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

Totally 60s Psychedelic Rock at the BBC

Tx. 23.10.15 • 10.00-11.00pm  BBC Four

Overall, a fine though somewhat predictable representation which tends to cling to the giants of the genre, inevitable, perhaps, given the hour-slot and what remains in the archives.  Essential psychedelic bands who were big at the time such as Tomorrow and The Idle Race feel notable for their absence as well as those who embraced aspects of the movement – Family and Caravan, to name but two.  Still, it’s good to see the psychedelic net cast wide so as to embrace comic, folk, baroque and pure pop facets of the genre.

Here is a complete rundown of what this compfest offered together with a few thoughts from me along the way.

The Yardbirds – Over, Under, Sideways, Down
Whole Scene Going b/w 1967

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A raw, dynamic opener.  Watch

Pink Floyd – Astronomy Domine
The Look at the Week • b/w 1967

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Their dramatic and atmospheric Queen Elizabeth Hall performance with lightshow of course.  This thrilling piece conveys a sense of cosmic poetry, performance art and happening all rolled into one.

Procol Harum – A Whiter  Shade of Pale 
Top of the Pops  b/w 1967

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A straightforward studio (surely mimed) performance which has had many outings going back to The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years.  Even given the stately nature of the song, the staging is rather uninspired and this must be just prior to the introduction of the ‘tin foil’ Top of the Pops set.

This is presumably the only BBC performance remaining in the archives, at least from the early psychedelic incarnation of the band (not that they ever described themselves as such).

The Who – I Can See for Miles
Twice a Fortnight • b/w 1967

The camerawork and editing are a vital part of the performance with dizzying zooms and rapid pulls sideways as if to capture a far reaching but jarring vision.  Whoever produced this clearly thought the song was about more than “a jealous man with exceptionally good eyesight – honest!” as Pete Townshend has claimed.   Watch

Donovan – Hurdy Hurdy Man
Bobbie Gentry  colour 1968

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A sudden switch to pristine colour for this show’s guest spot with a pretty, pink trousered Donovan perched on a studio stool with acoustic guitar and a band heard but nowhere to be seen.  Donovan seems quite entranced by his own song.   Watch

The Nice – America
How It Is  b/w 1968

This tries every trick in the book to inject excitement over and above the pyrotechnics (or antics, depending on your point of view) of Keith Emerson’s gymnastic, knife stabbing keyboard performance.

It’s like being granted some kind of enhanced vision – overhead lights topple like flying saucers, Emerson’s huge hands seem to knuckle into the camera lens, overlapping, spilling images jerk away to the edge of oblivion and back again.  Watch

Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity – This Wheel’s on Fire
Top of the Pops • b/w 1968

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This clip has seen a fair bit of exposure but it’s a great song and performance even although Julie Dricoll’s icy charisma seems at comic odds with Brian Auger’s blokeish appeal.  Watch

The Status Quo – Pictures of Matchstick Men
Top of the Pops b/w 1968

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Francis Rossi wrote this in the toilet, we are told, appropriate perhaps given how little regard he has for the song though he’s clearly enjoying the ridiculousness of it all here, barely suppressing a laugh or perhaps just forgetting to mime.

Based around some insistent chord changes, a repetitive, ringing guitar riff, ample phasing and some nonsensical words, it feels basic rather than exotic now but still something of a classic of chart pop-psych and an object of fascination given how the band were soon to depart from this template.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
Top of the Pops  b/w 1968

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Obviously a terrific performance all round, even more so given this hellish evocation was conjured in the Top of the Pops studio!   Watch

Joe Cocker – With a Little Help From My Friends
How It Is  b/w 1968

Rapid-edit camera work here, compulsively pulling away from the action and then jolting us back again though it’s the close-ups of Joe Cocker’s expressive face which are most affecting.  Watch

The Small Faces – Song of a Baker
Late Night Line Up  colour 1968

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A favourite clip of mine – something about diminutive Steve Marriott manhandling that electric guitar, strutting around the stage, furiously pouting from behind a newly grown fringe though it’s Ronnie Lane who carries the vocal here.  Given the hard rock feel of the song, I love it when they yell ‘the texture and the flavour!’  Actually it’s the metallic hardness which works so well to hammer home the unusual themes – hard physical graft and aching lust.   Watch

The Moody Blues – Ride My See-Saw
Late Night Line Up  colour 1968

Moody Blues 1967

Seen many, many times but still delights as they look at their best around this time and this early rock outing written by John Lodge is a long standing fan favourite.

A friend newly exploring the band’s output and stumbling across this clip was highly amused by Ray Thomas’s finger clicking, wrist twitching ‘dad dancing’ and it also seems odd Ray’s clothes resemble almost precisely those worn by Jon Pertwee in his first season as Doctor Who (apologies for these irrelevant asides..).

I do like the way that TV studios came in every colour and hue in the late 60s and 70s, not the boringly ubiquitous midnight blue of today.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band – In the Canyons of Your Mind
Colour Me Pop  colour 1968

Endearing English eccentricity and deserving of a place here.   Watch

The Incredible String Band – The Half-Remarkable Question
Once More With Felix colour 1968

From Julie Felix’s BBC show, Mike Heron on sitar, Robin Williamson on guitar – spellbinding!  Watch

The Move – I Can Hear the Grass Grow
Colour Me Pop • colour 1969

The Move were described by Joe Boyd in the documentary preceding this comp as ‘beer drinkers’ psychedelia’, said with fondness and acknowledgement of Roy Wood’s talents to absorb what was going on around him.  Another major contender might have been the insane Cherry Blossom Clinic but it was The Idle Race, a lesser band in the scheme of things, who were the major league Birmingham psychedelics.  Watch

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Hey Joe/Sunshine of Your Love
Happening for Lulu b/w 1969

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This must be the legendary appearance when the audience – and Lulu – were almost blown away by the sonic power of the Experience onslaught, in one of those strange but fascinating cultural collisions so characteristic of the late 60s.  A resplendant clip but I wonder what had immediately preceded it.  ‘Boom-Bang-a-Bang’?  Watch

Cream – White Room
Omnibus • colour 1969

The BBC were at the Royal Albert Hall to film Cream’s farewell concert in November 1968 for their regular arts slot.

The Moody Blues – Om
Late Night Line Up  colour 1968

My favourite clip of the evening, partly because I am a fan of the Moody Blues and partly because I always suspected that they had recorded more than just the one song (Ride My See-Saw) for Late Night Line Up and partly because it was wonderful to find the second song should turn out to be the blissful Om.

Here we have a blue suited John Lodge at the cello, Justin seated with sitar, Graham also seated at bongos, Ray poised with flute and Mike, of course, at the mellotron, an unusual ensemble.  You can almost feel that sense of questing and discovery which In Search of the Lost Chord – and psychedelia – was all about.  What we have here is an edited version though.

In a nice bit of synchronisation, the spiralling out light sequence which closed the piece in 1968 becomes one with the more geometric version which ends this programme.  Watch
Moody Blues Photo Credit: emmapeelpants via Compfight cc

Psychedelic Britannia
With a Little Help from Joe Cocker 
The Bee Gees at the BBC… and Beyond
Cilla Black at the BBC