Acid Rock is a designation given to a very short-lived style of rock that remains important today chiefly for providing the missing link between psychedelic rock of the 1960’s and heavy metal.
In 1967, the hyper amplified improvisations of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience took the music into new realms of trippiness; distorted, fuzzy, feedback-drenched, improvisational, heavy, and loud. The success of these bands inspired a new heavy music by acidheads for acidheads, and it was a distictly different sound. Perhaps the quintessential acid-rock recording was the 17-minute long “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, a song so self consciously heavy it has become the punchline of many jokes; still, the hugeness of the riffs and the neverending drum, guitar, and organ solos sandwiched between two ends of a primitive riff-based song tapped into something; the album became Atlantic Records’ best seller ever in 1968, a record Led Zeppelin would eclipse the following year.
There were generally two types of acid rock bands; those who were mutant forms of blues-rock, and those derived from 60’s garage band styles. Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf represent the garage band side; Blue Cheer had evolved from a punky garage band, The Other Half; the genesis of Steppenwolf was The Sparrow. In most cases, including Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, and Vanilla Fudge, an organ played a prominant role in deepening the riffs on overall sound; others, like Blue Cheer, stuck with a pure power-trio approach, relying on sheer volume for heaviness.
Where these bands differed from the psychedelic music appearing both in America and England at the time was in its attitude, which was of a more jaded variety than the hippie optimisms of psychedelia, and also in the primitive approach to the music; psychedelia’s tendency was to get intricate; acid-rock reduced things to their basic element, and relied on virtuoso solos to provide the thrills more than clever arrangement.
As a rule, these bands drew a tougher element to their shows; Steppenwolf, Big Brother and the Holding Co., Blue Cheer were biker favorites; Hell’s Angels even endorsed Big Brother & The Holding Co.’s 1968 album Cheap Thrills right on the R. Crumb designed cover. While there was some audience crossover with the gentler hippie element via many shared venues, there wasn’t a lot of intermingling. The bikers thought hippies were saps, and the hippies were afraid of the bikers.
Acid rock accomodated this tough attitude; the trips it laid were ultra-psychedelic in a rudimentary way. It was music specifically for drug consumption. However, as the 1960’s neared the end, following countless burnouts, psychedelia was on its way out; the bikers reverted to speed, downers, and booze, while the hippies either got religion or drifted towards the back-to-the-earth rusticism of country-rock. Acid-rock evolved to suit this new era, losing the psychedlia, cranking up the volume even higher, accenting the bass, keeping the organ (Deep Purple, Uriah Heep) or losing it (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath) and turned into the longest lived and most subgenre spawning rock style of them all: heavy metal.
For the modern listener, many classics of the acid rock era sound incredibly indulgent and sometimes downright campy. It is impossible to take “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” seriously, as tied to its time and place as it is. However, some bands, like Steppenwolf and Big Brother, hold up just fine; it’s best to approach this music with an open mind and with an ear out for the transition from psychedelia to metal. It also helps if you’re already a fan of either genre. It’s more for anthropological reasons that this genre is profiled here, but it can still make for an interesting listen.
Some important/influential acid rock artists/songs include:
1. Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida
It’s easy to poke fun at this acid rock dinosaur now; the title track clocks in at 17 minutes, is full of organ doodling, guitar solos, drums and bongos. A psychedelic lightshow graces the cover, and the album contains songs with titles like “Flowers and Beads” and “My Mirage”, sentiments that were already dated before the album fell off the charts. Which it didn’t do for a long time; the album peaked at #4 and remained on the charts for a year. An abridged version of the single came out and reached #30, but the long version was the real hit. The legend behind the title goes that the band was too far gone at the sessions to pronounce the real title, “In The Garden Of Eden”. It’s only half a step removed from embryonic heavy metal though, and those who have never experienced it in all its glory should do so once in their life. Iron Butterfly actually managed to chart four albums in the top-20; their last album, Scorching Beauty, appeared in 1975.
2. Blue Cheer: Summertime Blues
Blue Cheer, from San Francisco, was a power trio reknowned for the volume of their shows. They are another band that could be considered proto-metal; had they appeared a year or two later doing the same thing, they probably would be called a metal band today. Guitarist Leigh Stevens had enjoyed some local reknown as a member of garage band legends The Other Half, who recorded a tough stomper “Mr. Pharmacist” Vincebus Eruptum was their debut, released in January 1968, and contained a roaring, heavy version of Eddie Cochrane’s hit “Summertime Blues”, which made it to #14 on the charts. Perhaps best likened to a louder, rougher Grand Funk Railroad, the band specialized in three amped up chords, and sleazy, sometimes violent lyrics. Although Stevens would depart after their second album, the band would ultimately release six albums before breaking up. They’ve since reunited several times since, in various permutations, recording four more albums along the way. They were named after a variety of LSD.
3. Big Brother & The Holding Co.: Down On Me
Although they were very visible in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 60’s, Big Brother was a little different from contemporaries like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. For one thing, their mix of blues and hillbilly music was fairly unique; for another, they weren’t so much virtuosos as inspired primitives. Still, their lumpen, amplified blues-rock drew in the hippies and bikers both; having Janis Joplin sing the lion’s share of their songs was a big enticement. “Down On Me” was one of their classic primitive blues-rockers, featured on their 1967 debut, but perhaps better heard in a live recording. Joplin had been a late addition to the band; they already had played gigs before she joined in 1966. She quickly came to dominate the band, before suddenly abandoning them in 1968. The band continued on without her until 1971 before breaking up. Various permutations of the band have surfaced briefly since the mid-80’s.
4. Steppenwolf: Magic Carpet Ride
Led by German-born John Kay, Steppenwolf were the epitome of a biker band in the late 60’s, best known for their biker anthem “Born To Be Wild”, which contained the line “heavy metal thunder” giving name to the movement. Kay had started out in a Toronto area band called The Sparrow, before relocating to the West Coast and forming Steppenwolf, taking the title from the Herman Hesse novel. “Magic Carpet Ride” was their second hit from the fall of 1968 and is more psychedelic than its predecessor; a quintessential acid rock cut featuring a guitar and organ groove with a strong singalong chorus. Steppenwolf would record 11 albums in a career that ended in 1975. A 1987 reunion album scraped the bottom of the charts; John Kay still appears on the oldies circuit.
5. SRC: Black Sheep
SRC were a psychedelic unit from Detroit who emerged with this grandiose album towards mid 1968. SRC took power trio stylings from the Who, slowed them down, blended them with an almost Gothic sounding Hammond organ in a manner borrowed from Procol Harum, added some sustain-heavy guitar and a melodicism not usually found in acid rock; it makes for particularly unique listening. Originally formed by members of two locally heroic garage bands, the Fugitives and the Chosen Few. SRC lasted long enough to record three albums, all in a similar vein, but never sold enough albums to keep at it. “Black Sheep” is their best known single, from their debut, and features some unusually memorable Hammond work that sounds like a church pipe organ.
6. Electric Prunes: I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)
The Electric Prunes are something of a missing link between garage band and acid rock. They made the top-40 twice, “I Had Too Much To Dream (Last Night)” was their first, and biggest hit, reaching #11 in 1967. They were largely a studio creation; the band was controlled by a production and songwriting team that fired and replaced members at will. Their third album, Mass in F Minor, recorded with different musicians than this recording, is an acid rock legend; a psychedelic church mass sung mostly in Latin. The single from that album, “Kyrie Eleison”, was featured during the acid freak-out scene in the movie Easy Rider. That one would be a purer example of the genre to include here, although “I Had Too Much To Dream” is a better illustration of the garage band roots of many acid rock bands. Yet another version of this band recorded a fourth album in 1969 before their label dropped them.
7. The Frost: Sweet Jenny Lee
The Frost were a Detroit band led by singer/guitarist Dick Wagner, who had previously played in a band called the Bossmen, featuring bassist Mark Farner, who would go on to form Grand Funk Railroad. The Frost were another power-trio-with-organ band, and their leadoff cut from their debut “Sweet Jenny Lee” sounds like a cross between The Zombies and the Amboy Dukes. The album from which it comes features a somewhat poppier psychedelic sound, borrowing some ideas from English psychedelia, but also carries a dose of Detroit hard rock grit that keeps this in acid rock territory. Wagner would later help Farner set up Grand Funk Railroad, and would himself back both Lou Reed and Alice Cooper.
8. Attila: California Flash
Attila was a particularly unusual duo from Long Island that released a single LP in 1970. Formed by two members of the Hassles, Jon Small and Billy Joel, the LP featured massively heavy and distorted Hammond B-3 playing from Joel while Small flailed at the drumkit. Joel’s organ gets treatment from anything and everything, especially promiscuous use of a wah-wah, everything is amplified to the point of white noise; the vocals rarely vary beyond shouts. Joel himself disowns the album, but it is interesting to see what the Piano Man was up to at the end of the psychedelic 60’s. The album failed to sell, and the duo’s fate was sealed when Joel seduced Small’s wife, whom he eventually married.
9. Ultimate Spinach: Ego Trip
In 1967, when San Francisco briefly became the countercultural capitol of America, record labels went on a signing frenzy, signing any band they could find within miles of the city. In late 1967, arranger Alan Lorber hatched the idea to hype the Boston music scene as the next big thing, calling the bands active there by the moniker, “The Bosstown Sound”. MGM records, who had largely missed the boat in San Francisco, attempted to get in at the ground floor with the Bosstown sound; their flagship signing was Ultimate Spinach. Their very name was an acid rock ridiculousism; hipsters smirked at Lorber’s pipe dream and skipped the albums. Ultimate Spinach were doomed by the hype, but their debut isn’t bad as far as acid rock goes; Ian Bruce-Douglas was the primary creative force as singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, and he specialized in darker, more frightening psychedelic imagry than most of the West Coast bands. Unrelenting promotion pushed this album to #34 in 1968; the band’s follow-up would stall at #198, and they broke up after a third album failed to chart at all.
10. Kak: Lemonade Kid
Kak were from Davis, CA, but spent most of 1968 in the San Francisco Bay area, where their lone album was recorded. Sharing some similarities with Moby Grape, Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they also specialized in a softer raga-rock, featuring trance-inducing drone. The band didn’t last very long; they played about a dozen gigs before disbanding; chief songwriter Gary Lee Yoder would join Blue Cheer. “Lemonade Kid” is perhaps the best cut from their album, a gentle raga-rock with deeply psychedelic lyrics, and a soothing, bouncy lead guitar. The album didn’t chart, and the band was well forgotten within the year.
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