Guide to the golden age of psychedelic rock

Matt Hooke, Executive Editor

Now that we are in quarantine, there isn’t much to do but stare at the ceiling. Sure, you could try to be Shakespeare and write “King Lear” during these times, but how many of us have that kind of energy and talent?  Instead, listen to music that was made for ceiling staring, no chemical enhancement required. New music genres come out of a combination of technology and social factors. New technology gives musicians more sounds to create with, while social factors can inspire lyrics and song topics. For the psychedelic rock era, the new technology came in both guitar effects pedals and recording techniques. Pedals and other guitar effects allowed musicians like Jimi Hendrix or Carlos Santana to turn their guitars into fuzzed-out noise machines, allowing for creativity with a sound that was more than just combinations of notes. This made the blues-based leads of the latter of the two artists sound completely fresh and revolutionary. Early electronic instruments and synthesizers also created new otherworldly sounds for composers to use. The use of the studio, with the advent of multi-track recording, allowed for the creation of a wall of sound, with layers of instruments playing off each other. Socially, the civil rights era and the Vietnam War created music with a strong political message. More importantly, there began to be more integrated rock bands, such as Love, and Sly and the Family Stone.  Ever since the psychedelic rock era, countless bands have tried to replicate its sounds and atmosphere, from Tame Impala whose lead singer, Kevin Parker, is constantly doing his best John Lennon impression, to jam-based bands like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, and Phish. Without a doubt, the music from this era has come to define much popular music today. Here is a primer on this fruitful period in art, from the essentials to the lesser-known gems.

Folk-based psychedelia 

Folk music has often been a key political force in America, ranging from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger. The more political hippie bands often came from this background. The songwriting of Bob Dylan, with its complex images and social commentary, often inspired many psychedelic musicians, though he is not considered a psychedelic artist. 


Love is mainly known for creating one of the great masterpieces of the psychedelic era, “Forever Changes.” Though many of their California peers still believed in the “flower power” offered by the 1967 Summer of Love, songwriter Arthur Lee saw the dark side of the hippie movement’s drug-fueled excess. “A House Is Not a Motel,” about the evil of war, ends in a chaotic dual guitar solo and Lee screaming out,“What’s my name?”  The images here are stark, as water turns to blood on the battlefield and Lee predicts the rise of Vietnam War movies with the line, “the news today will be the movies for tomorrow.” The drugged-out imagery here does more than shock; it creates a sense of chaos that replicates the subjects that Lee is writing about. Lee’s skepticism with the hippie movement offers him as a kindred spirit with other figures like Hunter S. Thompson, who doubted the ability of “peace and love” to stand up to the challenges of war and racism that enveloped the country. Love’s ability to be both inside the movement and outside, on account of Lee’s skepticism and his being one of the few black bandleaders in the West Coast psychedelic scene, gave his music a sense of perspective that most musicians lacked. Few writers would be bold enough to start a song with “sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die.”

Outside of “Forever Changes,” the band’s whole catalog is worth a listen as well. Tunes by Love guitarist Bryan MacLean may not have possessed the political power of Lee’s tracks, but he could write a great love song, as shown by his contributions to the mariachi influenced “Alone Again Or,” and the nostalgic melancholy of “Old Man.” Their first two albums, a self-titled debut and “Da Capo,” are both stellar, though they lack the political bite of “Forever Changes.”  

Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead is the poster child of psychedelic rock. They may not be the most popular band from that era, but they are definitely one of the most enduring, as they can still sell out stadiums today, even with John Mayer replacing original guitarist Jerry Garcia. The Dead is more known for their live work than their studio recordings, such as the compilation “Dick Pick’s,” a 36-album collection of live performances, most from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Volume 31 is especially notable, as it shows the band embracing a strong jazz fusion sound while still retaining elements from their folk heritage, and contains the best track on the album, the 11-minute version of “Uncle John’s Band.” For studio recordings, their best is the twin albums “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty.” These two records eschew the long drawn out jams, which sound great live but can be grating in a studio, to instead focus on songcraft. These two albums show the Dead could do more than noodle. 


“The blues had a baby and they named it rock ’n’ roll,” said legendary Chicago singer Muddy Waters. Since rock is descended from blues, it makes sense that many psychedelic bands would come from this three chord tradition.

Pink Floyd 

Pink Floyd has arguably the deepest catalog of any psychedelic rock band. Their first album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” featured Syd Barrett as a bandleader. His creative force led to a hard rock sound that is much less atmospheric than their later work. Barrett’s lyrics are more humorous than the serious themes that Roger Water’s would explore on albums like “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Though their blues influence can often be overshadowed by their progressive tendencies, a look at their name, taken from early blues singers Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, and a listen to David Gilmour’s bend heavy leads, shows their debt to the delta. 


Santana exploded on the basis of their live performance at the Woodstock Festival, the Big Bang for the hippie movement and psychedelic music. What made Santana stand out from the countless other blues-based bands is their Latin influence. Santana was one of the first bands to blend rock and Latin music, and the first one to be hugely successful with the combination since Ritchie Valens with “La Bamba” in 1958. Their second album, “Abraxas,” is indicative of the sound that would follow. “Oye Como Va,” a remake of the Tito Puente classic, is a two chord vamp that lets lead guitarist and band namesake Carlos Santana shred like a madman. Santana is not just a mindless shredder; for proof there’s “Samba Pa Ti,” one of the great instrumental ballads of the rock era. 

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix is considered one of the foremost innovators of rock guitar. He popularized two effects that have been used by virtually every guitarist since — feedback and the wah pedal. His revolutionary innovations in how the electric guitar sounds is best exemplified by “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” where the wah allowed him to imitate a human voice, while the feedback gave him a dirty aggressive sound. He forced rock, kicking and screaming, to become a genre where technical virtuosity was valued, making the ability to play a great solo or have songs with complex chord progressions more popular. He incorporated the innovations of funk musicians like James Brown into his sound, and his song “Purple Haze” even popularized the “Hendrix Chord,” the E7♯9, a chord popular in jazz and R&B but never used in rock before Hendrix. 

The Rolling Stones

The Stones were one of the more traditional of the British blues bands. They toured with Muddy Waters and BB King, and their albums featured covers of many Chess Records hits penned by Willie Dixon. They always had a nod to psychedelia, with founder Brian Jones adding sitar for an exotic menace on “Street Fighting Man” and “Paint It Black.” Their largest foray into psychedelic rock was “Her Satanic Majesties Request,” a response to The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Since this is the Stones, there are no cute musical theater odes to getting old, but it is a brighter, more sentimental album then most of the Stone’s work. “She’s A Rainbow”  is one of the band’s greatest love songs, featuring a beautiful piano line and great orchestral arrangements. Jones deserves much of the credit for the sound of the record, with his mellotron work adding needed electronic spookiness to tracks like “2,000 Light Years From Home.” The album shows that the Stones could use the studio as an instrument as well as their fab four counterparts.  


The influence of the psychedelic sound found its way into jazz, creating a new style called fusion. There were many artists, such as Soft Machine and Larry Coreyll, that blended the high energy pulse of artists like Hendrix, with the complex harmony and improvisation of jazz. Here, we’ll be talking about one of the most important figures in the movement. 

Miles Davis 

Though Miles Davis is far from a rock artist, his later work displays a large amount of influence from psychedelic rock. “Bitches Brew,” from 1970, sees Davis rejecting almost every conception of the traditional jazz genre that he helped create and popularize. Instead, with guitarist John McLaughlin, he creates a cacophony of sound. The album was Davis’s first gold record, mainly due to how it crossed over to rock audiences. “Brew” combines the improvisation of Ornette Coleman’s free jazz—with musicians only given a mood, a tempo count or a couple of chords to go off of—and the energy of rock, with distorted guitars and electric keyboards. This approach would define much of Davis’s work throughout the ’70s. “Dark Magus” has music as unpredictable as the distorted cover photo, a hurricane of shapes and colors, with Davis’s profile barely visible in the right corner.  Oscillating wah guitar defines the proceedings as Santana- style percussion offers a constant background for improvisation.  

Soft Machine

This band, featuring a revolving door of musicians, is one of the most notable exports from the Canterbury Rock scene, which saw other noteworthy bands like Gong create a unique mix of jazz and psychedelia. Whimsical lyrics made these bands stand out from their often more serious counterparts across the pond, but their stunning instrumental chops showed that Canterbury was as important to popular music as London or New York. The 20-minute magnum opus “Moon in June” is one of the best testaments to Soft Machine’s vision and mixes humor about the artistic process, with lines like “Don’t really know what I’m singing about/ But it makes me feel alright,” with mind bending organ by Mike Ratledge. A song so good it inspired MoonJune Records, a label that continues the Soft’s legacy of releasing inventive unexpected music. 


As the hippie movement became more and more mainstream, pop artists began incorporating inventive instrumentations, lyrics and arrangements.  The Beatles, the great boy band from Liverpool, were the most famous to take the plunge, going from writing songs about wanting to hold your girlfriend’s hand to odes to death and loneliness. Many artists, seeing the success of The Beatles, began taking on more serious subjects and incorporating inventive studio tricks into the pop sphere. 

The Beatles

The Beatles started off as a boy band before becoming an innovative creative force during the late ’60s. What made their songwriting standout was their use of orchestral arrangements and Tin Pan Alley-inspired song structures. Much of the latter can be attributed to Paul McCartney, whose ballads “Yesterday” and “Martha My Dear” could easily have been selections from the Great American Songbook. They were one of the first bands to use the studio as an instrument, with comprehensive overdubbing and other sound effects to produce records that could never be replicated live. More importantly, the Beatles inspired countless other acts to follow in their footsteps, creating their own school of bright psychedelic pop. 


Out of all the British artists who got turned on to flower power, Donovan was definitely the least cynical and most hippie. Just look at his album titles—“Mellow Yellow,” “Sunshine Superman,” “A Gift from a Flower to a Garden”—and you understand the relaxed atmosphere he wanted to create with his music. Donovan is an artist whose work remains firmly a product of its time—there are few artists who look at the hippies with such optimism. He was close friends with the Beatles, even traveling to India with them to meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who developed the technique of transcendental meditation that the Beatles popularized in many art circles. 

Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson, even more so than the Beatles, shows the influence of Tin Pan Alley. His songwriting, with its sense of whimsy, is reminiscent of the works of Cole Porter. He first came to mainstream attention—and caught the ear of the Fab Four—due to the strength of his second album, “Pandemonium Shadow Show,” which featured a cover of The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” His album “The Point!” is his most overtly psych. It is a fable inspired by an acid trip Nilsson had, and tells the story of a boy who lives in a world where all beings have points on the top of their heads. The boy is born pointless and has to deal with the social stigma that results. This early concept album, released two years after The Who’s “Tommy,” is Nilsson’s songwriting at its height. Even the serious songs like “Think About Your Troubles” have a sense of fun, with fantastic imagery of your troubles being “eaten by some fishes/ Who were eaten by some fishes/ And swallowed by a whale.” He scored a No. 1 hit with the song “Without You,” and after achieving chart success, recorded two albums of jazz standards, one “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night,” featuring Frank Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins. 


The late ’60s marked the beginning of electronic instruments, as the technology became more accessible to musicians. Electric keyboards like the Moog and the Mellotron offered pianists new inventive sounds without radical alterations in technique, while brand new instruments like modular synthesizers offered entirely new ways to create sound. 

United States of America

This self-titled album resembles the lo-fi electronic experiences of Portishead and Broadcast. The wispy vocals sung over chaotic instruments held together by steady bass created a template that hundreds of bands would follow. The band was led by Joe Byrd, a UCLA musicologist who studied under avant-garde composers like John Cage. This classical influence gave the United States a more diverse sound compared to its predecessors. There are no standard guitar-based rock songs here. “Where is Yesterday” even begins by quoting a phrase from the medieval Catholic mass hymn “Agnus Dei,” before moving to counterpointal harmonies. Much like Love, the songs United States makes are radical, with “Love Song for the Dead Ché” eulogizing the dead Cuban revolutionary. Parts of the album show the influence of the baroque orchestral pop of The Beatles, and “Stranded in Time” is a song similar to Steely Dan’s “Through with Buzz,” a coherent story told in under two minutes backed by a stunning string arrangement. 

Silver Apples

New York mayor John Lindsay once called this band the sound of the city. The Silver Apples were far from your normal pop music act. The duo consisted of drummer Danny Taylor and Simeon, who played eight oscillators while contributing vocals. There are few bands that sound like this even today, though the rhythms that pulse instead of hit predate electronic groups like Portishead.  The group released only three albums, a self-titled record, a second album, “Contact” and a third, “The Garden,” released nearly 30 years after its initial recording. The second album ended up dooming them in 1969, and led to a lawsuit by Pan Am. Though they had the airline’s permission to shoot the cover in an airplane cockpit, they didn’t have permission to depict an airline crash. With their experimental sound backed up by an ear for melodies and a relentless pulse, this is a band that should have lasted longer.

Beach Boys

When people talk about the psychedelic era of the Beach Boys, they often start and end with “Pet Sounds.” The album, released in 1966, is a masterpiece in its use of the studio as an instrument. Brian Wilson’s version of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, where many layers of instruments combine to create a huge sounding instrumental, made the technique the hallmark of pop producers looking to add a spark to boy bands and auteurs looking for a unique statement. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” marks the first use of the theremin, an electronic instrument that uses the musician’s hand distance from two metal antennas to control sound. However, the group’s other late ’60s and early ’70s work is in dire need of public exposure. “All I Wanna Do” from 1970’s “Sunflower” captures the sound that Tame Impala and generations of atmospheric pop artists have tried to capture ever since. The gliding synth and vocal harmonies, with a guitar part to make the chorus stand out, is a formula often replicated but never surpassed.  

Honorary mention

Though John Prine is far from psychedelic, he wrote the best song about drugs ever written: “Illegal Smile.” It upends the spiritual connotations that many artists gave to LSD and drug culture, and instead depicts it as a goofy way to kill an afternoon. The late John Prine passed away from COVID-19 earlier this year.  The self-deprecating song finds Prine sitting in his closet, “Tryin’ to get away/ From all the ears inside my walls.”