Monday, January 07, 2013

Three Of A Perfect Pair

Eric Clapton was admired among British rock fans for his devotion to a kind of authenticity.  He'd quit two successful bands at the peak of their success because they just weren't bluesy enough.  In the years he'd been around, he became the premiere lead guitar player, surpassing Keith Richards in popularity.  Among the musicians who admired him was drummer Ginger Baker.  Baker was older than Clapton, a Londoner whose roots lay in what the Brits called "trad jazz".  After leaving The Yardbirds, Clapton and Baker would get together and jam and talk about putting a band together.  They wanted just one more person, a bass player and singer (Clapton was still unsure about his ability to sing lead), and there was one person they agreed they did not want: Jack Bruce.

They ended up hiring Jack Bruce.  They called themselves Cream.

The tensions in the trio were heavy.  The music they played was unlike anything aimed at a mass audience; songs rooted in augmented blues harmonics, or alternately simple, repeated musical phrases or "riffs"; it was clear from the beginning that "songs" mattered far less to these three than the simple desire to play.  Live in concert, they would leave the songs behind as quickly as they could, each musician taking off without caring if the other two were following along.  The three-minute pop song was little more than a key opening a door for a kind of musical adventure.  Blues and jazz musicians understood what they were up to; to the general public, however, this was new, this was strange, this was powerful.

It was also not meant to last.  It took only a couple years for Baker and Clapton to become so disgusted with Bruce, who was more interested in popularity and success than a kind of earnest authenticity that came from playing, the band decided to toss in the towel.  Their final show was at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968, a couple years after the three of them got together (trivia point: the opening band for Cream's farewell concert was London's hottest new band, an outfit with a residency at the premiere rock club, The Marquee; they were called Yes and would go on to some success of their own).  Despite the voice over at the beginning, when Clapton introduces "Sunshine Of Your Love", you can hear his frustration at having to play that song again:
Another reason Clapton was giving up on Cream was the emergence the previous year of a young American ex-pat guitar player.  The guy had been a side man for years, playing for Little Richard among other performers.  He'd come to Britain in 1966 because he'd heard there was an audience for electric blues that didn't exist in America.  Former Animals bass player Chas Chandler heard him at a club and decided to manage him.  He went up to the young African-American Army vet and told him that, if he allowed Chandler to find two musicians to play with him, the guitar player could be a star.  They shook hands and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born.

When the band debuted, there were quite a few well-known names and faces in the crowd.  Musicians had been trading pirated tapes of gigs in London for a while, and some - including Clapton and The Who's Pete Townshend - refused to believe the young man could make his guitar do the kinds of things it sounded like on the tapes.  From the first notes, however, both men fell in to deep funk, realizing they were hearing the future of guitar playing and were well behind the curve:
The lesson from these two hugely successful bands was simple: All it took to make a band were three musicians who could play more than tolerably well, and a whole lot of amplification.  One of the people who learned this lesson was the producer of Cream's second album, Disraeli Gears.  Felix Pappilardi was a bass player as well as record producer, and with Cream's demise, he started thinking of using Cream's formula for a band of his own.  He hooked up with American guitarist Leslie West and Canadian drummer Corky Laing and formed Mountain.  The results made sense when the volume was turned up:

As the 1960's sunset in to the 1970's, another lesson being learned in the vast underground was it didn't take a whole lot of musicians to make a whole lot of sound.  These groups became known as "power trios"; and none demonstrated more dedication to power defined as volume, distortion, and barely-controlled chaos more than the Bay Area band Blue Cheer.  More than each of the above, their cover of the Eddie Cochran hit "Summertime Blues" is often credited as the first true heavy metal song.

Unlike the above bands, the members of Blue Cheer weren't particularly good musicians.  In order to keep the beat, the drummer, bass player, and guitarist all had to be rhythm instruments, making sure they all knew where the beat was.  While playing in a music scene where experimenting with feedback and other noise was accepted, unlike Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Jefferson Airplane, or The Grateful Dead, Blue Cheer stripped everything excessive from their music, reducing it to rhythm and volume as substitutes for a more finessed approach.

The ingredients for what would become, in ensuing decades, an enormous genre of rock music, with enough sub-genres that it makes it difficult not to believe it is its own thing, were there.  A singular dedication to making music as loud as possible.  Using that noise as a vehicle of a different kind of protest.  Taking a crowd by the throat and shaking it with the physical force of the sound.  Thinking creatively about the use of what was thought to be mistakes such as distortion.  The Beatles were gone; the Rolling Stones were losing themselves in drugs, moving in a very different musical direction.  Pop music was becoming dominated by sweet-sounding singer-songwriters whose narcissism would be the perfect soundtrack for the troubled dominant class of the next decade.  Underneath all that, however, were a small group of bands who would, over the course of a decade and a half, change everything about rock music.

Virtual Tin Cup

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