The Psychedelic Phenomenon

By Russell WilliamsApril 30, 2016

The Psychedelic Phenomenon

Psychedelia and Other Colours by Rob Chapman


AS THE TROGGS affirmed in 1967, when flower power blossomed to its full height, “Love is All Around.” In 2016, love itself may be in short supply, but it’s hard to deny that flower power is, to put it bluntly, bleedin’ well everywhere. Our decade has seen a surge in the phenomenon of “psychedelic” music festivals — starting in Austin, Texas, and breeding to spots such as Liverpool, Paris, Copenhagen, and Tokyo. Oddly, even Yverdon-les-Bains, a small Swiss spa town, now has its own “Psych Fest.” Mainstream rock bands, too, are hopping on the Magic Bus: acts such as Tame Impala, Temples, and Miley Cyrus have all embraced a heady lysergic mix of heavy, fuzzy distortion; spaced-out Syd Barrett–esque vocals; and retro-’60s styling. High fashion has also tuned in and turned on, even if it isn’t really dropping out: designer Hedi Slimane reportedly checked out the threads of recent Austin Psych Fest gig-goers as inspiration for his “Psych Rock” catwalk collection at Yves Saint Laurent fashion house.

Nostalgia for a swirling, drug-tinged age of psychedelic naïveté is, of course, nothing new. The Summer of Love has been revisited, reinvented by musicians, and reborn at least twice since 1967. The Paisley Underground scene of mid-1980s California saw bands such as Rain Parade, The Long Ryders, and the Bangles digging deep into their older brothers’ record collections, sliding into velveteen strides before plugging in their Rickenbackers and jangling away to chart success. The other side of the Atlantic followed suit, and the UK indulged its own ’60s nostalgia as the early 1990s ushered in the shoegaze era with bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush, and Slowdive — casting longing looks back at Haight-Ashbury through floppy fringes and walls of noise.

The current fetishization wave of pseudo-Native American headbands, kaftans, and sitar drones is the tail end of the latest resurrection of that trend, lasting longer than both the shoegazing and Paisley Underground scenes, stretching back over the last decade. The driving forces in this have included committed record labels such as the UK’s Sonic Cathedral, Club AC30, and Dead Bees records in France, who, through near Sisyphean efforts, club nights, and uncovering new bands, have ploughed the “nu gaze,” or neo-psychedelic furrows. Over the last couple of years these have included groups such as The Early Years, the magnificently named Ringo Deathstarr, and Dead Horse One. The aforementioned My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive are all back, with a Lush reformation underway.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre, now frequently described as the “grande dames” of the ’60s revivalist scene and whose influences draw heavily on both the ’60s and the shoegazers, also play a crucial role. Ondi Timoner’s compelling documentary Dig! (2004) recounts the fortunes of the BJM’s talismanic-yet-troubled founder Anton Newcombe in light of the success of their friends The Dandy Warhols, and was responsible for drawing a number of fans both to the band and retro revivalism. Newcombe has distanced himself from Timoner and the film, but both his excesses and the vibrancy of his band’s reinvention of musical heritage has turned on the nostalgic tendencies of many a music fan.

I was resident DJ at the Psychodahlia club night at the end of the 2000s. The club, even if its name was always a little cringe-worthy, took place sporadically on Thursdays at Bar Monsta, a Camden dive bar, and Saturdays at the slightly more salubrious Barfly in the heart of the West End. Organized by three brothers, Paul, Adam, and Matt, it was frequently shambolic, occasionally inspirational, and always fun. We had sparsely attended nights watching a Tube station busker play the bongos, rushed in to make up the numbers when a band pulled out. We packed nights with some of the best live acts around: The Asteroid #4, the Quarter After, and The Tamborines. On those nights, if you’d had enough to drink, you could just about convince yourself we were channelling the ghosts of the iconic 1960s UFO club, home to Pink Floyd and Soft Machine.

From Psychodahlia, I graduated to the legendary Dream Machine festivals, now spoken about in hushed, mythical tones by those who were in the know. Of course, as they say about the ’60s themselves, if you can remember it, you weren’t really there. Looking back, these festivals were the first of their type focusing on this form of ’60s-via-the-’90s revivalism, and led the way for the Austin, Liverpool, and Paris enormo-Psych Fests. The first took place in Bradfield, a sleepy Essex village where psychedelic rockers from around the globe, including members of The Brian Jonestown Massacre, converged, alarming the locals with their loud droney rock. Mark Gardener from Ride turned up and played a gig in the pub. Will Carruthers, bassist from Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, loitered with intent throughout the weekend. The second Dream Machine saw a similar bunch take over a Sheffield pub for a couple of days the following spring. Joel Gion from the BJM brought his new band, and the much-missed Koolaid Electric Company were in resplendent form. For a couple of short years between 2006 and 2008, it did actually seem that some kind of scene existed: beers were drunk, adventures were had, world domination was plotted, and friendships were forged. With hindsight, it was an exciting time, possibly down to its exuberance and its nostalgic enthusiasm, rather than any genuine musical interest or innovation. There were also possibly more mind-expanding substances in circulation than true expansion of minds. I haven’t made it to the Austin Psych Fest, or any of the follow-up events around the world, but clicking through Flickr sets of fashionistas with sexily styled haircuts, it’s easy to see what Slimane has taken out of the events — but, aside from the musical inspiration, it’s hard to see much in common with the scruffy excitement of the original Psychodahlia or the Essex and Sheffield Dream Machines.


Alongside the ongoing appeal of the BJM and the Psych Fests, Rob Chapman’s new book, Psychedelia and Other Colours, is another testament to the consistent interest in the musical genre and an opportunity, in the midst of its current commercial march, to reflect on what we really mean when we describe something as psychedelic. Chapman’s book focuses exclusively on the first psychedelic wave — stretching from the early ’60s to just about the middle of the ’70s. His starting point is, as it should be, the drugs, with the discovery of LSD and psychedelic experimentations from the likes of Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, as well as government agencies, the broader narratives of which will be familiar to any inquisitive or aspirational “head” who has already read a little around this period. One of the values of Chapman’s cultural criticism is how he never takes these narratives at face value, and thus never balks in the face of pushing his analysis as far as feels right. It would be easy, one suspects, to get distracted by the risky glamour of drug investigation, but the strength of Chapman’s analysis lies in his refusal to be bewitched by the myths. In revisiting Huxley’s experimentation, he explores the much-discussed circumstances of Huxley’s awakening to the potential of hallucinogenic drugs when, on his first mescaline trip, the writer recalled how he ended up marveling at the folds in his “grey flannel trousers.” As Chapman notes: “This mention of his drab apparel has always been held up as one of the ultimate symbols of the staid and starchy philosopher being transformed by his visions of beauty.” Characteristically, Chapman refuses to be preoccupied by the legend and turns to Huxley’s biographer, Sybille Bedford, to set the record straight: “He was wearing blue jeans that day and his wife Maria made him change it in the manuscript, insisting that he ought to be better dressed for his readers.”

Throughout Psychedelia and Other Colours, Chapman’s reading of the “psychedelic phenomenon” is, then, refreshingly close and rigorous. He is wary of the artificial distinction between the gray flannel “high” culture and the blue-jeaned “low.” Pop music and its associated culture is all too often dismissed or overlooked by critics — Chapman’s analysis explores psychedelia in all of its broad cultural complexities and consistently challenges distinctions, rather highlighting the porosity of psychedelia. One of his most astute observations is that this is one of the genre’s key values: how it transcends or blurs hierarchical distinctions. The presence of Huxley, as scholarly man of letters within the context of drug culture, is a perfect illustration of the instability of such distinctions. As Chapman demonstrates, musician Al Kooper, who played the majestic keyboards on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and played with luminaries including Jimi Hendrix and, indeed, The Rolling Stones themselves, also played the house band for the kids TV program, The Banana Splits. Chapman argues that:

If this book required any further evidence […] of just how paper thin and precarious those tenuous categorisations of pop and rock really were, the whole art/low art demarcation surely collapses when faced with the knowledge that there is an unbroken line of development between Bob Dylan and the Banana Splits; not even six degrees of separation, but one simple diary-entered leap from session booking to session booking.

The fluid cultural boundaries Chapman describes also extend further into the domains of more traditionally “high” art, drawing parallels between the sound and light extravaganzas associated with The Grateful Dead at Ken Kesey’s Acid Test events and contemporary visual art, architecture, and thought. To this end, Chapman cites the Situationist theorist Ivan Chtcheglov’s assertion that “the hacienda must be built,” suggesting in response that “haciendas never are built except in our dreams” and “the psychological residue that these dream worlds accumulate is modernism’s great unsung legacy.” Chapman argues that psychedelic culture and drug experiences, just like the Situationists and avant-garde artists from Thomas Wilfred to Seymour Locks, can be drawn together by their focus on an “aesthetics of impermanence” and desire to giving “substance to abstraction”, articulating “[n]ew cultural spaces [which] would be needed in order to accommodate these previously unclassifiable ideas, these ‘machines of loving grace’, as poet Richard Brautigan put it, and new ways of thinking too.” Articulating the drug experience thus becomes a way of exploring, sketching, and inhabiting these spaces.

Chapman’s thorough study thus traces the structures of the psychedelic feeling wherever his (very sound) instinct takes him. His trip takes him well beyond the psychedelic canon of the Floyd, the Dead, late Beatles, and the Nuggets compilations toward “girl groups” such as The Shangri-Las and The Chiffons, surf music including the work of Brian Wilson, and the underexplored black psychedelia of Rotary Connection. Chapman’s scholarship is particularly impressive in his assertion that that the pioneering spirit of searching for “new cultural spaces” wasn’t only a movement into inner or outer space, it also involved many musicians of the ’60s — particularly The Byrds and Country Joe and the Fish — looking back into American history, Americana, and even country and western tradition for inspiration. Chapman’s exploration of the same within music from the other side of the Atlantic is just as astute, particularly his consideration of how John Lennon, and notably Small Faces, drew both explicitly and implicitly on the forgotten Vaudeville Music Hall traditions of English Victoriana.

While Psychedelia and Other Colours is bookended by chapters on the USA and features much rewarding analysis about North American psych, the heart of the book is the extensive central sections where he considers his native UK, making it tempting to speculate (perhaps unfairly) that a slimmer book on English psychedelia was expanded to make this gloriously sprawling, compellingly digressive tome. In these sections, Chapman’s real talent as a close musical listener becomes evident. His strong analysis of the Beatles, much-covered ground of course, demonstrates how the daily mundane — Liverpool streets, newspaper clippings, tax bills, all the lonely people — gain a new poignancy when viewed through a lysergic prism. Chapman’s exploration of the British furor around the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track “A Day in the Life,” — it was banned from the BBC playlist in a moment of “bluster and apoplexy” for its “I’d love to turn you on” refrain — is revealing about mainstream establishment conservatism, often forgotten amid what is remembered chiefly as an age of hip liberalism. This book is also enlightening when it dips slightly under the radar of UK psych. Small Faces, for example, aren’t always studied in the same bracket as Pink Floyd; their collaborations with the much-missed verbal artist Stanley Unwin are here fondly recalled. More controversially, Chapman holds The Troggs up for critical revaluation: singer Reg is, he bravely suggests, “the only Presley who really matters.” Even less plausibly — but Chapman’s enthusiasm is infectious so we follow him — the Bee Gees are here too: “Probably the most melodically gifted English pop composers of the 1960s,” aside from Lennon and McCartney, of course.

Given the ambition and magisterial breadth of this work, which spans from pre-psychedelic avant-garde art movements to prog, Delia Derbyshire, and even Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, it seems churlish to consider here what Chapman hasn’t included. Listening to, talking, and writing about music, though, is all about sketching connections, so it almost seems slightly churlish not to when reflecting on a work that leads the way with as much aplomb as Chapman’s. The psychedelia he maps here is mostly in the English language, so it would be interesting to map its linguistic variants. Andy Votel’s Finders Keepers record label has a proud track record in uncovering psychedelic gems from spots as far-flung as Turkey, Japan, and, even, Wales. France, too, has its psychedelic visionaries, such as Jean-Pierre Massiera and Magma, not to mention the Swinging Mademoiselles collections and Brigitte Fontaine’s surrealistic explorations. The African continent also has a psych tradition that must surely warrant future exploration, from Senegalese and Malian sounds to the Tuareg music of the Sahara: a Kickstarter campaign to send Chapman around the world with a portable record player can’t be far off. Equally, notwithstanding the current trend of ’60s sound-alikes, there is also a wave of edgier contemporary psych that is just as devoted to imaginative exploration but isn’t as tarnished by kitsch tambourine waving clichés: Gum Takes Tooth, Teeth of the Sea, Animal Collective, Six Organs of Admittance, and even the noise band of the moment, Wolf Eyes. As John Doran from the influential music magazine The Quietus recently suggested, “[It’s time] to cast the winkle pickers and the drainpipe jeans onto the fire.”


As the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s 2008 European tour drew to a close, a scuffle took place backstage at a show in London’s Kentish Town Forum. A headline in the British tabloid The Sun reported that Anton Newcombe had stabbed guitarist Frankie “Teardrop” Emerson in an after-show brawl. The story was quickly rubbished, and Frankie is alive and well (although apparently no longer in the band). With hindsight, this was a watershed moment for me, even a symbolic end to a certain stage of the third summer of love. Drink and drugs had always played a pivotal role in the band’s existence (Newcombe has since, reportedly, quit his indulgences), but these simmerings of violence, even if fabricated, were just about plausible, to an outsider at least. The minor scandal marked a point when our naïve exuberance started to fade and our London scene — at least in the way we knew it — started little by little to dissolve. When there are rumors of fights and stabbings, and when “your” scene starts appearing in The Sun, things don’t seem quite as much fun any more.

Psychedelia and Other Colours will surely become the “go to” book on the subject, and serve as a worthy reminder of the huge body of work that has been produced under the direct, or indirect, influence of hallucinogenic drugs or, as Chapman speculates in his conclusion, as a result of the “psychic energy” released by the synchronicity of the deaths of C. S. Lewis, Huxley, and John F. Kennedy, all of whom “died within a few hours of each other on 22 November 1963.” Chapman has his tongue firmly in his cheek here, but the fact he is even able to get away with the gag is telling. This confluence of avatars for religiously inspired fantasy literature, learned self-experimentation, and political liberalism suggest that there is a real link between the psychedelia of the ’60s and ideas. Psychedelia was synonymous with optimistic investigation. It had its practitioners — as this book amply explores — and its theorists, including Huxley, Leary, and Kesey. The psychedelia of Chapman’s analysis is vibrant, evolving, and continues to inspire. Is today’s psychedelia really anything more than a haircut? Where are the thinkers who populate the contemporary psychedelic structure of feeling, if indeed such a thing can be said to exist?

Psychedelia and Other Colours is a rich testament to the heritage of true psychedelic exploration and an affirmation of everything but haircut psych. It is worth noting, I think, that Chapman is completely bald, thus securing his status as a genuine psychedelic guru. I hope his trousers are made of gray flannel.


Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.

LARB Contributor

Russell Williams is a writer and researcher. His work explores the contemporary French novel and he teaches literature at the American University of Paris.


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