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The acid trips that changed the world

As his new book traces the cultural impact of LSD, author Rob Chapman chooses five trips to remember

In 1957, the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond was looking for a word to express the effects on the human mind wrought by a hallucinogenic drug he was researching, LSD. He put the question to his friend, Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who suggested ‘phanerothyme’, from the Greek words for ‘to show’ and ‘spirit’, but Osmond had another idea. That word was ‘psychedelic’ – from the Greek for ‘soul’ and ‘to make visible’ – and he introduced it to Huxley by way of a rhyme: “To fathom hell or soar angelic / just take a pinch of psychedelic.

By this time, a number of medical professionals were researching the drug for its potential psychiatric benefits. Among them was Timothy Leary, a fierce advocate for LSD’s revolutionary potential, who inspired John Lennon to write “Tomorrow Never Knows” and turned Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg on to the drug. “We are going to teach people to stop hating and start a peace and love movement,” declared Allen Ginsberg in 1960, after copping his first dose.

Also around this time, the CIA conducted an illegal program of experiments, Project MKUltra, administering the drug to unwitting employees, homeless people and prostitutes in an attempt to uncover its potential for mind control. One voluntary inductee to the scheme was Ken Kesey, whose experiences with LSD inspired him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The novel’s success bought him a house in the hills of California, where he threw the legendary ‘acid test’ parties that helped kick-start the hippy movement.

You might not think that an acid trip could change the world, but author Rob Chapman has other ideas. His new book Psychedelia & Other Colours traces the spread of LSD from the science labs of Switzerland to the communes and love-ins of 60s America and beyond, looking at the surprises that a great trip can bring. We asked him to name the five acid trips he thinks will echo through eternity.


The Swiss scientist who took the world’s first acid trip

“Hoffman ‘discovered’ LSD at the Sandoz laboratory in Switzerland in 1943. He’d actually synthesised it already in 1938, but he went back to see if there was anything more to it. It was called LSD-25, because it was the 25th batch of the compound he was working on. I sometimes wonder what happened to LSD-18 or LSD-32 – would they have been as interesting? The story goes that he got some on his fingers during his experiments and accidentally ingested some, and when we wiggled off home on his bike that was the first trip (he actually rode his bike home after deliberately taking acid, three days after his first, accidental trip). He said the experience reminded him of being a child, which has been the common experience of so many people, from John Lennon to Syd Barrett. And he discovered it on the maiden voyage! He also saif he thought he was going to the outer reaches of hell (at one point), and was pleasantly surprised to find the next day he woke up quite feeling quite normal and refreshed. LSD doesn’t give you a hangover, you just feel your brain’s been a bit spring-cleaned, you know?’


That moment a Hollywood star kills your vibe and inspires you to write a classic song

“I’m picking his second trip, not the famous first one where he went with George Harrison to a Harley Street dentist who put it in their coffee. John and George were staying at a ranch house in California with The Byrds and (Easy Rider star) Peter Fonda. Lennon was having a bit of a bad trip. Fonda kept saying, ‘Oh, I know what it’s like to be dead’ and showing him this scar from a self-inflicted air rifle wound he’d suffered in childhood, so Lennon had him flung out of the party for bumming everyone out! It ended up inspiring the Revolver track ‘She Said She Said’. Actually, a lot of people have told me their second acid trip was not quite the nirvana it was the first time around. There’s this idea that LSD will lead to all these great euphoric songs about the cathedrals of your mind, but you listen to ‘She Said She Said’ and it’s a bit of a whinge!’


The hard-partying author whose acid test parties bridged the gap between the beat and hippy generations

“Kesey’s acid tests were the first time there was a communal environment created purely for the purposes of taking LSD. They were really full-on, as well as vitally important. They brought together all the different strands of the culture in one place. It wasn’t just flashing lights and bands like The Grateful Dead, there was so much else going on. There was Don Buchla, who was trialling his version of the synthesiser, and a guy called Ron Boise who built sculptures of old automobiles. They would put contact mics around the room which would pick up sounds from the audience and play them back over the PA, so something you mumbled to a friend an hour earlier might suddenly be stereo-panned around the room! How fucking freaky would that be when you’re on acid?”


Fleetwood Mac’s wayward genius glimpses into the beyond

“Green always gets labelled as one of the great acid casualties. Received wisdom is that Fleetwood Mac went to a club in Europe one infamous night and he was never the same again, but I distrust the ‘one trip can flip you out‘ theory. LSD can be a trigger, but I don’t think it can be the sole catalyst for a breakdown. He once said something about ‘Oh Well (Part 1 & 2)’, which was a big hit for the band. Part one is the song which always got played on the radio, but part two is this beautiful, slow Spanish-style instrumental, and Green said, “I always thought the vocal bit at the beginning was just to get you to the real song, which is part two.’ That’s a beautiful thing to say, because most people would just think of the A-side. But his idea was we’ve got to get through this vocalising to get to the harmony of the thing, which is the instrumental. That to me is very acid thinking. I think of LSD music in terms of portals, in terms of little glimpses and clues that might be in the song. Like ‘Magical Mystery Tour‘, the most interesting part of that song for me is when you get to the very end and it slows right down, and then it fades out on this strange little tinkling piano in the background. It’s like the track really begins at the fade-out! Because that’s where the imagination begins.”


The music journalist and author gets experienced for the first time

“I was 12 during the summer of love, so I was probably more concerned with saving up for a bike than I was with trying to find some LSD. I first took acid two months shy of my 16th birthday, in 1970. The guy who gave it to me said, ‘You have taken this before, haven’t you? Only I’m not gonna be responsible.’ I’ll never forget that! He had two records he kept playing (after we took it) – ‘See Emily Play’ by Pink Floyd, and the B-side to Napoleon XIV’s ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!’, which was the A-side backwards. The music started to sound a bit odd, so we walked down his road and there was this brick wall at the bottom, and I went, ‘Oh look, it’s Hadrian’s Wall!’ I started laughing, because part of me knew it wasn’t really Hadrian’s Wall. They never tell you that in the manuals – it’s like when you’re really pissed, there’s always a little two per cent in your head that’s still sober. I’d be quite happy if none of the other drugs exist, ’cos they either make you elated or depressed, don’t they? LSD always exists on a whole other plane from that. But I understand it’s not for everyone. It’s like I say in my book, ‘Neither a prohibitionist nor a proselytiser be.’”