When in the course of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, John Lennon through a modulated voice invites the listener to “picture yourself on a boat in a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies“, he didn’t merely help to bring psychedelic imagery into the mainstream pop lexicon as only the Beatles could, he also helped steer rock and popular music further from the traditional themes of love and heartache and towards the realm of intellectual contemplation and “pure” artistry (a sort of “art for art’s sake”). Certainly the Beatles weren’t the only and not the first to compose songs that deviated from the traditional themes of love, heartache, and everyday frivolity. Folk, Blues, and Soul musicians had been plumbing serious and political themes for years if not decades. But, where a lot of these artists’ work tended towards stories of the struggles of peoples fighting for equality or the challenges of everyday life for those not living in the light of glitz and glamour (or at least middle class content-ness), “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” was an exercise in imagination and fantasy – the famous “turn on, tune in, drop out” of the 60s generation, yet the “drop out” wasn’t always or necessarily “out” as in “turning off” but going beyond (in some instances, at least). Other musicians had been exploring this realm of the fantastical and psychedelic for some time but “Lucy…” was different. On this song (and record) the most recognized and important pop band in the Western world was embracing literate and art rock with unapologetic abandon. (Dylan also ventured into this realm in songs like “Desolation Row” and his endless literary allusions, but you always get the sense with his songs that they were allegories about the contemporary world.) Although the Beatles transformation started before Pepper‘s this was the most realized and integrated departure from their early days, exploring a whole new (and cohesive) lyrical and musical landscape. While there were many other artists who may have originated or even perfected “psychedelic rock”, it was probably this album that wedged it into the zeitgeist. The boys who once wanted to hold your hand and love you eight (not just seven) days a week were now running amok through a Lewis Carroll hinterland of endless possibilities.
…and for this ability to see beyond and, in the words of Huxley through his modern day prophet the Shaman-rock star poet, Jim Morrison, open the doors of consciousness and imagination, the psychedelic influence on rock sonically and thematically has always fascinated and intrigued me.
Looking back, psychedelic rock’s “15 minutes” seems even shorter than most movements of the era. Perhaps it suffered from the effects of the extracurricular inspiration of its adherents? Was co-opted into the mainstream (hmm Gramsci alert!) or other permutations of music of the era (e.g., the Velvet Underground around the same time in NYC were fusing psych guitar and atonal classical composition on their recordings and Sly and the Family Stone‘s There’s A Riot Goin’ On definitely sounds like a psychedelic soul rock record to me)? Or maybe its raison d’être ceased to be? (Personally, it can’t be the latter.) Whatever the reason, it ventured into the underground and has had minor cameos in the mainstream and a definite influence on bands here and there. Yet, all of a sudden, it seems as though it is rather vibrant and resurgent these days with bands like Animal Collective, MGMT, Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Foxygen and countless others.
Well, I’ve got two more to add to this list of musicians that tread into that world with the same anachronistic aplomb of the foregoing, and, oddly enough both hail from across the Atlantic, Darkstar* and Jacco Gardner. Although I would file both under “psych”, I would do so from very different ends of the spectrum.
Darkstar’s News from Nowhere tends towards a more contemporary and updated electronic pscyh-pop sensibility in the vein of Animal Collective. Given that the band (three lads from London) started out making more dance-oriented music for labels like Warp and Hyperdub, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is curious and endlessly pleasing is how each track on this record sounds totally unlike the previous track with almost no traditional pop conventions and difficult to discern structures, and yet all you want to do is continue on the ride because of how engrossing the textures and layers of their work. For me the standout track is “Amplified Ease” which definitely gives off a Merriweather Post Pavilion Animal Collective vibe with a Warning era Hot Chip dance sensibility.
Listen to Darkstar’s News From Nowhere
In contrast, Dutch born Jacco Gardener’s Cabinet of Curiosities is almost the platonic ideal of 60s era psychedelic pop rock. Dreamy, whimsical, and meandering, it is a reverie complete with tambourines and bells that might make you long to run into the streets for sunflowers. (Alas longing is all we can muster in chilly and snowy Chicago.) Although no one track necessarily perfectly crystallizes his sound (because they are all such wondrous joys), “The Ballad of Little Jane” is perhaps the most fitting coda to this stream of thought: starting out with the stargazing feel of “Lucy” it fluidly melds into the baroque picaresque feel of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”.
Listen to Jacco Gardner’s Cabinet of Curiosities
A splendid time is guaranteed for all indeed!
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* from what I can tell, not named after the Grateful Dead or CSN songs.