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Sex & Drugs and Rock & Roll: The music behind ‘The Microdot Gang’


Author of ‘The Microdot Gang’ James Wyllie, has put together the ultimate accompanying playlist to listen to while you read. An eclectic blend of rebellious punk, heavy acid rock, groovy blues, and booty-shaking drums, it’s got something for everyone. The complete playlist is available on Spotify below. Happy listening…

Track 1: DIZZY GILLESPIE: Night in Tunisia

The founder member of the Microdot Gang began his working life as a jazz critic after he fell in love with be-bop and befriended Dizzy Gillespie. This track is the trumpeter’s signature tune; many versions exist but those with Charlie Parker show why be-bop had such an influence on the Beat generation – whether it was Jack Kerouac’s prose, Jackson Pollack’s brush strokes or Lenny Bruce’s stand-up routines, they were all trying to channel its rebellious spirit.

Track 2: THE GRATEFUL DEAD: Cryptical Envelopment

By 1966, the focus of the burgeoning acid culture in America had shifted from the East Coast to the area around San Francisco. At its heart were The Grateful Dead, whose sound engineer happened to be the first person to produce premium-grade LSD outside of a commercial or scientific setting. Pioneers of heavy acid rock, the Dead also had a mellower side and this track has a light, ethereal quality reminiscent of a California sunrise.

Track 3: SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: Are You Ready

Perhaps no group better expressed the optimistic energy that emanated from San Francisco during the Summer of Love 1967 than the racially mixed and gender diverse Sly and the Family Stone. The band’s innovative blend of r+b, soul, funk, rock and jazz is evident on this track with its simple call and response vocals – addressed to “the groovy people” – punchy horns, throbbing bass, bluesy organ and booty-shaking drums.

Track 4: THE BEATLES: Tomorrow Never Knows

Across the Atlantic, London was Swinging, thanks to a sudden influx of LSD. The Beatles were no exception, and of the four of them, John Lennon was the most enthusiastic consumer. This track was his attempt to express his experiences on acid and features experimental sound design, strange buzzing, fuzzy feedback, loops, distorted vocals and lyrics influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Track 5: PINK FLOYD: Astronomy Domine

With Syd Barrett at the helm, Pink Floyd were at the vanguard of the British psychedelic movement until Barrett’s excessive intake of LSD triggered a mental collapse that ended his career. This track is typical of this period in the band’s history: cosmic lyrics, swirling organ, ominous guitar and disorientating time-signatures combine to create the impression that the Universe was about to spiral out of control.

Track 6: TRAFFIC: John Barleycorn (Must Die)

By the early 1970’s, many of those who’d embraced the hippy creed had exchanged urban life for the countryside and a more pastoral existence, and the Microdot Gang’s network extended into the villages and hamlets of southern England. This track – with its acoustic guitar and gentle flute – reflects this shift and a renewed interest in traditional folk music. The tune and lyrics of this song emerged in the 16th century and trace the life-cycle of barley from the field to the brewery, ending when the crop takes revenge on its human masters by turning into alcohol and rendering them drunk and incapable.

Track 7: HAWKWIND: Urban Guerilla

Not everybody was fleeing the city: between 1971 and 1974 the Microdot Gang’s key players lived in Ladbroke Grove and ran a series of acid labs there while soaking up the local scene and the LSD drenched music of Hawkwind, who deployed hard rock, free-jazz, space-age imagery and a punk sensibility to mind-warping effect. This track is their tribute to The Angry Brigade - the UK’s very own left-wing terrorists – a revolutionary collective that had first come together in that corner of West London.

Track 8: LED ZEPPELIN: Stairway to Heaven

By 1975, the Microdot Gang had split in two and a number of them – including their brilliant chemist – had settled in deepest Wales, not far from where Robert Plant had bought some land. Led Zeppelin’s lead singer was keen to tap into the area’s myths and legends, stories which helped inspire this famous track and were part of a wider reconnection with the UK’s pre-Roman and Arthurian past that accounted for the hippy pilgrimages to Stonehenge and Glastonbury every summer.

Track 9: THE RUTS: Dope for Guns

The person who launched the Microdot Gang - and was responsible for its early success – was an American anarchist con-man and LSD tycoon who had an abiding interest in THC and violent revolution. As a result, he also became a hashish entrepreneur and gun-runner at a time when the two trades became inextricably linked, operating out of Lebanon – where he rubbed shoulders with groups seeking the liberation of Palestine - and smuggling his merchandise into Italy. This angry, raw track is by The Ruts, a somewhat neglected punk band, and focusses on this phenomenon.

Track 10: THE CLASH: Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad

In the spring of 1977, the Microdot Gang was brought down by a massive police investigation – Operation Julie – resulting in the biggest drug bust in British history and acres of media coverage, prompting The Clash – citizens of Ladbroke Grove – to mark these events with this satirical ditty that has an old school pub-rock vibe - underscored by a rollicking, toe-tapping piano solo - and draws attention to the draconian prison sentences the Gang received.

By James Wyllie

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