Psychedelia: A Hidden Retrospective

Image for post
Image for post
Michael Le Roi — Th3rd 3y3/ Flickr

Amongst so many others, bands like Tame Impala, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, the Black Angels and Goat are all currently taking the esteemed mantle for psychedelic music. Therefore, it seems fitting to take a retrospective look at the bands that originally helped shape the genre back in the 1960s.

The 1960s ushered in a golden age of experimental music and paved the way for an unprecedented shift in the development of how bands wanted to sound. With the social consciousness of the 1960s changing through progressive ideas and a rebellion against the shackles of the former generation, music also had to reflect that change, and indeed it did.

However, the usual suspects of ’60s psychedelia are thoroughly acknowledged and documented. Groups such as Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane were key exponents of the then burgeoning genre, but their enduring success has inevitably shadowed many worthy contributors to ’60s psychedelia.

There is an innumerable amount of unearthed psychedelic gems from the 1960s that have scarcely been illumined. Whether due to their varying degrees of commercial success, or simply due to an inexplicable element of unfortunate determinism, many great psychedelic bands of the ’60s flew and fly under the radar, yet musically, they too embody the genre.

Music is naturally a shared experience between the artist and the listener so to see it girdled in any way is an unforgivable shame. Thankfully, the halcyon days of the internet have allowed us to hear music that was once tucked away. So, with that said, here’s a fraction of the hidden beginnings of a genre shaped by many but constrained to the few.

The Golden Dawn consciously copied their name straight from the esoteric order devoted to magick teachings and spiritual exploration. With lyrics inspired by the mystic philosopher George Gurdjieff, and explorative music that flirts with cutting garage rock while also exhibiting a psychedelic idiosyncrasy, the Golden Dawn seems a fitting name for the garage rock/psychedelic five-piece

“My Time”, a track from their 1968 album Power Plant, is a shining example of their fast garage rock side, but their sound is balanced by more innovative numbers like “Every Day”. “Every Day” is an inspired track that sets them apart from the profusion of garage rock that came out of the ’60s because they underpin the 1960s ideology of introspective expedition rather than mere garage rock aggression.

Unfortunately, Power Plant, the only album the Golden Dawn released in the 1960s, was not thoroughly promoted by their then record company International Artists. Despite being recorded first, Power Plant was released as a side note to Easter Everywhere by their fellow International Artists signed 13th Floor Elevators. Subsequently, Power Plant garnered poor critical reception and was regarded as a pale imitation of the aforementioned 13th Floor Elevators’ album.

The Golden Dawn disbanded not long after the release of Power Plant and would only return in recent years after some line-up changes. Still, they have not attained much more than a cult following.

Lyrically, Ultimate Spinach characterise the floral optimism and disavowal of the preceding generation’s ideologies within the 1960s psychedelic culture. Musically, they shift from a subtle rock blues essence to more experimental flights of serene sound.

“Gilded Lamp of the Cosmos”, from the album Behold and See, surmises Ultimate Spinach’s hint of rock blues that is offset by choral harmonies elevating the song to tranquil psychedelia.

Ultimate Spinach’s music holds a tacit understanding that they are aware of something unsaid, laughing at a joke that only they know the punch line to. “Your Head is Reeling”, a song from their first self-titled album, communicates a sense of underlying doom being combated by the ethos of the youthful hippie movement — epitomising a generation in one song. In their own words: “plastic masses don’t know what to say, but they want the flowers to go away”.

Without being too trite, if undoubtedly a little, Ultimate Spinach are exemplary ’60s psychedelia in music and in philosophy. Nevertheless, due too many personnel changes and internal creative differences, the band collapsed after an all too short tenure, and were never able to set the world alight.

Even though the End’s album Introspection is something of a cult classic now, the album initially failed to gather the commercial success they needed or deserved. Considering member of the Rolling Stones Bill Wyman helped produce the album, the lack of larger commercial awareness is a mystery.

Introspection encapsulates the End’s sound at its height. Sharp funky bass lines and drumbeats to match ebb into atmospheric sequences creating seamless crests and troughs that is most exemplified in the track “Dreamworld”.

Prior to Introspection, the End had a small amount of freakbeat singles, but their sound only truly came into psychedelic fruition with the aforementioned album’s release. Perhaps the best-received song upon its release was “Shades of Orange” — a psychedelic feast of the genre’s quintessence (at least in sound, if not posterity). Without being in any way derivative, the song has hints of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” but masterfully finds its own path as a psychedelic gem.

The End suffered from line-up changes and eventually became Tucky Buzzard subsequently halting their development into psychedelia to become a progressive rock band.

Image for post
Image for post
Grace Slick

The Great Society were fronted by psychedelic rock icon Grace Slick, yet never reached the status that Jefferson Airplane did too fronted by Slick. Before Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society actually released an early recording of “Somebody to Love”, a song that Jefferson Airplane made popular, but the two recordings differ greatly except for the vocals.

In their own right, the Great Society only released one single before Grace Slick left to join Jefferson Airplane leading the Great Society into the ground without her. However, in an attempt to capitalise on Jefferson Airplane’s success with Slick, Columbia records released a number of live albums of the Great Society, notably the 1967 album entitled Conspicuous Only in its Absence.

Admittedly, Conspicuous Only in its Absence has Jefferson Airplane undertones, but does a lot to stand on its own two feet, and is a great summation of their sound. The minor key laden “Darkly Smiling” is as haunting as the title suggests imprinted with Grace Slick’s inimitable spectral vocals. Fans of Bob Dylan will no doubt be impressed to hear their cover of “Outlaw Blues” too.

Essentially, the Great Society’s discography consists mostly of live recordings released after their disbandment with the exception of a few recordings. Therefore, the Great Society were confined to obscurity but at least Jefferson Airplane came out of Slick’s departure.

For a more raucous encounter of ’60s psychedelia, the Litter are a classic case of a band who can lay down heavy tracks and then strip it all back for more introspective notes of composed psychedelia. Sometimes the Litter opt for both in one song like the masterpiece that is “Silly People”.

The Litter’s first album Distortions released in 1967 is garage rock at its finest despite consisting almost entirely of covers. “Hey Joe”,” Substitute” and “I’m a Man”, to name but a few, all have the Litter’s high octane energetic stamp on them. “Codine” however, is a much more subtle track that adds a more poised psychedelic sound to their repertoire.

The second album $100 Fine was where the Litter came into their distorted psychedelic beauty. Songs like “Mindbreaker” and “Here I Go Again” perfectly fuse cutting guitar riffs together with screaming vocals in a way that sets them apart from many of the bands from the 1960s.

The Litter released their third album in 1969 Emerge. Emerge was their most successful album though one year later, due to many line-up changes, the Litter disbanded.

The Chocolate Watchband personify the bureaucracy of 1960s record companies. Their story as a group is inevitably a tragic window into the minds of record companies during the 1960s that presided over the Chocolate Watchband and many other musicians alike.

Of the three albums that the Chocolate Watchband produced in the 1960s very few of their songs feature the whole band on them. Ed Cobb, the producer for all three of the albums, often used session musicians and in some cases a completely different band to record their tracks yet the albums were released as the Chocolate Watchband. There is a world where this all makes sense, just not this one. That being said, the Chocolate Watchband, with or without the original members, produced some excellent material.

“I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” from the fantastic 1968 album Inner Mystique is a shining example of their work, albeit a cover, that featured the actual band on the recording. The song is a heartfelt rendition of the Brogues’ song with more psychedelic leanings, most notably portrayed through the all too familiar sitar. “Medication”, from the same album, too satisfies any appetite for psychedelic-esque garage rock, despite not being the actual band on the recording.

The Chocolate Watchband commercially flew under the radar during the 1960s, and are an unfortunate example of the unscrupulous power record companies once exerted over their artists. Unfortunately, they were never permitted to flourish on their own as a group, and fell victim to a bureaucratic record company.

Almost in an effort to prove that not all record companies of the 1960s were evil incarnate, Reggie Weiss took an amateur high school band and worked with them to develop a beautifully floral psychedelic group known as the Lemon Drops.

Weiss owned a small record company named Rembrandt Records but in the 1960s small labels had little dissemination capabilities, and so essentially needed support from larger labels. The Lemon Drops never attained a major label contract they so needed but still recorded a plethora of lysergically induced psychedelic gems.

Only a handful of singles were released by the Lemon Drops during the 1960s despite them having a large collection of recordings. However, in the 1980s after the band dissolved in 1969, two albums worth of the Lemon Drops’ material was in fact released. The two albums, most notably Crystal Pure!, contained many unreleased recordings that Weiss had thankfully kept after their disbandment.

The upbeat “I Live in the Springtime” was one of the singles released in the 1960s which was quite literally inspired by an acid trip Weiss once had, and an enthralling song at that. However, it is the previously unreleased material of the 1960s that conveys the Lemon Drops’ truly captivating artistry. “Sometime Ago” is a psychedelic journey that captures the ethos of the ’60s in less than four minutes, and “It Happens Everyday” too is an extraordinary song that has shades of the Velvet Underground.

It is truly a shame that the Lemon Drops are not the household that they could have been, but without a major record label to sustain them, the band never achieved much more than local recognition in Illinois.

The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s career as a group is indelibly linked to the somewhat infamous Bob Markley. Bob Markley was a wealthy man who was admitted into the band for just that — his wealth. In exchange for Markley’s wealth and industry connections, he joined the band despite having limited musical capabilities.

It was not the creation of music that attracted Markley to the band, but in fact, the harems of teenage girls that bands of the ’60s attracted. Markley was by all accounts a lecherous megalomaniac, but his offer was seemingly too tempting for the group. Despite all of this, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental did have more than a few moments of sonic psychedelic perfection.

The 1968 album Volume 3: A Child’s Guide to Good and Evil is nothing shy of a masterpiece, in terms of both production and song writing. The album blends beauty with the melancholic; it builds on the typical sound of ’60s psychedelia in a truly unique way and captures an almost fatalist awareness of the eventual death of the ’60s. “Ritual ≠1” and “Eighteen is Over the Hill” are notable tracks on the album. Part One too is a fantastic album that features the incredibly haunting yet beautiful song “Shifting Sands”.

Markley drove the band into the ground; member after member eventually became disillusioned with the mounting control he exerted on them. More and more Markley took creative control which even lead to physical violence. With no musical credibility to support him, and an erratic temperament, the band dissolved around him amid minor commercial success.

July’s first 1968 self-titled album did very little in relation to record sales during the golden age of psychedelia but has retrospectively amassed cult success or at least cult awareness.

July stand as largely overlooked component of 1960s psychedelia and rather unfortunately lead vocalist Tom Newman regards their first album disdainfully. The band released one album and two singles in the 1960s fusing the right amount of psychedelic eccentricity, with piercing garage rock, finally garnished by a devotion to creative and explorative artistry within their approach to song writing and musical arrangement.

The song “The Way” from their self-titled album captures a peak of their innovation. “The Way” is an amalgam of eastern inspired sounds and western psychedelia fused with a melodic aura of heavily effected guitars, loose reverberating bass and atmospheric bongos that all erupt together to border on musical transcendence.

July is nothing shy of a masterpiece and is shamefully overlooked. The spectral eccentricity in “My Clown”, the wavy garage rock of “Dandelion Seeds”, the reluctance of adhering to conventional song structure to create beautiful originality in “Move on Sweet Flower”, amongst others, all evince July’s spectacular sound.

Due to creative differences with July’s record company and a lack of commercial interest, July disbanded in 1969 but fortunately reformed in 2009 and released another album Resurrection in 2013.

Perhaps the most stylistically innovative band on this article, Please use little to no archetypal 1960s sounds and, although it is a bit of a cliché, they were ahead of their time. Please were completely unique rather than a pastiche of pre-existing ’60s psychedelic musical conventions despite having only garnered a small amount of recognition throughout their short career.

The album Seeing Stars is a withdrawn, heavily organ-laden excursion that confounds the tropes of ’60s psychedelia. The titular track is melancholic rather than upbeat and exemplifies Please’s sound of spectral beauty. Its haunting vocals are sang over minor key organ progressions that too permeate throughout the album.

The 1968/69 album too features more than a few fragments of magnificence though was released after Please’s eventual demise and therefore contains material that was unreleased during their tenure. Songs like “Break the Spell” and “Strange Ways” present something that’s nothing shy of a paradox: why wasn’t this band picked up and taken further commercially?

Please’s songs evade any trite, overly floral tones that can all too often be commonplace in 1960s music. The opening track of 1968/69, “We Aim to Please” is a shade of perfection and an ideal offset to the more eccentric songs that came out of 1960s psychedelia.

Despite their intriguing sound, the band failed to maintain itself. Crippling line-up changes and a lack of commercial attention ultimately led to Please’s disbandment and an unfortunate crawl through the annals of obscurity.

It’s more art than science as to why artist sometimes fly under the radar despite their clear possession artistry and creativity. Perhaps then, it is a testament to the subjectivity of music. Nevertheless, it begs the question: what bands and solo musicians alike are undeservedly flying under the radar today?

All information retrieved from respective album liner notes.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store