UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND

7Turning on, tuning in and dropping out may have been the mantra of American Psychedelic salesman-cum-guru Timothy Leary, but who wouldn’t want to turn on, tune in and drop out of 2022? Which will live a longer life – Liz Truss as PM or a lettuce? Pink-haired, privately-educated Titanias and Ptolemys defacing beauty because they have none in their souls – f*** the lot of ‘em; I’d rather take a welcome diversion from the here and now by reflecting my recent listening habits. No idea why, but I’ve been drawn towards Psychedelia of late, albeit the British brand. And it was the Brits for me who really stamped their personality on this endearing episode in the pop narrative of the 1960s. Gary Brooker, singer and keyboardist with Procol Harum, once offered a feasible explanation as to why so many UK bands whose roots were deep in Americana abruptly dropped their tribute act routines; after two or three years of selling coals to Newcastle during the ‘British Invasion’ of the Billboard Hot 100, the same cultural exchange that enabled our artists to touch down on US soil bore fruit on this side of the Atlantic when numerous American acts of the Blues/R&B persuasion played over here and made the white boys realise there was no point with the real deal in town.

Many took a leaf out of Ray Davies’s book, who, following the four-year ban of The Kinks from any further Stateside tours by the American Federation of Musicians, turned away from US influences and looked inwards – or backwards, back to the recurring theme of a long-lost Albion that has regularly resurfaced throughout English literature, art and music for the best part of 200 years or more. The pop musical strain of this was evident as early as 1965 – in The Beatles’ ‘In My Life’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Play with Fire’, two songs that oozed a sonic sensibility more reminiscent of the English Baroque than the black American sounds that had provided the launch-pad for both bands. The Yardbirds were another British band whose basic R&B live set was junked for their far more adventurous 45s, and the sitar-like tunings of the guitars on The Kinks’ single ‘See My Friends’ swiftly infiltrated the playing style of Yardbirds axe-man Jeff Beck before George Harrison and Brian Jones sourced the actual instrument and embellished their respective bands with Eastern exotica.

The innovation of stream-of-consciousness lyricism via Bob Dylan into the expanding palette of pop echoed the nonsense poetry of John Lennon, with the latter realising he could write songs employing the same wordplay he’d published as poetry rather than relying on the boy-meets-girl formula that had been a winner so far. The dependable fuel that had propelled the Beat Boom bands from subterranean clubs to the nation’s theatres was also proving inadequate for the grinding package tour circuit of the era; The Beatles had become accustomed to alternative stimulants during their Hamburg apprenticeship, and when Dylan introduced them to ‘pot’, alcohol ceased to be the go-to drug of choice before and after a gig. Marijuana permeated the pop scene from the mid-60s onwards as it had Jazz 20-odd years before, and its laidback effects were discernible in The Beatles’ ‘Rubber Soul’ album at the end of ’65. By the following year, pot had given the leading British acts an appetite for other illicit substances; and once LSD wormed its way into the recreational hours of bands seeking a break from showbiz demands, the hallucinogenic properties of the latest speakeasy fad inevitably infected the creative process.

The inaugural outing for the influence of Acid came with several tracks on The Beatles’ 1966 LP ‘Revolver’, when the groundbreaking manipulation of electronic trickery previously only used by the likes of Musique concrète pioneers or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop found its way into mainstream pop for the first time. Over in the US, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys was proving himself to be on the same wavelength as his British counterparts, but his increasing isolation from his bandmates and eventual breakdown halted the progress he was making. The field was clear for The Beatles to build upon the likes of ‘Rain’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the time 1966 turned to 1967, and they emerged from Abbey Road with facial hair and far-out threads to promote ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Coupled with Paul McCartney’s joyous slice of uplifting suburban pop, ‘Penny Lane’, the hazy, Alice in Wonderland-like aural tapestry of Lennon’s ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ probably played its part in – as Philip Larkin noted – losing The Beatles the undying love of the secretaries who’d frequented lunchtime gigs at The Cavern; but it served to elevate pop music to the level of Art that only Jazz and Classical had previously been afforded. It laid the ground for the unprecedented cultural impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and also drew a line in the sand between Pop and Rock that was highlighted by the fact this double A-sided single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s ballad, ‘Release Me’.

Engelbert himself encountered the sudden schism in pop when he participated in a memorable package tour in early ’67, sharing a bill with The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens…and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The latter had been brought to the Mecca of Swinging London by ex-Animals bassist Chas Chandler and launched upon an unsuspecting UK pop scene with a string of instant hits that helped bring the word ‘Psychedelic’ into the mainstream as an overnight genre that came with its own distinctive weaponry: Fab gear from Carnaby Street (and accompanying coiffure); groups with strange names that sounded like Victorian medicines; backwards guitars and unusual instrumentation; lyrical subject matter rooted in a very Edwardian idea of an Arcadian childhood; and allusions to hallucinatory experiences that both sound and vision attempted to replicate, whether in groovy outfits, Art Nouveau-influenced album sleeves, or the obligatory sitar. New acts sprang up like magic mushrooms and established acts embraced the changes. Suddenly, pop no longer equated with Herman’s Hermits headlining ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’.

This new scene had its own press (the International Times and Oz), its own club – the UFO on Tottenham Court Road – and a slew of new bands, the most commercially successful being Pink Floyd and Procol Harum. Bandwagon-jumpers were naturally aplenty, but at its best British Psychedelia represented the first real break with America. The US version was less musically experimental and tended to have a harder, radical edge that enabled it to soundtrack opposition to the Vietnam War. Deprived of such a cause, Brits instead took a trip to an imaginary village green and some (such as Syd Barrett) never came back. In a sense, the seeds of Psychedelia’s short lifespan were present in some of its brightest stars. The Bach-like vibes of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ – along with the flamboyant virtuosity of The Nice and the symphonic pomp of The Moody Blues – paved the way for Prog Rock; the turbo-charged Psychedelic Blues of power trio Cream (as well as Hendrix) laid the foundations for Hard Rock; and the surrealistic whimsy of Donovan and the Incredible String Band helped the likes of Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span to give Folk a hippie makeover by the time the 60s drew to a close.

When The Beatles and Stones rounded-off ’67 with the last glorious hurrahs for British Psychedelia with ‘I Am The Walrus’ and ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ respectively, the writing was already on the wall. Both the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ TV movie and the Stones’ unfairly-maligned album were savaged by critics and audiences alike; after The Beatles’ Indian sojourn at the feet of the Maharishi in early ’68, they returned with a stripped-down sound that rejected the elaborate soundscapes of the past two years, and the Stones followed suit. The mainstream pop scene staggered on in its Psychedelic wardrobe for another few months, but by the end of ’68 the portal to Wonderland had been sealed up. Having said that, it’s still hidden in the woods for any curious musical tomb-raiders; and right now, I’m one of them.

© The Editor

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4 thoughts on “UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND

  1. Having lived through the age of psychedelia as a teenager, albeit more of an observer than an active participant, it was at the same time both a wondrous and baffling period. The wonder of the spectacular sights, sounds and colours, accompanied by a bafflement at the state of minds which could create it and also often what it meant, especially the other-world approach to lyrics which generally lacked any root in real life.

    Trying to explain the lyrics of ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ to the host family on a school-exchange to France in 1967 proved one helluva challenge for both my schoolboy French and my own creative interpretation. I think I got away with it – my first successful resort to bullshitting probably.

    In some ways I’ve been surprised that it never had a revival, there are far more varied narcotics available now to stimulate the creative minds and the technology for music production and presentation is far more advanced, yet accessible now to even the most modest budgets.

    But it was a moment in time, it flared, it went, we moved on. Life’s like that. There are probably some folk in France still clinging to the ‘official’ interpretation of ‘skipping the light fandango’ . . . .

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    1. Even from a ‘before my time’ perspective – which, born the year it bloomed, has always been the way I’ve seen it – the whole Psychedelic period always seems like such a bewildering and dazzling eruption of unprecedented creativity and innovation that, 40-odd years on from first hearing its most celebrated moments, I routinely stumble upon another overlooked gem from its crowded canon. And I say that as someone who still hasn’t skipped the light fandango, let alone turned cartwheels on the floor…

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  2. Again, I’m a few years further down the line still but essentially nicking my music taste more or less off my older brother, this music still entrances, especially Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I know Pink Floyd turned into a bit of a bloated beast but the strange fractured simplicity of this album was so compelling, especially compared with Barrett’s frankly terrifying solo albums in an extreme interpretation of the genre. In terms of revival, I think the closest we have come is some of the better early 90s shoegaze, particularly My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver, but with the latter’s popularity in America but not at home suggests they were more a reflection of West Coast psychedelia than British, but to me they are a clear continuation from Cream, Hendrix to their time. To be fair that’s still 30 years ago, so maybe we are overdue a contemporary revival.

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    1. Elements of Psychedelia have certainly briefly resurfaced in the odd band over the past 50 years – mid-period Jam dabbled a little, as did The Stone Roses and the shoegazers; there were occasional sightings in Britpop too. But no full-scale revival, for sure.

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