2011-07-02

AnthropoLSD

Anthropologie du Rock Psychédelique Anglais
Anthropologie du Rock Psychédelique Anglais, Alain Pire.

Let me start this review with a quote at the end of 'Anthropologie du Rock Psychédelique Anglais', a title that is so universal that I don't have to translate it into English, unless for some Americans, I guess. Alain Pire quotes Simon Frith who wrote in 1978:

The rock audience is not a passive mass, consuming records like cornflakes, but an active community, making music into a symbol of solidarity and an inspiration for action.

Obviously this quote should be branded on the bodies of record company executives all over the world, especially those that gave us the music of Britney Spears and other singing cattle, and who think that pop music is something repetitive, uninspired and slick (but alas not Slick as Surrealistic Pillow Grace once was). But this post seems to be turning psychedelic before it has even started, so I'll wait a bit until that sugar cube wears off a bit.

Jenny Spires.
Jenny Spires.

Anthropology of English Psychedelic Rock

Alain Pire is a Belgian musician whom I may have caught about 30 years ago when he was a member of the Jo Lemaire & Flouze band, although he won't probably remember that gig in the Stella Artois Feestzaal in Louvain anymore. Neither do I, by the way, I only have a slight recollection that I may have watched that band through a beer enhanced haze.

It was Jenny Spires who pointed me to him, noting that I would perhaps be interested in his (French) study of English psychedelic rock. It is weird that a member of the Sixties underground Cambridge mafia, a term coined by David Gilmour if my memory is correct, had to point me to a book written by a compatriot. The gap between the Belgian French and Dutch community is so deep and our internal relations are so troubled that we don't know any more what the other community is up to, even on a cultural level.

In the Sixties we would have called this divine intervention but I thank social networking services for bringing this study into my attention.

Anthropology of English Psychedelic Rock is based upon Alain Pire's doctoral dissertation for the University of Liège in 2009, counts roughly 800 pages and is divided into 4 parts:

English psychedelic music
Analysis of British psychedelic songs
British counter-culture
Psychedelic drugs

Functional psychedelic nude.
Functional psychedelic nude.

English psychedelic music

Paradoxically the subject of the book is its biggest weakness. Defining psychedelic music is like describing a butterfly's flight. We all know instinctively how psychedelic music sounds, but it is nearly impossible to write down its genetic formula on a piece of paper.

It is extremely complex to give a definition of a musical genre that is so protean as psychedelic rock. (p. 92)

Basically Alain Pire, or Dr. Alain Pire for you, doesn't get any further than stating that psychedelic music is music that simulates or evokes psychedelic sensations. It's a bit like saying that the girl above is nude because she has no clothes on.

As vague as the above definition is, psychedelic music does have some common points. It uses technical novelties that had only recently been introduced in the record studios and that in some cases were invented on the spot by sound engineers at the demand of the musicians.

One of these psychedelic sound effects is the so-called phasing (or flanging) that was already invented in 1941 by Les Paul but was largely ignored for nearly 25 years until it reappeared briefly on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. The first 'full' utilisation of this effect can be witnessed on the Small Faces' Itchycoo Park (1967).

Another psychedelic brand mark is the reverse tape effect or backmasking. The legend goes that John Lennon, under the influence of cannabis, 'invented' the effect by listening to a tape that had not be rewound, but sound modifications and (reverse) tape loops had already been used in avant-garde music circles since the early fifties. Those same avant-garde musicians had also experimented with musique concrète, using acousmatic sound as a compositional resource, and with tape speed effects but, once again, these techniques were made popular by psychedelic rock bands in the Sixties, notably The Beatles who seemed to be one step ahead of all the others.

It is due to George Harrison that Indian instruments invaded psychedelia as well, first used in Norwegian Wood and later picked up and copied by The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Pretty Things, Donovan and others. I won't give the other characteristic instruments of psychedelic music here, otherwise there would be no reason to buy the book, but I'll gladly make an exception for the psychedelic instrumental gimmick par excellence: the mellotron.

The basics of this instrument was already around since the late forties, but once again, and I'm starting to sound like a stuck vinyl record here, it was re-discovered by English psychedelia. Graham Bond may have been the first to record it on Baby Can It Be True (1965), but its full potential was used by The Beatles and The Moody Blues who made it their signature instrument. For a while it was even nicknamed a Pindertron, after the keyboards player of that band.

Love, peace, understanding and lots of pot
Love, peace, understanding and lots of pot.

Music Analysis

It took me a couple of months to finish Anthropology of English Psychedelic Rock and that is due to the second part where the author analyses 109 psychedelic songs. I had the chance to listen to the songs on my iPod while reading the book and that is of course the ideal way to benefit of the detailed descriptions.

Starting with Shapes of Things (Yardbirds, 1965) and ending with Cream's I'm so glad (1969) it describes the four heyday years of psychedelia. Influental bands and their albums get extra attention and a short biography: The Beatles (obviously), but also The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Pretty Things, The Soft Machine and Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd.

It struck me, quite pleasantly, that Pire quotes Julian Palacios' Lost In The Woods on page 251, intriguingly not in the Pink Floyd, but in the Sergeant Pepper section, an album that – according to both Pire and Palacios - started the end of the psychedelic era.

This strange psychedelic movement, blossoming quickly in an explosive flash of colour, already seemed to be withering slightly. Its momentum was to be felt everywhere in the world, but the original Big Bang, so to speak, was nearing an end.

Of course Pire can't write detailed biographies about every band, that isn't the purpose of his work, but the anoraky nitpicker in me came across some mistakes that could have been weeded out by a better editor or proofreader. Some examples:

The influence of science fiction stories will be found later in the lyrics of 'Interstellar overdrive' or 'Astronomy Domine'. (p. 289)

I agree with Astronomy, but I have some difficulties believing that the lyrics of Interstellar Overdrive find their origins in a science fiction story as it is... an instrumental. Alain Pire knows bloody well that the track contains no lyrics as he gets quite lyrical about the piece later on:

This track is more than a piece of music: it is the testimony of an era, a musical spokesman for a generation. When the band was in a good shape its open structure symbolised, on its own merits, the term Psychedelic Music. (p. 369)

Another mistake that slipped through is this one:

Duggie Fields, painter and friend of Syd Barrett at that time, still lives at 101 Cromwell Road (p. 293).

The Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit has dedicated enough space to Syd's (and Duggie's) apartment, located at Wetherby Mansions, Earls Court Square. Of course Duggie lived at 101 Cromwell Road before and that is probably were the error comes from.

During the year 1968, Barrett recorded his first solo album: The Madcap Laughs, with the help from David Gilmour and Waters... (p. 340)

Also this is only part of the truth, Syd Barrett recorded some demos in 1968, but the sessions were abandoned after Peter Jenner agreed they were 'chaos'. In April 1969, perhaps thanks to the the good influence of Iggy, Syd found himself fit enough to start with the real recordings for his first album.

But like I said, nitpicking is unfortunately enough the Holy Church of Iggy the Inuit's core business and the few mistakes certainly don't take away the merits of this study. (But I would have a stiff talk with Gérard Nguyen 'secrétariat de rédaction et mise en page' if I were you, Alain, there are still too many printing errors in this release.)

Alain Pire doesn't only describe the psychedelic big shots but also dedicates some space to bands like Tintern Abbey, who only issued one single in their entire career or the almost forgotten band Blossom Toes. Butterfly flights indeed.

Anthem of the sun
Anthem of the sun.

Echoes

Throughout the book Alain Pire has the funny habit of first fully explaining a quote that he has found in an extensive bibliography or from interviews taken by himself, then followed by the quote itself and thus merely repeating the previous.

I can understand that a doctoral thesis must be large and that some professors at the University of Liège may be a bit slow to understand but printed in a book this makes you feel like you are standing on top of echo mountain. (Of course it could be that he uses this gimmick as the written equivalent of the psychedelic tape loop trick.)

Even then, by deleting these double entries Alain Pire could at least have saved 20 pages, handy for an index that is now missing.

It must be a second millennium thing that scholars don't put indexes any more in their books. Alain Pire's study literally cites hundreds of people, but the reader is unable to find these back once you have closed the book. That's a pity. Especially as I like to borrow these things myself for my various web doodles. Perhaps it is another way of saying, look it up yourself, buddy.

(I suddenly realise that if I ever publish a Pink Floyd inspired book the people that I have duly pissed of in my blog reviews will jump on my back as a horde of hungry dogs.)

Meditating hippie
Meditating hippie.

Counter Culture

The third part of the study, a description of the London Counter Culture, is a book in its own right.

Of course there isn't much new you can tell about the underground. Jonathon Green wrote perhaps the ultimate counter culture bible with Days In The Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-71 and its alter ego All Dressed Up: The Sixties and the Counterculture and recently Barry Miles has added a sequel to his In the Sixties book, London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945.

But Alain Pire puts down some cleverly made points here and there, such as the following remark about the decline of the traditional British values in the Sixties:

Family, religion, marriage, faithfulness get beaten in the face and other values like sexual liberation, hedonism and alternative spiritualism emerge. These new values embrace individualism like the growing importance of one's appearance, but also, and paradoxically, new forms of group participation like the ritual passing of a joint, the sharing of sexual partners and living in communes. (p. 538)

Of course the Sixties counter culture could only thrive under the favourable economical and cultural circumstances of that period.

Counter culture can only live a parasitic life, meaning that it carries, right from its start, the seeds of its own failure. (p. 563)

Basically the classless society of Swinging London was a (very small) mixture of (rock) stars, young aristocrats and middle class youth who had the financial means (or their parent's support) to live outside the square world.

Sundancing
Sundancing.

Psychedelic drugs

One of the many instruments that helped creating psychedelic music was a wonder drug called LSD. Alain Pire tries hard to give an unbiased, albeit slightly favourable, opinion about the drug that was, almost from one day till the other, reviled by the American and British governments.

LSD has been tested as a medicine or therapy by several scientific investigators but these experiments had to be stopped, despite the fact that most clinical test gave positive results, especially with proper professional accompaniment.

Of course LSD also had its negative sides, even more when people started to use it as a leisure drug, Pire notes about Barrett:

If LSD helped Syd in the beginning to reveal his genius as a composer, it became a real brake for his creativity and progressively sucked away his writing potential. (p. 324)

Not that the dangers of LSD were not known. Michael Hollingshead, one of the early LSD researchers, accidentally administered himself a massive dose of the drug. After that event he got the constant impression of living in a no man's land, partially in reality and partially in the twilight world and at one point he asked Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary for help.

While LSD seems to be the ideal method to open certain doors of perception it can turn into a living nightmare if these doors refuse to shut again, leaving its victim behind like a character from an Arthur Machen story. I may not think if this is what really happened to Syd Barrett.

Mudbaths: good for the skin!
Mudbaths: natural skin care.

Conclusion

The psychedelic era and its music is still greatly remembered and loved. It mainly arrived because several puzzle pieces, randomly thrown in the air, landed in such a way that they formed a nice picture.

Alain Pire divides these puzzle pieces into two parts: the pedestal and the components.

The pedestal of the psychedelic era was a thriving economic situation and a socio-cultural context that was open for change. George Harrison called the Sixties a period of 'mini renaissance'. Alain Pire rightfully mentions the art schools that were a pool of inspiration and experiment. The list of those who attended art school is long: Chris Dreja, Dick Taylor, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, Iggy Rose, Jimmy Page, John Lennon, John Whitney, Keith Relf, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Phil May, Ray Davies, Robert Wyatt, Roger Chapman, Roy Wood and Syd Barrett.

Three extra components were the psychedelic icing on the cake:
First: extremely talented musicians suddenly came out in the open;
Second: psychedelic drugs opened doors of (musical) imagination and experiment;
Third: technical wizardry made it possible to find new ways to deal with sound.

But all this couldn't have happened without the support of a fifth pillar: the public. Without a public open for change and experiment the psychedelic movement would have stayed a small avant-garde movement unknown to the outside world.

Let me end with a quote taken from the introduction by Barry Miles:

Anthropology of English Psychedelic Rock is the most complete history of that period's music that I have ever read. The author has to be complimented for his erudition and I heartily recommend his book to anybody who wants a profound explication of what really happened during the Swinging Sixties. (p. 9)

I couldn't say it better. Anthropologie du Rock Psychédelique Anglais is a damn well read and urgently needs to be translated into English.

Pire Alain, Anthropologie du Rock Psychédelique Anglais, Camion Blanc, Rosières en Haye, 2011. 815 pages, foreword by Barry Miles. 38 Euros. (Link)

The Church wishes to thank: Alain Pire, Jenny Spires.


Sources: (other than internet links mentioned above):
Palacios, Julian: Lost In The Woods, Boxtree, London, 1998, p. 153.
Image 2: © Jenny Spires. Special effect by Felix Atagong.
Images 3 to 8: © Glastonbury Fayre (1972). Special effects by Felix Atagong.
All excerpts from the Anthropology book have been translated from French into English by Felix Atagong, who is the only person to blame if they sound dodgy.