Psychedelia and Its Effects
By Daniel Brooks
Psychedelia was a synesthetic joyride, a heady, kaleidoscopic mix of youthful idealism, enhanced consciousness, free-range creativity and more than a little celebratory sensuality. The Psychedelic Counterculture had a brief but lasting effect on popular thought, spirituality, fashion, art, music and cultural norms. In the turbulent 1960s, a time when everything was anything but certain, Psychedelia offered a longing look back to a half-imagined Victorian idyll, a colorful expression of an emerging consciousness that differed, substantially, from a questionable mainstream culture, and an inspired look forward to a long hoped-for world of our highest ideals. It may have been as imperfect as any other set of beliefs that promise a better world, but it did give voice to more than its share of genuine inspiration. It wasn’t necessarily stoned, but it was beautiful. It was psychedelic.
Psychedelic music was a sonic boom for the baby boom, the soundtrack to a coming of age party for a whole generation that sought to question, experiment, and reinvent everything handed down by the previous generation. It often featured fantastic lyrics that conveyed some whimsical, surreal, cosmic or psychotropic inspiration. An aura of supernatural mystique was frequently achieved through instrumentation and compositional elements borrowed from classical and world music influences, and atmospheric keyboard sounds such as the mellotron, organ and harpsichord. Psychedelic albums such as The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” The Zombies’ “Odessey and Oracle,” Traffic’s “Mr. Fantasy” and the Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request” expanded the definition of pop and rock music by going far beyond the standard sounds of guitar, bass, drums and voice.
Of course, with the mind-expanding experimentation that inspired most musicians, instrumental breaks took on a life of their own, becoming as much a featured element of a song as the actual vocal parts, and often lasting much longer. Guitarists, especially, took on the relatively unexplored role of musical alchemist with song structures designed to make the most of experimental studio techniques and a handful of new electronic gadgets designed to expand the simple sound of an amplified guitar into unexplored creative territories.
It may seem strange today that such a colorful world of sound was created with so few effects, but in the hands of the inspired, a few good tools are enough. Of the many sonic adventures that lent their day-glo colors to record stores and radios in 1967, Pink Floyd’s debut album “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” defines Psychedelia as well as any mentioned here. Victorian literary references, masterful pop composition, a generous layer of Rick Wright’s Farfisa and Hammond organs, and Syd Barrett’s inimitable voice and creative presence worked to create a masterpiece. And yet all of the guitar sounds were accomplished with nothing more than a custom Telecaster, an overdriven Selmer amp, a Binson Echorec and a Zippo lighter used as a slide.
One of the most influential and memorable psychedelic albums of the era was the absolutely innovative debut by the Jimi Hendrix Experience titled “Are You Experienced.” Working primarily with a Stratocaster (he used a borrowed Telecaster on “Purple Haze” and a Les Paul on “Red House”) and a Marshall Stack (or two, or three) Jimi Hendrix got the attention of every guitarist in the world with his fundamentally new approach to the instrument’s creative potential.
Effects boxes were still a new concept when Hendrix first started recording, and his collection of tools was simple, a Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face for that gritty, textured sound, and Roger Mayer’s frequency doubling pedal called the Octavia, both of which can be heard on “Purple Haze.” Ever eager to expand his sonic vocabulary, he used more effects on later albums, most notably the Vox Wah pedal whose sound he made entirely his own on “Voodoo Chile,” and the Leslie Rotating speaker with which he got that ethereal warble on “Little Wing,” which he later achieved live with a UniVox Univibe. His studio mastery was equally innovative, with the backward guitar solo on “Castles Made of Sand” and the manual flanging heard on “Bold As Love” leading the way for the creation of some of today’s staple effects. You have to wonder what he would have done with the brilliant effects available to us now.
It may be that the unusually high level of creativity expressed in Psychedelia was just unsustainable. It may be that it is the nature of artists to evolve and seek new creative realms. It may be that tragic events such as the death of Meredith Hunter at the Stones’ Altamont concert, the Manson Family murders or the decline of Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Peter Green and others into “acid casualties,” all led to a backlash against the Hippie movement that many associated with Psychedelia. But for these and other reasons, Psychedelia ceased to be a creative form by the end of the1960s. The Stones and the Beatles went back to their earthier rock roots, The Zombies, Cream, Traffic and, eventually, the Beatles, all broke up. Traffic and Pink Floyd each reformed and, like several other former psychedelic bands, evolved into Progressive Rock. But the musical innovations brought about during that all too brief period remain part of the vocabulary of western pop music. Bands like XTC, Olivia Tremor Control, Apples in Stereo, Prince, Lenny Kravitz and many others have drawn inspiration from the Psychedelic Era to create some of their fans’ favorite work. Who knows, as with all things, it may very well come around again.