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Thanks to their stated goal, the psych-rockers really pushed the envelope in terms of sonics and radically broke from the then-dominant folk-rock and blues-rock scenes. Psychedelic rock heavily emphasises sound, sometimes even over actual songs, for the purpose of creating a hallucinatory atmosphere. To this end, psychedelic rock's main characteristic is heavy use of overdubs and elaborate studio effects (with particular love for phasers/flangers, reversing/backmasking, panning and reverb and echoes) to create a dense atmosphere.
Psych-rock also distinguishes itself through surreal lyrics, more concerned with spirituality, tripping, existentialism or literature than Silly Love Songs - some bands such as Jefferson Airplane and The Beatles exhibited a particular affinity for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books, feeling kinship with the book's whimsical, hallucinatory style -, extended instrumental solos and song lengths and love of exotic instrumentation. The psychedelic rockers were the first people to introduce and popularise the sitar and tabla in a pop song context, and made heavy use of "exotic", modal melodies influenced by Indian raga and drone music.
You can probably guess the genre's main pitfall, then: the balance between whacked-out trippy-ness and accessibility. Keep the trippiness grounded enough and make sure you provide enough catchy riffs and weird sounds and you're dead-set to end up sounding wicked cool. Go overboard with the drugs and improvisation and you'll just get the musical equivalent of a Gainax Ending.
Psych-rock tends to come in three flavours (with examples provided by The Fab Four):
- Sunny, optimistic psychedelia. Easily identifiable by its cheerful character and that many of the songs use jangly 12-string guitars borrowed from The Byrds (who themselves plunged headfirst into psychedelia later). As a reference, think of "All You Need Is Love," "Penny Lane," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
- Intense, head-trip psychedelia, deploying loud guitars, aggressive performances and lots of solos. This sort of intense psychedelia, named "acid-rock", paved the way for Heavy Metal later. A good example of this would be "Strawberry Fields Forever".
- However, psychedelia doesn't necessarily have to be loud to be intense. "I Am the Walrus" manages to be perfectly loopy and bizarre.
- Creepy, terrifying psychedelia that's less about rocking the fuck out and more about horror. Think: "Revolution 9", "Blue Jay Way" and "Tomorrow Never Knows".
Psychedelic rock basically came out of disparate influences but was for all intents and purposes codified by The Beatles, since as we know, The Beatles invented absolutely everything. The 1965 album Rubber Soul showed the band's first flirtations with the genre, letting George Harrison play sitar on "Norwegian Wood" and containing John Lennon's first song about universal love (a favourite trope of psychers), "The Word". Their first actual psych-rock was "Rain", a B-side to the 1966 single "Paperback Writer" that boasted a bright guitar riff and the first rock song to use backmasking. They dived completely into psychedelia with Revolver (witness "Tomorrow Never Knows"' sitar drone, booming drums, dizzying special effects and processed vocals) and the famous paragon of psychedelic rock, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Other bands besides the Beatles that contributed to the genre's development in the same period included: The 13 th Floor Elevators (who coined the term "psychedelic rock"), The Yardbirds, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, San Francisco bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, the Steve Miller Band, and Moby Grape, and Los Angeles bands such as The Byrds, The Doors, Love, The Mothers of Invention, and The Beach Boys (closer to baroque pop than psychedelia, but whatever). This time just before the boom of Psychedelia also saw other artists join the movement, such as earlier British Folk Pioneer Donovan releasing one of the first Psychedelic Rock albums with 1966's Sunshine Superman. This period saw the crystallisation of other psych-rock tropes, such as Design Student's Orgasm artwork for albums and singles and live shows with lots of freaky lighting. Psychedelia also spread to other genres, influencing the appearance of psychedelic soul (a combination of Funk and psychedelic rock) and psychedelic pop (which borrowed psych-rock's sunny, hallucinogenic sound but not the heavy drug intake, substituting Silly Love Songs and other pop-song themes instead).
1967 proved to be the sort of "Holy Year" for psych-rock, boasting The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and assorted singles ("Strawberry Fields Forever", "Penny Lane", the super-avant-garde "I Am the Walrus", "All You Need Is Love"), Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold as Love, Cream's Disraeli Gears, The Who's The Who Sell Out (where they jumped on the psychedelic bandwagon), The Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request and Pink Floyd's debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. However, psych-rock's wave started to crest soon afterwards, as the overall optimism of the movement vanished and bands embraced increasingly harder drugs (amphetamines, heroin, cocaine, etc.) which led them to increasingly heavier music. While Miles Davis did pioneer psychedelic-jazz-rock with In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew in 1969, most of the rock world moved on to other sounds. This change was best shown by The Beatles, who abandoned psychedelia after their unsuccessful film/soundtrack Magical Mystery Tour, choosing to return to their roots with The White Album. The Manson family murders and the violent Altamont festival (where a fan was stabbed to death by Hell's Angels acting as security guards while The Rolling Stones were playing "Under My Thumb") served to only worsen the overall atmosphere.
While psychedelic-rock retreated from the spotlight after the end of The Sixties, it mutated and continued to evolve and thus never really became a Dead Horse Genre. Several of its offshoots appeared in The Seventies, such as space rock (pioneered by Hawkwind), jam bands (Grateful Dead's fault), heavy metal and progressive rock (Yes, for example, drew members from three psych-rockbands), while its sonic innovations and hallucinatory atmosphere remained a heavy influence on rock music as a whole, witnessed by Pink Floyd's seventies material. However, punk proved to be another blow to the genre, railing against the New Age Retro Hippies with whom the genre had been associated.
The Eighties led to the appearance of "neo-psychedelia", an indie form of psych-rock drawing additionally from jangle pop and space rock, as seen in The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, XTC (especially their side-project The Dukes of Stratosphear and any material made after they stopped touring) and The Teardrop Explodes. Neo-psychedelia evolved into the harsher noise rock and noise pop of The Jesus and Mary Chain and Sonic Youth, while its brighter elements were taken by Madchester bands such as The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays as they briefly became a national phenomenon in late-80s UK. Neo-psychedelia itself proved to be a massive influence on Shoegazing a/k/a what My Bloody Valentine sound like, while Space-Rock crossed with punk and Garage Rock gave us Spacemen 3. Spacemen 3 broke up and one of their offshoots, Spiritualized, lost the punk and garage influences and created a straight-up fusion of shoegaze, space rock and psychedelic rock, a style also seen in The Verve's early 1992-1995 material. Psychedelic influences continued to bubble in Alternative Rock during The Nineties and 2000s, with notable offshoots emerging such as "post-rock" (Sigur Ros), psychedelic rap (New Kingdom) and stoner metal (Kyuss, Monster Magnet, Electric Wizard).
Psychedelic Rock in its purest form doesn't have such an easy time gaining mainstream success as in The Sixties, but it still shows up from time to time and continues to thrive in indie/AlternativeRock scenes. The genre's role in expanding the sonic boundaries of pop and rock also won't be forgotten soon.