Count Five blended British Invasion influences with elements of the more local San Francisco Sound to create something energetic, aggressive and exciting that became the mainstream world’s first taste of psychedelic rock. The San Jose, California-based quintet were still teenagers when their Yardbirds-evoking hit “Psychotic Reaction” reached the US Top 5 in 1966, the very first psychedelic rock song to achieve that feat. After shooting up the charts, the band hurriedly recorded an entire album bearing the same name as their smash single– writing songs literally up until the last minute, as they flew to the studio in Los Angeles. The group went on to share stages with megastars from the Beach Boys to the Temptations to the Doors. They also played on both of Dick Clark’s TV showcases, “Where the Action Is” and “American Bandstand,” before disbanding just three years after their whirlwind success began.
Although Count Five never recorded another album, they managed to leave their mark on pop culture indelibly: Their formula of replacing melodic electric guitar with howling feedback and distortion came to define psychedelic rock’s sound. “Psychotic Reaction” was selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of the "500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” and was also immortalized in a surreal 1971 essay by rock critic Lester Bangs entitled “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung.” With his typical zany brilliance, Bangs invented an entire history of the band, including four fictional follow-up albums. (Wishful thinking!) Artists like Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix further popularized psychedelic rock, and the genre’s influence can even be heard in the hard rock, heavy metal and prog rock that developed in its wake. Even without knowing how historically significant Count Five’s one and only album would become, though, its fuzztone-filtered primal energy is well worth any garage rock devotee’s attention.
RECOMMENDED READING & LISTENING
A great overview of the band’s rapid rise to success, including Byrne’s charming recollections of that period.
This taped live performance comes from an October 4, 1966 television appearance. At the time, “Psychotic Reaction” was #9 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; five days later it would peak at #5 (remaining in that spot for two weeks, and staying on the chart for 12.)
📰 Count Five: The Story Behind the One-Hit Wonder Garage Rock Band From San Jose Who Created "Psychotic Reaction" - by Devorah Ostrov (originally published in Rave Up; now hosted on Blogspot)
An in-depth interview with John “Mouse” Michalski (lead guitar), John “Sean” Byrne (rhythm guitar and co-lead vocalist) and Kenn Ellner (tambourine, harmonica, and co-lead vocalist). They discuss San Jose’s music scene, band line-up changes, early gigs, their big break and more. Includes lots of archival concert flyers and promo pics, too.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Double Decker Bus” - The album opener is basically a double-time rewrite of their hit single, complete with an explosive rave-up midsection and a hefty dose of tasty harmonica licks. Raucous, rabble-rousing fun.
“Peace of Mind” - This Kinks-esque follow-up single to “Psychotic Reaction” is another contender for best track on the album. A cacophonous blend of strident, wailing guitar; thumping surf drums and liberal use of controlled feedback are all barely held together by a propulsive three-note bass groove. Listen out for the guitar played in reverse, an allusion to the Beatles, who pioneered the trick on “I’m Only Sleeping.”
“Pretty Big Mouth” - This jam is a shambolic groove with hints of swamp rock. Insistent circular fuzz riff; tossed-off, whining vocals and a clever key change at the chorus make it a convincing example of the devil-may-care swagger every mid-’60s garage band aspired to.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Count Five was literally a garage band when they finalized the lineup you hear on Psychotic Reaction. Irish national John “Sean” Byrne had just moved to San Jose, California from Dublin and was sitting on his porch when he heard the band (then called the Squires) practicing R&B and British Invasion covers across the street. Byrne asked if he could sit in, and–being the closest thing the suburbanite punks had ever seen to a Beatle–they immediately decided "they would not let [him] go."
- The band’s decision to take on John Byrne as a member turned out to be a good call: Byrne went on to write the band’s defining hit, on which he played guitar and sang lead. The spark of inspiration for the hit came in early 1966, as Byrne was sleepily listening to a Health Education class lecture on psychosis and neurosis. A classmate leaned over and whispered, "You know what would be a great name for a song? Psychotic Reaction!" By that night, Byrne had written a rough version of the track.
- In their early days, Count Five were known for starting their live sets wearing Dracula-style capes. This was a punning nod to their band name, which was also intended as an homage to English rockers the Dave Clark Five.
- After they had a radio hit, Count Five turned down a million dollars' worth of tour offers. Why? Because they were determined to finish college. The band members continued to play music throughout their lives–even reuniting for one final show in 1987–but always as a hobby, not a career.
- In 1972 “Psychotic Reaction” was included on an Elektra compilation called “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968.” The sampler quickly became a highly coveted cult classic, sparking a second wave of interest in Count Five.