What Makes Psychedelic Music Psychedelic?
What Makes Psychedelic Music Psychedelic?
At Psychedelic Scene, we’re exposed to a wide variety of music containing varying quantities and qualities of psychedelia. Since the magazine’s inception two years ago our writers have reviewed thirty-six new (mostly) psych releases, and another thirteen memorable albums for the reminiscent Psych Ward series. It is a perpetual labor of love that we thoroughly enjoy. When considering albums for review, we occasionally ponder the existential question: What makes psychedelic music psychedelic?
Some music lovers associate the genre primarily with legendary acts that thrived during the flower power “Golden Age” era from 1966 to 1969, especially California-based groups as well as many British Invasion bands. However, psych music thrives and persists over fifty
The endearing and enduring genre means different things to different people, and the connotation can be extremely subjective.
years later, and the genre is much vaster than is generally known. Some aficionados make room for experimental rock bands of the early 70s that were retroactively labeled as prog rock. Necessarily included are the wide swath of garage-psych and neo-psych groups that powered through into the new millennium while flying under commercial radar. To many music lovers of the next generation, psychedelic music also covers some prominent jam bands from recent decades that favor eccentric and lengthy instrumental improvisation.
To this reviewer, psychedelic music is all of the above. However, the endearing and enduring genre means different things to different people, and the connotation can be extremely subjective. There are hundreds of musical acts throughout the decades that qualify as psychedelic. So, in this article, we’ll try to pull back the curtain and delve into various elements of psychedelic music to define and demystify it.
As a lifelong musician with an affinity for vintage rock, I was initially unaware of the vast realm of subterranean psych rock produced in the post-Golden Age decades. It wasn’t until the late 2000’s when joining the Marshmallow Overcoat that I was exposed to the genre’s full panorama by guru Tim Gassen. Although Tim is no longer with us, his published compendium The Knights of Fuzz is a definitive resource on the 80’s garage and psychedelic music explosion for those who can find it. Little Steven’s Underground Garage is certainly recommended listening as well. Let’s consult with the magazine’s foremost authority on the subject, editor Jason LeValley!
Just as the psychedelic experience itself is ineffable, the music style is also incredibly difficult to describe.
What makes psychedelic music psychedelic? Okay, psychedelic music is any music that’s… umm… well… gosh. I’m a little embarrassed here. You’d think that I, as the editor of Psychedelic Scene, would have the answer, right? At least an answer. But I don’t. The truth is, just as the psychedelic experience itself is ineffable, the music style is also incredibly difficult to describe.
It’s easier for me to say at least one thing that psychedelic music is not. A lot of people seem to think psychedelic music is any music from the late 60s. That’s nuts! I recently posted something on a social media page asking followers which psychedelic songs are heard most in movies about the 60s. Here are some responses: “Fortunate Son”, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”, “Ruby Tuesday”, “For What It’s Worth”, “Spirit in the Sky”, “The Weight”, “California Dreaming”, “Aquarius”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)”. All these are great songs, to be sure, but none of them are psychedelic. How can I say that with certainty? (When I already said I didn’t have the answer?) Well, there are characteristics in songs that are generally considered psychedelic. But none of them are universally agreed on or set in stone.
Here are a few markers I use to identify musical psychedelia. While there is no solitary sonic element the use of the sitar comes pretty close. When a pop or rock song has a sitar, it usually gives the song a mystical feel to it. “Within You Without You”, the George Harrison song on The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, uses a sitar throughout and, is heavily psychedelic. By contrast, the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” from the album Rubber Soul also uses a sitar but isn’t psychedelic. I mean, it adds
Psychedelic rock is unexpected and a bit disorienting.
a bit of flavor, but the song retains its folky essence. It does seem, however, that when Western music is tinged with Eastern instrumentation, the result is typically psychedelic—or at least mystical.
In my view, psychedelic rock is unexpected and a bit disorienting. There are numerous ways to achieve that: surreal lyrics, phaser and flange effects, drones, atypical key and time signature changes, organs and mellotrons, and studio effects like panning from side to side and backward tapes.
Again, here’s more of what I can say psychedelic music is not. Many modern “neo-psychedelic” bands drench their vocals and guitar in reverb. To my ear, the effect affords them a strictly superficial psychedelic sound. Though these bands are lumped into the growing sub-genre of neo-psych, they are, in my estimation, more aligned with garage rock rather than psychedelia. The use of reverb is simply not enough to constitute psychedelia. There must be something more. I think the best psychedelic music comes from innovation, not cliche.
I guess I finally end up back where I started. I can’t say exactly what psychedelic music consists of, but I know it when I hear it.
Thank you for your insight and words of wisdom, Jason! Let’s take a deep dive into what defines psychedelic music. The purpose is essentially to convey a mind-altering or provoking experience to the listener. For those with relevant experiences, it can provide a soundtrack that aurally intensifies a current adventure or induces a flashback to a previous ‘trip.’ But how is that experience conveyed and translated by the ears and brain of the listener? Jerry Garcia once described it as “rhythm and blues with a whole lot of weirdness.” However, a song isn’t psychedelic just because the musicians happen to be tripping on acid. What makes the music itself psychedelic? Having touched on the why, let’s dissect the who (not The Who!), when, where, what, and how.
The when and where is the easy part. Psychedelic music was spontaneously conceived in the mid-1960s in San Francisco, California, a flashpoint sparked by a madcap confluence of events: the introduction of LSD into a vibrant counter-culture during the height of the Beat
A song isn’t psychedelic just because the musicians happen to be tripping on acid.
Generation, the Vietnam War’s mandatory draft and resulting anti-war movement. For the musicians of the time, the hallucinogen introduced to their defiantly creative intellects a new polychromatic element, not unlike the concurrent change from black-and-white to color television.
The rebellious renaissance birthed a new type of music that shattered the established norms, highlighted by artistic anomalies penned by Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Grace Slick, Syd Barrett, Robert Hunter, Brian Wilson, Lennon/McCartney, and many more. Suddenly, wide varieties of musical acts across all genres from The Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters to Miles Davis to The Temptations were motivated to include newfound alien elements into their music in the late 60s, similar to the polar opposite effect of disco a decade later.
But as Jason alluded to, the Golden Age timeframe of 1966-69 alone is not the determining nor qualifying factor. More essential to the equation are the abnormal musical composition, vivid lyrics, atypical instrumentation, odd production, and resultantly disorienting evocation.
When mind-altering substances began to affect the songwriting process, the lyricists of the era were abruptly inspired to scrawl kaleidoscopic, esoteric allusions and unbridled descriptions of fictional places and fantastical beings, while describing their own
For the musicians of the time, the hallucinogen introduced to their defiantly creative intellects a new polychromatic element, not unlike the concurrent change from black-and-white to color television.
hallucinatory experiences (i.e. Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”). These striking songs inspire the listener’s psyche to visualize the bizarre oddities described in the lyrics and be momentarily transported to that otherwise unattainable place or state of mind.
While the lyrics are paramount in sparking the listener’s imagination, the song’s arrangement is important as well. The compositions may variate from the typical major and minor chords to include rarer musical modes. The mold is further broken by deviating from the standard pattern of verse and chorus, incorporating a quizzical bridge that unnervingly shifts key, tempo, and feel – perchance inspiring an indistinguishable jam that alternately climaxes in a glorious reprise or warps into cosmic bliss.
In the studio, psychedelic experiences affected the recording process in both pre- and post-production. The presence of lysergic acid permeated through studios well beyond Abbey Road and Electric Ladyland, as though the substance was absorbed into the recording console. On vocal or instrument tracks, engineers would actively pan the track left-to-right to varying degrees to create an in-motion panoramic effect. The reverse tape effect was also commonplace in the studio, achieved by literally running the reel-to-reel analog tape backward at varying speeds. Before the advancement of digital effects processing added the option of repetitive delay, the vocals in psychedelic music often included heavy amounts of analog reverb. Created by reproducing the vocal track in a reverb room or echo chamber in the studio, this effect was commonly used and overused. On the Grateful Dead’s 1968 album Anthem of the Sun, engineer Dan Healy processed Garcia’s vocals through a rotating Leslie speaker typically used for organ, an innovative technique adding a different texture unachievable by reverb or manual active panning.
Guitarists and bassists often achieve a psychedelic tone by augmenting their axes with specific effect pedals such as fuzz distortion, tremolo, phaser, flanger, envelope filter, or the ‘Cry Baby’ wah-wah pedal immortalized by Hendrix. These effects modulate the waveform generated by the instrument, emphasizing the audial peaks and valleys to create an in-and-out or up-and-down rollercoaster impression, like blurred vision for the ears. Some Golden Age guitarists like The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn opted for the naturally harmonious 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar that was issued in 1964. Nostalgic bassists may enlist a hollow-body Hofner popularized by Paul McCartney, due to its earthy sound.
Before the introduction of MIDI and digital keyboards and the endless soundscapes that became available, organists found joy in creating kaleidoscopic sounds on electric organs like the Vox Continental (Ray Manzarek), Vox Jaguar, Farfisa, Hammond, electro-mechanical Mellotron (The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”), as well as the Moog which was the only synthesizer that had been developed by the 1960s.
Drummers searching for that sound often augment the rhythm with African percussion including talking drum, djembe, and various esoteric drums exalted by percussionists like Mickey Hart. Tambourines sporadically add flourishes of tintinnabulation. Drummers can also add raucous layers of psychedelia with a regular drum kit by stressing the toms and crash cymbal, employing atypical time signatures beyond the typical 4/4 or 4/8, and intentionally varying the tempo – particularly increasing the speed and intensity during an extended foray (i.e., “The End” by The Doors).
Musically transporting the listener to a strange, unfamiliar place is also accomplished by featuring obscure and exotic instrumentation beyond the standard rock lineup of guitar, bass, keyboards/organ, drums, and percussion. As Jason mentioned, at the forefront is the sitar, introduced into mainstream music by Beatle and early proponent George Harrison along with Ravi Shankar. Other Eastern instrumentation finds its way into the studio such as lute, tabla, and tamboura, adding extrinsic elements of mysticism to Western music.
To summarize what defines and differentiates psychedelic music, there are several factors to consider: The era and environment that the song or album was recorded in; period-specific instrumentation; inclusion of exotic instruments and Eastern influences; distinct studio effects, radical production, and recording techniques; unexpected forays into obscure and uncharted musical territory; and vividly descriptive lyrics, which combine to evoke a surreal and otherworldly experience. No single one of those criteria alone is sufficient; but when several factors apply, the song or album typically passes the acid test. With all that in mind, there remains a subjective quality as you, the listener, are free to choose your adventure to discover which music strikes you as being psychedelic.
A few external points of reference recommended by our editor are AllMusic, Discogs, and Wikipedia, particularly if an album is categorized as psychedelic by more than one of the three. I hope this article has been thought-provoking and illuminating in describing the elusive characteristics of the timeless and abiding genre of psychedelic music!
Dedicated to the memory of Tim Gassen who originally introduced the editors, and without whom this article and collaboration would not be possible