Guitar Player, February 1997

Sunshine Supermen - Britain's Psychedelic Guitar Wizards

By James Rotundi

It was the era of dolly girls and miniskirts, freak-outs and flowered blouses, spontaneous "happenings" and all-night raves, and "Swinging London" was at the heart of it. While kids in San Francisco were grooving to Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead's lysergic deconstruction of jugband blues and Okie folk, clogging up to Haight -Ashbury and adjusting their sights to the new cosmic consciousness through LSD, British kids were busy reassembling R&B, rock, pop and folk culture into something that would totally eclipse their previous slavish imitation of American forms. Though U.S. groups like Love, the Beach Boys, and Velvet Underground and the Byrds sent the first whiffs of the new musical contraband across the water, young English bands in '65 and '66 liberated and empowered by the success of the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who, took the new music's open-endedness as an opportunity to finally act, sing and play as bloody British as they damn well pleased.

Pink Floyd, the Soft Machine, the Move, the Moody Blues, Cream, Donovan, Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Incredible String Band and many others put an eccentric, consciously arty -- at times stretching to pompous -- face on the emerging psychedelic sound. Freed from the tyranny of American street-talk lyrics and straight blues forms, they drew lyrical images from Celtic mythology and the rich tradition of English fantasy literature from Beardsley to Tolkien, and borrowed liberally from the sounds of the European avant-garde, Baroque classical, traditional English song and Indian raga. The very new and peculiar LSD became a sacrament that spawned the community as it simultaneously exploded the last vestiges of the legendary British reserve.

"The first time I took it, it just blew everything away," said George Harrison, who first tripped involuntarily with John Lennon in 1964 at the home of Lennon's dentist, Michael Hollingshead, London's "Johnny Appleseed of LSD." "I had such an incredible feeling of well-being, that there was a God, and I could see him in every blade of grass. It was like gaining hundreds of years of experience within 12 hours. It changed me, and there was no going back to what I was before." Both Harrison's and Rolling Stone Brian Jones's burgeoning interest in Ravi Shankar and the sitar -- George first recorded with it on 1965's "Norwegian Wood" -- would underscore the incipient school of psychedelic guitar: Tracks as different as Mike Bloomfield's droning raga-blues "East/West," Jeff Beck's modal signature lick in "Heart Full of Soul," Hendrix's dizzying "Are You Experienced," Clapton's "Tale of Brave Ulysses," and the Beatles' Hindu- pop "For No One," all seem tied by the same thread of orientalism and druggy cool that years later became the genre's commercial cross to bear. Sometimes it was actual sitars, but more often it was Teles or Gibsons with wah-wahs, fuzz boxes and DeArmond volume/ tone pedals to approximate their timbre. Hindustani-flavored flourishes and excited blues licks, worked into an extended free-form jam and heated under a cosmic light show, would become the genre's primary signifier. Hendrix and Clapton were its gods, but there were numerous lesser eulogized 6-string saints and sages as well. For this happening, we'll shine the strobe lights on them.

Tonight Let's All Make Love in London

When Jimi Hendrix arrived in London in September '66, his timing couldn't have been better. While Clapton's Cream were already making a new kind of heavy acid-blues, the city's loose pockets of acid-takers, artists, spiritualists, sexual libertines and experimental musicians had just begun to coalesce around the underground newsletter "IT," London's answer to New York's "East Village Other" founded by John Hopkins. The paper's launch party, held at London's Roundhouse in October and featuring Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine, was the shot heard 'round the world for the budding social and artistic movement. It precipitated the opening of UFO -- a no-alcohol, all-night club on the site of a former Irish dance hall -- later in '66 by Hopkins and American producer Joe Boyd, who'd come to London under the auspices of Elektra Records to scout new talent.

The unofficial house band at UFO and the flagship group of the entire scene was undoubtedly The Pink Floyd, a former R&B combo led by Syd Barrett, a handsome art school student from tony Cambridge who'd picked up guitar under the spell of the skiffle boom and, later, the Beatles and Stones. A blues aficionado, Barrett coined the odd wording of "The Pink Floyd" by combining the names of American bluesmen Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, whom he'd read about in the liner notes to a popular Blind Boy Fuller LP on Fontana. Syd, a very bright, sensitive and cheeky guy, began experimenting with hallucinogens in late '65, and the drug gradually became a regular diversion. An especially memorable acid trip during a performance of Handel's "Messiah" reportedly opened Syd's mind to a new galaxy of emotional responses to music. By April '66, Syd and the other members of the Pink Floyd -- bassist Roger Waters, keyboardist Rick Wright and drummer Nick Mason -- had begun performing an extended instrumental jam called "Interstellar Overdrive," which set off from a touch descending chromatic barre-chord pattern into a completely improvised freak-out in which Syd generated searing, orgasmic echo swells by whirling his Zippo lighter across the strings and manipulating his Binson Echorec tape-delay unit. In concert, his mirror-covered Telecaster bounced the light show back into the audience in pieces, part of a stunning stage presence that could be both glamorous and horrific: a caped Syd frantically waving his arms in the air to throw huge shadows against the back screen, or a menacing Syd standing stock still with a penetrating glare while crushed Mandrax tablets melted over his face.

On the group's seductive first fill-length album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn [Capitol], Syd uses the Binson to stack layers of repeating sound effects into a bric-a-brac of odd pecking noises, moans and swooshes -- likely the first example of guitar looping in pop. With the possible exceptions of Hendrix and Townshend, Syd's feedback work was unparalleled, more Velvets than Jimi. Avalon Ballroom impresario Chet Helms recalls the Floyd's 1967 Fillmore West set as "absolutely dominated by feedback, which was very novel and very innovative at that time. As far as I'm concerned, the Hendrix feedback thing came from the Pink Floyd." While Hendrix had been toying with feedback even before coming to England, it's certainly true the Syd's particular brand of squeal impacted the entire London scene of which Jimi was an integral part.

In improvisations, Syd rarely repeated himself, jumping from one intuitive phrase into the next, an idea machine stippling harmolodically as in Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk or morphing a rhythm three or four times within a single 16-bar groove, only to shift the improv into abstract space. His slide playing, utilizing plastic rulers and other odd objects, was possessed and utterly disorienting, rife with cool passing phrases and offhand noises. His wired proto-punk tone was scrubbed into a Danelectro or Telecaster run through a cranked-up Selmer piggyback.

As MOJO recently pointed out, at the time of the Floyd's first live performance of the decidedly psychedelic Interstellar Overdrive, the Beatles' "Rain" had yet to be released, and "Revolver" was still months away. It's also noteworthy that the hoary tuning-peg dive-bombs at the end of the piece predate Tony Iommi's nearly identical "Iron Man" guitar groans by a full two years. An ingenious pop songwriter, Syd wrote charmingly about astrology, the I Ching, childhood fantasy and fairy people, and his guitar work was just as varied and radical. While never up to the technical level of Beck or Hendrix, Syd's style was a magical potion of jazz scribbling, big, toney chords and surf savagery. If the group's passages rang with Wagnerian intensity, it was partly due to the bombastic minor-second and flatted- fifth chord changes, the kind of tri-tone terror that would become the raw material for Black Sabbath, Hawkwind and many of their spawn. Syd's more experimental sounds, according to Boyd -- who produced several early tracks for the band -- were partially inspired by a visit to a recording session by London avant-garde group AMM, whose guitarist Keith Rowe was already experimenting with similar techniques.

Spurred by very frequent acid ingestion, Syd became increasingly uncooperative, spooky and just plain weird. Sometimes he'd play one note throughout an entire song, detuning all the way through, or refusing to play while letting his guitar hang off his body as if it had leprosy. He often missed gigs, requiring a replacement player, and his improvisatory skills disintegrated into an inability to ever play the same parts twice. By '68, after the band's disastrous American tour, Syd's condition was too unstable, and the band, totally exasperated, replaced him with his child- hood friend and one-time teacher, David Gilmour. Though Syd did make the enigmatic, cult-classic solo albums The Madcap Laughs and Barrett under Gilmour's musical and personal guidance, the mirrors had somehow cracked, and Syd never performed or recorded again after 1974. "Syd was one of the great rock and roll tragedies," said David Gilmour. "He was one of the most talented people, and could have given a fantastic amount." Boyd is even more emphatic: "He set the tone for what people think of as psychedelic guitar playing. He wasn't as striking a technician as Gilmour, but he had a sound and feeling that had all those qualities of spaciness and abstraction." Greatly admired by David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Robyn Hitchcock, Chris Cornell, Roger Miller and countless others, Syd now lives apart from the world, but in '66 and '67 he made his mark upon it.

"All I ever wanted to do as a kid was play guitar properly and jump around," he told Rolling Stone in 1971, "but too many people got in the way."

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

While Floyd was given pride of place at UFO and 1967's massive 14-hour Technicolor Dream celebration at the Alexandra Palace, there was no shortage of exciting psychedelic acts emerging from Swinging London. From nearby Canterbury, the Soft Machine shared Michael Jeffery management with Hendrix and were often co-billed with the Floyd at UFO, the Marquee and the Speakeasy. Their guitarist and frontman was David Allen, a charismatic, manic Australian jazz player and acid visionary who'd knocked around Europe in the early '60s, working in Paris with writer William Burroughs (from whose novel Allen would, with Burroughs's permission, borrow the group's name) and tape-loop pioneer Terry Riley. In England he befriended fingerstyle great Davey Graham and, eventually, future Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt.

While still in Australia, Allen discovered Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Sun Ra, and beat poetry, and he performed spoken-word- accompanied jazz standards with his own trio. In fact, Wyatt and Allen's initial Canterbury group was a jazz combo, which Allen quit after a string of poorly received U.K. shows, relocating to France until rock and roll reared its soon-to-be-beautiful head. "I'd stopped playing the guitar completely for three years until [Soft Machine bassist] Kevin Ayers played me Still I'm Sad by the Yardbirds," Allen recalls. "That gave me the realization that you could play other music than rock and roll, call it rock and roll, and get away with and be paid for it. You could play Indian music, Arabic music, jazz -- you could do all these different things and just call it 'the new rock.' It seemed like a wonderful idea to me."

Though Allen became fast friends with Hendrix immediately upon Jimi's arrival in London, his already fragile confidence in his newly cultivated rock vocabulary was hardly helped by playing in the shadow of the greatest guitarist of all time. "It was total psychological damage," Allen laughs. "They'd always play his latest track to me when we were in the studio recording. It was so overwhelmingly brilliant that it would paralyze me completely." On one occasion, after Allen's Gretsch was stolen just before a gig at the London School of Economics, Hendrix took a frantic cab rid across London to bring Allen one of his own Stratocasters -- unfortunately a left-handed model with the strings in reverse order. "I had to restring the guitar and play the bloody thing with the knobs on the top!" Allen groans. "The tension, my frustration and my self-criticism exploded in the last number and I smashed the guitar on the battered stage. Hendrix was delighted with me: 'Just stay with your own thing, man!'" Allen soon took to driving his Vox AC30s with a Telecaster bought from Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine, who'd used it to record "House of the Rising Sun." Jimi jammed on bass with the Soft Machine onstage at the Speakeasy in '67, and would later take them on his U.S. tours, although by then Allen had already left the group. In the Soft Machine and his next group, the Banana Moon Band, Allen's playing was both sprawling and song-supportive, composed of hard power- soul riffs and jangling space chords. His leads were typical gutbucket psychedelic blues, though he was fond of making bizarre shrieks by scraping his pick up the neck -- a technique that metamorphosed into his distinctive "glissando guitar" style. Originally inspired by Barrett's echo-drenched slide swirls -- "When I first saw Syd, it sounded like angels and orchestras, like the music of the spheres" -- Allen discovered a cache of stainless steel gynecological tools at a friend's house in France and began using them to coax glassy textures from his Telecaster.

"I used them like bows, and I would roughen the edges of them with a very fine ivory board to get a fine, silvery sound. But because the signal was soft compared with normal guitar playing, I'd use a compressor, a long echo from a Wen CopyCat, a wah and a volume pedal." Unlike the characteristic whine of a conventional slide, the glissando rods produced a resonant, shimmering sound that suggest string sections and Mellotrons. In 1969, Allen formed Gong, an outrageous explosion of complex, Zappaesque jazz-rock, flighty psychedelic humor and cosmic spirituality that produced the three-disc "Radio Gnome Trilogy" with guitarist Steve Hillage. Allen left the band in the mid '70s, and, under the direction of drummer Pierre Moerlen, the group turned out several respectable fusion albums with new recruit Allan Holdsworth on guitar. The original Gong recently reformed for a triumphant U.S. tour, and Allen expects to have a new collection of originals on disc in '97, 30 years after his eventful tenure with the Soft Machine.

Moving Into Tomorrow

Steve Howe will forever be tied to Yes, but the groundwork for his improvisatory skills and versatility lie in Tomorrow -- with singer Keith West and future Pink Fairies drummer Twink -- which Boyd describes as "probably the most successful live act UFO had." Tomorrow was originally a big-beat group called the In-Crowd, but with the advent of psychedelia they, like many other English blues bands, underwent a complete musical and physical makeover. "We were tired of singing 'That's How Strong My Love Is' by Otis Redding," says Howe. "We'd been there and done it. There was a desire to go forward into new kinds of music, and maybe it was astrological, but it was a very powerful impetus." Though their 1967 LP (most of which is available on the Howe retrospective "Mothballs" on RPM, 41 Garfield Rd., North Chingford, London E4 7DG, England) is largely exotic pop fare like "Three Jolly Little Dwarfs" and the joyous bubblegum raga of "My White Bicycle," Tomorrow was a signif- icantly heavier act live, turning nearly every number into a cosmic free- for-all. "Pretty much every song had some sort of guitar improvisation that was free-form and could be as long as ten minutes," Howe remembers. "We just seemed to slip into some crack in the musical world, and we didn't realize we were doing it. Those moments were really was Tomorrow was like, and it's not dissimilar to what I do with Yes now on several tunes, though in those days it wasn't so organized. I suppose it came out of my interest in jazz guitar -- I always thought jazz guitar was about playing anything."

Driving his Gibson ES-175 through a Vox AC50, Howe bought a wah pedal "the first day it came out," and was positively honored when Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin -- the pre-Beatles British guitar hero -- approached him to ask, "I hear you've got a wah-wah -- what's it like?" Tomorrow's prestige meant a whole new level of exposure for Howe, but the group fell apart in '68, just after their debut album was finally released. The possibly apocryphal story is that Twink's acid consciousness was going too far -- during Howe's lengthy solo excursions, he began coming out from behind the drums to undress for the crowd. Still Howe calls Tomorrow "my first breakthrough band," and says that despite his success with Yes and Asia, "it was my favorite band I've been in because it was a guitar trio." As he told author Jim DeRogatis in "Kaleidoscope Eyes" [Citadel Underground], "Yes couldn't have played the kind of music it made without having experienced the freedom and total nonconformist approach that came from the psychedelic bands."

Another UFO mainstay was the Move, five talented, beer-drinking Birmingham chaps who'd gone psychedelic, according to Boyd, largely "as a gimmick," but took the house down anyway with their blend of big-beat blues and heady power-pop with classical overtones. Their hit "Night of Fear" quotes Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" -- not surprising for a band whose remaining members would later change their name to Electric Light Orchestra. Move guitarist Roy Wood was a ferocious lead and rhythm player whose chesty, gothic singing clearly fellow Birmingham geezer Ozzy Osbourne. On their cover of Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing On My Mind," Wood's electric 12-string solo commences with a clean-toned Celtic- inflected fragment of the song's melody before spiraling off into a raga- rock breakdown, with a backwards wah solo that pings across the stereo spectrum like a storm of acid trails. Onstage, the Move were highly charged and dynamic showmen, quite the opposite of the trancey, even disdainful Floyd.

"They were one of the best live bands I've ever seen," says Boyd. "They used to leave the stage one by one, leaving their instruments feeding back, and then drummer Bev Bevan would light a cherry bomb as he left the stage. Just as the cherry bomb went off they'd pull the plug. So you had this incredible feedback leading up to a gigantic explosion, then complete silence. In a small club, that was very mind-blowing.

Psteel Pstrings: The Psychedelic Folkies

"They say the psychedelic sound came out of the electric sound of San Francisco, by guys dropping acid and playing amplified guitar, but that's too generalized," says Donovan Leitch, the mystically inclined folk and pop singer famous for groovy hits like "Hurdy Gurdy Man," "Mellow Yellow" and "Season of the Witch." "They called me psychedelic, so from my point of view, it can't be considered exclusively electric." If Bob Dylan paved the way for psychedelia by enlarging the scope of popular lyric and by electrifying folk, Donovan's own sitar-fueled acoustic, along with Love, the Beatles, the Zombies and the Moody Blues, showed that tuneful songwriting, sweet orchestration and rich acoustic textures could be just as far-out as fuzz guitar and wah-wah. But it wasn't as easily won synthesis. The early-'60s English folk community was a tight, exclusive group who were happy to avoid Beatlemania, blues fever, electric instruments of any kind and any undue American influence. Bert Jansch was the premier singer-songwriter of the era, and John Renbourn and Davey Graham's Baroque fingerstyle was for more the fretboard fashion than bluegrass or Delta blues.

"The folk clubs were roll-neck cable-stitch sweaters, beards, big pots of beer and rum-ti-ti-tum-ti-ti-tum-tum," laughs Donovan, who's just released the Rick Rubin produced Sutras, his first new album in over 20 years. "It was all 18th century farmers killing their girlfriends and throwing them in the river, sea songs, and work songs. Ewan MacColl was the father figure of it all, and he was really keen to keep it British, so he wasn't very kind to me when I arrived, saying I shouldn't be so American in my tastes." Nor was there much of a connection between the cutting-edge blues groups in London and the folk scene, according to Boyd, who'd worked both sides of the fence with the Incredible String Band and Floyd: "You were a traitor if you were a folk musician and you picked up an electric guitar. So people who weren't doctrinaire about singing unaccompanied ballads went immediately to the other side."

Donovan had already mastered the bluegrass claw-hammer picking pattern, which he later taught to John Lennon and George Harrison during their visit with the Maharishi Mahresh Yogi in '68. (Lennon used the distinctive arpeggio technique on "Dear Prudence" and "Julia.") Like Boyd protégés the Incredible String Band and elfin acid-folker Marc Bolan's T-Rex after him, Donovan began to cross American and Celtic folk styles with lyrics that embraced the U.K.'s own ancient mythology as well as the phantasmagoria of the burgeoning drug culture. "But," he stresses, "having experiences on visionary drugs like marijuana and LSD didn't make me write songs. I was writing songs anyway. But the amazing experience of 'parting the veil,' of actually seeing into the paradise, of experiencing what Aldous Huxley called bypassing the valve which prevents us from seeing the workings of the universe -- that was extraordinary. One has to write about it. When John sang, 'Picture yourself on a boat on a river,' that was his vision. So I wanted to sing about these things -- not to encourage drug-taking, but to encourage awareness."

Upon his return from India with the Beatles, Donovan set to work on "Hurdy Gurdy Man," a song he envisioned with Hendrixian lead work around a solid acoustic core. He even told his producer, Mickie Most, that the song was written for Hendrix, but Most insisted it be Donovan's own next single. When Hendrix himself was unavailable for the session, Most brought in session aces Jimmy Page and Allan Holdsworth to play guitar, John Paul Jones to arrange and play bass, and, on drums, the young skin- pummeler for the Band of Joy, John Bonham. "There were three members of the future Led Zeppelin, which we didn't know was coming," grins Donovan. "But maybe there was some indication of what you could do by combining acoustic guitar and power guitar."

Acoustics-plus-electrics-plus-Mellotron was a formula that the Moody Blues would convert into gold. When Justin Hayward joined the Moody Blues in the summer of '66, the R&B group had just parted company with future Wings guitarist Denny Laine. Hayward's song-writing chops and rhythm guitar skills -- he'd used both in recent sessions with Jimmy Page, with the popular Marty Wilde and in solo coffeehouse performances -- made him an attractive prospect, and it wasn't long before the group followed the lead of many London bands, chucking their monkey suits for silk shirts, scarves, original songs and a psychedelic light show. "We developed a following straight-away, and we developed a stage show that was like a psychedelic story about a day in the life of one guy, Mr. Moody Blue," says Hayward.

Because he was the group's sole guitarist, Hayward developed a churning rhythm style to keep the band's middle full, and in the studio he began doubling his bed of strummed or claw-hammer-picked Martin acoustics with an edgy, organically chorused Gibson ES-335 on songs like "The Story In Your Eyes" and "Ride My See-Saw." "My '63 335 had a Bigsby tailpiece on it so to make it sing a bit more and get a chorus effect, you could adjust the pitch a little bit by lightly laying your hands on the tremolo arm," he recalls. The Moody's recitation of cosmic poetry was inspired by an astrologically themed 1967 Elektra LP called "The Zodiac," by a studio band called Cosmic Sounds; the LP also appeared in Hendrix's record collection.

As happened in San Francisco, media attention and bandwagon-jumping would be the death knell for the London psychedelic scene. "There was a tremendous excitement that started in December of '66 and went through May of '67," Boyd explains. "But by June the whole scene had gotten out of hand and was full of tourists. You had weekend people putting on caftans and bells, coming to UFO, and swamping the place." Weighing the influence of the psychedelic movement and LSD in particular on his and his generation's writing and playing, Hayward says the effect was more about a change in overall perspective than any single aspect of one's work. "It certainly influenced the fairy-story, fantasy attitude that people developed -- suddenly, you could be back in medieval times!" he laughs gently, recounting the days of acid initiation, meditation and flower power.

"But mainly it was about being set free and believing that you were the only people to have ever seen life like this. Y'know: 'I can hear the grass grow, man. Have you ever really looked at a flower?'"