Doors of Perception: The Songs That Introduced the World to Psychedelics

Psychedelic culture stands at the cusp of mainstream acceptance. This may sound odd given the fact that the United States still includes LSD, psilocybin, and numerous other hallucinogens on the list of Schedule I substances, but there are many signs. Academia is in the midst of a psychedelic renaissance, with Johns Hopkins University leading the way in exploring the therapeutic benefits, while tales abound of California techies microdosing. And though marijuana is not an hallucinogen, per se, it is culturally linked to psychedelics, and it’s legal in 30 states and counting. Then there’s the recent publication of How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. The book, written by celebrated author and journalist Michael Pollan, cracked the Top 10 of Amazon’s books charts and is sure to further accelerate the field’s growing respectability.

Such developments were unthinkable in the mid-’60s when psychedelics, helping fuel the counterculture’s alienation from mainstream American culture and politics, were pushed underground through prohibition. Having been booted out of Harvard University in 1963, outlaw psychonaut Timothy Leary (in)famously exhorted America’s youth to “turn on, tune in, drop out”; Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, meanwhile, kickstarted the hippie movement with their Bay Area Acid Tests. Rock ’n’ roll played a central role in the spreading of this psychedelic gospel. As musicians themselves experimented with hallucinogens, they in turn penned anthems charting their consciousness-expanding adventures.

The first wave of anthems, probably more inspired by cannabis than hallucinogens, sound rather innocuous, even goofy in hindsight. Bob Dylan’s double entendre-laced “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” wraps early “head” humor inside a marching band sing-along, and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” sways with childlike innocence as John Sebastian croons the slyly suggestive lines, “And you can be sure that if you’re feeling right/ A day dream will last long into the night.”

In 1966, however, the folksy playfulness of these tunes gave way to noggin-blurring proselytizing. The Beatles—whom Leary, in one of his typically hyperbolic bursts of cosmic thought, described as being “endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species”—led the charge. The group dropped both “Tomorrow Never Knows,” perhaps the first rock song to truly drone, and “She Said She Said,” a cryptic reference to an acid trip with Easy Rider actor Peter Fonda, into the sonically phantasmagoric Revolver. The Byrds kept apace, unleashing “Eight Miles High,” which certainly matched “Tomorrow Never Knows” in its ability to express the acid experience through mystical lyricism and raga-flavored music.

The following year, 1967, saw the Jefferson Airplane and The Doors up the ante with “White Rabbit” and “Break On Through (To the Other Side),” respectively. Both are stirring—though radically different—evocations of West Coast’s exploding psychedelic movement. Where “White Rabbit” is a whimsical call to action drenched in Alice in Wonderland imagery, “Break On Through” comes on like a freight train threatening to jump the tracks. Its expression of a consciousness freed is reckless and unnerving (but also utterly thrilling).

It’s important to remember that The Doors, named for Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a chronicle of the author’s experiences with mescaline, weren’t flower-picking hippies; they were art-school bohemians whose music charted the shadowy side of psychedelia, especially the sense of loss and disconnect that comes with untethering the mind from reality. As Patrick Lundborg points out in his 2012 book Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life, “In that tumultuous era, as acidhead musicians directed their creativity towards reflecting their psychedelic experiences, the looming threat and occasional reality of dark, terrifying trips unavoidably came to influence the music.”

This ominousness courses through The 13th Floor Elevators’ “Slip Inside This House” and Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” two of the era’s most emotionally complex anthems. The former, swirling into vortices of reverb, creates a profoundly esoteric vision, over the course of which the promise of spiritual enlightenment and the dangers of ego death coil around one another like snakes. Pink Floyd’s early anthem, on the other hand, is a cold, paranoid, and atonal portrayal of an acid trip as a rocket ride into the black expanse of space. Needless to say, both walk the existential edge, a fact that should come as no surprise considering both the Elevators’ Roky Erickson and Floyd’s Syd Barrett embodied the excesses of the psychedelic era: psychonauts who wound up venturing too far out, damaging themselves in the process.

In the United States and United Kingdom, the golden era of the psychedelic anthem didn’t last all that long, roughly 1966 to 1969. By the time Woodstock went down, more and more musicians were eschewing cosmic exploration for earthbound rock heavily accented with country, soul, and blues. The visionary utopianism so profoundly linked to altered states of consciousness simply couldn’t weather the harsh realities of a war in Vietnam that seemingly had no end in sight, the ascendency of Richard M. Nixon and his Silent Majority to the Oval Office, and the brutal Civil Rights unrest of 1968. Hippies, reeling from these bitter developments, embraced more personal forms of enlightenment: yoga, meditation, and health food, to name a few. Or, they bolted for the country.

Exceptions did pop up, like Funkadelic’s moodily sublime “Maggot Brain,” not an anthem in the strictest sense yet certainly a powerful expression of mind-smashing lysergia. There also were late-to-evolve psychedelic scenes in central Europe and Japan, where hippiedom didn’t take hold until the early ’70s. A perfect reflection of this is the Switzerland-based Brainticket, whose 1971 epic “Brainticket (Part Two)” really is one of the most over-the-top anthems of the era. It’s tough to imagine anything better capturing the wild, transgressive spirit of the times than when vocalist Dawn Muir moans the line “An army of thoughts retreating towards oblivion/ A square of light, a circle of thought, a triangle of nothing!!!” as though she’s descending her entire being into an LSD-fueled orgy from which there is no return.

As with most of the expansive pieces on this playlist, it’s safe to say the researchers at Johns Hopkins don’t play a whole lot of Brianticket around the lab!