Skip to main content

Psych Special: The History Of Psych

Kicking off our look at the in sound from way out, we take a trip back in time and space and dig where the primitive Big Bang began

LOST TEEN CIVILISATION UNCOVERED! Garage band rock and its mutant spawn, psych rock – a pimply, snotty, inspired, glue-sniffing teen culture that flourished in the last half of the 1960s – had, incredibly, vanished from human memory when, in 1972, Lenny Kaye unearthed 27 tracks of punky gold, accompanied by pithy liner notes, in a two-record collection: Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, 1965‑1968. This wasn’t just a quirky curiosity in the glorious history of rock – it was the very plasma rock needs to resuscitate itself every seven years or so.

Nuggets arrived at the low point of rock mojo and soon became a source of inspiration for future punks, grunge dwellers and any other maniac who wanted to crank up the thunder dome again. A Nuggets boxed set including four CDs came out in 1998, and a subsequent collection, Children Of Nuggets took the story from the mid-70s to the mid-90s.

Garage bands were a visceral reaction to the tsunami of the Brit invasion. Groups like The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Who and the Rolling Stones presented a formidable challenge. They had it down cold: the look, the attitude, Mississippi Delta riffs, quaint accents, enigmatic lyrics and hair. Worse, these foppish posers turned out to be catnip to chicks. Something had to be done. 

Reaction to the Brit invasion pushed garage band ingenuity to inspired heights. Small-town punks, inner city greasers, frat boys, surfers, disaffected teens and a few unbalanced individuals began tinkering with rock’s turbocharged engine. It meant stripping down the machine, rebuilding the chassis and then adding some newfangled element to grab your attention – distortion, electronics, whatever tricks in the book they could lay their hands on.

Typical of garage bands’ attempts to move away from The Beatles (except for the haircuts) is Talk Talk by the Music Machine, who used proto‑punk fuzz guitar, Farfisa organ, one black leather glove and a what’s-it-to-ya? delivery to establish their identity. Garage bands’ sound was the bull-in-a-china-shop approach to Brit rock’s finely made goods. Take Louie Louie by The Kingsmen (a repetitive three-note riff with lyrics incomprehensible enough to attract the attention of the FBI), The Castaways’ pared down Liar, Liar, or The Seeds’ defiantly crude, two-chord Pushin’ Too Hard.

American bands came out of a car culture – they thought of singles as hot rods and monkeyed around with Brit invasion elements until they got the rev and vrooom they needed. The goal was to create a sonic equivalent of teenage angst, raging lust and confusion. The Shadows Of Knight show us how it’s done with I’m Gonna Make You Mine and the Chocolate Watch Band make it a bit more explicit with Let’s Talk About Girls.

The Brits had taken American blues and morphed it into their own patented Limey blend. American teenagers would reverse this by retrofitting the Brit invasion sound, stripping it down, chopping and channelling it until it became the genuine punky, in-your-face American article.

Garage band rock was pretty much a DIY affair: you could go down to your local music store and gear up. Guitars were cheap, so pick up an axe, whatever new gadget or sound effects were on offer and that, plus a few chords and a bratty attitude, was all you needed. And these raging hormonal beasts could peel out of the garage, burning rubber in their custom-tooled sonic hot rods. Gentlemen, start your engines: the Blues Magoos’ (We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet, Paul Revere & The Raiders’ Just Like Me and Baby Please Don’t Go by the Amboy Dukes.

For the most part, garage bands built their monster machines on chordal licks, the kind The Kinks used on You Really Got Me. They laid down a bed of chords, not in support of the melody but instead of it. This created ferocious energy and an unstoppable momentum, the sonic equivalent of the frustration, arrogance and raging lust that seethed in the adolescent American brain. Hendrix would turn that into heavy metal and in the late 60s, Keith Richards would use it to propel the Stones Mach II. Cue: You Must Be A Witch by the Lollipop Shoppe, Little Girl by the Syndicate Of Sound and the Count Five’s Psychotic Reaction.

When asked to define psychedelic music, Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, replied: “It’s where the pyramid meets the eye, man,” referring to the Eye Of Providence, the spooky, ancient, alien-type image on the back of the dollar bill. 

And who would deny that psych rock has a serious dose of alien DNA? Psych is an oxymoronic concoction, the fusion of two seemingly incompatible strains of rock – a pounding rock beat mated with an ethereal melody, trippy sound effects or lilting lyrics floating over the top. But the freaky combo worked spectacularly, as on the psych classic I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) by the Electric Prunes, where a spacey, ethereal opening lyric is followed by a relentless hard rock track. It also has going for it another psych rock ingredient: a bizarre sound effect. While rewinding the tape, the band heard this weird, oscillating reversed guitar sound and they just stuck it on the beginning of the song. It was the pre-Pet Sounds Brian Wilson who came up with the original template for psych rock by grafting the creamy harmonies of the Four Freshman onto Chuck Berry’s turbocharged V8 engine.


More from this edition

Get Involved

Trending Features