‘The counterculture… was primarily driven through music… music, as much as politics… offered this vision of a liberated world.’ So wrote Mark Fisher in his unfinished Acid Communism. But in that text, the attendant lectures and others’ subsequent discussion, the counterculture’s primary creation, acid rock — psychedelia — is curiously absent. Yet psychedelic music should be key to any consideration of acid communism: hugely popular, while revolutionary in form, content and presentation, psychedelia still haunts both left and right with — in Fisher’s mantra derived from Herbert Marcuse, ‘the spectre of a world which could be free’.
Psychedelia was political from its centre parting to its patched, trailing bell-bottoms. Sometimes overtly, as in Country Joe and the Fish’s anti-Vietnam I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag; Quicksilver Messenger Service’s rejection of the military industrial complex, or Tomorrow and Jefferson Airplane advocacy of revolution (‘now!’). At its peak, psychedelia transcended individual(ist) subjectivity. The sixties were an era of collectives, and there are few more inspiringly utopian spectacles than The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love broadcast or Sly and the Family Stone’s male/female black/white mic-passing communality. Moreover, pursuing a radical merger of subject and object, psych could transcend the ego altogether: Blossom Toes’ startlingly empathetic Look at Me, I’m You; Traffic’s rejection of interpellated subjecthood on No Face, No Name, No Number (‘I’m a part of it’s a part of me’); Incredible String Band’s You Get Brighter (‘I know you belong to everyone but you can’t deny I’m you’). This isn’t gazing into the infinity of orange peel; it’s transcending the capitalist subjectivity of the competitive individual. As Dan Barrow writes, ‘any politics that truly contests neoliberal “reality programming” will involve collectively restructuring subjectivity.’
Consequently, what Fisher calls ‘the question of consciousness, and its relationship to what is experienced as reality’ is psychedelia’s essence. Largely unplayable by a real band, wreathed in orchestration and using studio trickery to warp real instruments (phasing, flanging, reversing, echo), psychedelic music challenged the parameters of reality and normality. So did the lyrics: ‘There is a way out/I’ve seen the crack/I cannot come back,’ sings Dantalian’s Chariot’s Madman Running Through the Fields through sucking, backwards surges — R.D Laing set to music.
‘Your uniforms don’t fit we/we forget the place we’re in,’ crowed the Stones over buzzing, ricocheting Mellotrons and slamming cell-doors on We Love You. ‘All my two-dimensional boundaries were gone’ sang The Byrds on Fifth Dimension, making good on this through state-altering guitar and yearning harmonies: ‘I saw the great blunder my teachers had made/Scientific delirium madness.’ Psychedelia recurrently depicted society as a circus—Mr Kite, The Doors’ Strange Days cover, Os Mutantes’ Panis et Cirenses — using surrealism to reveal society’s staged spectacle of ‘reality’; capitalists as ringmasters; citizens as performers. Significantly though, circuses are also, like fairs and festivals, sites of collective ecstasy: play and communal joy are key components of both acid communism and acid rock.
British psychedelia was particularly preoccupied with post-war reality at its most humdrum; a dowdy trippiness. In A Day in the Life, the social subsumption of the daily newspaper, the alarm clock, the commuter bus, are lent a haunted, lysergic luminosity via fractured piano and queasy orchestration. This is not just Shklovsky’s ‘making strange’ in order to appreciate reality’s realness: you will learn nothing about marmalade from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Rather, such songs lift the veil of ideology; look beyond the capitalist real into the possibilities beyond. In Traffic’s Paper Sun flutes, sitars, and tablas transform the black-and-white dreariness of ‘your meter’s all run out’ and finding a ‘sixpence for the phone’ into a rainbow-hued Romanticism: a world without possessions or work, only play, ‘the awareness that [people] could both work less and determine their own needs and satisfactions’, as Marcuse put it. This awareness didn’t have to inhabit a Kinks’ hipper-than-thou-ness. The Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday is a psychedelic kitchen sink drama, where the singer’s response to intergenerational conflict is ‘close my eyes and drift away’, the sound of a spinning coin beautifully underscoring this rejection of capitalist realism. Gloriously then, ‘Here we all are sittin’ in a rainbow’ is followed by, ‘Gor blimey hello Mrs. Jones/How’s your Bert’s lumbago?’ Mrs Jones’ post-war stoicism— ‘mustn’t grumble’—enraged hipsters like Lennon. But here the generation gap is negotiated with warmth not snark: psychedelicised. Similarly on the joyous Itchycoo Park the singer’s mind is ‘blown’ by such British banalities as ‘feed[ing] the ducks with a bun’, as the oh-so-Englishly named park transmutes into the countercultural Eden of Golden Gate Park, where, ‘It’s all too beautiful’—so beautiful it makes East End lad, Steve Marriott cry.
Which leads to the feminisation that psychedelicisation effected on hitherto macho beat music. Few bands arrived psychedelic: most underwent a musical and sartorial makeover. Gnarly rockers like The Stones, Pretty Things, and American garageists The Seeds re-emerged with long hair, scarves, cravats, cloaks and kaftans. More than mere cosplay, this mirrored both the music’s studio tarting and tricksing and the transformative politics of the counterculture, even if it was often more symbolic than real. So sucks to the authentocrats who diss the Pretty Things’ filigreed SF Sorrow or Their Satanic Majesties’ gossamer shimmer. With Richards and Jones vying in psychedelic androgyny, Jagger mined both for Turner in the astonishing Performance. Which is the whole point: camp highlights the performativity of all gender roles. So even Bill Wyman sounds camp on the Barrett-like In Another Land; while Pink Floyd’s Candy and a Currant Bun’s barely disguised blues base makes Barrett’s own feyness the more subversive (and charming). Worth noting too that almost every Beatles song in 1967 sped up their voices to filter out the ‘male’ frequencies. If women’s roles remained both more traditional and traditionally underrepresented, Grace Slick was a suitably larger-than-life carrier of the burden of psychedelic female self-fashioning.
A final thought on psychedelic gender: it’s not Jimi Hendrix’s fault his worshippers obsessed on his heavier, ‘masculine’ side to create cock rock. Hendrix also essayed an evanescent feyness in both music—Burning of the Midnight Lamp—and attire—those frilly shirts and feather boas. And the common mishearing of Purple Haze’s lyric, as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy’ is as key to Hendrix’s legacy as guitar-humping: indeed, glam’s dirty secret was its homoerotic love letters to psychedelia in Hendrix code.
This feminisation connects to the counterculture’s derided ‘whimsy’: rooted in psychedelia’s veneration of childhood. Ian McDonald’s Blair-era Beatles bible, set the ‘grown up’ tone for capitalist realist music journalism—authentocratic, masculinist, conservative. Consequently, how you feel about flutes, harpsichords or Donovan says something about your degree of centrism.
Rather than seeing psychedelia’s acid-fried visions of Lewis Carroll (White Rabbit), Edward Lear (I Am the Walrus), A. A. Milne (Airplane’s Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil), nursery rhymes (The Nice’s Flower King of Flies; Donovan’s Happiness Runs) or children’s games (Pink Floyd’s Flaming) as regression, we can see them as sloughing off repression. A child’s-eye view is a pre-ideologised view of the world, a world of play not work; of joy not jadedness; of innocence not ‘knowing’; of acceptance not rejection. Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People uses playground catcalls to celebrate unity across race, body shape and class, rendering othering itself childish. In both lyric and music, the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever is as unstable as a toddler, as hazy as a dream, and like the mellotron that saturates it, simultaneously nostalgic and otherworldy, hymning a place of play that rejects adult reality’s foreclosure (‘nothing is real’) and violence (‘nothing to get hung about’). Jefferson Airplane’s breezy, sound effects-strewn Lather is a paean to the countercultural refusal of adulthood: Lather is free while his former classmates are claimed by capitalism (‘his leather chair waits at the bank’) and militarism (‘commanding his very own tank’).
The final—perhaps peak—acid communist aspect of acid rock is its deployment of ‘love’, as Fisher wrote, that is ‘collective, and orientated towards the outside’. This usage was swept away successively by seventies relationship-centred introversion, eighties affective contractualism and nineties family values. But in the sixties you had the Love-In, We Love You (love for your establishment enemy); All You Need Is Love (singled out for McDonald’s revisionist ire); Love being ‘in love with (almost) everyone’; The Nice’s Flower King ‘spread[ing] the words of Love all around’; Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven; Sly and the Family Stone’s We Love All; Tommy James and the Shondells’ bubblegum psyche, Sweet Cherry Wine (‘the beauty of life can only survive/If we love one another’). The Youngbloods’ Get Together became a countercultural anthem: ‘Smile on your brother/Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now’.
Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Sebastian’s barely-in-tune 1969 rendition serves notice that Stills’ 1970 Love the One You’re With is a Get Together rewrite for the coming Me Decade—bands replaced by individuals; (lone) wolfishness cloaking itself in collectivity’s sheepskin clothing; ‘realism’ replacing utopianism; love reclaimed by Eros; rampant masculinity cocking a snook at the second-wave feminists questioning quite who had paid for free love.
Yet psychedelia still haunted the seventies: it can be heard distantly in glam and ELO’s Beatles-isms; in Philly soul’s sitars; in prog’s pastoral yearnings; in krautrock; in Funkadelic’s Afrofuturism. Despite the diffusion of Thatcher and Reagan’s hippyphobia into the culture at large, despite the incorporation of content-free countercultural tropes into Britpop (Oasis butching-up/butchering I Am the Walrus), you never stopped hearing 60s psychedelia on the radio, on soundtracks — and you still don’t. And every time, it’s a glorious eruption of sunny optimism, of differently imagined reality; a reminder, a haunting, a spectre of a world which could be free.