Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory

By Traut, Don | Notes, December 2018 | Go to article overview

Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory


Traut, Don, Notes


Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory. By William Echard. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017. [291 p. ISBN 9780253025661 (hardback), $85; ISBN 9780253026453 (paperback), $35; ISBN 9780253026590 (e-book), $34.99.] Music examples, appendices, bibliography, index.

Almost any fan of rock music has at least some general sense of psychedelia and the role it played in rock's history. A product of 1960s hippie culture, psychedelia and its music conjures up an array of images: drugs, distortion, Timothy Leary, San Francisco, and many others. All of these elements played a role in establishing a body of music widely referred to as psychedelia, with such iconic songs as the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and almost anything by Jimi Hendrix. It is somewhat less likely that rock fans would be aware of the many evolutions and the lasting influences of this style. A book-length study devoted to this important cog in rock's history is a logical step, one taken by William Echard in Psychedelic Popular Music: A History through Musical Topic Theory.

For those new to psychedelic music, topic theory, or both, Echard provides lucid definitions. In framing his definition of psychedelic music, he explains the important role of listeners, who establish the music's "intent" to enhance the psychedelic "experience," which, over time, forms the psychedelic "style" (p. 4). (For other definitions of psychedelia, see John Covach, What's That Sound?: An Introduction to Rock and Its History [New York: W. W. Norton, 2006] and Walter Everett, The Foundations of Rock: From "Blue Suede Shoes" to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009].) He also includes a concise definition of topic theory: "a topic is a highly conventional musical figure that signifies a broad cultural concept" (p. 1). For example, a twangy guitar might evoke a Western topic, or a theremin might evoke a space topic. His work here is grounded in the seminal writing of Leonard Ratner, whose development of topics for classical concert music continues in the work of Robert Hatten, V. Kofi Agawu, and others (Leonard G. Ratner, Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style [New York: Schirmer Books, 1980]; V. Kofi Agawu, Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991]; and Robert Hatten, Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004]).

The core of the book divides into five chapters framed by an introduction and an epilogue. Three appendices cite all the songs discussed (appendix A) and provide lists of the "San Francisco Poster Sample" (appendix B) and detailed notes on transcriptions (appendix C). An impressive list of references--including a range of writings on semiotics, popular music, and psychedelia--precedes a helpful and thorough index.

In chapter 2, Echard begins his chronological account with the Yardbirds, because later artists adopted all of their topics and style traits. The band's three trailblazing guitarists, who all came of age at a time when new technology was transforming the timbral palette for guitar and other instruments, were the primary reasons for this influence. Indeed, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck were all members of the Yardbirds in the early 1960s, when several new guitar effects came along, including fuzz/distortion, reverb/echo, and tremolo/vibrato. Echard addresses these by showing what they signified. In a section on the "twang guitar continuum" (pp. 33-35), he aligns spaghetti Westerns, spy movies, and surf movies as all related by a particular sound. Then, the "fuzz guitar continuum" (pp. 35-37) does the same, connecting Indian topics with those of "Orientalism" and others (pp. 55-64). Ultimately, we see how these effects evolved from tools used by psychedelic bands to depict desired topics to central signifiers of the psychedelic topic itself. …

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