Sounds of Psychedelphia, Part One: The spark of the 60s and 70s - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The Nazz, photographed for the cover of their 1968 single “Open My Eyes”

Sounds of Psychedelphia is a three-part series exploring the history of psychedelic rock in Philadelphia. this month, we begin by studying the scene’s origins in the late 60s and early 70s.

Contrary to popular belief, the psychedelic rock explosion of the late ’60 was not confined to the major west coast cities San Francisco and Los Angeles. Virtually no American city went untouched by the musical and social revolution that blossomed out of California. During this time, a number of rich and diverse psychedelic rock scenes cropped up in cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit — and in even smaller markets such as Orlando and Seattle. The teenaged garage bands of the early to mid 60s were growing up, some were going off to college, many were experimenting with new drugs and new sounds.

Fast forward to 1972, Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman collaborated with Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye to create Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968. The first compilation of its kind, Nuggets paved the way for an entire subculture of dedicated music fans, would-be scholars and rare record collectors who would spend the next four decades uncovering countless relics of the psychedelic era from cities throughout the country and around the world. It is through the work of these collectors and archivists that we have come to a clear understanding that the psychedelic rock explosion not only impacted the U.S. but was a truly global cultural explosion scenes popping up in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia, each taking their cue from the bands in the states.

Unsurprisingly, Philadelphia’s psychedelic rock scene was particularly strong during this time. With a long history as an established music industry town, and a healthy amount of local bands as well as venues that paired local artists with touring national acts of the time, Philadelphia’s scene flourished. In the decades following the 1960s, the psychedelic aesthetic has survived on in rock’s lexicon. In many ways, the spirit of the musical experiments of the 60s continues today and the city still hosts a diverse cadre of bands playing sounds that influenced by the 60s psych rock explosion. In this series we will focus on on three periods in which Philadelphia’s psych-rock scene was particularly strong: The initial 60s spark, the “Psychedelphia” scene of 1990s and rounding it out by taking a look at how the city’s scene has developed from the 2000s until today.

At the height of the 1960s, a thriving counterculture existed in the city of Philadelphia. With a diverse array of musicians playing in venues around the city, Philly was one of the premier rock towns on the east coast during this era. One of the city’s central rock venues, The Electric Factory, took its name from the original Electric Factory & Flea Market venue that once stood at 2201 Arch Street. Opened in the Winter of 1968 in a converted tire warehouse, The original Electric Factory played host to a who’s-who of major rock acts of day. Whenever acts such as The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Chambers Brothers, Pink Floyd or Frank Zappa and were on tour, The Electric Factory helped make Philadelphia a key stop on the East Coast tour junket. During this time a variety of homegrown bands were booked to share the stage with their more internationally known contemporaries. Local bands like The American Dream and The Nazz (featuring a young Todd Rundgren) could be found opening for larger acts. In addition to the Electric Factory, clubs such as Trauma and The Kaleidoscope were also known for hosting any number of the city’s exciting local psych-rock, folk and garage bands.

One legendary band of the era, Mandrake Memorial was a versatile four-piece who served as the house band at The Trauma Club and pioneered their own brand of haunting psychedelic pop on classic albums such as Mandrake Memorial, Medium and 1969’s stark and ambitious Puzzle. On the rockier side of things, bands like North Philly psych-funk outfit 1984, Edison Electric Band, The American Dream (who famously sang “You can’t get to Heaven on the Frankford EL….”) and heavy psych-blues combo lumbee held down the scene, packing local clubs and leaving behind recorded material that rivals that of the finest material of the era.

As the 60’s faded, many of the Philly Psych acts evolved, branching out beyond the as the popularity of psych-rock and hippie culture waned. Former Woody’s Truck Stop and The Nazz singer / guitarist Rudgren spent the better part of the next decade rocketing to super stardom. Reaching artistic heights with the 1973 release of his glam / art-rock masterpiece A Wizard / A True Star, the album showcased the sharp songwriting chops and studio mastery that Rundgren honed during the time he spent cutting his teeth in Philly’s underground scene. The band Elizabeth mined a kind of complex, baroque / classical influenced brand of psychedelic pop that made them a spiritual antecedent of the 90s Elephant 6 bands like The Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control.

By the dawn of the 70s, the band had broken up with some members going on to play with jazzy prog-rockers Good God. This legacy of Philly’s psychedelic sound lives on Susan Christie’s “Paint A Lady,” a dramatic psychedelic-folk gem that featured dark, autumnal arrangements that work as the perfect showcase for Christie’s haunting vocals. “Paint A Lady” was recorded for jazz and rock giant Columbia Records but was never released. The album went virtually undiscovered until British DJ / collector Andy Votel stumbled upon a rare copy (allegedly Votel’s copy was 1 of only 3 that had been pressed). Votel’s backing of the record sparked a renewed interest in Christie’s music, with Paint A Lady finally seeing an official release in 2006.

Despite the relative obscurity of Philadelphia’s 60s scene, these local bands and the music that they created is slowly being rediscovered by music lovers around the world. Much like our city’s jazz, hip-hop and punk scenes, the history of psychedelic rock in Philadelphia is rich, diverse and colorful. Although it is unlikely that Philadelphia’s 60s scene will ever receive the kind of universal acclaim afforded to its West Coast counterparts, the music holds up well, and bands of this under-recognized era have left behind a treasure trove of rare gems waiting to be unearthed and enjoyed by collectors and listeners alike for decades to come.

Next month, Sounds of Psychedelphia will dig into the 90s psych revival in Philadelphia. Below, listen to the first segment of the Sounds of Psychedelphia radio series on WXPN, broadcast on Feb. 28, 2017.

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