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What is Psychedelic Rock?

Michael Pollick
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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In order to understand the musical form called psychedelic rock, it's important to make the connection between popular culture and the creative expression it inspires. Rock and roll music produced during the 1950s and early 1960s largely reflected a generation yearning to break free of convention but unable to take the final leap. Most popular songs featured standard instrumentation and vocal stylings and were engineered to fit the radio industry's unspoken four minutes or less rule. Even the early hits by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were subject to the restrictions of popular songwriting. Only a few pioneers, such as Bob Dylan, managed to produce music which accurately reflected the changing values of a growing counterculture.

In 1964, several bands in the New York underground music scene began to play what they called psychedelic rock. The term psychedelic was an homage to the hallucinogenic drugs which were only recently entering the public consciousness. Powerful drugs such as LSD, mescaline, peyote and mushrooms were being combined with marijuana and alcohol as a means to disconnect from reality.

While under the influence of these substances, musicians and artists felt as if they had entered a higher sphere of awareness. Psychedelic rock musicians felt free to break out of the pop music mode and perform longer pieces based on free-form jazz and blues models. Lyrics were no longer required to make linear sense - they could reflect an altered reality of the drug experience.

Many music historians point to the Bay Area of Northern California as the birthplace of commercial psychedelic rock. The alternative lifestyle offered by the hippie culture encouraged mainstream musicians to experiment with both the chemical and musical possibilities of the psychedelic movement. Groups such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Doors all found a level of success through psychedelic rock music.

Individual artists like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin also became inextricably linked with the psychedelic culture. In Great Britain, artists such as Donovan and Pink Floyd were also using elements of psychedelia, but it would be the Beatles who once again defined a genre of music. Their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is considered one of the best-crafted psychedelic rock albums of all time.

The psychedelic rock era eventually collapsed under its own excesses. Drug overdoses claimed the lives of many of its icons - Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Other psychedelic rock bands either fell out of favor with the public or disbanded their original line-ups.

Some bands with roots in psychedelic rock, such as Pink Floyd and Yes, would eventually expand into the progressive rock sound of the 1970s. As the drug culture turned more towards hardcore drugs like cocaine and heroin, the whimsical visuals and freeform jams of the psychedelic rock years became anachronistic. Some modern bands, such as Phish and the Flaming Lips, have incorporated many of the trappings of the psychedelic rock phenomenon into their elaborate stage shows and extensive tours.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon166126 — On Apr 07, 2011

@GigaGold: Because, although it is self expression, it does involve the audience, it lets the audience go into the depths of their mind. Jim Morrison, for example, wrote poetry about his views and sightings but said, "If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it's to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see or feel."

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 16, 2011


I think what people may fail to realize is that self-expression is important to the post-modern worldview. Everyone is free to interpret forms of art as they feel fit, and interpretation is open for discussion. People who design modern art and "abnormal" music want to be taken seriously, and are not merely dumping their own thoughts on other people.

By GigaGold — On Jan 16, 2011


When I see the high amount of refined and cultured art being replaced by modern art and forms of self-expression which are only relevant to the artist himself, I am disturbed. If a piece of art is not relevant to an audience, why does it sell? Much of the art world has become an esoteric pseudo-educated aristocracy of absurdity. I wish we could go back to normalcy and away from the psychedelic modern day.

By Renegade — On Jan 13, 2011

This kind of drug-induced music has now evolved to become a more mainstream phenomenon, with figures like the underground New York Lady Gaga rising to prominence. A lot of dance and techno also incorporates elements of altered consciousness. Art has come to be seen in a distinctly Jungian lens, with deeper symbolism and meaning being sought. It is truly a beautiful revolution.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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