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The article and commentary below examine the history and use of plants and other substances which are capable of producing profound and dramatic shifts in perception. However, as the effects of all drugs are only temporary, one must seek truth and understanding in order to make real progress on the path towards enlightenment. [More]

Psychedelia Grooves Sounds and Lyrics

Psychedelic is defined as ‘mind revealing’ or ‘mind manifesting’ and the word is used to describe enhanced perception and imagination induced by ecstasy with or without the use of drugs. The term is also applied to illegal substances such as hashish, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide - also known just as acid), mescaline, psilocybin and opium which help to produce that state and to the use of abnormally brilliant colours in art and design which has been fostered by psychedelic experiments.

Merry Pranksters' bus, Furthur

The molecule LSD-25 was originally synthesised by Albert Hofmann in 1938 and tried on animals and when no interesting effects appeared, the molecule was consigned to the "useless" heap. However, a "presentiment" told Hofmann to retrace his steps and perform a new synthesis, which was completed on 16 April 1943. Hofmann accidently breathed in or swallowed some of the material, and had the merit to realize, when its effect came upon him, that something of momentous significance had happened. He assumed LSD was the cause, and when he tried it again the assumption proved right, opening a new chapter of history. In 1958 Hoffman also isolated and named the two psychoactive compounds found in magic mushrooms, psilocybin and psilocin, and developed the synthetic version of psilocybin which is used in current research.

Reasearch into psychoactive substances began in the 1950s and by the mid 1960s research was being done on the use of LSD in treating psychiatric illnesses and in creative problem solving in the United States. From 1965 its exploration "outside the laboratory" was also being popularised by writers like former Harvard professor Timothy Leary1 and William Burroughs. From their communal base in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco Jerry Garcia and his band the Grateful Dead pioneered the free festivals and "love ins" which defined the flower power generation, having previously been involved in the "acid tests"2 with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters.

Merry Pranksters' bus, Furthur

Young America rebelled against the authorities who were supporting the Vietnam war, strengthening an underground movement which effectively used music to spread its philosophies around the globe and in 1966 LSD was made illegal in the United States. But it was already too late. Many musicians had already "turned on" and were looking for new ways to express themselves and Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, the Byrds and others changed the face of pop music with their free-thinking and exotic approaches to lyrics and sound.

Meanwhile, over in Britain many of the bands who were part of the 1960’s British beat boom rapidly became part of the new direction ushered in by psychedelia. Released in 1966, the Beatles album Revolver was a clear indication of what was to come and was the first sign that the Beatles had it in them to become more than a straight pop band - the era of true invention both sonic and musical had indeed arrived. Other British acts to ride the first wave of psychedelia included the Who, the Kinks, the Move, the Small Faces and Pink Floyd (pioneers of the psychedelic light show).

Revolver album cover

During the 1960s and early 1970s analog multi-track tape recording technology developed rapidly, increasing the importance of the recording studio in making music. These new machines were initially four track, but there quickly followed in rapid succession eight, twelve, sixteen and a little later twenty-four track, which became industry standard by the mid 1970s.

Heavily overdriven guitar came to the fore thanks to the new guitar gods, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, while in Jamaica the ska-bluebeat advance into what became "rock steady" also occured around 1966 and by 1970 reggae had already been mutated into dub.

From San Francisco also came the first "Summer of Love," the funky muse of Sly and the Family Stone and the latin based rock of Santana, spiritualised by way of Trane and Miles, the man in the green shirt seeding jazz-rock fusion In a Silent Way, back east in New York. More elements to fuel an already bubbling cauldron of sounds.

The emergence of progressive rock at the end of the 1960’s was also greatly assisted by developments in recording technology. Among the new English progressive bands were Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Genesis (with lead singer Peter Gabriel), Yes and Roxy Music, the latter establishing the important profile of Brian Eno in the music industry.

Cover artwork from King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King (1970)

The Wailers had been quite successful commercially in the Caribbean during most of Jamaican rock's evolutionary phases but after signing with Chris Blackwell's Island Records in 1972, they issued a string of well received albums on the internationally distributed Island label, beginning with the album Catch a Fire. Bob Marley and the Wailers' mesmerising and often incendiary songs were customarily steeped in images of Third World strife and underscored by the turbid tenets of the Rastafarian faith as well as by symbols and maxims derived from Jamaican and African folklore. Rastas smoked "herb" to "help with their meditations" and the Rasta colours are richly symbolic:

Red fe de bloodshed inflicted on the sufferah since slavery days

 Gold fe de wealth stolen from the sufferah since Solomon's temple was laid low 

Green fe de blessed land in Africa dat awaits the black mon's return

Jazz rock fusion and progressive rock tended to become more complex and pompous as the 1970s rolled on, and with the arrival of punk, these aspects were to become loathed and reviled. The initial energy and enthusiasm which fueled the post-punk new wave was to bland out into "business as usual" as the '80's progressed. However, by the late 1980s psychedelia had embraced dance music and a new tribalism emerged: rave culture and the drug of choice - ecstasy.

During the early 1990's bands like The Shamen produced house anthems like "Ebeneezer Goode" and as the decade progressed, labels like On-U Sound and Axiom continued to push the boundaries of contemporary music by producing music which fused reggae and dub with jazz, blues and other exotic music from around the world. The film Modulations explores how advances in technology have enabled a wide range of electronica subgenres to flourish in the 1990s and beyond.

Cover art from Intanorumori by Material (2000)


Psychedelia has been fostered in the Western world largely through the use of synthetic drugs such as LSD but sacred plants - plants which cause visions and hallucinations - are a central feature of Shamanism in many regions of the world. To the modern urban Westerner the idea of visions induced by psychotropic means may seem like an aberration, perhaps even a type of decadence. Indeed, during the late 1960s when youthful exploration of psychedelics was rampant, one would often read in the press about mystical episodes being 'artificially' produced by drugs like LSD and psilocybin. The perception was that drugs invariably produced a distortion, a wavering from reality. In the pre-literate world of the Shaman the exact opposite is true. Here the sacred plants are believed to open the doors to the heavens to allow contact with the gods and spirits, and to permit access to a greater reality beyond.

The word 'drug' itself is a highly coloured term and is frequently associated with acts that are disapproved of in the mainstream. As a consequence the 'drug experience,' if one could call it that, is not something that is valued by modern Western culture as a whole. Little distinction exists in the popular mind between sacred or psychedelic drugs like those which feature in Shamanism, and the recreational, addictive or analgesic drugs which are seen as part of contemporary urban life.3 As far as we know, none of the plants with psychotropic properties used in shamanism are addictive. 4

Also, it is important that we make the distinction that these plants do not simply modify moods but are capable of producing dramatic and often profound changes in perception. In every way the sacred plant is a doorway to a realm that is awesome and wondrous, and the undertaking is not one which is taken lightly. To this extent then, the ritual use of halluginogenic plants is not recreational but transformative - one undertakes the vision quest to 'learn' or to 'see,' not to 'escape' into a world of 'fantasy.' The use of such plants extends back for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years.5

From the Aztec Peyotl, peyote (Lophora williamsii) was the first hallucinogenic plant discovered by Europeans in the Americas and was fiercely suppressed by the Christian missionaries because of its 'pagan associations.' 6 Today the Indians continue to regard the peyote cactus as divine, associating the region where it grows with paradise (Winkuta) and the plant itself with the Divine Deer, or Master of the Deer species.7 Shamanism views the three realms of the plant kingdom, the mineral kingdom and the animal kingdom as being inextricably connected. An experienced Shaman will call on allies in all three kingdoms.

Peyote Cactus

The most important of the Shamanic mushrooms in Mexico is the species Psilocibe mexicana. Psilocibe mushrooms provide a state of intoxication characterised by vivid and colourful hallucinations and also unusual auditory effects. It is for the latter reason the Mozatecs say, respectfully, that 'the mushroom speaks.' The Aztecs were in such awe of them that they called them Teonanacatl, which translates as 'divine flesh.' 8 Please note that there are species of mushroom similar to psilocibe mushrooms which are highly toxic and should not be ingested. Always be clear about what you're taking.

Psilocibe mexicana

The Morning Glory species Rivea corymbosa was known to the Aztecs as Ololiuhqui and they regarded it as a divinity. The seeds of this well known flowering vine contain ergot alkloids related to LSD.9

The tree climbing forest vine known botanically as Banisteriopsis caapi is the pre-eminent sacred plant of South America. Its bark is brewed together with Psychotria viridis to make a beverage which allows direct contact with the supernatural realm, enabling Shamans to contact ancestor or helper spirits and to have initiatory visions.10 Also known as Ayahuasca - a term which translates as 'vine of the soul,' the drug produces in many subjects the sensation of 'the flight of the soul' and intensely coloured and dramatic vision.11

Dating back at least three thousand years as a ritual sacrament, San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi) is one of the most ancient magical plants of South America. In Bolivia it is known as Achuma and today it is cut into slices, boiled for around seven hours in water and consumed to bring on the visions. The cactus contains mescaline and initially produces drowsiness and a state of dreamy lethargy.   However, this is followed by a remarkable lucidity of mental faculties. Finally one may experience 'a telepathic sense of transmitting oneself across time and matter.'12

San Pedro cactus

The psychedelic position is most threatening to the Establishment because, when fully and logically thought through, is an anti-drug, anti-addiction position. And make no mistake about it, the issue is drugs. How drugged shall you be? Or, put another way, how conscious shall you be? Who shall be conscious? Who shall be unconscious?13

The major problem with "drug use" as an approach is that the effects of any given substance are only temporary and there is no real merit in experiencing dramatic and profound shifts in perception unless insights so gained are able to be incorporated into one's being or consciousness as permanent aspects of awareness. [More]

More recently there has been a renewed interest in the use of psychoactive substances in the treatment of various psychiatric and mental health conditions, including PTSD, depression and addiction. The late James Oroc's book The new psychedelic revolution: the genesis of the visionary age (2018) is a good take on contemporary psychedelia and visionary art.

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1. Leary, T., Metzner, R. and Alpert, R. (1995).   The psychedelic experience.   New York: Citadel Press

2. Wolfe, T. (1983).   The electric kool-aid acid test.   New York: Bantam Books.

3. Drury, N. (1982).   The Shaman and the magician.   London: Arkana, p. 43.

4. ibid, pp 44 - 45

5. ibid, p 45

6. ibid, p 46

7. ibid, p 47

8. ibid, p 50

9. ibid, p 51

10. ibid, p 52

11. ibid, p 53

12. ibid, p 57

13. McKenna, T. (1992).   Food of the gods.   New York: Bantam Books


Black, D. (1998).   Acid: the secret history of LSD.   London: Vision.
Derogatis, J. (1996).   Kaleidoscope eyes.   London: Fourth Estate Limited.
Drury, N. (1989).   The elements of shamanism.   Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books.
Drury, N. (1982).   The Shaman and the magician.   London: Arkana.
Henke, J. and Puterbaugh (eds.). (1997).   Let me take you higher.   San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Jarnow, J. (2016).   Heads: a biography of psychedelic America.   New York: Da Capo Press.
Leary, T., Metzner, R. and Alpert, R. (1995).   The psychedelic experience.   New York: Citadel Press.
McKenna, T. (1992).   Food of the gods.   New York: Bantam Books
McKenna, T. (1991).   The archaic revival.   San Francisco: HarperCollins.
McKenna, T. (1993).   True hallucinations.   San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Oroc, James. (2018).   The new psychedelic revolution: the genesis of the visionary age.   Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.
Pollan, Michael. (2018).   How to change your mind.   New York: Penguin Press.
Schultes, R. and Hofmann, A. (1992).   Plants of the gods.   Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
Warter, C. (1994).   Recovery of the sacred.   Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc.
White, T. (1991).   Catch a fire: the life of Bob Marley.   London: Omnibus Press.
Wolfe, T. (1983).   The electric kool-aid acid test.   New York: Bantam Books.


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