Friday, December 10, 2010

British Psychedelic (Essay)

Did psychedelic rock start in the United States or Great Britain? It's very much a chicken-and-the-egg question. Like folk rock, punk, and blues rock, the form was developing simultaneously, along very similar paths, on both sides of the Atlantic. It's also apparent that although there were a great many similarities between American and British psychedelia, British psychedelic music evolved along somewhat different lines, with striking and distinctive characteristics of its own. While both branches tapped heavily into Indian and eastern music, jazz/improvisational/experimental elements, and drug-inspired imagery, the British brand was usually perkier, more playful, and sunnier in disposition, although just as freaked-out and forceful.

It couldn't really be said that there were any out-and-out British psychedelic records before 1966. But in the previous year, there were quite a few recordings by the best British groups that helped point the way for the style--more so than there were in the United States. The Who, the Kinks, and the Yardbirds all pioneered guitar distortion and feedback that year via such experimental (and hit!) singles such as "My Generation" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere." The Kinks and the Yardbirds didn't just fuzz up their riffs, but added middle eastern motifs on "See My Friends" (by the Kinks) and "Heart Full of Soul," a Yardbirds hit with a sitarish riff by Jeff Beck that was originally recorded with an actual sitar. On Rubber Soul, the Beatles introduced a genuine sitar on "Norwegian Wood," and on the same album's "The Word," they voiced the drug-influenced peace-and-love sentiments that would color many psychedelic lyrics.

The honor of the first psychedelic British single--and indeed, probably the first psychedelic single of all time--might go to the Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things," with its wild intertwining of feedback and snaky middle eastern melodic lines during its blistering guitar solo (delivered by Jeff Beck), its abrupt tempo changes from verse to chorus, and lyrics that ruminated over the future of mankind itself. The group had already employed unnerving guitar "rave-ups" on its 1965 studio recordings, and haunting Gregorian chants on the hit single (in Britain only) "Still I'm Sad." Their 1966 album Roger The Engineer, anchored by another single that featured a meltdown eastern guitar riff ("Over Under Sideways Down"), was an inconsistent but oft-thrilling effort that did much to pioneer psychedelic territory, shifting from blues-rock raveups to doom-laden dirge waltzes to piercing jazzy guitar solos to pensive piano ballads, sometimes within the course of the same tune. The late '66 single "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" (their only one to feature both Beck and Jimmy Page) was their psychedelic summit, with air-raid siren guitar duels, spooky harmonies, lyrics about reincarnation, and inscrutable, half-buried spoken word fragments. A relative commercial failure, it also signaled the end of the band as a creative force, Beck departing soon afterwards, and the group struggling with second-rate material and production during much of their final phase (with Page taking over lead guitar).

With hindsight, the Yardbirds' 1966 recordings are considered psychedelic landmarks. But at the time, far more listeners gained their first exposure to psychedelic music via the Beatles' 1966 releases. The "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" single served notice that the Beatles had assimilated all the guitar, lyrical, and production innovations of the previous year, especially on the B-side, with its hazy, droning guitars and backwards vocals on the fade. The album that followed in the summer, Revolver, owed much to mod pop and the sort of orchestral production Brian Wilson had recently devised for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album (which itself had some psychedelic elements). But it was also, in many respects, one of the very first psychedelic LPs--not only in its numerous shifts in mood and production texture, but in its innovative manipulation of amplification and electronics to produce new sounds on guitars and other instruments. Specific, widely heralded examples would include the backwards riffs of "I'm Only Sleeping," the sound effects of "Yellow Submarine," the sitar of "Love You To," the blurry guitars of "She Said, She Said," and above all the seagull chanting, buzzing drones, megaphone vocals, free-assocation philosophizing, and varispeed tape effects of "Tomorrow Never Knows."

One other truly psychedelic album emerged from the United Kingdom in 1966 which, while not viewed with as much respect by subsequent critics, was nearly as influential and popular in its own time as Revolver. The record, Donovan's Sunshine Superman, was also a much more unlikely leap than the efforts by the Beatles and the Yardbirds, who had done much to lay a bedrock for their innovations with their work in 1965. In that same year, Donovan was not even using electric instruments on his records, but making a bid to become the British Bob Dylan, with troubadour musings (very well done, it should be added) much closer to the spirit of Bert Jansch than Lennon-McCartney. It's hard to say what made Donovan quick to embrace cosmic mythology and sitars--drug-inspired revelation, humiliation at being outclassed by Dylan himself during a head-to-head hootenanny in the documentary Don't Look Back, or, more mundanely, a correct realization that he'd need to electrify and complicate his sound to compete in the intensively competitive British pop scene.

Sunshine Superman, along with the lighter psychedelia of Revolver and the elegant but powerful mod commentary of the Who and the Kinks, helped introduce some of the whimsical traits which most distinguished British psychedelic rockers from their American counterparts. The arrangements on Sunshine Superman were exquisitely symphonic. They may have used exotic (for the time) blends of sitars, harpsichords, hard rock guitar, bongos, and mellotron, but at heart the songs were very much pop-rock, with hummable, cheery melodies. The lyrics were acidic visions of the benign sort, heavy on Olde English touches and fairytale imagery. Those who value angst and earth in their rock'n'roll have chastised Donovan for being too florid, even fruity, criticisms that are somewhat justified, but overriden by the charm and beauty of his best recordings. Ironically, the man responsible for much of Sunshine Superman's cosmic aura was not Donovan himself, but producer Mickie Most, who would--oddly, in retrospect--do much to ensure the demise of the Yardbirds after taking over their production in 1967, saddling them with bubblegumish songs and sugary arrangements. In a further irony, Sunshine Superman made much of its initial impact not in the U.K., but in the U.S. Donovan was embroiled in a complicated label dispute that found him unable to release material in his homeland for a time, and his early electric recordings appeared quite a few months earlier in the States.

While there were not many out-and-out full-length British psychedelic albums in 1966, the psychedelic influence was felt in key singles and album tracks by some of the best groups. The Rolling Stones were quick to appropriate the sitar for "Paint It Black"; John Lennon would later charge the Stones from having nicked the idea from "Norwegian Wood," but the consensus is that "Paint It Black" is the best use of sitar in a rock'n'roll song. Another 1966 single, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?," may not have been designed as an explicit stab at psychedelia, but it certainly could have passed for one, with its dense web of guitar rumbles, horn crescendos, and make-what-you-will-of-these! lyrics. The Kinks were not one to follow trends, but "Fancy," from their 1966 LP Face To Face, made effective use of sitarish note bends. Face To Face was one of the first full-length statements that could be labeled (however vaguely) a concept album, and the Who made their first serious effort along this direction in late '66 with the lengthy "A Quick One While He's Away," a suite-like mini-opera.

1966 also saw the first psychedelic rumblings from bands who had not only not previously established themselves as commercially viable outfits, but had not even previously recorded. Much of what made this possible was the blossoming of a full-blown psychedelic underground in London, which found a home in the UFO club, and a voice through the countercultural journal International Times (often abbreviated to IT). In the UFO's early days, the Pink Floyd (and they were always called The Pink Floyd back then) were the house band of sorts. The best and most prominent of the first-generation British psychedelic bands without roots in the British Invasion, they took psychedelic music to further, freakier extremes. Song structures became looser, lengthier, more adventurous; steel balls were run up and down guitar strings to produce eerie electronic sounds; ghostly, spectral organ hovered over electronically distorted guitar. Many of the Floyd's early sets were dominated by instrumental freakouts, but their best achievements were actually grounded in the inspired melodies and wordplay of their eccentric original leader/singer/songwriter/guitarist, Syd Barrett, who had as much of an ear for fairytale whimsy and pop hooks as electronic experimentation.

Another important band held in high regard by UFO crowd were the Soft Machine. Although they would later branch out into avant-rock and jazz-rock, in their first incarnation they blended flower-power pop with genre-stretching instrumental chops and surreal songs. In the Pink Floyd biography A Saucerful Of Secrets, one UFO regular recalls that the Floyd and the Softs "were like the Beatles and the Stones of alternative music." The third notable early underground psychedelic band, and by far the least well-remembered, were Tomorrow, who adhered to conventional song structures more than their rivals, but also indulged in archetypically English character sketches and frequent experimentation; today, they are most famous for featuring guitarist Steve Howe in his pre-Yes days. The Pretty Things, though not as aligned with the UFO scene, made a few singles in '67-'68 that hold up well with Syd Barrett's Floyd efforts as examples of druggy psychedelia with equal footing in pop character sketches and experimentation.

Much more obscure, but on the same level, were the Misunderstood, actually a Californian group that moved to England at the urging of expatriate DJ John Ravenscroft (who would move back to his homeland and become the nation's top on-air rock personality as John Peel). Together for only a short time, the small batch of recordings they produced at their peak--some of which made it onto flop singles, some of which were only released many years later--have been belatedly recognized as some of the greatest early psychedelic music. These took the Yardbirds prototype to greater extremes with searing-but-gliding guitar electronics and heavily eastern-influenced original material of an overtly cosmic nature, but exhilarating quality.

The mod movement, with its emphasis upon autodestruct guitar riffs, outrage, and smart pop hooks, was also evolving in psychedelic directions. Long after the fact--a good 20 years later--some collectors dubbed this school of sound "freakbeat." Freakbeat was mod pop in psychedelic clothes, with some garage ethos thrown in. Young bands saw their musical heroes and social climate changing, and determined to keep up with a reckless enthusiasm that was often naive, but often made for some impressive records with their strainings against unwritten rules of pop and songwriting. Mod groups like the Smoke and John's Children made some great psychedelic records by adding adventurous songwriting and wild guitar flights to their pop base.

In the manner of American garage bands of the same era, quite a few British bands managed to record only a few singles or demos in a rush to tap into the zeitgeist of a special moment in musical evolution. There weren't nearly as many British freakbeat/psychedelic singles of this kind as their were in the American garage movement: Britain's a much smaller country, and at that time was dominated by four major labels, leaving little room for indie/regional/local releases. Just as there were many generic American garage singles, there were many generic British psychedelic singles, distinguished chiefly by ridiculous names like Ipsissimus, Edwick Rumbold, Aquarian Age, and the Penny Peeps (and that's just off one compilation).

But just as there were many great American garage singles, there were many great unknown British psychedelic singles, only fully appreciated long after the fact when they were assembled for collectors on anthologies like Chocolate Soup For Diabetics and The Perfumed Garden. Groups like Dantalian's Chariot, One In A Million, Tintern Abbey, Wimple Winch, and Syn recorded one or two psychedelic classics without ever managing to make a full album, let alone a hit song. It would be a mistake, though, to think of these British acts in the same way as U.S. garage bands, or even U.S. psychedelic garage bands. This British sound was more refined, more carefully arranged, and benefited from more elaborate production values (being that many of them were actually recorded for major labels). They also frequently used keyboards (and occasionally mellotrons), and were far more apt to deal with prim, arty pop than adolescent angst.

In doing so, these groups were following the lead of the biggest band of all, the Beatles. Their early '67 single, "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever," was not just, in all likelihood, the strongest double-A-sided release of all time, but the prototype of British pop-psychedelia. As much as the lyrics and musical settings may have inspired by lysergic substances, they were equally concerned with evoking states of child-like innocence (and, in this specific example, the very specific, real neighborhoods of John Lennon's and Paul McCartney's Liverpool childhoods). The Beatles' other 1967 releases largely followed this course, on the Sgt. Pepper album, the 1967 singles "All You Need Is Love" (psychedelia at its most anthemic and utopian) and "I Am The Walrus" (the cacophonous bad trip in the Beatles' 1967 catalog), and the Magical Mystery Tour songs (an EP in Britain, released with '67 singles as an LP elsewhere). On these productions, hard guitar rock (though not totally ignored) took a back seat to ornate, baroque instrumentation and arrangements, often using keyboards, mellotrons, and a barrage of unusual instruments, sound effects, and electronic manipulation (the use of which was greatly facilitated by producer George Martin). The early rock and R&B influences that had inspired the Beatles in the first place were, for the time being, deeply submerged in their work.

The Beatles' influence was such at the time that where they led, many followed. The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request (not to mention their "We Love You"/"Dandelion" single, which included some actual Beatle harmonies) is still seen by many as their Sgt. Pepper imitation/ripoff. The imperfections of the album (recorded at a time of great stress and conflict within the band, and between the Stones and their management) have worn very badly. But in fact the Stones pursued some interesting and, indeed, highly successful experiments with electronics, strings, and African rhythms on tracks like "She's A Rainbow," "2000 Light Years From Home," and "In Another Land," and one wishes that the avalanche of criticism with which the album was greeted hadn't discouraged them from exploring these avenues further. Among other top British groups, the Small Faces embraced the good-time vibes of psychedelia the most heartily, on singles like "Itchycoo Park" and the full-length story-concept album Ogden's Gone Nut Flake. The Who couldn't be said to have been heavily influenced by Sgt. Pepper, but their 1967 album, The Who Sell Out, expanded their lyrical and sonic ambition without comprimising their power, as well as offering a concept LP of sorts (with having the tracks linked by fake and real British radio jingles, and offering another mini-opera in "Rael," which would be recycled in Tommy).

Most British bands didn't have the resources to offer full-length albums of psychedelic adventurism. Some, such as the Hollies, the Move, and Manfred Mann, incorporated mild psychedelic influences into specific tracks to add a slightly hip dimension to their essentially pop material. Others took on the task whole-hog, and largely embarrassed themselves (Eric Burdon and his New Animals). More difficult to classify is the Zombies' final LP, Odessey And Oracle; if it didn't exactly offer incense and sugarcubes, it certainly had plenty of imagination and rarefied atmosphere, and used the mellotron more than just about any other previous rock album. And there were obscure bands that managed to produce entire psychedelic albums that remain little known to this day. The Blossom Toes, whose debut conjured up visions of the Kinks on acid, were probably the best of these, and indeed offered some of the finest meldings of symphonic pop and psychedelic British whimsy (though they went in far more progressive and somber directions on their second and final album).

Lest the impression be given that British rock was dominated by clever trickery, there were a couple of British hard rock superstar outfits that made major contributions to the psychedelic era. Although Jimi Hendrix was not British, his backing musicians in the Experience were, and it was Britain where he first became a star, not America. Debates have raged about whether Hendrix should be considered a blues-rock guitarist, a jazz-rock guitarist, or an entity unto himself. But the fact remains that his work with the Experience--as captured on their three studio albums, Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland--could hardly be considered anything but psychedelic. Along somewhat similar lines were Cream, which started out as a stone-cold blues-rock outfit, but quickly evolved into a hard rock group with strong psychedelic overtones, particularly on their second and best album, Disraeli Gears. Traffic, featuring Stevie Winwood, were the best at blending hard rock drive with more idiosyncratically British eclecticism, especially on their first two albums, Dear Mr. Fantasy and Traffic. If you're looking for the best British hard rock/psychedelic one-shot, go no further than The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. The fire-helmeted, overtly theatrical weirdo topped charts on both sides of the Atlantic with "Fire," and his sole album was an excessively demented but demonic slab of acid rock, with some of the best and loopiest organ to be found on any rock record.

There were also a few major efforts from the psychedelic era that are equally apt to be characterized as early progressive rock because of their heavy classical, symphonic influences and the generally overarching seriousness of their ambitions. Certainly the debut albums by Procol Harum, the Nice, and the Moody Blues (who took the Mellotron to greater heights of excess) could fall into this category. The early progressive bands gave the first indication of the fissure that would split the psychedelic bands into differing camps by the end of the 1960s: ones that returned to rootsier, earthier sounds, and ones that entertained progressively more grandoise ambitions.

It's been postulated that Bob Dylan's rustic John Wesley Harding was the signpost that motivated other rock kings to re-embrace their roots. Whether that's true or not, the first 1968 singles by the biggest British groups, the Beatles ("Lady Madonna") and the Rolling Stones ("Jumpin' Jack Flash"), found them deliberately scaling back to a more basic approach. By and large they would retain this throughout the rest of the '60s, refocusing on guitar rock and more concise songs, though the Beatles in particular never eschewed experimentation on their final recordings.

On the other hand, some of the major early psychedelic bands, such as Pink Floyd (after Syd Barrett departed due to mental instability), would grow increasingly more serious, symphonic, and electronic in their approach. The Soft Machine, as previously noted, headed into jazz-rock and experimental rock after some personnel changes; they and various spinoff bands (Caravan, Kevin Ayers, Gong) would head the wing of humorous and whimsical progressive rock that became known as the Canterbury sound. A veteran of Tomorrow, guitarist Steve Howe, would become instrumental to the success of one of the biggest art-rock groups, Yes. The Pretty Things went very progressive with 1968's S.F. Sorrow, arguably rock's first true concept album, which helped inspire the Who's Tommy.

But some of the major psychedelic pioneers didn't so much choose sides as fizzle out. By the end of '68, Jimi Hendrix had made his final recording with the Experience, and Cream had broken up, as had Traffic (for an extended hiatus, anyway), the Zombies, and the Yardbirds (from whose ashes Led Zeppelin would arise). Donovan was still offering flower-power homilies, but he'd never truly expanded upon the achievements of Sunshine Superman, offering increasingly tired variations of the same theme.

Although many of the musicians that were integral to British psychedelia would have long careers--continuing in some cases right up to the present--it's fair to say that almost all of them have never created better and more imaginative work than they did at the height of the psychedelic era. Sometimes viewed by critics (and the musicians themselves) as embarrassingly naive and trendy, the best of the music endures as some of the most ambitious and euphoric produced in the whole of rock--which should be a source of pride, not shame.

22 Essential British Psychedelic Rock Records

The Beatles, Revolver (Capitol)

The Yardbirds, Roger The Engineer (Edsel)

Donovan, Sunshine Superman (Epic)

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol)

The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour (Capitol)

Pink Floyd, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (Capitol)

The Soft Machine, Jet-Propelled Photograph (Charly)

Tomorrow, Tomorrow (Decal)

The Misunderstood, Before The Dream Faded (Cherry Red)

The Blossom Toes, Collection (Decal)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (MCA)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold As Love (MCA)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland (MCA)

The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request (ABKCO)

Cream, Disraeli Gears (Polydor)

Traffic, Dear Mr. Fantasy (Island)

Traffic, Traffic (Island)

The Small Faces, Ogden's Gone Nut Flake (Sony)

The Zombies, Odessey And Oracle (Rhino)

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (Polydor)

Various Artists, Chocolate Soup For Diabetics Vol. 1-3 (Relics)

Various Artists, Perfumed Garden Vol. 1-3 (Reverberation)

by Richie Unterberger


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