Words by Andrew R. Fetter
Andrew Fetter has been writing about music for over the last decade and playing in bands for even longer. His latest endeavor is the radio hour, The Noise Kaleidoscope for 99.1FM WQRT in Indianapolis. On it he covers his personal collection and influences of psych rock from over the last half century, starting with early influences and reaching to it’s modern incarnations. Past episodes are archived online.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of psychedelic music, it would have the faces of Jerry Garcia from The Grateful Dead, Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd, Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane and Anton Newcombe from The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Sure there are plenty of other candidates, but we’re not just talking about influential musicians. We’re also looking at the cultural impact that has taken form in the modern era of psychedelic rock (or psych rock). Much like punk, psych rock is defined by more than its sound. There are other factors that make it almost unmistakable. There’s the visual component in live shows (usually identified with splashes of color everywhere), not to mention the album artwork is unmistakable.
From Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, the connection comes more from the 60s drug culture in the “hippie” movement. The music was much more straightforward, almost classic/folk rock. But their experimentation with psychedelic substances did give way to mind “expansion” which opened people’s minds to new ideas. It happens whether you indulge in the substances that have heavily influenced the genre or not (though most people who do would tell you it certainly does help). Full disclosure, I can’t stand The Grateful Dead. The hippie/jam band scene never appealed to me, and for a time the people associated with that scene bugged the hell out of me. However, for better or worse, their influence on what has become modern psych rock is undeniable.
Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, also exemplifies one’s dabbling (or in his case, diving) into psychedelic drugs contributed (possibly indirectly) to the music scene. Coupled with his struggles with mental illness, even after his departure from Floyd, his influence was on the music they continued to make without him. Their more prolific and well known albums (The Wall, Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here) are either direct tributes to Barrett or at least make references to him in various parts. You almost get the idea that while he was physically not in the band anymore, his madness never really left.
Grace Slick is where the two worlds of psychedelic drugs truly merged with the music that is more commonly known as psychedelic rock. Her song “White Rabbit”, with references to Alice In Wonderland as almost perfect metaphors for drug use. Every parent who read this to their children only has themselves to blame for the recreational drug use of their children! For an even better understanding of the song’s influence, listen to the original version of the song performed by The Great Society, Slick’s band pre-Jefferson Airplane. The haze and smoke in that version will probably appear before your eyes once you hear it enough.
Anton Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre brought psychedelic music to the modern era and blew it up. The drumbeat of their song “Anemone” has the slow drip of a lava lamp. The work ethic and utter genius of Newcombe cannot be denied. It’s possible that neither can the alleged insanity that follows that genius and work ethic. It’s displayed (yes in exaggerated form) in the documentary film Dig! which covers both The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. Yes, the film is dismissed by many as a tabloidesque portrayal of a tumultuous relationship between two bands that may or may not have actually been tumultuous. However, a good story isn’t a good story without drama. And as with most rock and roll tales, it adds to the allure. But there are plenty of live videos that depict him calling members out for playing songs incorrectly (too fast, too slow, etc.). And Newcombe works in a manic pace. At one point cooking an entire meal (prep and all) for Anthony Bourdain in an episode of Parts Unknown, while also writing an recording an album. You can’t deny the bit of madness that goes into something like that.
The influence of psychedelic music in the modern rock world is unmistakable. Bands have made individual psychedelic albums in the past, but it seems like lately it’s taken on an entire art form that has spread quickly. Bands like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Moon Duo, The Black Angels and mainstream superstars Tame Impala wear the influence on their sleeves. While plenty of albums by Ty Segall favor loud, angry garage rock, what stand out more are the more “trippy” albums like Manipulator and Sleeper. These all can transport the listener to another world, again with your substance of choice or without it. So have a cigar, lay back and enjoy the ride.