Sunday, July 25, 2010

August 31, 2009: Riot! 10 Groups That Took the Plunge into the Avant Garde

Rock & Roll went from three chords of primitive fury to bizarre psychedelic experimentation so quickly that it seemed to undergo a violent mutation rather than a gradual evolution. Inspired by the rule-defying Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and no doubt envious of both its cultural impact and its massive sales), bands began engaging in a freak-out contest that resulted in some lousy music but also spawned its share of unlikely classics. But for some groups, tossing a few backward tape loops and wah-wah guitar tracks on a recording wasn’t enough. Some bands eschewed melody and traditional instrumentation all together in favor of Karlheinz Stockhausen-inspired musique concrète and sound collages. The German composer was famous for spatialization (free-form composition utilizing the sounds in a given space), aleatoricism (chance-based improvisations), and electronic music. A few significant artists, such as Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa (and later, the Residents), used such outré experimentation to define their overall sound. A few only dipped their toes into the farthest reaches of the avant garde, perhaps just for one brief, weird moment. Here are ten of the wackiest detours in the careers of some of rock’s biggest artists.

1. The Beach Boys
Not surprisingly, the album that would have been among the first avant garde pop records went unreleased during its own time. While Frank Zappa and The Mother’s of Invention could get away with releasing Freak Out! in 1966 because they didn’t have a career to ruin yet, there really wasn’t any way most listeners were going to accept similar experimentation from The Beach Boys. Not that the two albums would have been particularly similar. Freak Out! featured some of the earliest uses of sound collage on a Rock record and was rife with satirical parodies and anti-pop, atonal goofs. As weird as Brian Wilson’s new music was, he was one guy who would never completely favor experimentation over melody. In fact, hearing SMiLE in its multitudinous bootleg forms (or as a Brian Wilson solo album released in 2004), it sounds like a fairly natural extension of Pet Sounds (1966). SMiLE picks up on its predecessor’s dense, Phil Spector-inspired production and its oddball instrument combinations (“Cabin-Essence” somehow manages to combine cello, fuzz bass, various harmonicas, woodwinds, bouzouki, and all manner of overlapping vocals). Where SMiLE veered into
the avant garde was with its fragmented structure. Wilson recorded many of the tracks as brief musical snippets that he would piece together later, much as he did with “Good Vibrations”. He also called on his group to do some pretty strange things in front of the mic, like having them grunt like pigs, perform pseudo-Polynesian chants, and simulate orgasms. In the hands of a lesser artist, the results may have been clashing and jarring, but Wilson used his deft production hand to smooth out the transitions and the album could have been one of the most influential, earth-shattering records of the sixties, as all of those bootlegs and that solo album suggest. Alas SMiLE was not released for various reasons, such as The Beatles beating him into stores with Pepper's, thus winning the psychedelic sweepstakes, and the other Beach Boys pressuring him to stick with the formula and tragically convincing him that his masterpiece was some sort of misguided indulgence. With the withdrawal of SMiLE, The Beach Boys faded from public favor for several years as their less-hindered contemporaries sprinted ahead of them.

2. The Monkees
For all the jive that The Monkees got for “not playing their own instruments” on their first two albums, they were responsible for some of the weirdest moments in sixties pop. When they won the right to write and choose their own material and play the instruments on their third album, Headquarters (1967), they mostly stuck to the light psychedelia / garage rock / Tex-Mex-pop formula of their first two albums. Still, Headquarters was notable for its more mature material and the raw performances of the still-learning-their-way-around-the-studio Monkees. Amidst great songs such as Micky Dolenz’s “Randy Scouse Git”, Mike Mesmith’s “You Told Me”, and Peter Tork’s “For Pete’s Sake” was a brief, bizarre, a-capella chant called “Zilch”. The piece was born when the boys were in an airport and heard a boarding call for a Mr. Dobalina, Mr. Bob Dobalina, crackle over the loudspeaker. Peter dug the assonance and rhythm of the wayward passenger’s name and started chanting it, which became a running joke among the group. In the studio, the other guys layered their own lines over Peter’s. Davy Jones took the line “China Clipper calling Alameda” from the 1936 aviation flick China Clipper. Mike added “It isn’t my opinion that the people are intending.” Micky’s line “Never mind the furthermore, the plea is self-defense,” quickly devolved into a silly impersonation of Bill Cosby’s garbled stand-up routine (Micky also worked both of his lines into the Little Richard-esque “No Time”, also on Headquarters). And what did all of this proto-rapping mean? Zilch, that’s what. Even as the public at large continued to associate The Monkees with lightweight singles like “Daydream Believer” and “Tear Drop City”, their albums harbored stranger moments than “Zilch”. While Mike’s “Writing Wrongs” on The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees (1968) was more psychedelic than avant garde, it was one of the darkest, creepiest, weirdest psychedelic songs of its era. The soundtrack to the Monkees’ film Head (1968) was closer to the real thing, as was the film, itself. The six songs on the soundtrack album weren’t much stranger than what The Monkees’ contemporaries were doing at the time, but “music director” Jack Nicholson’s idea of filling out the rest of the record with sound collages pieced together from the film’s dialogue and sound effects was. Monkee-fan Frank Zappa showed his support with a memorable cameo in the movie as a cow-toting music critic.

3. Jefferson Airplane
Jefferson Airplane were a lot more out-there than their first two albums indicated. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966) and Surrealistic Pillow (1967) suggested the San Francisco horde were pop-folkies with just a hint of menace. On stage, they were a heavy, scary, six-headed beast that turned simple rockers like “Somebody to Love” and “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds” into free-form excursions. The Airplane’s studio sound finally caught up to what they were accomplishing on stage on their demented third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s (1967). The record gave full due to the band’s heaviness and expanded their format to include jazz (“rejoice”, “Spare Chaynge”), a lurching, feed-back drenched acid-rock monster (“The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil”), and a bizarre percussion and sound collage by drummer Spencer Dryden called “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly”. Riding along on Dryden’s propulsive drum beat, the track bleats and bangs with bells; overlapping, sometimes unintelligible dialogue; screams; crazed laughter; fart noises; a snippet of “Joy to the World”; and the profound declaration, “No man is an island!... He’s a peninsula.” Dryden created a similar avant experiment called “Ribump Ba Bap Dum Dum” for the band’s next album, Crown of Creation (1968), but it didn’t make the cut. Nor did Slick’s weird collaboration with Frank Zappa, “Would You Like a Snack?” Dryden’s “Chushingura”, a nightmarish piece of music inspired by Kunio Watanabe’s 1957 film of the same name, did, ensuring that Crown of Creation would also feature a touch of the avant garde.

4. Buffalo Springfield
Perhaps the most perfect (if not the most seamless) melding of traditional pop music and the avant garde is the final track on Buffalo Springfield’s second album, Buffalo Springfield Again (1967). “Broken Arrow” wasn’t the first song to interrupt its musical passages with sound clips from non-musical sources (that distinction may belong to Sagittarius’ great single “My World Fell Down” released six months earlier), but it may be the most complex. Self-referentially beginning with a brief clip of the band performing Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” live in the studio (but with drummer Dewey Martin, not the composer, singing) over crowd screams nicked from a Beatles concert, “Broken Arrow” then shudders into the first verse, which chronicles Young’s disillusion with his band. Then the ethereal folk-rock is suddenly disrupted by the sounds of a booing crowd and “Take Me out to the Ballgame” played on a calliope. That all drowns in heavy delay, and we’re back to the verse. The next interruption is the ominous roll of a military snare drum, suggesting an execution is about to take place. Once again, the break is bridged back to the verse with delay effects. The final strange interlude is a recording of a loungey jazz band, which morphs into a spooky heartbeat. Fade out. Young’s obtuse piece of music expresses his desire to escape the infighting and touring-grind of Buffalo Springfield, which most likely soared over the heads of many listeners who just assumed that the band had rode off the cliff of sanity. Perhaps that was Young’s intention, though: to subvert the pop-expectations of a record-buying public that made a top-ten hit out of “For What It’s Worth” a year earlier. As (deliberately) jarring as those avant interludes are, the verses and choruses of “Broken Arrow” may be the most beautiful music Neil Young ever wrote.

5. The Rolling Stones
For way too many listeners, The Rolling Stones’ post-Pepper bid for psychedelic credibility is a whole lot of wrong. Many regard Their Satanic Majesties Request as the Stones’ worst album (They are wrong. Dirty Work is.), although even the album’s detractors tend to admit that “She’s a Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years From Home” are great tracks. Those who regard the record as a psych masterwork and a fascinating dark shadow of Sgt. Peppers’ sunny trippiness find much to enjoy in the syncopated folk-rock of “2000 Man”, Bill Wyman’s  “In Another Land”, the bad-trip heavy metal of “Citadel”, and even the crazed improvisations of “Gomper” and “Sing This All Together”. However, even Satanic Majesties’ most ardent supporters may pull the needle off the vinyl when “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” begins. The track is eight minutes of pulsing percussion, tortured guitar, discordant brass, jittery piano, screaming, panting, chanting, and other assorted chaos. The track concludes with a few seconds of strident oscillation, which reveals itself to be “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” when played at 45 rpms (a hold over from the record’s original title: Cosmic Christmas). Listening to the initial 13 minute improvisation from which this track and its briefer companion were pulled is pretty fascinating. Anything in the piece that sounds like a song was edited down to “Sing This All Together”. The rest went into “(See What Happens)”. Only the most contrarian fans will rate “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” among their favorite Rolling Stones songs, but it serves a real purpose in the context of the album as the apocalyptic climax of Side A. When “She’s a Rainbow” kicks off the second side, its sugary pleasures are well earned by those who endured all eight minutes of its predecessor. That the Stones would never be so adventurous—or so foolhardy—again makes “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” (and Their Satanic Majesties Request as a whole) all the more precious.

6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Jimi Hendrix had been teetering on the precipice of the avant garde ever since he picked up the guitar. Perhaps no other musician has so completely reinvented a single instrument, coaxing it to elicit supernatural shrieks and groans. Hendrix’s aspirations were already fully apparent on his debut album, Are You Experienced? (1967), particularly in the mind-melting instrumental “Third Stone from the Sun”. That track was still a bit too conventionally melodic to be considered anything other than really, really far-out psychedelia, though. His next album, Axis: Bold as Love, began with a completely non-musical track called “EXP”, a mock radio interview in which Hendrix discusses extraterrestrials with a chipmunk-voiced DJ. The track then segues into 74 seconds of freaky guitar noise. Weird as it was, the first half of “EXP” could have been a comedy track on a Bonzo Dog Band L.P. Hendrix’s full embrace of the avant garde opened his third album and his final with the Experience, Electric Ladyland (1968). There is nothing remotely musical, instrumental, or earthly about “…And the Gods Made Love”. It’s just 1:23 of portentous pounding and vari-speeded and backward tape loops, and it’s utterly terrifying.

7. The Beatles
John Lennon got all the credit for driving The Beatles into their weirdest corners, but he was actually sitting around the house and getting stoned while Paul McCartney was gallivanting around Europe with his posh girlfriend Jane Asher, absorbing the progressive art and culture of the mid sixties. McCartney first encountered the music of Stockhausen while studying piano with a teacher from the Guildhall School of Music around early 66. Despite his fascination with the strange music, he mostly continued to write conventional compositions that did not leave much room for Stockhausen’s brand of experimentation. Lennon’s less structured songs made way for taking greater risks, though. Hence the orgy of tape loops that smother his single-chord masterwork, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, on Revolver (1966). Still McCartney was largely responsible for creating and arranging the loops on that song. Lennon’s real leap into the avant garde occurred after he struck up a relationship with the visual and performance artist Yoko Ono, who is probably now the most famous avant garde artist in the world. The first night the famed couple had sex they recorded a bizarre album of tape loops, conversations, and instrumental noodling that they released as Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins (1968). Lennon and Ono’s debut collaboration was the first of several for the duo. Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions (which chronicled Ono’s miscarriage on a track called “Baby’s Heartbeat”) followed in 1969. Wedding Album came out that same year. These records are generally regarded as curios by music historians, and few people have actually heard them. The same cannot be said of “Revolution #9”. The penultimate track of The Beatles (1968) may be Lennon and Ono’s most focused avant garde experiment. It’s a doomy monstrosity of tape loops, dialogue snippets, meandering piano, football chants, gun shots, and screams of “Riot! Riot!” The track was built upon an extended improvisation edited off the end of the straight forward rocker “Revolution 1”, which also appeared on The Beatles. Supposedly, the other Beatles—including early avant garde enthusiast McCartney—lobbied to cut the nutso eight-minute-plus experiment from the album. Fortunately, they failed, because much as “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” did on Their Satanic Majesties Request, “Revolution #9” provides The Beatles with its necessary climax. After nearly 90 minutes of the Beatles trying out nearly every popular music form of the past forty years, Lennon provides a glimpse into music’s most forbidden area, where melody, structure, and all the other things that made The Beatles famous have been exiled. Critics didn’t get it. Beatles fans loathed it (a 1971 fan poll published in The Village Voice ranked it as the all-time worst Beatles song), but it has contributed immeasurably to the band’s mystique and shows just how far-out at least one of the group’s members was willing to travel.

8. The Pretty Things
Probably the most celebrated development in pop music of the late sixties was the rock opera. The Who’s Tommy had thrust the rock opera into the lexicon even though it wasn’t really the first of its ilk. The Who had crafted “mini-operas” for their previous two albums (1966’s A Quick One and 67’s The Who Sell Out), and Small Faces had written a side-long narrative for their 1968 release Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. The first L.P.-length rock opera was The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, which hit U.K. record shops in December of 1968. Like Tommy, S.F. Sorrow is a tough-to-follow narration that meditates on war, youth, life, death, and drugs. Unlike Tommy, it’s a concise single-disc without a single disposable track. Well, almost. One could argue that “Well of Destiny” is of fairly small musical value, especially when situated alongside the powerful psych, hard rock, and folk rock that populates the rest of S.F. Sorrow. “Well of Destiny” is nearly two minutes of weird, pulsating space noises that are supposed to signify… ummm, I don’t know… Sorrow’s trip down some sort of well of destiny, I guess? It’s sort of interesting in the context of the record, but it wears out its welcome after 30 seconds. With so much incredible music on S.F. Sorrow, “Well of Destiny” kind of trips up the record’s flow. Perhaps another problem is that by late ’68, such avant trifles were beginning to sound out-dated… a notion arguably proved out by the remaining entries on this list.

9. Tommy James and the Shondells
Here’s where we see the naive experiments of the past few years slumping into dull self-consciousness. By 1969, the psychedelic era was basically over. Even as he was putting out his nutty records with Yoko Ono, John Lennon was professing his desire to return to the good old-fashioned Rock & Roll of his youth, and he would mostly do that on The Beatles’ final album, Abbey Road (1969). The Stones basically treated their entire psychedelic era as an acid-induced aberration and got on with making nitty gritty records like Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969). Hendrix abandoned the mad adventurousness of the Experience for a more conventional acid-funk sound with his Band of Gypsies. The Beach Boys had set aside freakiness for returns to surf rock (the hit single “Do It Again”) and Spector-esque pop (“I Can Hear Music”). The Monkees and Buffalo Springfield broke up. A few groups were left scrambling to catch up with all the “progressiveness” that had been going down for the past few years. Bubble-gum purveyors Tommy James and the Shondells had actually released a credible psychedelic pop record in 68 called Crimson & Clover, and the nonsensical title track became a massive hit and one of the most delectable psych pop records of the sixties. The rest of the album was a smart combo of the established Shondells sound and light psych accoutrements. But this wasn’t artsy enough for James and the gang. Their bubblegum-psych formula collapsed on the following year’s Cellophane Symphony. The record had a few bright moments (“Changes”, “I Know Who I Am”, the hit “Sweet Cherry Wine”) but it was mostly bogged down with silly experiments like the lousy vaudevillian goof “Papa Rolled His Own” and the interminable instrumental title track. “Cellophane Symphony” is nine and a half minutes of two chords repeated over and over while sub-Floydian space rock blips and bleeps are layered atop it. This is the sound of a group grasping blindly for artist cred and failing to recognize that there was far more art in the refreshingly frothy pop singles that made their career. I’ll take “Hanky Panky” over this bullshit any day.

10. Creedence Clearwater Revival
Unlike Tommy James and the Shondells, Creedence Clearwater Revival really had no reason to overreach for the sake of artistic credibility. In the late sixties and early seventies, they were probably the best hard rock band in America. They released a string of great singles unparalleled by any other group of their era. Yet John Fogerty felt he was not being taken seriously enough by a public that largely regarded CCR as a singles band (and they were wrong to do so, because all but their final L.P. is excellent). So on the band’s sixth album, Pendulum (1970), Creedence stretched their sound beyond terse guitar-based Rock & Roll to include a couple of Procol Harum-esque organ dirges (“It’s Just a Thought” and “[Wish I Could] Hideaway”—both of which are fantastic) and a great big mistake called “Rude Awakening #2”. Beginning with a nice classical guitar piece, the track runs out with an excruciating four minutes of aimless crescendos and backward tapes. The track is especially frustrating because it constantly feels as though it’s building toward something huge, yet it never goes anywhere. It’s pretty amazing that a writer as skilled and knowledgeable as Fogerty couldn’t come up with a more interesting experiment than this. It’s a lame way to end an otherwise amazing album. In a way, it’s also a lame capper to the entire experimental era of the late sixties. A few years later, Pink Floyd would release the definitive avant rock album, Dark Side of the Moon, laying waste to the more tentative experiments of their predecessors (and some of their own excursions, as well). Still hearing the way more mainstream acts interpreted the most outré realms of contemporary music remains fascinating.

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