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Rocking psychiatry with R D Laing

In the 1960s and 1970s the ideas of R D Laing, the radical Scottish psychiatrist and the best-known therapist in the world at the time, circulated widely in underground (and mainstream) culture. Discover how six rock songs reveal links between Laingian psychiatry, popular music and countercultural magazines.

Words by Adrian Chapman

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Photograph of a young man playing a bass guitar against a dark yellow background. The slow exposure of the camera causes his movements to be traced across the image as a blur. He is surrounded by wisps of smoke which are coloured cyan on the left of the frame and a pink on the right.
Paul the bass guitarist, Steven Pocock. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY-NC.

Psychiatry and rock music are unlikely bedfellows. It is also strange to think that a psychiatrist’s ideas might relate closely to a countercultural movement and feature in its publications. Yet music, psychiatry and the underground press were bound up together in the 1960s and early 1970s, when a Scottish psychiatrist called R D Laing (1927–89) was the most famous therapist in the world.

Profiled in magazines like Life and Esquire, Laing was also a countercultural icon. Pink Floyd took their troubled singer to see him. David Bowie read him. As the “Mick Jagger of psychiatry”, he sold out 2,000-seat halls on his 1972 US lecture tour. He was treated as a fount of wisdom by underground publications such as The International Times (IT) and Oz.

What made him so popular? He dovetailed with and helped make 1960s and 1970s counterculture. While his first book, ‘The Divided Self’, caused few ripples in 1960, it made waves when reissued by Penguin five years later. Laing’s new preface suggested that the ‘straight’ world might be crazier than the world of the schizophrenic. In his 1967 ‘The Politics of Experience’, he dismissed ‘normality’ as pernicious convention, and called upon people to fully experience their bodies, tune into their fantasies and commune with the spirit.

An ‘elder statesman’ of the counterculture, he featured in a number of underground publications apart from IT and Oz: there were also Friends and Ink in the UK, and the Los Angeles Free Press in the USA. With no internet or social media challenging mainstream views, these titles circulated an eclectic range of radical ideas. Laingian psychiatry joined rock music, radical education, drugs, ecology and revolution on the smorgasbord of interests and groups that made up the ‘alternative society’.

Six songs can illustrate Laing’s close relation with rock music, the alternative society and the UK underground press.

The Beatles, ‘A Day in the Life’ (‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, Parlophone, 1967)

The BBC initially banned one of the Fab Four’s most celebrated songs – the 1967 ‘A Day in the Life’ – because of one line: “I’d love to turn you on.” ‘Turning on’ meant expanding one’s consciousness and horizon of possibilities; usually, but not necessarily, through hallucinogenic drugs. In the same year Laing published ‘The Bird of Paradise’. Allying himself with the underground, he made it clear that he too would love to turn people on: “If I could turn you on, if I could drive you out of your wretched mind, if I could tell you, I would let you know.” His words certainly inspired a prominent underground artist, Martin Sharp, who used them in a full-page artwork for the graphically-innovative Oz magazine.

The Deviants, ‘Garbage’ (‘Ptooff!’, Underground Impresarios, 1967)

The Deviants never achieved widespread fame but were a feature at 1960s London underground events. They played a set at the Dialectics of Liberation, a 1967 congress organised by Laing’s group of psychiatrists at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, north London. There, the poet Allen Ginsberg and the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael spoke. IT reviewed the event, which brought together hippies, radicals and psychiatrists. ‘Garbage’ satirises consumerism and the affluent society – just what Herbert Marcuse, a German philosopher, condemned at the Dialectics event. The Deviants’ frontman, Mick Farren, went on to edit IT.

Quintessence, ‘Notting Hill Gate’ (‘In Blissful Company’, Island Records, 1969)

One-time darlings of the west London Notting Hill hippie scene, Quintessence refer to the London Free School: “Things look cool in Notting Hill School / They never go about by playing no rules.” The Free School was a 1966 radical-education initiative in which Laing was involved along with artists, intellectuals and local tenants’ groups’ activists. Also involved was Felix Scorpio, who presented a 1970 documentary entitled Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate (which took its name from a line in the Quintessence song). Scorpio interviewed Laing in IT 59.

David Bowie, ‘All the Madmen’ (‘The Man Who Sold the World’, Island Records, 1970)

Bowie took part in the Arts Lab (experimental arts centre) movement championed by the underground press. He established a lab in Beckenham, Kent, and organised a free festival. Throughout his career he was fascinated by outsiders and madness. He sings, “I’d rather stay here with all the madmen / Than perish with the sad men roaming free.” A 2013 list of Bowie’s favourite 100 books included, not surprisingly, something by R D Laing: ‘The Divided Self’.

Syd Barrett, ‘No Good Trying’ (‘The Madcap Laughs’, Harvest, 1970)

Barrett was the original Pink Floyd frontman, performing at IT’s launch party at the Roundhouse and at the 1967 14-Hour Technicolour Dream party, to raise funds for IT, at Alexandra Palace, north London. He became disturbed and in spring 1968 the band took him to see Laing. Various accounts exist, and there is some doubt about whether Barrett made it over Laing’s threshold. Barrett’s state of mind continued to decline, though, and he left the band and music industry, a victim, most probably, of unbearable fame and injudicious LSD use.

Pink Floyd, ‘Welcome to the Machine’ (‘Wish You Were Here’, Harvest, 1975)

By 1975 the underground press had largely disappeared. Some of its interests became mainstream; others remained marginal. The Floyd were by then a worldwide sensation but they retained their underground suspicion of mainstream culture. ‘Welcome to the Machine’ was written by their bassist Roger Waters, the man who drove Syd Barrett to see Laing. The song describes a world in which even dreams are controlled by the ‘machine’ (or ‘establishment’). Waters’ dystopian world is close to Laing’s despairing vision in ‘The Politics of Experience’. The psychiatrist continued to oppose the ‘machine’ until his death in 1989.

About the author

Photograph of Adrian Chapman

Adrian Chapman

Dr Adrian Chapman teaches English at Florida State University’s London Centre. This article comes out of research he conducted in 2019 as a library research fellow at the University of Glasgow Special Collections and as the UCL Special Collections Visiting Fellow. Adrian was also awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Bursary in 2016 for archival research into R D Laing.