Twenty-four Psychic Pop Relics

Hi there, Woebles! This is going to be a low-key saunter through a handful of records from my collection which had a strong connection to the psychic material of my book Retreat. There's a huge discography in the back of the book, but much of it contains well-known music (the philosophical source of which people might not have considered). With my previous post Eastern Philosophy and the Cosmic Sound in the Counterculture I have already picked off the heavy-hitters. Here I'm not so much scraping the barrel as giving a geeks-eye view and taking the opportunity to go over some things in more depth.

I'm going to be a bit more chatty than in my recent steel-plated diatribes in which a certain formality and conceptual rigour was appropriate. I'm also going to focus on my own personal perspective, rather than attempting to correctly tell the history of the records or the artists. I mean, phew, right? Don't rush out and buy these albums. A large proportion of them, although fascinating artifacts, are a bit shit.

You'll have to excuse me if there's not much reference to the musical sounds contained herein.

Chronologically then...


Allen Ginsberg: Howl (1959)

My copy of this was put out by BGP in 1988. This label was most commonly associated with Jazz-Funk reissues around Gilles Peterson's axis; Galliano, Young Disciples and other Wag club stuff that had a very short window of being fashionable. It's a curious fact of popular culture that someone like Ginsberg, adopted here surely because of "jazzy" reasons, can later re-emerge and be re-tooled by other subcultures.

Beyond this LP's great recording of Howl I've always loved it for Europe! Europe! which was sampled by my friend Ken Downie on the legendary Virtual: "World World World I sit in my room Imagine the future."

Allen did a number of LPs with music accompaniment. Here he is playing his harmonium and singing "Hare Krishna" to the conservative William Buckley on the cable TV show Firing Line. Buckley stifling his laughter. Ginsberg's most well-known musical LP was his version of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (1970) What can I say? I have heard it, but was never compelled to buy a copy. As much as I love Alan ♥ he probably should have stuck to poetry and its recital. He was always haunted by Bob Dylan's success and that messed with mojo rather...

Eden Ahbez: Eden's Island (1960)

There's a chapter in Retreat which looks at how the German Lebensreform ("life reform") movement and German characters like Bill Pester and Max Sikinger influenced Americans like Gypsy Boots and eden ahbez. I also mention people like Arnold Ehret (who inspired Steve Jobs' diet) and Herman Hesse (author of Siddharta) who were closely involved in the movement. Even Albert Hofmann had been affiliated with it as a child.

With regards to this wonderful LP, not for the first time I found myself looking into the world of music through a window which I had only once peered out of. There's a lot of third-hand research about the scene on the internet. If you can, track down a copy of Gordon Kennedy's Children of the Sun (1999) - an absolutely lovely book with a complement of wonderful photographs.

Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta: Krishna Consciousness (1966)

Allen Ginsberg brought the "Hare Krishna" mantra, the Maha mantra, to the USA from India in 1963. Ginsberg had a particular fondness for the Krishna movement in India because it was resolutely against the caste structure. In India the Brahmin class, an upper-middle class bunch, have a stranglehold on religion and are the designated caste for priests. When A.C. Bhaktivedanta, aka Prabhupada, came to America in 1965 Ginsberg said he felt like it was "as though the reinforcements had arrived."

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was, in Allen's view practically, "the Hippie religion." That was certainly ratified by Ginsberg and the San Francisco arist-rock-racy (The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and Moby Grape) holding the Mantra-Rock Dance fundraiser for the movement at the Avalon Ballroom in January 1967.

Although Ginsberg was happy to give a blurb for the back of this album: "It brings a state of ecstacy", one detects him keeping the movement at arms-length. In this conversation with Prabhupada he says that he was "not yet ready to become a devotee" even though he chanted the mantra every day.

Sam Speerstra and Roger Siegel, two leading Krishnas left San Francisco explicitly to capture a Beatle having seen them with "another yogi" on television (it cracks me up the way they don't even deign to name Maharishi Mahesh Yogi 🤣). George Harrison had a copy of this LP and had even memorised the words of Bhaktivedanta's address by heart: "As living spiritual souls we are all originally Krishna conscious entities but due to our association with matter from time immemorial our consciousness is now polluted by material atmosphere." When he first met them Harrison recited the whole passage to them verbatim. It was to be the start of a long relationship.

Gotta admit, at my first spiritual retreat in Northern California, when the guru in residence started up the Maha mantra I was like, oh shit, what the hell mess have you got yourself into now!?! 😧 I have always believed that Hüsker Dü explicitly mined it on "Zen Arcade" for its shock effect. That track is the equivalent of Bam Bam's "Where's your child?"

The thing is though, now I actually understand and am familiar with the topic, and mantras from A to Z (Amitabha, Chenrezig, Ganesh, Hanuman, Mahakala, Krishna, Shiva and Tara) I'm not really concerned by the Krishnas. One of the fellers came up to me on the street in Covent Garden the other day and started telling me about the Bhagavad Gita - honestly it took all my self-discipline to STFU and not lecture the poor guy back 🙄. However I'm unlikely, just like Ginsberg, to want to sign up to it or any organisation. Don't worry...!

The Krishna Consciousness thing is textbook Vedic thought. Any creepy vibes are (were?) structurally owing to its instantaneous transplantation into another culture. And this particularly as it pertained to turning what was a monastic concept into a socially-open organisation. There was no room in its DNA for children and when its members had them, perhaps not surprisingly, ISKCON was responsible for child abuse on a horrendous scale.

Their bad rep was not helped by the Swami's own pronouncements - when asked if the Krishnas practiced brainwashing Prabhupada (to chuckling in his own ranks) said "Yes! Their brains are dirty and so we need to wash them!" Didn't exactly inspire confidence!

The Fugs: The Fugs (1966)

I have known about The Fugs ever since reading Lester Bangs' Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1987). They and The Godz were Lester's pre-The Velvet Underground punk fix on the legendary ESP Disk label.

The Fugs' Ed Sanders wrote the brilliant and effortlessly hip study of Charles Manson The Family  (1971) which was a key reference for me in Retreat.

Sanders appeared with Jack Kerouac on William Buckley Jnr's aforementioned Firing Line Show. It's a car crash in which Kerouac is drunk and confused. A must-see. As is Allen Ginsberg's posthumous debriefing of the debacle.

Ginsberg - a friend of Sanders - writes the liner notes for this LP: "The United States is split down the middle. On one side are everybody who make love with their eyes open, maybe smoke pot & maybe take LSD & look inside their heads to find the Self-God Walt Whitman prophesized for America... Who's on the other side? People who think we are bad." My copy's cover is charmingly coloured-in with felt-tips.

Love: Forever Changes (1967)

One of the very best albums ever and one of my own favorites. The cover art with its "one-mind" image of the band is a clear indication of the LSD-inspired visionary spiritualism contained within.

We are well acquainted with the idea that George Harrison's Something (1969) for The Beatles was written as an ode to "the self" under the guise of a love song to a girl (something Frank Sinatra never realised I'm sure). Another great one of these disguised paens to the cosmic force is Jackie Wilson's unstoppable (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher - and we shouldn't be surprised given the formula Gospel + R&B = Soul. There's many more, I know.

Forever Changes contains one of these tracks but this time, fittingly, against the backdrop of eastern mysticism as it entered the counterculture, it describes the same situation mediated by the guru figure. It's highly likely that this has been spotted by someone before - but equally the lyrics are so curious that perhaps it is not widely appreciated? Answers on a postcard.

I once knew a man
Been everywhere in the world
Gave me a tiny ivory ball
Said it would bring me good
Never believed it would until
I have been loving you

Dear old man
He'd seen most everything
Gave me a piece of good advice
Said it would do me well
I couldn't really tell until
I have been loving you

Now it seems
Things are not so strange
I can see more clearly
Suddenly I've found my way
I know the old man would laugh
He spoke of love's sweeter days
And in his eloquent way
I think he was speaking of you
You are so lovely
You didn't have to say a thing

But I remember that old man
Telling me he'd seen the light
Gave me a small brown leather book
Insisted that he was right
I only heard him slightly
'Til I heard you whisper
Took you up all in my arms

Dear old man
Wise old man
Fine old man, now

I have luminous memories of driving through California interviewing various hippie icon dudes with this on the car stereo.

The Incredible String Band: The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967)

My copy of this record is famous as it's the one used in Rob Young's Electric Eden (2010). True fact! Gosh - just looked at it in the book now - so very tiny, you can't really tell it's mine 😛. The cover, with its alchemical man/woman is by Simon and Marijke (aka The Fool) who also did graphics for the inner sleeve of Sergeant Peppers and a huge 3-story mural for the Apple Boutique (not that Apple store...)

The Incredible String Band tick a number of boxes. They had taken a retreat at Temple Cottage in Balmore, north of Glasgow where this LP was written. They were enamored with the orient (faint whiff thereof from instruments picked up in Morocco by Robin Williamson). There's the spiritual connection -  hanger-on, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes the foreword for their compendium Be Glad (2003).

The ISB also ended up as followers of Scientology after an introduction in New York in 1968 by one David Simons. I got to leave Scientology out of Retreat, it could not be classed as countercultural, but paper-thin walls separate it from the terrain. For instance L. Ron Hubbard believed that he was the reincarnation of the future-Buddha Maitreya and so far as anti-psychiatrists go Hubbard was more dedicated than anyone else.

In many respects the Scientology founder was like Rajneesh and Werner Erhard; a latecomer mopping up after the fact as he absorbed first Psychoanalysis (the Dianetics concept is Freud repurposed for the mass-market), then Jungian ideas (Jung had been an early pioneer of the use of the lie-detector which appears in Scientology as the E-meter) and then a smorgasbord of concepts from Eastern religion (most notably reincarnation as found in Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism).

Emil Richards & The Microtonal Blues Band: Journey to Bliss (1968)

This looks like it could be a La Monte Young-style LP but is actually a kooky jazz LP pitched somewhere between Arthur Lyman and Esquivel. Note Emil's mala beads around his neck.

Woops! I almost forgot to mention the wonderful painting of the Woodstock guru Satchidananda on the rear sleeve.

Pandit Pran Nath: Earth Groove (1968)

On the trendy countercultural label Douglas, this was the first recording by Pran Nath and tellingly his first recording anywhere in the world. Some commentators have made hay out of Pran Nath's low profile in India itself - something which has slowly changed over the intervening years. The meat of the gossip being that La Monte Young had plucked an unknown, a nobody, from the subcontinent. This is addressed in Jeremy Grimshaw's Draw a Straight Line and Follow It (2011) a weighty musicological dissertation that largely went over my head. I think La Monte knew what he was on about - if he said Pran Nath was perfectly in tune where other singers weren't, well, that's good enough for me!

It's not a good recording sadly - even if it is a recognisable performance. If you are interested in Pran Nath's music go directly to Raga Malkauns (2002) which can still be bought from La Monte's MELA store. That's a really extremely magical and transportive recording - very strong, heady stuff. If you have money to burn buy one of Marian Zazeela's signed posters while you are there.

Musique Rituelle Tibetaine (1969)

My own view that is that as much as certain figures like Timothy Leary are guilty of clumsily expropriating eastern mysticism, in this chapter of the history of the west, dating from Vivekananda's address at the Chicago Parliament of the World's religions in 1893 right up to 1975, there is scant case to be made for cultural colonialism of the ideas of Buddhism, Tao or Vedanta. The west was literally swarming with roshis, gurus and swamis - maverick entrepreneurs popularising these ideas.

An LP like this, sporting Mahakala on its cover, for the French label Ocora might seem like evidence of orientalism. Edward Said, who coined the term, was willing to lump together anyone who taught, wrote about or researched the orient along with those who sought to dominate, restructure or have authority over the terrain. But surely there is a distinction? Is there no room for people of different cultures to seek to understand one another? That would be a pity! Said himself gave the example of the difference between "an economic study of long-term Soviet energy potential and its effect on military capability" and "a study of Tolstoy's early fiction financed in part by a foundation" - so it seems even he saw shades of culpability in what is often used as a categorical broad brush.

The Vietnam War showed the catastrophic folly of America's international meddling; but in this era neither should the explicitly territorial and colonial Chinese Invasion of Tibet be forgotten. Albums like this above, my fave Nonesuch recording Tantras Of Gyütö (1973) (another Mahakala LP!) or Lyrichord's Tibetan Ritual Music (1961) are analogous to books like Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet (1953), Alexandra David-Neel's Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), Lama Govinda's The Way of the White Clouds (1966), and Sumner Carnahan's In the Presence of my Enemies (1995) - this last written in collaboration with Lama Kunga Rinpoche. I certainly don't recall hearing the Dalai Lama expressing any criticism at these honest attempts to understand and preserve Tibetan culture.

Yoko Ono: Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Neither of the massively significant women interviewed for Retreat, Germaine Greer and Prudence Farrow Bruns are of much use in today's media landscape. Both were too strong and successful to carry the mantle of victimhood.

Yoko Ono is a loser on a third count as a being member of an "ethnic minority" who failed to have been exploited. In this sense she joins the ranks of ridiculously prosperous, visionary agitators and polemicists who came from the Orient in the countercultural era to dominate the cultural thinking of the West: D.T. Suzuki, George Ohsawa, Yogananda, KrishnamurtiMahesh Maharshi Yogi, Chögyam Trungpa, Muktananda, Osho, Thích Nhất Hạnh, B.K.S. Iyengar, PrabhavanandaVishnudevanandaSatchidananda, PrabhupadaYogi Bhajan, Sri Chinmoy, Prem Rawat, Swami Chinmayananda, Meher Baba, Shunryu Suzuki, and Vilayat Khan. These brilliant people were not "culturally appropriated" - they came, they saw and they conquered.

After years of steady-swelling appreciation Ono is savaged in Craig Brown's recent Beatles book One, Two, Three, Four (2020). As much as I enjoyed the extremely successful book, it's like a big box of chocolates for Beatles fans, I do take issue with its core strategy. As a book about the Beatles phenomenon, more than their creative output, it's often a bit hollow and superficial. One gets the feeling that one could just as easily be reading a book about Robbie Williams or Lady Gaga and their fame. The Beatles actually meant something! So give me Revolution in the Head or Many Years from Now any day. Caught off guard I found myself briefly nodding along to Brown's tart Ono critique before suddenly checking myself. Here's only one of many reasons why we need her.

John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (1970)

Couldn't resist including John's effort too. Notice how John and Yoko change places. Swapsies innit. ♥

See Retreat for more extensive Beatles gear. 📖

Flower Travellin' Band: Satori (1971)

According to Julian Cope in Japrocksampler (2007) in 1964 Flower Travellin' Band mentor and manager Yuya Utchida's "mind was blown when a friend played him The Beatles." According to his autobiography he realised that with a single Fab Four song that "the entire rock'n'roll genre had now been rendered obsolete." The artwork for their LP of post-Black Sabbath sludge metal, Satori, was designed by Shinoba Ishimaru to showcase ideas of "Buddhism, Hinduism and psychedelia." It was recorded in Toronto, Canada.

Here is an excellent example of the countercultural image of the east reflecting back to the orient. The band's gesture is obviously one directed at The Beatles and other countercultural factions adopting eastern spirituality: "We invented this!" Of course, however, the band were Japanese and the Buddha was Indian. He experienced his satori in Bodh Gaya which is as geographically close to Athens as it is to Tokyo.

The word "Zen" itself derives from the Chinese Tang dynasty's "Chan" school - the word "Chan" itself a transliteration of the sanskrit "dhyāna" meaning meditation. Scholars have long accepted that there was a continuum of philosophical thinking along the Silk Road, with Neoplatonic ideas such as emanationism mixing with Hindu (and therefore Buddhist) thought since before Alexander The Great's Indian campaign. It just goes to show that with "Eastern" philosophy it's a mistake to get too lost in particularities of geography or ethnicity - it's all one big continuum.

Ash Ra Tempel with Timothy Leary : Seven Up (1973)

This LP merits only one sentence in Leary's lovely Flashbacks (1983): "I made a rock-and-roll record with a German techno-rock group." From our perspective as Krautrock fans it's of signature importance. His meeting with Leary inspiring Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser, "Psy-Phi" inspiring the manager's purple patch of Cosmic Couriers LPs.

Yatha Sidhra: A Meditation Mass (1974)

This is a lovely LP on Brain. A hippy Neu! More than any other European country Germany really embraced Hinduism and Buddhism. There's a backstory to this involving the Lebensreform-era, the Ascona commune, Hermann Hesse, Max Müller's concepts of the Aryan Race, travelers like Eugen Herrigel and Heinrich Harrer, and even regrettably the role of Nazis such as Heinrich Himmler. In 1990, when there were still ghostly traces of the hippie trail in the Far East, I remember meeting a preponderance of stoned Germans in India, Nepal and Thailand.

I find it extremely apposite how this Buddhist thangka is used in the inner sleeve like an object of contemplation; just as it would be purposed in a temple. The seventies German hippie would roll a large joint - put the LP on the record player - and while the music played, pore over the record sleeve. Elaborate album art like that of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon or The Beatles Sergeant Peppers function in a similar way to the use of mandalas in eastern mysticism - as objects of devotional meditation. They are square too!

Don Cherry: Eternal Now (1974)

Don Cherry was neck deep in these currents of thought. Any one of his seventies LPs but especially the run from 1973's Organic Music Society onwards bear witness. At the recent excellent, if I thought confused, British Museum Tantra exhibition Cherry's Hear & Now was in a glass case beside an original copy of the Leary gang's "The Psychedelic Experience" book.

If you have time please watch this wonderful documentary. Highly recommended.

Bennie Maupin: The Jewel in the Lotus (1974)

The bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara's mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" is everywhere throughout Don Cherry's work, printed on the record sleeves, intoned on wax and even inspiring track titles like Chenrezig (which is the Tibetan name of this bodhisattva who goes by the name Kannon in Japan or as the female Guanyin in China). There is a huge amount of literature about the mani mantra - the two books which I've enjoyed are Lama Govinda's Foundation of Tibetan Mysticism (1959) and Alexander Studholme's The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum (2002).

I won't go into the various meanings of the mantra here (about which there is the usual dharmic quarrel) but the skinny is that to some degree or other (😎) it means "the jewel in the lotus". Hence the name of this of this super-nice slice of cosmic jazz from Miles Davis sideman Bennie Maupin. The then-current vogue for eastern mysticism made a very profound impression on the Jazz-Funk scene - thinking here too of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Santana. Maybe this originally stems from the influence of Alice and John Coltrane?

Wire: Pink Flag (1977)

By 1976, and the punk-rock tsunami, the psychic strain had become largely verboten. Persisting only in the music of, unsurprisingly given their location, San Francisco bands The Residents and Chrome and Industrial music. Out went the loon pants and marijuana - and in came ripped t-shirts and methamphetamine. What interests me is how, sometimes unwittingly, it persists. This LP is a case in point. My view is that this is an entirely perfect representation of Zen Buddhism - and if you will bear with me I would like to explain why. ☸

Zen Buddhism has a number of key preoccupations:

Firstly, a view of everyday living as the source of being. So for instance, Paul Reps' classic compilation of scriptures Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1957) contains no descriptions of gods and goddesses, only of people's normal daily interactions.

Secondly, Zen is associated with theoretical violence - with violence as a tool for awakening. D.T. Suzuki has a particular fondness for tales of roshis throwing students from balconies, cutting cats in half and slicing off children's fingers - all in the name of illumination. In the Buddhist monasteries monks practicing zazen are struck by the roshi with a stick to focus their "bare attention" on the present moment of their body, feelings, mind-objects and consciousness.

Thirdly, Zen has a fondness for the koan - short, seemingly paradoxical riddles which once grasped give the student an insight into the higher order. Probably my favourite koan, reproduced in Lama Govinda's Creative Meditation and Multidimensional Consciousness (1976) is particularly useful in illustrating how Buddhism picks up where the Vedic Upanishads leave off:

The fifth patriarch was retiring and wished to discover his successor. He asked all the potential candidates to write a stanza about the innermost nature of mind - no one dared to come forward but the the learned Shin-shau who wrote a verse on the corridor wall:

Our body is like a bodhi-tree,
Our mind is like a clear mirror;
From hour to hour it must be cleansed,
So that no dust can collect upon it.

The patriarch praised these lines, which perfectly reflect the Hindu philosophy of the Vedanta. However, he asked Shin-shau to meditate on them for a few more days and to write some more lines which revealed that he had passed through the "gate of enlightenment" - that he actually knew what he was talking about.

The monastery's young cook and stable hand had grown up in impoverished circumstances. By chance he had heard the Diamond sutra being recited and, inspired, had joined the order as an underling. After asking Shin-shau's lines to be read aloud to him, he requested a novice write down his own stanza beneath it. This went as follows:

The Bodhi is not a tree at all,
Nor is the mind a case of mirrors.
When everything is empty,
Where could the dust collect?

He was chosen as the sixth patriarch.

Fourthly, This brings one to Zen Buddhism's, indeed Buddhism's itself, next preoccupation: Emptiness - or Sunyata. This is sometimes referred to as the Anatta doctrine. No Buddhist concept is more poorly understood and it is commonplace for Christians to use the idea as a stick with which to beat the philosophy - suggesting that Buddhism is nihilistic.

Ground zero for the idea is Avalokiteśvara's pronouncement in the Heart Sutra that "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form."

The first way to get a handle on this concept is by understanding that Buddhism argues that objects only have identity in relationship to other objects. A car is only a car, goes the line of thought, because a person can fill it up with petrol and drive it along a road. A tree is only a tree because its roots sink into the ground and its branches reach into the sky. Therefore, the argument goes, objects do not have their identity as a quality within themselves. The only identity objects have is the mysterious quality of their inter-relationship.

But what is the quality of this inter-relationship which binds everything together? Buddhism says that its essential nature is one of emptiness. In the first instance this too is confusing. Shunryu Suzuki is particularly good on this. He says the following "...we have to believe in something which has no form and no colour - something which exists before all forms and colours appear... but I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form, and it has some rules, or theory, or truth in its activity. This is called Buddha nature, or Buddha himself." Sometimes this is referred to as the "plenum-void" - plenum, as in the Latin for full - not really a void y'see...

To further qualify the nature of this plenum-void Shunru Suzuki offers a really fantastic explanation: "If it comes out of nothingness whatever you do is natural... For a plant or stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem." The process of Zen Buddhism, not just the seated discipline zazen, but the broader philosophy, aims to get the student in touch with this naturalness. So for instance in Eugen Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery (1948) the German is tutored for five years by Master Awa Kenzô until he is able to shoot a bow and arrow with total effortlessness, for example only releasing the arrow when it releases itself.

While Buddhism specifies the quality of this thing; the Vedanta does not especially denote a nature for Brahman (the super-consciousness of which our individual consciousness Atman is a subsection), but the two concepts obviously describe the same thing. This is what in Retreat I call "the self".

The notion of the correctness of the state of emptiness has a particular bearing on creativity. Zen Buddhist culture, with its emphasis on minimal degrees of intervention produces micro-events, monosyllabic utterances, skeletal poems and instantaneously-produced brush paintings.

Fifthly, Zen is anti-authoritarian. This is one key reason why the counterculture embraced it. D.T. Suzuki says: "The basic idea of Zen is to come in touch with the inner workings of our being, and to do this in the most direct way possible, without resorting to anything external or supperadded. Therefore anything that has the semblance of an external authority is rejected by Zen. Absolute faith is placed in a man’s own inner being. For whatever authority there is in Zen, all comes from within."


All of which brings us to Wire's Pink Flag. Twenty one, short, violent, bare-boned, enigmatic songs rooted in the subject of everyday life designed to wake the listener up from their slumber. Here are the lyrics to Mr. Suit:


I'm tired of being told what to think
I'm tired of being told what to do
I'm tired of fucking phonies, that's right I'm tired of you
Alright, no, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Suit
No, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Suit


Take your fucking money and shove it up your arse
'Cause you think you understand, well it's a fucking farce
I'm tired of fucking phonies, that's right I'm tired of you
Alright, no, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Suit
No, no, no, no, no, no, Mr. Suit


And if you turn and walk out that door…

I have long suspected that Wire's music is crypto-Buddhist - and Map Ref. 41ºN 93ºW with its lyric: "An unseen ruler defines with geometry, An unrulable expanse of geography" is for me the clincher. But as ought to be apparent, if the band knew nothing whatsoever about Zen Buddhism, it would make no difference. As is spelled out in the Lankavatara and Shurangama sutras we are not supposed to look at the Buddha's finger - but the moon itself. Buddhism, like all eastern spiritualities is a philosophy first and a religion (a nod to the importance in Buddhism of sangha) a distant second. 

Footnote: The prototype for Wire's Zen punk racket is Neu! They even had a track called Negativland - Sunyata in a nutshell. Just look at this old photo of them and clock their Zen hippie chic.

The Revolutionaries: Don't Underestimate The Force. The Force Is Within You (1978)

Dub Reggae is the paradigmatic psychic music. This Revolutionaries LP nails it with the cover which features a quote paraphrasing Star Wars, via Joseph Campbell's influence the ultimate Human Potential Movement movie, together with a beautiful portrait of Haile Selassie.

R.D. Laing: Life Before Death (1978)

Scary cover ahoy. Long after his sixties heyday R.D. Laing, a very competent pianist, recorded this album with wombling background music from Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. This is what you might call "birthing-era" Laing when, following the logic of his own psychedelic legacy, he was in the slipstream of people like Leonard Orr. More than anything else it reminds me of albums like John Betjeman's Late Flowering Love (1974). A great curio but don't rush down to Woolworths to buy it.

Brian Eno: Music for Airports (1978)

If Wire are crypto Zen Buddhists, Brian Eno is a crypto Taoist. Just like Herbert Benson's book The Relaxation Response (1975) was an attempt to create a form of secular mantra meditation, Bob Anderson's Stretching (1975) was Yoga stripped of its Vedic trappings, and Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (1979) was an attempt to bring Buddhist Vipassana meditation into healthcare, so Brian Eno's Oblique Strategy cards (1975) thought to render the I Ching for musicians.

In all of these four cases there is a question mark over the idea as to whether the actual strategy was to smuggle eastern philosophy into the western mainstream or to remove all the mumbo jumbo from potentially useful "technologies". Depending on what day you asked the men in question you would get a different reply. Kabat-Zinn for instance will tell the UK parliament one thing and whisper the Dalai Lama another. My own view is that regardless of the egos involved if you use any of these techniques you stand a fair chance of getting in touch with the assumptions that originally called them into being.

Eno described La Monte Young as "the daddy of us all" but, on the face of it, Brian is happy to ignore the mystic and esoteric principles which drove Minimalism (at least the work of Young, Riley and Reich) and view their oeuvre within the framework of Modern Art as "cleanly" conceptual. Even this is more complicated than it appears. The archetypal modern artist Marcel Duchamp (another of Eno's favorites), to take one of any number of examples, was explicitly an occultist, describing himself as working in "regions which are not ruled by time and space".

The clearest signpost that Eno is, as not usually understood, a closet mystic is the Ambient series. Not only does the music appear designed for meditation, his collaborators on this: Harold Budd (RIP), Jon Hassell, and especially Laraaji are New Age artists in all but name. But also not forgetting the evident interest in shamanism apparent in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). Brian's descriptions of playing in the woods of Melton, Suffolk as a child to my mind have always had an element of nature mysticism to them.

The Blue Orchids: The Greatest Hit (1982)

Blue Orchids were notable for their massive LSD consumption and so keep the faith with the psyche while many of their contemporaries turned to politics or entertainment. This album is particularly notable for A Year with No Head which quotes English eccentric Douglas Harding's confused riffing on Zen Buddhism.

Cybotron: Enter (1983)

In the early eighties the wick is beginning to burn low but Juan Atkins, later of Model 500, and Vietnam Vet Rick Davis keep the faith as Cybotron. Audible here are a number of strands of the counterculture's psychic experiment. Some are mediated by Jazz-Funk (a large component of the Detroit Techno sound and the twin source of eastern philosophy and electronics vis also Mad Mike Banks) and others by Scientology (the famous track here Clear refers to the culmination of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics when all the subject's engrams, traumatic complexes, have been resolved).

Detroit Techno especially (and to a lesser degree Chicago Acid House) are awash with references to psychic concepts. There's a list of these tracks in the Retreat discography. As is visibly demonstrated by the image on the LP sleeve, for many years, in a growing crescendo, technology was seen as a being the perfect agent for the psyche. This impetus is epitomised by Erik Davis' landmark book TechGnosis coming out as it did in 1998 before the possibilities the internet seemed to offer were crushed by Mark Zuckerberg. Thanks, Mark!

AR Kane: 69 (1988)

In the late eighties, typically incisive, Simon Reynolds referred to the music of AR Kane as "oceanic" a term he lifted from Sándor Ferenczi's Thalassa (1924). Originally I thought Ferenczi got "the notion of the ocean" from Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) where the term arises in correspondence between Freud and Nobel-prize winner and Ramakrishna's biographer Romain Rolland. But no, it predates that. Ferenczi conceived of "thalassal regression" wherein mankind longed for the sea-life from which it emerged in primeval terms. The psychic component of an oceanic bliss twinned to regression is a recurring motif in mysticism, rebirth and psychedelic movements.

AR Kane's 69, named in a numerological conceit after the sexual position and the high water year of the psychic counterculture, swims with references to the tropes of ego dissolution. It came at at time just as there was a resurgence in long-abated ideas. This was probably tied to the explosion in the use of MDMA and a spike in interest in LSD, which would carry the culture through to 1995. In rock this back-to-the-future agenda was shared by many other groups such as Sonic Youth (epitomised by Death Valley '69), Loop (named after a Velvet Underground track) and Spaceman 3.

AR Kane - who with Colourbox formed half of M/A/R/R/S - connected to the nascent UK dance scene in which New Age imagery collided with dance music beats popularly conceptualised as "tribal." It's interesting to read Terence McKenna write approvingly in Food of the Gods (1992) of "the spread of popular cults of trance and dance, such as disco and reggae..." He continues, "The connection between rock and roll and psychedelics is a shamanic connection; trance, dance, and intoxification make up the archaic formula for both religious celebration and a guaranteed good time." I cast my mind back to his single with The Shaman, which enshrined this dominant cultural gesture. It's a gesture which was popularised in sub-genres like Trance and Tribal, music which is now scorned 😡.

Kaotic Chemistry: LSD EP (1992)

Of course Hardcore and Techno contained all these ideas in spades - without harping on it. Even if occasionally hats were tipped. Here's Kaotic Chemistry's LSD EP with its League of Spiritual Discovery byline, a reference to Leary's League for Spiritual Discovery.


Plunging deep into the research for Retreat at times it felt like my old universe of music represented by this blog (which I ran so intensely for all of fifteen years) had all but disappeared into the distance. It was really important for me to come back in the June 2020 and write the Eastern Philosophy and the Cosmic Sound in the Counterculture post. With that I was trying to explain to myself, as much as my old pals, how these new thoughts of mine formed a clear continuity with where I was at in the past. Some friends had joked that I was finding "god" in my all favourite records - to that I'd now reply that something like that was evidently hidden in there but I had failed for a long time to appreciate its presence.


What did the Dalai Lama get for Christmas? Nothing.


Eastern Philosophy and the Cosmic Sound in the Counterculture Mix

[John Coltrane: Om introduction]
The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows
[Ravi Shankar: Raga Documentary]
John Coltrane: India
[Pandit Pran Nath: On Lord Krishna]
The Byrds: Eight Miles High
Tony Conrad and Faust: The Pyre of Angus was in Kathmandu
[Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder at the Human Be-In]
Gurdjieff/Hartmann: Essene Hymn
[Varanasi ghats recorded by Matthew Ingram]
John Cage: Sonatas #14&15 Gemeni
Marion Brown: Bismillahi 'Rrahmani 'Rrahim
Paul Horn: Prologue/Inside
Ravi Shankar: Raga Puriya Dhanashri
[Yehudi Menuhin introduces the tamboura]
Don Cherry: Malkauns
Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Russell: Pacific High Studio Mantra
[Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Harmony]
Sharma/Chaurasia/Kabra: Bhoop - Jhap Tala
Popul Vuh: Ah!
Donovan: The Land of Doesn't Have to Be
[Satchidananda Saraswati addressing the crowds at the opening of Woodstock]
Alice Coltrane: Journey in Satchidananda
Joe Harriot/John Mayer: Acka Raga
[Bhagavan Das interview with Matthew Ingram]
The Mahavishnu Orchestra: You Know You Know
The Byrds: Moog Raga
[Ravi Shankar and George Harrison on the Dick Cavett Show]
Terry Riley: Desert of Ice
Charanjit Singh: Raga Malkauns
Bhagavan Das: Ah!

Eastern Philosophy and the Cosmic Sound in the Counterculture

“I don’t reside in the hearts of yogis but with those who sing their devotion to me.” Lord Krishna in the words of Pandit Pran Nath.

Music critics look at their subject through a variety of prisms: often literary or socio-cultural, less commonly, and more sympathetic to musicians’ interests, in relation to composition or music technology. It is rare to read studies which consider the nebulous, intangible concepts which cluster around spirituality: ritual, trance, invocation, channeling, vibrations, atmospheres, the existence of higher orders of consciousness and transpersonal entities. It’s hard to talk about these concepts with any degree of precision. From my own library I can only think of David Toop's Ocean of Sound (1997) and perhaps elliptically Greil Marcus’ writings on Dylan like Invisible Republic (1997) where he addresses Bob Dylan’s coterie of phantasmal, invented characters. And yet, as we know as fans, that is all many musicians think about. In the grandest scheme of things music is contiguous with, and conjoined to, spirituality. From Bach to The Beatles, at its most sublime and eternal music always concerns itself with the metaphysical.

Before I started research on my book Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness I had mainly experienced music as a sealed universe. I could perhaps compare myself to an acolyte following the “only” path. I think my instincts were basically correct but what I learnt in the course of research about the Vedanta, Taoism, and Buddhism; from studying Freud, Jung and Reich; and exploring the worlds of sensory deprivation and psychedelics immeasurably deepened and enriched my understanding of music.

Bhagavan Das (1972)

The critical turning point came on a retreat in Northern California in the Mount Shasta National Park in June 2018. Mount Shasta is a stratovolcano and is tipped year-round with snow and surrounded by virgin pine forests. I had travelled there to meet the sixties guru Bhagavan Das to talk about his role in the counterculture and hear his views on meditation. Bhagavan Das introduced Timothy Leary’s side-kick Richard Alpert to the Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba and was responsible for coining the phrase “Be Here Now.” Towards the end of the interview I mentioned a sufi quote from the minimalist composer La Monte Young which I thought related well to Bhagavan Das’s Vedic, Kirtan music. Baba, as he is affectionately known, froze. “I know La Monte Young. Yes, I do know him. I was very close to La Monte Young in New York City when I came back from India in 1971.”

Neem Karoli Baba (1972)

In my own little cosmology, La Monte Young sits atop a pinnacle of Western music which emanates downwards through The Velvet Underground alumni John Cale, Tony Conrad and Angus Maclise, and through them to every conceivable permutation of avant-garde rock. To travel halfway round the world to bark up what I assumed to be a totally different tree and discover the same owl sitting in it was surprising. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Bhagavan Das belongs firmly in the world of music. In the seventies he had performed in support of The Grateful Dead, had been Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffrey’s new protegee – his potential high-flying career cut short by Jeffrey’s death in 1973. At the dawn of the seventies in New York City the two Vedantists, he and La Monte, would have kept each other in perfect company.

Pandit Pran Nath India’s Master Vocalist (1972)

Das also remembered La Monte’s mentor Pandit Pran Nath: “Yes. I knew Pandit Pran Nath very well. And he was a master musician. A master musician. And he came to one of my concerts once in San Francisco. Ram Dass and I did a special event and it was, like, the biggest thing we ever did together. I think it was 1974 or 1973. Pran Nath came. And I sang. It was an all-night event. Everyone was on LSD. There was like 20,000 people there and Pran Nath came up to me in the morning and saluted each other and he looked at me and he said, “Perfectly in tune.””

Ann Riley, Terry Riley, Pandit Pran Nath, Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young in the Himalayas (1972)

Such a compliment would have carried tremendous weight. Pran Nath and the Kirana school he came from placed the highest emphasis upon tuning with an attention to the microtonal details of Just Intonation – a far cry from the uneven intervals evident in the West’s standard tuning Equal Temperament. Just Intonation itself, based upon the correct mathematical structure of waveforms of sound, is freighted with a spiritual dimension too. Its premise suggests the existence of a higher, divine order manifest in correctly executed tuning. Pran Nath, as much as he is recognized a musician, is in essence a guru – La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, and Jon Hassell his shishyas. Interestingly, Timothy Leary’s colleague Ralph Metzner, co-author with him of The Psychedelic Experience (1964), played a key role in hooking La Monte up with the Indian singer. The wonderful documentary In Between The Notes: A Portrait of Pran Nath (1986) shows Pran Nath returning to the Tapkeshwar Caves where, covered only in ashes, he had spent five years singing to the sound of a nearby stream.

The connection between music and the spiritual is as old as time. However, against a backdrop of widespread experimentation with LSD and the vogueish currents of psychoanalysis which came to the fore in the countercultural era, the bond was more prominent than it has ever been. The late sixties and early seventies set a cosmic high watermark. Although there are many discourses around this nexus, in the countercultural era three antecedents stand out: Sufism, the Vedas and the music of Gurdjieff.

The La Monte Young quote which had pricked up Bhagavan Das’ ears came from an interview with La Monte and Marian Zazeela in the short lived Halana zine: “You know the Sufi story that when God created the body, the soul didn't want to go inside. The soul could see that this was going to be a trap, it was going to be in this cumbersome thing and that it was a life of hardship from there on. So God used music to lure the soul into the body. And the reason God did this is that the soul did not understand why it had to take the body and come to earth. The reason the soul had to enter the body and come to earth is so that it could study music…” The mystical Islamic sect of Sufi has an unusually pronounced affection for music and especially its own Qawwali. Islam itself has an ambivalent attitude towards music, instrumental music is often “haram”, but this is ignored in Sufism which contributes to its heretical status in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists.

Inayat Khan Mysticism of Sound (1923)

The philosopher-musician Inayat Khan’s pocket-sized book The Mysticism of Sound (1923) is the fountainhead of Sufi thought as it enters Western music. Inayat Khan himself founded the Sufi Order in the West in London in 1914. The book takes the neo-platonic concept of emanationism which dominates Vedic philosophy and articulates it within a theory of sound. “In the plane of sound, vibration causes diversity of tone, and in the world of atoms, diversity of color. It is by massing together that the vibrations become audible, but at each step towards the surface they multiply, and as they advance they materialize.” Structurally this is the same conception as the Vedic view which imagines consciousness as a deep body of water wherein an imperceptibly small bubble at the bottom will balloon and erupt on the surface. Music’s role here is to establish a harmony on this plane in accord with the divine order and “he who gradually progresses along the path of music, in the end attains to the highest perfection.”

Khan brings to these ideas a refreshingly practical dimension; “All things being derived from and formed of vibrations have sound hidden within them, as fire is in flint; and each atom of the universe confesses by its tone “My sole origin is but sound.” If any solid or sonorous body is struck it will answer back, “I am sound.”” I remember a story the eccentric Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal told of him and Airto Moreira striking objects to hear them release their spirit; also the “talking” drums of Nigeria’s Juju music.

Khan describes Hu as the most sacred of sounds, “This sound Hu is the beginning and end of all sounds…” This sound is god itself: “The Supreme Being has been called by various names in different languages, but the Mystics have known him as Hu the natural name, not man made, the only name of the Nameless, which all nature constantly proclaims. The sound Hu is most sacred; the mystics of all ages called it Ism-azam, the name of the most High, for it is the origin and end of every sound as well as the background of each word. The word Hu is the spirit of all sounds and of all words, and is hidden under them all, as the spirit in the body.”


We are familiar with the idea of the sacred sound from the Hindu Om, or as it correctly expressed in the Vedas Aum. In Vivekananda’s commentary on Patanjali he breaks it down: “The first letter, A, is the root sound, the key, pronounced without touching any part of the tongue or palate; M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by the closed lip, and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding board of the mouth. Thus [Aum] represents the whole phenomena of sound producing.”

Inayat Khan explains how Hu, which represents the first two letters of Aum, differs: “The sound Hu becomes limited in the word Hum, for the letter m closes the lips. This word in Hindustani expresses limitation, Hum means I or We, both of which signify the ego. The word [Aum] is the sacred word of the Yogis which illumines the ego with the light of reality.” Use of these heavenly sounds in the course of meditation, often in fact sung rather than just intoned as mantras, is key to the attainment of bliss consciousness, as Khan puts it, “This is the Heavenly Wine, to which all Sufi Poets refer, and is totally unlike the momentary intoxications of the mortal plane.”

Raga (1971)

Ravi Shankar India's Master Musician (1959) 

The ideas of Vedic philosophy are connected with the Sufi mysticism of sound in the same way that the spectrum of eastern philosophy embodied by Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism forms an unbroken continuum. On a talkshow with Dick Cavett and George Harrison in 1971 Ravi Shankar explains to the audience: “I request my listeners to be clear-mind. I like to put them [gestures] … make them high with music. I feel rather cheated when they are already high.” Cavett shows footage of Shankar in an informal musical gathering on the lawn at Esalen, a setting replicated at the end of Mad Men, which is lifted from the Apple Records documentary Raga (1971).

A Musical Anthology of the Orient: India 1 (1962)

Alain Daniélou Yoga: The Method of Re-integration (1949)

Hindustani classical music is the key waystation when examining the confluence of music and spirituality in the countercultural era. In the west we listen to this as secular music. However, it’s more accurate to understand the musicians as spiritualists whose end product is accidentally familiar to us in our different cultural context. The French historian and musicologist Alain Daniélou was unusual in the West for grasping this. Daniélou was not only advisor for the UNESCO Music Anthologies of India but also authored classic texts explaining the Hindu traditions such as Yoga: The Method of Re-integration (1949).

Indian classical musicians like Ravi Shankar subscribed to the ideas of Nāda yoga. Nāda yoga (nāda meaning “sound” in Sanskrit) should be understood beside other forms of yoga – all of them time-honoured Hindu techniques for connecting to the spirit and inducing the high of samadhi or “bliss consciousness.” The other paths include Raja Yoga (mind control), Karma Yoga (selfless actions), Bhakti Yoga (spiritual devotion), Jnana Yoga (philosophical study), and Hatha Yoga (the use of postural asanas). A student would inevitably use a combination of these techniques to achieve union with godhead – the word yoga itself is often explained as meaning “yoke” in Sanskrit. As in “the hookup.”

In the Nadabindu Upanishad, the key text of Nāda yoga, the subject is instructed to meditate upon the Hamsa (the Aum sound): “Being indifferent towards all objects, the Yogin having controlled his passions, should by continual practice concentrate his attention upon the sound which destroys the mind… The sound proceeding from Pranava which is Brahman is of the nature of effulgence; the mind becomes absorbed in it; that is the supreme seat of Vishnu.” In the documentary Raga Shankar says “Music is the only language I really know. For I believe in Nāda Brahma. The sound is god.”

G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (1963)

Besides the influence of Sufi and Indian thought with regards to sound the other key influence on the counterculture’s engagement with music was the then ubiquitous influence of hippie favourite G.I. Gurdjieff’s ideas of music. Gurdjieff was a colossal figure in spirituality, akin in stature to the Theosophist Madame Helena Blavatsky, and his ideas were as significant as Aleister Crowley’s in the seething occulture of the late sixties. Gurdjieff counted among his fans Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Colin Wilson, Henry Miller and Robert De Ropp. Gurdjieff bestowed upon history the writings of P.D. Ouspensky and the concept of the enneagram.

Meetings with Remarkabnle Men (1979)

The unmissable climax of Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men, based on the spiritualist’s autobiography, has Terence Stamp show Gurdjieff, played by Dragan Maksimovic, the men and women of the monastery performing “the movements.” These are remarkable, synchronized almost clockwork dances designed by Gurdjieff himself which occasionally resemble the spinning of sufi dervishes but which are more finely orchestrated. They suggest people’s movement as though they were formations of sand distorted by the pitch of audio from a loudspeaker. Gurdjieff worked with the Russian Composer Thomas de Hartmann, one of his pupils, to dictate over three hundred pieces of music to him in the 1920s at his “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man” headquarters near Fontainebleu outside Paris. This is exceptionally fine contemplative piano music, like a Eurasian Erik Satie. De Hartmann’s own tapes of him performing it were recently re-released on vinyl by the Light in the Attic organisation.

Gurdjieff believed that what he called “objective music,” carefully attuned to the mathematical laws which govern the vibration of sounds and the relationships of tone, could produce precise effects. The film music composer Laurence Rosenthal describes in Gurdjieff’s book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (1950), “a remarkable old dervish repeatedly striking a certain series of notes on an ordinary grand piano which has been tuned according to a special system. These notes soon produce a boil on the leg of one of the listeners on the exact spot the master had predicted. Shortly thereafter, a different series of notes quickly makes the boil disappear.”

The countercultural musicians who drew on Eastern philosophy were legion. To have a guru was literally de rigeur for many years. However, a few scenes and performers deserve special mention for the manner in which they were either trailblazers or “deep in the game.” It’s important not to give too much credence to music which used eastern instruments as window-dressing. The often-enchanting "curried" rock of Norwegian Wood, Paint it Black, See My Friends, and Paper Sun doesn’t really connect to the ideas of the east. However, as soon as musicians took structural cues from Indian music, as for instance in the modal Jazz of John Coltrane’s India (1963) then the principles of eastern thought, and its concept of higher orders establishing the structure of the lower, become relevant.

Todi. Todi Ragini, second Wife of Hindol Raga, Ragamala Raghugarh, India ca. 1775-1800.

Modal Jazz was most clearly articulated in 1963 by the composer George Russell. The standard Western model of music is organized through progressions of chords which move towards resolution in a tonic chord. Modal Jazz, in contrast, holds that all the chords are equal, there is no chord progression, and chord changes are relatively rare. The minimalist composer Steve Reich noted approvingly of Coltrane’s modal Africa (1961): “basically a half-an-hour in E. Jazz musicians say, ‘Hey man, what's the changes?’ ‘E.’ ‘No! E for half-an-hour!’” This gives a soloist greater freedom and choice when improvising.

It is remarkably close to, and is clearly influenced by, the Hindustani raga which establishes the parameters of an improvisation within the limitations of a defined scale marked by the time of day. So, for instance Pran Nath’s favourite Raga Todi should only be performed in the late morning. In India the symbolism is pursued to its logical conclusion, Pran Nath says “Raga is living souls,” and Todi is usually shown as a gentle, beautiful woman, holding a veena (a plucked string instrument) and standing in a lovely green forest. The implication being that the raga is an emanation of this higher being.

According to composer and jazz scholar Bill Bauer, Coltrane based the lead melody for 1961’s India on a Vedic chant lifted from this LP Religious Music of India (1952). 

The Byrds Eight Miles High (1966), with Roger McGuinn rendering his version of Trane’s India solo on a 12-string electric guitar, in eschewing ethnic trappings cut closer to the heart of the matter. Although The Byrds often appeared to dip into India as an influence they never once had a sitar on one of their records. For example, their Moog Raga (1968) was an early electronic piece. There were other rock musicians who avoided the accusation of using eastern music merely for colour. Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead concedes that Dark Star (1969) is “very much like a raga” without the ethnic filigree. The song is an improvisation within a set scale and is quite like an extended alaap – the introduction to Hindustani music’s ragas which most of the musicians prefer to the rhythmic conclusion.

The Beatles Tomorrow Never Knows (1966)

As keen as George Harrison was on the colour of Indian instruments The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows (1966) is perhaps more authentically vedic in spirit than anything else they recorded. In his book Revolution in the Head (1994) Ian MacDonald explains that for the second half of the song “Lennon wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain top.” MacDonald concluded of the song that “only the fringe experimentalist La Monte Young was ahead of The Beatles in embracing the drone with reference to its original context: a cosmic keynote resounding through space – the reverberation of the universe-engendering voice of Brahma the creator.”

D.T. Suzuki An Introduction to Buddhism (1934)

John Cage with DT. Suzuki. 

John Cage (1978)

One of the earliest musical explorers into the possibilities of Eastern philosophy was the composer John Cage. Cage was wrapped up in what Alan Watts jokingly described the Beat Zen boom of the fifties. The influence of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both enamored by the ideas of Buddhism, drew interest around Japanese emigres like D.T. Suzuki to fever pitch. Cage was profoundly affected by the Zen seminars held by Suzuki at Columbia University. Cage, then thirty-eight, attended for two years, and was “confused… both in my personal life and in my understanding of what the function of art in society could be.” His friends had recommended he undergo psychoanalysis, but he found that Suzuki’s seminars served the purpose just as well. Cage would frequently fall asleep in class but apparently Suzuki didn’t notice or care. This in turn inspired his Lecture on Nothing (1961) with its 14-time repeated refrain “If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.” Zen Buddhist and Taoist ideas lay behind his prepared piano pieces, with their eastern tonalities, as well as avant-garde works such as 4’33” (1952) and Indeterminacy (1959).

John Coltrane Meditations (1966) and Om (1967)

Perhaps owing to its deep roots in the Beat appropriation of the East, many Jazz musicians were devoted spiritualists. John Coltrane, brought up in a devout Methodist family with two grandfathers who were preachers, had experienced a religious awakening in the process of kicking junk in 1957. In the era of Martin Luther King the example of Gandhi’s nonviolent overthrowal of the Raj was important to Trane. Despite reading The Gospel of Ramakrishna, Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi and the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of God) he didn’t ascribe his satori to any one creed. Trane declared in the liner-notes for Meditations (1966) “I believe in all religions.” However, the Vedas is notable in its non-exclusive position. As Vivekananda put it to the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, “As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”

Coltrane was a student of Ravi Shankar’s, after whom he named his son, but as early as India from Impressions (1961) was already finding his way to a synthesis of the raga in the modal jazz he participated in with Miles Davis. Trane’s A Love Supreme (1965) struck a particular chord with the counterculture – Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead recalling “That’s one of the records I would hear walking through the Haight on a spring night, all over town.” And Om (1965), mooted to have been recorded under the influence of LSD, with its long, quoted intro from Bhagavad-Gita made clear his attachment to Hindu thought.

Alice Coltrane Journey in Satchidananda (1970)

John’s wife Alice Coltrane was yet more explicit about her passion for spirituality and eastern philosophy. Her Journey in Satchidananda (1970) with its pronounced use of the tamboura, was named after her guru whose name means “being-consciousness-bliss” and who is well-known for his opening the Woodstock festival. When the swami spoke to the crowds, a tactic designed by the promotors to calm everyone down, he referred to the festival as an opportunity for “all of our actions and all of our arts to express yoga through the sacred path of music.” Alice’s passion for the Vedas, evident in song titles like Mantra from Ptah the El Daoud (1970), echoed her husband’s. After John’s death Alice moved to California and established her Vedantic Centre in 1975 before changing her name to Turiyasangitananda. Her later music was re-released by Luaka Bop in 2017 as World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda and received rave reviews. She is quoted in the liner notes: “I do get very deeply engaged spiritually in the music, because it's a spiritual language for me, it's not a musical language. I'm expressing, articulating deep feeling and deep experience in life, in spiritual life, in God.”

Satchidananda was only one of the gurus to whom musicians of the countercultural era flocked. Sri Chimnoy, a Bengali spiritual leader who grew up in Sri Aurobindo’s ashram moved to New York in 1964, spread his message by giving lectures at universities across the US and attracted disciples like John McLaughlin of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Carlos Santana. The fruits of the two guitarists’ engagement came in the infinite noodling of Love Devotion Surrender LP of 1963 versions of Coltrane’s music which was dedicated to their guru. There was also the influence of the juggernaut of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s International Society for Krishna Consciousness which led to the appearance of the Hare Krishna mantra in I am the Walrus and Give Peace a Chance. However, the greatest influence of the Vedas on music came from the giggling guru himself, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Science of Being and Art of Living (1963)

Paul Horn in Kashmir (1968)

It was no surprise that musicians gravitated to Mahesh because sound played a central part in the Transcendental Meditation pioneer’s cosmology. Prudence Farrow Bruns, immortalised as Dear Prudence in The Beatles song informed me of the TM use of the mantra, “The mantra is merely an aid, or tool, that the conscious mind uses to access the deepest transcendental part of the mind. Mantra means sound in Sanskrit...” In his 1963 book Science of Being and Art of Living Mahesh writes, “Thinking, in itself, is the subtle state of speech. When we speak, our words are audible to the ears, but if we do not speak, the words do not become perceptible to the organ of hearing. Thus, we find that thought is a subtle form of sound. Experience shows that the process of thinking starts from the deepest, most refined level of consciousness and becomes grosser as it develops. Eventually it becomes gross enough to be perceived on the surface level of the ocean of consciousness, on the common level of thinking. An analogy will clarify the principle. A thought starts from the deepest level of consciousness, from the deepest level of the ocean of mind, as a bubble starts at the bottom of the sea. As the bubble rises, it gradually becomes bigger. When it comes to the surface of the water it is perceived as a bubble. Mind is like an ocean, and as in an ocean, the surface layers are active in waves and the deeper levels are silent. The surface layers of the mind are actively functioning while the deep layers are silent.”

The jazz flautist Paul Horn had form with eastern philosophy recording the polite Zen: The Music of Fred Katz with Katz and Chico Hamilton in 1957. Horn took part in a teacher-training programme at Rishikesh and became a TM initiator. Towards the end of the course he had the opportunity to play with some Kashmiri musicians which resulted in the Liberty Records LP In Kashmir – Cosmic Consciousness (1968). Mahesh can be seen on the cover. This was before The Beatles had arrived at the compound and Horn reflected, “In early 1967 there were only 50 people at the Ashram. I was always thinking how great it would be to have a documentary of those special days for all the world to see. I returned to Los Angeles in June and by the end of that year my wish became a realization… So that was already in motion, and I had a film crew and everything going over there. And it just happened to coincide that The Beatles were there.”

Paramhansa Yogananda Autobiography of a Yogi (1946)

Vivekananda Raja Yoga (1896)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney had seen Mahesh on a small black and white TV in Liverpool years before and John had been enchanted by his giggling. The group’s relationship with him was predated by George Harrison’s involvement with Ravi Shankar. This led to George and Patti Boyd embarking on a visit to meet Shankar in India in September 1966. Harrison told The Times of India: “I am not here as a Beatle. I have come here just as plain George Harrison to learn the sitar and something of Indian classical music.” Ravi and his brother Raju introduced George to two fundamental books: the wonderful Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of Yogi (1946) and Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (1896). Before encountering Mahesh, George and Patti met Shankar’s guru Tat Wale Baba who explained the laws of karma to them.

Donovan: a gift from a flower to a garden (1968) Front cover and rear.

The Beatles had been initiated in TM in London, and had gone on a retreat to Bangor in Wales with Mahesh but it was the descent of the entire horde of The Beatles and partners, Donovan and Mike Love of The Beach Boys to Rishikesh in February 1968 that signaled their commitment to the yogi. While Lennon and the Maharishi had a famous bust-up over the sexy sadhu’s wandering hands, Donovan and The Beach Boys remained close. Mahesh clutches a flower in a photo affixed to the rear of Donovan’s a gift from a flower to a garden (1968) LP and the yogi supported The Beach Boys on their doomed 1968 US Tour.

Chögyam Trungpa

While the Vedas dominated musicians’ conception of sound the example of Buddhism had an impact on some of the more thoughtful countercultural musicians. When I interviewed Bhagavan Das he remembered his times with the notorious Tibetan Lama Chögyam Trungpa at his foundation the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, “he just encouraged my, basically you could say, my hedonism. He said, “Well do it! That’s what you want to do. That’s what you need to do.” Do it and see through it and go out the other end. So, I was pretty crazy for three years, I was very reckless and I was just lucky that I didn’t kill myself.” Trungpa, like Rajneesh, the subject of Netflix Wild Wild Country (2018) documentary, believed in the value of the Tantric path. That’s to say the strategy of reaching enlightenment by passing through attachment rather than through renunciation. Trungpa called this “Crazy Wisdom” and we shouldn’t be surprised that the hedonistic rock counterculture gravitated to him.

In Paul Trynka’s book Starman, “face” and underground DJ Jeff Dexter describes how: “When I first went to Samye Ling [Trungpa’s Scottish Retreat], [Bowie] had already made an impression with the head monk Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.” Bowie went as far as nearly joining the order as a monk, admitting in 1969, “I was a terribly earnest Buddhist at the time... I had stayed in their monastery and was going through all their exams... another month and my head would have been shaved.” Bowie’s love with Buddhism stayed with him his whole life as he remained in contact with the Tulku, Chime Rinpoche. The evidence doesn’t often appear on record, but Bowie’s Silly Boy Blue (1967) centres on a description of life in Lhasa inspired by Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet.

Bhagavan Das’ friend Allen Ginsberg was another of Trungpa’s close circle. He writes his liner notes for Bob Dylan’s Desire (1976) in his capacity as Co-Director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. This was the literature department established by Trungpa at the Naropa Institute. However, Ginsberg’s close friend, the Buddhist Arthur Russell was less impressed by Trungpa’s alcoholism, LSD use and revolving door of sexual partners telling Allen, “What is this shit?” and advising him to steer clear of the lama. This did not stop Russell’s interest in the Trungpa’s theoretical endorsement of improvisation in the instruction “First thought, best thought.”

Arthur Russell's posthumous compilation First Thought, Best Thought (2006).

Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973)

Arthur Russell’s engagement with Buddhism is explored in depth in Matthew Marble’s Buddhist Bubblegum: Esoteric Buddhism in the Creative Process of Arthur Russell (2016). The thesis explores how Russell gravitated towards the strategies of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, “mantra, meditation, visualization, sadhana rituals” to guide his creative process. In Matt Wolf’s documentary Wild Combination (2009) Ginsberg says in eulogy  “His ambition seemed to be to write popular music, “bubblegum” music, but “Buddhist bubblegum” — to transmit the dharma through the most elemental form, or to transmit some sense of illumination. That was [his] constant preoccupation.”

Marble focuses on the “matrix system” Russell developed to compose Instrumentals Vol. 1 & 2 (1977-78) and his improvisational disco work 24>24 Music (1980). The latter took a great deal of marshalling by François Kevorkian to whom we should be grateful for the concision of Go Bang #5 (1982). He argues of World of Echo (1986) that Arthur was, “perhaps nowhere more successful in sonifying these “first thoughts””. Russell is memorialized in Ginsberg’s poem Charnel Ground (1992) “The artistic Buddhist composer on the six floor lay spaced out feet swollen with water, Dying slowly of AIDS over a year.”

Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita with a foreword by Aldous Huxley.

The Gospel of Ramakrishna.

We shouldn’t get too hung up on geography or ethnicity. Eastern thought in its purest form is simply philosophy. It’s interesting to discover that Ravi Shankar, who we identify as the quintessence of Hindustani music, had an exceptionally cosmopolitan upbringing travelling with his brother Uday’s dance troop to Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles. Ravi did not turn exclusively to either music or India itself until 1938 when he was eighteen. This bears similarities to the equally cosmopolitan Gandhi’s own introduction to the Bhagavad Gita by Theosophists in London.

One cannot escape the suspicion that of all the countercultural music, two which had less obvious debts to eastern spirituality were posing similar questions without referring to its influence. The implication of dub reggae’s visible-then-invisible sonic figures is explicitly, and without recourse to metaphor, demonstrative of the reality of higher forms; and the blind, no-mind mantras of krautrock articulate the principles of the Tao and the theoretical violence of Zen Buddhism – even if with track titles like Aumgn or Negativland these groups may have hinted at their understanding of the actual tenets.

For the spiritualists of the counterculture, and even those of today, La Monte Young summarises the cosmic appeal of these philosophies of music, “…sound is capable of presenting the most perfect model of universal structure, and sound is a physical phenomenon since it involves air molecule vibrations.” Music holds out the promise of being a better manifestation of a divine order than that which is normally engraved in the sludge of the western ego. It was through their manifestation in music of higher order principles that these musicians gave us a glimpse of the sublime.