Search The Line of Best Fit
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Think you know Psych? Psychedelia and Other Colours might alter your perceptions

24 September 2015, 11:46 | Written by Janne Oinonen

As far as omnipresent words whose exact meaning remains debatable go, 'psychedelic' is hard to beat. In music, countless subgenres have been enriched with the prefix psych-, implying that we're faced with potent mind-expansion, when more often than not the contents constitute little more than quickly reheated scraps from the tables of past masters.

Although nominally telling a story that's been endlessly rehashed since the psychedelic battles of the 60's, Psychedelia and Other Colours provides by far the most detailed map to help us navigate the twisted alleyways of the psychedelic experience and its tentacle-like influence in the 50 years since Ken Kesey first staged Acid Tests in California. Be warned, though: although music is the most prominent component, deservedly so considering the seismic impact of some of the records under consideration, it's far from the only topic of debate amidst these 600+ pages.

The usual suspects (The Beatles and, as you'd expect from the author of a much-acclaimed biography of Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd) and less prominent psych-pop practitioners - Crocheted Doughnut Ring, anyone? - get their fair share of attention. However, Rob Chapman manages to find something interesting to say about an artist as overly analysed as, say, Jimi Hendrix, and the chapters on Psychedelic Soul and British jazz-rock cult heroes Soft Machine are likely to send you on a trip of listening discovery.

The book's real strength is in its determination to dig a whole lot deeper than your average glowing collection of anecdotes from the Summer of Love. Firstly, there's the inevitable topic of drugs; Chapman tackles the origins, rise, research, proliferation and gradual outlawing of LSD with a thoroughness that might be exhausting were the renowned music writer and academic not so skilled at building and cultivating a captivating narrative. Psychedelic pioneers such as Aldous Huxley (author of The Doors of Perception, alongside the classic dystopian fable Brave New World) and early precursors of the multi-media "happenings" that characterised the psychedelic era in the art world also get a look in.

So do the less savoury elements of the psychedelic experience. This is no cosy nostalgia trip: the hellish lows and beyond-repair egos get an equal amount of space to beatific tales of minds freed and visions expanded. The descent from the innocence and good intentions of the original hippie scene in San Francisco to the sinister, bloody chaos of Altamont is rapid, whilst music business quickly figures out how to dilute psychedelically orientated innovation into shorthand of sonic tricks to add an element of hipness to chart-pop fodder.

It's this thoroughness and willingness to trek deeper into the murky backwaters of the past that turns Psychedelia and Other Colours from an overly familiar tale - Sgt Pepper, Timothy Leary, Syd Barrett, the UFO Club, Haight-Ashbury, Merry Pranksters and so on and so on - into something totally fresh and compelling. The chapters on the traces and templates of psychedelic style found in, say, old shop signs, the English music hall tradition and 1951's Festival of Britain could easily prove hard going for those of us who are here primarily for the music. However, these detours on rarely if ever travelled tracks reveal that instead of conjuring an entirely new language from thin air thanks to certain illuminating intoxicants, the classic acts of the psychedelic era were just as keen to take cues from what had gone before as modern psychedelic bands.

While the launch of what we now classify as Psychedelia took place in the US, there's a compelling case to be made for UK's superiority in psych stakes. San Francisco bands such as the Grateful Dead took hallucinogens in order to churn out borderless, semi-endless improvisations rooted deeply in American roots music, the appeal of which was bound to be limited to fully subscribed converts to the psychedelic cause. The Beatles and Pink Floyd - alongside less heralded names - used the new sights and sounds to forever alter the mainstream by gradually warping the conventions of pop music, leading to masterfully imaginative music - and a whole heap of over-reaching turds - that was familiar enough to appeal to casual listeners and sufficiently odd for its influence to reach far beyond the normal boundaries of pop music; it continues to reverberate to this day.

If there's one problem with this truly spectacular book, it's that the story pretty much grinds to a halt circa 1970. But maybe that's material left for the follow-up; Psychedelia and Other Colours is one of those rare huge books that seems to end all too soon.

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