participated in the 1968 album Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, which served as a musical manifesto.
By the end of the 1960s, psychedelic rock was in retreat. Psychedelic trends climaxed in the 1969 Woodstock festival, which saw performances by most of the major psychedelic acts, including Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead. In 1966, LSD had been made illegal in the US and UK. In 1969, the murders of Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca by Charles Manson and his cult of followers, claiming to have been inspired by Beatles' songs such as "Helter Skelter", has been seen as contributing to an anti-hippie backlash. At the end of the same year, the Altamont Free Concert in California, headlined by the Rolling Stones, became notorious for the fatal stabbing of black teenager Meredith Hunter by Hells Angel security guards.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Peter Green and Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd were early "acid casualties", helping to shift the focus of the respective bands of which they had been leading figures. Some groups, such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, broke up. Hendrix died in London in September 1970, shortly after recording Band of Gypsys (1970), Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in October 1970 and they were closely followed by Jim Morrison of the Doors, who died in Paris in July 1971. By this point, many surviving acts had moved away from psychedelia into either more back-to-basics "roots rock", traditional-based, pastoral or whimsical folk, the wider experimentation of progressive rock, or riff-based heavy rock.
Revivals and successors
Soul and funk
Following the lead of Hendrix in rock, psychedelia began to influence African American musicians, particularly the stars of the Motown label. This psychedelic soul was influenced by the civil rights movement, giving it a darker and more political edge than much psychedelic rock. Building on the funk sound of James Brown, it was pioneered from about 1968 by Sly and the Family Stone and The Temptations. Acts that followed them into this territory included Edwin Starr and the Undisputed Truth. George Clinton's interdependent Funkadelic and Parliament ensembles and their various spin-offs took the genre to its most extreme lengths making funk almost a religion in the 1970s, producing over forty singles, including three in the US top ten, and three platinum albums.
While psychedelic rock began to waver at the end of the 1960s, psychedelic soul continued into the 1970s, peaking in popularity in the early years of the decade, and only disappearing in the late 1970s as tastes began to change. Acts like Earth, Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang and Ohio Players, who began as psychedelic soul artists, incorporated its sounds into funk music and eventually the disco which partly replaced it.
Prog, heavy metal, and krautrock
Many of the British musicians and bands that had embraced psychedelia went on to create progressive rock in the 1970s, including Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and members of Yes. King Crimson's album In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) has been seen as an important link between psychedelia and progressive rock. While bands such as Hawkwind maintained an explicitly psychedelic course into the 1970s, most dropped the psychedelic elements in favour of wider experimentation. The incorporation of jazz into the music of bands like Soft Machine and Can also contributed to the development of the jazz rock of bands like Colosseum. As they moved away from their psychedelic roots and placed increasing emphasis on electronic experimentation, German bands like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Can and Faust developed a distinctive brand of electronic rock, known as kosmische musik, or in the British press as "Kraut rock". The adoption of electronic synthesisers, pioneered by Popol Vuh from 1970, together with the work of figures like Brian Eno (for a time the keyboard player with Roxy Music), would be a major influence on subsequent electronic rock.
Psychedelic rock, with its distorted guitar sound, extended solos and adventurous compositions, has been seen as an important bridge between blues-oriented rock and later heavy metal. American bands whose loud, repetitive psychedelic rock emerged as early heavy metal included the Amboy Dukes and Steppenwolf. From England, two former guitarists with the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, moved on to form key acts in the genre, The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin respectively.Other major pioneers of the genre had begun as blues-based psychedelic bands, including Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Judas Priest and UFO. Psychedelic music also contributed to the origins of glam rock, with Marc Bolan changing his psychedelic folk duo into rock band T. Rex and becoming the first glam rock star from 1970. From 1971 David Bowie moved on from his early psychedelic work to develop his Ziggy Stardust persona, incorporating elements of professional make up, mime and performance into his act.
Neo-psychedelia, jam bands and stoner rock
There were occasional mainstream acts that dabbled in neo-psychedelia, a style of music which emerged in late 1970s post-punk circles. Although it has mainly been an influence on alternative and indie rock bands, neo-psychedelia sometimes updated the approach of 1960s psychedelic rock. In the US in the early 1980s it was joined by the Paisley Underground movement, based in Los Angeles and fronted by acts such as Dream Syndicate, The Bangles and Rain Parade.
The jam band movement, which began in the late 1980s, was influenced by the Grateful Dead's improvisational and psychedelic musical style. The Vermont band Phish developed a sizable and devoted fan following during the 1990s, and were described as "heirs" to the Grateful Dead after the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995.
Emerging in the 1990s, stoner rock combined elements of psychedelic rock and doom metal. Typically using a slow-to-mid tempo and featuring low-tuned guitars in a bass-heavy sound, with melodic vocals, and 'retro' production, it was pioneered by the Californian bands Kyuss and Sleep. Modern festivals focusing on psychedelic music include Austin Psych Fest in Texas, founded in 2008 and Liverpool Psych Fest.