The Birth of Psychedelic London

June 18, 2013

There’s a clip that gets shown on British TV every time there’s some news item about “Swinging London.” It starts with some turned-on teens perusing a rack of Chelsea Pensioner-meets-Hendrix military jackets on Portobello Road, and ends a few frames later with the kids awkwardly getting down to some far-out sounds in a West End nightspot, complete with obligatory groovy light show. I’ve seen this piece dozens of times; the whole history of one of the 20th century’s defining cultural eras reduced to an overgrown kids’ dressing-up party with flashing lights.

Imported works like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl, were a big influence, as were nascent mod all-nighters in Soho.

The prime London psychedelic period – roughly 1965
 to the end of 1967 – may have been slowly reduced to an Austin Powers pastiche, but in reality it transcended such media shorthand. As Christoph Grunenberg observes, “Like Vienna at the turn of the century or Berlin in the 1920s, the 1960s were one of those rare moments in history when art, politics and cultural circumstances coalesced to create a favourable environment of imagination, experimentation and commitment.” This was the dawning of the first great teenage counterculture movement. It’s a story of acid, flowers, dancing to poetry, beatniks, anarchists, finger cymbals, phaze pedals, giant jelly, legal LSD and pop art, the impact of which resonates to this day.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the seeds of London psychedelia were sown, but the mid-’60s underground movement has roots in literature, music and political activism. The outpourings of the late ’50s jazz and beat generation, in particular imported works like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl, were a big influence, as were nascent mod all-nighters in Soho. Le Discothèque in Wardour Street was probably the first seedy late-night mod place, with crash-pad mattresses next to the dancefloor.

Just up the road at the Flamingo, below the old Wag club, acts like The Animals, John Mayall, Geno Washington, Georgie Fame and Chris Farlowe would work up a sweat, alongside visiting R&B stars like Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Solomon Burke. At The Scene, in Great Windmill Street, future Mott the Hoople/Clash producer and vinyl obsessive Guy Stevens would spin soul, jazz and early mod anthems, the kind of floor-fillers he’d soon release on Sue Records. Many up-and-coming musicians, including
 The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Small Faces, would get their first taste of dozens of seminal records from Stevens. Pills would be popped (Black Bombers, Purple Hearts), scotch-and-Coke would be drunk, despite the lack of an alcohol license. Other pockets of energy were springing up all over the capital and south-east – The Stones rocking the Station Hotel in Richmond, The Yardbirds making shapes at the Crawdaddy, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry at Eel Pie Island and, further out, The Thames Valley scene, centred around Windsor. After-dark culture was coming alive.

The leading lights of the emerging counterculture were also connecting via politics, particularly with the birth of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, formed during a massive meeting in London in 1958, in protest against Britain’s first H-bomb tests. Every Easter, CND held marches between the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire and Trafalgar Square.

A mixture of Quakers, veteran left-wing campaigners, trade unionists and anarchists were joined by a sizeable youth presence. In 1962, 12,000 campaigners gathered in Trafalgar Square; the following year, numbers at a Hyde Park rally had swelled to over 30,000, 90% of whom were under 21. Trudging to an arms base in the spring rain doesn’t sound like the prequel to mind-bending freakbeat, but for the first time the heads were starting to recognise each other. Post-war London was grubby, dusty and formal. Early ’60s youth culture, which for the first time had a degree of disposable income, enough spare cash for books, records and clothes, was beginning to think for itself and question authority. The huge CND marches were a catalyst, a break from a stuffy, stifling Victorian heritage. It was the beginning of an uprising that would lead directly to London’s psychedelic counterculture.

Back in Soho, at 4 New Compton Street, the beatnik influence was being fuelled by Better Books, a store that aimed to give London what Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s revered beat bookshop City Lights provided for San Francisco. Overseeing the paperback section was Barry Miles, who, along with Better Books founder Tony Godwin, was importing works by Burroughs, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Ferlinghetti himself. Miles had a background publishing small-print-run magazines, starting in 1960 with Tree, moving on to Longhair Times, which he edited in collaboration with John “Hoppy” Hopkins, then a Melody Maker and Peace News photographer and soon to become the scene’s main energiser.

Reciting poetry may not sound like a mass freak-out, but compared to hanging with the Quakers at Aldermaston, this was the underground’s coming-out ball.

In May 1965, legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg landed in London for a reading at Better Books. The event was hardly publicised, but the shop was packed. Ginsberg, who had taken a shine to young Miles, mentioned that Ferlinghetti and Corso were both on their way to London. By coincidence a large number of beats were gathered in London for the summer. It was quickly decided to put on a show bringing together the best British and American beat poets in “the biggest place in town,” the Albert Hall, on the next available date, which was in ten days’ time.

The hall was booked and a small group of British and American poets and backers started firming up the bill. The next task was to fill 7,000 seats in just ten days. Enter Hoppy. From his flat on Westbourne Terrace, an early nerve centre for the Portobello arm of the underground, Hoppy went into PR overdrive. Photo shoots at the Albert Memorial, daily press conferences and media interviews were all hastily organised. On the Saturday before the poetry festival, BBC’s Nine O’Clock News ran a ten-minute item on the event. It not only sold out with ease – people were turned away. After the CND marches, this was the largest gathering of like-minded youth modern London had ever seen. The game was on.

Reciting poetry may not sound like a mass freak-out, but compared to hanging with the Quakers at Aldermaston, this was the underground’s coming-out ball. A party was going on in every box, in every corner of the Albert Hall. Allen Ginsberg started proceedings by singing a Tibetan mantra accompanied by finger cymbals. Wired-up American poet Harry Fainlight, his jaw dropping from the effects of amphetamines, collapsed into Ginsberg’s arms after trying to explain at length his poem The Spider, which he’d written on LSD.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti read To Fuck Is to Love Again; Gregory Corso offered Mutation of the Spirit. Ginsberg, whose highlights included the poem Be Kind, with its prescient line “Tonight let’s all make love in London,” was pretty scathing of the British contingent, but Adrian Mitchell’s To Whom It May Concern, a cutting and powerful polemic against the Vietnam War, was a big hit with the audience. Strange papier-mâché creatures roamed the audience. People attempted to dance to poetry. The crowd brought picnics, pot, wine; it was a happening, a massive poetry rave. Ginsberg closed the night with The Change and Who Be Kind To. The entire night was shot by Peter Whitehead for his documentary Wholly Communion. This gathering of tribes was a defining moment for the counterculture. The organisers were banned from booking anything at the Albert Hall ever again.

One of the channels that emerged after the poetry readings, in the autumn of 1965, was the London Free School, which obtained premises at Powis Terrace, off Portobello Road, from black revolutionary Michael X,
 who’d used it as an illegal gambling den. The Free School, across the road from David Hockney’s studio, rode on a wave of heady idealism. Intending to offer skill-based learning to the Notting Hill community as well as helping locals deal with government bureaucracy, the Free School was part night school, part citizen’s advice bureau.

The Free School became a hub of activity for the likes 
of Hoppy, future Pink Floyd managers Andrew King and Pete Jenner and American Joe Boyd, who’d hit town in 1964 as tour manager for Muddy Waters. Their original intentions didn’t really pan out, but it achieved some startling results nonetheless. Out of the Free School grew the idea of reviving the Notting Hill Fair and Pageant, which took place in June 1966, an event that hadn’t happened for over a hundred years. Free School heads were rampaging up Portobello Market every Saturday at 3 PM playing instruments, throwing streamers and giving out flowers. The idea of
 a procession was in the air.

No one knows for sure if it had
 a direct influence on Notting Hill Carnival, but after the processions ended, Rhaune Laslett and the wider community revived the carnival, an event that had previously taken place in a different form after the race riots of the late ‘50s. International Times, the first European underground magazine, also started at the Free School by Hoppy, Miles, Jack Moore and Jim Haynes. The paper and the school needed money, so a fundraiser was organised on September 30, 1966 at the nearby All Saints Hall (now the Tabernacle). The band on stage were Pink Floyd.

Music, LSD, lightshows... psychedelia had arrived.

The Floyd had played at the Spontaneous Underground events which started on Sunday afternoons in January at Soho’s Marquee. The band played there nine times that spring, but it was at All Saints Hall that their multimedia show really took shape. Only 17 people turned up on the first night, and the band took questions from the audience afterwards, but from the second night onwards things started getting decidedly trippy.

Connections were being made with Timothy Leary’s Millbrook commune in upstate New York. Joel and Toni Brown, newly arrived from Leary’s base camp, put on a light show on the second night. In September, Michael Hollingshead, an English-born psychedelic researcher based at Harvard University, who had introduced Leary to LSD five years earlier, arrived with five thousand acid trips, establishing the World Psychedelic Centre at a flat in Belgravia. The drug had yet to be banned. Music, LSD, lightshows... psychedelia had arrived. Within weeks there were queues round the block at All Saints Hall.

Another spin-off of the Albert Hall shows was the popularity of Indica bookshop and gallery, launched in January 1966 in Mason’s Yard, next door to exclusive rock royalty hang-out the Scotch of St James, where Hendrix made an early appearance, right by William Burroughs’ flat in Duke Street. Indica was a paradise of obscure avant-garde jazz records, esoteric books and New York underground papers like the East Village Other. 
It was started by Miles, Peter Asher and Marianne Faithfull’s husband John Dunbar, with the help of Paul McCartney, who designed wrapping paper, put up shelves and wrote the occasional cheque in return for an introduction into the world of avant-garde books, music and art from his friend Miles. In interviews McCartney has justifiably highlighted his early left-of-centre credentials, bemoaning the fact that Lennon gets all the arty kudos. McCartney was in the thick of it from the off. He even invited Lennon to Indica’s opening, where he met Yoko. The avant-garde was quickly assimilated into The Beatles’ increasingly technicolour palette.

Funds were scarce for the International Times and the Free School, so in December, Joe Boyd and Hoppy started a fundraising night at the Blarney Club, an Irish dancehall beneath the Berkeley cinema on Tottenham Court Road. They couldn’t decide whether to call it UFO or the Nite Tripper, so the first poster, a stunning psychedelic image by Michael English, featured both. UFO, as it came to be known, featured Mark Boyle and Joan Hills’ light show, where the duo burned, boiled and steamed their projections using liquid oils and the occasional bodily fluid. The night would feature movies from Warhol and Kurosawa, Yoko Ono happenings, avant-garde jazz and Eastern music, alongside sounds from Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Arthur Brown and The Pretty Things. Taking its cue from the earlier mod all-nighters, UFO started at 10:30 PM and carried on until the Tube was running again the next morning.

On stage, Pink Floyd were stretching out the parameters of the standard blues-based set, elongating three-minute songs into half-hour improvised mantras, locking on a single chord, twisting it inside out. “Interstellar Overdrive” was born from this, its chromatic Steptoe-and-Son-on-acid riff bouncing off the walls with idiot glee, fuelled by Syd Barrett’s experimental guitar technique that involved detuning the Telecaster’s strings and attacking it with ball bearings or a Zippo lighter.

It was cold, filthy and had no power. The generators kept cutting out, motorcycle fumes hung in the air, but it was a large-scale happening.

International Times was officially launched at the Roundhouse in Camden in October 1966, the first big
 music event at the former engine shed and the first sizeable audience for both Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. The space hadn’t been used for years. It was cold, filthy and had no power. The generators kept cutting out, motorcycle fumes hung in the air, but it was a large-scale happening. The newly formed London Film Co-op screened experimental films from Kenneth Anger and William Burroughs. There was a giant six-foot jelly, which was run over by Pink Floyd’s van. Paul McCartney turned up, dressed as an Arab.

At the start of 1967, another psychedelic nightspot emerged in Covent Garden. Originally titled the Electric Garden, it was renamed Middle Earth by manager David Housen, who recruited DJs Jeff Baxter and John Peel, the latter already known for his show on pirate station Radio Caroline. In the warehouse basement all manner of exotica abounded, soundtracked by Dantalian’s Chariot, The Creation and the first performances of Marc Bolan’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. After a raid, Middle Earth later moved to the Roundhouse, where Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds and Captain Beefheart all took the stage.

The offices of International Times were also raided. Fearing a court case for obscene publication – a fate that later befell the other main underground publication, Richard Neville’s Oz – the IT crowd did what they normally did when money was an issue, and put on an event. “A giant benefit against fuzz action,” ran the ads in Melody Maker. Dubbed the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream, the Alexandra Palace event was the second great coming together of the tribes after the Albert Hall poetry reading. In many ways, the two happenings bookended the core London psychedelic era. There had been all-night jazz gigs at Alexandra Palace
in the mid-’60s; Hoppy had attended some as a photographer, shooting the Stones and John Lee Hooker.

Mayday Eve’s Technicolour Dream was a rather different proposition. There was a giant helter-skelter in the middle of the hall
 and live music simultaneously on two stages at opposite ends of the hall, 41 acts in all. Light shows and experimental films, including Jack Smith’s sexually ambiguous Flaming Creatures, were projected on to billowing white sheets draped from the scaffolding of the hall’s house-sized church organ, which was away being repaired. Soon the scaffolding became a giant climbing frame for many an acid-fried adventurer.

The Technicolour Dream was the high point of the underground, and also the beginning of the end.

Two film crews competed to report the action – Peter Whitehead shot scenes for the documentary Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, while the BBC ran live clips on BBC2. Lennon turned up, Yoko put on a “cut piece” performance, where the sound of amplified scissors accompanied the shredding of a model’s clothes. The Creation, John’s Children, The Purple Gang, The Pretty Things, Soft Machine and many more performed; Arthur Brown set fire to his hair. This was possibly the first, and certainly the biggest, large-scale all-night rave London had ever seen. And all for a quid. As a beautiful May day dawned and rose-tinted sunlight came cascading through the building’s stained glass windows, Pink Floyd took the stage. Syd Barrett’s mirror-disc Telecaster guitar created beams of light that ricocheted round the vast arena, a truly psychedelic moment.

The Technicolour Dream was the high point of the underground, and also the beginning of the end. What 
had been a community-based effort, with branches in art, literature, radical politics, music and media, was beginning to turn into major commercial enterprise. Record companies were waking up to this new exotica, first heard on vinyl 
in the UK in June 1965 with the release of The Kinks’ sitar-tinged “See My Friends” and Miller’s cult single “Baby Have I Got News For You” in October. The lysergic tinge to The Beatles’ Revolver set, including the groundbreaking psychedelic swirl of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” appeared in August 1966, the first UK album to be drenched in acid.

Things hotted up with Donovan’s Sunshine Superman album and The Yardbirds’ killer late ‘65/’66 psych-pop 45s, the band and producer Mickey Most using the studio as a backdrop for soaring guitar histrionics, Gregorian chants and backwards epiphanies. These and other notable releases in early 1967, such as Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” The Smoke’s “My Friend Jack,” Tomorrow’s “My White Bicycle” and Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne,” alerted A&R departments that change was in the air.

All the labels – Decca, EMI, Pye, London and many more – cashed in and started signing acts to one-off single deals. And it’s here we find the gems of UK psychedelia, dozens of perfectly formed, wonky masterpieces, that inevitably sank without trace at the time but surfaced on the collector’s market many years later. The psychedelic era was short lived and fast moving – Melody Maker ran the headline “Who Killed Flower Power?” in October 1967 – and as a result, many of the era’s classic singles (such as The Factory’s sublime chugger “Path Through the Forest,” released in October 1968) seemed almost like cash-ins.

Music’s technicolour tinge was replaced by a stodgy back-to-basics approach.

The comedown from the psychedelic party was immense. Music’s technicolour tinge was replaced by the stodgy back-to-basics approach of groups like Ten Years After and The Groundhogs; “heavy” became the leitmotif for 1968, overshadowing the lightness that had just passed. Yet that brief 18 months had a lasting impact, rewiring pop culture for good. The psychedelic sound continued to echo for the rest of the decade and into the next, spreading its ripples from Turkey to Australia, Poland to South Korea. The naïve idealism of the Aldermaston marchers and the London Free School may have vanished in a puff of smoke, but the legacy remains, and in certain political arenas, notably gay rights and the women’s movement, important battles were won.

The word “psychedelic” and its ethos goes in and out of fashion but with the benefit of hindsight, what truly remains
of the era is an ever-growing source of mind-expanding music. Much of which was first heard blasting out of garishly painted, heavily perfumed cellars in London, over 40 years ago.

A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in London during the 2010 Red Bull Music Academy. Richard Norris has multitasked in the music world as The Time And Space Machine, the manager of psych label Bam Caruso and as one half of The Grid and of Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve. Pete Fowler is an artist and illustrator. A long-time Super Furry Animals collaborator, he also DJs, collects stuffed owls and makes music as Space Weather Sounds. With thanks to: Days In the Life by Jonathan Green (Minerva); Summer Of Love by Christoph Grunenberg (Tate); Galactic Ramble by Richard Jack Morton (Foxcote); White Bicycles by Joe Boyd (Serpent’s Tail); Bill Allerton, Phil Smee.

Header image © Pete Fowler

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