Had LSD Never Been Discovered Over 75 Years Ago, Music History Would Be Entirely Different

ByMolly Longman

When we think of psychedelics and music, visions of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane's tie-dyed "Volunteers" and the 13th Floor Elevators' mind-bending beats, dance in our heads. These bands lived and died by their trips, however, none of these bands truly consecrated the long and fruitful relationship between hallucinogens and music, which has utterly transformed the art form as we know it. Acid absolutely has, but it wouldn't have done so if it hadn't been for two bands few think of as explicitly psychedelic projects: The Beatles and the Beach Boys, whose inaugural psychedelic masterpiece Pet Sounds turned 50 on Monday.

"The thing about psychedelic rock is you don't necessarily associate the Beach Boys with it," Philip Auslander, a professor in the school of literature, media and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in a phone conversation in early April. "A group like the Beach Boys — such a popular group, so successful — to start experimenting and moving in odd directions and doing things that sounded very different, I think those were what put it all on the map. I think basically that sort of opened the door — not for groups to be formed or to start to make music, but certainly to become as visible as say Jefferson Airplane or somebody like that."

Acid inspired Pet Sounds; it shaped Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; it's had a presence in the music of every decade since the '60s — from Television, to Phish, to Chance the Rapper, to Lana Del Rey, whose recent "Freak" video is little more than an extended acid trip. That delicate chemical has orchestrated the artistic decisions of years of musicians, inspired numerous innovations and shaped the way countless fans listen.


Today, science may finally be able to help us understand why music has been obsessed with LSD for so long. In April, Imperial College London released a study showing the effects of LSD in the human brain. Researchers saw how the drug's infamous hallucinations take shape in the visual cortex and beyond, and how musical stimuli, of all things, magnify these effects by roping in portions of the brain responsible for mental imagery and memory.

Read more: Here's Why Music Sounds So Much Better When You're High, According to Science

Following Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann's first synthesis in 1938, it took around 20 years for LSD to become a cultural force. But since then, it's been directing culture from behind the scenes in ways the Illuminati wishes it could. What follows, is a retrospective of crucial moments over the past decade when LSD redirected the flow of musical progress. Tracing this course reveals just how significant Hofmann's first Bicycle Day trip has been to understanding music and the role it plays in our everyday lives.


The '60s: Counterculture and the conception of psychedelic rock  

Mark Weitz is in the back room of his self-owned exotic fish store in Los Angeles reminiscing about LSD. "It would take the music that you're listening to, that your brain is processing, and do something else with it," he said in a phone conversation in April. "It might change it into colors. ... Once the music hit your ears, you were tuned in, and it would definitely take you somewhere on a journey."

Weitz knows a lot about that journey. Selling jellyfish is just his day job: He's also the lead keyboardist in the psychedelic-rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock who released its debut LP Incense and Peppermints in 1967, fondly remembered as the Summer of Love. It's a year he described as a time when "people took more chances, got in touch with the ethereal side of music and experimented" with drugs and music — and often a combination of the two.

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LSD influenced the decade in a big way. Originally called the Warlocks, the Grateful Dead, a band that many cite as the epitome of the music-psychedelic mash-up, formed in 1965. They played their first show under their new name at one of author and countercultural figure Ken Kesey's many Acid Tests, during which people would, naturally, trip on acid, listen to music and try to "pass." 

The Grateful Dead was one of the generation's unique and defining cultural moments. Wavy Gravy — born Hugh Romney and widely known as an activist, comedian and the official clown of the Grateful Dead — knows this better than most since he was there and helped orchestrate those tests.

At the Watts Acid Test in 1966, Gravy incited a warning to the Los Angeles crowd. "There were two galvanized trash cans, brand new, both filled with Kool-Aid," Gravy said in a phone conversation in early May. "I said, 'Listen to me: The Kool-Aid on the right is the electric Kool-Aid.'"

And the test ensued. As attendees "sucked up" the LSD-laced punch, they "joined hands and turned into jewels and light," Gravy said. They felt alive. They felt a sense of wonder, and they felt the music.

"People would be dancing for three hours to the Grateful Dead," he said. "The music lifted people past their mundane existence to a higher place and make their realities that they had to deal with in their daily lives much more agreeable."

But again, it was the Beatles and the Beach Boys that really brought acid into the mainstream. 

"As far as psychedelia goes, the Beach Boys' contribution was less direct and came largely through the album Pet Sounds, which was inspired both by Brian Wilson's experiments with LSD and his having heard the Beatles' Revolver," Auslander said in an email conversation in May. "Pet Sounds was his response to that album, just as Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles' response to Pet Sounds. So, the evolution of psychedelic rock was fueled in part by a kind of friendly rivalry between the Beatles and the Beach Boys from 1965 to 1967. And the Beach Boys, like the Beatles, put some pretty trippy songs into the Top 40 (think 'Good Vibrations' and 'Heroes and Villains')."

In their attempts to "translate the transcendent experience into the music itself," as Auslander described their music, the Beatles introduced innovations in electronicstape looping and instrumentation, which went on to shape music far into the future. Both bands expanded the number of instruments that pop felt comfortable lending bars to, bringing in Eastern instruments like sitars and tablas alongside commonplace items like, Coca-cola cans and bicycle bells. The Beach Boys' Brian Willson utilized cutting-edge electronics for Pet Sounds, such as the Tannerin, which electronic musician Daedalus focused on specifically in a recent retrospective discussion of the album's influence.

"The vision of Brian Wilson!" Daedalus told Pitchfork. "The gumption even. It's like he plucked the future from 1966 and invented G-funk and acid house. I'm sure it must have sounded crazy on the radio dial, it certainly did for me."

The '70s, '80s and '90s: The fall and rise and fall of psychedelics 

While the '60's might have been acid's halcyon youth, it was hardly the only important era for LSD and music. 

In his book Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, Jesse Jarnow investigated the social, physical and musical subcultures that were shaped by drugs like LSD, mushrooms and others. Jarnow noted in an April phone conversation that acid use would have declined abruptly in 1972 when the Brotherhood of Eternal Love — a group that widely distributed "peace, love and acid," as one book title put it — was busted. Heads pulls much of its data from the Monitoring the Future Report, which catalogs 50,000 middle and high school students' assessments of the world of drugs each year.

After 1972, the psychedelic movement became far more clandestine, but, according to Jarnow, definitely still thriving. "There are all of these pieces of culture we don't think of as psychedelic, but that psychedelics were really important to," Jarnow said. "I'm thinking about disco and graffiti culture woven in the New York art-punk scene. There was always an undercurrent of heads and psychedelia there, and I think that sort of gets written out of history sometimes."

"There was always an undercurrent of heads and psychedelia there, and I think that sort of gets written out of history sometimes."

Television (the band), formed in 1973, put tripping into tune. It sounds like an acid test in melodic form, by Jarnow's estimation. The early '80s were dripping with psychedelic nods, as well. "People were taking acid and dancing to disco," he said. "There was acid in the punch bowl. There was no booze being served. People think of psychedelic culture and they think of long-haired dudes and women twirling in flowered skirts. But it was also a huge part of the gay New York underground."

Jarnow said a Monitoring the Future report showed LSD use spiked in the mid-'80s, exactly around the time the Grateful Dead got popular — really popular. Its hit "Touch of Grey," released in 1987, revitalized the world of tripped-out Deadhead-ism.

"The Dead represented the mainstream of psychedelic culture because they had so much critical mass, but that's also when electronic music starts to get really popular, which opened up a whole new avenue for LSD," Jarnow said. 

Alongside bands like Phish and the Dave Mathews Band of the '90s, EDM groups like the Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twin drew psychedelically attuned audiences. Electronic subgenres such as acid house and acid jazz borrowed from the hippie aesthetic, drawing inspiration from hallucinogens and ecstasy to inspire a so-called "second summer of love."

Jarnow said LSD use didn't slow down substantially again until the '90s, around the same time the Dead's lead vocalist Jerry Garcia died, igniting the turn of the century "LSD drought."


Today: LSD research is making strides.

Mendel Kaelen, a doctoral student in the department of medicine at Imperial College London, thinks about LSD almost every day. He believes LSD is in the midst of a resurgence, and new research is completely redefining the way the drug is seen.

"I'm hoping to dedicate my life to [psychedelics]," he said in a Skype conversation in April, but not in the take-acid-and-follow-Bassnectar sort of way. Kaelen was one of the researchers in the groundbreaking study that took the scans of the brain on LSD, though he's been working with the drug for much longer. 

Kaelen spearheaded another study published in August found LSD enhances emotional response to music. For the experiment, he worked to create a carefully designed playlist composed of a "choreography that follows the drug's affect."

"We wanted to evoke a diverse range of musical emotions," Kaelen said of the playlist, which included songs from neoclassical composer Ólafur Arnalds and cross-genre musician Greg Haines.

Participants listened to the playlist both on a placebo and on LSD and rated the music based on the emotions they felt during their listening experiences. This is where science may get as sappy as it ever will: On a nine-item Geneva Emotional Music Scale, those who had actually consumed LSD said they felt more "wonder," "transcendence," "power" and "tenderness" when listening to music on the drug.

Now that he has neuroimages to consider with his original study, Kaelen compared the brain on LSD to a mailman on the highway. "It's like there's a postman, and he needs to deliver a message," he said. "He usually takes the highway to get from village to village, but this time, he decides to cut through the grass instead of taking his habitual route. Our brain is a habit-forming machine, but psychedelics get the brain out of its normal routine."


LSD and music are intrinsically linked — now more than ever, Kaelen said. Not only did the drug change the trajectory of music history, music is changing the way people experience acid. 

"Psychedelic experiences changed the way we relate to music in history. But right now, in psychedelic therapy, music is shaping the psychedelic experience," Kaelen said. 

His newest project is designing playlists for psychotherapy sessions that he hopes will define the role of music in a clinical context. He said in the right environment, with the right playlist and the right dose of LSD, patients may feel better able to confront their demons with the help of a therapist.

"There is a message intrinsically carried in music, and under the effects of a psychedelics, people seem to become more responsive to this," he said. "Emotion can be processed more deeply. It's a beautiful narrative. It's like a snake biting itself in the tail."