Purple Haze All In My Brain

Serena Bhardwaj explores the significance of hallucinogenic drugs and their intimate relationship with psychedelic music

9th November 2015

Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs session was recently graced by The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards who spoke about the contentious issue of drugs; which for him, had no influence on his creativity. This begs the question - where did psychedelia come from and why was it so popular?

In 1938, Albert Hoffman developed and took lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Also known as acid, blotter and rainbows; he devoted his life to researching its psychedelic effects. To understand how LSD aids creativity, it’s vital to look at how it shaped work by people inside and outside of the music world. For example, Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA whilst under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Steve Jobs - the founder of Apple, spoke of his experience with the drug, saying that it was ‘one of the two or three most important things’ he had done in his life. John Lilly used LSD to map pain and pleasure pathways in the brain. It’s difficult to ignore the role of drugs in these crucial discoveries, so can their importance be extrapolated to musicians?

LSD wasn’t full of strawberry fields and tangerine trees for everyone

The Swinging Sixties was a time of social revolution. Drugs defined this cultural decade and they filtered into art, music, film and literature. Bands like Small Faces, The Zombies, Procol Harum and Donovan were consuming hallucinogenic substances and reaping the benefits from the music that they subsequently produced. One of the most influential bands in the 1960s was indisputably The Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one album that was produced with the help of a few sugar cubes, and with tracks like ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, the role of drugs is prominent. Their creativity is undeniable; the lyrics are rich with imagery and insightful meaning whilst the music is unique, captivating and refreshing. Its rash to say that without psychoactive material, The Beatles would never have produced such enthralling music, but this idea cannot be ruled out completely. The flower power era created subgenres such as psychedelic folk, psychedelic soul, and psychedelic pop. There was something for everyone. Bob Dylan, Sly and the Family Stone, The Easybeats and many more pioneered the future of music. From this sprung modern day psychedelia; electronic music, house music and new rave influences like New Young Pony Club, Tame Impala and Hadouken!

The Swinging Sixties was a time of social revolution. Drugs defined this cultural decade and they filtered into art, music, film and literature

But LSD wasn’t full of strawberry fields and tangerine trees for everyone. Pink Floyd were impacted by the drug scene in a more detrimental way. Syd Barrat’s addiction led to his departure from the band after he couldn’t even perform on stage. It’s difficult to see the creative benefit of drug use in this case.

In Richard’s radio slot he makes an important point that when ‘the drugs become more important than the music then you’ve lost the battle’. There’s a great deal of truth to this, particularly with more modern bands. All you need to do is watch the Libertines’ Reading set from this year to see that maybe the effects of drugs are restricting them from performing to their full potential – to put it politely. Some musicians have idealised the idea of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll and turned it into something commercial and cool; which is worryingly dangerous. Irrespective of this, we cannot ignore the role of drugs in the development of creative music.

Serena Bhardwaj

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