A Guardian, Mojo and Rough Trade Book of the Year Fifty years on from the psychedelic summer of love, acclaimed music writer Rob Chapman explores what was really going on…
September 19, 2017 | by Hannah Marshall
As a rule, I don’t start writing a music book until I have something other than the music to write about. The unlikely light bulb moment that illuminated my initial research for Psychedelia And Other Colours was, funnily enough, another Faber & Faber publication, Nicollete Gray’s Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces.
Although published in 1939 its influence was still being felt three decades later. In my book, I call Gray the Cecil Sharp of Typographica. Her book did for Victorian design what Sharp did for folk music, in that she retrieved and revived a fast disappearing world, in her case a world of shop signage, circus posters, and arcane iconography.
In the 1930s Gray, along with John Betjeman, spearheaded the revival in Victoriana. When her book was republished in the 1950s it influenced a whole new generation of art students. That influence could subsequently be seen in the swirling splendor of record sleeves, TV and magazine ads and clothing designs during the psychedelic era.
As much as anything else, UK psychedelia makes sense to me as part of that wider periodic revival in Victoriana and Edwardiana that resurfaces throughout the 20th century. Nicolette Grey and her revived fonts were, therefore, the perfect place to begin my journey.
I stated from the outset in Psychedelia and Other Colours that “the world really doesn’t need another book about the psychedelic sixties” and I meant it. I really didn’t want to spend several hundred pages trawling the same old sources for the same old quotes and repeating the same old cut and pasted myths and truisms.
To me, there were other routes to go, other relatively unexplored themes and connections to consider. Pretty early on I realised that part of my quest would involve inverting the standard sixties narrative and rescue a plethora of under-documented initiatives from the margins and place them at the centre of the story where they truly belong.
Light Shows for example, which have a pre-psychedelic history stretching back to the 19th century. From the same period, there’s the audible influence of the Music Hall on The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces, Cream, and others.
The all pervasive influence of LSD also made me want to consider why the Beatles in their psychedelic pomp wanted to write songs about their childhoods. Why did Syd Barrett peer into the dolls house darkness for all those psychedelic gems? Why did beat groups who only a year earlier had been happy doing covers of Smokestack Lightnin and singing selections from the Stax Soul songbook suddenly all start writing songs about weather vanes, penny farthings, and sweet shops?
LSD was undoubtedly a key factor but there were other reasons too, reasons that went to the very heart of what it was to be young and alive in the 1960s and yet still dripping in melancholy.
In the chapter I’m most proud of, ‘The Penny Arcadia’, I tried to trace the routes (and tap roots) of that particularly British strain of nostalgia that you hear in so much pop music of the time. I chased Alice as she pursued that white rabbit and like her, I found myself in some strange and unfamiliar and yet utterly enchanting places.
This is where Nicolete Gray and her Victoriana came into their own, as did Bruce Lacey who was experimenting with light shows in 1951, and Barbara Jones the artist who first coined the term Pop Art and whose subject matter, fairgrounds, the seaside, children’s toys, sweet shops, etc, read like a lexicon of psychedelic pop song.
Once you’ve set yourself the task of avoiding regurgitation you have to ask yourself at every turn, has this been said before and who really needs to know this? My hard and fast rule, while I was writing, was if it has been said before then either say it better or don’t say it at all.
Aldous Huxley famously said of his mescaline experience “The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out”. That was my experience too. Psychedelia was terrain I thought I knew pretty well, but once I became immersed in my research whole new vistas availed themselves to me. A bit like an acid trip itself really.
Part of the quest for any writer is that you should know more at the end of your journey than you did when you set off. The play-power aspect of sixties politics has always fascinated me and I don’t think the decade’s chroniclers have paid half as much attention to the sheer theatricality of the era than they could have done. For that reason alone I try to give the Happenings and the fringe theatre groups due attention.
Never forget that San Francisco’s anarcho-politicos The Diggers emerged from a theatre group, or that Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters played a seminal role in moulding the immersive environments of the psychedelic era. Throw LSD into the mix in a decade when identity was already up for grabs and you have the recipe for some very heady realignment.
That same chemical imbalance played a crucial part in turning mod boy and girls into fey young things and the sexual ambivalence of many a delicate psyche was set on a whole new course once the lysergic barriers were down. Androgyny may have come of age in the 1970s but psychedelia did its bit to direct all the ‘inbetweenies’ to the dressing up box. You can hear it in the camp delivery and arch sentiments of many a psych pop record.
You can also hear the sea change that took place between 1965 and 1967 in almost every significant R&B band of the period. The Animals, The Pretty Things, and The Yardbirds all owe their gear shift in musical direction to the internal mechanics of psychedelia. LSD kyboshed the machismo of many a swaggering mod and either turned them into gibbering wrecks no longer capable of doing the monkey or the twine or it had them writing songs about bamboo, butterflies, and purple alligators.
It was the same on the other side of the Atlantic. The term I coined for this metabolical assault was ‘machismo in peril’. You can hear it in the neurotic yelp of 96 Tears and a thousand other garage band records too.
There’s a whole feminist (or at least feminised) sub-text running through Psychedelia And Other Colours whether it’s drawing parallels between the girl group era and the garage bands or in the way I emphasise the Beatles girl group roots and the gossipy female voice that surfaces in the best of their psychedelic music. I’m surprised no one has explored this aspect of their music more deeply. That narrative voice has always been up for grabs it seems to me, but far too many writers either glibly take their genius for granted or think that there is some value in tracing every last acolyte who bought John a drink at the Jacaranda.
I have to admit that I approached the task of writing about the Beatles in a spirit of belligerence. ‘What more is there left to say?’ came the world weary sighs. ‘Just watch’ was my answer. But then I remember people also saying that when I embarked upon A Very Irregular Head, my Syd Barrett book, so delving deep into the inner scouseness of the Fabs hardly intimidated me.
I wish a few more writers would indulge themselves when writing about the Beatles instead of simply being blinded by their majesty or merely wanting to trace Ringo’s old dustman just in case there is still the juicy morsel of an anecdote not yet chewed to death.
They left us such a rich legacy and they were a great advert for LSD-induced creativity, the least we can do is explore their sonic terrain a little more thoroughly.
Andrew Weatherall, who wrote the introduction to the book, was just one of several people who thanked me for doing something they previously hadn’t thought possible, finding something new to say about the Beatles. The Beatles were multi-faceted. Let’s have some multi-faceted critique to go with the music, I thought. Well, now we have.
Despite having mined ‘the long 1960s’ to exhaustion the thing that ultimately fascinates me about psychedelic music is how, as a style, it came and went very quickly. Tricks and techniques that were de rigueur in 1967 (baroque arrangements, phasing, elongated vowels, technicolour lyrics) were old hat by the end of the decade. But by then it had infiltrated the mainstream.
By 1969 the graphics on Rowan & Martins Laugh In and Sesame Street were identical. The same goes for British TV where the most psychedelic things you could watch when I was 15 went out at tea time (The Owl Service, Do Not Adjust Your Set, Nice Time etc.) This, in my opinion, is where psychedelia was most successfully assimilated into the visual lingua franca. And that’s why my book ends when it does. I didn’t want to chronicle every last psychedelic revival of the past 50 years, as magnificent as some of them have been. That’s a PR job. I don’t do PR.
Psychedelia and Other Colours by Rob Chapman is available to buy now.