FABLES OF THE DECONSTRUCTION
by Edwin Pouncey, The Wire #185, July 1999
Undercurrents #7: in the latest in our series uncovering the hidden wiring of 20th century music, Edwin Pouncey shows how rock 'n' roll's face was changed forever when the race to go further out brought it in touch with the 60s avant garde.
One May evening in 1967 at San Francisco's Matrix club, Steppenwolf's bass player Nick St Nicholas got up on stage, plugged his guitar into an amplifier and Echo-lite unit and proceeded to experiment. Urged on by St Nicholas's freeform freak out, the rest of the group mounted the stage, picked up their instruments and joined in. "Before we knew it we were more or less improvising," reflected the group's leader John Kay two years after the event, "jamming, squeezing and shaping a musical thing which lasted for 20 minutes and broke finally into "The Pusher", which astounded us and the audience at how well it came off." Kay attributed this early improvisational rendering of what was to become one of Steppenwolf's most popular songs to a range of influences, from the electroacoustic compositions of Edgard Varèse to "the French semi-electronic symphonic school of music".
That a biker-favoured outfit like Steppenwolf were willing to push their primal brand of rock 'n' roll towards the more academic ideals of experimental music and musique concrète adds a hidden dimension to the lyrics of their greatest hit: musically, they really were (re)born to be wild.
"We did "The Pusher" every night and the intro part just kind of evolved as a time for us to do whatever we wanted," remembers drummer Jerry Edmonton. "People started talking about the band after that. "The Pusher" got people saying, 'There's this band from Canada and they're way out there'."
As with countless other 60s groups, the main ingredient that made Steppenwolf sound so out there was lysergic acid diethylamide, the hallucinogenic potion that had seeped out of the US government's own secret laboratories. Once it hit the streets, via the proselytising efforts of Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, it inadvertently became the creative tool for a generation hellbent opening up heaven, while bringing the establishment crashing down around them. The other ingredient was, of course, the music itself, which -- along with attitudes towards sex, fashion, art and the ongoing Vietnam war -- was ripe for transformation.
Rock music and the academy have rarely had anything useful to say to each other, either before or after the 60s, and it would be too glib to attribute the dialogue going on between them to the special openness that characterised that purportedly class-free decade. Besides, the academy had begun its end of the conversation way back at the beginning of modernism, which itself was breach-birthed at the turn of the century during the cataclysm of the Industrial Revolution. On one level, modernism was an artistic response to the deepening sense of alienation that resulted from the rapid industrialisation of town and country, and of work and leisure. Within academic music, it flowered most brightly in the post-war experiments happening in electronics, electroacoustic composition and musique concrète. Indeed, it could be argued that modernism's themes, of the fractured and disconnected self, found their fullest expression in concrète -- a musical form defined by fragmentation and discontinuity.
In the 60s, the fragmentation that was made concrète in the work of composers like Luciano Berio and Pierre Henry discovered a likeness, if a not wholly accurate reflection, in the distorting-mirror music of the LSD generation. But whereas concrète art seemed to perma-fix the very process of fragmentation, psychedelia frequently charted an Edenic search for child-like wholeness. When concrète composers and psychedelic rock got to look each other in the eye during the 60's, they didn't necessarily see the same thing. But in psychedelia, the more utopian of the concrète composers possibly caught a fleeting glimpse of restored wholeness, while in the fragmentation of concrète, psychedelia's more farsighted cosmonauts were gifted with a method for expressing the consciousness-splintering aspects of an acid trip. In the process, those with good ears noticed how concrète's juxtapositions of ill-matched tones and timbres could also approximate the intense, physically ravishing aspects of the acid experience.
No wonder, then, that Grateful Dead, the West Coast group that totally absorbed acid culture as a means of enlightenment and expression, embraced academy methods when, on their second album Anthem Of The Sun (1968), they attempted a musical recapitulation of an acid trip. For their projected assault on reality, they brought in keyboardist Tom Constanten, at the invitation of his friend, Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who was himself a composition student of Berio. Despite guitarist Jerry Garcia's formidable command of volume and feedback, The Dead felt that their first, self-titled album had failed to capture the essential mindwarp element of the group live, and thus sought to extend their sonic armoury in the studio with techniques picked up from the academic avant garde. With the enthusiastic participation of Garcia and Lesh, Constanten applied prepared piano and tape montage methods to the latter part of "That's It For The Other One". Collaged from superimposed performance tapes, his experimental symphony suddenly folds into a bout of musique concrète that falls somewhere between Varèse's Déserts and the respective keyboard deconstructions of John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow. Constanten created one effect by diving into the piano, having first pulled the string on a gyroscope and placed it against the sounding board. "The sound," he revealed, "is not unlike that of a chainsaw being taken into it."
Acid burns into rock
All of which was a long away from the kind of upbeat rock 'n' roll which The Beatles had brought over to America for their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963. Three years later, the group's moptop innocence had given way to a hairier, acid-burned recalcitrance. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were equally fascinated by music's 60's avant garde, and much to the muted disapproval of producer George Martin, they began to assemble tapes that attempted to mirror LSD trips and which they would then splice into the arrangements of their songs. Thus the backwards tape treatments and Indian war whoops on "Tomorrow Never Knows", the clanging tram car sound hallucination on the end section of "Strawberry Fields Forever", the tumbling calliope tape loop collage that runs through "Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite", and the blurred, Through The Looking Glass radio effect that haunts "I Am The Walrus" were mechanically aided flashbacks to their acid dreams (and nightmares). This approach reached its zenith (or nadir, depending on which side of the fence the listener chose to sit) with "Revolution No 9", a pure slab of musique concrète that was included on The White Album.
Unfortunately, only Lennon and his new bride Yoko Ono carried on where "Revolution No 9" left off, with their pair of 'Unfinished Music' albums, Two Virgins (1968) and Life With The Lions (1969). Before the couple met in October 1967 at London's Lisson Gallery, Yoko Ono had already been an active participant in George Maciunas's radically mischievous, neo-Dadaist Fluxus art group, and had performed with John Cage, David Tudor and Toshiro Mayuzumi. Cage's crude 1940 prototype for concrete music, where objects were given the status of musical instruments, had since been remodelled in Western Europe by Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète approach, and together with Ono's Fluxus-schooled influence and Lennon's surreal Goonish humour, it was probably this version that formed the basis for what one current rock guide has described as "perhaps the most skipped-over track on any Beatles album". On the other hand, "Revolution No 9" continues to fascinate as a perfectly orchestrated deconstruction of everything The Beatles stood for; where melody, harmony and lyrical invention are rudely trashed and replaced with 'noise'. In the process, they temporarily reinvented themselves and threw down a gauntlet for their more musically adventurous contemporaries to seize upon.
Many of the groups who subsequently fed found sounds into their songs were blissfully unaware of such musique concrète pioneers as Pierre Schaeffer, Pierre Henry, Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage. They were merely following The Beatles' example by adding the approriate 'psychedelic' effects to an otherwise standard pop song. Although it is doubtful whether The Lovin' Spoonful fully realised what they were creating in 1966 by introducing a tape of traffic noise and road drills during the instrumental break of "Summer In The City", they ensured that the song would be remembered in the breach rather than the strict observance of its cheerfully lazy harmony. Regardless of the group's -- or producer's -- motivations, the sudden intrusion of the atonal noises of the outside world ripping through its tiny rent in the fabric of pop alerted radio audiences to a wholly other reality. (Conversely, they signalled a way back to reality for fazed, confused or lost day trippers.)
Other notable pop and rock musique concrète flirtations from this period include Alex Chilton's pre-Big Star unit The Box Tops' 'sampling' of the sound of a jet passing overhead on "The Letter" (1967); Beach Boy Brian Wilson's atmospheric, evocative and lonesome-sounding train and dog barking session on "Caroline, No" (1966); and the earth-shaking A-bomb blast at the epicentre of Love's wired punk anthem "Seven And Seven Is" (from 1967's Da Capo). Apart from the obvious anti-war reference, this explosion commemorated the moment when rock 'n' roll innocence was permanently blown away, clearing the way for the massive changes that would rise up out of the ruins. As the war in Vietnam dragged on, politically engaged groups honed rock into a weapon of protest aimed at tipping the balance pf popular opinion against US involvement. By detonating their sound bomb on the radio, Love were announcing that a collective finger had pushed the button. Just as 80s rappers would sample the shocking sounds of drive-by shootings for exploitative and journalistic purposes, so 60s rock musicians were using the sounds of combat and consumerism gone mad both to excite/incite their listeners and to drive their protests home.
Those who knew and were passionate about contemporary classical and experimental music incorporated it into their own work with more care and deliberation. Frank Zappa's early introduction to the music of Stravinsky, Holst, Ives, Webern and, more importantly, Edgard Varèse (mingled with his love for 50s doowop And R&B) had a profound effect on his interpretation of modern rock music. When Varèse died on 6 November 1965, Zappa composed "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet (Unfinished Ballet In Two Tableaux)" in his memory. The piece took up an entire side of The Mothers Of Invention's debut album, the four-sided Freak Out!, which was released the following year. "[This] is what freaks sound like when you turn them loose in a recording studio at one o'clock in the morning on $500 worth of rented percussion equipment," Zappa wrote in his sleevenote. "A bright snappy number. Hotcha!" The resulting "snappy" mix of electronics, Varèse-inspired percussive sonorities, and strange spoken word exchanges between Pamela 'Suzy Creamcheese' Zarubica and the notorious Los Angeles producer, musician and eccentric Kim Fowley, was to become one of the earliest recorded examples of what can be loosely termed 'rock concrète'. Central to his music, however, was Zappa's William Burroughs-tinged sense of humour. Zappa subliminally incorporated Burroughs's cut-up tape recording techniques into such 'rock concrète' pieces as "Nasal Retentive Calliope Music" and "The Chrome Plated Megaphone Of Destiny", which concluded The Mothers' 1968 album We're Only In It For Money (the listener was instructed to read Franz Kafka's short story In The Penal Colony before playback). "The Chrome Plated Megaphone..." apparently refers to a voicebox found between a toy doll's legs; but alongside its 'freak' humour, you can also detect warped echoes of Varèse's Poème Électronique and Stockhausen's breakthrough work of electronic tape mutation, Gesang der Jünglinge, bubbling under and eventually breaking the surface. For the album sleeve, Zappa hired the graphic artist Cal Schenkel to satirise the Carnaby Street, pop art sentimentality of Peter Blake's cover for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It misled many critics assuming that "The Chrome Plated Megaphone..." was a cynical swipe at Lennon and McCartney's "A Day In The Life", the last track on Sgt Pepper's, when in fact Zappa was fine-tuning his personal art of noise. The culmination of Zappa's commitment to contemporary classical and electronic music was unleashed one month later as Lumpy Gravy, an orchestral work which was recorded in New York with the 50 piece Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, a few stray Mothers and various cohorts from his entourage of freaks. Lumpy Gravy is a crucial work for the way it combines classically motivated interludes, electronic abstractions and rambling spoken word compositions within a basic rock structure. Whereas other 'rock stars' frequently toyed with vague notions of musique concrète and experimental music, Zappa incorporated them into a medium that extended his musical repertoire and pushed the prowess of The Mothers Of Invention to new heights of skill and endurance.
Among those to take Zappa's experimental music approach seriously were the rebellious 60s West Coast superstars Jefferson Airplane, who approached him to produce their third album, After Bathing At Baxter's (1967). Zappa declined the offer due to pressure of work, but he eventually teamed up with the group's vocalist Grace Slick on 5 June 1968 to record a freeform composition which they had co-written entitled "Would You Like A Snack". It is typically erratic keyboard and percussion dominated Zappa number, complete with deviant sexual vocalising from Slick in operatic diva mode. This short piece sends the imagination racing over what might have occurred had Zappa taken control of the Airplane for a whole flight. Even without Zappa's involvement, however, the extended soloing of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bass player Jack Casady on Baxter's is clearly enriched by the example of Frank's forays into the avant garde, and their psychedelic protest rock is transformed into something more substantial and enduring than a 'plastic' soundtrack for the corporate 'Flower Power' counterculture.
Concrète in the limelight
By the late 60s and early 70s, even a lethargic music industry was beginning to wake up to the realisation that the boundaries of rock were expanding, and soon the hunt was on to sign up any group that strayed beyond the familiar guitar, bass, drums and vocals line-up. One label that attempted to educate the hippy hordes, while shamelessly cashing in on the current craze for electronic and experimental music, was the Mercury Record subsidiary Limelight, whose catalogue of musique concrète, electronic music and classical Indian ragas was described as "The Total Experience In Sound". Packaged in elaborate gatefold sleeves, their abstract artwork mirrored the coloured oil lightshows which were a major feature of any rock concert at the time, Limelight set out to introduce the music of such experimental composers as Pierre Henry, Kagel, Eimert, Ligeti, Berio, Ferrari and Xenakis to audiences who, until Anthem Of The Sun hit the racks, were probably unaware of Henry's equally mind blowing Le Voyage, an electronic score based on the Tibetan Book Of The Dead. Limelight also signed the electronic rock group Fifty Foot Hose, who recorded their lone Cauldron album for the label before sliding into obscurity (until that is, they were given the kiss of life in the 90s by the same fanbase that had helped to resurrect the career of The Silver Apples).
Unlike the many who were only just discovering his work through the Limelight label, Pierre Henry was no stranger to psychedelic rock. In 1967 he had collaborated with Michel Colombier on a series of electronic pieces based around pop and rock themes. The resulting Messe Pour Le Temps Présent marked a dramatic change of direction for Henry. With compositions such as "Psyché Rock", Henry's joyous demolition of the rock 'n' roll standard "Louie, Louie", he made contact with rock audiences, which discovered correspondences between the disintegrating logic of his rock concrète and their own hallucinogenically fuelled visions of the world. Two years after the release of Messe Pour Le Temps Présent, Henry was contacted by Gary Wright from the UK group Spooky Tooth, with a view to collaborating on an electronic mass called Ceremony. When the album was released, full page adverts were taken out in the rock press, describing it as 'Electronique Fantastique'. But Spooky Tooth's leaden Progressive dirge, once plugged in to Henry's accompanying electronic squeal, sounds unconnected and toothless. More of a mess than mass.
An experimental composer who left a more significant mark on 60s rock was Jospeh Byrd. Working with his 'electronic rock' group The United States Of America, Byrd narrowed the gulf that separated 'serious' music from rock 'n' roll. Recording in 1967, he combined the psychedelic social attack of Zappa's Mothers and the neon-lit starkness of The Velvet Undergroud (The USA's singer, Dorothy Moskowitz, bore a passing resemblance, both vocal and physical, to Nico) with his own Morton Subotnick-influenced sheets of ring-modulated and synthesized sound to produce the (still undervalued) American answer to Henry's and Colombier's Messe Pour Le Temps Présent.
Europe goes loopy
Across Europe too, rock was going through radical changes. In Germany, the beat boom of the early 60s had been replaced with a musical aesthetic that critiqued the country's post-war industrial rebirth while looking out towards the cosmos for inspiration. Labelled 'Krautrock' by the British music press, one of the first and most influential of these groups was Can. Filled with the spirit of change, the group's first recording session in June 1968 included a recording of the riots which had brought Paris to a standstill the previous month (the tape was made by David Johnson, one of the founders of the group). The same year, Holger Czukay and studio engineer Rolf Dammers (under the pseudonym of the Technical Space Composers Crew) created the cosmic concrète masterpiece Canaxis V, which rivalled the best electronic work of Czukay's 'acoustic sound painting' layered tape loops of a Vietnamese boat woman singing and gamelan styled guitar over a repeated electronic choral background to create a 'worlds within worlds' effect that is as alien as it is familiar. Sounding like it could have been beamed down from a distant galaxy, rather than a tape montage of electronics and a shortwave radio transmission, Czukay's message seemed to be that not only earth but also the cosmos beyond could be brought into earshot at the turn of a dial.
The nearest British equivalent to Can was Pink Floyd, whose post-Syd Barrett shows were equipped with quadraphonic sound systems that blasted out such sound effexts as UFOs taking off and giant footsteps walking above the heads of the audience. Of course, Pink Floyd also encouraged a strain of pomposity to enter the rock arena which gradually took centre stage once the 60s had burnt itself out.
Rewind into the future
When William Burroughs maintained that the future, as well as the past, bleeds through the ruptures opened up in the cut-up process, he could have been describing the work of today's self-consciously postmodern sampling composers. The 'plunderphonic' hybrids of John Oswald have built one of the most enduring bridges connecting the pioneer spirit of the 60s with the 90s' relentless referentiality. His psychedelic plunderphonics piece Grayfolded (1995) was directly inspired by the experimentation that produced Anthem Of The Sun. Oswald spliced together live selections from various locations of recordings of The Grateful Dead's "Dark Star" to create a telescopic, sonic time tunnel. Oswald's simultaneous celebration and extension of The Dead's musical legacy shows that the song might remain the same, but the way of singing it has been irretrievably altered.
Copyright © 1999 The Wire. Reprinted with permission.
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