I'm a huge fan of '60s psychedelia, and this article looks at 12 of the most underrated psych-rockers of the decade.
Psyching You Out
Psychedelic rock emerged in the late 1960s when hallucinogenic drugs like LSD went mainstream. Psych rock bands took elements of blues and folk rock and added fuzz guitar and lengthy solos, setting the stage for hard rock and progressive rock to emerge in the 1970s.
In the U.K., psychedelia was represented by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Meanwhile, in the U.S. you had Texas bands like the 13th Floor Elevators and Moving Sidewalks, but San Francisco was the center of the psychedelic universe, with the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and Holding Company, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Iron Butterfly, and Jefferson Airplane all gaining a measure of fame.
This article is about the bands influenced by those bands. Though none of the following ever became household names and rarely show up on documentaries and "best of" lists, they still cranked out some sweet psych jams that defined an era.
12 Great Underground Psych Bands from the '60s
- Music Machine
- H.P. Lovecraft
- Masters Apprentices
- West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band
- Wimple Winch
- Pretty Things
- John Pantry (The Factory, Norman Conquest, Peter and the Wolves, The Bunch)
1. The Music Machine (Sean Bonniwell)
L.A.'s Music Machine was formed in 1966 by Sean Bonniwell, and they had a moderate hit with "Talk, Talk." They donned one black glove, wore all black, and all had black hair. Their songs were on the dark side, with a lot of social commentary about alienation, peer pressure, and paranoia.
They made a couple of albums, but bad management and industry greed led the band to become disenchanted with the music business. In the '80s and '90s, Bonniwell was touted as the Godfather of Garage Punk by a new generation of musicians and fans. Their music certainly inspired the punk and grunge genres that became popular years after they quit.
2. The Creation
The Creation were formed in early 1966 from the remnants of the band The Mark Four. They were from Cheshunt, England, and they made some decent music, especially the very Who-influenced "Making Time," which you may remember from its use in Wes Anderson's Rushmore. I recommend starting with the 1998 compilation, Our Music Is Red – with Purple Flashes, which was how Creation guitarist Eddie Phillips described his band's records.
The Creation were a part of a burgeoning freakbeat scene from 1966 to 1968. Phillips was actually the first person to put the violin bow to the guitar, doing so when Jimmy Page was shaking tambourine for Herman's Hermits. "Making Time," their debut single released in June 1966, featured Phillips bowing his guitar.
Man is a Welsh band who were really big in Wales, and perhaps all the UK, but basically unknown in America. They started out as the Bystanders and had a close harmony pop group sound. The change to Man saw them make a transition to a heavier sound, with a psychedelic progressive bent to their music.
Listen to the harmonica in "It is As it Must Be." It has a kind of coming-atcha-sideways feel when it enters at 2:53 with a key change. It's very appealing because it was a new way to approach the blues. This experimentalism comes up again and again in their music, whether it's bluesy, psychedelic, or soft and mellow. Their album Revelation (1969) is very much of its time, with beautiful vocal harmonies and dated philosophical musings.
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4. H.P. Lovecraft
A Chicago band named after the famous horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft was progressive and orchestral, but still rough around the edges. They could be trippy and laidback or angsty and garagey, as well as folky and adult sounding.
They came by that folk sound honestly. H.P. Lovecraft was formed by one-time folksinger George Edwards, who enlisted the talents of keyboardist Dave Michaels, a classically trained singer with a four-octave range.
Sagittarius was not an actual touring band. It was a pop side project for producer and songwriter Gary Usher (Byrds, Beach Boys, Dick Dale). After an initial single ("My World Fell Down") generated buzz, Usher went into the studio to produce an entire album.
Aiding him in this regard was Curt Boettcher, a fellow singer/songwriter who'd worked with The Association ("Along Comes Mary," 1966) and Tommy Roe ("Sweet Pea," 1966). The two men were backed by A-list session musicians for two albums of what came to be called "sunshine pop." Present Tense was released in 1968, followed the next year by The Blue Marble.
6. Masters Apprentices
The Masters Apprentices were an Australian rock band who began life in 1964 as The Mustangs, an instrumental surf band. Within a couple years, they changed their name to the Masters and started playing garage rock in the vein of The Animals, Yardbirds, and Pretty Things (see below).
This dirty rock 'n' roll sound is evident on their debut single, "Undecided" b/w "Wars or Hands of Time," released in October 1966. The B-side was actually the first Australian song to address the Vietnam War—into which young Aussie men were getting drafted—while the A-side broke into the Top 5 of the Australian charts.
Sadly, Bower suffered a nervous breakdown in late 1967, precipitating a revolving door of personnel changes. The band also moved away from rock 'n' roll and into hippie pop, psychedelia, and eventually hard rock and psychedelia. The band relocated to England in 1970 in a last-ditch effort to break into the U.K. market. It didn't work. The Masters Apprentices broke up in 1972 after four studio albums and one live record.
7. West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band
The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band was a psychedelic rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1965 as a west coast alternative to the Velvet Underground. They released five albums, six if you count their final record released under the name Markley—which sounds just like WCPAEB.
- Volume One (1966)
- Part One (1967)
- Vol. 2 (Breaking Through) (1967)
- Volume 3: A Child's Guide to Good and Evil (1968)
- Where's My Daddy? (1969)
- Markley, A Group (1970)
I first heard this band when I was 18, and they didn't take. Then, I fell in love with Part One and had to hear more. I liked how they could be wistful ("Shifting Sands"), wild ("Help, I'm a Rock"), and even innocent sounding ("I Won't Hurt You").
Vol. 2 was the second West Coast album I acquired, which I loved from the gate. The glorious "Buddha," the stilted "Unfree Child," and the banger "Carte Blanche" are all excellent songs.
The third WCPAEB album I got was Where's My Daddy?, which I think is one of their better albums. Just about every song is good. "Where Money Rules Everything" rocks. I love the sweet and sad "My Dog Back Home," which has some poignant lyrics. And "Outside, Inside" showcases the beautiful vocal harmonies of the Harris brothers.
Kaleidoscope is one of the greatest bands to come out of the Southern California music scene of the late 1960s and my favorite band of the era. Their live performances usually featured long, psychedelic fusions of Middle Eastern music, sometimes with flamenco dancers or belly dancers onstage.
They credibly tackled multiple genres. On 1968's A Beacon from Mars, we get an 11-minute Turkish jam ("Taxim"), followed by an English music hall pastiche of a Grandpa Jones cover ("Baldheaded End of a Broom"), which goes into Cajun music (Doug Kershaw's "Lousiana Man").
1969's Incredible! Kaleidoscope concludes with the mother of all psychedelic epics, "Seven Ate Suite," another 11-minute epic whose title was a reference to the song's time signature.
The band was a who's who of first-rate musicians:
- Chris Darrow: Kaleidoscope's chief songwriter was a folk and bluegrass musician before Kaleidoscope. He played guitar, bass, fiddle, violin, banjo, resonator guitar, lap steel guitar, and mandolin.
- David Lindley: Similar to Darrow, Lindley was well-known in the early '60s SoCal folk scene as a banjo prodigy. A multitalented musician, Lindley moved on from banjo to master acoustic and electric guitar, upright and electric bass, lap steel, mandolin, hardingfele, bouzouki, cittern, bağlama, gumbus, charango, cümbüş, oud, weissenborn, and zither.
- Solomon (Saul) Feldthouse: Feldthouse was born in Idaho, but from ages 6 to 10 lived in Turkey, where he learned Greek, Iraqi, Iranian, and Armenian music. Another of Kaleidoscope's multi-instrumentalists, Feldthouse played guitar, sax, dobro, bouzouki, vin, oud, dulcimer, and doumbek.
- Max Buda (aka Chester Crill aka Fenrus Epp): Born in eastern Europe and raised all over the midwest, Crill moved to California at a young age. He played harmonica, violin, bass, and keyboards.
9. Wimple Winch
Wimple Winch grew out of the Merseybeat act Just Four Men in early 1966. They released their first single, "What's Been Done," in April of that year, and it's a classic slice of freakbeat, particularly Barrie Ashall's funky bass playing. Their second single, "Save My Soul," was released in June of '66 and might even be described as proto-punk.
Wimple recorded some demos and released one more single ("Rumble on Mersey Square South," 1967), but they lost their housing and equipment when a fire broke out at a club where they'd become the house band (tragically, and somewhat ironically, called The Sinking Ship). No one was hurt, but in the wake of the fire, their label dropped the band. That pretty much killed all momentum for Wimple Winch, who disbanded in mid-1967.
Q65 were Dutch psychedelic garage rockers who formed in 1965 and were one of the most popular Nederbeat bands of all time. They were influenced by bluesmen like Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson, but also the punky and grimy early Kinks.
Featuring Wim Bieler's snarling vocals and the fuzz guitars of Joop Roelofs and Frank Nuyens, Q65 had a few hits in the Dutch Top 40 ("This is my life of badness/This is the life I live!"), but broke up in 1968 when Bieler was drafted into the army.
They regrouped in 1970 with a different lineup and recorded a pair of psychedelic albums, Afghanistan (1970) and We're Gonna Make It (1971). They released a final single under the name Kjoe in 1972 ("Hoonana") and then called it a day.
11. Pretty Things
Before there was The Pretty Things, there was Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, a London blues/R&B band featuring Dick Taylor and his Sidcup Art College schoolmates, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.
When Brian Jones was recruiting members for his band, the "Rollin' Stones," he convinced the LBB boys to join. There were too many guitarists, so Dick Taylor switched to bass, and then famously quit after five months when he was accepted to London's Central School of Art and Design. Phil May, a fellow Sidcup student, convinced him to form a new band.
The Pretty Things had some success with their early bluesy material. Their debut single, "Rosalyn," just missed the Top 40, but "Don't Bring Me Down" went Top 10 (October 1964), "Honey I Need" reached #13 (March 1965), and "Roadrunner" almost made the Top 10 in the Netherlands.
In future years, they recorded some great psychedelic beauties that went nowhere commercially, but developed a strong cult following. S.F. Sorrow is lauded for being the very first rock opera in 1968—though you could make an argument for the Kinks' Face to Face in 1966. Based on a short story by singer Phil May, the album tells the story of a main character (Sebastian F. Sorrow), following him from birth through love, war, tragedy, madness, and disillusionment in old age.
12. John Pantry
These days, John Pantry might be best known in England as the longtime presenter of the Inspirational Breakfast show on Premier Christian Radio. He retired from that position in 2020, but back in the 1960s, he was a singer, songwriter, engineer, and producer. He recorded Manfred Mann, the Bee Gees, and Small Faces, but he joined several other bands as singer, songwriter, and keyboard player.
At one time or another he wrote for and/or was part of The Factory, Norman Conquest, Peter and the Wolves, and The Bunch. If you really want to investigate this material, Tenth Planet Records released The Upside Down World Of John Pantry in 1999. It's a 19-track compilation featuring material from each of those bands.
The Bunch's "Looking Glass Alice" is a tongue-in-cheek account of a strange "silly princess" character who "takes out the girl that once was mine." For 1967, that sort of innuendo was almost unheard of! Norman Conquest's "Upside Down" (1968) sounds like maybe some of that Bee Gees mojo may have rubbed off on Pantry.
"Red Chalk Hill," which The Factory released as a single in October 1969, sounds like John Lennon by way of either the Bee Gees or Zombies. The Factory's 1968 single, "Path Through the Forest," sounds like it's inventing My Bloody Valentine 20+ years ahead of schedule. If you're into the origins of psych, this stuff is essential.