HIGH NOTES: 7 Reasons Panic! At the Disco Are Unsung Psychedelic Rock Icons

COLUMNS|High Notes|Monthly Mondays

Having analyzed how LSD influenced The Beatles, my understanding of psychedelic rock music may appear sophisticated. But I have a confession to make: my favorite psychedelic rock band is actually Panic! At the Disco. Yes, you heard me right. I just called Panic! At the Disco a psychedelic rock band. 

This discovery started my freshman year of college, when, as usual, I was a little late to the game and began listening to the 2008 album Pretty. Odd. It was entirely unlike the band’s 2005 breakout album A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. First of all, several of the songs featured vocals from the band’s guitarist Ryan Ross, whose voice is reminiscent of a “Strawberry Fields” or “Across the Universe” John Lennon (and who apparently admires Paul McCartney). Secondly, it contained lyrics like “Don’t you remember when I was a bird and you were a map?”

I began to do more research, and what I discovered was that Panic! At the Disco are, indeed, the unsung psychedelic rock icons of our time. Here’s why I came to this conclusion. 

1. The Alice in Wonderland References 

Alice in Wonderland has become the ultimate musical signifier of all things trippy. Exhibit A: Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Exhibit B: Panic!’s “Mad as Rabbits.” Bizarre body-horror images like “the stove is creeping up his spine again” and “his arms were the branches of a Christmas tree” conjure up Alice’s body distorting under the magic potions, and they even sprinkled a Disney reference into a very strange (one might say pretty odd) plot line: “Rope hung his other branch / And at the end was a dog called Bambi / Who was chewing on his parliaments / When he tried to save the calendar business.” And then, of course, there’s the chorus: “He took the days for pageant / Became as mad as rabbits / With bushels of bad habits / Who could ask for any more?” Indeed, who could ask for anything more trippy? 

2. Ryan Ross’s Beatles Shout-Outs

As you might suspect from listening to Pretty. Odd., Ross has counted the Beatles among his biggest influences — but not until he was already making the album. “I was partly drawn to them because they weren’t afraid of doing any kind of song. That was something we were trying to figure out: Are we allowed to do a jazz song? Are we allowed to do cabaret? Just from hearing the Beatles, it was like, ‘Well, they did it. It’s okay to write something other than a standard rock song,’” he told Spin. The album was actually recorded at Abbey Road, the recording studio used by the Beatles. Since then, Ross has called the Beatles nature’s Disneyland and nature’s therapist.” (I think he’s a little confused about what nature is, but I’ll let him have it.)

3. Brendon Urie’s Pivotal Mushroom Trip 

When frontman Brendon Urie got into a rut a few years back, feeling uninspired and reluctant to leave his home, he invited some friends over to do mushrooms. “I felt great. I felt alive again,” he told The Chicago Tribune. “Thirty minutes of a bad trip, kicked back into an amazing time — I really liked that I liked feeling uneasy again, like anything is possible. It wasn’t even taking the mushrooms — it was seeing what was out there. I like keeping that curiosity alive. It goes in waves, but it’s nice to keep that. It helps everything. It helps my anxiety, too. I love it.” This led to Urie’s creative resurgence following the departure of last-remaining original band member Spencer Smith and directly influenced 2016 LP Death of a Bachelor

4. “Nine in the Afternoon”

Urie has admitted that “Nine in the Afternoon” is about psychedelics, and that probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has listened to the band sing “your eyes are the size of the moon” (hello, pupil dilation) and “losing the feeling of feeling unique” (likely a reference to depersonalization). “We ended up just partying, by ourselves up in this cabin, which was supposedly haunted—just a bunch of guys on psychedelics,” Urie said. “The title came from our drummer, Spencer Smith — we were high and he was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what time it is but it feels like nine in the afternoon.’” His statement actually makes perfect sense if you’ve ever experienced time distortion from psychedelics. 

5. “Northern Downpour” 

Some of Panic!’s songs may be more obviously trip-inspired, but “Northern Downpour” is a masterpiece in the subtleties of its psychedelic influence. This song’s greatest lyrical accomplishments are the portmanteaus created from entire phrases. “You are at the top of my list” and “top of my lungs” become “you are at the top of my lungs,” mimicking the way perceptions and ideas bleed into one another on psychedelics. If there’s any doubt that this song was psychedelic-rock-based, it mentions “tripping eyes and flooded lungs” and even uses some “Lucy in the Sky”-esque imagery. While the star of the Beatles’ hit has “kaleidoscope eyes,” Panic!’s has “playful lips made of yarn.” Panic!’s diamonds, however, “appear to be just like broken glass.”

6. “Behind the Sea”

This track from Pretty. Odd. is unique in that the entire song features Ross’s vocals. Ross also wrote the song, along with the band’s bassist Jon Walker, which was also the case for “Northern Downpour.” Continuing the lyrical themes of “Northern Downpour” and “Mad as Rabbits,” “Behind the Sea” uses absurdist and rather inventive imagery like “the men all played along to marching drums… so our matching legs are marching clocks” and “scarecrow, now it’s time to hatch sprouting suns and ageless daughters.” 

7. Urie’s New Video With Taylor Swift 

I’m not saying Taylor Swift was tripping when she wrote this song or created this video, but people familiar with Panic!’s psychedelic influences will find the “ME!” video consistent with Urie’s style. The entire city in pastels, the creepy man flying down from an umbrella like Mary Poppins, the way Urie’s heart turns into a tunnel, and the snake that combusts into a bunch of butterflies will delight psychedelic users and non-users alike.