50 years on: an audio tour of 1969’s psychedelic landscapes

By Tom Burgess

Perhaps one of popular music’s most significant years, 1969 was a cornerstone. It bridged the gap between the naïve, uncertain innovations of ’60s psychedelia and the rapid generations of pop and rock through the ’70s. Below will be a jam-packed, whistle-stop tour of 1969’s landmark albums, some of which became the most influential in their genre. Even 50 years later, these musical styles and song-writing approaches permeate modern music, whether intentional or not.

By 1969, the British rock movement had reached new heights. The Beatles’ Abbey Road remains a seminal album, arguably their best conceived, before the band split the year after. To help pave the way for the 1970s, Led Zeppelin contributed two blues-infused, hard rock records in 1969, with unusually impeccable musicality and classiness that put them above the rest.

By 1969, the British rock movement had reached new heights

Similarly, The Stones’ Let It Bleed continued to progress further from their initial two-and-a-half-minute blues covers. The Who’s Tommy proved an ambitious double album, following the unlikely journey of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid. As a self-proclaimed ‘rock opera’, it added grandeur to the recently-invented concept album, which emerged in 1967, with the more straightforward stories of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed.

The exciting establishment of progressive-rock became apparent in 1969 too, with King Crimson’s meticulously planned yet visceral debut In the Court of the Crimson King. Their intense music was exposed to up to 500,000 unsuspecting people, supporting for The Stones’ Hyde Park concert. The year also saw dozens of eclectic progressive-rock debuts from Yes, Genesis, Can, and Van der Graaf Generator. Earlier progressive bands benefited from the growing acceptance of alternative approaches to rock, allowing bands like Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, The Moody Blues, Caravan, and Soft Machine to pursue their now-mature psychedelic style.

The exciting establishment of progressive-rock became apparent in 1969 too

In both the UK and US, folk began to take an interesting turn. After abandoning his status as a protest song writer, Bob Dylan’s surreal, poetic lyricism influenced countless folk albums. In 1969, these included Tim Buckley’s bizzare Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon, Leonard Cohen’s melancholic Songs from a Room and Townes Van Zandt’s mellow self-titled album, as well as Joni Mitchell’s romantic sophomore Clouds. The British Folk Rock scene was also blooming, with three impressive releases by Fairport Convention, and The Pentangle’s expertly executed Basket of Light, featuring punchy guitars, a heavy double bass, and colourful sitar. Nick Drake’s introspective Five Leaves Left was an outstanding debut, with reflective lyrics and pastoral guitars, with lavish string arrangements added.

Miles Davis: In A Silent Way
Image by Jason Hickey via Creative Commons on Flickr

After its gradual decline in the ’60s, psychedelia rejuvenated some areas of jazz, with Miles Davis pioneering the rock-inspired ‘fusion’ sound for In A Silent Way. Frank Zappa’s zany fusion record Hot Rats, and Captain Beefheart’s absurdist Trout Mask Replica soon became avant-garde classics. Pharoah Sanders’ Karma is totally euphoric, refining the spiritual jazz style of Coltrane, with Moondog’s self-titled album a brilliant ‘Third Stream’ record, mixing jazz and classical elements.

Although psychedelia as a lifestyle became old-fashioned after 1969, its experimental ethos influenced music from the ’70s onwards. This is seen most literally in neo-psychedelic groups like The Flaming Lips and Animal Collective, whose hallucinatory styles are nostalgic towards the late ’60s sound, and enhanced by 21st century technology. More subtly, Tame Impala’s dreamy reverb-laden records like Lonerism bring out the summery, psychedelic feel.

Psychedelia rejuvenated some areas of jazz

Even the ’60s ideology persists, with MGMT abandoning the potential as a singles band in favour for song-writing explorations, and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard upholding psychedelia’s experimental attitude, dropping four surreal and diverse records during 2017. More so, the concept album pervades so many modern genres. Sufjan Stevens’ folky odyssey Illinois, Green Day’s American Idiot, Mastodon’s prog-metal Crack the Skye, and even Beyoncé’s Lemonade show the endurance of this format. Even the pop festival experience is directly comparable to the groundbreaking Woodstock ’69. While these ideas are always being reimagined, they’re rooted deep within the psychedelic mindset, as pop music became more sophisticated. Before the explosive ’70s, 1969 was the culmination of this exploration, where musicians were curious of what could be accomplished – a year that should surely be remembered.

Image by beatles maniac11 via Creative Commons on Flickr

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