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psychedelic heritage

A Brief And Highly Selective History Of English Psychedelic Music

written by Sean Williams, 10th August 2006

... pics to be added soon...

It was at the Mama Matrix Most Mysterious launch party in Glastonbury that I met Paul Devereux who had just published his book "The Long Trip" which is a fairly comprehensive survey of psychedelic drug use in ancient cultures. He suggests that evidence such as spiral carvings and paintings support the theory that using certain mushrooms and herbs contributed to the speedy evolution of mankind in the last few thousand years.

Indeed it is only since 1965 that hallucinogenic compounds such as LSD have been illegal in the UK and before the 20th Century Britons were fairly free to experiment at will with all sorts of mind expanding drugs, herbs and fungi. There is a close association between drug influenced artistic expression and Visionary expression, and the most obvious exponent of the Visionary art is William Blake. Looking at Blake's incredible prints you will see bizarre and sometimes phantasmagorical images, great detail, and text written in all the colours of the rainbow. It seems pretty obvious that he was inspired by drugs but in fact he wasn't at all.

For the most well documented early psychedelic pioneer you need to check out Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He, like many of his contemporaries, developed an addiction to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) and in many instances his drug induced visions provided the subject matter for his poems. Kubla Khan was written on waking from such a reverie but the speed with which the vision faded left him unable to finish the poem as he wanted to. Thomas De Quincy's "The Confessions of an English Opium-eater" is the most obvious 19th Century work, but it fell to Aldous Huxley in the 20th Century to apply his vast depth of knowledge and highly honed critical faculties to really communicate the wonders and perils of the psychedelic experience to the general public in "The Doors of Perception" and "Heaven and Hell".

Since Huxley was able to take LSD before it was made illegal he did not suffer the stigma of communicating a criminal experience. The great service that Huxley performed was to describe the psychedelic and visionary experience first hand with no agenda. It's quite something to listen to Huxley talking about LSD and mescaline at his home in Ennismore Gardens in the Lansdowne interview and many of today's politicians would do well to listen to the thoughts of such an educated psychedelic connoisseur.

101 Cromwell Road was where a lot of LSD entered the underground scene in London in the mid sixties. A friend of mine who lived there then described a house full of poets, painters and musicians including Syd Barrett which was a nexus of the underground scene. Lee Harris was a regular at the UFO club in Tottenham Court Road, Joe Boyd's famous psychedelic night where the early Pink Floyd played regular sets. Syd's music was deeply english in character and he was one of the very few artists along with Nick Drake to sing with a notably english accent that perfectly complemented his material. Undoubtedly drawing inspiration from his psychedelic usage he conjured a strange world, and described an alternative England distinct from the mainstream which many people could relate to.

No brief history of english psychedelia would be complete without mentioning The Beatles. George Martin had a great deal of experience in making weird sound effects and recording whole tunes around these sound effects before working with The Beatles. I guess there's got to be a nod to Spike Milligan whose surreal and mental sense of humour was also often expressed using sound effects on The Goon Show. George brought his experience to bear at Abbey Road and when that was coupled with The Beatles sonic experimentation the psychedelic sound of phasing drums, backwards guitars, indian instruments and really inventive sound processing was unleashed into the mainstream at about the same time as Syd and pals were blowing people away at the UFO. I mean, listen to "Blue Jay Way" in all its one and a half chord glory on "The Magical Mystery Tour" album and you'll hear all the drums and vocals on the left, all the guitars on the right, and more tape flanging than you could shake a stick at! Spacemen 3 eat your hearts out!

The early Stonehenge and Glastonbury festivals of the 70s saw the advent of the crustier and more anarchic strand of english psychedelia best personified by the venerable Hawkwind. With songs firmly rooted in rock they would thrash away for hours and really laid the roots for the pounding dance oriented psy-trance culture of the 90s including the use of live synths to create unfamiliar and disorientating soundscapes backed up by a driving beat. My favorite period was before Lemmy got kicked out for a purported amphetamine issue crossing a national border on tour. His bass playing on tracks such as "Psychedelic Warlords" (which I first heard on a jukebox in a pub in Polzeath in 1989) is awesome and you can't really argue with "Silver Machine" either.

Hawkwind continue to rock and the number of people here and there who will tell you they played in Hawkwind is enormous, and they probably all did! However the real psychedelic innovators in the mid 70s as far as I'm concerned were Gong. Daevid Allen, Gilli Smyth, Pierre Moerlen, Didier Malherbe, Mike Howlett, Steve Hillage, Miquette Giraudy and Tim Blake managed to combine prog rock, jazz, pixies, cosmic synths, cups of tea and OM into a heady brew of psychedelic music that was much more than the sum of its parts. Daevid Allen's lyrics took up from where Syd had left off. Pierre Moerlen and Mike Howlett explored all sorts of different time signatures and solid mesmerising grooves. Tim Blake was a master at incorporating the weirdest synthesized textures and sounds as was Steve Hillage on his guitar that he would sometimes play with a vibrator, and "Bloomdido Bad de Grass" just gave them that extra musicality and humour that really set them above the rest. "Camembert Electrique" and "Angel's Egg" are good albums but "You" is as good a psychedelic album as you're ever likely to hear.

The slightly eastern and mystical feel of "You" is a great precursor to the psychedelic festy band par excellence of the 80s and 90s the Ozric Tentacles. You'd be hard pushed to name a more hardworking band- I once saw them play three times in one weekend in muddy fields and each time they were awesome. The classic lineup of John, Ed, Roly, Joie and Merv was absolutely fizzing with energy and they just opened people minds and blew people away time and time again. There were loads of old cassette alums like "The Bits Between The Bits" and "Live Ethereal Cereal" that would just get worn out by repeated playing and the first vinyl album "Pungent Effulgent" is something that no true psychedlic head can do without. They would effortlessly switch between frenzied tracks like "Kick Muck" which was always played at a blistering pace live, straight to some really spaced out dubby tracks and back to something more full-on and you'd really be on a proper psychedelic rollercoaster of a journey with them. I remember watching Joie tweak his VCS3 at a gig in Bradford and thinking "How the hell does he make those sounds? I want to make sounds like that." That led me to buy an old Korg MS-10 from Big Deal in Leeds and so began my own odyssey into electronic music...

If you want to hear where the old guitar based psychedelic music crosses over into the psychedelic techno scene of the 90s and the present day look no further than "Strangitude" on the album "Strangeitude". Most of the stuff after "Afterswish" isn't great because that marked the time when Joie and Merv departed to concentrate on "Eat Static". The day Merv stopped playing drums was akin to when Jimi Hendrix died and Miles Davis left the planet. I maintain that this is one of the biggest crimes against music and I'm sure that most people who saw Merv play will agree. Eat Static have made some great tunes but really...

So this brings us to the 1990s and the weird web of influence of a dodgy old punk bass player by the name of Youth. After a good deal of success, and a breakdown, and psychological help from Brian Barritt of all people, he set up Butterfly Studios on Brixton Road. Youth has an uncanny knack of choosing and nurturing some of the finest studio engineers in the business, and Butterfly was one of the most fertile studios of the nineties. The KLF produced "Chill Out" there (actually I'm just guessing that bit) and their "Space" album was actually on the cards to be the first album by a band called "The Orb" and included Alex Patterson. It wasn't, but when Alex teamed up with Thrash at Butterfly shortly afterwards, "The Orb" exploded into the popular consciousness and had everyone from dodgy old goths, music and maths students, mohawked crusty punks and hardcore guitar freaks all dancing to the same tune (I know that because that sums up a band I was in at the time and we all loved The Orb immediately).

The longest single ever clocks in at 39 minutes 59 seconds and is my favorite Orb track "The Blue Room". Listen to Gong's "You" and listen to "The Blue Room" and see if you notice the thread that connects them. Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy neatly bridge the gap and I'm sure it's another bit of Steve's vibrator guitar playing on that record too. They formed System 7 after Gong and the other coincidence that relates to this track is of course the record label of the same name but no relation. The best things about Blue Room Released was that they had a track by Vector on their first compilation and Nick who ran the american arm spunked a load of money on buying a bloody great fire engine and drove it round the desert at Burning Man spraying everyone with the fire hose in a supreme act of philanthropy and lunacy.

Anyway, maybe it was in part due to the ecstacy revolution too, but Butterfly had struck gold. A young engineer who was drafted in by Youth shortly after The Orb made their UFOrb album was the keyboard player from Purple Om, one Simon Posford. If you take a look at the TIP and Dragonfly releases that kickstarted the Goa scene in London in the early 90s you will notice that Mr Posford had a hand in almost all of the tracks that were released. As well as writing all the Hallucinogen tracks he "engineered" all The Infinity Project tracks (actually he pretty much wrote them too) and even Nick Doof's classic "Let's Turn On" was a fifty/fifty job. Hallucinogen took up the reins from the Ozric Tentacles and the Indian melodic influence derived from Gong and the Ozrics became the signature sound.

Credit must be given to Raja Ram, a survivor from Quintessence who were massive in the 60s and 70s and famous for blowing their entire first album advance on a spectacularly expensive and psychedelic cover. Raj was instrumental along with Ray Castle and Goa Gil amongst many others who presided over the mutation of early techno such as Front 242 at parties in Goa into what we know as psy-trance. These guys got fed up with hearing guitars around camp fires at parties and went off to London, Australia and San Francisco respectively and started to translate their ideas into new music. Partly under Raj's direction and unrelenting energy Simon Posford was able to conjure up the necessary sounds and the early Gumbo and TIP parties were where you could hear the latest audio treats complete with Indian gods in psychedelic colours thanks to Brahma.

The humble Roland TB-303 Bassline was a signature sound of the early nineties and nobody had heard anything like it before. The alien sound it made was a great catalyst for a mind blowing psychedelic experience as it would instantly plunge you into an unfamiliar and totally new audio world with no preconceptions and no baggage. The strange Indian gods with elephant or monkey heads and multiple arms would complete the sense of dislocation and you would be free to experience visionary states even in a dodgy old warehouse in East Ham in the middle of the night on New Year's Eve.

Lots of talented artists joined in including Joti Sidhu, Dino Psaras, Tsuyoshi Suzuki, Ian Ion and the mighty swedes like Cari Lekebusch and David Osterberg, but after a while you could tell that most artists were only listening to other psy-trance and the music was beginning to stagnate. The free party scene in Bristol however was spawning monsters. Deep in the West Country and free from the politics, pressure and fevered egos of Old London Town, James Mentieth, Alexis Cousins and Drezz were fermenting some really weird and organic music and ideas like some sort of ancient Somerset cider press. You knew something was up when Drezz and Lex would play tunes and half the dancefloor would clear off and the other half would start twisting and gyrating, carving crazy angles of flesh and bone that wouldn't have looked out of place in 18th Century Bedlam.

"Seven Serpents" and the Mama Matrix Most Mysterious were released at a time when loads of labels were attempting to cash in on the trance scene and endless compilations of mediocre derivative tracks with one or two belters were being released willy nilly. From the moment you heard backwards guitar and phasing ride cymbals you knew you were dealing with creative talent that was way beyond the standard mug punter DJ produced music, the trance by numbers that most other people were releasing at the time.

Now, there's a lot more to making trance than using a Nord Lead and I still maintain that anyone who uses a Novation Bass Station is a talentless imbecile unless it's miked up and banged against something metal and resonant! Drezz and Lex managed to conjure up a unique sound from a couple of dodgy old analogue synths, some guitar pedals and a crusty old Allen & Heath System 8 desk that still sounds as fresh as a daisy seven years on. It's nowhere near as polished as Hallucinogen and doesn't have that softer more rounded, non-threatening element that gets the girls dancing, but it does draw on all sorts of influences from Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett to Sid Vicious and manages somehow to be true to its West Country roots and be firmly English. The Mama Matrix Most Mysterious is the cup of tea to Shpongle's ginger nuts, or the bacon sarnie to Hallucinogen's tomato ketchup. Actually it's the crispy bacon rind and the fat soaked bread but I'm going off topic now so I'll stop.

Well I've been wittering on for too long now anyway, but I hope you have fun following up some of these avenues. I'll probably setup a forum soon but feel free to email me with any arguments, insults, ommissions etc. and I'll try and paste up the good ones.

Oh, and remember that these are just my own personal views and some of the facts may be slighty inaccurate, although not deliberately.