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Defining Acid Rock  

June 9, 2020

Defining Acid Rock  

My first exposure to the term “acid rock” came just before I attended my first rock concert in 1980.


The opening act that night was a newly formed band called Gamma featuring the late great guitar god Ronnie Montrose. “What kind of music are they?” I asked my friends. The answer, according to these friends, who were also just 14 or 15, was “acid rock.” The term sounded a bit menacing. I wasn’t sure I’d like it and, to be honest, I didn’t really. The band was painfully loud to my virgin ears. I remember a lot of guitar histrionics and little else. In short, I was unimpressed. But was what I heard that night really acid rock?

Wikipedia describes acid rock as “a loosely defined type of rock music that evolved out of the mid-1960s garage-punk movement and helped launch the psychedelic subculture.” While I don’t necessarily disagree with this, I do think it’s well past time that the definition of the term was tightened up. In 1985, Rhino Records released the 9th volume of the esteemed Nuggets compilation series: Acid Rock. Absurdly, the album contained pop songs by The Monkees, The Grass Roots, The Young Rascals, and The Turtles, in addition to the #5 hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by The First Edition (featuring Kenny Rogers), as well as the #1 smash “Incense and Peppermints.” While the album definitely contained some psychedelia, it didn’t come close to capturing the spirit of acid rock.

Twelve or thirteen years earlier– when the only music on my radar was nursery rhymes and lullabies– acid rock was beginning to take form. The late 60s were, of course, a time of great political and social change: the Viet Nam War, protests, civil rights, civil disobedience, free love, women’s liberation, Stonewall, marijuana, LSD. The popular music of the era reflected these changes. Lyrics were becoming more meaningful. More emphasis was being place on better musicianship. The genre was transforming from rock n’ roll into the almighty “RAWK.” It became serious business. It became heavy. A certain strain of popular music combined the aggression of the garage-rock bands with the psychedelic flavor of the times. This was acid rock.

Acid rock is not pop. That’s why the aforementioned inclusion of pop hits on an acid rock compilation is such a travesty. “Rock” is in the name; therefore, acid rock must rock. I’m not sure how a revered institution like Nuggets could be so sloppy in developing an acid rock playlist full of syrupy pop tunes. Perhaps they’d stretched past the limits of their knowledge; most likely they were looking to make a quick buck.

Acid rock, then, is a heavy type of rock music with psychedelic influences. Musicians of this genre create sonic textures that culminate in a psychedelic effect, sometimes unintentionally, with the sound of their instruments or the interplay between two or more instruments. Unlike other types of psychedelic music from the era, acid rock does not rely on studio production.  The Beatles song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” for instance, is one of the first and best (IMHO) psychedelic songs of all-time and, while it is certainly saturated in lysergic sound, it doesn’t qualify as acid rock because (a) it doesn’t have a heavy rock quality and (b) it relies greatly on sophisticated studio production. Conversely, a song like “Iron Butterfly Theme” by (you guessed it!) Iron Butterfly, has a strong rock beat and a psychedelic vibe. It’s extremely difficult to break it down any more than that because, like the psychedelic experience itself, the sound of psychedelia is essentially ineffable.

So was Gamma, the first rock band I ever saw in concert, playing acid rock? Nope. They were just hard rock.  By the mid 70s, all things hippy-dippy were generally considered passé, including psychedelic music. With the Manson murders and the drug-related deaths of such high-profile rock stars as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison, the collective enthusiasm for psychedelic music and culture dried up quickly. As a result, acid rock evolved into hard rock or arena rock.

But music is always better heard than described. In fact, many have said of psychedelic music, “I can’t describe it, but I know it when I hear it.” The same might be said of acid rock, although I hope I’ve helped define this elusive sub-genre. I encourage you to listen to my Spotify playlist Acid Rock: Deep and Heavy.

– Jason LeValley

2 Comments
  1. Guajolote

    I won't call acid rock as "heavy", really. It is not loud and powerful enough to be considered as that, this is quite controversial, but i definitively find crucial and essential differences between acid rock and heavy psych. Acid rock is something more like typical San Franciscan bands (Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Big Brother & The Holding Company, etc.) or to early british psych-blues stuff (Cream, Hendrix, Ten Years After, et al), while heavy psych is what it's name implies, the amalgamation between hard rock and psychedelia (Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, early Grand Funk Railroad, The Firebirds, Stone Garden, Josefus, Bolder Damn, Frijid Pink, MC5, and so on).

  2. Ernie IV

    I think Acid Rock really is music made to reproduce the feel or experience of acid and the non-traditional or altered musical theory. I think about songs like Hendrix’s “the stars that play with laughing sam’s dice”, Airplane’s “two-heads,” or The Elevators “ kingdom of heaven.” Most of which have a heavier minor chord beauty. I agree that sometimes it could be hard to define, but shouldn’t musical experience and expression be multi-dimensional?

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