Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory

Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory

Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory

Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory


Recognized for its distinctive musical features and its connection to periods of social innovation and ferment, the genre of psychedelia has exerted long-term influence in many areas of cultural production, including music, visual art, graphic design, film, and literature. William Echard explores the historical development of psychedelic music and its various stylistic incarnations as a genre unique for its fusion of rock, soul, funk, folk, and electronic music. Through the theory of musical topics--highly conventional musical figures that signify broad cultural concepts--and musical meaning, Echard traces the stylistic evolution of psychedelia from its inception in the early 1960s, with the Beatles' Rubber Soul and Revolver and the Kinks and Pink Floyd, to the German experimental bands and psychedelic funk of the 1970s, with a special emphasis on Parliament/Funkadelic. He concludes with a look at the 1980s and early 1990s, touching on the free festival scene, rave culture, and neo-jam bands. Set against the cultural backdrop of these decades, Echard's study of psychedelia lays the groundwork and offers lessons for analyzing the topic of popular music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


An hour later, with ten more miles and the visit to the World’s Biggest Drug Store
safely behind us, we were back at home, and I had returned to that reassuring but
profoundly unsatisfactory state known as “being in one’s right mind.”

—Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, 1954

There are a lot of things this book does not get into. For any writer on music, that is a familiar situation, because it is notoriously difficult to fit even a small part of the listening experience into words. a few seconds of listening will uncover countless nuances that were not even hinted at, no matter how thorough the author aims to be. This rift is heightened when music is tied to personal experiences and states of mind and feeling that are ineffable, profoundly atypical, and ultimately inexpressible. This book does not try to analyze the aesthetic and emotional landscape of psychedelic music, let alone psychedelic experience. It is about something else: how psychedelia developed as an interlinked family of styles, a set of conventional codes and typical features. It is in turn about how psychedelia drew upon preexisting styles and codes, capitalizing on their existing meanings and forging new ones. Aldous Huxley talks about the world of daily life, how it frames and reabsorbs the transient psychedelic experience. He presents this mainly as a loss or a missed opportunity. However, in that framing world and in those framing discourses, a whole language of styles and signs grows up, which can be a fascinating area of study on its own.

Issues of this sort also arise for a different reason, because music signifies in a variety of different ways simultaneously. Some musical meaning is highly affective, linked to tantalizingly ineffable gestures and emotions. While we are listening to or performing music, these gestures and emotions can feel entirely clear and distinct, yet they evade verbalization. At the same time, some musical meanings are more like words, highly conventional signifiers linked to clearly delineated cultural concepts. This second sort of meaning has been theorized in various ways, but one of the most powerful and current of its models is the theory of musical topics. Topic theory is explained in chapter 1, but briefly, a topic is a highly conventional musical figure that signifies a broad cultural concept. the topical signifier originally gains its meaning through direct historical and contextual connection with the cultural concept, then over time the sign becomes . . .

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