San Francisco Psychedelic Rock

San Francisco in the 1960s

smhapsyIt was at first a haven for the beatniks who were seeking out the real Beat Generation poets and writers, jazz players and artists. The commercial folk scene was already in full bloom with the Kingston Trio, and local favorite Johnny Mathis was crooning pop ballads.

After the Beatles hit America, bands started coming out of the woodwork hoping to be the Bay Area’s answer to the Merseybeat sound. They in turn inspired a number of loud “garage pop” bands, some of which were inspirations for the punk movement of the 1970s, and a new breed of “garage psychedelic pop” bands, some of which are represented in this show. Many of these psychedelic bands evolved into rock groups that carried the San Francisco sound to the rest of the country and Europe.

By the mid-1960s the focus shifted to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, which became a haven for the new hippies who were seeking the meaning of life, acid, and the counterculture. The psychedelic experience inspired a lot of improvisational music, or jamming, that gave rock an entirely new dimension for expression. The lyrics drifted to new subjects beyond boy-meets-girl and fast-car, tending more to absurd descriptions of the inward journey of the mind, or the counterculture lifestyle. Psychedelic experiences suggested more use of feedback and distortion, more sound effects, and in some cases more and in others less orchestration. Some bands were committed to the lifestyle as well as to playing while stoned. All bands were challenged by this new mood of innovation.


VideoHaight-Ashbury in the Sixties!

Video: Moby Grape on the Mike Douglas Show doing a spirited rendition of “Omaha (Listen My Friends)” (see Rockument’s San Francisco 1960s playlist on YouTube for more).

GrahamSan Francisco was a hotbed of experimental music. Any history of experimental or improvisational music on the West Coast would have to include, if not start with, the jazz scene in the Fillmore district of San Francisco in the late 1940s and through the 1950s. The locus of activity was Jimbo’s Bob City, on Buchanan and Post. This chicken shack hangout blossomed into one of the greatest jazz joints of all time, stewarded by the “Bill Graham” of Frisco Jazz, Jimbo Edwards. Billie Holliday, Dexter Gordon, and Pony Poindexter were regulars; Charlie Parker stopped for a visit and blew everyone away. Hollywood stars and jazz giants from New York (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong) made Jimbo’s a regular stop on their tours of the West Coast. John Coltrane showed up as a young man and learned some chops there.

The early beat poets and writers, including Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, discovered bop and opened the doors of places like Jimbo’s to the new white bohemians. They served as a cultural bridge to the next generation, to musicians like the Grateful Dead‘s Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir; to Big Brother’s James Gurley and Janis Joplin; to the Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady; to Carlos Santana and many others who had grown up with folk, r&b, and blues, and blew their minds with improvisational jazz, moving them into an entirely new direction.

“Laugh Laugh” and “Just a Little” (Ron Elliot) by the Beau Brummels

The Beau Brummels were the first Top 40 pop group in San Francisco in the 1960s, with a Merseybeat-meets-folk style. This song was a hit in January, 1965, heralding the new sound of the second half of the Sixties. Famous Top 40 DJs Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue and “Mighty Mitch” Bobby Mitchell signed this group to their new Autumn Records label, which was instrumental in breaking out new S.F. psychedelic music.

“You Were On My Mind” by We Five

The We Five were discovered by the manager of the San Francisco folk superstars the Kingston Trio, Frank Werber. They were Univ. of SF folkniks that scored a Top 5 hit with this song, then vanished. However, they inspired Marty Balin to start Jefferson Airplane with a similar musical and vocal style.

“She’s My Baby” (James Alaimo, Paul Curcio, Steven Alaimo) and “Sit Down I Think I Love You (Stephen Stills) by The Mojo Men

Sounds a bit like the Doors, right? Except they were a few years before the Doors, when Jim Morrison was still in high school. This group started in Miami and travelled to S.F. in 1965, and were signed by “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue for Autumn Records. They opened for the first Rolling Stones concert in San Francisco, at the Civic Auditorium, and inspired a number of budding psychedelic musicians including the Mystery Trend. The Mojo Men were Jim Alaimo (vocals, bass), Paul Curcio (guitar), Don Metchick (organ), and Dennis DeCarr (drums). “She’s My Baby” was produced by a young Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) for Donahue-Mitchell Productions and released as a single in Feb. 1966 on Autumn Records (on Reprise in June). On reissues, the group is known as Sly Stone and the Mojo Men.

“Johnny Was a Good Boy” (R. Nagle, R. Cuff) by The Mystery Trend

The Mystery Trend were directly inspired by the Rolling Stones concert featuring the Mojo Men mentioned above, and were the first group to play the Matrix, S.F.’s first psychedelic music club. They formed in 1964: Ron Nagle (vocals, clavinet), Bob Cuff (guitar, vocals), Larry Bennett (bass), and John Luby (drums, vocals). The Mystery Trend (named after a misinterpretation of the Bob Dylan line, “the mystery tramp”, in “Like a Rolling Stone”) continued through the Summer of Love but never had a hit. This single appeared on Verve Records in March of 1967. Ron Nagle performed with the Durocs after Mystery Trend broke apart.

“Codine Blues” (Buffe Sainte-Marie), “We’re Not on the Same Trip”, “Ain’Got the Time”, and “Alabama Bound” (Charlatans) by the Charlatans

RedDogSaloonExteriorThe Charlatans were the first truly psychedelic band that actually played while on acid. They were directly inspired by the Mystery Trend. The Charlatans started their career in 1964 at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City near Reno in the high Sierras, drawing audiences from their friends in the Haight-Ashbury (notably the original Family Dog commune, and Kesey’s Merry Pranksters). Later that summer they moved back to S.F. and started playing at the Matrix and other newly opened venues, including the Fillmore.

The Charlatans included Richard Olsen on bass, Mike Wilhelm on guitar and vocals, Dan Hicks on drums and vocals, and Mike Ferguson on keyboards, with George Hunter on style (he created that Wild West Victorian hippie look). Dan Hicks went on to form Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks. Ferguson was one of the first to open a “head shop” in the Haight-Ashbury, called “The Magic Theatre for Madmen Only” (from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf). Hunter was one of the first Haight-Ashbury poster artists, along with Family Dog member Alton Kelley.

B0000004EI.01.TZZZZZZZA version of “Alabama Bound” first appeared on The Amazing Charlatans album (Big Beat-UK). The Charlatans musical style could be described as early wild-west-Victorian-hippie rock, and was appreciated and even partially copied by many S.F. bands that came later, including the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Country Joe and the Fish. I’ve heard the Grateful Dead do a version of “Alabama Bound” in tribute (the same arrangement), along with David Crosby.

“Hello Hello” and “Maybe in a Dream” (T. MacNeil, P. Kraemer) by Sopwith Camel

Sopwith Camel consisted of Terry MacNeil (piano, guitar), Peter Kraemer (vocal, sax, flute), Martin Beard (bass), and Norman Mayell (drums, marimba, harmonica). The second band in S.F. to be signed to a record label, the Camel scored a Top 30 hit with this song. Its members were intellectual — MacNeil came from the Art Institute, Mayell was a Merry Prankster, and Kraemer, whose mother was part of an artists’ circle in Nevada often visited by Salvadore Dali, was part of the scene at 1090 Page (Big Brother, the Family Dog, etc.) in the Haight. The group disbanded after its first album, and recorded a comeback album in the late 1970s.

Check out this Sopwith Camel fan site with a complete history of the band.

“Let Me In” (Marty Balin, Paul Kantner) by Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane’s debut show was on August 13, 1965 at the Matrix nightclub in San Francisco. The original lineup for the Jefferson Airplane was Marty Balin (vocals), Paul Kantner (guitar), Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar), Jack Casady (bass), and Skip Spence (drums), with Signe Toly Anderson (female vocalist) — very similar in makeup as the We Five. The band performed the first concert for Bill Graham at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in February of 1966. This song was recorded between Dec. 1965 and March 1966 in Hollywood at RCA Studios.

“The Only Time is Now” by the Grateful Dead (as the Emergency Crew) and “Don’t Ease Me In” (Henry Thomas) by the Grateful Dead

Dead“The Only Time is Now” is one of several unreleased demos by the Emergency Crew (previously the Warlocks) before they renamed themselves to the Grateful Dead, with Phil Lesh on vocals. Note the folk-rock sound and the lack of a lead guitar — Jerry Garcia was still playing folk-style chords like the Byrds. This recording was part of a two-track demo session for Donahue-Mitchell’s Autumn Records, recorded at Mothers (Tom Donahue’s club) in SF in Nov. 1965. The song has never appeared in the Dead’s catalog until the release of the Golden Road box set (at left) but is a prized gem of many Dead fans’ tape collections.

The Grateful Dead stretch out a bit with “Don’t Ease Me In”, their first studio recording as “The Grateful Dead”. It saw very limited distribution and the group remained virtually unknown outside of the Bay Area. It was the Grateful Dead’s first attempt at a single, for Scorpio Records, in early 1966. The song is an old blues tune by Henry Thomas (see the Country “Hillbilly” Blues show). Check out Rockument’s History of the Grateful Dead.

“Cream Puff War” (Jerry Garcia) by the Grateful Dead

This song is from the Grateful Dead‘s first album (also available in the Golden Road box set), and one of the few Dead songs written solely by Jerry Garcia. Sessions for first album were said to have been fueled by excessive use of amphetamines, and this song certainly exhibits a kind of crazy energy.

“Somebody to Love” (Darby Slick), “White Rabbit”, and “Free Advice” (Grace Slick) by Grace Slick and the Great Society

Grace+Slick+grace2The Great Society was formed by brothers Darby and Jerry Slick and Jerry’s wife Grace, but lasted only a year. This song was the flip side of the Great Society’s first single, “Somebody to Love” (which Grace Slick took with her, along with “White Rabbit” to the Jefferson Airplane, which later made a hit out of both). In many ways it reveals the most original side of the band’s musical style, playing these East-inspired whirling dervishes at least a year before the Beatles and Stones started using the sitar. The single was released on Autumn Records’ North Beach label.

“She Has Funny Cars” (Jorma Kaukonen, Marty Balin), “Somebody to Love” (Darby Slick), and “White Rabbit” (Grace Slick) by Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane was at first the most popular of the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury bands and the first to have a hit record with a major recording label. Skip Spence left in the middle of the second album (after writing “My Best Friend”), to be replaced by Spencer Dryden as drummer, and Signe left after the first album, to be replaced by Grace Slick as vocalist in October. These songs are from the second album, Surrealistic Pillow. The first two songs open the album and are memorable as a soundtrack for the Sixties, and the third, of course, takes you to Wonderland to “Feed your head!”

“Hey Grandma” (J. Miller, D. Stevenson), “Omaha” and “Indifference” (Skip Spence) by Moby Grape

B000000DP9.01.TZZZZZZZMoby Grape were the most hyped of the S.F. bands by the L.A. music machinery. They were a group of S.F. and L.A. musicians led by Skip Spence, guitarist, songwriter, and former drummer for Jefferson Airplane. Less than six months after being “discovered” by Columbia Records’ David Rubinson, the group released its first album, and the record company released no less than six singles at once. To cap the hype overkill, the record company rented out the Avalon Ballroom in S.F. to put on a huge party. All the music heavies were there, Janis Joplin got up to sing with Moby Grape, and radio station KFRC donated 10,000 orchids which littered the floor. But later that night, after the party, three members of the band were busted up on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County for having sex with underage girls. The singles were removed from radio stations around the country (due to the morals charge, which made headlines), and the subsequent tour degenerated into chaos as Moby Grape were thrown out of many cities before they could even play.

Then, during recording sessions in New York for the group’s second album, Wow, Skip Spence went over the psychedelic line and had to be restrained from chopping up the studio with an axe. He was hospitalized at Bellevue for about six months while Moby Grape finished the album. But Spence, by the time he was released, was also through with Moby Grape. He immediately hopped on a motorcycle (reportedly in his pajamas) to Nashville, where he recorded Oar, a solo album on which he played all the instruments, now an underground classic (it sunk like a stone when first released). Spence was plagued by schizophrenia the rest of his life and never achieved the glory he deserved. He died in April, 1999.

“Hey Grandma” is an excellent song that combines Peter Lewis’ country-western influence (on rhythm guitar) with Bob Mosley’s rhythm and blues orientation (on bass guitar) and Skip Spence’s lunatic playing (rhythm guitar) with Jerry Miller (lead guitar), and Don Stevenson (on drums). “Omaha” (a.k.a. “Listen my friends”) was the group’s most notable single that has endured as an influence on modern rock, covered with crystalline precision in the 1980s by the ad-hoc group the Golden Palominos (featuring R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on vocals). “Indifference” is an R&B romp through psychedelia. Check the Official Moby Grape page for the band’s history and current activities.

“Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” and “Bass Strings” (Joe McDonald) by Country Joe McDonald & the Fish

Country Joe started out as a folksinger, raised by Communist parents (he claimed he was named after Josef Stalin), singing protest songs by himself and with the 13-member Instant Action Jug Band in Berkeley. Barry Melton (lead guitar) joined the Jug Band just as it turned electric, along with Bruce Barthol (bass), David Cohen (organ), and John Francis Gunning (drums) who was later replaced by Chicken Hirsch. The Fish’s official debut in August, 1966, was an opening slot for Quicksilver and the Dead at the Fillmore.

Country Joe and the Fish alternated songs of political satire with outrageous psychedelia — the only famous band of that period that was successful in its appeal to both leftists and hippies. These songs appeared on the group’s first electric album. Considered the most psychedelic album of its day, Electric Music for the Mind and Body demonstrates Country Joe and the Fish in their prime as a psychedelic band. Check out Country Joe’s site and the official Country Joe & the Fish site.

“All is Loneliness” (L. Hardin, arranged by Big Brother) and “Down on Me” (Arranged by Janis Joplin) by Big Brother & the Holding Company w/Janis Joplin

B00000286P.01.TZZZZZZZOriginally released as part of the Mainstream label LP, “All is Loneliness” was among the first to be recorded by Big Brother with Janis. Big Brother and the Holding Company were Janis Joplin (vocals), Peter Albin (bass), Sam Andrew (guitar), James Gurley (lead guitar), and Dave Getz (drums). “Down on Me” was originally released as a Mainstream label single — it was the first song from this band, including Janis, to be heard outside the Bay Area.

Janis Joplin started singing with country and blues bands in Austin, Texas, after leaving her birthplace of Port Arthur. She joined the Waller Creek Boys and sang Woody Guthrie tunes as well as gritty blues songs. Chet Helms, the San Francisco proto-hippie concert promoter, was in 1963 a beatnik poet, and on one of his travels met Janis in Austin and convinced her to come to the S.F. North Beach scene to make it as a singer.

Janis_largeThrough 1963 and 1964 She fell in with a folk crowd that included David Crosby, David Freiberg (founder of Quicksilver and future member of Jefferson Starship), Marty Balin (founder of Jefferson Airplane), James Gurley (founder of Big Brother), George Hunter (founder of the Charlatans), and Tim Hardin. She also played in some south-of-S.F. folk venues where she met Jerry Garcia (in a lineup that featured several future Grateful Dead members) and Jorma Kaukonen (as a blues purist before he joined Jefferson Airplane).

Many of these stars remember the early Janis as a speed-crazed folk-blues singer. George Hunter tried to recruit her for his new band, the Charlatans, but she split for New York City. She spent the summer of 1964 zonked out on methamphetamine in New York’s Lower East Side, and eventually returned to S.F., only to hit bottom with a newly acquired heroin addiction. Eventually she returned to Texas to try to regain her health and get married.

Around the time that Dylan was launching his new electric phase, in 1965 and early 1966, Janis returned to Austin to sing again, and she was influenced by the new Texas “psychedelic” band the 13th Floor Elevators, led by Roky Erickson. The LSD-drenched screaming vocal style of Erickson, derived from Little Richard, definitely left an impression on Janis. Eventually Chet Helms would mention Janis to Travis Rivers, who was scouting for talent to join the Big Brother combo just getting started in the Haight-Ashbury. Travis traveled to Austin, and Chet Helms paid her bus ticket back to S.F. just in time to join Big Brother and the Holding Company at the beginning of the Summer of Love. Check out the Big Brother & the Holding Company official site and the official Janis Joplin site.

“Pride of Man” (Hamilton Camp) and “Joseph’s Coat” (Cipollina, Gravenites) by Quicksilver Messenger Service

Quicksilver was the quintessential and much-admired S.F. acid rock band started by Dino Valenti (a.k.a. Chet Powers), who was promptly busted before the first album came out. “Pride of Man” was the band\0xE2\0x80\0x99s first single, featuring Gary Duncan (guitar), John Cipollina (guitar), David Freiberg (guitar and bass), and Greg Elmore (drums) — an electric, somewhat psychedelic version of a popular folk song by Hamilton Camp. The story has it that Freiberg learned this song from David Crosby while both were living as folkies in Venice, CA.

“Joseph’s Coat” is by second version of the band, featuring Nicky Hopkins (piano) replacing Gary Duncan. Clearly inspired by the Charlatans, Quicksilver was known for extended blues jams with a honky-tonk edge, courtesy of newcomer Hopkins. Duncan returned later, along with Valenti, to record some of Quicksilver’s hits. The album Shady Grove showcases Hopkins, Freiberg, and of course, founder Cipollina. See the Official Quicksilver site.

“That’s It for the Other One” (Grateful Dead) and “New Potato Caboose” (Petersen, Lesh) by the Grateful Dead

B000002KAN.01.TZZZZZZZThis suite of songs is from the Grateful Dead’s second album Anthem of the Sun, pieced together from live concerts in 1968, and mixed in the studio.

The Grateful Dead (at that time, Jerry Garcia on guitar, Bob Weir on guitar, Phil Lesh on bass, Bill Kreutzmann on drums, and Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan on organ and harmonica) were augmented on the second album, Anthem of the Sun (at left), by drummer/percussionist, Mickey Hart, and Tom Constanten on prepared piano sound effects and keyboards.

At the time these were some of the most far-out sounds ever heard, making the Dead the indisputable king of S.F. psychedelia. The band never had an easy time trying to make studio albums, so they put together an album of concert tapes creatively spliced to provide a new kind of listening experience. They augmented these live tapes (mostly from concerts in the Pacific Northwest) with sound effects and studio experiments. The conscious studio effect of mixing these live recordings was as mind-blowing as the recordings themselves. Check out Rockument’s History of the Grateful Dead.

“Crown of Creation”, “We Can Be Together” (Paul Kantner), “Good Shepherd” (Traditional, arr. by Jorma Kaukonen), “Turn My Life Down” (Jorma Kaukonen), “Wooden Ships” (David Crosby, Paul Kantner, Stephen Stills), and “Volunteers” (Marty Balin, Paul Kantner) by Jefferson Airplane

This set of songs from Crown of Creation and Volunteers is the definitive anthem soundtrack for the Sixties, as done by Jefferson Airplane. Every collector of Sixties music from San Francisco must have these. Starting with the apocalyptic vision of “Crown of Creation” through utopian visions of how “We Can Be Together” and religious themes of “Good Shepherd” we arrive at threshold of love in “Turn My Life Down” with “nothing to say,” except to sing the peace and love generation’s anthems of revolution, “Wooden Ships” (“Well I can see by your Coke my friend that you’re from the other side, there’s just one thing that I got to know, can you tell me please, who won?”), and “Volunteers” of America.

There’s only one way to follow this peak:

“Home” (Kantner, Sawyer, Nash), “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight” (Kantner, Crosby), “X M” (Kantner, Sawyer, Garcia/Hart), and “Starship” (Kantner, Slick, Balin, Blackman) by Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship, Blows Against the Empire

blows_against_empire_lgThe first-ever-recorded version of something called “Jefferson Starship” was this album. It featured both Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead members, along with David Crosby and Graham Nash. This particular session included Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, Phil Sawyer, Harvey Brooks, Mickey Hart, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Peter Kaukonen, and David Freiberg — a supergroup of the Haight-Ashbury players.

It was recorded at Wally Heider Recording Studios in S.F. as part of David Crosby’s “Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra” project, which yielded tracks for Crosby’s first solo album, the Sunfighter sequel to this album, and even Mickey Hart’s solo album. The extensive liner notes accompanying the original LP included a message from the Starship Foundation, looking for recruits to hijack the first starship built on this planet. The notes include original poetry, outrageous illustrations, and a genuine feeling that these people were serious about leaving, serious about exploring the new world, and serious about their hope for a better live in this universe.

And what better way is there to end this playlist. Listen for it at the very end — David Crosby asking, “Well?”


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Overall Copyright -(c) 1996-2015 by Tony Bove (for Rockument.com). Individual art, music, and video clips are copyrighted by their respective owners.