The Rolling Stones' psychedelic phase is generally considered to have manifested itself in three records — Between the Buttons, the American compilation Flowers, and the apex, Their Satanic Majesties Request — all released in 1967. Additionally, there is the single " We Love You" (backed with "Dandelion") which came out the same year.* These records represent The Stones at their most decadent, damaged and outrageous in terms of candy-coated sonic weirdness. For a long time critics dismissed this stuff as nothing more than Mick and Keith imitating The Beatles' own psychedelic escapades (Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour). They were probably right, yet over the past couple of decades the rock canon has come to embrace the cracked beauty coursing through this music. It's flower power turned creepy and murky.
As someone who has always believed Between the Buttons is the group's artistic peak (Brian Wilson digs it, too), I'm thrilled that The Stones' psychedelic phase is now seen as 100% classic. However, I would like to expand what constitutes this phase, as it's often drawn too narrowly. It wasn't a one-night stand beginning and ending with the three records released in '67, but more of an extended affair encompassing most of the mid- and late 1960s.
To these ears, The Stones' first flirtation with classic psychedelic ethos is "I'm Free," from 1965's December's Children (And Everybody's), an album for the most part dominated by fuzzy garage-punk, American blues and blue-eyed soul.** Though not an aural mind-bender on par with, say, "2,000 Light Years from Home" or that tripped-out riff-rager "Citadel," it does find The Stones espousing values fundamental to the about-to-blossom hippie underground: "I'm free to do what I want any old time./ So love me, hold me, love me, hold me." Meanwhile, the song's overall sound is hazy, mantra-like folk-rock reminiscent of what was then brewing in California: early Jefferson Airplane, The Mamas and The Papas, Dino Valente, The Byrds, Love and so on.***
After December's Children (which also contained the dreamy "As Tears Go By," a clear antecedent to post-Sgt. Pepper's baroque pop and art rock), The Stones dropped the classic Aftermath. Whether we're talking the album's English or American version, the tracks "Lady Jane," "Mother's Little Helper," "I Am Waiting" and, of course, "Paint It, Black" saw the group augmenting its snarling [British-beat] sound with sitars, dulcimers, strings and myriad production tricks, all of which lend the music a singular, and often ominous, sense of otherworldliness. Not only that, the 11-minute opus "Going Home" served -- along with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's "East-West," Love's "Revelation," and Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" -- as a primary inspiration when bands like The Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service began to explore the extended free-form jam, a concert staple of San Francisco's LSD-soaked ballroom scene.
Just as I define The Stones' psychedelic phase as beginning two years prior to the Summer of Love, I also believe it extended two years beyond it. For hardcore Stones fans what you're about to read might be difficult to swallow: it's commonly accepted that 1968's Beggars Banquet, the album released directly after Their Satanic Majesties Request, marks the band's brutal dismissal of hippie culture and flower power while simultaneously reaffirming its love for stripped-down rock 'n' roll. I, however, don't hear that. While the record clearly doesn't make an appropriate soundtrack for twirling incense and dancing naked in Hyde Park, it exudes a sense of liminality and shadow play that's clearly psychedelic, albeit a psychedelia that has turned sinister and intensely foreboding.
As with "I'm Free," two of Beggars Banquet's best tracks – "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Parachute Woman" -- are all about hypnotic repetition. Meanwhile, the last two minutes of "Stray Cat Blues," a gnarly mishmash of squall and drone, feel as sonically disorienting and intensely fantastical as anything off The Velvet Underground's first two records.
The final chapter in my version of The Stones' psychedelic phase is 1969's Let It Bleed. It makes total sense that both Brian Jones and his successor, Mick Taylor, contributed to the record's making, as it's very much a transitional affair. Jones -- the most musical of all Stones past, present and future -- is the multifaceted genius who was primarily concerned with the band as a recording unit. It was his interest in exotic instrumentation and pure sound that made their psychedelic music a reality. Taylor, in contrast, was a bluesman first and foremost. When he replaced Jones, he gradually (and quietly) helped transform The Stones into a live concert band, one whose studio output -- Exile on Main St. for example -- always felt natural and rootsy, a product of day-to-day reality here on planet Earth.
Though Jones appears on just two of Let It Bleed's nine cuts ("You Got the Silver" and "Midnight Rambler"), his presence can be felt on "Gimme Shelter" and "Monkey Man," both of which feel like demonic, out-of-body transmissions from another dimension. Then there's the splendid title track, a kind of role-playing Vaudeville-inspired absurdity not far removed from Between the Buttons' "Something Happened to Me Yesterday," a chronicle of LSD experimentation.
The Rolling Stones would dabble in aspects of psychedelia on future releases; "Can You Hear the Music," off Goats Head Soup, is a standout, and so is the Steel Wheels track "Continental Drift." But never again would they go all out, like the 1965 to '69 years.
To get a good overview of the band's psychedelic phase, simply press play above, or you can check out The Rolling Stones and The Summer of Love playlist.
* Lennon and McCartney contributed uncredited backing vocals to "We Love You."
** In the United Kingdom, "I'm Free" appeared on the album Out of Our Heads, also released in 1965.
*** Interestingly enough, The Soup Dragons accentuated that mantra-like quality when the Scottish act turned "I'm Free" into a club anthem for the U.K.'s very neo-psychedelic rave scene of the early 1990s.