Music often follows societal trends. In the late ’60s, the hippie movement started to make its way into pop culture and with it came an onslaught of hallucinogenic drugs and expansive mind trips.
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Naturally, music began to follow suit with artists letting the influence of drugs guide their songwriting efforts. The result was experimental, trippy offerings that helped to define an entire generation.
Below, are seven of the best psychedelic rock songs of all time. Open your mind and sink into the kaleidoscope of sound.
7. “Good Vibrations” (Beach Boys)
“Good Vibrations” helped to level up the Beach Boys’ reputation from an (at times) trite pop vocal group to stewards for a new generation of rockers.
While writing this song, Brian Wilson recalled that his mother used to tell him that dogs could sense “bad vibrations” in people. That cosmic idea then became the onus for the chorus: I’m pickin’ up good vibrations / She’s giving me excitations.
The main melody comes by way of a theremin line. That warbly tone has since become textbook psychedelia.
7. “Sunshine of Your Love” (Cream)
Cream delivered a number of timeless guitar riffs throughout their tenure, but the opening bass line in “Sunshine of Your Love” is arguably the most iconic. The riff – created by bassist Jack Bruce – was an homage to another psychedelic mainstay: Jimi Hendrix.
“[Hendrix] played this gig that was blinding,” Cream guitarist Eric Clapton once recalled. “I don’t think Jack had really taken him in before … and when he did see it that night after the gig he went home and came up with the riff. It was strictly a dedication to Jimi. And then we wrote a song on top of it.”
6. “That’s It for the Other One” (The Grateful Dead)
It doesn’t get more avante-garde than The Grateful Dead. “That’s It for the Other One” showcases the breadths of their meandering, intuitive playing. The more than 7-minute-long track takes many twists and turns. Listening to it gives you a mind-expanding high.
5. “White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane)
Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick took some inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland when she wrote “White Rabbit.” Just like the children’s tale, the song makes allusions to taking drugs, hookah smoking, and finding yourself in a mysterious land.
Get up and tell you where to go / And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom / And your mind is moving low / Go ask Alice / I think she’ll know, the lyrics read.
4. “Purple Haze” (The Jimi Hendrix Experience)
When someone says the word “psychedelia” the name “Jimi Hendrix” isn’t far behind. Hendrix has the most powerful tool of psychedelia under lock: a sprawling and meandering guitar solo.
One of his most famous songs, “Purple Haze,” features layers upon layers of instrumentation – all of which have a dizzying effect.
3. “Light My Fire” (The Doors)
While many psychedelic songs sound like they feature on the soundtrack to the “Summer of Love,” there are a few that aren’t powered by flowers and peace signs. The Doors’ “Light My Fire” lives in the latter category.
“Light My Fire” is undoubtedly one of the most upbeat tracks on The Doors’ self-titled record but, in comparison to the other songs on this list, it feels a little hard-edged.
The entire record, with “Light My Fire” being the most famous, helped to popularize psychedelia for a mass audience.
2. “Interstellar Overdrive” (Pink Floyd)
Pink Floyd has many psychedelic hits to their name. Picking their best is an impossible task, so we picked one that could use a little more love: “Interstellar Overdrive.”
Though the song opens up with a straight-laced guitar riff, it soon evolves into a sonic wall of experimentation. Even with a runtime of nearly 10 minutes, “Interstellar Overdrive” has enough variation to keep the listener enticed from start to finish.
1. “Strawberry Fields Forever” (the Beatles)
The nature of psychedelia is unsystematic. No two songs have exactly the same tripped-out, warping sensibility. Given that, it’s hard to pick one track to rule over them all but, if we had to pick the quintessential psychedelic rock song, we’d have to go with “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles.
The jangly piano tone in the song’s intro sounds like it’s cutting through a hazy fog of smoke. John Lennon’s equally as off-kilter vocals in the opening verse help to cement the hallucinatory vibe.
Though Lennon adamantly disagrees with the theory, many fans have come to understand the title to be a coded reference to LSD. What is more psychedelic than that?
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