Turn on, tune in, drop out: LSD Underground 12

If 1967 was the year that the counterculture stepped into the high summer of it’s lifespan, 1966 was the springtime, the year that the psychedelic seed truly germinated. Nowhere was this more true than Los Angeles, where the burgeoning scene was perhaps more visible than anywhere else in the world. Robby Krieger of the Doors even went so far to attest that 1966 was “the Los Angeles summer of love”, adding, “All the long hairs had come to Sunset Strip from all over L.A. The freaks. We weren’t even called hippies then.” A glance at the contemporary L.A scene provides a lot of weight to this sentiment: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention had just released Freak Out, and there were riots outside of Pandora’s Box and the Whiskey a Go Go, where resident house bands such as Love, the Doors, the Seeds and Captain Beefheart were already well into blowing minds. The Misunderstood were having their all too brief moment in the sun, the Byrds were eight miles high, whilst the high summer was sound-tracked by perhaps the first true mainstream psychedelic album, Revolver, by the Beatles.

Yet, all too soon the first genuinely innovative and experimental releases were morphing into a more homogenised ‘psychedelic’ sound, laboriously produced and buttered up heavily with sitars, baroque stylings and stinging acid guitars. Much like all that is new, eventually the counterculture simply became culture. Yet, this is inherently oxymoronic. Pure psychedelia is experimental and unpredictable in nature, and should not be the work of record company production lines closely following IKEA-esque instruction. Such early pioneers as the 13th Floor Elevators and Blues Magoos readily take their place in the history of the pop canon. Yet, all too little is written of the LSD Underground 12, a mysterious and pseudo anonymous group who may have been the first to record music whilst under the influence of LSD – which, it should be noted, was still legal in 1966. The music contained within this album, a shifting free-form kaleidoscope of sound, is sheer psychedelia, relieved of period convention and trendiness.

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The half-hour long album was recorded in the summer of 1966, in Los Angeles, and received only a limited release via mail order. With more in common to the likes of Stockhausen than the Electric Prunes, the sounds are so avant-garde that they may represent the apex of sheer experimentalism in a scene notorious for studio exploration. The best way to describe the contents is to breed ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ by Pink Floyd and ‘European Son’ by the Velvet Underground and expose the resultant offspring to healthy doses of the trippy mid-section of ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’. The repetition and drones herein also pre-empt Krautrock and reflect the growing interest in Indian drones and ragas. Yet, comparisons undermine the originality of this piece. Indian traditional music aside, the LSD Underground 12 pre-date the other aforementioned innovators.

At around the 16 minute mark there is some excellently menacing reverb guitar so malevolent it sounds like a hive of angry bees stuck inside an amplifier. This helpfully reminds us that psychedelia and ‘flower power’ are, in fact, independent of each other. Initially, the moral panic surrounding LSD and other drugs ensured that psychedelia in all it’s forms was relegated to outcast status – look no further than the March 1966 Life Magazine cover story decrying the ‘exploding threat of the mind drug that got out of control – the music of choice of intimidating hairy ‘freaks’ and pilled up London mods. ‘Flower power’ on the other hand arose in 1967 and lasted only until midway through 1968, more of a pop culture trend as opposed to the genuine psychedelic movement it spawned out of. To that end, the change in tone towards the psychedelic experience is remarkable, with the 1967 film ‘The Trip‘ feeling far more artistically advanced than the also excellent but notably blissed out ‘Psych Out‘ from 1968. Both have much in common yet are notably distinct.

To this end, the music of the LSD Underground 12 is a distant relative to the more radio friendly music released later. It’s remarkable that Los Angeles spawned both the LSD Underground 12 and the Monkees in 1966, two seemingly distinct entities on either end of a cultural spectrum that nonetheless share musical DNA. It’s unlikely that many would’ve heard this pioneering free form tapestry of sound upon it’s release, yet, forming part of the vanguard of perhaps the defining cultural movement of the 20th century, the reverberations of this estranged masterpiece are still perceivable. A challenging listen by all means, but rewarding nonetheless if you wish to hear psychedelia relieved of pop culture trendiness and gimmickry. A free form trip created under the influence of LSD, perhaps the ambiguity of the identities of the participants lends itself to the artistic legacy. This is universal music, an instrumental, created not to advance careers but rather to push boundaries and forge a brand new musical horizon. It’s something of an oxymoron that this, among the most innovative music of the genre, came at the very birth of the movement. Perhaps Los Angeles 1966 provided the Big Bang that threw so many sonic galaxies out from it’s wake.

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