Turn on, tune in, but don't drop out because the 24th episode in BBC Four's Britannia series is Psychedelic Britannia (broadcast on 23 October) concerning the five years, 1965 to 1970, when British pop music was completely reimagined in both the counter-culture and, under the guidance of The Beatles, the mainstream. The documentary explores why this happened and what makes music psychedelic. As a taster, here are some of the ingredients...
1. A distrust of technology
Here's a wonderful (and prophetic) Tomorrow's World clip from 1967 about the personal computer - an emblem of the new, technology-driven world being advocated by Prime Minster Harold Wilson. Many post-war kids, however, were suspicious of Wilson's vision of the future. As narrator Nigel Planer says: "In the mid-60s, a counter-culture swapped the white heat of technology for an older Britain of Edwardian fantasy and bucolic bliss." Or, as Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt puts it: "CV? F*** it. Too young to worry about that crap."
2. A rejection of America
The staple of British beat music before 1965 was American blues. The psychedelic bands looked to British culture for inspiration, including The Beatles. Before Strawberry Fields, they were essentially a trans-Atlantic group, but the reference points for Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour (above) were British, as indeed they were on albums by groups like Pink Floyd and The Yardbirds, who's Still I'm Sad from 1965 is perhaps the first truly psychedelic-sounding British pop song.
3. Classical music
In the film, Jim McCarty from The Yardbirds says: "We used to listen to classical music - Stravinsky, all sorts of stuff - and then when we got in the studio we were experimenting with it." Many other bands from the era did the same, including The Nice (above) and Procol Harum, who's enduring pysch classic A Whiter Shade of Pale is directly inspired by Bach's Air on the G String. "I thought classical music could be part of contemporary music," the band's Gary Brooker says.
Jazz was also a huge influence, especially on groups like Cream (above) who had a jazz drummer in Ginger Baker and smashed the conventions of the three-minute pop song by going on extended, spontaneous jams, like bebop artists had before them. "Jazz takes you on journeys and they would really take you somewhere," says Cream's lyricist Pete Brown. "The psychedelic element is that we were taking people on a journey in a different way than before."
Bit of an obvious one this, but, yup, in the late 1960s many British psychedelic bands (and sometimes their fans) were experimenting with illegal substances like LSD. In the above clip, BBC broadcaster Michael Mosley takes a psychedelic drug as part of a controlled clinical trial, and details his experiences. Suffice to say, those kinds of experiences were incorporated into the music of psychedelic bands in all manner of bonkers ways.
6. Questioning the establishment
"The atmosphere in London can be almost eerie in its relentless frivolity - Britain seems willing to sink giggling into the sea," one establishment magazine is quoted as saying in this clip from a BBC programme about swinging London, Three Swings on a Pendulum. But for the psychedelic underground, there was much more to the scene than getting high. Ideas were being formed, capitalism rejected, and new, greener ways of living tried out.
7. The countryside
For some artists, rejecting the establishment meant retreating to the countryside or imagining the countryside in songs to be an Arcadian fantasy world culturally removed from the industrialised cities. It's a link that picked up above in a discussion with Blur's Graham Coxon at an exhibition of paintings by Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd. In the film, sculptor Emily Young calls Barrett "a little wild Puck figure coming out of the woods. He seemed to me to be borne of the English countryside."
Singer-songwriters like Vashti Bunyan dropped completely out of city life and moved deep into rural Britain, but other bands travelled further afield during the psychedelic period, including The Beatles, who studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, and The Rolling Stones, who spent time in Morocco (see above). So did The Incredible String Band and, from there, they brought back African instruments that would transform their folk sound and win them fresh supporters (and a support slot with Pink Floyd).
9. Non-traditional intruments
George Harrison played a sitar on many Beatles tracks and it's the non-rock instrument most associated with psychedelia. Plenty of other bands experimented with unusual instruments in their quest to find new textures for their music. Above, Mark Radcliffe charts the history of the Mellotron, a tape-driven instrument that, among other things, was the key to making Nights in White Satin by The Moody Blues stand out and become a hit.