Sunday, January 06, 2013

Not Everyone Can Have Good Taste

Run here, my towhead granchillen, and let this geezer dandle you upon his knee.  While you still recognize me, you little maniacs.  You know the gong has tolled, it's that time again.  Now let me set my old brain a-ruminatin'; ah, what upbuilding tale from days of yore shall I relate today?
"What's all this shit about the Yardbirds?" - Lester Bangs, "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung", in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, p.5. 

Several of the English psychedelic bands that followed in the wake of Sergeant Pepper drew upon specific characteristics of the band's music most closely associated with classical music, and developed these elements more single-mindedly than either the Beatles or contemporaneous West Coast psychedelic bands the exhibited certain stylistic affinities (especially the Doors and Jefferson Airplane) were wont to.  The Moody Blues, recording their influential Days of Future Passed album with the London Festival Orchestra in late 1967, almost singlehandedly established the concept of "symphonic rock."  - Edward Macan, Rocking The Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, p.21.

We can't all have good taste. - Marie (Carrie Fisher), When Harry Met Sally
Even as the Beatles and Rolling Stones dominated British rock music, at least from the outside, bands like The Yardbirds, John Mayall's Blues Breakers, and later Cream were hugely successful in their home country.  While The Moody Blues had begun as a Mercy-Beat band out of Liverpool, once original guitarist and songwriter Denny Laine left, the band's sound changed, becoming far more ambitious (Laine would be remembered by fellow Liverpudlian Paul McCartney and land a gig as guitarist in Wings).  1967 produced several seminal works by British rock bands that would influence everything that came after.  Obviously, The Beatles Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but recorded at the same studio at the very same time was Pink Floyd's debut, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.  Finally, later in the year, the Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed, recorded with an orchestra.  Everything that emerged from British music over the next five or so years would be a product of musicians absorbing the lessons from these records.

In 1968, Richie Blackmore, Rod Evans, Jon Lord, Nick Simper, and Ian Paice got together as a backing band for Chris Curtis, the former drummer from another Liverpool band, The Searchers.  They managed to record their first record, Shades of Deep Purple, and even land a hit with a cover of Joe South's "Hush".
What jumps out at the listener is Jon Lord's organ.  Lord, along with Nice keyboard player Keith Emerson, were experimenting with the Hammond organ sound, overdriving it, then running it through the spinning Leslie amplifier.  Blackmore's guitar is less prominent in this song, playing call and response with lead singer Rod Evans while Lord carries the song along, even getting a wonderful solo that features a nice build-up of tension.  Musically, the band was being pushed further and further by Lord, whose classical training drove the band to finally record with a symphony orchestra just a year and a half later.  While the band did release some radio hits, including a cover of the Neil Diamond song "Kentucky Woman", the band had its collective eyes on bigger things.

The commercial and critical failure of Concerto for Group and Orchestra pushed Blackmore to take the reins, musically.  They released more traditional rock albums over the next couple years until 1972, when they released Machine Head, an album that included "Highway Star", "Space Truckin'", and the anthemic "Smoke On The Water".  While Lord's organ was still prominent, Blackmore's guitar was further forward in the mix.  They had replaced their bass player and singer in the intervening years, and Ian Gillain's distinct vocal style and Roger Glover's bass, doing the work a bass guitar is supposed to do, gave Deep Purple's sound something distinctive but not unique.

That big, rolling organ sound played by Deep Purple and The Nice (and later ELP), was picked up by another British band.  Unlike either the Nice or ELP, Deep Purple showed how powerful keeping both the organ and a heavily distorted and highly amplified guitar could be, provided the lead singer had the ability to cut through the noise in those days of poor amplification.  One such singer was David Byron, who along with guitarist Mick Box, formed Uriah Heep around the same Deep Purple came together.  When they added keyboardist Ken Hensley (who wrote the best liner notes I've ever read on a rock album), they sounded similar to Deep Purple, yet not quite the same.  For one thing, unlike Deep Purple, who stripped away the pretense and went for simple chord progressions, staple to the point of cliche lyrics, and both a recorded and on-stage presence that relied far more on free-wheeling blues-inspired improvisation than meticulous arranging, Uriah Heep wasn't afraid of taking musical risks, all the while keeping the beat steady, the volume turned way up, and letting the songs grow.

In 1968, some musicians living in a commune in Germany recorded a day-long jam session.  Rather than go through the hassle, they released snippets and portions over the years under the name Amon Duul.  Some of the commune members, however, expressing more ambition, started to mix their jamming with actual song-writing.  Continuing their hippy preference to keep conflict at a minimum, they called themselves Amon Duul II.  By 1972, while not making any commercial headway, they were an underground success both in their native West Germany as well as in other countries, in particular Great Britain.  While one can hear the noodling, one can also hear the fusing of ideas in the midst of very loud, very distorted guitars and bass.
While often credited as the basis for what became known through the decade of the 1970's as Krautrock, in fact both in sound and attitude Amon Duul would have a far bigger impact both on British Heavy Metal and the development of later metal styles, most especially what's been called "Stoner Metal".

In the cacophony of musical sounds that typified the end of the 1960's and beginning of the 1970's, hearing in all these disparate styles, in the midst of all the noise and distortion, the experimentation and reliance on tradition, a few bands were beginning to make a name for being very loud; for taking risks in composition and arrangement; for experimenting with timbres that might seem uncomfortable; and for taking lyrical risks by moving away from the "Boy Meets Girl" subject matter even of mid-1960's rock and explore everything from questions of life and death to letting their fancies take flight.  The only thing that seemed to link them together was a dedication to volume.  Yet, without even wanting to do so, and without their permission, it seemed pretty clear by the second or third year of the 1970's that something new was being born.

Someone called it "Heavy Metal", after a line in a Steppenwolf song referring to the roar of motorcycle engines, and the name, for better and worse, stuck.

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