Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Psychedelic Britannia - BBC 4 2015 (review)

This BBC production says it is about psychedelia and the reinvention of pop in the mid to late sixties - in Britannia.

I'm in the middle of writing a novel about a top-flight English folk-rock band that went to get its head together in the countryside, and so any docos about the phenomenon are obviously going to be of interest.

Psychedelic Britannia is available here for a month. Hurry hurry hurry!

Featuring a large number of performance snippets and plentiful quotes from people who were there, it's a well-crafted, well-supported but not particularly deep look at psychedelia. Its thesis is that British pop, I guess in the form of the British Invasion (it doesn't state) was blues and R&B based and could not really be considered British, but in the mid sixties, psychedelia superseded it and was home-grown enough to be an original artform. This leap is signaled by a clip of The Yardbirds playing with Gregorian Chants on Still I'm Sad.

They cut to Ginger Baker talking about jazz and about forming The Cream...jazz? And after a fairly compelling bit about Pink Floyd, the Oxford countryside and the Wind In the Willows ambience that inspired Syd Barrett, they're off to talk with Soft Machine who idolized John Coltrane and played jazz.  Then off to the Incredible String Band who apparently took their inspiration from Morocco, but apart from that, y'know, all British.

Apart from the inability to avoid jazz, the programme makes a good fist of its thesis.  The Hippies (they avoid that word) idolized the dreamy riverbanks and trippy rabbit holes of children's books, it claims, because their childhood was fucked up by WWII. I can see that being true, and it's the first time a doco has ever made me remotely sympathetic to British hippies and their gnomes. [1] It's amusing that they cut from Alice In Wonderland to someone describing the descent down the dark steep stairs to the UFO club without anyone making the connection with a rabbit hole.

It covers the period where bands stopped singing baby baby and instead sang about Sunshine Superman and Strawberry Fields very well - the music stopped being transatlantic, as someone put it.  Lyrics became about British landscapes and actual stories from childhood - Arnold Layne, See Emily Play. There's obligatory coverage of the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, including a short scene of Cockney mods not enjoying themselves which I've never seen before.  The programme's take is that taking LSD is the central tenet of psychedelia but I don't think it really makes the case for it. Everybody did take LSD, but apart from a few lyrics about hearing the grass grow and so forth, I'm not sure it had that much impact.

Joe Boyd is interviewed and we hear similar takes to his White Bicycles (which I reviewed here). Steve Howe, Arthur Brown,  the irrepressible Twink,  Barry Miles, Gary Brooker and half a dozen others also feature. They speak of the flight to the natural, the countryside, the Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams view of life, updated. The wonders of nature, Vashti Bunyan hearing about Donovan's private islands near Skye, setting off in a vardo, hoping to bring about a community and yet hoping to keep traveling at the same time, a tension you can hear in rock lyrics again and again. She imagines a world without electricity, without running water, a simple way of life...which, without trying to be rude, is probably why we didn't hear from her for thirty five years after she set off.  I'm all for the simple life but it does need to have a wi fi connection.

The scene peaked in 1967 and was gone by 1970. Increased police harassment and a growing realization that thinking really hard about a peaceful, child-like world wasn't really going to bring it about were significant factors in its demise.  Unrest in Ulster, Grosvenor Square and the National Front are name-checked as contributory causes.  All in all, a flash in the pan. A very colorful one, but a misfire nevertheless.

[1] Well, apart from Tyrannosaurus Rex, not in this programme, who can sing about gnomes all they want.

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