The 60's Psychedelic Poster & Album Cover Art Subculture

The notion of event posters and record covers as works of art was derived from the psychedelic movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Twelve inch vinyl sleeves were the ideal canvas for artists to apply their lavish designs. The art itself became as creative and popular as the musical acts that they were promoting.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was home to a group of artists known as “The Family Dog”. They were directed by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse who where the premier poster and album cover artist of their time. Together they were responsible for most of the iconic poster and album cover art from ’66 to ’70.

The Big Five of The Family Dog '67. From left to right: Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse. Photo by Bob Seidemann.

Also pioneering this movement was Bonnie MacLean, and several other well loved artists. In a remarkable short amount of time they created hundreds of classic psychedelic rock posters and many album covers for the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Hendricks, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Steve Miller Band and other top rock ‘n’ roll groups of the ’60s and ’70s.

"They expressed the cultural climate that was in search of an alternative lifestyle."

Together they fashioned a style that featured vibrant psychedelic colors and wildly subversive typography. They used the flowing, sinuous curves of art nouveau, the intense optical color vibration associated with the brief op-art movement and recycled images from pop culture. With their strong imagery they became innovators of the psychedelic poster movement.

Event poster by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley '66

The initial artists in the movement were largely self taught. Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and victor Moscoso where the only artists with formal art training. Their passion had become a mini-industry. The event posters were hung on apartment walls more frequently than they were posted in the streets. "Wes Wilson's early posters sold over 300,000 copies in the first months of the craze" reported in the '68 article Pop Goes The Poster by Herbert Gold.

Event poster by Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley '67

Fueling much of the creativity behind the scene of this psychedelic art was Ken Kesey a novelist best known for “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Kesey became inspired during his studies at Stanford University while volunteering to take psychoactive drugs at the Veterans’ Hospital in Menlo Park, CA. Menlo Park was one of the few places the government was testing the effects LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide). In ’64 Kesey and his unique group of followers called “The Merry Pranksters” went on a celebrated cross country adventure from California to New York in a painted, fixed up school bus called “Further”.

Ken Kesey and “The Merry Pranksters” cross country acid test adventure from California to New York in a bus called “Further” '64

They gave LSD Kool Aid to whoever would partake in this event that they rightfully deemed the acid test. Shortly after the “further” bus tour, the acid test events started to spring up throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. The Grateful Dead was primarily the headlining band for the parties. The Haight-Ashbury neighborhood became ground zero for the psychedelic movement. Many of the shows were at the Avalon and Fillmore Theaters as well as Golden Gate Park.

The American Artist Rick Griffin designed one of the most sought-after Grateful Dead graphics. The graphic was originally a Avalon Ballroom show poster and the Grateful Dead liked it so much they used it for there ’69 album “Aoxomoxoa”. Prior to that, Griffin was an inspiring comic illustrator for Surfer Magazine in Los Angeles as well as underground comics. After Griffin attending one of Kesey’s acid test events with his friends the Jook Savages, an artist/musician group, they moved up to San Francisco. Shortly after, Griffin met The Family Dog artist group and started working with the rich psychedelic colors and swirling letter forms. His work enhanced the style of the art by adding elements of surprise using visual palindromes.

Grateful Dead - Aoxomoxoa album cover '69 by artist Rick Griffin

While hand drawn illustrations were setting a precedent in the U.S. photo realistic art was becoming the avant-garde of graphic design in London. One of the major graphic design studios in London at that time was Hipgnosis. Founded by Storm Thergerson in '68, Hipgnosis became well known for their Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin album covers. Under Thergerson’s visionary art direction Hipgnosis embodied what good sleeve art should be, iconicastic, disturbing and turbo charged with psychological weirdness. Thergerson’s film making approach to his art came through in the highly charged, photo realistic psycho drama style.

Pink Floyd - Ummagumma album cover '69 by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell.

Poster and music cover art has provided an excellent window into the psychedelic subculture of graphic design. Depicting the shift from the underground fringe audiences to the more mainstream appeal that took over in the ’70s. The style went on to become a more palatable version of psychedelic art that appealed to a mass audience. In the early 70's the inventive quality retreated to the university campus. This is one of the few surviving environments where the subcultural poster movement still exists.