No. 81: ‘Dark Magic’

Moby Grape had it all, in those early days. The look. The attitude. The Bay Area vibe. And that weird whimsical name that no one ever forgot. But when the San Francisco band's debut album surfaced in 1967, it seems they'd forgotten the psychedelic music. The self-titled album instead was packed with well-crafted singles that anticipated alt-rock. Songwriting so strong that Columbia Records was moved to release five songs to Top 40 radio, all on one day. Today, the band is largely remembered for that majestic album and those concise classics. When NPR looked back in 2012, here's how it characterized the group: "When other San Francisco bands were stretching out with long psychedelic jams, Moby Grape was producing catchy three-minute songs that were composed, played and sung by each … [Read more...]

No. 9: ‘Eight Miles High’

The song started off on familiar footing for early 1966: a killer bass line, straight out of the garage. But seconds into the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," listeners were off on a sonic adventure, destination unknown. Change was coming to the music scene at supersonic speeds. Here was the early warning, blaring out of AM radios. This at a time when "psychedelic music" was mostly a rumor. "Eight Miles High" seemed to come out of nowhere -- as did so much great 1960s music -- but in retrospect there’s a clear lineage: The cluttered, borderline dissonant instrumental sections were unprecedented in rock & roll, but not in jazz, where artists such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman shunned traditional harmonic structure in favor of free-form heroics. The Byrds made much of "Eight Miles … [Read more...]

No. 90: ‘She (Will-O-the-Wind)’

Everyone knows about "Windy," but the heroine of "She (Will-O-the-Wind)" never received her due. Too bad. The Collectors' 1968 song remains a fascinating bit of psych-pop, redolent with touches of jazz, classical and olden-times singing. The potpourri holds together beautifully, thanks no doubt to the chops of producer Dave Hassinger of Electric Prunes fame. The high harmonies and woodwind create an intoxicating swirl. Imagine the Association joining forces with Jethro Tull for a Renaissance fair gig. Lyrics are as mysterious as the instrumentation. Perhaps an ode to a hippie chick; perhaps musings on the elusive nature of the wind: She appears everywhere Ever near, never nearer Wish she was so near ... She ain't high, What does she care, Far up there in the rare dream … [Read more...]

No. 15: ‘Season of the Witch’

Paranoia ran deep in the spring of 1966. The high times were peaking in Britain, with the rock-star elite leading the psychedelic parade. The bands celebrated their altered states in song, hesitatingly at first, then full blast. In 1966, for example, the Beatles profiled a Doctor Feelgood of their acquaintance in "Doctor Robert." The Stones unleashed the pill-popping "Mother's Little Helper." The Authorities took note. Then they took action. Donovan Leitch was looking over his shoulder as the year began. A TV documentary had just caught the Scottish singer and some friends getting high. In January, he recorded "Sunshine Superman," an early psych-pop song that raised eyebrows -- sunshine was slang for a popular type of LSD. The troubadour also debuted "The Trip," about an … [Read more...]

No. 12: ‘Fire’

"You're gonna burn," the seemingly mad singer warned the world. It wasn't a stretch. This was 1968, and Arthur Brown's prophecy was right in tune with the times. The violent and twisted events of that year -- the Tet Offensive, the King assassination, race riots and the rest of the chaos -- played like a fever dream by October, when Brown's single "Fire" found itself at the top of the U.S. pop charts. The strange but infectious song came by its success honestly, pounding its way out of AM radios and jukeboxes throughout that fall. "I am the god of hellfire and I bring you fire!" thundered Brown, an unknown singer and performance artist from Britain. Few who heard this shouted-word intro at full volume ever forgot it. Fire was hot. The airwaves already had been scorched: First, … [Read more...]

No. 53: ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’

The year 1985 saw what passed for a comeback of psychedelic music, a genre dormant for a decade and a half. The "Paisley Underground" bands made some brightly colored noise in Los Angeles, XTC morphed into the Dukes of Stratosphear and Prince made his improbable foray into psychedelia with "Around the World in a Day." Tom Petty, the straight-ahead rocker, also was looking for new directions. The native of Florida settled on a concept album about the South, an epic work that was to sprawl across four sides -- something with literary heft along the lines of Randy Newman's "Good Old Boys." And then Petty fell down a rabbit hole. There he found the Mad Hatter and "Don't Come Around Here No More," which became the first psychedelic rock hit since, oh, the late '60s. Thereby hangs a … [Read more...]

No. 47: ‘My Crystal Spider’

The crystal spider crawled into Alex Del Zoppo's brain in a waking dream. A "fantasy experience" that yielded a surrealistic web of sound for his band, Sweetwater. While "My Crystal Spider" ranks as the most psychedelic of Sweetwater's songs, the songwriter says his creepy-crawly creation wasn't necessarily the product of an altered state: "Psychedelic substances may have helped to bring this into focus, but it is not about that," keyboardist Del Zoppo says today. "It's about having a runaway pet spider in an unusually whimsical environment." Dr. Demento, noted connoisseur of audio bizarre, dug the 1968 song's "weirdness" and often played it on his radio show. Rock festival audiences of the hippie era were entranced as well, as Sweetwater singer Nancy Nevins put an … [Read more...]

No. 82: ‘Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You’

Tired of being referred to as "the Australian Beatles," the brothers Gibb moved back to England and made a record that sounded remarkably like ... the Beatles. The album "Bee Gees' 1st" kept up with the times -- and the Fabs -- by employing a Mellotron, an early tape-loop machine later closely identified with the Moody Blues. The Beatles had experimented with the electronic instrument on "Tomorrow Never Knows" and, more importantly, on "Strawberry Fields Forever," which was released to global acclaim in February 1967. A month later, the relatively unknown Bee Gees entered a London studio. Maurice Gibb quickly learned the instrument, a skill put to use on the brothers' oddly titled "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You." The song starts off in a strange, … [Read more...]

No. 45: ‘Machine Gun’

New Year's Day, 1970. Jimi Hendrix plays the Fillmore East with his new group, Band of Gypsys. Mostly silent up to then on the subject of the Vietnam War -- preferring to write about aliens, mermaids and the ladies -- the former soldier finally dives into the fray: Hendrix dedicates a new song to "all the soldiers that are fighting in Chicago and Milwaukee and New York. ... Oh yes, and all the soldiers fighting in Vietnam." And so is unleashed "Machine Gun," 12 minutes and 15 seconds of sonic fury and pain. There are to be found more eloquent denunciations of war in protest rock, but none more emotional. The song's gravitas is inherent in its mass -- Hendrix's Bible black wall of sound -- and in its subject matter: Evil man make you kill me/Evil man made me kill you/ Even through … [Read more...]

No. 69: ‘Rocket Number Nine’

Terrestrial data streams indicate Sun Ra departed this Earth on May 30, 1993. Was Ra a stranded extraterrestrial, left to communicate with his home planet via a raft of curious sonic recordings -- much like the alien Newton in "The Man Who Fell to Earth"? Or was Ra a mere human piano player, a guy named Herman looking for a gag to advance his career in jazz -- and finding it in outer-space kitsch. The final report remains ... unclear. We do know that Ra left behind more than a hundred long-players, many with otherworldly names such as "Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth," "The Nubians of Plutonia," "We Travel the Space Ways" and "The Other Side of the Sun." The albums' cover artwork every bit as strange as the "cosmic jazz" within. In the late 1960s, more than a few hippies tried to … [Read more...]

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