Universal soldiers in war against the Establishment: Rhys Williams looks at the impact of LSD on the Sixties and discovers that for today's trippers, dance hedonism has replaced mind-expansion

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I looked around and people's faces were distorted . . . lights were flashing everywhere . . . the screen at the end of the room had three or four different films on it at once, and the strobe light was flashing faster than it had been . . . the band was playing but I couldn't hear the music . . . people were dancing . . . someone came up to me and I shut my eyes and with a machine he projected images on the back of my eye-lids . . . I sought out a person I trusted and he laughed and told me that the Kool-Aid had been spiked and that I was just beginning my first LSD experience . . . .

from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

ALBERT HOFMANN hoped it would be a panacea for psychological disorders, Aldous Huxley viewed it as man's salvation from self-destruction. The CIA spent 20 years exploring it as the ultimate truth drug and somewhere in between LSD was responsible for the biggest social upheaval this century.

Huxley was introduced to psychedelic drugs in 1954 when he took mescaline. A year later he tried LSD. In Moksha, he described his first trip: 'I saw eternity in a flower, infinity in four chair legs and the Absolute in the folds of a pair of flannel trousers. Mescaline is the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision.'

For Huxley, psychedelic drugs promoted a visionary experience, a means of breaking out from 'the reducing valve of the mind'. LSD would be a way of shifting humanity several links along the evolutionary chain. But unlike the nation-wide acid-dropping of the Sixties, Huxley favoured turning on an elite - the bright, intelligent, successful people who would lead the world away from self-destruction.

Huxley recruited Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist, to lend Establishment respectability to his mission. But as soon as the doctor sampled the drug, he developed a more democratic notion. Dr Leary, a brilliant salesman with an acute sense of how to court the media, preached that LSD would transform the world into a spiritual Utopia.

He published the 'recipe' and churned out pamphlets, books and records that described LSD as the spiritual equivalent of the invention of the wheel. He was thrown out of Harvard and in September 1966 he founded the League for Spiritual Discovery under the infamous slogan of 'tune in, turn on, drop out'. Opposing the acid-philosophers were Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. By the age of 30, Kesey had published two novels, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but he dumped literature to create a new art form using LSD.

Kesey and the Pranksters avoided any religious mumbo jumbo. Instead, fired by a philosophy which said 'freak freely', they toured California in a day-glo school bus, a sign reading 'Caution: weird load' on the back. They pioneered the Acid Test, a travelling multi-media party, at which the drink Kool-Aid was spiked with LSD.

Kesey was to Leary what Leary was to Huxley - a more radical step. Between them they inspired the acid movement of the Sixties. There were no comparable figures in the UK. There did not need to be. Their messages were so powerful, their personalities so great that the appeal of acid and its attendant enlightenment were universal.

Acid spawned its own music, fashions and colours. Its cultural Camelot was Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. College students from Berkeley, attracted by low rents, descended on Haight. A succession of artists, poets and musicians - anyone who wanted to drop out - followed. The students pitched in with anti-Vietnam rhetoric. The bohemians discovered LSD and passed it on to the students.

Jay Stevens wrote in Storming Heaven, a history of the drug: 'LSD was the glue that held the Haight together. It was the hippie sacrament, a mind detergent capable of washing away years of social programming, a re-imprinting device, a consciousness-expander, a tool that would push us up the evolutionary ladder.'

The Grateful Dead played free concerts on Sunday afternoons. Janis Joplin and members of her band shared the Red House, a haven for flower children and drop-outs who needed a bed for a night. Jimi Hendrix regularly stopped by.

Early in 1966, the year LSD was outlawed, Time magazine talked of an epidemic affecting 3.6 million users in the US. Horror stories about bad trips and bogus suggestions that the drug led to scrambled chromosomes began to fill the papers. Organised crime and bad acid moved into Haight. It was the end.

For such a vital movement, acid's legacy beyond music has been limited. Mr Stevens said: 'If you were an artist there was something about the experience of taking acid, with all its excesses, which mitigated against the control you needed to produce a work of art.

'A brilliant series of novel sequences would flow through your mind, but then you needed a year to put them down.'

Kesey retired to a farm in Oregon to reconcile his Californian odyssey with the requirement to stay sane. Leary now does a double act with G Gordon Liddy, the Watergate burglar, on the American college lecture circuit.

Many, like Mr Stevens and David Gale, writer of the recent Channel 4 documentary the Art of Tripping, believe the Sixties would not have happened without LSD. 'It gave a sense of the transparency of society, the feeling that you could see through all the institutions that constitute society as hypocritical, fragile, corrupt,' Mr Gale said.

'LSD produced a kind of searing way of looking at society which made people say, 'Fuck it, I'm dropping out'. Its engine was acid.'

The mind-bending properties of LSD had not escaped the attention of the CIA and US Army, who both viewed it as the ultimate 'truth drug'. In 1953, Allen Dulles, then Director of the CIA, commissioned Project MK-Ultra after he became concerned that the Russians might use LSD on his agents.

Unwitting subjects were put through drug-induced sleep therapy for a weeks at a time, and given LSD accompanied by electric shocks. At the US Army's chemical weapon research unit at Edgewood in Maryland, soldiers were given massive doses of LSD, between 10 and 100 times the average hit.

Today the talk is of a revival in Britain. Anecdotal evidence from drug counsellors and seizures by customs and the police suggest that LSD is coming back.

Fraser Clarke, head of Evolution records, believes that the rave scene is sparking another revolution: 'There are a hundred times more ravers than there were hippies,' he said. 'The whole business of dancing is very shamanic. Empty your mind of all this conditioning. After four or five hours, you're just there, your mind is clear of all your prejudices and conditioning. Once that's happened you get into other ways of looking at reality. You open your mind.'

Today's Tim Leary is Terence McKenna, a US botany teacher and author. He preaches a message of catastrophe and salvation, redemption coming from organic psychedelics like psilocybin, DMT and mescaline. 'Western civilisation hasn't worked, and it's a loaded gun against the head of our planet. Shamans say that plants can talk to us and we've got to start listening.'

But this second coming is seen as nothing more than hedonism. 'Ravers use ecstasy or other psychedelic drugs to form some kind of group experience without thinking about what the group experience could achieve,' Mr Stevens said. 'For them it's just one more thing they can use, like a car; it's one more sensation they can feel.'

Mr Gale added: 'When acid came in the Sixties, its main thrust was a conscious expansion of the mind. Rarely today do you hear about LSD being used for attaining world peace.'

(Photograph omitted)