One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. But which pill did all of those doing the turning on, tuning in and dropping out in reverb-equipped recording studios and dank basements with dry ice and flashing lights in mid-sixties San Francisco and Swinging London actually take? Or did they even take any at all? Well, it’s difficult to say.
The main problem with histories of psychedelia is that most observers tend to start with what happened and work backwards in the vaguest possible sense. Take a look at the average newspaper article about the far-out sounds of the mid-sixties, and you’ll probably find a reference to, say, “bands like The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane” spearheading the new pyramid-meets-the-eye lifestyle, which is all very well and good except for the fact that the two came from different cities, had different influences, different images and even different attitudes – to celebrity as well as to music – and probably didn’t even really hear about each other until they started having hits. Over in the UK, of course, The Beatles invented everything and everyone else just copied them; even then, anyone who wasn’t Pink Floyd or Traffic was apparently a cash-in outfit pushed onto the paisley-patterned bandwagon by cynical record company types who wanted a financial slice of this psychedelic action. Brian Wilson went mad but was still a genius unlike the other evil breadhead Beach Boys, Syd Barrett didn’t go mad but we pretend he did anyway because it’s easier to repeat sensationalist stories with no foundation in truth, Charles Manson broke his CIA programming and smashed a TV, David Bowie didn’t make a proper record until Space Oddity, and oh hang on where do The Move and Jimi Hendrix and Donovan fit into this erm hey look at those colours over there. They’ve got spirals in and everything.
There are exceptions to this, however, and one of the greatest exceptions came in the form of the sleevenotes to a compilation entitled Paisley Pop – Pye Psych And Other Colours 1966-69, which raided the archives of defunct sixties hit factory Pye Records for releases that had slipped through the cracks in the pop pavement, leaving a distinctly multicoloured trail as they went. Opening by noting the problem with The Troggs’ mind-expanding lyric “bamboo butterflies, twice their normal size, flying around in my mind” – namely that even at twice their normal size, butterflies, bamboo or otherwise, still wouldn’t actually be that large – compiler Rob Chapman poured gag-drenched disdain on the tendency of those writing about sixties pop music to take it all too seriously, and their baffling obsession with what retired musicians are doing now (“what are you going to do – startle him at the bus stop and make him drop his Argos catalogue?”). Pondering “in a world where everyone from Vince Hill to The Seekers to Des O’Connor embroidered their music with sitars and their album covers with dayglo, what price authenticity anyway?”, the sleevenotes rattle through the twenty two featured pop hopefuls getting a bit weird on their b-sides while nobody was looking with a combination of jokes, pop cultural context, and references to everything from Ivor The Engine to a schoolkid Rob being caught shoplifting one of the featured 7″s. “Some took little sugared pills that made them mystics for a day”, he concludes, “some just put on a paisley shirt and pretended, but everyone wanted big pop star hits and don’t you kid yourself that it was ever otherwise”. It was a refreshing piece of writing that to one young listener at least was every bit as significant as discovering I Wish I Was Five by Scrugg and Morning Way by Trader Horne courtesy of the accompanying CD.
Psychedelia And Other Colours is essentially that same attitude and approach applied to a serious academic study of how and why psychedelia happened on both sides of the Atlantic. The first half of the book addresses exactly what spurred those bands in entirely different cities into simultaneous psychoactive action, looking at every possible refractive colour-changing sphere of influence from superhero comics to a long-forgotten Son Et Lumiere craze to the folk and world music compilations put out by revered blues labels, with the sudden agricultural spread of a certain raggedy-leafed lawbreaker slotted around them rather than vice versa. What’s more, there’s some fascinating detail on Black America’s little-documented psychedelic experience, and convincing speculation on what might have happened if Brian Wilson had finished SMiLE and it had wowed critics and pop fans alike, leading to a much more upbeat and harmony-drenched late sixties as 5th Dimension, Spanky And Our Gang and Strawberry Alarm Clock took the critical and commercial place of twenty million hour guitar solo rock bores. Instead, of course, hapless hippies ended up being preyed on by those who sought to financially exploit them and worse – I’d never heard of the Linda Fitzpatrick case before reading this book, and in some ways wish that I still hadn’t – while the rock stars who had led them to this not-so-promised land abandoned them in search of a new nirvana apparently located in a rocking chair on a porch somewhere in the Old West; a musical movement that Rob hilariously and pointedly dubs ‘Whiteface’.
Over in Great Britain, the second half of the book looks at how the future members of ‘The’ Pink Floyd, The Small Faces and The Moody Blues had their imagination fired by the kaleidoscopic blend of Victoriana and advertising boards in the amazing-sounding Festival Of Britain – where Croydon’s own Barbara Jones invented the style and name of Pop Art despite what certain men who came along later would have had everyone believe – through Listen With Mother and Watch With Mother, strips in the Eagle, Light Programme detective and sci-fi serials, the Doctor Who theme and the under-appreciated ‘sound pictures’ conjured up in single takes by the likes of The Shadows, Joe Meek and Russ Conway, with wilder and weirder sounds sneaking in over the three-mile limit courtesy of Pirate Radio, before the arrival of BBC2 lit the fuse with its daily late-night line-up of irreverent comedy, modern art, modern jazz, European cinema and Bob Dylan. Meanwhile, in the background, powerful hallucinogens are generally ignored by all and sundry, apart from proving a cause of academic concern to the exact same tweedy blokes on wordy science and current affairs programmes that would later welcome such bands onto their highbrow late-night BBC2 musings.
Less My Little Red Book than My Massive Multicoloured Pocket Library, Psychedelia And Other Colours is a laudable attempt to tell the reality rather than the hedonistic ‘visionary’ myth behind the reasons why so many on one side of the Atlantic wound up babbling about ‘free love’ and philosophies they probably couldn’t even spell properly, and those on the other spent their entire time trying on military jackets in top hats and singing about Auntie Mildred’s Button Shop. What emerges is a colourful portrait of a black and white world – and one that clearly wasn’t as ‘grey’ as it is routinely made out to be – and given that where possible Rob has gone back to primary sources stretching all the way from ‘alternative lifestyle’ pamphlets circulated illicitly in post-JFK America to BBC film crews asking perturbed early sixties shoppers if they’ve ever heard of powerful hallucinogens – not to mention John Lennon sending Ringo Starr a note saying “we all agree with you” – chances are that you’ll find yourself doing a lot more reading, viewing and indeed listening after reading this superlative work. It’s basically the book I’ve wanted to read ever since, well, Paisley Pop. Which reminds me, I’ve not heard Dreamtime by The Rainbow People for ages…
You can find more features on psychedelia and pop music in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.