December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

1980s Psychedelic Revival

7 min read
From 1979, Britain saw a brief Psychedelic Revival born out of punk and the Mod Revival as Tony McMahon discovers

The start of the 1980s witnessed a slew of youth cults in Britain as we all searched for a new direction in the wake of punk. This led to a series of revivals of genres that weren’t so distant in the past. Mods, Rockabillies, and Heavy Metal all resurfaced in the dying years of the 1970s. Each with a new twist. Of course there were older people still around to mentor these revivals. And so it was with the Psychedelic Revival that emerged about twelve years after the 1960s experience.

How to map out the revival of psychedelia is difficult. You have to deal in some crude generalities so here goes.

The 1960s Psychedelic wave

First, let’s go back to the late 1960s first wave of psychedelia. Pink Floyd is a good case study. In 1967, the band led by Syd Barrett was in the vanguard of psychedelic rock. Trippy music performed with light shows that looked like a lava lamp had been projected on to the group. Paisley shirts and silky cravats. An incredible album with a typically psychedelic title: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And then the psychological implosion of Barrett, his departure from the group and its evolution into a blues-based prog rock band.

In fairness to Barrett, whose mental health problems have been well documented, other groups followed a similar trajectory. King Crimson, for example, went from sounding a bit like the Moody Blues and singing about the Court of the Crimson King to more mainstream rock fare like the 1974 album Red. Crimson’s leading creative light Robert Fripp described the band in the early days as a mix of Hendrix, Bartok and the Beatles. Like many combos of the time, they were swept up by the late 1960s psychedelic urge to create music that moved on from songs about falling in love or fighting on the dance floor to something that seemed deeper.

Circa 1967, the psychedelic in-crowd were experimenting with hallucinogenics, never to be seen without a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception under their arm and deeply interested in the LSD-based evangelism of Harvard University clinical psychologist Timothy Leary. The latter started out by tested LSD on prisoners to see if it would address their anti-social behaviour. He ended up being fired by Harvard; advocating that people “turn on, tune in, drop out”; being sent to prison for drug possession; and finally turning informant for the FBI against the radical militant group, the Weathermen.

Jim Morrison, incidentally, named his band The Doors in honour of Huxley’s book.

I blame Aristotle and Plato

To my mind, there’s always been a tension among musical creatives that reflects a 2,500 year old philosophical struggle. On the one hand you have those who stand in the tradition of the Greek philosopher Plato. He believed that beyond external reality, there is an invisible world of perfect forms of which we are mere shadows. To know it means transcending what we perceive around us to another universe of genuine knowledge. The true world that most never see. This idea of achieving wisdom by taking our mind out of this mundane world is – in my humble view – at the root of psychedelia. And if you need an acid tab to effect that transcendence – then so be it.

Then there’s Aristotle. He had no time for Plato’s otherworldliness. Ideas (“forms” to Plato) do not exist independent of the world around us. What we see around us is reality. There is no curtain to pull back revealing a parallel cosmos. But what we have to do is get to grips with this world. Skip forward to the 13th century in England and a monastic philosopher called William of Ockham who also believed that ideas were generated in our minds to describe things around us. The term “Ockham’s Razor” was coined to describe his approach to thinking – stripping away needless detail to perceive the truth. In other words, to me, William of Ockham would have been a Punk if he’d lived to the 1970s.

In a fresco by the Renaissance artist Raphael painted around 1510, we see Plato and Aristotle walking together. Plato is pointing upwards to the heavens. Aristotle is pointing down to the earth. Nuff said.

The Mods and Psychedelic music

In the early to mid 1960s, the Mods had become a very visible and dynamic scene. But by 1967, change was in the air. This was the era of ‘Swinging London’ which in reality meant a fashion scene centred on Carnaby Street. Models like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton popularised mini skirts and high boots. Bands like The Faces and The Who provided the soundtrack. Among young fashion conscious men, the Mod look equalled instant cool. But a divergence within the Mod world was starting to take hold.

To put it simply, some Mods toughened up and became skinheads or rudeboys. They adopted the music and fashion of Jamaica, influenced undoubtedly by many of the young immigrants from that country coming to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s looking for work. Other Mods, sometimes referred to as ‘peacocks’ on account of their incessant sartorial preening, drifted into psychedelia and some became hippies. The sharp Italian suits and Spanish boots of the mid-1960s gave way to tie-dyed T-shirts and flares. Thus giving us the look of the early 1970s.

Some followed Pink Floyd and King Crimson route into prog rock. A world of stadium concerts and triple-sleeve concept albums. One band that neatly encapsulates the Mod to Psychedelic to Rock journey is Led Zeppelin – a 1970s supergroup that emerged out of The Yardbirds via an intermediary combo called The New Yardbirds.

Punk sticks it to psychedelia – for a while

By the mid-1970s, we’d had our fill of goblins, wizards and fairies. And ethereal lyrics from Public School and Grammar School musicians who seemed very eager never to talk about the base pleasures of sexual intercourse. Let alone the realities of everyday working class life in Britain. Punks were the musical Roundheads come to overthrow the Prog Rock Royalists.

On-the-nose lyrics dealt with sex and politics very directly. Ockham’s Razor was wielded musically speaking with wild abandon. I’d argue that post-punk trends like the 2Tone ska revival continued this forthright exposition of everything that was wrong with Britain. And so pop became very un-psychedelic for a while. It joyed in putting up a mirror to Britain as it really was, warts and all, and demanding that people take a good, long hard look.

Psychedelia, however, was never far from the surface. That desire to go all transcendental and look for the other-worldly meaning of life. I do wonder whether its re-emergence at the end of the 1970s was a sign of defeatism, even despair. Faced with the prospect of Thatcher in power in Britain – and Reagan in the United States – did the real world suddenly seem too much to bear. Often in history, the growth of mystical movements coincides with real-world defeat. So, psychedelia promised to blot out the bleak political landscape with a colourful, trippy, parallel universe.

From Mod Revival to Psychedelic Revival

As with the 1960s, though on a much smaller scale, the Mod Revival scene proved to be the gateway drug for the Psychedelic Revival. Mood Six, for example, was a psychedelic combo that emerged from Mod revivalists, the Merton Parkas. I’m not suggesting they took LSD or any narcotics. But their sound, look and band line-up emerged out of the post-1979 Mod Revival. For the record, I’ve listened to some Mood Six while writing this blog post – something I didn’t do at the time – and it’s actually quite good.

DISCOVER: The 1980s Mod Revival

I would place Echo and the Bunnymen plus The Teardrop Explodes under the Psychedelic Revival category. Those two bands emerged from the Crucial Three, an extremely short lived Scouse combo in the late 70s that had included Ian McCulloch (who fronted Echo), Julian Cope (subsequently Teardrop) and Pete Wylie (who then fronted up Wah!).

Kensington Market provided much of the clobber for the Psychedelic Revival. This was three storeys of clothes shops catering for every genre and sub-genre. An indoor market on Kensington High Street that has now inevitably disappeared. One store called Regal became a magnet for the Psychedelic types. There were also clubs to cater for the revival like the Groovy Cellar and the Clinic. Lee Pattinson of Echo and the Bunnymen was turned away from one such club in September 1981 because his clothes were deemed to be insufficiently psychedelic!

Now, some doubt whether there really was a full-blown psychedelic revival at the end of the 1970s. Evidence, it’s claimed is thin on the ground. I’d argue that it did happen but it was a fairly anaemic affair compared to the 1960s. However, it was a strand in music and fashion that persisted throughout the 1980s bursting to the surface every so often – for example with a band like The Stone Roses and the whole shoegazing scene. Psychedelia is so intertwined with the history of British pop that it’s just never going to completely disappear.

1 thought on “1980s Psychedelic Revival

  1. I wish you could stretch your window by just a year – I’d love you to cover the Dukes of Strasophear, XTC’s psychedelic venture, which started in 84. Chips from the Chocolate Fireball is one of my favourite albums.

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