By Kevin Hogan
Phish are often framed by their relationship to American Psychedelic music, particularly The Grateful Dead. There are some similarities in their efforts to create a community through music, but musically they are often miles apart.
A song like Phish’s Simple is different lyrically and musically from The Dead’s Playing In The Band, but they are both rooted in a psychedelic aesthetic. Listening to both will make you realize it is hard to nail down what psychedelic music is.
Some interesting questions present themselves:
Is psychedelic music the blues and jazz based improvisations of The Grateful Dead? Is it the carefully constructed studio work of Pink Floyd?
Taking it a step further, can psychedelic music be seen as a unifying aesthetic? Is it rooted in Tim Leary’s mantra of “turn on, tune in and drop out” or is it just an umbrella term for a diverse collection of bands and sounds?
In the end it depends on your point of reference. Fans of bands that came out of San Francisco in the late 60s will have a different take than someone who looks at Syd Barrett as their standard bearer.
American Psych was rhythm and blues based with open-ended jams. The lyrics were rooted in folk and blues tropes or made political statements. British Psych embraced composed songs that left little room for improvisation. The lyrics concerned themselves with telling stories that were divorced from reality or recounting mundane activities.
This gives us two lines, music and lyrics, to follow as we explore if Phish falls more in the British or American camps. We will then weigh this against Phish in relation to the offspring of American and British Psych, Country Rock in America and Prog in England.
1969 found America in turmoil and The Jefferson Airplane were on the forefront of a cultural revolution. Their lyrics had turned from songs of love and peace to a call to arms and nowhere is this more clear than on the title cut to their Volunteers album
“Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution”
Meanwhile in England we have Kieth Emerson’s band, The Nice, releasing their 3rd album. The lyrics are cryptic, mining mythology and religion, as in Azrael Revisited, while highlighting Emerson’s keyboard prowess.
“They ask me what grey thought has just clouded my eye
I told them that Azrael looked down on their decline
What grey thought, if any, crossed the landscape of your mind
I told them that Azrael looks down on you from behind"
Phish falls on the British side here. Songs like The Lizards, Fee and Esther are vignettes that embrace fantasy in their lyrics and complexity in their composition. There are very few political statements or calls to arms in Phish’s work.
Point British Psych
1969 is also significant in how each camp executed the composition and performance of their songs. An open ended jam like Quicksilver Messenger Service’s take on Bo Diddley’s Who Do You Love? compared to King Crimson and their structured song In The Court Of The Crimson King (including The Return of the Fire Witch & The Dance of the Puppets) tells us a lot about where Phish falls.
Quicksilver was typical of the American Psych scene in 1969. They played a groove based jam style. Abandoning the basic structure of the song, like in jazz, the band improvises over that basic melody for 20+ minutes.
At the same time in England was Robert Fripp, Greg Lake and the rest of King Crimson’s first incarnation playing composed pieces whose lyrics recounted a hero’s journey, much like Phish and their Gamehendge saga.
Phish is more akin to Crimson with their multi part thematic pieces like YEM and Fluffhead. We don’t see blues based boogie extravaganzas with Phish. They abandoned American Psych as a viable path two years into their career, focusing instead on compositions that challenged them as a band while also challenging the listener.
Point British Psych
As the 70s started we saw the movement of both American and British Psych away from their roots. In America the sound went back to basics and became Country Rock. England went the other way becoming Prog with its complex arrangements very similar to the aforementioned Fluffhead.
Phish did incorporate some American styles like bluegrass and straight rock-and-roll into their repertoire, but composed songs were the focus, at least through Billy Breathes. This is where we find a deep connection between Phish and British Psych.
American Psych in its early days focused on glorifying the Summer Of Love. The Turtles Happy Together or Young Rascals Groovin’ were straightforward with their message of peace and love, but as the 60s ended things changed.
Rising from the ashes of Altamont the SF sound took a radical turn. The wild electric sound of the Summer Of Love was replaced with acoustic guitars and well crafted lyrics. Albums like The Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Radio let listeners know American Psych had grown up and made peace with itself.
British Psych’s focus is on telling stories and creating musical landscapes that recreate the psychedelic experience. A song like Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade Of Pale or Pink Floyd’s Bike transported the listener to another time and place.
In the early 70s British Psych morphed into Prog. It was a logical extension as the songs became longer and the lyrics more metaphysical. We can see a direct line to Phish in songs like The Music Box by Genesis or Starship Trooper by Yes.
The use of classical motifs as in Starship Trooper is a defining characteristic from Prog’s earliest days. It is a thread that holds British Psych and Prog together. It is also something employed by Phish in their composed pieces.
Trey told Guitar World in 2013:
“The sound of Bach’s music has always appealed to me.
The use of arpeggios in “You Enjoy Myself” is definitely influenced by Bach.”
Procol Harum used Bach’s Air for the melody in Whiter Shade Of Pale and King Crimson embraced the modernism movement in classical music. Genesis then expanded on this idea with albums like Foxtrot and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Trey has often talked about his love for both King Crimson and Peter Gabriel era Genesis, he even spoke at Genesis’ induction into the R&R HOF.
He explained further in a NY Times feature in 2019, noting how Phish was unlike the Dead, and by extension Am Psych:
“At 14, 15, 16, I worshiped at the idol of Peter Gabriel — the first couple of Genesis albums and then his solo albums. He was like a god. Prog rock was our thing. Then, through Peter Gabriel and “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” I was introduced to Brian Eno’s music, and I had the ’70s Eno albums on perma-loop. I didn’t get into the Grateful Dead until 1980, ’81. That was when my parents got divorced and I went to boarding school and people there liked the Dead. So we would go to shows. We took acid. It was great. But at the same time I was going to see Frank Zappa and Sun Ra. King Crimson’s “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” was one of my favorite records. I also worshiped at the idol of early Talking Heads. So if you listen to the first couple of Phish albums, they don’t sound anything like the Grateful Dead. I was more interested in Yes”
Which makes 3 for British Psych and 0 for American Psych.
Throughout their career, Anastasio has continued this worshipping in songs like Guyute, Time Turns Elastic and Scents And Subtle Sounds. On the other side, they have also shown a deep reverence for British Psych in the covers they play, particularly Jon Fishman.
There was a time when most nights Fishman would take center stage with Trey on drums to serenade the crowd like only he can. Of the many songs he has attempted, he has covered more Pink Floyd / Syd Barrett songs than any other artist in his repertoire. No Good Trying, Bike, Terrapin, Baby Lemonade and Love You have all gotten the vacuum treatment.
They are fun and perhaps give us a clue where Fishman takes his inspiration from when writing lyrics. Songs like Gumbo and Tube take more from the unique British sense of lyricism in Barrett’s songs than from anything Robert Hunter wrote. They are surreal looks into a strange world, reminiscent of a modern day wonderland with all its pitfalls and dangers.
As we touched on, British Psych is recreating the psychedelic experience through music, while Am Psych exists to enhance the psychedelic experience through music. The distinction between where fans of a band like The Grateful Dead’s and Phish falls is here. Mike has commented on this:
“There’s definitely some crossover (between Phish and Grateful Dead fans) —we both appeal to somewhat of a hippie-ish audience, and we both jam a lot, and this and that— but the people who really like the Dead probably don’t like us. Because the music is different enough, and the rhythms are different, and the attitude and even the sense of humor is way different.”
An almost British sense of humor and approach to songwriting that has served Phish well. It’s true that Phish does not write many multipart compositions anymore, but we can still hear Psych and Prog influences in a song like Petrichor on Big Boat. Sounding almost like a lost Gabriel era Genesis composition, it is adventurous but comfortable, a testament to the British Psych and Prog that influenced Phish on so many levels.