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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
peopleBut who comes top of the wish list?
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, right, with Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds in Newtown, Powys, as part of her tour in support of the party’s female candidates
general electionNick Clegg's wife has impressed during the campaign
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living