Psychedelic Britannia

Tx. 23.10.15 • 9.00-10.00pm • BBC Four


I wondered when the Beeb would get round to psychedelia in their Britannia series and now they have.

Trumpeted in Nigel Planer’s commentary as ‘the most visionary period in pop’ (1965-70) in which a handful of dreamers reimagined pop music, I liked the programme’s reminder of the Englishness of pop at this time.  Prior to this, American forms of popular music had predominated (R’n’B) and afterwards – from the tail end of the decade – the blues revival and all in its wake returned music to a US base.  But for a brief time, an English sensibility flourished whichPsychedelic Britannia was often pastoral, arcadian and connected with the freedoms of childhood (Jonathan Miller’s 1966 film Alice in Wonderland was a milestone). For all its free thinkingness, psychedelia was as much about returning to the past – escaping the white heat of technology – as it was striving for a new future.

Contributors caught the era’s spirit of curiosity and questionning, reminding us that psychedelia was a genuine attempt at consciousness raising, not simply taking drugs.  Ginger Baker talked about “every night being a new musical adventure” and Arthur Brown recalled taking acid as “the nearest I have come to seeing God”.

The modal zone

Robert Wyatt discussed getting deeply into the modal zone whilst in a 1967 interview Paul McCartney told us that what the Beatles were “passing on freedom”, “showing what we’re going through to the world”.

The soundtrack enabled us to hear pychedelic cuts such as Kaleidoscope’s Tangerine Dream and 23rd Turnoff’s deeply lysergic Leave Me Here which were unavailable for the clips compilation programme following this simply because no film footage survives.

Sid Barrett as Ariel

The programme had a nice reveal in the form of sculptor Emily Young recalling Sid Barrett’s Puck-like, Ariel spirit before it emerged that she had been the inspiration for See Emily Play.

The folk roots of psychedelia were briefly explored, specifically The Incredible String Band and Vashti Bunyan’s flight with dog and boyfriend in horse and cart to a remote Scottish island newly acquired by Donovan.

It seemed all good to be true and it was.  Tougher times emerged by 1968 demanding, perhaps, tougher responses.  As IT founder Barry Miles said, it would take more to change the world than listening to Sergeant Pepper and smoking dope.

Nevertheless, drawing a line between the impossibly young, pigtailed Vashti Bunyan of 1969 and today’s grey haired singer of Another Diamond Day was heartwarming and felt like an endorsement that something of the undiluted goodness of those days can survive.

Psychedelia path

Top Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick. via Compfight cc;
Bottom Photo Credit: G-Wizz-Pix via Compfight cc

Totally 60s Psychedelic Rock at the BBC


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