The London vs. Houston Psychedelic Smack Down
When it came to writing psychedelic lyrics, Texans went toe-to-toe with Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett
The time: Mid 1960s. The location: Planet Earth. The zeitgeist: Psychedelic rock. A style of music where every precedent developed not exclusively but simultaneously in two completely different global centers, London, England and Houston, Texas.
How is this possible? What did these two cities share at that time other than young people with imitable accents and a passion for African American blues? In a spate of seminal mid to late '60s psychedelic releases recorded on either side of the ocean, young male Texans sang with British accents, and Brits tried to sound like Lightning Hopkins. Overseas you had Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd, The Soft Machine, The Incredible String Band, and an obscure cult band called The Beatles. In the Lone Star State, The 13th Floor Elevators, Bubble Puppy, Endle St. Cloud, Red Krayola, Golden Dawn, and many, many others.
In spite of this pan-global separated-at-birth phenomenon in the development of psychedelic music, musicologists have yet to sort out who or what came first, the effervescing elephant or the paisley armadillo? The UFO Club or the Love Street Light Circus? Spiked Earl Grey tea or spiked Big Red?
Thanks to several hours of staring at an unlit stick of incense while listening to Bubble Puppy's A Gathering of Promises and Pink Floyd's Piper At The Gates of Dawn on "shuffle," we are able to present the following queries for a Brit vs. Texas psychedelic smack down!
Round 1: Who wrote the scariest psychedelic lyrics? Brits or Texans?
Along with genteel imagery that includes "marmalade skies," "kaleidoscope eyes" and (blech) "marshmallow pies," psychedelia's scribes sought to give voice to the joy and terror that exists beyond the edges of a "normal" psyche. Often, their words describe a return from an abyss, as if a shaman is reporting back from a vision quest. Alternately, psychedelic lyrics have an unnerving immediacy with simple, almost mundane, rhymes surrounded in a sonic malestorm that portends to an inevitable mental crack up.
Syd Barrett's "Bike" is a great example of the latter:
"I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like. It's got a basket, a bell that rings, And things to make it look good, I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it..." "Bike" by Syd Barrett (1967)
Pretty benign, right? Just a sunny afternoon with gingerbread men, a mouse named Gerald, and "a room full of clockwork." But on record, thanks to a strange lopsided mix and an almost evil vocal delivery, this song becomes one of the most unsettling on Pink Floyd's debutPiper At The Gates Of Dawn.
For scary-ass lyrics Houston-by-way-of-Austin style, you can't get much freakier than the words of Roky Erickson, lead singer of what was arguably be the first psychedelic rock band, The 13th Floor Elevators:
"Let me take you to the empty place in my fire engine, Let me take you through the empty space in my fire engine, If it gets too hot you know we'll cool it down with a rubber hose in my fire fire fire engine... We'll be rolling through this hurricane in my fire engine, Pull a hook and ladder right through your brain in my fire engine..." "Fire Engine" by Tommy Hall, Stacy Sutherland, and Roky Erickson (1966)
"Pull a hook and ladder right through your brain"? Ouch! Roky Erickson's journey into and out of the depths of hell is well documented. He would go from the psychedelic sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators to recording songs about demons, two-headed dogs and aliens. Thankfully, he has shown signs of winning the battle with his own demons and is (like kindred spirit Syd Barrett) currently enjoying renewed and well deserved interest in his work. Erickson's recent recording with Okkervil River True Love Cast Out All Evil and its wonderful liner notes by Okkervil's Will Shelf is − in this brutal and unfair world - a welcome example of the power of love, especially the love fellow musicians can give to an artist unfairly branded as completely crazy or even worse, "a vegetable."
Round one is a draw. Brits 1. Texas 1.
Round 2: Who wrote the most pretentious lyrics?
Houston's Bubble Puppy
We're not talking about "prog rock." We're talking about the mid '60s when rock first took off into several unexpected literate directions resulting in some incredibly cringe-inducing lyrics - often helpfully printed inside gatefold album sleeves to pass around a circle of initiates absorbing the latest tome of their favorite band to get stoned to. But looking at some lyrics in hindsight you find an endearing quality that speaks to the innocence of the young people who wrote and sang them in the first place.
From Houston circa 1968 we quote the Bubble Puppy's international number one hit "Hot Smoke and Sassafras":
"In the mist of sassafras, Many things will come to pass, And the smoke shall rise again, To the place above where it began..."
So to clarify, the smoke will rise to the place above the place where the many things that will come to pass began. In the mist of sassafras. Again. Whatever. The fact is, this track STILL rocks and is still being copped by younger bands throughout Texas (and you know who you are). But those lyrics...
"Time will bring the fire and flame, As surely as it brought the rain, But in the gardens of the moon, Time is held within the silver spoon...
Bubble Puppy has always indicated that the title "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" comes from an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies where Granny yells at Jethro: "Hot smoke and sassafras, Jethro! Can't you do anything right?" So maybe there was a little bit of "taking the piss" as the Brits say in their hit song's lyrics?
Now here come the Brits:
"She said, 'There is no reason, And the truth is plain to see.' But I wandered through my playing cards, And they would not let her be, One of sixteen vestal virgins, Who were leaving for the coast, And although my eyes were open wide, They might have just as well been closed."
Wow. Heavy. And when you listen to the track, dig the organ lines that are a mash up of at least two, maybe three compositions by J.S. Bach. But we're talking about lyrics, and granted, once the '70s arrived, British rock lyrics would get even more pretentious than Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale." This is a tough one. Pretension bellied with a sense of humor vs. pretension bellied by the fact that Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway wouldn't be recorded until 1974. We'll give this one to the British. Houston psychedelic fans can take comfort in a lyrical approach that was provocative but didn't require annotations.
Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale"
Brits 2, Texans 1.
Round 3: Who wore the goofiest clothes?
No effing way would so many great Texas garage bands (The Bad Seeds, Continental Five, Zakary Thaks) not to mention the Sir Douglas Quintet along with the aforementioned Bubble Puppy dress in outfits that combined the worst fashion mistakes of The Kinks, Herman's Hermits, and - for that extra space-age touch - The Jetsons unless some idiot record "producer" told them that their only shot at national or international stardom was to wear that shit. Our biased view here is that it was the British who started the fashion nightmares, but they could rock the frilly puffy pirate sleeve thing with some conviction while Houston musicians just looked kind of...silly. No big deal.
And not to get off topic but what were you (those of you above the age of 30 actually reading this) wearing circa 1980? Nuff said.
Brits 2, Texans 2.
Final results in our brief completely glib fish and chips vs BBQ psychedelic smack down: For scary lyrics, it's a tie. For pretension, we happily give that to the Brits and dutifully dust off our copies of The Annotated Alice and A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake. For goofy clothes? Well, sadly Texas wins that round, but only because the musicians were just trying to get the job done and get paid!
We still haven't figured out exactly how or why the roots of psychedelic music seemed to spring up simultaneously in two places across the globe. Maybe we gotta look at the blues next time. Lightning Hopkins did do a record with The 13th Floor Elevators...
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.