Greatest Psychedelic Albums (21-30)

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  • 21. 13th Floor Elevators/The Psychedelic Sounds of (1966). If there were a trinity of acid casualties from the psychedelic era, Roky Erickson of The 13th Floor Elevators would take his place alongside Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd and Skip Spence of Moby Grape. Like the other two, the legend of Erickson often overshadows the fine music he made before drug use debilitated him. This is a true shame, for The Elevators were one of the earliest bands to put out a full-on psychedelic album, as they came storming out of the world of garage rock to deliver The Psychedelic Sounds of in 1966. On first listen, the band’s roots are inescapable and nigh overwhelming: muddy, amateurish recording, ragged guitars, almost-incoherent vocals. And this Platonic ideal of garage rock that they achieved is certainly part of their charm. But on second listen? Pure transcendence—of both the musical and spiritual kind. The songs are strong throughout, no filler like you might expect from the rough ‘n ready bands that struck gold with one riff and then rode it as long and far as it would go, and then also, there’s that sound in the background...ah, yes, the electric jug. An otherworldly noise, as strange and transfixing as the Theremin used on “Good Vibrations,” the jug emits a furiously pulsating sound akin to some demented insect dive-bombing your ears. The lyrics too are far removed from the typical garage-topics, and they betray a consistent, if often nebulous, worldview that Erickson tries to put across. The lyric sheet helps somewhat, referring cryptically to “this quest for pure sanity,” a disturbing comment in light of Erickson’s later mental illness, but a statement that is fleshed out on most of the album’s songs. “Splash 1,” one of the more restrained songs on the album, relatively speaking, finds Erickson honing his instincts to the point that he recognizes a kindred spirit immediately: “I’ve seen your face before / I’ve known you all my life,” he sings before reassuring himself, “now I’m home.” The jug stands out on “Reverberation,” mirroring musically the way Erickson teases out every hint of spiritual potential in the syllables of the title word: “Ree-veer-bee-raa-tion!” “Thru the Rhythm” hints at the ultimate failure of the band’s brave new world of acid-laced spirituality as the phrase “where are you, babe?” is sung, uncertainly, over and over. But perhaps the best way to remember the band is with “Kingdom of Heaven”; over a brittle, spectral-sounding guitar and the jug doing eerie slow-dives, Erickson hopefully asserts, “the kingdom of heaven…is within you.” The Elevators still had some good music left in them, but this is where the dream still seemed within reach.
  • 22. Del Shannon/The Further Adventures of Charles Westover (1967). Del Shannon had one of the great voices of the sixties; he may not have had the range of a Roy Orbison, but within his limits, Shannon conveyed a certain type of emotion as well as anyone. Despite not being particularly “rock,” in the way we think of it today, songs like “Runaway” and “Follow the Sun” hold up amazingly well, mainly because Shannon’s voice articulated the paranoia and uncertainty of the songs’ lyrics, emotions that still resonate today when the sunny optimism of other pop songs of the time seems quaint. Shannon may have faded from the national consciousness by the late sixties, but he didn’t stop putting that emotive voice on tape; in 1967, he recorded (all hyperbole aside) one of the most unjustly forgotten albums of the era, the psych-pop The Further Adventures of Charles Westover. Adding psychedelic elements to the music and lyrics of his restrained yet feeling brand of pop isn’t nearly as much of a stretch as it may at first seem to be; Shannon’s voice adapts remarkably well, and the eccentric sketches and stories on Westover feel like a natural extension of the music he was launching into the charts just a few years earlier. If Shannon’s voice is a good fit for psychedelic, then his traditional instrumentation blends just as easily; the moody organ that had always been one of his staples is present, as are the muted strings and horns. The album opens with a few songs that don’t betray much psychedelic influence—that would come a little farther in—but are strong nonetheless. “Thinkin’ It Over” is a melancholy piece complete with string-laden choruses, and “Be My Friend” has a hint of sexual menace, as Shannon leers over a slow bass and eerie harmonica, “Baby, be my friend when I’m in town.” “Silver Birch” is an affecting portrait over a martial beat of a jilted and unstable small-town woman who “waits there every night / in her tattered lace.” The psych influences get more overt on “Colour Flashing Hair,” where Shannon’s paranoia meshes beautifully with hallucinatory imagery: “Is it real? Is it real? I reach for her but she’s not there / the girl with colour flashing hair”; it’s impossible to tell if he’s excited or frightened when he sings out toward the end, “here she comes again…” “Magical Music Box” forlornly portrays a girl isolated in her own fantasy world, represented by her music box, and is sung over a haunting harpsichord. The finale of the album is “New Orleans (Mardi Gras),” in which Shannon conjures up a mysterious, charged city over a slinky, erotic groove and Caribbean-sounding congas; the song is simultaneously celebratory and despondent, as Shannon finds himself drawn to the revels around him while periodically remembering his departed lover. This is an album that resonates and lingers after listening—the songs, the themes, that voice—and why not? After all, Charles Westover was Del Shannon’s real name…
  • 23. Santana/Santana (1969). The psychedelic era was an amazing one for debut albums—The Doors, Are You Experienced?, and Piper at the Gates of Dawn are just a few examples. Santana may be just a step below these others, but still deserves acclaim as one of the more impressive debuts in rock history. What is amazing about Santana is that the sound associated with the band—Latin percussion, soulful organ, Carlos Santana’s passionate guitar, all perfectly commingled—springs forth with no birth pangs; the band is from the opening moments of “Waiting,” the first cut on the album, purely Santana. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Santana is indistinguishable from the band’s other albums. Notably, at this point we find a band split evenly between Carlos’ guitar and Gregg Rolie’s organ; not until Abraxas would the guitar playing take center stage, meaning that the debut album is just a bit less electrifying than the sophomore one, where Carlos’ fiery virtuosity burst into full flight. A step below Abraxas, however, is still pretty damn impressive, and the aforementioned “Waiting” is the proof; it kicks off the album with a thrilling blend of congas, surging bass, and organ, a mix that propels the song so stirringly that you don’t even realize the guitar is missing until it slices in a couple of minutes later. “Savor” is a showpiece for Rolie’s organ, furiously vamping over the top of a rollicking groove, and “Jingo” returns the favor for Santana’s guitar, as the song features striking soloing behind the Spanish lyrics. “Treat” is a little different, opening with a tastefully moody piano that plays unaccompanied until over a minute in, when the insistent Latin percussion slowly joins it. Toward the end of the song, the percussion drops away again, leaving a beguiling seduction between piano and Santana’s guitar. The album ends with “Soul Sacrifice,” a six-minute smoldering groove punctuated intermittently by soaring guitar lines and organ jamming; when the song ends, all instruments cease simultaneously, nicely symbolic of the equal footing on which all the musicians stand on Santana. Few songs stand out on the album, but that is offered as a compliment; Santana is a mood piece, the songs smoothly flowing one into the next, the exotic grooves enchanting the listener, and the whole coolly anticipating the marvel that would be Abraxas.
  • 24. HP Lovecraft/HP Lovecraft (1967). HP Lovecraft's sound is akin to that of The Doors, especially in the prominent use of organ to give the music a dark and vaguely menacing hue, but Lovecraft have several characteristics that set them apart. One is their use of two lead vocalists, not alternating on songs but in harmony; George Edwards and Dave Michaels create an otherworldly, eerie sound when they mesh their voices, one just slightly higher than the other, in a restrained way. Unlike Jim Morrison, whose more emotional voice was perfect for his headlong indulgence in the darkness of late-sixties California, the restraint of Edwards and Michaels provides an effectively ominous edge to their detached lyrical viewpoint. They pull back and, even when singing in the first person, examine the uncertainties and dislocations of their era from an unemotional distance; perhaps their original base of Chicago, far outside of the dual psychedelic axes of California and England, contributes to this disconnection. In “The Drifter,” they begin singing as the drifter himself: “I’m a drifter, I’m a loner / I’ve seen every city and town now,” before the transient foretells his imminent fate, “I’ll die here / Some stranger will lower me down now.” After an atmospheric organ solo, soon joined by an overlapping guitar one, Edwards and Michaels begin singing the same lyrics, only from the opposite viewpoint, perhaps as the killer himself: “You’ll die here / Some stranger will lower you down now.” “Wayfaring Stranger,” an archaic-sounding folk-rock gem, and “Country Boy and Bleeker Street,” continue the thread of outcasts and the hostile, unforgiving world they find themselves surrounded by. This latter song, one of two fine Fred Neil covers on the album, describes the “country boy” of the album’s title as he experiences his first taste of the city; he moves from “standing at the corner of Bleeker and McDougal / wondering which way to go,” to feeling awestruck by the sophisticated women he sees rushing past him, to panicking that he has gotten in over his head; the final forlorn wail of “I want to go ho-oh-ome” injects a last strain of desolation into a song that could easily be interpreted comically by another artist. “The White Ship” is another song of wandering, and is titled after a story by the 1920s horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, the band’s namesake. It is a slow, haunting, six-minute-long opus of a dream-like voyage on a spectral sailing vessel; the song opens with the ringing of an authentic 1811 ship’s bell and continues with creeping bass, martial drumming, and swirling organ before a ghostly harpsichord chillingly plays out the last thirty seconds. The songs would become more consciously experimental on their second album, HP Lovecraft II, recorded after a relocation to the San Francisco area, but for a remarkably consistent dark sound and perspective to match, HP Lovecraft here created the quintessential outsider’s view of the psychedelic period.
  • 25. Kaleidoscope/Side Trips (1967). “Egyptian Gardens,” the first song off of Kaleidoscope’s debut album, Side Trips, encapsulates the sound and attitude of the band nicely; a mystical, eastern-influenced cut, it begins with the exotic strains of a saz (a middle-eastern instrument that sounds not unlike a sitar), before the lyrics, a love story set in a club called Egyptian Gardens, start in. With references to near-bar fights and red-headed dancers, it’s never clear whether the club exists in the east or in California. Lead singer Solomon Feldthouse, who spent part of his childhood in Turkey and also played the aforementioned saz, doesn’t clear anything up by exuberantly singing the chorus as a string of nonsensical Arabian-sounding syllables. This mixture of East and West, both in the instruments and arrangements of the multi-talented line-up, and in the wide variety of song styles, is continued through the rest of the album. “Oh Death,” the bluegrass chestnut repopularized by the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, is given a chilling, authentic feel, even if Feldthouse’s vocals can’t quite replicate the “high, lonesome sound” of the real thing, but it is followed quickly by “Why Try,” another saz-drenched track that also features a strongly melodic bass line. “Hesitation Blues” is a jazzy twenties-style track with barrelhouse piano swinging in the background, while “Minnie the Moocher” infectiously covers Cab Calloway’s tune of a fun-loving flapper—but with a fiddle break playing a snake-charmer line. “Keep Your Mind Open,” though is the real standout, along with “Egyptian Gardens” one of the two strongest songs on Side Trips, and one of the most enthralling songs of the entire Psychedelic era; its melancholy opening, with entwined saz lines that could almost be dubbed “dueling sazes,” gives way to subdued yet insistent percussion and hushed anti-war lyrics that effectively focus on the personal—those affected—rather than on the broadly political. When Feldthouse slides quietly and determinedly into the chorus, “still love remains / in some strong hearts / Keep your mind open,” the fading echo off the last word “open” and the distant sounds of machine-gun fire—so muted you have to strain to hear it—are so subtly moving that they expose much of the strident political cant of the time for what it was: self-righteous and hollow.
  • 26. The Jimi Hendrix Experience/Electric Ladyland (1968).
  • 27. Tomorrow/Tomorrow (1968). Tomorrow was one of the bands that ruled the early days of the London psychedelic scene, but they never broke through the way Pink Floyd did. This isn’t necessarily surprising, for as enjoyable an album as Tomorrow is, the band doesn’t establish an identity for itself in the way of most successful psych bands. Tomorrow is a hodgepodge of lyrical styles that fortunately avoids sounding like a random collection of songs, mainly because of the strong playing; Steve Howe, soon to depart for Yes, handles the guitars here, and he does a fine job, although if you go in expecting complex prog-rock guitar lines, you will be surprised. Howe’s playing complements the melodic pop-rock of Tomorrow well, at times coming close to a jangly sound, and anticipating the strong, energetic guitars of the best power pop. The inconsistency of the album stems from the wild swings from muscular, visionary rock to whimsy that stops just this side of cloying. Character sketches like “Colonel Brown,” which finds some excitingly propulsive drumming belying the maudlin lyrics about a retired military man who “from his moustache hangs a tear,” and “Auntie Mary’s Dress Shop,” where the sweet proprietor “smiles, curtsies, and asks your health,” veer dangerously close to being stereotypical examples of British psych’s occasional weakness for the precious, but don’t quite go over the edge. “Three Jolly Little Dwarfs,” however, does. Not without its charms, the song nonetheless induces cringes as it celebrates the title creatures “running ‘round the meadows” and sitting on toadstools, while the periodic appearances of giants are signified by massive bass drum pounding that replicates their footsteps; compare “Dwarfs” to Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” to see which band had better control of tone on potentially absurd material. The band does show some wisdom though, by breaking up the more whimsical moments with tougher rockers that have aged much better. “Now Your Time Has Come” starts off as a Traffic-style rave-up before settling into a measured, moody pace that supports a melancholy, high-pitched guitar solo of the kind Quicksilver Messenger Service would become known for. “Hallucinations,” the final song, is highlighted by chiming guitars and mystical lyrics that have shed any of the silliness found earlier in the album. The tour-de-force of Tomorrow, however, is undoubtedly “Revolution,” where heavily phased guitars and echoed background vocals segue into a Stones-like groove. Lead singer Keith West sings the word “revolution” over and over on the chorus as strident shouts of “Now!” punctuate it, leading up to West’s apocalyptic paradox of a demand: “we want peace to blow our minds…”
  • 28. The Beatles/Magical Mystery Tour (1967).
  • 29. Love/Da Capo (1967). First off, let’s dispense with “Revelation,” the nineteen-plus-minute jam that ends Da Capo. Almost every reviewer of the album writes about what a horrible, unfocused piece of music it is, and they’re all correct. “Revelation” is slightly bluesy, but with sloppy guitar and even sloppier rhythm, and neither bothers to even remotely stay in touch with the less-than-stellar vocals. What makes this poor excuse for a jam even more galling is that it comes from Love, a tight, sophisticated, intelligent band that not only produced the masterpiece Forever Changes, but also produced the other six songs on Da Capo; I try to forget “Revelation” and think of Da Capo as an EP. And what an EP it is! Arthur Lee’s vocals are the centerpiece here. His voice is a unique thing in rock; the more strident and angry his vocals become, the more vulnerability shines through. The one song where he stumbles (other then “Revelation”) is “Orange Skies,” an otherwise lovely song carried by a fluttering, melancholy flute, and which finds Lee softening his voice to confess his love; to these ears, Lee’s vocals sound unconvincing and forced. “She Comes in Colors,” on the other hand, is Lee at his best; he sings of his love again, but with a desperate, forceful tone that communicates barely repressed deep feeling convincingly. Apart than the differing levels of effectiveness, these two songs do have something in common: a shared interest in colors and vision that permeates much of the album. Lee sings on “She Comes in Colors,” “expressions tell everything / I see one on you,” a sentiment that gives added significance to the chorus: “my love she comes in colors / you can tell her from the clothes she wears.” If his love’s resplendent clothing imparts something about who she is, Lee seems less sure on “Que Vida!,” an organ and flute-driven midtempo cut, where he poses the question, “With pictures and words, is this communicating?” Later in the song, he reiterates his doubts by asking someone (his love?), “Can you find your way / or do you want my vision?” On “Seven & Seven Is,” Lee explodes, “If I’m not crying, it’s because I’ve got no eyes,” a disturbing fragment of psychedelic imagery. Was Lee expressing mixed emotions about the ultimate ability of the utopian communities forming in the late sixties to get across their message? Did they even have a coherent message? Was Lee rethinking his “vision”? Perhaps, for on Love’s next album, Forever Changes, he would seem detached from hippie optimism and would portray himself as a cynical outsider gleefully picking apart motives and ends. Whatever his thoughts, Lee’s avoidance of naïve acceptance of “peace and love” philosophies makes Da Capo a fascinating and complex listen—just as long as “Revelation” is left out of consideration.
  • 30. Country Joe and the Fish/Electric Music for the Mind and Body (1967). Other bands from the scene achieved more popularity, and some bands from the scene produced more accomplished music, but Country Joe and the Fish is the quintessential San Francisco group, and Electric Music for the Mind and Body may be their most quintessential album. Shades of Big Brother and the Holding Company and Quicksilver Messenger Service run through the guitars, while Jefferson Airplane rears its head on the clever drug and political references, demonstrating the communal nature of the San Francisco scene; it would be nearly impossible to determine, even if one could, which band developed its sound first, and furthermore, why does one have to come first? After all, these bands grew up together in the ballrooms and happenings of the Bay Area, and they drove each other on through those few years in the late sixties. The San Francisco bands were also known for their indifference to being signed or to touring, and The Fish’s lack of success can more likely be attributed to their holding on to these traits longer than the other groups, rather than to a lack of talent. Country Joe’s vocals are emblematic of their attitude: lackadaisical, conversational, casual, but always engaging and charming in their lazy-Saturday-afternoon way. But what about the album, you say? Well, it is dominated by organ, wonderfully atmospheric organ, but not the menacing kind The Doors soaked their albums in; no, more varied from song to song, short pumps carrying along the she’s-so-repressed character sketch of “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” and high-mass majesty elevating the instrumental “Section 43” like it were meant to soundtrack worship in a Haight-Ashbury cathedral. “Death Sound” is a bluesy shuffle carried by shakers that sound like wary rattlesnakes—could it be that reverbed guitar on the track that has them so riled up? LBJ doesn’t escape the fun on “Super Bird,” a rollicking tune that features Country Joe assuring the President, “Gonna send you back to Texas / Make you work on your ranch” (I know what you’re thinking, but don’t say it—it’s too easy). The two most obvious drug songs are placed at opposite ends of the album, as well as being at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Flying High” kicks off Electric Music with a shambling rhythm and some nicely acidic guitar while Country Joe sings of traveling around and “flying high / all the way.” “Bass Strings,” however, which comes near the end, is a moody, heavy-bass-driven cut, with Country Joe singing in a strikingly weary way, “one more trip, and I’ll stay high all the time.” His whispers of “L-S-D” in the background add to the tone of drug-drenched resignation. It might seem like the ultimate come-down, but it isn’t the end: the last song on the album is called “Grace,” and The Fish would be back before long--with their infamous "Fish Cheer," no less.

Well, it pleases me a lot to see Del (wow, a link) acknowledged here... one of the true overlooked creative talents of early rock, he sadly was burdened by the massive worldwide success of Runaway that he logically never could quite match and constant references to Roy Orbison that not only being unfair were also completely groundless... granted, Del had a high-pitched voice and Roy had one, too but musically they both had their styles and very different ones, at that (Roy venturing more often in country music, Del exploring some early rythm&blues), even in the content of lyrics, both singing about love gained and love lost (those were the main lyric subjects of the times anyway) but Roy being the romantic type content with self-pity (as exemplified in his great song, Crying), Del much more the vindicative guy who would enjoy revenge on the scornful woman if it presented itself (Hats off to Larry remains in that aspect one of the most joyful songs ever). Sadly, the only true similarity is both these precious and original artists died the same way, committing suicide.

He really is overlooked when it comes to sixties artists, and in both his music and lyrical content was an unique artist. You mention that Orbison tended to pull from country more often than Shannon, but have you ever heard Shannon's album of hank Williams covers? I haven't heard it, but it gets good reviews. I think his voice would match Williams' lyrics very well.

Johnny Waco

Nope, never heard that album of covers...

The idea of a holy trinity of acid washouts amuses me to no end. Have you checked out the new Roky comp? I've heard great things...

And yes, there absolutely must be a Platonic ideal of garage rock.

You do an excellent job of illuminating why the Elevator's album stand out in a genre of music most people believe to sound too uniform, a sludge of sound without highlights appearing strong and distinct in the flowing mud. You wash the album off and point out why it doesn't simply oozes with the flow.

And you are dead right about Del Shannon and that voice...

I love your selections for this list, and find your ability to define sharply what is and is not psychedelic to be both unique to your views and invigorating, even challenging my own notions; it gives these lists a strong but flavorful character I adore. Your lists are full of such insights as, "Unlike Jim Morrison, whose more emotional voice was perfect for his headlong indulgence in the darkness of late-sixties California, the restraint of Edwards and Michaels provides an effectively ominous edge to their detached lyrical viewpoint." These type of comments truly add to enjoying and to understanding music, and that sort of insight is all to rare, even among professional critics.

Your blending of geographic and musical confusions on Side Trips is another terrific touch, providing a very physical, strong metaphor to aid in absorbing the album.

And now I sound like I'm just butt kissing, but hey, I love this list, and I tend to foam at the mouth when excited... :)

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Thanks for the comments; the agreed-upon sum has been deposited into your offshore, numbered bank account:)

I have loved The Elevators for years, but one thing I have enjoyed about making this list is that when I sit down with paper and pen to take notes while listening to each album one more time, I seem to get to know each album even better. Truth be told, as much as I liked The Psychedelic Sounds, I didn't know how much there would be to say because it does seem a lot muddier than most (all?) of the others here; but that wasn't a problem after listening more closely than I had before. And no, I haven't heard the comp; I don't think I've ever heard any of his solo stuff, but it does sound intriguing.

I have really enjoyed writing the reviews of Del Shannon, HP Lovecraft, and Kaleidoscope because these are albums I discovered after having heard most of the "big guns" of the period, and they just came about as wonderful surprises. I hope some people give these lesser-known albums a chance; I don't think anyone would be disappointed.

Thanks again for your comments, lbangs. You always think them through, and they always give me more things to ponder.

Johnny Waco

You are welcome. I love to comment on such well-written, insightful lists.

(besides, it is easier than creating such lists of my own...)

One of the advantages to that Roky comp is that it covers his entire career, including his solo work with the Elevators and the Spades.

I especially enjoy reading your write-ups of Del Shannon, HP Lovecraft, and Kaleidoscope since I know little about the albums. While I know DS's work, my knowledge is mostly from anthologies. Your reviews have my mouth watering!

Kudos!

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs