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Thursday, February 10, 2005
Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends
Quick: look at the album covers displayed above; what do these very different albums have in common?
We've got vintage Haight Ashbury up there, some genre-defining jazzrock fusion, some Afrofunk from Nigeria, and German progressive electronic. One is slow, spellbound colorful psychedelic rock with barely a beat; one is a sassy, bopping, bobbing and weaving trumpet workout with a beat and a jazz group making like rockers; a third is dancable, funky, jamming, and dangerously radical; and the other one is chilly, spacy, icy head muzak that ebbs and flows a lot more than it rocks.
Answer? Each album originally featured album side length swaths of music under a single title. In other words, very long songs.
The idea of a single musical creation lasting twenty or thirty minutes is hardly a new invention. Classical music is a long-music form, jazz frequently is, the avant-garde can do what they want. But the idea came fairly late to rock music. Bob Dylan's side-long "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" was one of the first in rock. The Doors' "The End", at 11 minutes and change, blew a lot of minds in 1967. When the Beatles' single "Hey Jude" passed the 7 minute mark, it was noteworthy in itself. When groups like Pink Floyd and Yes showed up with immense concepts like Meddle and Close to the Edge, the transformation from rock 'n' roll to rock was complete. No longer dance music, as it had primarily been as late as into the late 1960's, it became sitting down music, music for meditation, music for trances and trips.
The album itself became the musical statement; no longer mere collections of songs, or even suites of songs tied together with a 'concept'. You had to digest 45 minutes at a time, or nothing at all.
The prog-rock bands exploited this new idea the most; bands like Can, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Genesis became specialists in long-form rock. Emerging funk bands like Parliament/Funkadelic took the form and ran with it. Other genre performers, even folk-poppers like Al Stewart and Arlo Guthrie dabbled in it.
And then the fad died out. 45 minutes (or even 15) is a lot of commitment to demand from a rock audience, accustomed to hooks and choruses and not particularly interested in 'art'. Not helping matters either was the wildly inconsistant perfomances on these long tracks; you could be Miles or Fela or even the Grateful Dead and get away with it, but more often than not these cuts became exercises in showoffy, derivative pomposity.
By the late 70's, punk rock's ruthless reinvention of rock as the primitive 3-chord noisefest it once was had rendered the prog-rock bands as irrelevant and obsolete as black light posters. It was a rare band in the 80's that strayed close to the ten minute mark again. Which suited the music consumer just fine, for the most part.
Long-form rock has made a quiet comeback of sorts in the shadows; bands like Secret Machines and Spock's Beard are neoart-rockers building upon that Floyd/Yes/Can legacy. The wave of 1990's jam bands could really stretch out a tune, too. But it remains a niche form; can't remember the last time I heard a cut over 5 minutes on the radio.
I've always had a soft spot in my head for that stuff though. The bombastic caterwauling of ELP doesn't do much for me now, but some of the more intelligent examples of the form can still work their magic.
So: tonight, just for a little change, Freeway Jam's randomly generated playlist will be selected from all titles in my collection over 10 minutes long. There's a grand total of 391 such titles in my library, clocking in at 91 hours and 41 minutes, 4.5 gigabytes of rock, jazz, electronic, worldbeat, avant-garde, and assorted other styles.
As always, the playlist is randomly generated by Media Center, and the first 10 titles randomly selected are profiled. Jam Tags (1-5 stars) follow.
This is going to take a really long time, so I'd better get started:
1. Pink Floyd: Dogs (17:04) *****
Pink Floyd's extended suites stand the test of time much better than nearly all of their peers'. This one has always been, and remains, a favorite. With intelligent, literate lyrics that come in paragraphs, possibly Roger Waters' best, and the most gorgeous and mournful guitar solos of David Gilmour's life, this epic tune is part of one of the better concept albums ever, a song cycle strongly influenced by George Orwell's Animal Farm. Bleak and unrelenting, the rest of the album gets even more despondant, only to end with the faintest wisp of hope, tacked on as a coda at the very end. Some Floyd fanatics swear by this one; others seldom play it. Depends on you, and your worldview, I guess. The band never again would produce such a consistent piece of work.
2. Deep Listening Band: Invocation (10:55) ****
Avant-garde music recorded live in New York's Trinity Church, this ensemble features accordion, trombone, didgeridoo, organ, flute, and wordless vocals all run through special filters to lend ambience. That may sound dangerously new-agey, but they avoid the cute and obvious, and their sound washes and cascades as it's meant to do. Minimalist and ethereal, but very compelling. Brian Eno fans might like this, and even listeners who liked the more quiet sections of Atom Heart Mother.
3. Derek and the Dominoes: Let It Rain (live) (19:49) ***
From the height of the superjam era, Derek and the Dominoes (here missing Duane Allman) stretch out Eric Clapton's most popular song from his solo debut to almost unimaginable lengths. So is it worth it? Depends on your tastes. The band sure can play, Clapton still sounds like God, and while Allman would surely have been welcome, he's barely missed. Then again, there is that 4 minute drum solo in the middle. I like it; I also seldom play it. Good for background music when you're fixing the pipes or something else that keeps your hands busy. Otherwise, your mind will start to wander. Slightly muddy production doesn't help.
4. John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Two Virgins [Side 1] (14:18) *
Perhaps the most notorious album never listened to in rock history. Famous for the naked cover of John and Yoko, recorded while wife Cynthia was out of town, this avant-garde montage owes a huge debt to John Cage. Tape loops, vocal hystrionics from Yoko, banged pianos, offhand conversation. Not unlike a side-long "Revolution No. 9", but nowhere as listenable. Purely of historical value only, few would want to have this thing cluttering up space on their hard drive. For Beatles completists, or very patient students of homemade avant-garde only. (Note: the image host does not permit "adult content/nudity" images, so if there's no pic to the right, I was busted. I hope they'll recognize it for the artifact [and "art"] that it is, and leave it.)
5. John Coltrane: Love Supreme (48:15) *****
Here's a guy who needs no excuses for stretching out. A Love Supreme is one of the all-time landmarks in modern jazz; there's not a rock track on this list that even approaches the sophistication and interplay at work here. Tenor saxophonist Coltrane leads the band through four suites (here done live at Newport) musically depicting (as stated mission) "the evolution which takes place as awareness leads to an ultimate spiritual awakening via contemplated meditation" Anyone who loves the modal jamming of the Airplane or Dead and doesn't know where to start with jazz could do far worse than right here.
6. Caravan: L'Auberge Du Sanglier-A Hunting We Shall Go-Pengola-Backwards-A Hunting We Shall Go (Reprise) (10:08) ****
Caravan were part of the late 60's/early 70's Canterbury Scene, the egghead subgenre of progressive rock. Unlike the classic prog-rockers of the day who arted things up with synthesizer gymnastics and flash guitar, these guys were much jazzier and denser in texture and tone. This takes us through four suites; an acoustic British Isles folk section, a jazz-rock fusion, a pastoral lull with synth, and back to the jazz rock again. These guys were way better than many of their peers (although the Canterbury scene was alive with inventive music at the time). Fans of Mahavishnu Orchestra or Soft Machine might want to give this a try.
7. Ozric Tentacles: Feng Shui (10:26) ****
Prog rock was mighty rare in the early 90's, when grunge was king, and this anomoly of a band sounded like an amalgamation of almost all progressive rock that had ever come before it. Light synthesizer gives way to a dub groove which in turn becomes a moderate tempo techno with wacked out sound effects which eventually morphs into a Rick Wakeman-era Yes style workout for the 21st century. Derivative to be sure, but also unlike anything else out there. Trance fans should check this one out.
8. Grateful Dead: Alligator (11:21) ****
Here's the Grateful dead in full psychedelic flower when it was all still fresh and new. Opens with a kazoo that stays with us throughout, chugs and lurches along with backing vocals to Pigpen's lead drifting from left speaker to right, and meandering back again, Tim Constanten sounding like Spike Jones playing Bach on the keyboards, a tribal drum solo, and some heavy-duty lysergic jamming with Jerry Garcia's guitar doing what it did best, all with a good-natured humor that never overwhelms the music. Only a hippie can dance to this, but that's who this 'dance' number was played for.
9. Miles Davis: Country Son (13:54) *****
Miles Davis, having helped to define the genre of modern jazz, was beginning to explore the sonic roads that would lead to his defining jazz/rock fusion next. He was still working with traditional jazz instruments here (an electric guitar sneaks onto one track of Miles In The Sky), and the big breakthough would come the following year with Bitches Brew. It is therefore tempting to describe this album as transitional, but that term belittles the serious progress being made here. Rock fans who haven't been able to connect with jazz despite honest efforts will appreciate the familiar 4/4 beat, and Herbie Hancock's electric piano. All of Davis' output from the mid-sixties through the early seventies is essential listening to the serious rock scholar; you can backtrack from there.
10. Godspeed You Black Emperor!: Antennas to Heaven: Moya Sings Baby-O; Edgy Swingset Acid; She Dreamt (18:58) *****
Experimental rock, recorded in 2000, that's good enough to make that term seem unlike an oxymoron for the first time in decades. There is no accurate way to describe this cut in a capsule paragraph. It opens with an appalachian style guitar and vocal giving way to a glockenspiel assault, a rock rave up, a synthetic wind passage, a languid slide guitar passage with martial drumming and cascading cymbals, to creepy electronic squacks and screeches. I realize that sounds like a monstrosity on paper, but the miracle is that it holds together beautifully as a single suite, and the music is warm. You'll just have to try it and see.
Whew! That took an awfully long time. I'm going to have to save the "odds and sods" promised in my last post for the weekend. I did find this playlist to be unexpectedly listenable, minus the John and Yoko adventure; there is something to be said for long-form music, even in rock. An acquired taste, to be sure. But for those whose tastes are adventurous, there are some real nuggets in there.