The History of Psychedelic Rock Music
by Alex Cosper (12/15/12)

See also The History of Freeform Radio

Psychedelic music was literally "off the charts" when it crept into youth culture in the sixties. In some ways it was directly inspired by new technology as well as certain popular hits by the Beatles, Byrds and Bob Dylan. Many historians like its purpose to mind altering drugs, but the real point of the music was experimentation. Frank Zappa, who founded the Mothers of Invention, was considered to be one of the most creative minds of this era, yet he frequently spoke out against recreational drug use. Many of the psychedelic rock bands of the sixties fell into two widely diverse groups: electronic keyboard bands and garage bands.

The first hint of psychedelia was a 1963 folk hit called "Walk Right In" by the Rooftop Singers. It was a number one pop single that year that didn't sound like any other hit of its time. Although it was sung in the style of a traditional folk song, and was actually written in the 1920s by Gus Cannon, what made it unique was the sound of two 12 string guitars, giving it a rather jazzy bluesy sound to folk, especially on the strumming of major seventh chords. It was the first hit to have that jangle sound. Soon afteward guitar maker Rickenbacker began to issue electric 12 string guitars, which for many people was first heard with the opening chord of the Beatles hit "A Hard Day's Night." George Harrison was an early believer in the bright new sound of vibrating high frequencies that created an adventurous atmosphere.

Folk was clearly a strong influence on psychedelia as Bob Dylan's poetic lyrics influenced the Beatles to venture further into creative storytelling while both Dylan and the Beatles inspired the Byrds to mix dreamy conceptual lyrics with the new harmonic sound. The result was a Dylan cover called "Mr. Tambourine Man," which topped the pop charts in 1965. They hit the top again later in the year with the peaceful anthem "Turn, Turn, Turn." Meanwhile, the influence of the Beatles rocking up their music a notch inspired Dylan to experiment with electric folk, as in "Like a Rolling Stone."

The Byrd injected more creativity into their music as "Eight Miles High" became a hit in 1966. It was banned by many pop stations for its references to getting high, but it still became a landmark recording in the history of psychedelia. The key to the recording's strange new sounds was the soft dreamy harmonic vocals laid over electric guitar work, that for its time was considered heavy. The use of guitar effects was a key element to the recording, undoubtedly inspired by the Beatles' use of feedback on the opening of ther 1965 number one hit "I Feel Fine."

After "Eight Miles High" it seemed anything was possible in rock music. No longer did songs have to follow a certain familiar structure built on repeating hooks. Soon more and more pop artists began to gravitate toward this experimental approach. At the time, most young people were wired into top 40 stations on AM radio. The competition for artists to get played on AM top 40 required following the tight, strict rules of this format, which dicated length of songs and to some degree, subject matter. But psychedelia changed all that, or at least validated experimental artists who began to write outside of pop formulas.

Psychedlia could be heard in many artists who had gained popularity prior to 1966. The Rolling Stones' hit "Paint, It Black" had a much darker, more eerie sound than their earlier hits. The Beatles had released their album Rubber Soul in late 1965, featuring the sitar sound from India on "Norwegian Wood." One of their hits of that period was "Day Tripper," which took riff-based rock in a completely new direction, adding notes that had never been heard in early rock/r&b riffs before. Other traces of the new sound could be heard an felt in hits by Donovan, The Mamas & The Papas, Eric Burdon & The Animals, The Association, Lovin' Spoonful, The Hollies and new emerging acts such as the Syndicate of Sound, The Count Five, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Standells and The Cyrkle.

In the summer of 1966 The Beatles added another new dimension to psychedelic music. They began to spend more time in the studio, creating the masterpiece Revolver album, which featured all kinds of studio tricks such as backward masking and environmental sounds that were inspired by the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album. One of the legendary tracks from Revolver was "Tomorrow Never Knows," which was an incredible journey througn philosophy about life and industrial sound effects. The Beach Boys were blown away by this album, which inspired them to write the atmospheric multi-layered hit "Good Vibrations."

By 1967 FM radio stations, which were not widely listened to due to signal issues, began going off the charts to dig deeper into albums that offered more creativity and variety than standard hits. These stations were called "freeform." The earliest freeform stations included WBAI in New York, KSAN in San Francisco and KMET in Los Angeles. Soon the success of these stations influenced AM/FM radio owners to test this format (or some might call "non-format") on their FM stations. The FCC had ruled a few years later that they could no longer simulcast programming of AM stations on sister FM stations, which opened the door for experimentation.

The Beatles albums Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album all contributed to the swirling innovative sounds of psychedelia. Lesser known experimental bands of the era were The United States of America, Kak, The 13th Floor Elevators, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band and It's a Beautiful Day. By the end of the decade many rock bands such as the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival experimented with psychedelic sounds, which mixed sounds made by new electronic technology. Even pop acts like The Monkees, The Lemon Pipers and The Strawberry Alarm Clock incorporated pychedelic sounds in their hits.

The late sixties concluded with several FM stations around the country, such as KZAP in Sacramento, shifting to freeform. These stations played a wide mix of music from classical to folk to r&b to rock. It helped propel the careers of artists such as The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and The Steve Miller Band. Throughout the seventies, however, commercial interests began to mutate the sound of freeform radio and so many of the artists either changed their sound or disappeared. The concept of psychedelic rock, however, has lived on through subsequent rock development in punk, new wave, the Seattle sound of the 90s and indie rock genres of the 2000s.

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