First of all, what is psychedelia anyway? What makes a song or a group psychedelic? Like any genre, there are markers. The more of these markers or traits a song has, the more we can say it is psychedelic.
I.Lyrical content. What is the song about. Psychedlic songs tend to be about drugs or drug experiences, quirky people, a celebration of the unconventional, dreams or other surreal experiences, astrology, social commentary, or an examination of the ordinary. Psychedelia has an affinity for anti-war songs and for instrumentals. Psychedelic lyrics rarely deal with traditional interpersonal relationships, romance, places, careers, or the first person ("I") or even the second person ("you").
II. Compared to what came before, the music is often unconventional. The music is often trance-like and favors extended solos. It often employs odd meters and phrasing. It sometimes uses unconventional instruments like the sitar or anachronistic instrumentation such as a brass band or a string quartet. Besides the usual electric guitar, electric bass and drums, the electronic organ is often a key instrument. (Synthesizers were in their infancy, were expensive, and weren't yet suitable touring instruments.)
III. Psychedelia makes heavy use of studio and other electronic and tape effects, including fuzz, the wah-wah pedal, distortion, flanging, filtering. heavy reverb, looping, and backwards and altered speed tape.
IV. The artists themselves often had "the look": extremely long and unkempt hair, heavy facial hair, tie-dyed and/or flowing clothing, beads, peace symbols, native American garb. Favored transportation was a gaily-colored VW microbus. Some groups purported to live communally (and a few actually did).
V. Group names tended to be odd or nonsensical (Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, It's a Beautiful Day, Balloon Farm, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd) and often involved food (Moby Grape, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Electric Prunes, Chocolate Watchband, Vanilla Fudge, Lemon Pipers, Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Ultimate Spinach). Song and album titles tended to be similarly odd.
VI. Performances tried to create a total sensory, even disorienting, experience, including light shows, drug use, extreme volume, and lengthy, trance-inducing pieces. The goal was to achieve an altered consciousness. Album artwork tended to be fanciful and to favor bright and/or jarring colors or other optical effects. The purchaser sometimes had to study the artwork to understand the meaning. Typefaces were selected for their look, not for their legibility.
So, why did psychedelia happen in the first place?
I. Key technological advances occurred in electronics, musical instruments (notably, the electric guitar), and in the studio.
A. Advances in solid body electric guitars and their peripherals allowed musicians to generate sounds unheard before.
B. Amplification technology advanced, allowing the music to be really loud, both indoors and out.
C. Studio recording equipment became much more capable (multi-track recording, mixing, editing, and higher fidelity).
D. Home stereo hi-fi systems became much more prevalent, enlarging the market for vinyl records or tape.
E. The rise of FM radio created a hi-fi medium that needed content. Low audience numbers in the early days permitted experimentation without negative consequence to the station owner.
F. Color TV became much more widely adopted. Vibrant color became a fad of sorts. Psychedelia was color-friendly.
G. Colorful, pulsating light shows were created to enhance performances.
II. The counter-culture (and alternate cultures) became popular. Conventions were challenged. Society changed in ways that fostered psychedelia.
A. Drug use, especially hallucinogens and marijuana, became more widespread and socially acceptable.
B. The Women's Lib movement gained traction. That and The Pill caused sexual mores to ease.
C. People lost faith in traditional institutions, especially government due to disillusion with the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights movement attracted many followers. Disinformation put Communist leaders and revolutionaries (Che, Mao, Ho Chi Minh) in a favorable light. Counter-cultural messaging was received favorably.
D. There was a desire to escape the confusing modern world ("tune in, turn on, drop out") and revert to the perceived simplicity and purity of earlier times.
E. Improved and more prevalent communication and transportation exposed more people to non-native cultures. Specifically, hundreds of thousands of Vets were exposed to Asian culture, and the Beatles reached out to Indian culture and religious personalities. People sought to incorporate elements of these cultures into their own.
III. Cultural leaders, notably the Beatles in their music, beginning with Norwegian Wood and the Rubber Soul album, adopted technology, hallucinogens, and the Indian culture. This imprimateur heavily influenced other artists to explore similar avenues.
IV. Government programs (including the Great Society in the US and the welfare state in Western Europe) made it easier for people to live without having gainful or economically-productive employment, allowing some of them to become musicians without necessarily having a paying fan base.
V. Wealth. The US was a wealthy country in the mid-to-late 1960s. There was a market for artistic product, including music. Also, undoubtedly some lightly employed hippies and certainly many college students were being financially supported by their families, giving some of them the opportunity to pursue uneconomic lifestyles, including music experimentation.
Why did Psychedelia die?
Like any fad, its time comes and goes. I think these factors hastened its demise.
I. The novelty wore off. You can only flange so often, and sitars get boring. The audience was ready to move on.
II. The musicians moved on, partly by choice, partly due to circumstance. A few died (Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison). A few had drugs get the best of them either temporarily (Clapton) or permanently (Syd Barrett, Peter Green). Many just moved into different genres. I think psychedelia itself morphed into progressive rock and hard rock.
III. FM radio became more commercial as its audience grew. DJs no longer has the option to play lengthy psychedelic cuts or other experimental music.
IV. The dark side of humanity emerged. Three days of peace and love at Woodstock became Hell's Angels, bad trips and homicide at Altamont. Counter-cultural agents turned violent as we saw the rise of the Black Panthers, The Youth International Party ("yippies") and the Weather Underground.
V. Last but not least, you couldn't dance to most psychedelic music. Not too many years later, disco filled that void in spades.
So, what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Either way, the late 60s were a fun and unique period in history.