At a studio in Seattle in 1965, John Coltrane recorded Om, a 29-minute, two-track album full of discordant, seemingly structureless saxophone, flute, piano, and drums mixed with lines from the Bhagavad Gita and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. It was barely recognizable as his own. Many believe that’s because Coltrane was tripping on acid while he wrote it.
Coltrane is one of many artists whose music is thought to be influenced by LSD. The most famous examples are perhaps The Beatles, who discovered the drug that same year in London soon before writing Sergeant Pepper, and The Beach Boys, who released the psychedelic-inspired Pet Sounds in 1966. This psychedelic rock genre often drew from Coltrane, says Philip Auslander, professor at the school of literature, media, and communication at Georgia Institute of Technology. It was characterized by improvisation jams, strange imagery, experimentation, inconsistent rhythms, discordant harmonies, abrupt changes in timbre, and general defiance of convention.
We also see the effects of LSD in more contemporary artists’ music. Wayne Coyne, lead singer of The Flaming Lips, was known to experiment with LSD, yielding nonsensical songs like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” whose eponymous album featured a painting of a girl casting a bird’s shadow and the number 25 (thought by some to reference LSD’s laboratory name, LSD-25).
Jesse Jarnow, author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, cites experimental electronic group Wolf Eyes as emblematic of modern psychedelic music. “The tip-off point is that their music is totally fucking bonkers,” he says; to him, their album Human Animal sounds less like an album than a compilation of mumbles, creaking doors, screeching birds, and UFO landings.
More recently, Chance the Rapper has said that Acid Rap was largely based on his experiences on LSD. “None of the songs are really declarative statements; a lot of them are just things that make you wonder…a lot like LSD," he told MTV. Pitchfork wrote of the album, “The structure is as expansive and freewheeling as any strange trip.”
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What ties together all this acid-inspired music from different eras are the effects of the drug on the brain. LSD disrupts the serotonergic system, which stretches to the brain’s visual and auditory processing centers, influencing both how we see and what we hear, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Music inspired by LSD tends to recreate this experience of a psychedelic trip.
“Psychedelic lyrics often feature evocative but ultimately impenetrable imagery, perhaps based on visions had while on acid,” Auslander says. Giordano cites Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” as especially evocative of a trip, particularly the line, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.” Due to the effect of LSD on the occipital cortex, which processes vision, “people will feel that all the constancies of size and shape may change for them,” he explains.
This neurological effect can also lead to nonsensical hallucinations that morph from one image into another, Giordano adds. The transitory nature of a trip’s visuals, with things suddenly appearing and disappearing, is reflected in songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” Auslander tells me. You “look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she's gone,” then “newspaper taxis appear on the shore,” then the setting shifts to a train and “suddenly someone is there at the turnstile.” Five decades later, in the video for “Paranoiac Intervals/Body Dysmorphia,” Of Montreal singer Kevin Barnes (who has referenced LSD in songs like “Lysergic Bliss”) looks into a mirror and sings about “counting wolves in your paranoiac intervals” as his reflection blurs in and out of sight as his face warps like a funhouse mirror.
The music itself tends to have a disjointed quality and is often improvised, like The Grateful Dead’s famous jams. This style may mimic the arc of a trip, which “unfolds in multiple different phases over a relatively long period,” so a musician who has used acid might “use one’s playing or listening as a vehicle for furthering one’s own exploration of inner space,” Auslander purports.
While LSD’s visual effects are often evident in lyrics, its auditory effects are sometimes evident in the sound of the music itself. Due to its disruption of the temporal and posterior frontal cortical areas, LSD can make sounds echo and bleed into different sounds, Giordano tells me. Auslander views the abrupt orchestral interlude in the middle of The Buckinghams’ “Susan” as an example of the odd sonic transitions characteristic of LSD-influenced music.
Another common effect of acid is to make people forget about meanings and just string together words that sound good, Giordano says. Richard Goldstein, a former rock critic for the Village Voice, believes this may be why band names in the 60s changed from straightforward ones like The Beatles and The Animals to more poetic ones like Jefferson Airplane and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy.
More generally, acid leads to a loss of the inhibitions usually placed on our visual and auditory systems, which can make us think up sounds and images we would not otherwise, Giordano says. This may have inspired musicians from Coltrane to Chance the Rapper to defy the conventions of their genres. “Surprising effects and juxtapositions of musical features you would not usually think go together is a hallmark of psychedelic music,” Auslander says.
Jarnow points toward Wolf Eyes using sheet metal as an instrument and The Butthole Surfers using strobe lights, smoke machines, and film projectors in performances as examples of this psychedelic-fueled creativity. “LSD sometimes can open up a musician's mind to think outside of the usual conventions,” he says, “and especially outside the notion of what even constitutes music."
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