Psychedelica, or: To Be Perfectly Blunt

"Psychedelic" is a term for describing music that I've never had a whole lot of use for. It can mean any number of things, practically an infinite number of things, which means that it ends up not meaning very much at all. "Christopher Jones, what are you talking about, you fruitcake?" That's what you just said in your mind. Don't even lie to me.

What I am talking about is that "psychedelic" is a banner that, at this point, is so all encompassing that it's practically useless. What do I mean by that? Let's see.

One of the most popular and well-known psychedelic records of all time is Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, arguably the only stoner-metal album to ever receive mass critical acclaim(stick that idea in your pipe and smoke it, Rolling Stone Magazine[no pun intended]). The psychedelic aesthetic of this record largely comes from Hendrix's guitar work and Mitch Mitchell's jazzy, pummeling drums. Hendrix would go sort of apeshit in the studio when it came to sound effects.Recording a chord backwards, mixing solos together, feeding the tape to birds and re-recording a guitar solo on the same tape after it's been fished out of the animal's throat...whatever gave him a cool sound, he'd go for it. That kind of experimentalism in the studio would be crazy important for the future of rock music, and the sounds he got still hold up today, which is more impressive than you might think it is. Have you heard Piper at the Gates of Dawn? Those dudes were on drugs when they made that album, but they were the kind that made you completely retarded when it came to deciding what sound effects to add in the studio. Yeah, go ahead and build an entire album off of the sound effect "Zwoooom", Syd Barret. You crazy dipshit.


Another album that people have gotten in the habit of crapping themselves over when it comes up in conversation is Forever Changes by Love. This is probably the most sonically easygoing psychedelic record I've ever heard-apparently the lead singer wrote the album like it was his will, but for all intents and purposes it sounds like the whole band is having a picnic. The string and horn arrangements sound like smarter, less predictable soundtrack music and the lyrics oftentimes devolve into nonsense, but a lot of it is pretty clever nonsense. "Clever nonsense" is a good word for this album as a whole, now that I think of it. That's probably why it took the press such a long time to get on board with Forever Changes. Occasionally beautiful and often silly, it flows with a carefree nature that still somehow manages to be concerned with its own mortality. It throws everything at the wall, but it does so with lobbed underhand throws, not a catapult.

Of course, now we have Abbey Road, which is probably the most conceptually grand psychedelic record ever recorded. "Bigger is better" is this album's philosophy, and a lot of the time they turn out to be correct-it's my personal favorite Beatles album simply because of how grandiose it is. This one has a policy of flipping the script on you, jumping from goofy to violent to tragically, sweepingly epic often from one song to the next. The guitar work has a real weight to it, often attempting to drag the listener into a dreamlike state instead of caressing them into it. There's so much going on in this album, and it all feels so very warm. "Production" is the key word for Abbey Road-in a lot of ways this record could have been made by just about anyone, but it's that glow that George Martin manages to add to the proceedings that make this one their most striking work. This is another "everything and the kitchen sink" kind of album, but it gels together so well that you hardly notice. Individually, on a song by song basis, Abbey Road is a jumbled, incoherent mess. Assembled together, it becomes a dreamland.

And then, suddenly, the '60s end, and Mr. Tambourine Man and Doctor Robert have packed up their shit to make way for the new breed of psychedelica, one of the most interesting examples of which is Hawkwind's breakthrough In Search of Space. Jettisoning the happy-go-lucky dreamscape imagery for ideas lifted straight out of the pulps, Hawkwind presents an image of psychedelica that's as amusing and goofy as it is cold and frightening. Hell, in the first song alone the only line of the song is "You shouldn't do that, you'll get nowhere" repeated ad nauseum, which can't be a positive thing for stoners to hear as they're lighting up. Robert Calvert leaves behind the soothing tones of Hendrix and McCartney for a tone that's cold and mocking. Repeated listenings reveal a recording that's concerned with failure and man's futility when it comes to making progress-a far cry from the loving, optimistic themes of songs recorded not two years earlier. In Search of Space swirls and bends just as much as Forever Changes, but it's all for the purposes of making the listener feel not welcomed in it's celestial presence, but trapped.

Less fierce and uncompromising but no less indicative of psychedelica's changing role in the '70s is Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery. Unlike the rest of the albums on this list, BSS hasn't aged very well at all-the keyboards are spastic and domineering to the point of absurdity throughout, the takeoffs on classical compositions are dull as dirt and while there's a sharp line here and there, the lyrics by and large just don't ring. Still, it's important in the history of psychedelica because of how openly it represents the darker side of the idea. The "Karn Evil 9" suite is a tale about the planet earth being turned into a mechanical, robotic museum for the pleasure of a sadistic alien ringleader. Hardly the kind of stuff you put on before going to bed, and yet the blaring, goofy keyboards do serve to transport you to a world where human innovation is at best meaningless and at worst a problem that must be taken care of. Every song is very purposeful and linear, which is rather far removed from the sprawling, open-ended compositions of Love and even Hawkwind. It's an album that goes straight for the core without pussyfooting, and whether or not it succeeds is irrelevant-it's psychedelica that attempts to take the listener out of their comfort zone with almost mathematical precision. If only it had a little more force behind it's fanciful ideas, maybe it would still be relevant in conversation. As it stands, it's more of a look at what could have been more than anything else.

Still, if Brain Salad Surgery attempted to take the listener out of their comfort zone, Tangerine Dream's magnum opus Phaedra wanted nothing less than to make the entire idea of a comfort zone completely irrelevant. If it sounds boring on the first listen, turn it on as you're trying to go to sleep. The images that'll flow through your mind as Phaedra bumps and slithers its way through your consciousness will turn you into nothing less than a paranoid fucking lunatic. It's not music as most people understand it or care to listen to it-it's a series of synthlines and rhythms that build on themselves in order to form a distinct sense of paranoia and dread. It's caustic and expansive to the point of being completely unlistenable for most people. Still, in terms of taking your mind places they wouldn't otherwise be able to go, Phaedra is practically a masterpiece. It's an incredibly tough nut to crack, and it's a psychedelic masterpiece completely unlike anything except...well, unlike anything except a few other Tangerine Dream albums, actually.

If there was one group who took advantage of this new trend of psychedelica-this cold, cynical airiness that had become so prominent-it was Pink Floyd, who may have cranked out more classics of the genre than any other group. Dark Side of the Moon is their most famous and well regarded, of course, but I find Wish You Were Here to be the album that reached the peak of their interest in experiments with the bleaker side of mind expansion. Every track on this album is some kind of lamentation-whether it be about insanity, loneliness, greed or just a regret that they even got into this stupid business in the first place. The best word to describe the tone of this album is "indifferent". Roger Waters and company are practically standing on the outside of their own songs, the synthesizer the only aspect that shows any kind of emotion one way or the other, and even then it's usually to create a mood of growing dread or sorrow. The world that Pink Floyd tries to show you isn't rotten to the core-it's just been scarred by years of abuse. It's a parable of human error and bad judgement made into a landscape that sounds like it's supported by rainclouds.

Psychedelica as a whole sort of took a vacation during the '80s, but it came back in full force in the 1990s in large part thanks to Britain's trip-hop movement. Arguably the biggest band from the scene was Massive Attack, and Mezzanine still stands as the bar to which all other psychedelic electronica albums are measured. Keeping the cold, mechanized, hostile elements of psychedelica from the '70s, Massive Attack chooses to focus not so much on mankind's flaws and misgivings, or the daunting, infinite reaches of space and the subconscious, and instead shifts its gears to pure sex appeal. Dancing is more important than smoking in Mezzanine's world, and it's reflected in the lyrics about lovers lost and seductive. It's hard to call this music "dark", per se, as the groove is undeniable, but there is a real sense of paranoia around a lot of the songs, particularly the title track. It's less of a dream and more of a hallucination, but one that you'll be glad to visit again.
If any of the above albums were cold, or hostile, or discomforting, Electric Wizard's Dopethrone is a "fuck you" that's screamed out of a hollowed-out bong. Smashing the listener with feedback, the singer's voice becomes as much of an instrument as the guitar or drums, blending seamlessly in with the rest of the music. If other psychedelic albums could be said to poke and prod the listener to make them feel uncomfortable or out of place, this one is nothing less than a full on physical assault, intended to crush anything and everything in its wake. It could be referred to as "vicious" if "pulverizing" wasn't a better descriptor, and though it may not go out of it's way to present elaborate, dreamlike locations as other psychedelic albums do, there's still involvement on the listener's part, still the sense that you're as much a part of this music as any one of the members of the band. Like other psychedelica, you let Dopethrone sink into you. The only difference is that in this case, if you find yourself unable to breathe, the album is doing it's job perfectly.

Still, a lot of bands over the past few years, particularly indie electronica groups, have been attempting to return to the '60s definition of psychedelica: Warmth, happiness, love and optimism. The most mainstream of those attempts was probably MGMT's Oracular Spectacular, a bouncy, bubbling, rainbow colored affair that uses blaringly joyous synthesizers and ghostly vocals to try and transport the listener to a place that's less about introducing you to an unfamiliar world than it is about showing you a place that's full of adventure and possibility. It takes the party sensibilities of Mezzanine, the tongue-in-cheek spritelyness of Forever Changes and the distant, mechanical tone of Wish You Were Here and combines them to make a work that's not only uniquely it's own animal, but one that's as intelligent as it is otherworldly. Oracular Spectacular presents the idea that there's no reason you shouldn't be able to dance and brood to a psychedelic album, and I have no real reason to disagree with it.

Now, what in the shit is my point after all that? Well, did you notice how I walked across over 40 years of psychedelic history and only picked 10 albums? Did you notice that I left off bands like Can, The Grateful Dead, Blue Cheer, The Flaming Lips, The 13th Floor Elevators, Yes, Black Sabbath, Tool, The Melvins, Funkadelic, Led Zeppelin, Kyuss, M83, Radiohead, My Bloody Valentine, Frank Zappa and countless, countless others? Did you notice how after a while, a lot of the individual qualities that make these bands psychedelic start to bleed into each other regardless of era? Did you notice how all of those bands all technically fit under the same banner of "psychedelic"?

The truth is, "psychedelic" is a bullshit term. It just means anything that'll transport you to another time or place, make you feel something other than what you would feel otherwise. That's the one and only thing all those bands have in common, and you know what? Any band can be a psychedelic band. Nick Drake can be psychedelic. Joy Division can be psychedelic. Slayer can be psychedelic. Anything.

I think that the term was made in the '60s to differentiate bands made under the influence of, and having to do with, pot and LSD away from standard pop. But the label has outgrown it's usefulness because the influences of those bands has become rooted in so much of today's music that it's impossible to tell where psychedelic begins and non-psychedelic ends. It's all sitting in the same boat.

It's all music, you fuckers.



  1. this is quite a coincidence! just saw house md's latest episode, n had my hairs on end during the part where they play "maggot brain" in the background while the guy takes his last few breaths...n then u go ahead n reflect on this entire business of psychedelia...suweeeeeet...

  2. n btw, i believe "the doors" deserve at least a passing reference somewhere in there too...not to underestimate the genius of the other band members, but just the voice of morrison is enuf to get u trippin'...i don't think ANY other band had that element...

  3. CJ has always disliked the doors, we used to argue about it a bunch. There are a bunch of others that seem like weird additions, particularly massive attack, especially considering all the 90's music that fit under the banner to obnoxious extents. But whatever, its still a great article.

  4. i wouldnt quite qualify trip hop under the psychadelic banner (however bullshit that term has become) simply because i don't feel transported anywhere when i listen to it. rather, my brain just shuts off. it's repetative enough to not have to focus on anything and just act, but not so reptative that its fucking annoying.

  5. Turn off all the lights, turn "Mezzanine" up high and stare up at the ceiling or close your eyes. It's TOTALLY a psychedelic experience.

    I'd also like to point out that I didn't leave off the Doors because I don't like them-I put on the Grateful Dead and I think they're one of the worst bands ever-they just slipped my mind.