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It’s perhaps no coincidence that there were just over ten years between the discovery of LSD in 1938 and the birth of popular music. Both are crucial revelations of the 20th century: youthful, mind-altering, and rebellious. Of course, the bulk of this influence dates to the mid 1960s, when the original psychedelic era took place, but the slow drip of LSD has continued through popular Western music since that moment, pulling jazz, minimalism, indie, and hip-hop into its hypnotic whirl.
Let’s take a trip through the last 50-plus years of turning on and tuning in, as we examine the key dates and players in the relationship between psychedelic drugs and their soundtrack.
John Coltrane: Om
In October of 1965, the saxophonist and jazz composer John Coltrane decamps to a rented house in Lynwood, Washington, to record the strangest album of his career. Its single, sprawling, half-hour track is a bewildering fusion of jazz, Hindu spiritualism, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Rumors persist for years that Coltrane was on acid while recording the album, but they’re unconfirmed.
The Fugs: “I Couldn’t Get High”
By 1965, acid’s spread through American counterculture is well underway, but it’s not until the underground folk band the Fugs release their debut album that it’s lyrically name-checked. “I Couldn’t Get High” is the first song released in pop music history to explicitly mention LSD in its lyrics, something that contributes to the Fugs’ growing reputation as hell-raisers. Notes on the band found in an FBI file years later reference them as the “most vulgar thing the human mind could possibly conceive.” They are also understood to have given Jimi Hendrix his first fuzzbox.
The 13th Floor Elevators
In 1965 the 13th Floor Elevators are founded by three friends, including the University of Texas student Tommy Hall, who conceives of an LSD-soaked group in which he will play the “electric jug” (literally a jug with a microphone stuck in it). Band members are subjected to the “Tommy Hall schedule,” which sees them drop acid before every show they play. They even stagger their live performances to ensure their bodies are ready to receive the next dose. The first-known use of the term “psychedelic rock” appears on a business card handed out by the band in 1966.
Ken Kesey’s Acid Test Parties
In the mid-1960s, prior to the prohibition of LSD in the UK and some US states in 1966, author Ken Kesey holds a series of parties called Acid Tests, the entire objective of which is the consumption of LSD. These events are a crucial meeting ground for the psychedelic movement. The Grateful Dead play extended, freewheeling jams while under the influence, and it’s here they also meet the sound engineer and LSD chemist Owsley Stanley, who will go on to supply them with their acid when they perform for much of the remaining 1960s. Stanley also designs their trademark skull logo.
Terry Riley: In C
Between 1960 and 1962 the composer Terry Riley produces “Mescalin Mix,” a tape-loop recording inspired by his experiences on mescaline. (He also spends a period of time in Morocco during the 1960s, sampling an array of hallucinogens.) However, it’s his masterpiece In C, considered by some to be the first minimalist composition, which becomes the orchestral complement to the counterculture of the 1960s. In an interview with the composer William Duckworth, Riley says: “How we were listening under the experience of mushrooms or LSD was not the way we were listening when not under that spell.”
Jefferson Airplane: “White Rabbit”
Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane writes “White Rabbit” on a piano with missing keys during an acid trip in which she listens to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain on a loop for 24 hours straight. “Rabbit” goes on to become a psychedelic classic, drawing on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to explore a variety of altered states. In 1969 Slick fails in her attempt to slip a 600 milligram dose of acid into President Richard Nixon’s tea at a White House event.
Woodstock (August 15–18, 1972)
The apex of the original psychedelic era. Four hundred thousand people descend on a dairy farm northwest of New York City for three days of live music. A number of artists who perform later confirm they were tripping while onstage, including Carlos Santana and the Who; many even push the rumor that the drinks backstage were spiked.
Rolf Ulrich Kaiser Visits Timothy Leary in Switzerland
In 1972, the Krautrock pioneer and Ohr label founder Rolf Ulrich Kaiser visits the American psychologist and acid enthusiast Timothy Leary, who has recently escaped from prison and fled to Switzerland. Along with his girlfriend Gille Lettmann, Kaiser becomes enraptured by the effects of the drug, eventually flying the members of Ash Ra Tempel (Manuel Göttsching’s first band) out to record an album with Leary. In part because of his acid obsession, Kaiser’s label partners Bruno Wendel and Günter Körber soon leave Ohr, beginning the process that would consign him to Krautrock history.
Shuggie Otis: “Aht Uh Mi Hed”
As the 1960s come to a close, psychedelia has spread into soul music. Sly and the Family Stone pioneer a sound that applies the hazy grooves of acid rock to the funk of James Brown. The Temptations play their part as well, enjoying a hit with “Psychedelic Shack” in 1970, as does George Clinton, whose Parliament-Funkadelic will carry the sound into the 1980s. Shuggie Otis’s “Aht Uh Mi Hed” is a classic of the genre and, Otis has confirmed, is inspired by one of three acid trips he enjoyed during this period.
Siouxsie and the Banshees: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse
By the 1980s, psychedelia is trickling into post-punk. Siouxsie Sioux recalls the recording sessions for A Kiss in the Dreamhouse as coinciding with her first experiences of acid, the results of which are particularly obvious on “Cocoon,” which she writes while tripping. The band, and in particular this album, play a huge role in birthing shoegaze and neo-psychedelia, with one track even giving the band Slowdive their name.
Phuture: “Acid Tracks”
The electronic three-piece band Phuture, comprising Spanky, DJ Pierre, and Herb J, aren’t particularly interested in drugs when they create “Acid Tracks” in 1987—a sound so alien and unlike anything before it that DJ Ron Hardy plays it four times in one night at Chicago’s Music Box when it’s first given to him. All the same, their “acid house” sound comes to soundtrack the Second Summer of Love, an explosion of drug-fueled free parties across the UK. While it’s an era remembered now for its ecstasy, plenty of ravers are dropping LSD, which is available at far cheaper rates.
Bez Joins the Happy Mondays (Sometime in the 1980s; Bez Can’t Remember)
Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays is about to record a television performance supporting New Order at Manchester’s Haçienda, but is tripping too hard to walk onstage alone. He turns to his friend Mark Berry, known to most as Bez, and asks him to join him. “So I ended up onstage tripping my nut off, shaking this maraca,” Bez later recalls of joining the Happy Mondays, in an interview with the Guardian.
Animal Collective: Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’ve Vanished
A bunch of school friends from Baltimore, Maryland, bond over nights spent dropping acid and listening to Silver Apples. They become Animal Collective, a group that sit somewhere in-between electronic and folk music. Their early experiments, as on their debut album and 2004’s Sung Tongs, pave the way for a new wave of lo-fi psychedelia that will come to shape alternative music in the noughties.
Chance the Rapper: Acid Rap
Confirming the apparent source of its title, Chance the Rapper openly admits there is “a lot of acid” involved in the making of his second mixtape. Acid Rap is the most obvious example of a number of works by hip-hop artists who have turned to LSD in the past decade, such as Flatbush Zombies or A$AP Rocky, who claims to have been tripping with grime MC Skepta when the pair records “Praise the Lord” in 2017.
Frank Ocean: “Nikes”
Not only does Ocean sing “Acid on me like the rain” on the lead track of the most anticipated album of the decade, but rumors even circulate that he is tripping while shooting the video for the song, alongside the director Tyrone Lebon.
Experiments Are Run to Explore Therapeutic Qualities of Ambient Music and LSD
Finally, after decades of testing the effects of psychedelic drugs on music, the relationship is considered from the other perspective. Neuroscientists at Imperial College London run human trials investigating the ways in which music affects an LSD trip on a neurological level. The scientist behind the experiment, Mendel Kaelen, even works with Brian Eno to use AI-generated music in tandem with LSD as a form of therapy.
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