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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Acid punks and Albion's dreaming.

Albion’s Dreaming the History of LSD in Britain by Andy Roberts. I got this book after Nic Bullen asked me about the Brew Crew recently.

I first remember experiencing 'Brew Crew'-esque behaviour when we were trapped by police on the road in Wiltshire near Stonehenge in 1985 when a few (maybe 5 or 6) swarmed up and down trying to scrounge anything they could (in a manner which would be called 'aggressive begging' now). I don't remember any of them at the Westbury White Horse festival a couple of days later though...

My interest is in just HOW it developed: how did the 'Peace' dream slip very quickly into the nihilism and 'medieval brigand' mindset of the 'Brew Crew'? Was it something to do with the climate within the 'Peace Convoy' (and environs), or to do with the surrounding political / economic climate? 
The Brew Crew don’t get mentioned, but Chapter 12- Coming Down Again , pages 203- 211, covers the period from punk to acid house. There isn’t much on punk directly, apart from a mention of LSD (‘the most unfashionable drug in Britain at the time’) being taken at the Liverpool punk club Eric’s and how Julian Cope / Teardrop Explodes were on acid when they played Top of the Pops in 1981.

Since it is unlikely to surprise readers of KYPP that the UK government really did test acid on ‘volunteers’ (who weren’t told what they were being given) at Porton Down in the fifties, the most interesting aspect of the book is about the social impact of acid. For example (page 134) that acid inspired an upsurge of interest in whole foods/ organics/ vegetarianism. Another impact is connected to the ‘set and setting’ theory that the difference between a good trip and a bad trip depends on expectations and environment. Chapter 10 Bring What You Expect to Find shows how the first free-festivals emerged out of the desire to create spaces /environments which would facilitate good trips.

Night clubs and commercial rock festivals did not appeal to the sensitivities of acid sensitized hippies who were questioning the ideas of profit and control; wanting to be more than just consumers of entertainment industry product. There was a demand for events self-generated by the counter-culture, which would provide hippies with gatherings where they could live out their life-style with like minded people in a spirit of celebration and purpose.

The first such free-festival was Phun City held in 1970. Stonehenge became the most well known and Castlemorton in 1992 was ( I think) pretty much last.

At this point I was going to say that the reason there is not much on punk in the book is because punk was an anti-acid subculture. That punk was a counter-counterculture in which, to quote the Clash, that ‘hate and war’ rather than ‘love and peace’ was the reality/ currency punk had to deal with ‘today’.

I even had a quick look through the index to Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991) and found not a trace of acid nor LSD. But then I realised the index had no entries for any drugs at all. The book then fell open at page 187 … and there was John Lydon talking about going to Louise’s (a Soho lesbian club) in 1976. ‘ We used to take acid at Louise’s. It heightens the enjoyment’ …

So acid was there right at the beginning of punk. Which means that the argument that I was going to make - that it was only after becoming entangled with the acid orientated free-festival/ traveller culture that punk subculture became part of the counterculture- doesn’t work.

On the other hand, the fact that a neat distinction between acid- taking hippies and acid- rejecting punks can’t be made is significant. What Albion Dreaming re-emphasises is that the sixties ‘revolution in the head’ had a profound impact on society. Briefly, it seemed that the imagination really had seized power and that it was realistic to demand the impossible. What drove this revolution was the potential of LSD to radically restructure perceptions of reality. The acid revolutionaries had a vision of a new world in their hearts and minds and were determined to realise their vision in the everyday world. Despite the best attempts by the forces of reactionary conservatism to force the genie back in its bottle, thanks to the acid inspired counter culture we still live in a more open and liberal society.

Albion Dreaming can therefore be read as struggle between open and closed minds. It can also be read as a struggle between idealists and realists. In this reading, punk emerged at/ out of the ‘come down’ from the counterculture’s collective acid trip. Punk’s scepticism towards the hippie counterculture was not a conservative reaction, nor (as the Lydon quote above shows) was it because punks didn’t do acid. Rather, it was a reality check.

Since Albion Dreaming is a history of LSD in Britain rather than a history of the counterculture, it would be wrong to criticise the book for failing to engage with punk. Yet, perhaps because of its scepticism of ’psychedelic dreams’, punk was able to renew and revive the counterculture as a culture of resistance through the eighties - for example the Stop the City protests of 1983/4- and on to the present where ’anarchist punks’ are still the folk devils blamed by the media for sparking trouble at demonstrations.

Or did all the acid at free-festivals turn punks into hippies? Maybe. But compared to the first wave of visionaries who thought acid would start a new religion, the hippies who travelled the free-festival circuit were pretty punk already.

AL Puppy


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