The Origins of Psychedelic Rock

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Psychedelic Rock is a genre of music whose origins lie in the early 1960’s. This music became the soundtrack for the hippie counterculture and went on to influence punk rock, metal, and alternative rock music as we know it today. This article and accompanying playlist is an in-depth analysis of the first few years of psychedelic rock, starting in 1964 (the article goes through the end of 1966, and the playlist goes through 1969).

While drugs played a role in the development of psychedelic rock, the real defining factors of the genre came from a transformation in the sonic qualities of recorded music, most especially an increasing use of distortion on electric guitars. In this regard, instrumental music was ahead of the curve. The twang of distorted guitar was used heavily in surf rock. Duane Eddy and Link Wray were pioneering new popular uses of guitar tone in the late 1950’s. Dick Dale’s famous “Misirlou” (1962) is now best known as the song used in the opening credits of Pulp Fiction, but at the time, this surf rock adaptation of a Middle Eastern folk song opened up a world of possibilities for rock music. And the experimental album Ventures in Space (1964) by The Ventures displayed many of the aesthetics that would later become staples of psychedelic rock.

Other production techniques also had a major influence on psychedelic rock, such as Phil Spektor’s Wall of Sound formula, double-tracking, and chorus effects. The British Invasion created a dialogue between the U.S. and U.K. that fueled a great deal of sonic experimentation. And the early use of synthesizers also wove its way into psychedelic rock. Lesser-known recordings like “Syncopation” (1958) by Tom Dissevelt showcased the tonal avenues that could be pursued with electronic music after early developments in the 1950’s. After The Tornados used a clavioline on their instrumental track “Telstar” (1962), electronic instruments slowly came into more common usage in pop songs. Several songs in the playlist below include some variation of electronic music, including The Beach Boys’ use of an Electro-Theremin on “Good Vibrations” (1966), The Monkees’ (somewhat haphazard) use of a Moog on “Daily Nightly” (1967), and The Moody Blues’ use of a Mellotron on “Nights in White Satin” (1967).

At the same time, the Beat generation that followed Kerouac and Ginsberg was moving on from jazz as the soundtrack of the counterculture. As jazz became more associated with high class society, folk music and the blues were starting to seem like better mediums to express an anti-establishment message. The poetry torch was shared with figures like Bob Dylan. Folk music became folk rock, Dylan went electric, and the blues became the default structure for rock music, including psychedelic rock. Dylan covers became a fixture of psychedelic rock, with Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower” (1968) becoming one of the legendary totems of the genre, especially after its 1969 performance at Woodstock.

The focus of the hippie counterculture is on freedom, in rebellion against strict corporate society and its rules. The value of “freedom” was not driven by libertarian, laissez-faire ideals, but rather by a freedom from norms and societal expectations. Freedom to be whoever you were and express that identity. Hence, the interconnected nature of the LGBT movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and the peace movement.

Drugs did play a major role in the counterculture of the 1960’s, and influenced many (though not all) of the musicians on this playlist. Cannabis had regularly been used by musicians since the early 1900’s, including Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller, and countless others. But following Albert Hoffman’s historic bike ride on November 16th, 1938, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and other psychedelics slowly made their way onto the music scene.

After Bob Dylan introduced The Beatles to cannabis, John Lennon and George Harrison were dosed with LSD at a dinner party—a trip which started out as horrific and ended in insight and bliss. Cannabis led to Rubber Soul (1965) and LSD led to Revolver (1966) and influenced all of the Beatles’ albums that followed. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys started experimenting in 1965 with writing music under the influence of psychedelics. And several others on this playlist did the same, such as Donovan and the members of 13th Floor Elevators.

If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s 2018 best-selling book, How To Change Your Mind, you’ll know that psychedelic substances like psilocybin are going through a high-profile scientific revival as new studies show them to be potential treatments for conditions such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, and more. While substances like ayahuasca and peyote have been used in ritual practices for thousands of years, the experimentation of the psychonauts of the 1960’s brought greater public awareness to both the dangers and benefits of psychedelic substances. This exploration is still unfolding today.

(Side note: While this article does not encourage the use of drugs of any kind, I specifically want to discourage the use of one variety. Don’t use opioids, kids. Drugs like heroin are nightmare substances that ruin lives and lead to overdose. There are much better ways to enjoy life. Don’t chase that dragon. Okay, PSA over.)

To a large extent, early psychedelic rock consisted of previously unknown garage bands that gained regional success before spreading to a national or international audience. When it comes to distribution, the influence of FM radio stations cannot be overstated, especially the groundbreaking California stations, KMPX, KSAN-FM, and KPPC.

A great deal of credit is also due to documentaries and compilations that retroactively curated the sound of the 1960’s, such as the 1970 Woodstock documentary and Lenny Kaye’s 1972 compilation Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era. There are still unsung gems being discovered to this day at record stores and private vinyl collections across the world. If you’ve got any recommendations, please suggest them in the comments below.

Now, on to the music. I’ve decided to construct the playlist in chronological order. There’s a nice flow to the songs, and it doubles as a sonic history lesson that lets you listen from the origins of the genre through to the fully-matured apotheosis.

To pick just one song from each of these artists is sometimes nearly impossible. The Beatles, for instance, clearly influenced the psychedelic genre long before their hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Bands like The Doors and The Grateful Dead constructed entire mythologies on the basis of their psychedelic sound.

Hopefully this 3-hour playlist will serve to introduce the psychedelic rock genre as a rich and wondrous labyrinth, ripe for further exploration. In this time of conflict, there is still much to learn from these messages of peace, love, and revolution that echo from the 1960’s. Enjoy!

1. Will Simpson has thoroughly documented the story behind The Zombies’ song “She’s Not There” (July, 1964). After Decca Records passed on signing The Beatles, they set up a talent contest in England. The first prize was a record deal with Decca. The Zombies won and were prepared to record Gershwin’s “Summertime,” but—as a group of free-spirited teenagers—had the good luck of being persuaded to write their own material. After finding a hit with “She’s Not There,” the band went on to write other psychedelic hits of the sixties, most notably “Time of the Season” (1968). In “She’s Not There,” the modal quality to the chords, the characteristic organ solo, combined with the band’s unique harmonies all place the song as firmly psychedelic even before the concept had fully developed.

2. Before “Baba O’Riley” (1971), before Tommy (1969), before even “Magic Bus” (1968), an English rock band by the name of The Who released a song called “I Can’t Explain” (December, 1964). Lyrically, the song is pretty firmly rooted in romantic pop tropes, with the “dizzy in the head” line referring not to a hallucinogen but to how a woman makes the protagonist feel. Sonically, though, the tambourine paired with the unique quality of Pete Townsend’s Rickenbacker electric guitar foreshadow a psychedelic journey that was just beginning.

3. “This Diamond Ring” (December, 1964) as performed by Gary Lewis & The Playboys emerges out of the mainstream pop of the early 1960’s. However, the modulating chord progression, heavily reverbed and phased guitar, warbling organ solo, and chimes all place the song on a different planet than a standard pop song like Manfred Mann’s contemporaneous hit,  “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” (1964). The instrumental elements of “This Diamond Ring” later became hallmarks of the psychedelic genre.

4. When The Animals released “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place” (July, 1965), it resonated equally with a generation of graduating seniors and with GI’s in Vietnam who wanted desperately to be out of their current situation. While the song was not originally written with political implications in mind, it spearheaded a wave of music that gained an added layer of significance for its sociopolitical implications.

5. “See My Friends” (July, 1965) by The Kinks is one of the first songs to incorporate and Indian raga-like sound into an American or British rock song. Released months before The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” (1965), the guitar creates a drone, over which Ray Davies harmonizes, inviting the listener into a trance-like state.

6. The Mamas & The Papas strategically released their first single “California Dreamin’” (December, 1965) in the winter, and it became a success when the radio stations started playing it during a snowy January in Boston. The echoed harmonies on this song became a template for countless bands that followed, and Bud Frank’s flute solo is legendary. The lilting tones of the flute drew the connection between hippies and the earlier jazz-influenced Beat Generation. The Puck-like qualities that it evokes became emblematic of the freedom-forward movement that was emerging.

7. That same January, Van Morrison sang with the band Them, releasing a cover of the Bob Dylan song, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (January, 1966). Bob Dylan had gone electric the previous summer and faced controversy at the Newport folk festival, so there was tentative experimentation with how best to adapt Dylan’s songs without alienating the fans. The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965) had seen success that past summer. Them’s cover is deeply nostalgic and contemplative, with a bassline that imitated Ben E. King’s hit “Stand By Me” (1961). The shimmering guitar seems to slow down the passing of time.

8. “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (January, 1966) was the debut single by The 13th Floor Elevators. Influenced by Muddy Waters’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and jug band music, Roky Erickson wrote the song at age 15. It’s one of the first of very few recordings to use an electric jug, as played by Tommy Hall, which provides the stuttering undercurrent of the song. The song was added to their debut album later that year, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, and that album’s second track (“Roller Coaster”) included overt references to an LSD “trip.” The band’s music was hugely influential to the development of psychedelic rock.

9. “Eight Miles High” (March, 1966) by The Byrds paved the way for countless acid rock songs that followed. In 1965, David Crosby brought cassettes on tour with the music of Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass (1961) and Impressions (1963), which served as major inspirations for the sound of “Eight Miles High.” This is most apparent in Roger McGuinn’s sitar-like guitar solos. After reaching number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, the song was banned in several states due to allegations of references to drug use. The Byrds denied these allegations at the time, stating that the song simply described the experience of traveling in an airplane. But Crosby later admitted, “Of course it was a drug song! We were stoned when we wrote it.”

10. “Monk Time” (March, 1966) by The Monks comes off their album Black Monk Time—a radical album both politically and sonically, which had a major influence on the development of early punk rock. The album was produced by Jimmy Bowien and recorded in Cologne, Germany, capturing The Monks in rare and raw form. The band deliberately uses dissonance and chaotic sounds from the distorted guitar and keyboard to shock the listener into engaging with their stream-of-consciousness sound.

11. The heavy distortion on the guitars in “Psychotic Reaction” (June, 1966) by Count Five was a major influence on punk and metal. The tempo changes that take place in the song and the chaotic, feedback-driven outro work in an imagistic fashion to portray the psychosis that Sean Byrne conjured in his mind during a college course that inspired the song.

12. “Making Time” (June, 1966) by The Creation came out the same month as “Psychotic Reaction.” It paints a picture of a day in the life at a clock factory and features heavily distorted guitar, with the added color of Eddie Phillips’ innovative technique of bowing the electric guitar strings.

13. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” (June, 1966) by Frank Zappa’s experimental band The Mothers of Invention is the first song off the band’s debut double album (the second rock double album ever, after Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde (1966)). It introduced the world to Zappa’s virtuosic and abrasive style of musical experimentation. The kazoos are deliberately annoying, the guitar solo is properly epic, and the lyrics—simultaneously spoken and sung—are subversive and strange.

14. Carol Kaye sets the tone for “Lost Woman” (July, 1966) by The Yardbirds with an incredible, distinctive bass line. It’s somewhere between Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” (1957) and The Beatles’ “Taxman” (1966), and certainly influenced the likes of Roger Waters on tracks like “Money” (1973) by Pink Floyd. In “Lost Woman,” electric harmonica and guitar wail during a chaotic middle section, starting slow and increasing with intensity, before landing with precision back on the bass solo. Jeff Beck plays lead guitar on the song, and The Yardbirds launched not only his career, but also those of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.

15. “Sunshine Superman” (July, 1966) by Donovan is the first psychedelic song to reach number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. Written as a valentine to Linda Lawrence (who he later married), the song paints a vivid picture of a romance framed by sunlight. John Cameron’s harpsichord takes baroque rock into new dimensions, layered against the bending notes of an electric guitar. While Donovan had done LSD by the time the song was written—and was probably high on cannabis at the time—he maintains that most of the lines in the song that get interpreted as drug references (“tripped,” “sunshine” as slang for LSD, etc) are actually not intended as such. Nevertheless, the song’s sparkling ambience was certainly the soundtrack for many psychedelic trips after its release.

16. “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” (August, 1966) is the signature song of the Four Tops. The use of flutes and tambourine over such a unique chord progression take this track outside the sound of a typical Motown hit and into an almost mystical space. Levi Stubbs shouts with desperate passion about how he will always be there for the one he loves. It was only the second Motown song to hit number 1 in the UK—after The Supremes’ “Baby Love” (1964).

17. “Don’t Look Back” (August, 1966) is a song by The Remains—a short-lived band that played for a year and put out only one album after they’d already broken up. There’s a breakdown in the song in which lead singer Barry Tashian essentially preaches in the style of a gospel number. Billy Vera penned this song and later went on to collaborate with Dolly Parton.

18. “Good Vibrations” (October, 1966) was recorded by The Beach Boys at four different studios across Hollywood. The song was inspired by Brian Wilson’s mother, who used to talk to him about good and bad cosmic vibrations. Building on the experimental process developed while recording Pet Sounds (May, 1966), Brian Wilson wrote the song and masterminded the production process, with lyrics contributed by Mike Love. Wilson truly used the recording studio as an instrument, incorporating an orchestra of session musicians, a jaw harp, and an Electro-Theremin. Derek Taylor dubbed the song a “pocket symphony,” and in addition to influencing the trajectory of psychedelic rock, it was a major forerunner to epic songs like The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

19. The Blues Magoos show off a Vox Continental organ on “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet” (October, 1966). The bass and organ parts, as played by Ron Gilbert and Ralph Scala respectively, were based heavily on James Burton’s guitar riff on Ricky Nelson’s rendition of “Summertime” (1958). The song helped The Blues Magoos get discovered by A&R men in Greenwich Village. It was used in Easy Rider (1969) and became a staple cover of early garage bands coming up in the late 1960’s.

20. “A Simple Desultory Philippic” (October, 1966) by Simon and Garfunkel is the most self-aware track on this playlist. Paul Simon released a solo acoustic version of this Bob Dylan imitation in 1965, but the version that appears on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme totally reimagines the sound. That album was the first where Paul Simon took full creative control over the production of the record. With an organ, tambourine, and a guitar in overdrive accompanying the bass and acoustic guitar, the song parodies the psychedelic sound that was becoming popular and at the same time influences the sound that was yet to come.

21. In “96 Tears” (November, 1966) by ? and the Mysterians, the organ takes center stage. The song was literally recorded in a basement in Bay City, Michigan. Disc jockey Bob Dell of CK 105.5 in Flint, Michigan, played the song on the radio, leading to one of the earliest viral garage band hits, spreading the song first nationally (it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 by October), then internationally.

22. “I Feel Free” (December, 1966) comes off of Cream’s debut album, Fresh Cream. Guitarist Eric Clapton showcases his unique, operatic “woman tone.” The hummed melody later morphs into a guitar solo, all surrounded by stereophonic harmonies and percussion. The floating quality to the vocals helps to create a swirling sonic environment to accompany the trippy lyrics, “Dance floor is like the sea, ceiling is the sky.”

By 1967, psychedelic rock was in full swing as a fully-baked genre and marketable commodity that bands like The Doors (named after Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-induced trip in The Doors of Perception (1954)) could fully capitalize on. January of 1967 saw bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead playing music for the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park, which brought hippie counterculture to national attention. And by 1969, Woodstock drew an audience of nearly half a million people and changed the course of American music and cultural history forever.

There are many more stories to tell, and I could go on writing forever, but the limits of time and space are catching up. Many of the bands below (ahem, The Beatles) deserve their own in-depth analysis. But it felt wrong to exclude the later evolution of psychedelic rock simply due to time constraints. So below are the rest of the tracks on the playlist. Enjoy!

23. The Doors – “Break on Through to the Other Side” (January, 1967)
24. The Litter – “Action Woman” (January, 1967)
25. The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band – “Shifting Sands” (February, 1967)
26. Sons of Champlin – “Sing Me a Rainbow” (March, 1967)
27. The Grateful Dead – “The Golden Road” (March, 1967)
28. Jimi Hendrix – “Purple Haze” (March, 1967)
29. Tomorrow – “My White Bicycle” (May, 1967)
30. Procol Harum – “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (May, 1967)
31. Moby Grape – “Indifference” (May, 1967)
32. Strawberry Alarm Clock – “Incense and Peppermints” (May, 1967)
33. Country Joe and the Fish – “Flying High” (May, 1967)
34. The Beatles – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (May, 1967)
35. Captain Beefheart – “Zig Zag Wanderer” (June, 1967) 
36. Michael and the Messengers – “(Just Like) Romeo & Juliet” (June, 1967)
37. Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit” (June, 1967)
38. Diana Ross & The Supremes – “Reflections” (July, 1967)
39. The Rascals – “Groovin’” (July, 1967)
40. The Youngbloods – “Get Together” (July, 1967)
41. The Electric Prunes – “I Happen To Love You” (August, 1967)
42. The Monkees – “Daily Nightly” (November, 1967)
43. Moody Blues – “Nights in White Satin” (November, 1967)
44. The Peanut Butter Conspiracy – “Why Did I Get So High” (October, 1967)
45. Traffic – “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (December, 1967)
46. The Chambers Brothers – “Time Has Come Today” (December, 1967)
47. Status Quo – “Pictures of Matchstick Men” (January, 1968)
48. Quicksilver Messenger Service – “Pride of Man” (May, 1968)
49. Iron Butterfly – “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (June, 1968)
50. Marvin Gaye – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (August, 1968)
51. Big Brother and the Holding Company – “Combination of the Two” (August, 1968)
52. The Temptations – “Cloud Nine” (October, 1968)
53. Nazz – “Open My Eyes” (October, 1968)
54. Three Dog Night – “Nobody” (October, 1968)
55. The 5th Dimension – “Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In” (March, 1969)
56. The Bubble Puppy – “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” (May, 1969)
57. Love – “Always See Your Face” (September, 1969)

Huge thanks to Steven Palmer, Amie Anderson, Dan Anderson, Libby MacDuffee, Mike Vattuone, and John Giunta for their expertise in consulting for this article. Many outside sources supported the research, but especially articles by Susan B. Hairston, Oregano Rathbone, and Ed Mitchell.