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Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain

May 18, 2010 6 comments

It’s been a long time since I read a book that has held so much personal significance for me as Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming, which with great enthusiasm and obvious love for the subject matter, relates the specifics of how LSD tripped out British culture—a story as least as interesting as its American counterpart, featured in works such as Storming Heaven and Acid Dreams. Many intriguing threads are woven together, from early military experiments in the ’50s at the infamous Porton Down chemical weapons facility, where unwitting volunteer servicemen ‘were expected to hallucinate for Queen and country’; to early examples of LSD psychotherapy, involving famous figures such as the comedian Frankie Howerd and actor Sean Connery; to the more familiar ‘swinging ’60s’, the free festival movement and beyond.

Roberts charts the influence of acid on the ’60s music scene, which gave us the Beatles’ celebrated Sgt. Pepper album and launched the mighty Pink Floyd at the UFO club in London, as well as many other acts, including the Moody Blues, the Small Faces, Donovan, the Move and the Incredible String Band. As more and more psychedelic lyrics began to seep into the zeitgeist, the BBC banned certain tracks and newspapers such as the News of the World ran exposes on these so-called corrupting and decadent bands, which turned out to be laughably self-defeating:

‘By explaining exactly what LSD was, its cost and its effects News of the World gave thousands of teenagers a glimpse into a way of life they desperately wanted to be part of… To an extent the unwitting media promotion of LSD led to thousands of young people throughout Britain becoming more knowledgeable about the drug than they would otherwise have been.’

Albion Dreaming also gets behind the scenes and documents some of the less well-known LSD movers and shakers: evangelists such as Michael Hollingshead, who first turned Timothy Leary onto LSD and founded the World Psychedelic Centre in Chelsea; chemists such as Victor Kapur, one of the first to make blotter acid in bulk in the late ’60s; and writers such as John Michell, whose mystical ideas popularised Glastonbury and paved the way for the first free festival there in 1970. There are also many testimonies from ordinary people, ‘vox pops’ one could say, which illuminate how LSD culture inexorably blossomed throughout this period, leading to changes in lifestyle, fashion and prevailing political, social and religious attitudes. Read more…

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