Many genres of music that we’ve seen form in the past die as fads of the era as a new sound comes along. At the end of the 1960’s, it seemed like that was the fate of psychedelic rock. Little did they know that psychedelic rock would run for many years to come, with a sound and message that would continuously evolve. If we were to capture the entirety of psychedelic rock and funnel it into a broad interpretation, it’s a music that is meant for expansion in consciousness with ties to psychedelia (more or less the search for spiritual enlightenment through a likely drug-induced derangement of the sensory system).
History In a Nutshell
Most music historians will agree that psychedelic rock came to light after the release of Revolver by the Beatles in 1966. With a plethora of strange, exotic elements, radical structural choices, and an overall unconventional musical storyline, this album defined for a generation the reality-bending genre that would explode in years to come.
From its inception, psychedelic rock was built to disturb and awe the listener all at once. The attempt for many psychedelic rock musicians is to reflect or replicate the experiences that we have when ingesting mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs. To do that, these musicians tend to utilize instruments in more unorthodox manners, sometimes transforming sounds completely. While traditional psychedelic rock bands seemed to play to the counter-culture in defying pop sound structure, modern psychedelic rock bands are beginning to mix the sonic qualities of psychedelic rock with more easily digestible arrangements.
The electric guitar is easily the most prominent component in psychedelic rock. Often you’ll hear guitars being ran through effects such as wah-wah pedals, fuzzboxes, and phasers. The use of feedback as an audio technique became popular as well. Next to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton was probably one of the most prominent psych rock guitarists during the 60s. Listen to “White Room” off of Cream’s 1968 double album, Wheels of Fire. Eric Clapton ran overdubbed his guitars and ran them through a wah wah pedal with tons some fuzzy overdrive in the background.
Many psychedelic rocks bands began to pay homage to musicians of the centuries before them by re-popularizing keyboards that hadn’t been part of pop music for quite some time. The organ, along with the harpsichord and the Mellotron (a tape-driven sampler of the time), was prominent throughout a variety of old classic psychedelic rock albums. The keyboard parts on Strawberry Alarm Clock’s, “Incense and Peppermint”, were played on the Farfisa organ by band member Mark Weitz. The Farfisa organ, as well as the Hammond Organ, can be heard throughout many psychedelic rock albums of the era and beyond.
Psychedelic rock was probably one of the first popular genres to help propel the use of synthesizers and other electronic instruments in music. Many bands began adopting analog synthesizers to lay unearthly soundscapes. One electronic instrument in particular that went from avant-garde to widespread was the theremin. You can thank the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for this, as their quirky use of the electro-theremin helped to quickly increase the demand for the instrument.
Though the lyrical content of modern psychedelic rock is a bit harder to pin down to one theme, lyrical content of traditional psychedelic rock made many references to psychedelic hallucinogenic drugs. These lyrics were often paired with legato vocals and stacked with harmonies to gives them a more ethereal texture. Even with lyrical content that was very taboo back in the day because of drug connotation, the lyrics were often whimsical and esoteric so to almost cause confusion for the listener. Check out “Eight Miles High”, a 1966 single by The Byrds. The impressionistic, drug-inspired lyrics in this song helped to kick off the psychedelic craze.
Psychedelic Rock bands took advantage of modern technology and studio advancements. This is why many elaborate studio effects such as reversed tape, stereo panning, phasing, delay loops, and long reverbs, were very popular on these records. The Beatles used these tricks a lot in their records, most prominently on “Tomorrow Never Knows” off of their Revolver album. You can hear the superimposition of tape loops, speeding-up of Paul McCartney’s laugh for the ‘seagull’ sound, and reversed guitars and cymbals. The pioneers of weird were probably the only ones who could have made this sound so cool.
Essential Psychedelic Rock Albums
Axis: Bold as Love – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
This is the album that locked Jimi Hendrix in as the guitar virtuoso that all musicians to this day continue to worship. Not only did this album help him to showcase his skills as a guitarist and songwriter, it allowed him and his band to showcase an imaginative and innovative sound reflective of the psychedelic era. Even in keeping with their blues roots, the band made use of heavily phased guitar and drums, reversed effects, and non-traditional stereo panning. It’s the ultimate mix of acid and blues-rock and one of the most beloved psychedelic rock albums of all time.
Anthem of the Sun – Grateful Dead
With one of the largest cult followings of any band in history, the Grateful Dead cemented their place in rock history as one of the most influential psychedelic-rock acts ever. Anthem of the Sun is by far one of their weirder albums. Complete with recordings from live shows and studio cuts from the band’s unlimited, drug-induced studio time, this unusually melded together cinematic experience marks a milestone in the band’s legacy.
Innerspeaker – Tame Impala
With sounds from 60s era psychedelia paired with modern production, the main man Kevin Parker took psychedelic rock and brought it to popularity for the 21st century generation to enjoy. Even with the vintage touch, Innserspeaker manages to give listeners something fresh with sweeping synths and guitar, funkier bass lines, and heavily effected vocals. For this reason, it is necessary for us to include this modern classic on our list.