British rock critic Nik Cohn, writing with an outside perspective, put it simply when looking at the San Francisco Sound: “In America, acid really mattered”. Using the proceeds from his novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the writer Ken Kesey initiated the Acid Tests; bankrolling experiments conducted by Dr. Timothy Leary – parties fuelled by LSD dissolved in orange juice, with music by one of the key San Francisco acts, The Grateful Dead. By late 1965, acid had surpassed marijuana as the main drug for the growing counterculture.
The literature movement of the 1950s known as Beat Writing (spearheaded by William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) had offered solace to disaffected adolescents with its ideas of searching for your own identity via travel on the open highways of America (Kerouac’s On The Road) and its larger-than-life personalities reveling in a steady stream of constant drug use.
To understand the San Francisco Sound, we need to determine where it came from. By 1965, the Beatles-led British invasion had made room for American artists fighting back to (re-) claim their musical territory. The political folk music of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs was becoming increasingly popular; particularly with the rise of bands like The Byrds, who married Dylan’s lyrical flow to Beatlesque melodicism. Blues music had been rediscovered (ironically by white British blues-rockers who had pilfered licks off smuggled American blues records and had successfully sold this American art form back to its homeland) and the counterculture boom demanded something more from music besides made-for-radio pop-rock. Indeed, on the East Coast bands like The Fugs and The Velvet Underground were beginning to appear (though, to no great fan base at the time) and California was beginning to hear from such individualists as Frank Zappa.
Add acid to the equation with the apparent “Summer of Love” – free-love hippie ideals – and psychedelic-rock or acid-rock began to take shape.
Rooted in blues-based jamming, with touches of folk and rock, the sound of San Francisco started to emerge. The four main San-Fran bands were The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother & The Holding Company, fronted, for a period, by a Southern Comfort-swilling soul sister from Texas, who went by the name of Janis Joplin.
(There were other bands too, many based in Los Angeles, including Love, The Doors, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Moby Grape and Country Joe and The Fish).
At first, there might seem little to link these Californian bands, indeed Big Brother guitarist/vocalist, Peter Albin, professed no interest in what he called the “cheesy pop” of the likes of The Mamas And The Papas. And it is well documented that Jerry Garcia cared little for The Doors (check the Dennis McNally tome A Long Strange Trip). But within San Francisco there was a camaraderie that linked the key bands, with some shared characteristics to offset any stylistic differences.
The many bands were affiliated by friendship, but their musical approaches were wildly divergent. For instance, the Jefferson Airplane’s superbly crafted songs and glamorous lead singers were a world apart from The Grateful Dead. The noted producer David Rubinson would identify a few characteristics of the San Francisco sound, including multi-guitar voicings based on folk guitar styles, eclecticism, an ensemble orientation, and “no reliance on outsiders or overdubs, no use of strings or brass”.
The two promoters on the scene at the time were Chet Helms and Bill Graham. Graham’s Fillmore West (he also ran the Fillmore East on the east coast) offered a place for the San Francisco sound to fully develop. Graham never listened to radio; he listened to the musicians that played in his venues, relying partly on them to recommend acts for him to book. By the end of 1966 a tradition had been started: a Bill Graham Presents… New Year’s Eve concert with The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane.
Around this time, rock radio stations began playing the San Francisco bands on the air,
searching for ways to expand beyond the three-minute pop form. (One such station was called K-SAN).
Jerry Garcia had said that money was not part of his mission; however The Grateful Dead had managed to succeed financially, despite barely denting the charts, a fact that remained constant across their 30-year career.
Known for their non-stop touring and legion of dedicated fans (“Deadheads”) The Dead made their money initially from performing, rather than recording. But with some radio play,they were rewarded financially also. Signed by Joe Smith of Warner Bros., The Grateful Dead retained full publishing rights – unlike many of their contemporaries.
It was less a case of shrewd bargaining on the band’s part and more a case that at the time (1966) Warners, now a major record company, had only been in operation eight years. Indeed, the signing of The Grateful Dead signaled Warner music’s first rock band.
The Monterey Pop Festival, a musical celebration – the first of its kind, to feature musicians performing for free across several days – was organised by John Phillips of The Mamas And The Papas. Phillips’ act of peace and love was also one of entrepreneurship, writing the song San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair) for journeyman folk-singer, Scott McKenzie. It was a shrewd, subtle piece of marketing, and post-Monterey, there was a San Francisco Sound explosion. Following Warner’s signing of The Grateful Dead bands were being offered immediate contracts.
Quicksilver Messenger Service imploded after a handful of albums. Big Brother & The Holding Company saw their lead singer inevitably step out solo – and then fall tragic victim to her own vices. Jefferson Airplane resurfaced eventually as Starship, attempting to forge chart success with the insipid We Built This City. And The Grateful Dead became one of the hottest touring acts in America for much of the early 1990s until guitarist, Jerry Garcia, passed away in late 1995, effectively derailing the band (though the remaining members toured again under the name The Other Ones and then again as The Grateful Dead).