Follow TV Tropes


Psychedelic Rock

Go To
Secondary Stylistic Influences:

Psychedelic rock = rock music + drugs + off-beat influences. The original alternative rock.

Psychedelic rock is a style of rock that began in The '60s under heavy influence from the hippie scene’s psychedelic culture. Its main goal is ostensibly to create the audio equivalent of a hallucinogenic drug trip.

Thanks to their stated goal, the psych-rockers really pushed the envelope in terms of sonics and radically broke from the then-dominant folk-rock and blues-rock scenes. Psychedelic rock heavily emphasises sound, sometimes even over actual songs, for the purpose of creating a hallucinatory atmosphere. To this end, psychedelic rock's main characteristic is heavy use of overdubs and elaborate studio effects (with particular love for tape manipulation, phasers/flangers, reversing/back-masking, panning and reverb and echoes) to create a dense atmosphere. Despite this, psychedelic rock is often lumped with Blues Rock due to the two genres mixing in the 1960s and 1970s, the use of extensive improvised solos in psychedelic rock, and because of the rise of the very psychedelic-blues oriented stoner rock in the 1990s, which led many to re-examine the genres as a single entity.

Psych-rock also distinguishes itself through surreal lyrics, more concerned with spirituality, tripping, existentialism or literature than Silly Love Songs—some bands such as Jefferson Airplane and The Beatles exhibited a particular affinity for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books (hence the Alice Allusions in some of their songs), feeling kinship with the book's whimsical, hallucinatory style—extended instrumental solos and song lengths and love of exotic instrumentation. The psychedelic rockers were the first people to introduce and popularise the sitar and tabla in a pop song context, and made heavy use of "exotic", modal melodies influenced by Indian raga and drone music.

You can probably guess the genre's main pitfall, then: the balance between whacked-out trippy-ness and accessibility. Keep the trippiness grounded enough and make sure you provide enough catchy riffs and weird sounds and you're dead-set to end up sounding wicked cool. Go overboard with the drugs and improvisation and you'll just get the musical equivalent of a Gainax Ending.

Psych-rock tends to come in three flavours (with examples provided by The Fab Four):

  • Sunny, optimistic psychedelia. Easily identifiable by its cheerful character and that many of the songs use jangly 12-string guitars borrowed from The Byrds (who themselves plunged headfirst into psychedelia later). As a reference, think of "All You Need Is Love," "Penny Lane," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". You can often find this listed as "sunshine psych". The related genres "psych pop" and "sunshine pop" have psychedelic elements.
  • Intense, head-trip psychedelia, deploying loud guitars, aggressive performances and lots of solos. This sort of intense psychedelia, named "acid-rock", paved the way for Heavy Metal later and would soon become dominated by stoner rock in the 1990s and 2000s. Good examples include "Strawberry Fields Forever", "She Said, She Said", and "Helter Skelter".
  • Creepy, terrifying psychedelia that's less about rocking the fuck out and more about trying to be experimental and/or trippy. Think: "Revolution 9", "Blue Jay Way" and "Tomorrow Never Knows". note 

Psychedelic rock basically came out of disparate influencesnote  but was for all intents and purposes codified by The Beatles, since as we know, The Beatles invented absolutely everything. The 1965 album Rubber Soul showed the band's first flirtations with the genre, letting George Harrison play sitar on "Norwegian Wood" and containing John Lennon's first song about universal love (a favourite trope of psychers), "The Word". Their first actual psych-rock was "Rain", a B-Side to the 1966 single "Paperback Writer" that boasted a bright guitar riff and the first rock song to use a track played backwards. They dived completely into psychedelia with Revolver (witness "Tomorrow Never Knows"' sitar drone, booming drums, dizzying special effects and processed vocals) and the famous paragon of psychedelic rock, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Other bands besides the Beatles that contributed to the genre's development in the same period included: The 13th Floor Elevators (who coined the term "psychedelic rock"), The Beach Boys, The Yardbirds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience; San Francisco bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, the Steve Miller Band, and Moby Grape; Los Angeles bands such as The Byrds, The Doors, Iron Butterfly, Love, The Mothers of Invention; and British bands such as Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and The Nice.

This time just before the boom of Psychedelia also saw other artists join the movement, such as earlier British Folk Pioneer Donovan releasing one of the first psychedelic rock albums, 1966's Sunshine Superman. This period saw the crystallisation of other psych-rock tropes, such as Design Student's Orgasm artwork for albums and singles and live shows with lots of freaky lighting. Psychedelia also spread to other genres, influencing the appearance of psychedelic soul (a combination of Funk and psychedelic rock) and psychedelic pop (which borrowed psych-rock's sunny, hallucinogenic sound but not the heavy drug intake, substituting Silly Love Songs and other pop-song themes instead).

1967 proved to be the sort of "Holy Year" for psych-rock, boasting The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, The Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Love, Cream's Disraeli Gears, The Who's The Who Sell Out (where they jumped on the psychedelic bandwagon, though it fits the concept of the album), The Beach Boys Smiley Smile, The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Doors' self-titled debut album + their second album Strange Days, Pink Floyd's debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Love's Forever Changes. However, psych-rock's wave started to crest soon afterwards, as the overall optimism of the movement vanished and bands embraced increasingly harder drugs (amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, etc.) which led them to increasingly heavier music.

While Miles Davis did pioneer psychedelic-jazz-rock with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew in 1969, most of the rock world moved on to other sounds. This change was best shown by The Beatles, who abandoned psychedelia after their unsuccessful film Magical Mystery Tour, choosing to return to their roots with The White Album. The Manson Family murders and the violent Altamont festival (where a fan was stabbed to death by Hells Angels acting as security guards while The Rolling Stones were playing "Under My Thumb") served to only worsen the overall atmosphere. The final nail in the coffin was the increasingly negative connotations of the genre and its fundamental involvement in the drug culture- by the early 1970s, the effects of drugs became readily apparent with the deaths of several notable musicians, and a moral panic ensued.

While psychedelic-rock retreated from the spotlight after the end of The '60s, it mutated and continued to evolve and thus never really became a Dead Horse Genre. The 1972 release of Nuggets, Lenny Kaye's amazing two-record compilation of the best from the "First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968" was extremely influential to listeners and new bands. Several of its offshoots appeared in The '70s, such as Space Rock (pioneered by Hawkwind), jam bands (Grateful Dead's fault), Heavy Metal and Progressive Rock (Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes were both formed by veterans of the psychedelic scene), while its sonic innovations and hallucinatory atmosphere remained a heavy influence on rock music as a whole, witnessed by Pink Floyd's seventies material. (Some of this, along with Tangerine Dream, then evolved into Space Music.) However, Punk Rock proved to be another blow to the genre, railing against the New Age Retro Hippies (at that time, neither New Age nor retro) with whom the genre had been associated.

Despite the genre seeming to go out of fashion with punk rock, psychedelic rock would exert continual influence on various forms of Alternative Rock. The '80s led to the appearance of "neo-psychedelia", an indie form of psych-rock drawing additionally from jangle pop and space rock, as seen in The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, XTC (especially their side-project The Dukes of Stratosphear and any material made after they stopped touring), Rain Parade and The Teardrop Explodes. Neo-psychedelia evolved into the harsher Noise Rock and Noise Pop of The Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth, while its brighter elements were taken by Madchester bands such as The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays as they briefly became a national phenomenon in late-80s UK. The atmospheric, layered sounds of Dream Pop artists like Cocteau Twins and A.R. Kane and Sophisti-Pop artists like Prefab Sprout and Talk Talk also drew heavily from psychedelia.

Neo-psychedelia itself proved to be a massive influence on Shoegazing bands like My Bloody Valentine and Ride, while Spacemen 3 crossed Space Rock with punk, garage rock and noise pop. During the 1990s, psychedelic rock was kept alive in Britain by artists like Super Furry Animals, The Verve and Spiritualized. Psychedelic influences also continued to bubble in Alternative Rock during The '90s and 2000s, with notable offshoots emerging such as psychedelic rap (New Kingdom, Edan), stoner metal/Doom Metal (Kyuss, Sleep, Monster Magnet, Electric Wizard). Some indie rock bands of the era, particularly those involved in the Elephant 6 Collective like Neutral Milk Hotel and of Montreal, also drew significant psychedelic influences. Even electronic artists such as Boards of Canada and Black Moth Super Rainbow embraced psychedelia.

All the while, the Grateful Dead kept on truckin' as the sole survivors of the original wave of psychedelic groups, up until band leader Jerry Garcia died in 1995. The Dead's devoted following and continued popularity resulted in an entire "jam band" genre developing in the late 1980s. These bands are famous for their live shows, which feature extended improvisations and a different setlist every night, which meant no two of any band's concerts were exactly alike. Jam bands typically kept psychedelia and their Grateful Dead influence as a cornerstone of their sound, but are also influenced by a wide variety of other genres. The first wave of these bands was led by Phish, who ultimately inherited the Dead's place as the kings of the hippie movement by the early 1990s. Other bands of this type include Dave Matthews Band and Umphrey's McGee. Many of these bands became popular through word of mouth and the spread of live tapes of their concerts that had been recorded by fans with audio equipment, a practice actively encouraged by the artists.

In the 2000s, Psychedelic rock in its purest form did not have an easy time gaining mainstream success as it did in The '60s, mainly due to the lingering pro-drug connotations and a near monopoly on rock by "straight" Alternative Rock-based genres. However, it still showed up from time to time and continued to thrive in the indie rock world. The Flaming Lips were arguably the biggest psychedelic band of the decade, with MGMT and Animal Collective also becoming major players in the indie scene.

The genre's role in expanding the sonic boundaries of pop and rock also won't be forgotten soon. It is also the fundamental building block of the burgeoning stoner rock scene. With 'old school' rock returning to mainstream viability note  and alternative still very popular and with both taking up an increasing amount of influence from psychedelic/blues rock, some speculate that psychedelic rock might be on the verge of a mainstream revival.

Indeed, psychedelic rock had something of a resurgence in the 2010s. The slow, but growing, legalization of recreational marijuana in the United States helped, as did the continued high profiles of Phish and The Flaming Lips. In Australia, a full blown psychedelic revival has happened, led by Tame Impala and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, who have become two of the most critically acclaimed rock bands of the 2010s.

Finally, psychedelia has begun to move beyond rock itself with the appearance of the 'cyberdelic/psyberdelic' genre of trance music. Although nowhere near as popular as other forms of techno, such as Dubstep or rave trance, it has begun coming to the attention of fans of EDM.

Often, psychedelic rock is confused with stoner rock, but it should be noted that they are not the same. Stoner rock is the cross-meshing of psychedelic rock, blues rock, traditional/proto-heavy metal, doom metal, often with grunge, punk, and/or jazz depending on the band. Stoner rock also features much more blatant bass than psychedelic rock. However, to some, stoner rock is seen by many as being the 'true successor' to psychedelic rock.

A related, less known genre is psychedelic folk, folk-psych, or acid folk. Like psychedelic rock, its purpose is to recreate or describe psychedelic experiences, but with a softer sound featuring acoustic instruments, introspectively poetic lyrics, influences from traditional music and occasional unusual effects. It's often thought of as a subgenre of Folk Rock. Examples: Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven", Incredible String Band's "Kooeeoaddi There", and Jefferson Airplane's "Comin' Back To Me". Some psych folk reflects a gentle, non-coercive Christian faith or harks back to pagan days.

1960s psychedelic rock Bands include:

Neo-Psychedelic Rock Acts Include: