Psychedelic Fungi and Its Impact on Music and Art


In the writing of this web page, sound bytes have been utilized. Most of the sound bytes have been taken from part one of the BBC documentary on "The History of Psychedelia", which aired on May 03, 2003. In addition short selections were also taken from music that was classified as "psychedelic music" as examples of the genres. It is my understanding that the usage of this material for my web page would fall under the category of "fair use". However, if this is incorrect and you are a representative of the copy write owner(s) of this material, please inform me and I will remove the links to the sound bytes.



Following the discovery of the properties of lysergic acid diethyamide (LSD), by Albert Hofmann, in 1943, its early utilization was limited to the medical profession in treatment of psychiatric disorders (Hofmann, 1980 Chapter 4), and in research to understand the etiology of schizophrenia since LSD induced symptoms of the latter (Dyck, 2005).  The CIA also was investigating the possibility of using LSD as a possible speech-inducing drug (Lee & Schlain, 1985). However, by the mid 1960s, widespread use of LSD, as a recreational drug had occurred. This was largely due to the efforts of Timothy Leary, on east coast, who became its biggest advocate, espousing the spiritual benefits of the drug. At the same time, Ken Kesey, on the west coast, also advocated LSD usage, but as a recreational drug rather than as a means of becoming more spirtual and would figure prominently in the start of psychedelic music.

The 1960s was a time of great change, in the United States, which was spearheaded by a younger generation that rejected the conservative norms of society to establish a counter-culture where they would be in control of their own destiny. Among the counter-culture were the youths referred to as the Hippies. Originally, this subculture had no name for themselves, but were later mockingly referred to as hippies (junior grade hipsters) by members of the Beat Generation (Perry, 1984). The Beat Generation, Beats or Beatniks were the bohemians of the 1950s and looked down upon the hippies as poor imitations of themselves. They saw them as lacking in intellect and interested only in sex, drugs and rock n roll. While these were some of the interests among Hippies, they were also influenced by the philosophy of Buddha, Gandhi and Jesus, they criticized the middle-class values by which they were raised, spoke out against the Vietnam War and opposed nuclear weapons. Whether it is perceived as being good or bad, the legacy of hippies can be seen throughout our society, today. We have greater freedom of expression to voice dissent, selection of alternative life styles and sexual preference. Our eating habits have changed as a result of the popularity of natural food stores that carry herbal remedies, and diet supplements. Men with moustaches, beards and long hair are now commonplace where they were once frowned upon, during the 1950s and early 1960s. And of course their influence in music and art, which is today’s topic.

While Timothy Leary played an important role in the widespread, recreational use of LSD, he did not have any influence on the beginning of psychedelic music, i.e. music inspired by LSD. This genre of music would find its origin, in the west coast, largely due to the efforts by Ken Kesey and Chandler Laughlin.

Ken Kesey is best known as an American author, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but was also a member of the counter-culture who became an LSD advocate.  Prior to Kesey's introduction to drug, he would seem to be an unlikely advocate of LSD. He was the typical All American athlete, who neither smoked nor drank. In 1959, Ken Kesey was a graduate student, in Creative Writing, at Stanford, with aspiration of being a member of the 1960 Olympic wrestling team. However, the latter ambition would never be realized. That year, Kesey saw an advertisement for volunteers to carry out drug testing experiments at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital. Seeing this as a means of making extra money he volunteered.  Kesey described his experience here. The CIA, as part of their Project MKULTRA, funded the research in order to find a mind control drug for interrogation purposes. During this time, Kesey experienced a number of psychoactive drugs and soon determined which ones he specifically wanted to try again. He would later take a job at the hospital, during the night shift, in order to gain access for the various drugs that were housed at the hospital. It was during this time that Kesey was inspired to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. With money earned from his first novel, Kesey bought a house began his own experiments with mind-altering drugs. Parts of these experiments involved his famous/infamous "acid test". Some of these acid test experiences ended badly, but this did not prevent him from advocating LSD. Among the people that attended Ken Kesey's acid test events was a "house band", The Warlocks. They would later change their names to The Grateful Dead and would be among the many San Francisco groups in the 1960's who were regular LSD users. He and his entourage appropriately named the "Merry Pranksters" promoted LSD and their ideals. Much of the hippie's life-style was derived from Kesey's group. The Merry Prankster were nonconformists who dressed in what was viewed then as outrageous clothing, often confronting the law, but in a peaceful matter, and traveled in a brightly colored Harvester bus, with psychedelic art, to promote their life-style.

During the early 1960s, folk music was a popular genre of music, and the Cabale Creamery, in Berkley was one of the coffee houses that was part of the circuit between the east and west coast. Chandler Laughlin was instrumental in bringing in the musical groups for the Cabale Creamery and would later merge the folk music to psychedelic music. In 1965, Laughlin refurbished a saloon, in Virginia City, Nevada that he called The Red Dog Saloon. It was here that he began his own version of the Acid Test that he called The Red Dog Experience. Also brought in to provide the music were, at that time, unknown groups such as Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), Jefferson Airplane, The Charlatans, Quicksilver Messenger Service and many others. Also, Bill Hamm provided the first light shows at these events.

After the summer of 1965, The Red Dog Experience came to San Francisco and Laughlin hosted the first rock concert at Longshoreman’s Hall. After two more concerts, Laughlin planned a larger concert that he called The Trip Festival, which was done in collaboration with Ken Kesey and others. This would be a three-day event, January 21-23, 1966. The concerts were sold out with about a thousands turned away each night.

Where did the LSD come from?

Sandoz pharmaceutical was the source for LSD. However, by this time Sandoz was no longer accepting orders for LSD, a new source would have to be found to provide LSD for the concerts. Owsley Stanley, a student at the University of California, at Berkley, became part of the psychoactive drug scene in 1963. By 1965, he was synthesizing LSD for Ken Kesey and later for Laughlin.

LSD and the Beginning of Psychedelic Music

LSD had an enormous effect on popular music during the 1960s. Rock music during the early 1960s was perceived as being formulae and simplistic. Their sentiments are described here by David Quanta, narrator of the BBC documentary History of Psychedelia. Inspired by their LSD experienced, musical groups began making their musical compositions more complex, and added more sound effects to their music.  Their music was an attempt to recreate their experience while still under LSD. As an example, here is Donovan describing his composition and recording of Sunshine Superman. Unlike Donovan, some groups, such as the Jefferson Starship (nee Jefferson Airplane), did attempt to create their music while under the influence of LSD. Their second album, After Bathing at Baxters, was an example of such an experiment, and is described here by former band member, Paul Kantner. Some groups expressed their psychedelic music in the composition of their songs and had only modest experimentation, with respect to their instrumentation. Here is Chris Dreja, rhythm guitarist, for The Yardbirds and Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish explaining their uses of special effects, during the 60's.

The Grateful Dead and would be among the many San Francisco groups in the 1960's who were regular LSD users. Unlike many of their contemporaries, The Grateful Dead believed that LSD enhanced their performances. However, Dr. Gordon Claridge, Professor of Psychology, of Oxford Brooks University disagrees with the notion that creativity is enhanced while under the influence of LSD. Donovan, a composer and performer of psychedelic music, during the 60's, reiterates the same sentiment.

The Beatles: A Case Study

The Beatles began as a pop group in the early 60's and maintained their presence through the psychedelic era until the members, due to creative differences, as well as other conflicts, parted company and pursued their individual careers. In following their career, we will be able to see the change in the direction of their music after they began taking LSD.

The Beatles were already a group that was immensely popular by 1962. However, they could be classified at that time as a pop group, albeit a pop group with a new look and sound. When they first appeared in the United States, there was always the mention as to the length of their hair (Fig. 1a) because it was thought to be too long. However, if we look at pictures of them during the late 60's (Fig. 1b), their early look is almost conservative.

Figure 1a: The Beatles during the early 60's

Figure 1b: The Beatles during the late 60's

Even before the onset of the psychedelic era, The Beatles began experimenting with their music and were demonstrating that they were not just another teenybopper group settling with a tried formula. Subtle changes could be seen starting in their Rubber Soul album, in 1965, but a radical change would take place the following year with the release of their Revolver album. There was little doubt with the release of this album that the music was inspired by LSD. The album cover mostly line drawn, in the psychedelic art style (Fig. 2)

Figure 2: The psychedelic cover of The Beatles' Revolver album.

The most controversial part of the album, however, would be the last cut, Tomorrow Never Knows. The beginning of the song, "turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream..." was taken from the introduction of the book, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Albert. This would be The Beatles first effort into psychedelic music and was not their last. This was followed by the double-sided hit, Strawberry Fields, Forever and Penny Lane, and in 1967 by what is often regarded as the best album ever recorded, and the inspiration for all the music that was to follow, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Although it has now been 36 years since the release of this album, it is still amusing to find that there is controversy concerning Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. When it was released, it was believed, and there are those that still believe that because hidden in the title of the song are the initials "LSD", that it was a composition inspired while under the influence of that drug. However, John Lennon has offered an explanation that was contrary to this belief, and it has been an answer that he had not changed up to the last interview that he granted for Playboy Magazine. This story is retold here by former Beatle Paul McCartney.

Few groups, of any era, have ever had the success, artistically and financially, as The Beatles, but following Sgt Pepper, they would undergo another abrupt change. In late 1967, in a news conference, The Beatles renounced the use of drugs and became the disciples of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi hoping to find truth and the meaning of life. Unfortunately, they were to be disappointed. Starting with Ringo, each of The Beatle would eventually leave the Maharishi due to contradictions between his actions and teachings. The Beatles would continue to make music, until they separated in 1969, but it would not be up to the standards of Sgt Pepper, Revolver and Rubber Soul.

The Other Artists

There were many recording artists who would try their hand at psychedelic music. Few of these would ever become known and a few would have one song that would become a financial success in mainstream pop music. Relatively few would have long careers. Some of the successful groups include:

·         Jefferson Airplane

·         Jimi Hendrix

·         The Doors

·         Cream

There are more, but time constraints limit the number of groups that we can cover. I will only have time to make a brief comment on each group.

The End of an Era

As 60's was drawing to a close so was the use of LSD in psychedelic music. Many groups, like The Beatles, abandoned LSD and/or other drugs entirely. Dennis McNally, biographer of the Grateful Dead, believed the end of the 60's was symbolized by the tragedy at the December, 1969, Altamont Concert. A summary of the Altamont tragedy can also be read here. On a light note, Joe Boyd, producer for Pink Floyd, gives his opinion on the end of the 60's.

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