Exploring the experimental sound of the 60’s

November 20, 2023
6 min read
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Have you ever found yourself pondering the creative process behind a beloved song? The journey that artists embark upon to compose its melodies, harmonies, and lyrics? I see myself as a wholeheartedly music enthusiast, and this deep passion recently led me to delve into the methods employed in crafting music during the psychedelic era of the 60's. The hippie movement, political activism, the fight for civil rights, and the use of psychedelics all played crucial roles in defining the multifaceted atmosphere of that time.

Moreover, the roots of popular experimentation can be traced back to genres like jazz and blues, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the widespread and conscious integration of experimental elements into mainstream pop music started to happen shortly after 1964. From this point on, bands like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and other artists began to shape the distinctive sound that would come to define psychedelia in the 60's. Music would then become a primary vehicle for artistic and social expression, incorporating elements of freedom, experimentation and transcendence.

Let me emphasize the concept of transcendence here as a pivotal element within the psychedelic sound. The use of lysergic drugs during this period was a mind-opening experience to artists alike, naturally aligning with the age-old teachings found in Oriental philosophy and religion. The notion that 'we are all one' resonated profoundly, emphasizing a collective consciousness that transcended individual boundaries.

"I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together." - I am the Walrus, The Beatles (1967)

A striking example of the East-West syncretism and the search for new forms of artistic expression and spirituality was the inclusion of the sitar, a traditional Indian string instrument, in the song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" from Beatles' album "Rubber Soul" (1965).

However, it's essential to note that the experimental spirit of the 60's wasn't solely defined by the introduction of different instruments, numerous other elements played a crucial role. Let's delve a little deeper into some common elements such as studio techniques and effects used during the years of pop experimentation:

1. Diverse instrumentation

Guitar: The guitar often played a central role in psychedelic music, with artists experimenting with distortion (creating a gritty, fuzzy sound by intentionally overloading the amplifier), feedback (allowing the guitar to resonate and produce sustained tones) and slide to achieve unusual gliding sounds.

Synthesisers: While synths became more prevalent during the 70's, Fifty Foot Hose embraced synthesizers into their sound right there in the 60's. Their pioneering and influential album, "Cauldron" (1967), marked a collision of abstract electronics and psychedelic. Co-founder Louis "Cork" Marcheschi, inspired by Edgard Varèse's "Poème électronique," integrated electronic music as a substantive part of the band's expression. Their approach to electronics left a lasting impact on subsequent artists.

Hammond organ and Mellotron: The Hammond organ, with its versatile tones and swirling effects, added a rich, otherworldly dimension to psychedelic sounds. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum (1967) is a beautiful example of Hammond organ in action. Simultaneously, the Mellotron, using tape-based sampling, contributed ethereal orchestral sounds, allowing musicians to replicate strings, flutes, and choirs. The instrument use is particularly notable in the haunting choir-like passages of the title track "The Court of The Crimson King" by King Crimson (1969).

As mentioned, various exotic instruments were used, like the sitar and the theremin. The latter is an electronic instrument controlled without physical contact and was invented by Russian physicist and musician Lev Sergeyevich Termen in the 1920's. You can listen to the theremin in the song "Good Vibrations" by The Beach Boys (1966).

2. Studio Effects

Reverb and delay: In The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" (1966), the innovative use of reverb and delay on the vocals, combined with tape loops and other studio techniques, creates a mesmerising, otherworldly sonic atmosphere and enveloping sound. With the help of engineers Ken Townsend and Geoff Emerick, the group experimented with Artificial Double Tracking (ADT), a technique that created a delayed and slightly modulated version of a vocal or instrument.

Tremolo: Tremolo is a volume modulation that quickly raises and lowers the signal's volume, creating a shuddering or trembling effect. The track "Crimson and Clover" by Tommy James and the Shondells (1968) showcases a unique tremolo effect. In the song's final part, the band opted to apply the tremolo effect that was being used on the guitars, to the vocals as well. They connected the voice microphone to an Ampeg guitar amplifier with the tremolo turned on. The amplifier's output was recorded while James sang the repeated lyrics "crimson and clover, over and over...".

Filters and phasers: Pink Floyd employed phaser effects to modulate the sound of guitars, keyboards and synthesizers. Their song "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" (1968) shows the use of filters and phasers conveying a spacey, cosmic atmosphere of the song.

Flanger and chorus: "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by the Beatles (1967) is an iconic example of the use of flanger and chorus. The swirling flanger effects on John Lennon's vocals and the dreamy chorus on various instruments contribute to the song's surreal landscape.

It's good to note that these methods predated modern pedals. Technology was limited and entirely analog, amplifying the significance of musicians and producers hands-on creativity. Innovative effects were achieved using techniques like amplifier overdrive and fuzz boxes (like the Maestro Fuzz-Tone). Tape-based effects were utilized to create echoes and delays, with artists manipulating reel-to-reel tape machines for experimental soundscapes. Rotary speaker cabinets like the Leslie and ring modulators contributed unique modulating and experimental sounds.

3. Lyrics and themes

The lyrics of psychedelic songs often explored surrealist, mystical or philosophical themes. Psychedelic imagery, mental journeys and sensory experiences were often portrayed.

One of my favorite psychedelic albums released in 1967, The Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed" exemplifies the exploration of surrealist, mystical and philosophical themes. This concept album takes listeners on a journey over the course of a day, employing poetic lyrics and a varied sound palette. Spoken poetry, performed by Graeme Edge, enhances the album's thematic depth.

4. Experimental structures

Many psychedelic songs broke with conventional verse-chorus-verse structures, opting for more expansive and improvisational forms. As few examples:

  • "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles (1967):
    This iconic song from the album "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" features distinct sections with varied instrumentation and mood. The song moves seamlessly between different musical landscapes, including orchestral arrangements and experimental sound effects, showing a departure from traditional song structures.

  • "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", from Iron Butterfly (1968):
    The title track is a 17-minute epic that became an anthem of the time. Its extended instrumental sections, including a famous drum solo, deviate from conventional pop song structures, allowing for instrumental exploration and improvisation.

5. Improvisation

Improvisation played a significant role in many live performances, allowing musicians to explore new territories during performances.

"All Along the Watchtower" written by Bob Dylan and performed by Jimi Hendrix became iconic for its live performances, particularly at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

The psychedelic music trend diminished by the decade's end due to factors like the illegalization of LSD and anti-hippie sentiment linked to murder events (which I don't feel like mentioning here). However, psychedelic music shows us that experimentation stands as a cornerstone in the realms of arts — and (why not) design — bearing immense significance in fostering innovation and pushing creative boundaries. Uncovering new approaches and unconventional techniques contributes to the evolution of whatever we are creating — even with simple or limited technology at hand.

"When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead." - White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane (1967)

If you're in the mood for an enjoyable psychedelic experience, feel free to dive into my playlist below and taste the sweet jam! 🍇

art — music