HIGH NOTES: 7 Songs That Were Inspired by Acid Trips

For decades, musicians have been known to experiment with LSD to stimulate their creative process. Because of the drug’s effects on the serotonergic system, people tripping on it not only experience warped sounds and images that might inspire music and lyrics but also become more open to experimenting with different styles. The result of these effects was no less than a musical revolution in the ’60s and ’70s and innovations in music that have continued up to the present day.

Many of the songs you’ve listened to have probably been inspired by acid trips, whether you realize it or not. Here are some songs that probably wouldn’t have existed as we know them without the help of lysergic acid diethylamide.

“Acid Rain” by Chance the Rapper

Hip hop may not be the genre you typically associate with LSD, but Chance the Rapper told MTV in 2013 that the drug inspired his album Acid Rap. This is perhaps most obvious on the track “Acid Rain,” where he raps, “Kicked off my shoes, tripped acid in the rain.” The song, like several on the album, is a tribute to his late friend Rodney Kyles Jr.: “My big homie died young; just turned older than him / I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always / He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways / I trip to make the fall shorter.” Presumably, his use of the word “trip” indicates that his psychedelic experiences helped him through the loss of his friend.

“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” by The Flaming Lips

Though The Flaming Lips haven’t come out and said that this nonsensical story of a karate black belt’s battle with humanity-destroying robots was inspired by LSD, there are a few clues, the first being the weirdness of the whole story. The second clue is the album cover, which features the number 25 on a wall behind the robot, as James Stafford at Diffuser has observed. We also know that lead singer Wayne Coyne is a fan of LSD; he once said that the psychedelic “SuperFreak” video with Miley Cyrus was “originally intended to be for a song that has a reference to the drug LSD.”

“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

This list would not be complete without “White Rabbit,” possibly the trippiest song known to humankind. “It became the signature for the people who were doing the things it had reference to,” the band’s bassist Jack Casady told Louder Sound. The song is based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, which in turn is based on — you guessed it — acid. “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small… logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead,” Grace Slick sang, evoking the visual distortions of psychedelic trips.

“I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles

The only song to rival “White Rabbit” as the world’s most obviously LSD-inspired song is “I Am the Walrus.” “I am he as you are he as you are me,” the opening line philosophizes before segueing into descriptions of “egg men,” “yellow matter custard dripping from a dog’s eye,” and a “pornographic priestess.” In case that doesn’t convince you that the song was written on acid, here’s a quote from John Lennon: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend, the second line on another acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko.” (I would’ve included “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” but Lennon has said this name actually came from the title of a drawing by his son. Still, it’s very possible that it was written on acid, too.)

“Lysergic Bliss” by of Montreal

With their wacky lyrics and colorful, over-the-top shows, of Montreal has a reputation for embracing the weird. This song leaves no mystery regarding its meaning, with a title referencing LSD’s full laboratory name, lysergic acid diethylamide. The song, however, appears to be not just about LSD but also about falling in love (perhaps falling in love on LSD?), with lyrics like “If we were a pair of jigsaw puzzle pieces / We would connect so perfectly.” But other lines like “Wearing an olive drab but feeling somehow inside opalescent” sound more like they’re about the drug itself.

“Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis

“Acid Tongue,” the eponymous song off Jenny Lewis’s first self-titled album, references Lewis’s first acid trip as a young teen in the line, “I’ve been down to Dixie And dropped acid on my tongue / Tripped upon the land ’til enough was enough.” She described the trip to Rolling Stone: “It culminated in a scene not unlike something from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—the scene where Hunter S. Thompson has to lock the lawyer in the bathroom. I sort of assumed the Hunter S. Thompson character and my friend – she had taken far too much – decided to pull a butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and chase me around the house. … At the end of that experience, my mom was out of town on a trip of her own and she returned to find me about 5 lbs lighter and I had—I was so desperate to get back to normal I decided to drink an entire gallon of orange juice. I saw that it was in the fridge and decided that this would sort of flush the LSD out of my system, but I didn’t realize that it did exactly the opposite.”

“Black Peter” by The Grateful Dead

Robert Hunter, a songwriter who frequently worked with The Grateful Dead, consumed apple juice containing about a gram of crystal LSD worth around $50,000 in 1969, after which he experienced firsthand the deaths of JFK, Lincoln, and other assassinated public figures. This scary and expensive trip paid off, though, because it inspired him to write “Black Peter,” which recounts this experience of dying in lyrics like “All of my friends come to see me last night / I was laying in my bed and dying / Annie Beauneu from Saint Angel / Say ‘the weather down here so fine.'”

HIGH NOTES: How LSD Changed Music as We Know It

In 1965, at 2 Strathearn Place in London, John and Cynthia Lennon, George Harrison, and Pattie Boyd sat at their dentist John Riley’s dinner table sipping coffee. A few minutes prior, Riley’s girlfriend Cindy Bury had placed sugar cubes laced with LSD in their cups.

Back then, the drug was just beginning to leave labs and doctors’ offices. Riley didn’t even know what it was. “It was just, ‘It’s all the thing,’ with the middle-class London swingers,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone. “He was saying, ‘I advise you not to leave,’ and we thought he was trying to keep us for an orgy in his house and we didn’t want to know.”

Despite Riley’s request, the group headed out to the Pickwick Club. “We’d just sat down and ordered our drinks when suddenly I feel the most incredible feeling come over me,” George Harrison recalled. “One thing led to another, then suddenly it felt as if a bomb had made a direct hit on the nightclub and the roof had been blown off: ‘What’s going on here?’ I pulled my senses together and I realised that the club had actually closed.”

After that, they headed to another club called Ad Lib, where they screamed after mistaking the elevator light for a fire. “We were cackling in the street, and then people were shouting, ‘Let’s break a window.’ We were just insane. We were just out of our heads,” Lennon remembered.

That night would change music history forever. Arguably, it’s why “Tomorrow Never Knows” sounds so different from “A Hard Day’s Night” — and why many songs started sounding different in the 60s, Chris Rice, founder of the Psychedelic Society of New England and author of On Culture: Small minds, big business, and the psychedelic solution, tells me.

Acid “expands one’s mind to things that they could not imagine being possible before its use,” Rice explains. “Sonically, this results in increased experimentation of sound. This lead to things like lead guitar recorded backwards by numerous artists, The Grateful Dead recording air in different locations (dry air, humid air, etc.) because they thought it would add depth and texture to their music, and The Beach Boys recruiting The Beatles’ Paul McCartney to chew celery in the track ‘Vegetables’ to add percussive sound to that track. Clearly, these examples are a far cry from the simple ‘guitar bass drums vocals’ setup that was comfortable and familiar in earlier rock and roll.”

While The Beatles were tripping in London, The Grateful Dead was performing in Northern California’s “Acid Tests,” festivals that combined dance, art, and (of course) drugs, Philip Auslander, a Professor at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Institute of Technology, tells me. Their sound engineer was chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III, also known as Bear, who manufactured LSD and sold it to John Lennon, Pete Townsend, and other musicians. The Grateful Dead’s music was partially funded by the sale of this “Monterey Purple” and “White Lightning” acid. 

The Dead and likeminded bands and artists like The Beach Boys, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd became known for their improvisational approach and “trippy” sound, which Sheila Whiteley defines in The Space Between the Notes as including “manipulation of timbres (blurred, bright, overlapping), upward movement (and its comparison with psychedelic flight), harmonies (lurching, oscillating), rhythms (regular, irregular), relationships (foreground, background), and collages.”

The distortion and Wah-Wah effects used by these bands mimicked the way acid distorts sound, Ido Hartogsohn, a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow with Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology & Society, tells me. Layered studio arrangements like those in The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper and The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds similarly brought out the sound’s details and arrangements the way LSD might.

Against the backdrop of these cutting-edge instrumentals and production techniques, a new style of lyric writing emerged. Phrases ceased rhyming, and images ceased making sense. The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” for example, is rife with LSD imagery, from “sitting on a cornflake” to the “elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna.”

Even the band names became nonsensical, Richard Goldstein, who was a rock critic for The Village Voice in the 60s and used to drop acid with The Beach Boys, points out. Instead of carrying clear, simple meanings like The Penguins, The Crickets, The Animals, or even The Beatles, names like Jefferson Airplane, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, and 13th Floor Elevator appeared to be selected purely for their aesthetic properties.

“It’s a very aesthetic drug,” Goldstein explains. Rather than perceiving sounds and images through the lens of a culturally prescribed meaning, people on acid interface more directly with sensory stimuli. This can lead to more universal, culture-transcending experiences with music. “We’re all connected through the subconscious, so when we listen to music on acid, it makes us have more of a tribal feeling,” says Goldstein. “It’s less intellectual more emotional and visceral.”

This shift from the intellectual to the visceral, from order to chaos, from logic to aesthetics, left an indelible mark on music, spawning other genres like pop psych, acid punk, and psychedelic trance and influencing folk, soul, and jazz, says Auslander. You can even hear their influence in modern rock bands like Tame Impala and Of Montreal, Hartogsohn points out. But psychedelic rock’s impact reaches beyond music to culture at large and even politics. It was a contributor, for example, to the counterculture and antiwar movements.

“LSD alters a user’s perception of what is important in life. As a result, the act of war seems entirely ludicrous,” says Rice. “Much of the elements of our culture constructed by our predecessors seem curious if not downright silly when viewed from the outside, as acid is prone to make people do. As a result, people’s worldviews shifted dramatically in the direction of peace and of love and of harmony, which seems, under the influence, to be the true meaning of incarnation in this realm.”

That’s the sentiment behind songs like “Love Is All You Need” and “Give Peace a Chance,” which John Lennon wrote after he became a regular (sometime daily) acid user. “[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][We now] assume by default that popular music artists are socially aware and politically committed, a pure legacy of the psychedelic era,” says Auslander.

So, not only can we credit much of the past 50 years of music history to acid; we can also credit it for the spirit of the era this music helped usher in. The effects of LSD are environment-specific, Goldstein explains, but what it pretty reliably does is open people’s minds. Whatever happens to be around us as our minds open up may then get incorporated into our music and our worldview (which could also explain why there are so many stories about people who think they’re orange juice on LSD). And during the hippie era, which was already taking root by the time LSD entered the mainstream, people were tripping amid a call for peace and movement toward globalization.

Though LSD’s history is still palpable in today’s music, Goldstein laments that it isn’t more present. People today are “more interested in the solo cup than they were in the tab,” leaving music devoid of spirituality, he says. Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind” embodies the values Goldstein is nostalgic for with the line, “don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.” He looks back fondly on the “naïveté” that brought people to festivals with karma meters and mood rings. Acid “makes it easier to have that kind of reasoning,” he recalls. “Or lack of reasoning. But life is more than reason.” [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]