I cannot put my finger on the exact year, but sometime in the mid-1970s my musical preferences got skewed towards the genre known as psychedelic rock. Perhaps it was just a function of the then prevailing zeitgeist—after all, it wasn’t too long after Woodstock had happened (although I must confess I was too little when it actually had) and the thick odours of flower-power, psychedelia and all of that still hung heavily in the air. Also, I had a precocious habit of hanging around with friends who were a bit older than me and who were already into psychedelic bands and their preferences rubbed on to me.
Later on, exploring further, I discovered less ubiquitous ones—Moby Grape (a San Francisco band whose albums were really difficult to come by in India), guitarist John Cipollina’s Quicksilver Messenger Service (another SF band that went through many line-up changes and many of whose records are seeing a revival now), The Great Society (famously Jefferson Airplane’s model-turned-singer Grace Slick’s first band and one that she formed with her then husband Jerry Slick) and quite a few more. The common thing between many of these lesser known (at least to me when I discovered them) bands was that they all seemed to originate in California’s San Francisco area. No prizes for guessing why—’Frisco was the psychedelic capital and its music scene was the epicentre of that genre’s explosive rise.
Not that every psychedelic rock band of the sixties and seventies hailed from San Francisco or the Bay Area. Some of the biggest, such as Pink Floyd and Cream, were British bands and I even discovered Os Mutantes, a Brazilian psychedelic band and a Greek one called (and I love this name) Aphrodite’s Child. Yet, it was not until just a few years back that I discovered The 13th Floor Elevators, a 1960s band from Austin, Texas, and one that may well be the best psychedelic rock band that you never heard.
The 13th Floor Elevators are a band that could have been very, very famous but they didn’t. It was a band that toured California at the height of psychedelic rock’s boom, in the mid 1960s, and found huge approval, both from music fans as well as from their peers there: they shared the stage with the likes of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape and Grace Slick; later, Janis Joplin played with them and briefly even considered joining them. Yet, back in those days, in their still conservative native state of Texas, they were misfits. Harangued by the law for their hippie-sh tendencies—yes, drugs—the band really weren’t as welcome as they’d been on their tour to California, but more on that in just a bit.
The 13th Floor Elevators have been named as the pioneers of psychedelic rock by many critics. Formed in 1965 by Roky Erickson (vocals), Stacy Sutherland (lead guitar) and Tommy Hall (jug—a glass or stoneware jug that is played with the mouth), The Elevators frequently played gigs and rehearsed under the influence of LSD and habitually smoked a lot of pot.
In a state then known for its pretty strict laws regarding such substances, their career was marked by skirmishes with the law. Yet, if you manage to acquire their albums you can hear sounds that are surprisingly like what you hear on many Jefferson Airplane albums, only many of the Elevator albums predate the Airplane ones! Drug abuse and complicated problems with their record label put paid to the band’s plans to go national in the US—they played gigs in their home state to limited but loyal audiences and, by 1968 (a year before Woodstock), they had disbanded.
It used to be difficult to lay ones hands on The 13th Floor Elevators’ albums (they have four, including a live one) because most of their master tapes are gone and only a limited number of the original vinyls remain. But last year, their second album, Easter Everywhere, was remastered and released in a two-CD set (the two CDs have the same playlist but one of them is the original mono version and the other a stereo). I’ve just got hold of that album and would recommend it, particularly the fuller, deeper, mono version, to every psychedelic rock aficionado. Listen to it and I’m sure you, like me, will lament the fact that this band didn’t get its due.