Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Psychedelic Mother Of All Rock

The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has made headlines with his assertion that the Beatles' 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, is "a mishmash of rubbish."

Sgt. Pepper is often rated one of the best albums of all time.Yet, the album has always attracted its share of naysayers.  

Frank DeFreitas
Richard Smith, writing in the Guardian newspaper in 2007, called it "the most overrated album of all time." Even the editors of the Beatles' Illustrated Record (originally published in 1975) considered it "outdated." Just a year after its release, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention lampooned the famous Sgt. Pepper cover (while satirizing hippies and the counterculture as a whole) on We're Only In It For the Money.  (Never to be outdone, Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed said in a 1987 interview that the Beatles themselves "were garbage").

Less noticed about Richards' comments, however, was the fact that he called the Stone's own Satanic Majesties Request, released a few months Pepper, "a load of shit."

Psychedelic rock, of which Sgt. Pepper and Satanic Majesties are considered leading examples, is held in low-esteem generally, even by those who helped create it.

This might explain the remarkable brevity of the psychedelic trend: talked up as a new dawn in music in ‘67, it was entirely passe a year later. 

This is in spite of the fact that the basic “psychedelic” style — a relatively hard-rock beat, fronted by harmony-vocals and unconventional (for rock) instruments — continued to be remunerative. 

The genre endured into the early ‘70s as “bubble-gum” rock, suitable for young teens and pubescents. Ironically, music that began in acid-drenched rebellion against convention, ended up as the epitome of lightweight. 

Don't turn around Billy!

Still, by 1968, the pioneering psychedelic-rock acts, the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, and so on, shed psychedelia like last year’s groovy threads. 

This is witnessed no better than with the most documented of all rock acts, the Beatles. The Pepper-costumed high-flying days of ‘67, were replaced by jeans and corduroys, and full beards, by the time the band recorded Let It Be a year-and-a-half later. 

Helping to popularize psychedelia, the Beatles were in the avant-garde of its quick abandonment.  

The song Across the Universe, which appeared on the Let It Be album in 1970, was not originally from the sessions for that record, from early '69.  Instead, it was recorded a year earlier, at the same time as Lady Madonna, Paul McCartney's catchy r'n'b number.  

Sensing the change in popular taste, though, Madonna and not Universe, was selected as the new Beatles' single (a version of Across the Universe different from that on Let It Be, was relegated to a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund in 1969).

By the time the band recorded the eponymous "White Album" later in '68, they were fully immersed in what came to be known as "roots-rock."  

Let It Be (originally called Get Back) was intended to go even further in this direction, showcasing the Beatles without the studio "trickery" characteristic of the band's albums back to Rubber Soul in 1965.  This is why Across the Universe sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to all the rest of the "rootsier" music on Let It Be.

It is similar to how the song Burning of the Midnight Lamp seems so anomalous when compared to the rest of the two-disc Electric Ladyland, by Jimi Hendrix, released in late 1968.

Midnight Lamp was originally recorded and released as a single, in the U.K. only, during the "Summer of Love" in 1967.  Like the rest of Hendrix's music from that year, it is strongly psychedelic in flavour (it even features a harpsichord).  

But by the next year, Jimi had fully retreated from psychedelia for the heavy blues-rock that characterizes the music on Ladyland.

Other former psychedelicans branched in contrary directions. 

Many American musicians took a sudden love to old-fashioned country music (often, as with Missouri-born ex-Byrd Gene Clark, or the Louisianan Gram Parsons, this was their first love). 

In Britain there emerged in psychedelia’s wake, a whole crop of acoustic-based ensembles devoted to British and Irish folk music. 

Britain was also home to the new hard rock sound, which shucked the unusual arrangements of psychedelia and beat-harmony of British invasion groups, for a striped-down guitar-bass-drums, fronted by a domineering vocalist. Deep Purple symbolized the change. First appearing out of London in 1968 as a power-pop outfit, a couple of years later they were fully-fledged hard-rockers. 

Without a doubt, the kings of the hard-rock genre were Led Zeppelin, who underwent an even more telling transformation from the debris of the Invasion-era Yardbirds, to become the rock supergroup of the ‘70s. 

The post-psychedelic hard-rockers and country- and folk-rockers dressed virtually alike: in denims, leather jackets, cowboy boots, very long hair, often with mustaches and beards. However, hard rock was much more successful, at least initially, than either country- or folk-influenced rock. 

This was evidenced by the sudden transformation of Tyrannosaurus Rex, a British folk duo led by Marc Bolan, which released albums with titles such as My People Were Fair, and Had the Stars In Their Hair, into teen-rockers T. Rex, which had the smash Get It On (Bang A Gong). T. Rex’s “glam-rock” was another offshoot of psychedelia, as was “progressive” rock, which incorporated the classical flourishes of psychedelia, into composition and performance. 

King Crimson was formed as a folk-rock group with a female vocalist (as with Pentangle and Fairport Convention). However, by the first album, the Court of the Crimson King (an unexpected hit from 1969), the band had incorporated a sax and mellotron into the lineup. Crimson’s lead vocalist was, on Crimson King, Greg Lake, who having left the group soon after the album's release, teamed up with Keith Emerson, formerly with the psychedelic Nice, to form the Emerson, Lake and Palmer progressive supergroup. 

Both hard- and progressive-rockers had million-selling albums in spite of a lack of AM airplay. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon remained on the Billboard 200 chart for 740 weeks after its release in 1973, in spite of a lack of hit singles for the group. Led Zeppelin increased their own sales, by cagily dabbling in traditional folk (most famously with the Battle of Evermore, featuring Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention on vocal, from Led Zeppelin IV). But the relatively poor sales of the band’s folk-dominant III, from 1970, compared to I, II and IV, attests to the success of hard rock as opposed to contemporary acoustic music. 

The commercial potential of hard rock was demonstrated in 1968, with the release by the San Diego group Iron Butterfly of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the 17-minute title track to which became a smash hit single (appropriately edited for radio play), and the album itself went on to platinum sales. In-A-Gadda could be looked upon as the transition between psychedelic and hard rock. 

The British group Black Sabbath, which started out as a blues- and folk-oriented band called Earth in 1968, took a more sinister direction by 1970, with the release of their self-titled debut, fusing Alister Crowley inspired imagery and lingo with very hard rock (Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was an acolyte of Crowley’s as well). 

Sabbath were the direct ancestor of the heavy metal that emerged in the late ‘70s and 1980s, and they too, were part of the trend, after Ronnie James Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne as the group’s lead vocalist (Osbourne also had a successful solo career at the time). In a real way, then, psychedelia was common ancestor of virtually all popular music of the fifteen years after its wake.


But the experimentation and eclectic instrumentation characteristic of psychedelia, didn't re-emerge until a decade after 1967, when New Wave music became the new Big Thing.

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