Ch. 08: Psychedelic Rock – Soundtrack for the Drug Trip


If the teen movement in the 1950s, which helped to shock-start the rock ‘n’ roll movement, was about establishing independence from parents, the teen movement of the 1960s, which fueled musical experimentation, was about discovering the life values and self-identity which give meaning to the cultural autonomy.

This shift from seeking independence to discovering identity can be seen in the musical movements of 1965. African-Americans in the urban north and rural south were creating musical paths of discovery by way of gospel based Motown and soul music. Expatriates from the folk movement in New York and Los Angeles were blending voices and acoustic/electric instruments to create commercially viable songs of protest and personal angst.

But in San Francisco, a city steeped in non-traditionalism, a musical movement was gaining momentum based on a more passive, egalitarian lifestyle. San Francisco in the late ‘50s had been one of the hubs of the beat lifestyle, complete with coffeehouses, poetry readings and subversive philosophy. The seeds of the bohemian existential movement reincarnated a decade later in the writings of acid guru and author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and others. Kesey promoted the use of a legal psychoactive drug called LSD, which he first experienced as part of a Stanford test group. Kesey felt that through the use of hallucinogens such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide or simply “acid”) and marijuana people might be able to break through the conformity of culture, shed the overwhelming materialism that was shackling America and restructure society. The path towards permanent change in the world, they preached, lay not in placards and protests, but pills and pot.

The Acid Tests, hosted by Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, were occasional opportunities for a group of folk musicians turned blues enthusiasts to provide lengthy improvisations to assist the drug induced group euphoria. At these communal gatherings of heightened sensorial acuity, the music of the Grateful Dead was the perfect complement to the occasion. The extended jam sessions that were the typical fare for these events became known as “psychedelic rock” or “acid rock”. Jerry Garcia, the most known figure of the Grateful Dead, would later call it simply “blues with a great deal of weirdness”.

The concept of improvisation has been a crucial part of music making for centuries. Classical musicians such as Mozart and Bach used it at the harpsichord and pipe organ, and jazz musicians like Armstrong and Parker used it to build pyrotechnic displays on the trumpet and saxophone. In the same way, Garcia, Phil Lesh and others in the Dead utilized the concept of musical autonomy within a loose harmonic framework to create songs that were over an hour in length. Like a film score by Danny Elfman or a symphonic poem by Richard Strauss, the music was accompaniment to another activity. In this case, it was the liquid light shows, the burning incense and the acid trips.

The Grateful Dead, 1970

The popularity of acid trips and other communal gatherings eventually outgrew the backyards, barns, small halls and larger venues like the Fillmore Ballroom. In January 1967, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park hosted the first outdoor concert/gathering called the “First Human Be-in”. The Grateful Dead, or the Dead as they were becoming known, were one of the bands providing free music for the psychedelic happening.

The traditional logic of commercial rock ‘n’ roll would state that an artist’s popularity and reputation is built on the hit songs they create in the studio hits and the frequency of AM radio airplay given to those singles. Neither the Grateful Dead nor their fans were comfortable, however, with the confining structure of a 3-minute pop-rock song. The long improvisations, which showed the influence of their country, folk and blues backgrounds and was at the heart of their music, couldn’t be limited to one side of a 45 r.p.m. record.

Record producers attempted to cash in on the popularity of the 1967 psychedelic, hippie movement by signing the Dead to a recording contract and then squeezing their creativity into the confines of a 9-song LP album. Only on the final 10-minute cut, Viola Lee Blues, were the band allowed to stretch into their comfort zone.

While recording their second and third albums, both of which were mediocre commercial successes, the band accrued over $100,000 in extra studio costs. They were able to record their first album, The Grateful Dead, in 3 days, but the second album took them 6 months. In order to repay the debt to the record company, the band recorded their fourth album at a Dead concert.

The resulting double album, which they entitled Live Dead (1970), was recorded for a fraction of the earlier three and allowed them the freedom to play what they knew –extensive improvisations. The first side of Live Dead, in fact, is one cut – “Dark Star” and shows the Dead at their creative best. Utilizing a Latin musical structure known as a “montuno,” the band alternates for most of the song between two chords, with each member having the freedom to rhythmically or melodically craft their own invention. After over twenty minutes, harmonized vocals (perhaps the only part of the song actually “rehearsed”) bring the work, and Side 1, to an end.

Finally the Dead were allowed to create records in the fashion that was most natural to them: the live concert. While fans of the band, affectionately called Deadheads, avidly bought records, the extended boogies were too avant-garde to gain AM radio airplay. The uninterrupted airplay needed to play Grateful Dead songs was available on FM stations. FM deejays and program directors were far less Top 40 oriented than their AM counterparts and were willing to give airplay to bands like the Dead and in later years, Led Zeppelin and others.

The popularity of the Grateful Dead was furthered by their appearance at two of the most famous outdoor concerts of the ‘60s: the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Altamont in December 1969 was another story completely.

The Grateful Dead, “New Speedway Boogie”, 1970, written to commemorate the disaster of Altamont, Dec. 1969

The psychedelic rock movement of San Francisco offered several other bands of distinction. Jefferson Airplane, fronted by singer Grace Slick, was the most commercially successful of the ‘67 bands. “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” (dubbed by some the unofficial anthem of the ’67 Summer of Love) and “White Rabbit” both made it to the Top 10 on the charts even though some radio stations banned “White Rabbit” because of its openly pro-drugs lyrics. Jefferson Airplane played both Woodstock and Altamont in ’69 before going through decades of breakups and makeups.

Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”, Woodstock, 1969

Janis Joplin brought her blues infused intensity to San Francisco and became the front person for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1967. Her rendition of “A Piece of My Heart” at the Monterey Pop Festival stopped the show. Within two years her popularity overshadowed that of the rest of the band and they parted ways. Janis, nicknamed “Pearl” died of an accidental heroin overdose in her Hollywood hotel in October 1970. The album Pearl was released posthumously the next year and saw “Me and Bobbie Magee” go to #1 on the charts. One of the tracks on Pearl was released without the vocals she never lived to record, it was entitled “Buried Alive in the Blues”.

Other San Francisco bands of the era included Country Joe and the Fish and the Quicksilver Messenger Service, who, like the Dead, built their sound around extended blues improvisations.

A San Diego psychedelic blues hard-rock band named Iron Butterfly gained chart attention and airplay on progressive FM radio stations with its 17-minute “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (2 and ½ minutes were a drum solo). The classic song, together with Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” were the three most critically and commercially successful extended rock works of ’67 and ’68.

Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin”, 1967

Carlos Santana, 1973

Also appearing on the San Francisco music scene in 1967 was a young Mexican born guitarist with a feel for blues, improvisations and Latin rhythms. His band was first called the Santana Blues Band but the talented guitarist shortened it later to simply Santana. Carlos Santana, influenced by the mariachi music his father performed in Mexico and the blues records by Muddy Waters, played Woodstock in ’69 and had several hits in the early ‘70s including “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”. His longevity in the music industry is demonstrated by the fact that he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, usually a sign of the end of a career. Two years later, at the 2000 Grammy Awards, his album “Supernatural” won 8 Grammys. His life philosophy which comes out in his music, interviews, speeches and CD liner notes, is more reflective of a personal spirituality and desire for world unity rather than a dependence on psychedelic drugs. In this, the free-flowing music of San Francisco 1967 lives on.

Santana, “Evil Ways’, Woodstock, August, 1969

Scroll to Top
Watch and Learn

Audio/Video Room


Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

Study and Test

Testing Library

Contact Form