Psychedelic Rock at Its Most Insane: “Psychotic Reaction”

If you want to know who to thank-or blame-for the punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s, start with Count Five. While Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” has been derided as a ripoff of the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and other groups, it has been lauded as a classic example of psychedelic rock and a forerunner of punk and garage rock. What’s undeniable is the fresh, exciting sound of the San Jose, California band’s 1966 debut hit.

Count Five (leave off the “the”) were five teens, some still in high school, who formed in 1964. The band was turned down by seven record companies before newly-formed label Double Shot signed them. Lead singer John “Sean” Byrne played rhythm guitar and wrote “Psychotic Reaction,” though the rest of the band shared the writing credit: lead guitarist John “Mouse” Michalski, harmonica player Kenn Ellner, Roy Chaney on bass and Craig “Butch” Atkinson on drums. “Psychotic Reaction” was performed without lyrics for six months until Ellner’s father Sol, the band’s manager, suggested that Byrne put words to the music.

The song’s title was hatched during a lecture on psychosis and neurosis at San Jose City College when a pal of Byrne’s whispered, “Do you know what would be a great name for a song? Psychotic Reaction!”

“I’d had this song running through my head,” recalled Byrne. “The lyrics, the melody, everything–but that was the missing punch line!”

The growling fuzz-tone by guitarist Michalski has been criticized as a steal of the iconic sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” but more memorable is the guitar break that follows. When Byrne sings (or screams), “And it feels like this!” midway through the track, Michalski takes the cue to demonstrate on guitar what a psychotic episode would sound like.

What follows is a cacophony of guitar effects that stretched the capabilities of the amplifiers of the day while defining psychedelic rock. Fans of the Yardbirds may recognize similarities to the rave-up from the British group’s 1965 “I’m A Man,” but Byrne long maintained the Yardbirds were not an influence.

“Psychotic Reaction” reached #5 on the Billboard charts in 1966. The band toured with the Beach Boys, the Byrds and the Dave Clark Five, but was never able to repeat its chart success; Count Five was honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a One Hit Wonder. The band’s career was short-circuited when some of its members turned down a million dollars worth of bookings in order to return to school to further their education and, recalled Michalski, stay out of the draft.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.