(How) Is Paul’s Boutique Psychedelic?

psy·che·del·ic (sīkədelik/)
Of, characterized by, or generating hallucinations, distortions of perception, altered states of awareness, and occasionally states resembling psychosis.
A drug, such as LSD or mescaline, which produces such effects.

The term psychedelic is derived from the Ancient Greek words psuchē (ψυχή – psyche, “soul”) and dēlōsē (δήλωση – “manifest”), translating to “soul-manifesting”.

“any music that evokes, documents or intends to accompany psychedelic drug experience. and it could be anything that descends or borrows from any of the above. big tent.” Contenderizer, posting on ILX.

Bizarrely it was Danny from Embrace, who doesn’t have a reputation for being psychedelic (though I have seen him in some altered states, to be fair), who first expressed the notion to me that Beastie Boys were psychedelic. Way back in the mists of 1997, when I first met him and interviewed Embrace for my old fanzine, I asked if they still intended their second album (the first one was still seven months from release at this point!) to be ‘psychedelic’, which they’d suggested in an interview with Melody Maker a few months before. “Yes” he and his brother Richard both said. I asked them to elaborate: “Beastie Boys psychedelic” said one; “Sly & The Family Stone mad” said the other.

I’m not sure I quite understood how either artist (the former of whom I was pretty well familiar with, the latter I was just getting to know) fitted in with Eight Miles High or Sgt Pepper, but I’d come to the conclusion that Orbital made the most psychedelic music I’d ever heard, so I was intrigued by the notion.

I should express at this juncture that I’ve never taken a hallucinogenic drug in my life; someone older and wiser than me who I was at university with suggested that I was already psychedelic enough, and didn’t need to; I trusted his judgement. A lecturer, in my first term or two, also suggested that I came across as the type of person who “took a lot of drugs”, even though I wasn’t (unless one counts Guinness as a drug). Throughout my life I’ve consistently been described as “weird” or “odd” or “strange”, most usually by people who I’ve considered to be far weirder, odder, or stranger than myself. (I harbour a strong suspicion that I’m actually pretty boring.)

Certainly there’s a lineage from the psychedelic soul of Sly & The Family Stone to Beastie Boys, and Paul’s Boutique is littered with samples of psychedelic music from Hendrix and (most notably) The Beatles, but when people describe Paul’s Boutique as being psychedelic the understanding I have is that it’s not just about sampling psychedelic music; it’s about the effect that Paul’s Boutique itself has when you listen to it.

There’s debate over what the first psychedelic song was in the mid-60s; Eight Miles High by The Byrds, Happenings Ten Years Time Ago by The Yardbirds, Rain (first backwards tapes) and Norwegian Wood (first sitar use) by The Beatles (with Tomorrow Never Knows being some kind of apotheosis, and the first-guitar-feedback opening of I Feel Fine being some kind of latent origin), with Hendrix, Traffic, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys, and even Mellow Yellow by Donovan all furthering what people understood by the word.

Certainly there’s a direct lineage from the kind of San Franciscan hippy-psychedelia that emerged at that time to the “Daisy Age” “sampledelia” of De La Soul, which wasn’t a million miles away from what Beastie Boys were doing on Paul’s Boutique (even if it was a million miles away from License To Ill). By Check Your Head, of course, Beastie Boys are starting to flirt with the connection between consciousness-expanding drugs and Indian music and mysticism in a manner not dissimilar to George Harrison 25-odd years earlier, ideas which were fully embedded by Ill Communication tracks like Bodhisattva Vow and Shambala.

The kind of transcendence and interconnectivity espoused within certain strains of Buddhism and Hinduism – achieved through meditation, yoga, and sometimes imbibement of specific substances – seems pretty analogous to the acid experience; music that attempts to transport you or free your mind / soul / spirit. Add a civil rights slant and concern about freeing physical individuals rather than nebulous spiritual cncepts, and you get Sly & The Family Stone. Possibly.

Big areas of modern popular music (and I’m sure big swathes of pre-1950s music too) has always been concerned with expanding mental and spiritual horizons, obviously; from dance music (acid house, techno, a million splinters thereof), precursors to dance like Kosmische music (Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, CAN, Cluster, Harmonia, etc etc), to jazz (John Coltrane’s exploratory interstellar jazz; Miles Davis’ evocative, formless, transportative In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew), the “dreampop” of My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3 (plus proto-postrock relatives like Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, and the synaesthetic sound-concrete experiments of Disco Inferno), the woozy, dope-derived soundscapes of dub; even Eno’s ambient music was (allegedly) conceived whilst he was in an altered, drug-induced state (lying in a hospital bed, full of painkillers, radio loud enough to perceive but not enough to listen to). The colourful textures and woozy soundscapes of Another Green World (hell, even the song titles) could very easily be taken as psychedelic. Lately the likes of Four Tet and Caribou have mashed together most of the above to create some new kind of psychedelic music. All of these things seem keen on stretching your brain and your soul out into new shapes whilst simultaneously soothing (either through beatific pastures or scorching noise). They’re all, also, obviously, my favourite things in music, and I appreciate them sans substances because, when music’s good enough, it does what drugs do but better, all on its own.

(Another favourite psychedelic tool? High-fidelity sound; woozy, unreal recorded music played back with truly immersive clarity and volume [hell, even plain old acoustic, there-in-the-room-with-you music] is some kind of weird magical voodoo trick that I’ll always be fascinated with.)

The crazy things is that Paul’s Boutique does pretty much all of the above things, from woozy organ licks to disorienting ping pong balls to the head-snapping stereophonic soundstage trickery that opens Hey Ladies, hallucinogenic juxtapositions of samples of recognisable tunes completely recontextualised, lyrics explicitly about “expanding the horizons / expanding the parameters”, dream-like segues and asides that make no linear sense but have some definite twisted logic to them, the absorbing, immersive density. It’s also, at heart, an attempt to evoke a specific place and time through sound (i.e. a lovesong to their estranged home of NYC, made from exile in LA). It’s about the most freewheeling, kaleidoscopic record I own; it may not be that abstract (although some of the lyrics certainly are; and thinking about it, so are many of the samples and the ways the two interact), and it may not sound like clichéd ‘psyche’ rock, but I think it’s more genuinely psychedelic in effect than most other records I’ve heard.

Plus, you know, the band photo in the sleeve is non-more-psychedelic…


One response to “(How) Is Paul’s Boutique Psychedelic?

  1. “I drop the L. when I’m skiing, I’m smoking and peaking”

    “Space cake cookies, I discover who I am ”

    (waay more coke and PCP references iirc tho)

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