“That’s the thing about LSD: you don’t need to take it twice.” – George Harrison
Pictured, clockwise from left: Skip Spence, Peter Green, Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson.
Rock-and-roll in the late '60s was the wild, wild west. Totally lawless, in good ways and bad. If you were a young, talented, famous musician, you could get whatever pills or potions you wanted at the wave of a finger. And one of the most popular substances in this crowd was acid - they don’t call it psychedelic rock for nothing. It was outlawed in the UK and US in '67 and ’68 respectively, but that didn’t stop any musicians from experimenting with acid.
Drug culture had devastating consequences for quite a few rock-and-roll bands. It's caused some amazing potential to be squandered away. We call these musicians “acid casualties.”
This is far from an exhaustive list of every acid casualty of rock-and-roll. But here are four artists who were forced to step back from their groups. As a result, their absences drastically changed the music their former bands made. (I have my opinions, but determining if those changes were for “better” or “worse” is up to you.)
Pictured: Skip Spence, c. 1968.
Alexander “Skip” Spence was a multi-instrumentalist. For those unfamiliar with what that entails, he was a rock-and-roll band’s dream. Not unlike Brian Jones, Spence could play pretty much any instrument he picked up. Guitar, bass, drums, you name it!
He began his music career in an early iteration of Quicksilver Messenger Service and played on Jefferson Airplane’s first LP. He was charismatic and magnetic: former Airplane bandmate Marty Balin described how the girls in the audience would flock to side stage to watch him play. In 1966, he departed the Airplane to co-found Moby Grape. I admittedly hadn’t listened to Spence’s material outside Jefferson Airplane before writing this one. But if you’re a fellow devotee of the school of Nick Drake/Jeff Buckley, I think Skip's only solo album, Oar, is essential listening.
While Moby Grape was in New York, Spence began using drugs heavily. His brief but chaotic musical career is riddled with urban legends; the most pervasive of which describes him riding a motorcycle all the way down to Nashville in nothing but his pajamas to record Oar. While it’s very much true that he plays every instrument on the record, his widow has debunked all the outlandish stories that follow Spence’s legacy.
All except for “The Axe Incident.”
While in New York recording the second Moby Grape record, Spence got very high and took an axe to Moby Grape bandmate Jerry Miller’s door at the Albert Hotel. It’s unknown what mixture of substances Skip was on at this time, but during Moby Grape’s stay in New York he’d gotten heavy into both acid and heroin. It’s also unclear what exactly provoked the attack; this aggressive behavior was far outside Spence's norm. Bandmate Peter Lewis’s account of the attack doesn’t give much more context. “He thought he was the anti-Christ. He tried to chop down the hotel room door with a fire axe to kill (bandmate) Don (Stevenson) to save him from himself.” Producer Dave Rubinson pressed charges after this incident. According to Lewis, Spence was prescribed a heavy dose of antipsychotics. His career was effectively over by the time Oar was released in 1969. “They shot him full of Thorazine for 6 months. They just take you out of the game.”
The rest of Spence’s life was troubled: marked by struggles with mental health, drug abuse, and bouts of homelessness. Though he passed in 1999 at 52 years old, a tribute concert for him wouldn’t be put on until 2008.
Fleetwood Mac has one of the richest histories of any rock-and-roll band. It’s the stuff of legend really: relationship drama, rumors of witchcraft, ungodly amounts of cocaine, and their slide guitarist leaving the group to join a fucking cult. (That's a story for another day.) But a relative few - those devoted to the blues like me - are familiar with the group’s original leader. Peter Green was a Bluesbreaker, hired at just 19 to replace Eric Clapton after his departure from the group. He was hailed as a prodigy, billed as "the next Eric Clapton!" When it came time for him to form his own group, his era of Fleetwood Mac produced a slurry of their best tunes. That list includes “I Loved Another Woman," "Oh Well,” “Albatross,” and “Black Magic Woman”; the latter famously covered by Santana. All were penned by Peter Green.
Pictured: Peter Green (center) and his iteration of Fleetwood Mac. From L-R: John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Green, Jeremy Spencer and Mick Fleetwood.
Green was already using LSD extensively through 1969. His mental health worsened, he developed odd habits, and his ideologies became increasingly strange. But during Fleetwood Mac’s 1970 European tour, Green had a bad reaction to some acid he took at a “hippie commune” in Munich. From my research, this place wasn't no hippie commune. It sounds more like an acid house: where you’d either use acid yourself or be dosed without knowing at all hours of the day, every day. It became even more of an issue when the tour was moving on and Green refused to leave the house. Mick Fleetwood and two roadies had to go collect him. Unfortunately we don’t have much more information on what happened in that house. Not even Peter Green is totally sure what went down. He remembers it as a “great” time, but no one else recounts it that way; guitarist Danny Kirwan was at the house with him. Though the acid house incident was far from the inflection point of Green’s struggles with drug use, John McVie and the rest of the Fleetwood Mac circle cite it as his "point of no return."
“The reality was that Peter was already set to leave Fleetwood Mac...pretty much...but my God, this was the final nail in the coffin...” – John McVie
Though his drug use and mental health stalled his career, Peter Green was able to return to music full-force in the late 2000s. He passed in 2020 at the age of 73.
He was only with his group for one record, but his absence can be felt through their entire discography.
During Syd Barrett’s tenure as frontman of Pink Floyd from 1966 to 1968, they were a very different group than what we think of today. Their music was a far cry from “We live in a society, man!!’ (insert 7-minute guitar solo here.)” With Syd at the helm, Pink Floyd was were instead in line with most other British psych-rock bands. They dressed psych, they played psych, they wrote about gnomes and bikes and outer space. With carefree art student Syd at the helm, it was a much lighter and more whimsical iteration of Pink Floyd. Syd only appears in full on their debut album, Piper At the Gates of Dawn, and you can get an idea of what they sounded like at this time from the Barrett-written “See Emily Play.”
Above: The video for “See Emily Play” off Pink Floyd’s first LP, Piper At the Gates of Dawn (1967). You can see how much fun they all had together just goofing off.
Things began to take a turn when Barrett went heavy on LSD. Like Peter Green, Barrett flew in acid house crowds. Combined with suspected pre-existing mental health issues (I refrain from speculating exactly what was going on with him because it’s impossible to know what or even if acid fast-tracked any imminent mental decline on his end,) Barrett started displaying erratic behavior. He’d have concerning lapses in memory and would slip into catatonic states. His former assistant recounts a gig where he was completely unable to play: “I found him in the dressing room and he was so...gone. Roger Waters and I got him on his feet, we got him out to the stage...The band started to play and Syd just stood there.” Pink Floyd was forced to cancel their appearance at the National Jazz and Blues Festival because Syd once again couldn’t play, and he was ousted from the band in 1968. No one in Pink Floyd wanted to do it, but it came to a critical breaking point. It was best for Syd and they had no choice.
Pictured: Syd Barrett in 1969, at his home in Earls Court. (Photographed by Aubrey Powell.)
It’s worth noting that, like Skip Spence, Syd Barrett had a solo career after leaving Floyd. He released two albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, before fading into obscurity in the early ’70s. He wouldn’t resurface in Pink Floyd’s sphere until 1975. During sessions for a Dark Side Of the Moon follow-up – a record in and of itself partly influenced by Barrett’s disappearance – he visited Abbey Road Studios. No one recognized him at first. He was hardly lucid, completely bald with his eyebrows shaven off. The band’s eventual realization that this strange man in the studio was, in fact, their former bandmate was deeply disturbing.
He was completely devoid of the spark he once had. This was one of the last times Pink Floyd ever saw their friend.
The tragedy of Syd Barrett inspired one of the most touching tributes in rock-and-roll history: Wish You Were Here. The centerpiece of the album, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” Parts 1-9, is a combined 25-minute monolith of a tune. Roger Waters said about the song, “...I wanted to get as close as possible to what I felt...(that) indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd.” The lyrics are empathetic the whole way through; it’s clear Barrett’s former bandmates still deeply cared for him.
The sweetest part? At the very end of Part 9, Richard Wright plays the vocal line of “See Emily Play.”
After retiring from music, Syd enjoyed the rest of his 60 years painting and gardening. He passed in 2006.
Brian Wilson is a bit of a different figure on this list. He used LSD the least of anyone represented here. And as of me posting this, he’s the only one described here who’s still alive today. In the cases of Spence, Green, and Barrett, they were foundational to their respective bands’ mainstream successes; yet weren’t actually around to see them. Brian Wilson is the only drug casualty of the ’60s I can think of who’s been able to enjoy his legacy.
Pictured: My favorite photo of Brian (photographed by Earl Leaf.)
Long before the days of singing old-man yacht rock, The Beach Boys found themselves at the forefront of legitimizing pop music. But it was an uphill battle. Brian had quit touring with the group in 1965 after a stress-induced breakdown on the way to a gig. Without having to worry about touring (which he was never too keen on anyway,) he turned all his energy inwards to compose Pet Sounds. His intent was to make an album without any filler songs; a perfect pop album.
It’s tough for modern audiences to fathom this, but Pet Sounds wasn’t received well in the United States and wasn’t nominated for a single Grammy. Capitol Records was struggling to back Brian’s sophisticated vision for The Beach Boys. Especially when their label-mates and main competition – The Beatles – were consistently outperforming them on the charts. Remember, it was never “Beatles vs. Stones,” it was Lennon-McCartney vs. Brian Wilson. Rubber Soul and Revolver inspired Pet Sounds.
In the midst of all of this pressure, Brian used LSD in tandem with his amphetamine dependency. He wanted to top the incredibly high bar he’d set with Pet Sounds and make the greatest album ever recorded.
This is the tragedy of Smile.
I want to make something clear here: Brian Wilson wasn’t the only eccentric personality rolling with The Beach Boys! But Brian was undoubtedly the one most consumed by the Smile recording process and all its trappings. As my favorite rock-and-roll studio story goes, Brian requested that plastic fire helmets and a bucket of burning wood be brought into the studio. He had everyone put on the hats and recorded the firewood noises; which became part of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”. Now that’s dedication.
Despite bright spots like these, recording Smile was belabored; marred by frequent stalling. Brian’s paranoia worsened. Not long after finishing “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” a real fire broke out across the street from the studio. Brian got spooked and abandoned the track, fearing he’d accidentally made what Jules Siegel dubbed “magic fire music.” Brian began having auditory hallucinations as well.
After hearing The Beatles’s single from the Sgt. Pepper’s album cycle, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Brian gave up. In his mind, The Beatles had beat him to it. They’d already perfected pop music. A very, very dark period in Brian’s life followed this moment; too much happened for me to feel I can respectfully summarize it in a 10-minute read-time post.
Crying For The Moon
Something to keep in mind with these stories: acid in the ’60s was a lot stronger than it is nowadays. None of these guys knew what taking that much of it would do. No one did.
If there’s any lesson you should be taking away, it’s this: don’t use LSD in the way these guys did, especially if you’re not doing well mentally. (This isn't the same as microdosing psychedelics in controlled amounts for medical/therapeutic reasons!) Brian was under an incredible amount of stress, with incredibly high standards set by himself, his family, AND his label, and was dealing with pre-existing mental illness that was only exacerbated by drug use. These factors simply fast-tracked his downfall; not unlike the other incredible artists I've mentioned.
It seems bleak, but there’s at least a little good in how cripplingly sad all this squandered potential is. Skip Spence’s Oar is a wonderful record, it's garnered a cult following in the decades following its release. Blues enthusiasts like myself lobby hard for greater recognition of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Syd Barrett’s music with Pink Floyd is finally getting the attention it deserves, as is The Madcap Laughs. His solo career arguably created the "outsider music" genre. And though we’ll never really know what Smile could’ve been, Brian Wilson did get to see his life’s work through. He re-recorded select tracks for the 2004 solo album Brian Wilson Presents Smile. In what is perhaps the closest approximation of what a 1967 Smile would’ve sounded like, The Smile Sessions saw an official release in 2011. It brings us the best version of “Good Vibrations,” which I’ve added for your listening pleasure below:
Above: The album version of “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, as heard on The Smile Sessions (released 2011.) Check out the bridge, isn’t it just pure perfection? If you’d like me to do a full rundown of Brian Wilson Presents Smile vs. The Smile Sessions, please let me know!
We should give these talented musicians, these very special souls, and the contributions they made to their groups the recognition they all deserve. We should be empathetic towards them. I really hope my writing has been, because I love all these guys' music so much. Without them we wouldn’t have all the iconic music their bands made; and it’s an incredible display of strength to persist on as a band after suffering an acid casualty.
Here’s a playlist I made containing my personal favorites from all four of these artists’ catalogs.
Shine on, you crazy diamonds.