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PSYCH IN THE UK - A Brief Primer
The History of Psychedelia

Pink Floyd

The programme will be available to hear for seven days after transmission.

Pop critic Jon Savage makes the case that whereas American psychedelia was informed by radical politics and the experience of war in Vietnam, UK psych took a very different approach. On The Beatles' It's All Too Much, George Harrison intones the subject to 'show me that I'm everywhere then get me home for tea.'

It's this cheery domesticity which defines British psych - a fascination with childhood as a lost age of innocence, Edwardian fashions and a hankering after the pastoral idyll. Add in a healthy dose of fantasy from the likes of Tolkien, Lewis Carrol and the Wind in the Willows, soak in LSD and you have the perfect recipe for a right old freak out.

Hence, you get Pink Floyd's Mathilda Mother, in which a child asks his mother to keep reading stories to him, or The Penny Peeps celebrating the joy of their Model Village. There are plenty of magicians and witches floating around too, reflecting a general curiosity about the occult. And of course, there are plenty of veiled drug references, such as The Smoke's My Friend Jack (who eats sugar lumps - whatever can they mean?).

Sgt Pepper remains for many the definitive artefact of the Summer of Love, and its influence was all pervasive. All over Britain groups plying their trade on the hard edged R'n'B circuit swapped suits for Edwardian jackets, grew their hair and proceeded to sing the praises of blowing your mind. Witness the change in The Move, whose I Can Hear the Grass Grow retains an R'n'B snarl but perfectly reflects the sensory overload of the acid trip. I Can See For Miles by The Who also filters their trademark power chords through a lysergic haze, to quite stunning effect.

The back to nature element of psychedelia was perfectly suited to sitting on rugs strumming acoustic guitars and singing about gnomes. Marc Bolan, unable to find success with John's Children, adopted a bongo player and started singing about fair maidens and unicorns to audiences of stoned students and John Peel. Donovan released the Sunshine Superman album, the title track of which perfectly captured the sunny optimism of the day, while Season of the Witch hinted at the darkness at the heart of the LSD experience.

But perhaps the purest expression of British psych's folky contingent was Glasgow's Incredible String Band. They evolved out of the Scottish folk scene, but they gradually began to incorporate what we'd nowadays call World Music influences, filled with spaced out lyrics, and odd time signatures.

Syd Barrett
Above: Syd Barrett.
And then of course there's probably the other crowing glory of British psychedelia - Pink Floyd's Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The Floyd, nice middle class boys one and all, quickly became the house band at the hip UFO club. Led by the mercurial talent of Syd Barrett, their trademark improvisations and pulsating light shows made them a popular attraction. Piper… remains a stunning album, balancing whimsy and dread in equal measure and featuring some truly stunning guitar playing from Barrett, who would later suffer a nervous breakdown apparently brought on by a prodigious diet of LSD.

Marmalade Skies
Of course, British psych inspired its fair share of dross and pastiche. By 1968 the charts were filling with records which virtually parodied the worst excesses of the movement. Even the staunchly bluesy Rolling Stones got in on the act with the Satanic Majesties album, right down to the pseudo Pepper cover sporting Mick in velvet wizard's hat.

As the sixties waned, the sounds got harder and heavier, paving the way for progressive rock and the dawn of the dreaded concept album. As flower power gave way to power to the people, the wide eyed wonder of early psych seemed ridiculous as the barricades went up across Europe.

Still, there were still those for whom the naïve delight in experimenting both with sound and drugs held allure. Hawkwind kept the flame in the 70s, and periodically other artists, such as Julian Cope, would sing the praises of trippy classics. XTC even recorded an entire LP of prime 60s psych as The Dukes of Stratosphere in 1986.

By the late 80s dance culture was the true successor to psychedelia. Rock bands were quick to pick up the new mood - The Stone Roses were closer in spirit to classic 60s acts such as The Byrds than they were to any of their 80s contemporaries, right down to their penchant for backwards guitars.

Today, psychedelia is just another element in the great cultural melting pot. Although the hippy philosophies may inspire chuckles, the spirit of experimentation, playfulness and refusal to accept the boundaries of contemporary society still attract acolytes.

Mick Fitzsimmons

LINKS

BBCi Music Classic Rock and Pop
Reviews and info about the latest releases and classic acts.

The Psychedelic News
Obscurites, classics and more at this good resource.
Hippy Land
Dedicated to the hippy in all of us, for that full 60s experience.

Psychedelic Music
Excellent guide from the 60s to the present.
DOC ARCHIVE
Info on previous programmes


Stuart Maconie
Stuart Maconie

Find out more about Stuart's Saturday show featuring The Critical List.
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