Since the birth of psychedelia in the 1960s, music and psychedelic drugs have had a pretty symbiotic relationship. While psychedelic rock probably casts your mind back to figures like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, in more recent years artists from a wide span of genres have taken to using conscious expanding substances as a means of exploring creativity. Whether used to create music or to simply enhance the listening experience, psychedelics have firmly cemented their place in the music world. We can now hear the influence of mind-altering experiences in a wide spectrum of artists, from rappers to country singers. Whilst this is by no means an exhaustive list of love letters to psychedelics, it’s certainly an eclectic one:
The Beatles – ‘She Said She Said’, Revolver (1966)
Let’s start with the classics; no list would be complete without a Beatles mention so it’s a good place to begin. Whilst there are dozens of songs to choose from, the trip that inspired ‘She Said She Said’ is a particularly interesting one. The story is said to involve John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr taking LSD with actor Peter Fonda, who recalled a childhood near-death experience to the group at a party. Bringing up the subject of mortality historically isn’t the smartest thing to do on acid, and the unnerving experience inspired Lennon to pen the track (though he tells it from a woman’s point of view). The whimsical delivery of the lines ‘she said I know what it’s like to be dead’ captures the heady and unnerving experience of tripping with the wrong crowd. There’s nothing like the mention of death to spur on an existential crisis. The lyrics perfectly encapsulate such a spiral – ‘I know that I’m ready to leave, because you’re making me feel like I’ve never been born.’
Jimi Hendrix – ‘Purple Haze’, Are You Experienced (1967)
Though the title of the track lends its name to a weed strand, there’s no mistaking this epic psychedelic number is about the ultimate LSD experience. The iconic track is visceral and the distortion in the opening guitar riffs are huge. Hendrix’s suggestive lyrics capture the all-encompassing feeling of losing your sense of reality. As he sings in contradictions such as ‘don’t know if I’m coming up and down’ and ‘is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?’ Hendrix perfectly emulates the sensory overload one feels when in the midst of a trip. The layered voice of Hendrix’s ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ throughout the song feel like he’s behind you, whispering directly into your ears.
Talking Heads – ‘And She Was’, Little Creatures (1985)
The jaunty track from the band’s sixth album details the story of a ‘blissed out hippie chick’ frontman David Byrne knew, and the journey her acid trip takes her on. The upbeat song depicts what it feels like to be at one with the world as her senses meld together. The line in the opening verse ‘and she could hear the highway breathing’ perfectly depicts this, and the trippy video directed by Jim Blashfield is a beautiful visual accompaniment to the track. Her transcendent experience is shown as she flies over the world, with the cartoonish video serving as the perfect visual alongside this LSD-inspired track.
Chance the Rapper – ‘Acid Rain’, Acid Rap (Mixtape) (2013)
Chance the Rapper’s debut mixtape is an ode to acid, and he has described it as an allegory for LSD itself. The jazz-infused song takes you on a journey, and his descriptive lyrics allow you to feed off his thoughts and observations as he ‘trips acid in the rain’. His youthfulness and positivity shine through his effortless flow, and you feel like you’re next to him simply walking down the street taking it all in. The song is laid-back yet funky, with psychedelic guitar riffs weaved subtly throughout.
A$AP Rocky – ‘L$D’, AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP (2015)
A$AP Rocky has been candid with his love for LSD and cites it as a creative source, most evident on his song dedicated to the drug. Psychedelic undercurrents run through the track from the start, with the opening distortion sounds evoking trippy feelings whether you’re under the influence or not. Rocky perfectly encapsulates the all-encompassing experience of a trip, with the song quite literally taking you on board for the ride. In reference to the track Rocky told Noisey, ‘I’m musically giving you LSD. Visually, sonically, artistically,’ and it’s fair to say he’s achieved this. The video is also a visual feast, as colours are enhanced, lights meld and then glimmer into psychedelic patterns. He used the experimental art film Enter the Void (2009) as a source of visual inspiration.
LCD Soundsystem – ‘american dream’, american dream (2017)
LCD Soundsystem’s eponymous song from american dream (2017) serves as a morning-after-the night-before type narrative. It tells the story of a sobering comedown after an intense night, as the opening lyrics ‘you took acid and looked in the mirror, watched the beard crawl around your face’ paints an unnerving image. The instrumental is winding and dreamlike, creating an almost nightmarish daze for the song’s 6 minute and 7 second run time, adding to the feeling of existential dread. It may be one of the less cheery songs on the list, but it is atmospheric and psychedelic all the same. Maybe looking in a mirror on acid really isn’t a good idea.
Kacey Musgraves – ‘Slow Burn’, Golden Hour (2018)
Kasey Musgraves is not your run-of-the-mill traditional country artist. It turns out she’s more of the weed-smoking, acid-taking type. The Grammy-nominated singer revealed to The New York Times that she penned the chorus of ‘Slow Burn’ during a ‘spiritual journey’ on LSD, and proposed that taking things that take you out of an egotistical state are a great thing to do – in moderation, she adds. What results is a calm meditative piece simply about observing and appreciating the things around you. The title of the song refers to many things; the slow burn of a great relationship, a nice glass of wine, and of course a euphemism for an LSD trip. The soft country guitar with subtle psychedelic inflections weaved in creates a still, transcendent feeling that washes over you as you listen. Musgraves captures the calming feelings of watching things play out and simply letting them.
Harry Styles – ‘She’, Fine Line (2019)
Since his solo career began in 2017 Harry Styles’ sound sits somewhere between commercial pop and 70s inspired soft rock. His sophomore album in particular demonstrates how the likes of The Beatles have inspired his own sound and writing process. He told Rolling Stone Magazine when writing Fine Line (2019) that he and his collaborators would ‘do [magic] mushrooms, lie down on the grass, and listen to Paul McCartney’s Ram (1971) in the sunshine’ as a means of sparking creativity. Tracks like ‘She’ most clearly demonstrate how the psychedelic greats have rubbed off onto his own sound, whilst he retains his pop-sensibility. A dreamy, hazy song with a soft psychedelic guitar riff running through, ‘She’ details a lazy Californian day spent dreaming about an imaginary dream girl. Styles also revealed that he got so high he ended up biting off the tip of his tongue: ‘We almost called the albums Mushrooms & Blood,’ he jokes. Maybe it was better that he didn’t.
The Flaming Lips – ‘Mother I’ve Taken LSD’, American Head (2020)
The creative and at times nonsensical lyrics from The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots are commonly thought to have been written on LSD, but the band’s newer release takes a more on-the-nose approach. As the title suggests, ‘Mother I’ve Taken LSD’ is a confessional and melancholic lament, as Wayne Coyne sings about thinking acid ‘would set him free.’ The strings in the background elevate the sombre tone, blending beautifully with the soft, psychedelic guitar that adds a level of transcendence. He goes on to sing about how his psychedelic experiences have shown him a level of sadness and pain in the world he cannot unsee.
Jon Hopkins – Music For Psychedelic Therapy (2021)
Whilst the previously mentioned tracks are more about artists’ experience with psychedelics, Jon Hopkins’ album suggests that the relationship between music and psychedelics is changing. The ambient artist, best known for his collaborations with Brian Eno, is one of the first to make music specifically designed to accompany a therapeutic trip. With no beats, the album is a beautiful sensory journey, spanning 63 minutes in total. The final track ‘Sit Around the Fire’ is particularly stunning, as we hear the fire crackle and the voice of the late spiritual teacher Ram Dass’ guiding us with his voice. Even the album’s title suggests that this is the first attempt of a project of its kind, though hopefully it won’t be the last.
Listen to the entire playlist on leafie’s Spotify channel here: