In the early 1960s, Ken Kesey became a symbol of the counterculture lifestyle shortly after the publication of his first book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The successful author was a caricature of the All-American man – athletic, blue-collar, and intelligent – but with a mischievous twist that contradicted the paradigm of the American male during the Vietnam era. He wasn’t a square. And he wasn’t going to war. Instead, Kesey used his intelligence and country boy charm to start a movement that was largely hinged on the use of LSD and acted as the unifying link between the 1950s Beat generation and the conception of hippies. He also happened to alter the way music is experienced in the modern-day.
It all started with a covert government experiment that was conducted by the CIA to monitor the effects of psychedelics, such as lysergic acid diethylamide and mescaline, on individuals. Project MKUlra assessed how hallucinogenics could be implemented by the government for information gathering, persuasion, and even psychological torture. Ken Kesey, a paid volunteer in the experiment, discovered how the substances could alter a person’s state of consciousness and unlock another level of perception. After finding the effects of psychedelics to be much more beneficial towards consciousness-expanding than torture, he snuck doses back to his home in La Honda, California and introduced psychedelics to his colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and family. This created a close-knit group of people who eventually became known as the Merry Pranksters.
So what does this have to do with rock n’ roll and modern-day concerts?
The Merry Pranksters strove to provide the general public with LSD, going to unorthodox lengths to educate civilians on hallucinogenics. For their mission, Kesey purchased an International Harvester school bus to carry his band of pranksters cross-country to film a movie and give the public a chance to expand their minds. The bus, affectionately entitled Furthur, was customized with a revolutionary sound system and slathered in fluorescent paints to create mind-bending designs. It grabbed the public’s attention. The Merry Pranksters played with sounds and found new, inventive ways to warble noises. They toyed with special effects, striving to find creative ways to project images and ultimately toy with the subconscious. This birthed the start of the Acid Tests and eventually even changed how music is experienced today.The Acid Tests occurred when it was illegal to smoke a joint but perfectly legal to take a tab of acid in public. At the time, the effects of psychedelics were still widely unknown and largely uncharted. Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters tried to educate the public on LSD before regulations were put in place to prevent distribution. The happenings, which were advertised with posters that questioned, “Can you pass the acid test?” brought in crowds of impressionable youth and attempted to give them an experience.
It was all new terrain and the pranksters were able to foster an environment that was conducive to exploration and community. The acid tests incorporated a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, and textures to stimulate those who attended the event. Ultimately, the happenings presented large audiences with a unique experience that had been orchestrated out of pure chaos.
Music became an integral part of the tests because it was a way to assign meaning to the chaos. The Merry Pranksters understood its necessity and often brought instruments to play at the happenings. This gave the dosed guests somewhere to channel their energy and produced a sense of camaraderie among acid test attendees. However, for Kesey, the sounds were less focused on musical finesse and more concerned with honing in on the experience itself. It was part of the event, but not the show itself. Ken Kesey introduced multimedia to music when he merged a slew of strobe lights, neon paint, and colored lights to sound.
During the acid tests, Ken Kesey also befriended the Warlocks. This jam band, who would later be famously known as the Grateful Dead, played experimental music while under the influence of psychedelics. Their sound happened spontaneously and reflected the mood of the entire room. The band sculpted each note in the moment and took the audience on a musical journey with songs that had no time limits or structural restrictions. It substantiated a sense of community and validated the tests themselves.
Music and psychedelics were utilized to foster a new cultural outlook and to expand consciousness. The sets played by the Warlocks helped to found the genre of acid rock. In fact, as Ken Kesey provided the acid to the Warlocks, it can be surmised that he is a partial founder of acid rock. Both the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey have arguably created the mold for modern music and an audience’s expectations.
Think about it: modern music sets are simply a derivative from the sets that the Merry Pranksters created during the acid tests. To this day, concerts – especially rock shows – are designed to be an experience that stimulates and nurtures the audience. Musicians are performers who must search for innovative, new ways to captivate the crowd and give them a unique experience. Artists dress up in eye-catching costumes and parade around the stage as strobe lights, lasers, and colored lights illuminate the stage. Behind the band, images are projected on the wall and the ceiling, giving the audience a visual representation of each song.
Fans expect the chaos of their energy to be orchestrated and then channeled. Without Ken Kesey’s acid tests which fostered the tools necessary to harness the energy into a direction and bewitch the crowd, rock and roll would have never gotten past the days of Buddy Holly’s swaying audiences or The Beatles fainting crowds.
Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters perfected the art of turning a gathering into an experience and subsequently manufactured a way for musicians to build a sense of community among fans. We can all thank Ken Kesey and the pranksters for psychedelic projections, colored lights, and the strobe lights that are common at concerts today.