The Summer of Love and Psychedelia

Here’s a YouTube video that does a great job explaining the times and music leading up to The  Summer of Love.  The author shows his philosophical roots in his screen name “Zarathustra’s Serpent”.

If the name sounds familiar, it evidently came from Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, a nineteenth-century philosopher.  Nietzche’s book was the foundation for composer Richard Straus’s musical work of the same name. Stanley Kubrick used the opening of the Straus piece in his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Enjoy this excellent video and transcript from Zarathustra’s Serpent on YouTube.

It is no wonder that the heart of the Summer of Love was California. California, after all, is a place associated with endless summer, and in the beginning of the sixties, this endless summer was turned by pop music into a magical ideal.

To see how, we will have to take a moment to discuss surf music. Surfing is a custom that originated in Hawaii, where the Polynesian natives would ride the waves on wooden boards, a religious ritual of dealing with the forces of nature. The infiltration of the modern world, especially after the US annexed the island, has changed the local culture, but revenge was soon to arrive.

Some Americans adopted surfing, imported it to America and formed a subculture on the beaches of California. The surfers were youngsters who despised the puritanical capitalist idea that you should work hard to gain materialistic wealth, and instead chose a life of fun and ecstasy, where your existence is focused on riding the current wave and waiting for the next wave.

The American mainstream society, on its part, regarded them as un-American, and portrayed them as beach bums who dedicate their life to sensual pleasures instead of something meaningful. But surf culture found a way to fight back, and it did it through rock’n’roll. The man who started it all was Dick Dale, a surfer that was excited by the rebellious sound of rock’n’roll and wanted to combine it with the experience of wave surfing, to express the free spirit of the surfers and the joy of riding a big wave.

Working together with an innovator called Leo Fender, he revamped the electric guitar and added many effects, which made it possible for him to express the roar of the waves, the woosh of the wind, the spray of foam, and other sounds that you experience when you struggle with the powers of the ocean.

The power of Dale’s guitar was so great that it blew every existing amplifier, and compelled the industry to create more powerful amps, paving the way to acid rock and later to heavy metal. And so, Dale would surf the waves, reach the shore, grab his guitar, and blast electric surges that shook the ground in the vicinity and drew youngsters to join the party.

The waves made by Dale and the other surf guitarists travelled all over the globe, and bequeathed to the sixties values of loud rock music, love of nature and life for the current thrill, a legacy that will be fully embraced and developed by psychedelia. But the most famous band to come out of the surf rock scene had an entirely different style.

The Wilson brothers grew up in a musical family, and they formed a group that combined vocal doo-wop harmonies with rock’n’roll guitars. When they cut their first single in 1961, brother Denis, who was a surfer, suggested that they write a song for the subculture, and the record ‘Surfin” was born.

It found success, and they decided to base their songs around the surfing culture and even called themselves by one of the names that surfers used to identify themselves: the Beach Boys. This combination that the Beach Boys created, between doo-wop harmonies, rock’n’roll, and touches of surf guitar, took the pop world by storm in 1963.

But the song we’re watching now demonstrates the difference from original rock’n’roll. It borrows its melody from Chuck Berry’s classic ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, which is about the ecstasy that a teenage girl feels while watching a rock’n’roll show, and it emulates it to tell us about the ecstasy of going surfing.

But in Berry’s song, the girl has to go back to school on the next day, whereas the Beach Boys tell the teacher that they are leaving for an endless summer and don’t intend to come back. In original rock’n’roll, you remained in the conformist and suffocating world you grew into, and the ecstasy came from breaking these chains with music.

While surf music pictures a world where there are no chains, just an existence dedicated to having fun. The most talented Wilson brother was Brian, and he wrote most of the band’s songs. His dominance over the creative side was enhanced after a nervous breakdown he had in 1964, which compelled him to retire from live performances and focus on writing songs, and more importantly, producing records.

This is one of the biggest revolutions that rock’n’roll brought to the music world: the record became the heart of the creative process. In jazz, as we mentioned in previous episodes, the focus shifted from writing to performance, and jazz records tried to sound as close as possible to a live performance.

Jazz musicians would usually not edit or add anything to the recording – it was considered cheating. In rock’n’roll, on the other hand, it was customary to record different parts and then edit them together, to add sound effects, and to employ studio technology to manipulate the recording and turn it into a unique piece of soundscape.

Studio technology reached a very high level by the beginning of the sixties, and those years saw the rise of the record producers, the people responsible for recording and editing. Brian Wilson got into the thick of things and became a production wizard, and under his direction the Beach Boys started to produce elaborate and distinctive records.

In 1966 they released the album Pet Sounds, the first rock’n’roll album that was regarded as an art piece in its own right and not just as a collection of tracks. Every track on the album is a magnificent tapestry of sophisticated vocal harmonies and novel exotic sounds. They followed that with the same thing but in a much more concentrated dose, with the single ‘Good Vibrations’, another masterpiece of production.

Previously, we characterized the psychedelic experience as a state where the linear perception of reality breaks down, and your consciousness is being flooded with stimuli from all directions, causing a feeling that you elevated to a higher order. This is pretty much what we get here, and in many of the records that will be presented in this episode: rather than choosing one wave to surf on, we let many vibrations wash over us all at once, and take us into a magical kingdom.

When the Beatles came on the scene, they were initially a rebellion against sophisticated production, and went back to the primitive power of early rock’n’roll, with their records trying to recreate the way they sounded live. But by 1966 they grew tired of live performances, with the squealing girls who made it impossible to even hear the music, and they started to spend a lot more time in the studio, making increasingly innovative records with their super-producer George Martin.

The album Revolver, from that year, was a turning point, after which they decided to retire from live performances and become exclusively a studio band. The themes they sang about got deeper, dealing with existential questions, and they started to put a lot of thought into every record. Other rock’n’roll artists went through a similar process at the time, but Revolver is a perfect showcase for what put the Beatles above all else: every one of the four band members represented a different approach to existential questions, and together they could attack a theme from all sides, and present a totality.

This all-around totality, coming from four different personalities completing each other, characterized the Beatles from the beginning. John Lennon was rebellious and sarcastic, with a searing and aggressive singing style; Paul McCartney was pleasant and witty, with a lovely lilting voice; George Harrison was shy and reflective, with an enchanting vocal; and Ringo Starr was genial and outgoing, with a warm and embracing voice.

They had something for everyone, and together they were one unit working in harmony. When the substance got deeper, and they began to pursue the path to happiness, the differences also got deeper. John was looking for the answer in rebelling against the existing order and searching for something else, and his music took an experimental tinge, trying to break the mold of pop songs.

Paul sought the answer in merging the new ideas of the sixties with traditional western ideas, and musically, he took what his friends were doing and fused it with older musical styles. George connected with Buddhist mysticism, looking for the answer beyond this world, and musically he began infusing the sound of the band with Indian instruments and melodies.

And Ringo remained the down to earth guy, who finds happiness in hanging out with the guys, and served as an anchor to his three friends, reminding them not to take themselves too seriously. In Revolver these distinctions first came to light in all their sharpness, with everyone giving their take on the ideas that began percolating out of psychedelia, and they all come together to form a perfect album.

Here we hear Ringo singing a song written by Paul McCartney, which is actually a children song, but also contains the psychedelic dream of escaping to a colorful fairy-tale land, where you just have endless fun. This wish to go back to childhood, to an earlier happier memory, was also at the center of their next planned project: they intended to make an entire album dedicated to songs about Liverpool, the place where they grew up.

The result was their next single, released in February 1967. On one side we find ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, about a place they used to play in as children, and it was a milestone in record production. Some of the instruments here, including Lennon’s voice, are played in a slower speed, making them sound weird and bent, while others are played backwards, causing a disturbing effect.

It also has electric organs playing acidic sounds that were novel at the time, and Indian instruments that contribute to the hypnotic atmosphere. All of that creates a kind of super-natural fantasy, and Lennon’s abstract lyrics convey a sense of loss of identity and orientation. The Beatles also made a surrealistic promo film to accompany the record, seen today as one of the precursors of the video clip.

And the success of the single marked the moment when psychedelic music began its takeover of the charts. Eventually, instead of the Liverpool album, the Beatles decided on another project: they will assume the identity of a psychedelic fair band called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the entire album will be comprised of numbers this band would have on its show.

While their first albums took only a few hours to record, this time they shut themselves in the studio for more than half a year, working weeks on every track to make it special, and they also put a lot of thought into the design of the album sleeve. The result was an album that was based in the daily life of 1967 London, but looked at it from a psychedelic perspective.

‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, for instance, is based on an advertisement poster for a circus, and it mixes its lines to make a song, while the production creates an effect of a kaleidoscopic musical box, to generate a carnivalesque atmosphere. The album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out on June 1st, 1967, and remained on top of the charts for the entire summer.

It contained all the breakthroughs of the sixties, and wrapped them in a package that was digestible to the general public. The result was a cultural big bang. The hectic atmosphere of swinging London, that was building up throughout the sixties, reached its peak in this summer, and Sgt. Pepper led a wave of happy and optimistic pop music.

But this summer also marked the rise of California as a counterweight to London’s dominance, and the main cause for that was Hippie acid-rock. California, as we’ve mentioned, was identified in the early sixties mainly with surf rock. But the British invasion of 1964 blew surf out of the water, with only the Beach Boys left standing.

In 1965, California got some reinforcement, as some artists of the New York folk scene moved to Los Angeles to form folk-rock, a style that was a fusion of folk, rock’n’roll, harmonies in the mold of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and Beat philosophy. We’ve already mentioned the Byrds, the band that led this wave.

Here’s another folk-rock band that moved from New York to LA that year, and at the end of the year released a record that celebrated the delights of sunny California, and its free spirit that drew them to it. And from the beginning of 67, it was San Francisco that became the center of Californian music.

In January, Height Ashbury hosted a festival titled The Human Be-In, which unified all the art movements in the place. The Beat poets read their poetry, Timothy Leary lectured on psychedelics, the local avant-Garde theater troupes put on their plays, but at the center of it all were the acid rock bands, which established their status as the heart of the scene.

Rock music, which bohemia always considered to be just silly pop music for teenagers, now started to be regarded as the deepest conveyor of the human spirit. The next logical step was to arrange a festival that will be purely musical, and in the middle of June came the Monterey Pop Festival, the first rock festival in history, a three day event that brought together the acid rock bands of San Francisco with the folk rock bands of LA and with some of the best British bands, as well as some other surprises.

The song we are hearing in background was a song written for the festival by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, sung by Scott McKenzie, inviting everyone to join the new thing. The Haight Ashbury Hippies had some doubts about the festival. First of all, they didn’t like the ticket prices.

The acid rock bands played for the community, for nominal sums, not for profits. Secondly, they were afraid that this will bring the commercialization of the scene, and destroy the small, joyful, loving world they created for themselves. And they especially didn’t like the idea that the event was going to be filmed and shown in movie theaters.

Jefferson Airplane was already famous and had some hits in the chart, but the other bands were still underground, and liked it that way. The Grateful Dead agreed to play in the festival, but only on the condition that they will not be filmed, and not be part of the movie. Big Brother and the Holding Company made the same stipulation, but they forgot to take one thing into account: how good Janis Joplin was.

Her performance was so electrifying that it wowed the audience, stealing the show from the more famous acts. Janis descended the stage triumphantly, but then remembered, to her heartbreak, that her triumph wasn’t filmed. After much pleading, the band managed to persuade the organizers to let them perform again on the next day, this time on camera.

Witnesses say that this performance was not as good, and suffered from overexertion by Janis, but it was still good enough to launch her into superstardom. The summer of 1967, the summer of Sgt. Pepper and the Monterey Pop Festival, became known in the history of pop as the Summer of Love. The pop music of that summer, and the entire year, has unique characteristics, that distinguish it from any other year.

Let’s discuss these characteristics. Unless otherwise mentioned, all the records presented here are from 1967, and it’s hard to mistaken their belonging to that year. The first characteristic we notice is the slowing down of tempo. Rock’n’roll has always been a style of exhilarating dance music, and acid-rock, with all the changes it brought, left this aspect intact.

But the effect of LSD caused some people to want to stop, lie motionless, and allow all the sensual stimuli to wash over them. On this track from Revolver, the Beatles ask us not to disturb their sleep, and allow all the wondrous dreams to come. The world may think that this is laziness, sings Lennon, but he insists that this is the best way to live.

The pace, accordingly, is slowed down. In ‘Penny Lane’, the other side of the ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ single, the sleeping is done with your eyes open. McCartney just lies awake in Liverpool’s Penny Lane, and lets all the affairs in the road flow through him and fill his consciousness, just watching everyone running around without taking an active role.

We find this passive attitude and dreamy quality in many other Summer of Love records. With the rhythm becoming less dominant, vocal harmonies came to the fore, and so did sound effects, designed to stimulate the listener’s acid drenched mind. It was a very colorful year, with the clothes, the album covers, and everything else coming wrapped in rainbow colors, to make the visuals match the sounds.

This sinking in a dream made the collective mind of that generation open itself up to the monotonous, droning sound of classical Indian music. India, after all, is constantly a background to our story. In that seminal 1955 poetry evening in which Allen Ginsberg enthralled the poet community of San Francisco, there was another newcomer poet called Gary Snyder, who just came back from a trip to India and read poetry inspired by his experiences.

Snyder introduced the Beatniks to the philosophy of Zen, which is also essentially an attempt to free your mind of any molds, and Zen ideas infiltrated the writings of Kerouac and other Beatniks. And the other side of psychedelia also had an enormous debt to Indian culture: Timothy Leary, as we recall, based his ideas on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Indian music is hard for western minds to comprehend, since it has no melody or harmony but just elongated winding sounds, an endless flow. But after the groundwork of Leary and the Beatniks, and under the influence of acid, it started to make sense. We’ve mentioned George Harrison, who injected Indian sounds into the Beatles’ music.

Other bands started to do the same, adding to the psychedelic mix of the year. Summer of Love pop, then, drifted away from the Merry Pranksters brand of psychedelia, the one based on wild dancing, and instead drew closer to Timothy Leary’s brand, of a trip that takes place inside your mind, while the body remains motionless.

This was reciprocated by the other party as well. Previously, we described how Leary, the serious scholar, would not go out to greet the noisy and mischievous Pranksters when they popped by his ranch in 1964. But the sounds coming from the rock world reached his ears as well, and he gradually became more laidback, more hip.

By 1967, he was part of the Hippie culture, and they, in turn, made him a cultural hero. We hear some interesting things in this Moody Blues record. First, we meet the flute, another instrument whose mystical enchanting sound contributed much to the Summer of Love soundscape. Secondly, we once again meet the idea that drugs take you on a trip which expands your mind.

That’s the goal of dropping out of the rush of daily life and taking a passive, reflective look at it: when you are part of the flow, you operate without knowing or thinking, but if you stop and take a look at your life, you can go back to it with a better understanding of how to live it and be happy.

The drugs, according to this belief, take you on a trip that takes you out of yourself and allows you to take a top-down look on your consciousness and understand how it works, so when you go back to yourself you can be in better control of it and direct it to your needs. We’ve already met that idea in Dylan’s ‘Mr.

Tambourine Man’, where it is described as a magic ship that takes you away. Many Summer of Love records use similar imagery. First, of course, there’s the bus, which the Merry Pranksters turned into a symbol for a psychedelic trip. Or, it could be a magic carpet… But the most popular image was the spaceship.

The sixties was the decade in which space was conquered, when humanity broke out of its planet and started to reach for the stars. This naturally fired the imagination of the generation, and rock bands turned it into a metaphor for the inner expedition, the journey to conquer new realms of consciousness.

One of the best expressions of this introspective approach can be found on the Sgt. Pepper album. The track ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’, is based on a TV ad for cereal, once again displaying the process of taking everyday things and turning them into art. The protagonist of the track is a man who just goes on his daily routine, without any reflection, and has nothing to say.

This is supposedly how most of us live our lives, and the music is simple and mechanic. But the following track is ‘A Day in the Life’, which is about the daily life of the introspective man. The song has three levels. The lowest level is provided by Paul McCartney, and it’s the mechanical routine level of daily existence: it begins with him going downstairs, and then running around to do his usual daily things.

Then he goes upstairs and smokes a joint, and goes into a dream, entering a higher level, the level of reflection. This level is provided by John Lennon, and he tells us that he reads the paper or watches a movie, citing actual articles and movies of the time, and that starts a train of thought that takes him to the highest level, the level of absolute transcendence, which is provided by a symphonic orchestra playing a note that gets louder and louder and becomes a cosmic bang.

These are the levels of everyday life, according to the Beatles. And that is the perception of the pop age. The traditional perception in western society was to treat human life as meaningless and miserable, an existence that we want to transcend into an eternal and happy existence. For the Beatles, on the other hand, daily life may be mundane, but it is not miserable – as the protagonist in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ tells us, it’s ok.

And the transcendence does not take us to an eternal plane, but is still part of daily existence – once it’s over, we wake up back into our daily routine. In other words, we don’t have to aspire to an existence that is beyond our daily earthly life, but find our exultations within it. This was the perception that dominated rock’n’roll from the start, but psychedelia turned into an existential philosophy.

And while early rock’n’roll found transcendence through ecstatic dance eruptions, here it is achieved through delirious reflections. This presumably higher level of daily existence, which gives you a top-down view on your regular routines, also gives you a better understanding of humanity at large.

Some Summer of Love records express the feeling that the singer has a superior position, and can see into the minds of other people. Driven by this perception, the pop kids rejected the notion that they should work for a better tomorrow. If your life is miserable, it is not because earthly existence is miserable in its essence, but because your mind is tangles up in ideas that it has to free itself from.

You must therefore stop directing your thoughts to the future, and learn how to live for today. This approach also explains the wish to return to childhood, which we saw in the Beatles. Several Summer of Love records convey this wish to go back to a more innocent state, where you’re not worried about the future but simply enjoy the moment.

Another side of this approach was the wish to go back to nature, the nature which the modern industrial world detached us from, and become part of it once again. The Hippies were also called flower boys, because of this wish to be part of what they saw as the natural harmony. Many Summer of Love records talk about going out to bask in the warmth of the Sun and the beauty of nature.

This return to nature was accompanied by a change in the attitude towards sex. Christianity taught us to hate the human flesh, and to want to free ourselves from it to get to heaven. But the sixties brought the sexual revolution, which demanded to see sexuality and the body as positive and beautiful.

Sex is one of the ways to reach exultation in our earthly life, and is therefore a good thing. Rock’n’roll, with its rhythmic sexuality, was the main force driving this revolution. Explicit sexuality would not be broadcast over the airwaves, so rock’n’roll artists had to use innuendos.

But in 67 there were several records that started to be more daring. And the main value of the Summer of Love, the one that brought all the aforementioned things together, was of course love. As we saw, the effect of hallucinogenic drugs caused a sense of the falling of boundaries and that we are becoming part of a universal harmony, part of a loving cosmos.

A feeling of solidarity swept over the youth in 1967, making them believe that this is the real human condition and all the resentment and strife are just part of the old world, the world of the adults with all of their complications and inhibitions that prevent them from living out their true nature.

Many anthems for the power and magic of love were written in that year, and the belief was that this love will eventually conquer the world. On June 25th, 1967, the world took another step towards becoming a global village, with the first TV show that was simultaneously broadcasted to many countries, using satellite.

Every participating country contributed a segment, and Britain contributed the Beatles. The Fab Four, who were coming down from the heights of sophistication of Sgt. Pepper, decided that for this event they should write something more direct and anthemic, so they just condensed the spirit of that summer into five simple words.

Their next project was a TV movie, and the concept that they decided on was a psychedelic bus tour, which will take them through all sorts of surrealistic experiences. So, it took them longer than they thought, but the Merry Pranksters eventually did manage to do what they set out to achieve in 1965: get the Beatles on the bus, and into the movie.

The universe did eventually arrange a meeting between them, at least philosophically. But the movie Magical Mystery Tour, that was broadcast on television at the end of the year, also heralds the end of the Summer of Love. The song ‘Blue Jay Way’ was written by George Harrison in Los Angeles, as he was sitting and waiting for friends who were late for a meeting because they lost their way, but the record also expresses his impression of what he saw in Haight Ashbury that week.

Following the Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival, the entire music industry stormed San Francisco, signed all the acid rock bands on contracts, and began a fast process of commercializing Hippie culture. With them came other people who saw an opportunity for a quick buck, and Haight Ashbury was soon filled with drug dealers, charlatan gurus, quacks, professional shysters, and other unsavory types looking to exploit the naïve kids who came to the place looking for spirituality and enlightenment – and the police, of course, followed on their heels.

Height Ashbury became Hashbury, just a big ashtray of pot. When Harrison sings about his friends who lost their way, he is also talking about the Hippies, lost in their drug haze. “Please don’t be long” he sings about his friends, but in the end, when he repeats “don’t be long” over and over again, it becomes “don’t belong”.

Haight Ashbury was no longer a place worth being part of. 1967 was over. The next year will be completely different.

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