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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, July 22, 2005
    All really interested in everything
    Albion's most lovely daughter sat on the banks of the Mersey dangling her landing stage in the water. (Adrian Henri)

    In the catalogue for the current Tate exhibition, Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, Tate Liverpool Director Christoph Grunenberg describes his mission as "uncovering a historic movement which has been shrouded in obscurity for far too long." And when I saw that I wondered what he meant. For I've never thought of psychedelia as obscure.

    I put that down to having been born in 1962, the year of what is regarded as the first English 'happening' - a 'mixed media event' staged by Adrian Henri at the Merseyside Arts Festival. Born in a psychedelic city. I grew up with the sounds of psychedelia in my ears: mostly Lennon-Harrison songs including that unforgettable Christmas Day in 1969, hearing my auntie's new copy of the White Album, its acid madness subverting Santa in the back room of my grandma's. No wonder when I started buying albums for myself a few years later they were Syd Barrett-era Floyd, the Nice, Hendrix and T-Rex.

    Christoph Grunenberg's words throw light on an oddity I've observed on visiting record stores in other cities - none have a psychedelia section to compare even slightly with the one so many Liverpudlians have thumbed through over the years at Probe. Maybe that's why so many local musicians from Jimmy Campbell through to John Power have always had a touch of the cosmic about them (or maybe the reason Probe has so much psychedelia is because it's so in-demand here).

    You're expecting me, then, to say that Summer of Love is a must-see exhibition. Especially here, this summer. And so I shall. It's big, too much to take in in one visit, too much to describe here. My main highlight today was spending half-an-hour in a cube with four large screens playing Ronald Nameth's mesmerising film of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, an early experiment in discotheque which some say has never been equalled. The film is a visual and musical cut-up of Velvet Underground and Nico EPI performances, which opens with a recognisable Venus in Furs but concludes in an awesome collage of chopped sound. I was so gripped by it I went in to see it twice.

    This is one of the few Warhol things I've warmed to - cans of soup, I can take or leave; this film held my attention. And so I also warmed to a quote of his I read on-screen, describing the mood of the time: "It was all happening because we were all really interested in everything that was going on." That fits with a movement which peaked with protesters placing flowers into military gun-barrels. Less so with one where most of the participants were on mind-altering substances - indeed that was the foundation of it all, in truth. But even there, Humphrey Osmond, who coined the term psychedelic, said he was searching for "a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision ... My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind-manifesting."

    I've very rarely shared the chemical experiences which helped these artists produce such awesome work, but I've always loved what they've produced. This exhibition is a great celebration of something which some may regard as peripheral, but it's always been central to me.