With the anniversary of the summer of love upon us, Getintothis’ Gary Aster delves into the darker side to the pivotal summer.
1967 is remembered for many reasons, It was a year of breakthroughs for liberal social causes and an abundance of classic albums.
This was the year that homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, a new publication, The Ecologist, introduced Green politics and concern for the natural environment to wider audiences, feminism was emboldened as women took advantage of their recently extended reproductive rights via the increasing availability of the pill and legalised abortions, and in the US the civil rights movement continued to gather momentum, whilst protests against the Vietnam war moved from university campuses out into wider society.
A year later these tensions erupted into widespread civil unrest throughout much of Europe and North America. Since the emergence of punk in the mid-70s it has become fashionable to dismiss the hippie era as a time of naïve political optimism that achieved little, but this is a reading of history which ignores the many significant gains that were made and the still ongoing struggles which originated then.
When set against the influence of subsequent subcultures, the hippies were arguably high achievers and some commentators, argue that it marked the high point, or “high water-mark” as Hunter S Thompson phrased it, of 20th century youth culture.
In musical terms, 1967 presents us with an embarrassment of riches. Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors all released their classic stunning debut albums and, of course, The Beatles unleashed Sgt. Pepper onto an unsuspecting world.
Those records are very well known and much discussed so the focus here is on other psychedelic sounds emanating from the US and UK, where this music originated and where two separate and distinct aspects to psychedelia became dominant. Of course psychedelia was by no means restricted to these two nations and its influence was soon to be heard worldwide.
Today, music fans can collect compilation albums which sample the psychedelic sounds of places as disparate as Latin and South America, Japan, Turkey, South Africa and even pre-revolutionary Iran, amongst many others. But these records all came a little later, influenced by the exciting new sounds originating in the UK and US.
Similarly, there were numerous important precursors to psychedelia before 1967. Credit is due to The Beatles, 13th Floor Elevators, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, The Seeds and Donovan (to name just a few) who all released albums in 1966 that were ahead of the curve. Although the summer of love of 1967 deservedly holds a key position in the popular imagination, it did not mark the beginning of psychedelia but rather its zenith.
When choosing from amongst the many records released in 1967 some tough choices must be made to pare it down to a mere 10. Today it has become fashionable to deny that there were ever any golden eras in the history of rock and pop but this seems churlish. Some unspecified thing in the air (or koolaid) must have contributed to such a vintage year of abundance.
The legacy of those times is still evident today. However, in such an eventful period some shifts and changes may pass by largely unnoticed. One cultural shift which now appears to make perfect sense with the benefit of hindsight probably appeared trivial at the time, but it was a game-changer for popular music. 1966 was the last year in both the US and the UK when sales of singles exceeded those of albums. From 1967 onwards the album emerged as the key format of popular music; the canvass on which it was best exemplified and its preferred mode of expression. Here are 10 choice cuts released on the cusp of this shift.
Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow
Of all the albums to emerge from the San Francisco scene in 1967, Jefferson Airplane’s second offering was the most commercially successful and 50 years later it’s still not hard to hear why.
Its success was no doubt bolstered by the presence of two hit singles, both of them penned by the Airplane’s new singer Grace Slick, and they remain probably the band’s two most well-known songs. White Rabbit cleverly took an obvious drug song to the top of the charts whilst avoiding a ban. Its Alice in Wonderland-inspired lyric granted the band sufficient leeway to plead their innocence with plausible deniability, yet their target audience could hardly have been in any doubt as to the song’s real intent.
Somebody to Love, the album’s other hit single, made for an obvious dance floor filler and captured something of the naïve spirit of free love advocated by the hippies. Elsewhere, the record evokes a gentler, peace and love vibe with a sound as much indebted to the folk music of the previous generation’s beatniks as it was to the pop charts, thereby highlighting the band’s roots.
The sound was original and recognisable after hearing only a few bars – no mean feat in such an over-crowded scene as San Francisco in the mid to late 60s. It’s a sound that has proved influential and can be still be detected today in the music of Foxygen, Quilt and Rose Windows amongst many others. Jefferson Airplane mastered shifts in dynamic range with apparent ease and this record has moments of quiet beauty absent from the music of many of their contemporaries. But this isn’t to say that the Airplane lacked the capacity to rock. They were a tight, well-rehearsed band of accomplished musicians who had earned their stripes playing the now legendary venues of the West Coast circuit and this, their second album, relies far more on the band’s musicianship and song-writing talents than clever production techniques and sound effects to achieve its results.
Love – Forever Changes
The 60s produced more than its fair share of lost classics and this is surely one of the best. It sank without a trace at first, but soon picked up a cult following amongst eager collectors whose enthusiasm eventually brought it to wider notice. Modest success for the record in the UK ensured that this lost classic did not remain lost forever. Initial poor sales led to the record being quickly deleted, but it is now a permanent fixture of all good record shops and hasn’t been out of print in over two decades – quite a turn around.
Like their label-mates The Doors, Love were a band who represented the darker side of psychedelia and this album might be described as the sound of storm clouds gathering over the summer of love. Love had some sympathy for the hippie movement but remained doubtful of its success. The lyrics, amongst other concerns, reflected the racial tensions then writ large in a US that still hadn’t come to terms with the civil rights movement, something that Love, a multi-racial band, (in those days something of a novelty) had first-hand experience of. Band leader Arthur Lee castigates American apartheid on Live and Let Live, media distortions on The Daily Planet and the madness of political brinkmanship which risked apocalypse on The Red Telephone.
Musically it is not a psychedelic record in an obvious sense – there are no sitars or backwards guitars etc. It is often described as ‘baroque pop’ and there’s something of the band’s earlier folk-tinged sound still evident here, though punctuated with unexpected bursts of fuzz guitar. The song-writing is mature and world-weary; certainly nothing like the naïve, ‘love is all you need’ optimism which typifies much first-wave psychedelia. The overall sound is greatly enhanced by string and brass arrangements, largely the work of band leader Arthur Lee and producer Bruce Botnick. It has become a firm critics’ favourite and regularly features on ‘best album of all time’ lists in the music press. Listen to it and hear why.
The Kinks – …are the Village Green Preservation Society
Another lost classic which failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic but is remembered today partly because of the relative success of the band behind it and partly because music this good will eventually find an audience. In many ways it’s a record that is out of step with its time. It contains none of the fashionable trappings of then contemporary rock and pop – no acid-drenched excesses or gimmicky sound effects – which, in its own way, makes this a pretty far-out album; far removed from prevailing trends at the time certainly. The sparse, occasionally ornate and tasteful arrangements allow the strengths of the song-writing to shine through.
One obvious theme is memory or nostalgia, but the sort of rose-tinted nostalgia which harks back to a picture-book world (or more precisely, England) that never really was; a pre-war England of steam trains, village greens, people taking formal pictures of each other and the trappings of Victoriana. These were common enough themes of first wave psychedelia but Ray Davies’ songs here present us with black and white snap-shots rather than the surreal, kaleidoscopic-lens distortions of his contemporaries. This makes all the difference to songs like the title track and Big Sky. Regularly re-issued, today the album continues to attract admirers and was surely an influence on bands like XTC and Blur who clocked the English whimsy, humour and gentle, affectionate satire it contains and built entire careers from it.
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Safe as Milk
When A & M records first heard the demos for this album they dropped the Capt’n on the grounds that his music was not safe for label boss Jerry Moss’s daughter to listen to. The band consequently split up and re-formed adding drummer John French and a 16 year old Ry Cooder on slide guitar, so in the long-term this may have been for the best. Re-constituted, the band signed to Buddha records and went on to record this, their debut offering.
Still a wild and lively listen, along with producers Rob Krasnow and Richard Perry, the band shaved off some of the rougher edges to their music to produce this stunning debut, probably the most accessible record of their career. The blues permeates, with cover versions of Grown So Ugly and Sure ‘Nuff Yes I Do jostling for space alongside Muddy Waters-inspired compositions and altogether stranger tracks like the theremin-driven Electricity. But the most remarkable sound contained herein is the extraordinary range of the good Captain’s microphone-destroying voice which must be heard to be believed. Again this is a record that failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic, but John Peel’s early championing of the record did allow for some modest cult success here in the UK. Not as experimental or challenging as some of the band’s more celebrated releases, it is however a good place to start for the uninitiated.
The Incredible String Band – The 5000 Spirits of the Layers of the Onion
Housed in a brilliantly multi-coloured sleeve, The Incredible String Band’s second album bears all the hallmarks of a band who had recently, ahem, “turned on”. An entirely acoustic affair, it transcends the rather staid traditions of folk music and embraces the summer of love zeitgeist. Armed with an array of recently acquired exotic instruments obtained whilst travelling in Morocco, the duo of Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, accompanied by the brilliant double bass of Danny Thompson, recorded one of the defining albums of a genre later to become known as acid-folk.
There is fairy-tale whimsy, mysticism, obscure drug-references, philosophical musing and a cast of mythical characters to be found here. Yet, there is also a healthy dose of cynicism on the satirical Way Back in the 1960s and a tender song of love lost in the shape of First Girl I Loved. Although some of the more unfamiliar instruments played here are plucked with what can only be described as amateur enthusiasm, the combination of sounds is exotic, adventurous and beguiling. Danny Thompson (who had previously played with Donovan, was about to join Pentangle and who would later play with John Martyn and Nick Drake) helps to keep things reasonably grounded. Produced by Joe Boyd in the same studio where he had recently recorded Pink Floyd’s debut single, and as ever championed by John Peel, the album was a surprise minor hit (edging into the UK top 30) and has rarely been out of print since.
Big Brother and the Holding Company – …Featuring Janis Joplin
This is an earthy, bluesy, bar-room psychedelic debut and the perfect vehicle with which to showcase Janis Joplin’s incredible singing prowess. Others may prefer the less restrained live recordings of 1968’s follow-up Cheap Thrills (housed in comic-book artist Robert Crumb’s memorable sleeve) but for this writer, these initial studio recordings issued by jazz label Mainstream are the real deal. Possibly still awed by the unfamiliarity of the recording studio environment, Joplin’s singing is more controlled, restrained and therefore more evocative and satisfying as a consequence. This isn’t to say that the she doesn’t soar to great heights and pull out all the stops here, but she does so with greater care and economy. There’s an appreciation of dynamic range and call and response evident here which rarely translated to the band’s live performances.
Janis’s band will never be remembered as the most rehearsed and accomplished, but their plain and unadorned playing provides space for, and the perfect accompaniment to, Joplin’s unparalleled raw vocal gymnastics. The album features Down on Me, one of their most celebrated tracks and a near hit in the US. On the ironically entitled Women is Losers Joplin issues a proto-feminist message and a challenge to male dominance, which must have been satisfying to record for someone who had fled her hometown because of the cruel misogyny she experienced and which had prevented her achieving the success her talent so obviously deserved.
The Electric Prunes – Underground
A band who are remembered mainly for their one hit single I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night not included on this record (though it would have made a better fit than on the group’s debut), but a standout track on Lenny Kaye’s celebrated Nuggets compilation. Their self-titled debut had suffered from too much record company interference and too few of the band’s own compositions, but this was a wrong that was partly righted on this, their second album. With their producer distracted by a Grateful Dead album he was working on concurrently, this left the band free to follow their own instincts and it pays off.
They embraced recent technical innovations and deserve credit for being among the first to explore the more exotic possibilities of psychedelia and electronic rock, producing a record marked by a rich variety of then still largely untapped sound effects. Fuzz tone guitars, wah-wah pedals, reverb, temolo via “wiggle stick” onto the tape and various oscillators are all employed to bend and stretch the sound into unfamiliar shapes. Big City begins with a slowed down auto harp and Dr Do-Good is awash with backwards guitars, revisiting the sound of their earlier hit, but with a deranged vocal that probably prevented it from ever troubling the pop charts.
Lyrically the band were on point with counter-cultural concerns; Captain Glory referenced hallucinogenic ‘morning glory’ seeds then used by adventurous hippies as an organic alternative to LSD and ‘The Great Banana Hoax’ gently mocked naïve hippies conned into smoking banana skins by an infamous (and baseless) urban legend then circulating which claimed that they could get you high. Overall, the album remains The Electric Prunes’ most imaginative and satisfying work.
Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity – Open
A group consisting of some of the most accomplished musicians on the UK scene in ’67 who completed recordings of their well-rehearsed debut album in a single day, and who are now most remembered for their cover version of Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire, which became a hit single in early ’68 and was later used as the title song for Absolutely Fabulous. Distribution problems led to few copies reaching UK record stores in time to coincide with their late ’67 tour and many sources mistakenly (but understandably) list this as a 1968 release, since this was when the album really broke through.
Unlike most of the groups on this list, the band came from the jazz circuit and those origins are apparent throughout. The album’s 10 tracks are divided between the better-known Driscoll-fronted songs and the Trinity’s superlative instrumentals. Driscoll was the personification of Carnaby Street cool, possessed of model good looks and a superb, distinctive voice. Her addition to The Trinity gave the band a new dimension and brought them to a much wider audience. She also helped to steer the band in a more contemporary, rock direction. It was Driscoll who opted for the album’s closing track, a chilled and brooding cover version of Donovan’s Season of the Witch. Elsewhere the record provides plentiful supplies of dancefloor-fillers with Auger’s arrangements and groovy Hammond organ helping to shape the sound of UK psychedelia, despite their non-rockin’ roots. The album’s generous, ‘anything-goes’ approach epitomises the spirit of its time and captures the group at their very best.
The West Coast Pop-Art Experimental Band – Volume 2
Although the band was largely a commercial failure at the time, WCPAEB’s (let’s embrace the abbreviation) reputation has grown to such an extent that it’s probably inaccurate still to describe them as a cult band. This, their second album proper, is generally considered their best work. The music combines perfect pop melodies with experimental dissonance to create a slightly unnerving and bewildering effect. WCPAEB were a band who expressed the darker underside of psychedelia. Though they shared many of the hippies’ common lyrical themes, these were laced with a dark humour and irony that was at odds with the more naïve peace and love hippie vibe of many of their contemporaries.
Smell of Incense is an almost perfect slice of psych-pop and the nearest they ever got to achieving a hit; unbelievably the single stalled at 56. In contrast, Carte Blanche sounds like proto-punk and anticipates the sound of The Stooges and MC5. On In the Arena band impresario Bob Markley yells his dark poetry through a megaphone. But there are quiet moments too, such as Buddha, a love song to Markley’s Japanese girlfriend which prominently features a koto, a traditional Japanese harp-like instrument and a sound previously unheard in western pop.
Housed in a sleeve reminiscent of Warhol’s Silver Pillows, the back cover declared ‘no one censored us. We got to say everything we wanted to say in the way we wanted to say it.’ It is still surprising that such a challenging and unconventional record was released by Reprise. Presumably Reprise label capo di capo Frank Sinatra’s attention was elsewhere at the time of its release.
The Strawberry Alarm Clock – Incense and Peppermints
Almost a supergroup in reverse, Strawberry Alarm Clock’s precocious, young and talented members (aged between 16 and 21) went on to join or work with Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Everly Brothers, Warren Zevon and Donna Summer. Another became one of the most celebrated US film soundtrack composers of the late 20th century. Little wonder their 1967 debut is such a treat. They are best known for this album’s title track, which eventually climbed to the number 1 spot and was featured prominently in the first Austin Powers movie.
Amazingly the album was written and recorded in a mere two weeks after the already-recorded title track hit the charts. With so little time available, all hands were required on deck and the writing credits reflect this. The record opens with the epic length The World’s on Fire – a chugging, frugging psychedelic dance floor favourite soon to be snapped up for the soundtrack of psych-sploitation movie Psych-Out. Elsewhere on Hummin’ Happy, the band, ahem, “paid homage” (to be generous) to The Byrds’ Eight Miles High. Meanwhile Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow gives a nod to the more folk-tinged music emanating from San Francisco and Pass Time with the SAC harks back to the earlier sounds of surf rock, an overlooked genre that was clearly inspirational to the many garage psych bands emerging in ‘67.
It’s an album that’s very much of its time, and most of the clichés of psychedelia – sitars, backwards guitars and studio trickery – are employed here, yet it’s done with such style and charm that they get away with it. At that point those sounds were de rigeur and the clichés had yet to be established. If you’re looking for an album that encapsulates the variety of US psychedelic sounds from the original summer of love then this is a serious contender for best exemplar.