26.12.20

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...

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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."

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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:

One-two-three-four!

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

Alright

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

Oh!

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.

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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.

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What did the Dalai Lama get for Christmas? Nothing.