Psychedelic freaks and the creation of modern youth culture

By Raoul Djukanovic

Ever since people first learned to communicate, they have searched for ways to gather together and celebrate life. For many centuries, such gatherings were closely connected with organised religion. But in 1967, the first International Monterey Pop Festival started a new era of musical expression that coincided with a revolution in popular culture.

That summer in America, young people’s frustration with the Vietnam war, the conservative values of their parents and the apparent meaninglessness of life led millions to experiment with psychedelic drugs like LSD. The result was a phenomenon that became known around the world as “The Summer of Love”.

In San Francisco, hordes descended on the Haight Ashbury neighbourhood, camping out in Golden Gate Park and searching for enlightenment in a cocktail of sex, drugs and rock and roll.

“We referred to this holy grail as free love, expanded consciousness and the ecstatic experience,” recalls Allen Cohen, one of the founders of a countercultural publication named The San Francisco Oracle. “We looked upon that summer as the beginning of a children’s crusade that would save America and the world from the ravages of war, and the inner anger that brings it forth, and materialism. Love, we believed, would replace fear and small communal groups would replace the patriarchal family and mass alienation.”

Thousands of miles away on the North American east coast, the same thing was happening. Before long, an underground culture inspired by psychedelic drugs and youthful idealism had taken over the mainstream.

The culmination of this development was Woodstock, regarded by many as the ultimate music festival. In August 1969, an estimated one million people headed for a farm in upstate New York to attend a three-day event that was unlike anything before or since.

The line-up was unrivalled: every band was established enough to headline the festival on its own. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played together for one of the first times. Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, and Jefferson Airplane joined The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Santana in a celebration of the best in underground music that led rock into the seventies. Jimi Hendrix gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance that separated himself from everyone else. And even though they didn’t really want to play, The Who were also outstanding.

But music is rarely mentioned when people reminisce about Woodstock. Many of the people who attended the festival said the community aspect of their experience was far more important. Tickets for the event were supposed to cost $18, but so many people turned up that everyone was let in for free. Crowd control was practically impossible. “Woodstock was about being there,” it is widely agreed. Ever since, music festivals around the world have strived to create the same atmosphere.

Not everyone was impressed, though. The establishment was not prepared for the commotion that youth generated, but it quickly fought back. LSD (a compound officially called lysergic acid diethylamide) was made illegal across America in 1967.

Since the drug was first synthesised in 1938 by a Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, his company, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, had been planning to market it commercially as a treatment for psychiatric disorders. The molecular structure of LSD-25 was widely circulated, but its production in underground laboratories led to a deterioration in pharmaceutical quality and unregulated use.

For a decade, “tripping”, as the experience of ingesting LSD is known, became common in every area of American society. From the wealthy and politically powerful to artists, scientists and parts of the media, many people believed they had discovered the key to understanding the world.

In the words of Aldous Huxley, a British writer who experimented extensively with the drug, LSD opened new “doors of perception”. An acip trip blurred the boundaries between reality and fantasy, leading people to question many of their assumptions about the world around them. It was difficult for many of the prominent American academics who were advocating LSD use in the early 1960’s to put this into context. Before long, they started referring to Indian spiritual teachings that identified maya, the illusion of reality around us, as the principal source of unhappiness in the world.

“It was not just a drug,” explains Jasper Newsome, who dropped out of Oxford University and travelled to India to seek guidance from semi-naked wandering yogis. “It has been called the psychological equivalent of the nuclear bomb. A drug for our age, then, for in Hindu cosmology we are all living in the Kali Yuga, the Era of Cataclysm that ends the current cycle of time.”

One 70-year-old Hindu holy man whom Jasper asked to be his guru was unimpressed by LSD, which he had never taken but seemed to comprehend completely. Ganesh Baba, as the white-haired man was known, dismissed the experience as a futile and dangerous attack on the fabric of consciousness. “If young people insist on taking psychedelics because of their unease about the world, then they should come to India,” he advised Jasper. “Western knowledge could never satisfy the cosmic curiosity of the LSD initiate.”

The Beatles attracted a lot of attention when they visited the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his ashram in Rishikesh. Far more significant, however, were the large numbers of young Westerners who travelled to India in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, often leaving home with scarcely any money in their pockets. The media at home referred to them as “hippies”, but they preferred the term “freaks”.

Many of them headed for the idyllic beaches of Goa, on the western coast, hoping to build a new society, free from the inequalities of the communities they had left behind. This utopia failed to materialise, but another cultural revolution took root instead.

In the 1980’s, when most white people in the West knew very little about dance music, freaks started experimenting with techno. A new scene sprung up, initially in Goa and the Spanish island of Ibiza, where many freaks had also settled. By 1987, they had attracted the attention of young people across Europe. A second “Summer of Love”, two decades after the first, brought dance music to the masses.


“In the heady days of the 1960’s, Western counterculture became fascinated with the idea of India, a place where nothing was unacceptable, people were free, turned on, naturally wise and understood the concept of enlightenment… You could live in the forest, eat berries, meditate in a cave, wander around naked, do whatever you felt like and nobody would take a blind bit of notice because everyone innately understood. Thousands sought freedom in places with magical names: Afghanistan, the Himalayas, Benares, Rishikesh, Goa, Kathmandu. They journeyed by bus, truck, third-class railway luggage rack, towards experiences that proved mysterious, hilarious, terrifying or profound – sometimes all at the same time. In the wilds, in mystical sadhu caves, in palm-leaf huts, in questionable hotels, in all manner of unlikely places they encountered a world that was to change their lives.”

From A Season in Heaven, by David Tomory.


“We are here to make a better world.

No amount of rationalization or blaming can preempt the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on this planet. The lesson of the 60’s is that people who cared enough to do right could change history.

We didn’t end racism but we ended legal segregation.

We ended the idea that you could send half-a-million soldiers around the world to fight a war that people do not support.

We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens.

We made the environment an issue that couldn’t be avoided.

The big battles that we won cannot be reversed. We were young, self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical, brave, silly, headstrong and scared half to death.

And we were right.”

“Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit.”

A counter-cultural icon of the 1960’s, Abbie Hoffman inspired his generation to channel their frustrations into political action.


“A good time is one thing, economics is another and it’s dificult to mix the two. I have an axiom that covers this: a good party always loses money!”

Missing Inka, a pioneer of the Goa trance scene, has been organising events for three decades.


Since its origins in the hippie sunset of the early 1970’s, the Glastonbury festival has been one of the leading countercultural events in Britain. Over three decades, it has lured millions of seekers, hedonists, pacifists, punks and ravers to a dairy farm in South-western England to jump the perimeter fence, listen to good and bad music and become part of something bigger than themselves. Tickets for this year’s festival, which will be attended by more than 100,000 people, sold out in 24 hours.


If Woodstock is the festival that everyone wants to emulate, Altamont is the disaster that no one wants to repeat. Worried about security, The Rolling Stones hired the Hell’s Angels to control the crowd for a free concert in California at the end of their 1969 tour of America. Armed with pool cues, they beat back an angry audience and flung full beer cans at them. Four people died and 850 were injured, including the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane. One of the victims was a young black man, beaten to death on the edge of the stage while Mick Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil”, apparently oblivious to the chaos around him.

“Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and,” Rolling Stone magazine concluded, “at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.”