How psychedelia transformed pop culture

There are things known, and there are things unknown - and they’re all in Rob Chapman’s cultural history of LSD, Psychedelia and Other Colours.

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If Aldous Huxley had got his way, this book would have been titled Phanerothymia and Other Colours. That was the term Huxley proposed for the experience of taking lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), the hallucinogenic drug first synthesised in a Swiss laboratory on the eve of the Second World War. It was the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond who came up with “psychedelia”, from the Greek words for “mind” and “manifest”. The term has since become associated predominantly with music. Rob Chapman’s book attempts to catalogue the far-reaching effects of the psychedelic experience as it expanded into the world over a 25-year period after the war, when books such as Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) became required reading for counter­cultural sky pilots.

Acid removes the filters that the brain normally applies to reality and users often describe a perception of interconnectedness, a slowing down of time and sensations of synaesthesia. The arts had been striving for similar effects with special vigour in the 20th century through movements such as cubism and surrealism and various branches of avant-garde music. Chapman traces a curlicued history connecting the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy’s kinetic light sculptures with the youth parties in mid-1960s San Francisco, where fledgling psychedelic groups such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane routinely performed with multicoloured oil-wheel light shows.

The American west coast story is an un­avoidable element of the psychedelic timeline and Chapman is a trustworthy, opinionated Virgil of its several circles, demolishing the Doors and hymning the more nuanced virtues of Love and the Byrds.There is an impressive account of the metamorphosis of surf music into garage punk and its charms are captured perfectly in his description: “Amphetamines added a frisson of nail-chewing neurosis to ever-present male anxieties. The brain-mashing onslaught of LSD heaped further chemical layers on top, either soothing the psyche with delusions or debilitating it with nightmare visions of inadequacy.”

In a chapter on black manifestations of psychedelia that ranges from Sun Ra and Albert Ayler to Jimi Hendrix and Rotary Connection, he argues: “From bebop to hip-hop . . . critics have been baffled by or downright hostile to any manifestations of black creativity that do not bear some trace of the noble savage ancestry.” Chapman insists that Hendrix, far from wandering up his own psychic fundament, ended up directing psychedelia’s transformative sonic potency against the state. “After Woodstock [in 1969], the atrocities of carpet-bombing and village burning were soundtracked by the symbolic flag-shredding that takes place during Hendrix’s extraordinary rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.”

The writing also rises spectacularly to the challenge of evoking the mystique of music such as Rotary Connection’s “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun”, a song that “bursts into celestial flames” when a beatific male voice interrupts the groove. “He lets out a laugh after ‘the morning sun’ . . . a revelatory laugh at the preposterous nature of all the earthly endeavours going on down below. It’s delivered with the twinkle of a ghetto Buddha perched on solid air.” In an age when so much white psych was directed towards woolly pacifism and universal love, the music of the Chamber Brothers, the Temptations and their peers was “predicated on the understanding that the drugs will eventually wear off and the ghetto will still be there tomorrow”.

The bulk of the book comprises the tale of what happened when LSD washed up on British shores and the author’s affection for the Small Faces, Pink Floyd, the Kinks and myriad obscure purveyors of English “infantasia” is unmistakable. There are reams of texts already written about the Beatles but Chapman takes a bead on a fresh angle. Beginning with the premise that “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” are “perhaps the crowning achievements of psychedelia”, he notes how, on that double-sided slice of lysergic bucolia, “[John] Lennon mystifies with each stuttering utterance; [Paul] McCartney magnifies with matter-of-fact description . . . Everything is happening simultaneously in ‘Penny Lane’ . . . The song offers a visual paradox similar to that seen in a Magritte painting.”

He forensically examines the changes in the group’s songwriting immediately after its members began spiking their tea. The BBC banned “A Day in the Life” but establishment discomfort with LSD was often focused less on drug-taking than – pace Arthur Koestler – on the anxiety that acid allowed any Vera, Chuck or Dave to barge into the presence of God without having to endure all that “living as a hermit in the desert” stuff for 40 days and nights.

Still, as the book’s title suggests, Psychedelia and Other Colours contains a broader panorama, one that at times feels like a comprehensive history of baby-boomer pop culture. Wonderful digressions evoking the spirits of English music hall, the 1951 Festival of Britain and period television such as Jonathan Miller’s 1966 production of Alice in Wonderland add context and deeper shades of rainbow around the music. When he gets to a thematic analysis of Steptoe and Son and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? it feels as if there is at least one other book in the making here, analysing the flakes of subliminal nostalgia rusting beneath the glare of the era’s white heat.

This ambitious work involves a balancing act between musical descriptions, artist biographies and anecdotes, girded by a wider frame of cultural reference. Chapman keeps the plates spinning with aplomb. His brightest light-bulb moment comes with the realisation that the supposedly “monochrome, drab” 1950s were saturated with mind-expanding colour, from Panavision movies to fluorescent Teddy boys, comic strips, hand-tinted photography and advertising. Invoking Dylan Thomas’s rapturous reportage from the Festival of Britain, Chapman notes, “It sounds like a light show and an acid trip without the acid to me.”

Chapman refuses a catch-all definition of psychedelic music, even though the term is still lazily invoked about any pop song with edges that seem to get lost or that moves into a zone difficult to reduce to words. He also avoids falling back on the adjective “baroque” when describing anything with a string and woodwind arrangement. His method is to observe the moments when music and lyrics are distorted into forms they would never have reached if it wasn’t for the availability of LSD. Like Jon Savage, whose book on 1966 will be published this autumn, Chapman seems preoccupied with that year’s transitional atmosphere, in which a generation of sharp-suited Mod bands – the Action, the Creation, the Animals – traded Savile Row suits and winkle-pickers for moccasins and kaftans, and lyrics embraced new colours, new tropes. If someone was “ascending in a balloon, flying a kite or descending by parachute”, the chances are they were singing about something else.

The age of psychedelia lasted only a few hectic years, opening the doors to the portentous concepts of progressive rock. Any longer view of how psychedelia resonates in our time is beyond Chapman’s remit and the book’s engine cuts to a glide before the 1960s are even over. Closing it after more than 600 pages feels like shutting the gates on a vanished set of priorities. As an account of psychedelia’s glorious highs and preposterous charms, Chapman’s exhaustive exploration of this Arcadian age will take its rightful place as the standard text. It remains open to question whether a pinch of phanerothyme in the reservoirs tomorrow might still add to the gaiety of nations.

Rob Young is the author of “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music” (Faber & Faber)

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses