The Trips Festival And Acid Tests

The Trips Festival And Acid Tests
Authored By John Nicholson

The Trips Festival happened on January 21-23 1966, a time when LSD was still legal. Up to about 18 ‘Acid Tests’ - a term coined by author and Merry Prankster, Ken Kesey - took place from late ‘65 to the Fall of ‘66, initially at Kesey’s ranch. But the most famous was the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco.

Ramon Sender, a composer and artist, co-produced it with Ken Kesey and Stewart Brand. It was a three-day event that, with the help of The Merry Pranksters - a far out group of freaks and outsiders who toured the state in a psychedelic school bus (as you do) - brought together many of the early members of the hippie movement. That’s why it went down in history. It proved to be a useful bookmark in the counterculture’s evolution, along with the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park a year later, 

Sound engineer Ken Babbs made amplifiers for the gigs that would not distort when turned up to very loud and loud was very new. All 10,000 tickets were sold with thousands more wanting to get in. On Saturday January 22, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company played as punch spiked with LSD made by Augustus Owsley III was passed around. While the Acid Tests had initially been an attempt with lights and music to recreate the spiritual transcendence brought on by drugs, here it was all about tripping out of your box and communing with whatever Godhead was available to you via a chemical pathway.  

And all of this was legal. LSD was not outlawed until 1968. The Acid Tests gifted us the Grateful Dead who transformed from the Warlocks to the Dead around this time and, more than anything else, they helped define the west coast counterculture both musically, politically and pharmaceutical. In 1968, much of this scene was brilliantly documented in Tom Wolfe’s wonderful book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which remains one of my favourite works of literature to grok over (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what that means)

As an outsider of the wrong age and in the wrong country, all of this seemed a long way away from the northeast of England but even so, it helped cement my love of west coast acid rock and of the counterculture that it was intrinsically woven around. This was a time before the mainstream, before The Man, really knew what was going on or what it was all about. These post-war baby boomers sought freedom from the plastic fantastic world that post war prosperity had created for them.

They rejected the paths that had been laid out for them and were seeking new ways to be. Easy to laugh at the innocence and naivety of it all now but as David Crosby once notably said, “What did the hippies get wrong? Almost nothing.” Amen to that.

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