True to its name, psychedelic rock was born from a counterculture of radical experiments in experience. As a new generation pushed the boundaries of experience through hallucinogenic drugs, they also challenged, extended, and distorted the parameters of music. Protesting against the constraints of radio-friendliness, the psychedelic scene saw long-haired, free-spirited hippies exploring long-form, free-style instrumentation. Innovative twists on traditional musical elements and production, a renaissance of bygone instruments, and the introduction of non-western musical influences have facilitated a distorted, psychedelic experience for generations of fans.
From the Human Be-In to Haight Ashbury’s Summer of Love to the Monterey Pop Festival, the California scene — and its British Invasion — both popularized and monopolized much of the psychedelic movement. Californian psychedelic music sprouted from an existing substrate of political momentum and rock experiments like surf and folk rock, a founding framework which often deposited topical themes in vibrant compositions. The East Coast scene, centered in New York, took on a more avant-garde, grungy tone as heard in the discography of The Velvet Underground. Across the Atlantic, the London-centered British scene, led by groups like Pink Floyd, explored more whimsical and improvisational threads of the psychedelic.
Ready to get hooked on psychedelic rock? Take a trip through western psychedelia with some key tracks from three epicenters of the genre!
The California Scene
“White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane (1967)
Welcome to the entrance of the psychedelic rock rabbit hole. A creeping, subtly building rock riff on Alice’s titular wonderland, “White Rabbit” has come to represent the zeitgeist of the California psychedelic movement. Let Grace Slick’s iconic soaring vocals carry you — and remember what the dormouse said.
“Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” — Dr. Timothy Leary (1966)
Yes — there’s a track credited to former Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary used as the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name, and it’s exactly what you’d expect. Turn on, tune in, and be transported by the ebb and flow of this track’s free-form veena and tabla instrumental homage to Leary’s iconic quip.
“Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Jimi Hendrix lives up to his reputation as one of the most influential electric guitarists in “Purple Haze.” Hendrix’s innovative guitar and surrealistic lyrics flirt around a metronomic syntax, punctuated by dramatic stop-time moments.
“Sit With the Guru” – Strawberry Alarm Clock (1968)
How many tomorrows can you see? Sit with the guru in this blissful recapitulation of a meditative session to find out. The transcendental psychedelic track leans deep into elements of surf rock à la The Beach Boys, strung together by distinctive falsetto harmonies before fading out in a disorienting cacophony of joyful noise.
“Riders on the Storm” – The Doors (1971)
It was a dark and stormy night — and Ray Manzarek’s extended keyboard solo shimmers through this song’s rainy sound effects, itself at times morphing into raindrop-like cascades. Jim Morrison haunts his own brooding vocals in a ghostly whispered overdub, perhaps an ominous portent that this would be the last track he recorded before his untimely death.
The British Scene
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – The Beatles (1967)
Though John Lennon denies any connection between his song’s initials and those of hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), the lethargic lyrical imagery returns to a favorite inspiration of psychedelic music: Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” The genre’s deployment of non-traditional and non-western musical elements is also well-represented on the track, the song’s instrumentation supported by a lowrey organ and Indian tanpura.
“Breathe (In the Air)” – Pink Floyd (1973)
This second track of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” emphatically dissipates the tension of the previous track — “Speak to Me” — which carries over into the first seconds of “Breathe.” Refracted glissandos enabled by guitarist David Gilmour’s liberal application of a guitar phaser swirl around marching, breathy vocals, enveloping the song’s chilly lyrics in a radiant warmth.
“Om” – The Moody Blues (1968)
Representative of the raga rock substyle notable for its heavy Indian musical influence, this serene composition features a unique blend of instrumentation and vocals. Mellotron, flute, sitar, tabla, and cello dance with meditative, lofty harmonies. For best results, listen first to “The Word” — a spoken word track which fades into “Om” and establishes the premise for its lyrics.
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” – Cream (1967)
This track’s guitar is granted a humanoid voice of its own through Eric Clapton’s extensive (and first) use of the newly invented wah-wah pedal, accentuating the repetitive descending bass. For all the instrumentation’s experimental psychedelic elements, the lyrical substance takes on a neoclassical feel in its curation of a vivid exhibition of scenes from the song’s Greek tragedy namesake.
The East Coast Scene
“All Tomorrow’s Parties” – The Velvet Underground, Nico (1967)
Andy Warhol’s favorite of The Velvet Underground’s discography, this track again typifies psychedelic rock's embrace of non-traditional instrumentation. Nico’s unflinching lyric delivery cuts through an energetic instrumental composition inspired by pioneering composer Terry Riley. Marked by its reliance on tone clusters, the song’s undergirding piano motif makes use of prepared piano — a paperclip chain was intertwined with the piano strings to achieve its distinctive sound.
“Riddles and Fairytales” – Bohemian Vendetta (1968)
This curiously jaunty composition is the psychedelic equivalent of the theme song of Nickelodeon’s “Fairly OddParents.” And psychedelic it is; distorted electric guitar, a zealous set of drums, and a simple yet potent oscillating bassline celebrate bizarre lyrics. The track demands not a solution to its riddles, but an embrace of its absurdities.
“(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet” – The Blues Magoos (1966)
“Nothin’ Yet” clings to its prominent syncopated bass — a readily imitated riff which echoed around the rock community in large part due to this track’s chart success. The iconic bass program is the blueprint from which the rest of the song springs, from its lively instrumentation to its distanced, twangy vocals.
—Staff writer Marin E. Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.