Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967-1976

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The “Hippie Aesthetic”

As mentioned above, much rock music from the early and mid Seventies was driven by a collection of attitudes and practices that can be called the “hippie aesthetic.” As we have seen in our brief survey of the 1966-1980 period, the hippie aesthetic grew out of psychedelia and helps explains how many of the distinct styles that emerged in the Seventies share common musical and cultural values. We will now consider the components of this aesthetic attitude in greater detail, and these musical and aesthetic features will be divided into discussions of musical ambition, technology, virtuosity, lyrics, and concept albums. Because I consider progressive rock to most strongly and consistently exemplify these characteristics, I will make particular reference to progressive rock bands and their music in the discussion that follows.

Musical Ambition. The first and most dominant characteristic of the hippie aesthetic is the tendency to imbue rock with a sense of seriousness of purpose. From a musical point of view, this often took the form of borrowing from styles that had a high degree of cultural prestige, such as classical music and jazz. Hippie rock also borrowed from folk and blues styles, but drawing on these styles gave the music a sense of earthy groundedness that can often balance the music’s higher aspirations. Jazz is mostly invoked through extended soloing, and often soloing employing modal scales within sections in a single key. The uses of classical music can be divided into two types: those which evoke the “great classical tradition” (mostly 18th and 19th European century instrumental music), and those that employ techniques and practices more often associated with 20th-century modernist and avant-garde music. The use of classical music and techniques, drawn from the “great classical tradition,” can be found in Beatles’ music, starting with the use of the string quartet in Yesterday, for instance, and leading through Eleanor Rigby to She’s Leaving Home. (7) Beginning with The Nice, Keith Emerson developed a reputation for adapting familiar classical pieces for rock band; he continued this practice with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, perhaps most famously with that band’s adaptation of Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The recorded sounds of symphonic strings and concert chorus as found on the Mellotron keyboard became central timbres in the music of King Crimson, Genesis, and Yes; the lush string sounds in King Crimson’s Epitaph or Genesis’ Watchers of the Skies provide representative examples. The use of harpsichord or classical guitar, perhaps featured most obviously in Yes’ Madrigal, are clear references to classical music, as are the recorders that can be found in the music of Gentle Giant. In addition to appropriating the timbres and textures from classical music, progressive rock musicians also borrowed ideas of large-scale form, motivic presentation and development, and counterpoint and contrapuntal textures. Perhaps the most obvious use traditional contrapuntal practices may be found in Gentle Giant’s On Reflection, which is built around a tradition fugal exposition, presented initially in a four-part a capella vocal texture, and later repeated using various instrumental combinations. (8)
Avant-garde elements, drawn from the more provocative, experimental areas of classical music, also played a role in the hippie aesthetic. The use of aleatoric procedures can be found in much of the Beatles’ music. In Tomorrow Never Knows, for instance, tape loops are mixed in real time, while in the two string interludes in A Day in the Life, string players were told to start by playing in their low register and move gradually higher at their own discretion, eventually locking into an E-major triad. Members of the Grateful Dead, a markedly improvisational band, “performed” the mix of their 1968 Anthem of the Sun album at the mixing console, working with previously recorded music to create each of the sides of the record in real time. Pink Floyd has consistently worked with electronic sounds in the music, especially in the first few years of the band’s history. Even a tremendously successful album such as The Dark Side of the Moon contains such electronic and tape-produced timbres, as can be readily heard in On The Run. (9) While most rock musicians do not have traditional compositional training and do not notate their music as part of the composition process, Gentle Giant and Henry Cow are two exceptions, and Henry Cow’s music might in some cases cross over the line between rock and modern classical music, making it more “avant-garde chamber rock” than progressive rock in the sense that we have been using that term here.

Technology. Ambitious rock made use of the most up-to-date technologies in its quest for greater sophistication, and the development of recording technology and advances in synthesizer technology were central to many hippie rockers. In the period starting roughly in the early Sixties and extending into the early Seventies, recording technology developed from use of 2- and 3-track machines, to 8- and 16-track, and then to 24- and 48-track capabilities. Over this period, musicians increasingly use the recording studio as a kind of composer’s sketch pad. Brian Wilson’s mid Sixties studio experimentations—which produced Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations—produced music that was only possible in the studio. The Beatles’ retreat from live performance into studio experimentation—and the release of Strawberry Fields Forever and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—further accelerated a trend among rock musicians toward studio experimentation. By the early Seventies, short sections of music were typically built up in layers using multi-track recording techniques, with these sections edited together to create long—sometimes very long—album tracks. Strawberry Fields, for instance, is actually the product of two recorded versions in different keys that were spliced together using studio technology. Yes’ Close to the Edge was recorded in short sections and assembled into the final version without the band having performed this version before the editing was completed. (10)
The first music synthesizers were large and by no means usable for live performance, housed mostly in university music departments and used by a new generation of composers who turned to electronic music in the decades following the Second World War. By the late Sixties, however, synthesizers had become more portable and are and began to be used in recording studios. Switched on Bach, a recording of J.S. Bach’s music on the synthesizer by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos was probably the first well-known recording of synthesizer music. The Beatles used the synthesizer on their last studio album, Abbey Road, with George Harrison becoming an early enthusiastic supporter of the synthesizer. When Robert Moog introduced the Mini-Moog, a portable synthesizer that made the instrument practical for live on-stage performance, keyboardists such as Yes’ Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson featured the synthesizer prominently in their shows and recordings, as did Genesis’ Tony Banks, playing on an ARP synthesizer.
(11) While the synthesizer was closely associated with progressive rock in the Seventies, a wide range of rock musicians made use of it, from Edgar Winter and Stevie Wonder to Joe Walsh and Steve Miller. The synthesizer was also picked up by jazz-rock fusion bands in the Seventies, with Return to Forever’s Chick Corea, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinol, the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Jan Hammer, and Herbie Hancock all using various Moogs and ARPs.

Virtuosity. As the Sixties unfolded, many rock musicians increasingly strove to be the best players they could possibly be.  The Beatles and Bob Dylan provided the model for musicians who wrote and performed their own music, always playing on their own records, but it was probably the friendly competition between guitarists Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in the late Sixties that established the idea that a rock musician could also be a virtuoso musician. And as late Sixties rock listeners turned more toward listening carefully to the music, it became possible for rock musicians to build a reputation based on their instrumental prowess. Rockers interested in developing their technical skills often turned to classical and jazz styles for models of instrumental virtuosity. Under the influence of John Coltrane, The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn had quoted the jazz saxophonist’s India in the band’s hit single Eight Miles High. Hendrix and Clapton both improvised freely in live performance, blending blues elements with modal jazz. San Francisco bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were well known for their extended jams onstage—something the Beatles or the Stones had never really done but that the more improvisatory bands embraced with great enthusiasm, as did their fans. Progressive rockers were also very influenced by jazz, but these musicians also imitated classical-music virtuosity. The classical guitar interludes of Steve Howe of Yes or Steve Hackett of Genesis seemed inspired by the playing of Andres Segovia and Julian Bream, while the grand piano stylings of Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman left no doubt that they were drawing on classical practices and techniques, with Wakeman throwing some pipe organ into the mix. Following in the footsteps of bassist Paul McCartney and the Who’s John Entwhisle, who had developed and approach to the electric bass that allowed it to play a more melodic role than it had before, Yes’ Chris Squire, Genesis’ Michael Rutherford, and Gentle Giant’s Ray Shulman further raised the bar for technical command and made the bass into an equal partner with the lead guitar. Drummers Carl Palmer, Yes’ Bill Bruford, and Genesis’ Phil Collins were among the many who likewise raised the technical standard for percussionists, often adding orchestral percussion instruments to their increasingly drum kits. (12)           
While the progressive rockers were those most associated with promoting virtuosity, a certain pride in one’s level of technical achievement was a relatively consistent attitude among most rock musicians of the first half of the Seventies. Even if the music some played was less overtly ambitious and complicated than progressive rock, most players wanted to be respected as experienced professionals, and nothing would have been worse than to have been considered an amateur or hack. This would change drastically with the arrival of punk and new wave, which reacted strongly against this kind of professionalism.  Fans too wanted to think of their favorite bands as skilled players, and many local musicians worked diligently in garages and basements to copy the every lick and nuance of their favorite recording, fueling the sales of magazines and musical equipment that could help them realize that goal. Perhaps no element captures this aspect of the hippie aesthetic quite like the “studio musician”—a player with excellent music-reading and improvisational skills who could walk into a recording session and nail his or her part quickly and efficiently.  This level of highly skilled professionalism was widely respected and admired; Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones had been session players before forming Led Zepplelin and Rick Wakeman had played many sessions before joining Yes. Steely Dan was known for their use of the top session players in New York and Los Angeles, as were Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. The virtuosity and professional conscientiousness of progressive rockers was thus in many ways only the most obvious instance of something that permeated much rock music in the Seventies.

Lyrics and “big ideas.” As rock became more ambitious—stylistically, technologically, and music-technically—musicians and fans of the style were no longer satisfied with lyrics that focused on sentimental romantic themes.  The naïve love songs of rock’s first decade began to be replaced by songs with increasingly serious-minded lyrics. With only a few exceptions, lyrics of most rock and roll from the Fifties and early Sixties had dealt with issues of teen life: romance, cars, dancing, parents, etc. (13) Some of Leiber and Stoller’s songs for the Coasters engage issues of race and social concern, while others are ambitious in that they attempt to tell a story (borrowing from Broadway musicals). While Will You Love Me Tomorrow, a 1960 song penned and produced by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, engages issues of teenage sexuality in a way that was daring in its day, and some of Chuck Berry’s songs (Memphis especially) betray a new concern for interesting lyrics, most rock lyrics remained fairly tame, even if the performances are often much more provocative. (14) The change is pop lyrics can be traced to the emergence of Bob Dylan in the mid Sixties, and to Dylan’s transformation of folk music into the singer-songwriter style.  Folk lyrics had often dealt with issues of social and communal concern, but Dylan began to craft lyrics with a more personal, poetic, and philosophical focus, turning the “we” of folk community-building (as his detractors would famously quip) into the “me” of individual expression. If the Beatles influenced Dylan to turn to the electric guitar in 1965, Dylan certainly influenced the Beatles to get more serous about their lyrics and soon John Lennon was confessing his unhappiness in Help and Paul McCartney was contemplating alienation in Eleanor Rigby. By the 1967 Summer of Love, rock lyrics frequently strove to be “relevant,” as She Loves You became All You Need Is Love.In some progressive rock of the Seventies, lyrics deal with social, cultural, and political issues, offering sometimes blistering critique of government, institutions, and social practices. Jethro Tull provide some of the most obvious examples in this regard: their 1971 album Aqualung offers a sustained attack on the church and its uncomprehending duplicity in the face of poverty and homelessness. Thick as a Brick from 1972 continues this critical attitude by focusing on provincial values and cultural practices in England. A gentler and perhaps more arcane critique of British culture can be found in Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound, while The Musical Box weaves a dark, mischievous, and surreal tale of Victorian perversity among the British aristocracy. Other progressive-rock lyrics deal with spirituality, though almost never from the point of view of institutional Christianity. Eastern philosophy and the “wisdom of the ancients” are favorite themes, and here Yes’ Close to the Edge (influenced by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha) and Tales From Topographic Oceans (influenced by Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi) might serve as representative examples, though Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play deals with life after death and Genesis’ Supper’s Ready contemplates the apocalypse. Other progressive-rock lyrics deal with fantasy and science-fiction themes, often with social and cultural critiques gently concealed beneath the surface. Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery provide clear instances, the first dealing with a struggle between comic-book-style fantasy beasts, while the second flashes into a dark, computer-controlled future. Dylan made an art of what he called the “finger wagging” song—a song that levels a direct and often unrelenting criticism on some target. This approach is picked up by the Beatles and the Kinks, among many others, and also by The Who’s Pete Townshend, whose Tommy is an extended indictment of what he takes to be the superficiality of hippie culture. Ian Anderson’s lyrics for Jethro Tull are probably the most consistent example of progressive-rock finger wagging, and can at times be quite aggressive and direct, as in My God.
Among other styles in Seventies rock that contained ambitious lyrics, the singer-songwriters probably provide the clearest parallels. The music of Paul Simon, James Taylor, Billy Joel, and Elton John, for instance, depend on the poetic power of the lyrics, which are often the focus of the song. And while these kinds of songs often deal with personal feelings and reflections, they can also engage cultural and philosophical issues, as in Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done or Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle, for instance. The lyrics of rockers like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger, or Alice Cooper and David Bowie, are often rich in imagery and ambitious in scope, further reinforcing the idea that the ambitiousness of progressive-rock lyrics is a feature of much other hippie rock.

Concept albums and conceptual music. The turn toward serious-minded lyrics, combined with the growth of musical ambitiousness, led to the rise of the concept album in rock music. Many fans and critics think of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the first important concept album in rock music. While John Lennon denied that any of his songs on that album were written with the Sgt. Pepper “concept” in mind, it is nonetheless true that the album was understood to be a concept album, and soon many other bands and artists were imitating it. The most useful definition of the concept album views it as a collection of songs that somehow tell a story or at least address the same general topic or set of topics—the “concept” of the album. In the case of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the unifying idea is that the Beatles portray the members of this fictional town band, and the album unfolds a make-believe show, beginning with an introductory song in which the audience is welcomed, and leading directly into the number by Billy Shears (Ringo). The concept breaks off at this point, though the introductory number returns at the end to introduce the final track, A Day in the Life. Album packaging added a new dimension to concept albums, with cover art and illustrations playing a central role and sometimes providing information that makes the story or unifying themes clearer or more obvious. The elaborate packaging of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band served as a model for later albums such as Tommy and Thick as a Brick. The distinctive covers of Yes and Pink Floyd albums of the Seventies—designed by Roger Dean and Hipgnosis respectively—were central to the experience of the music they contained.
Progressive rockers warmly embraced the concept album, so much so that a progressive rock album that is not a concept album is probably more the exception than the rule. Among the many that could be listed, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus are classic examples. But progressive rockers were not the only ones producing concept albums. David Bowie, The Who, Alice Cooper, Meat Loaf, Queen, Heart, Todd Rundgren, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, George Clinton, the Eagles and many others released concept albums during the Seventies.
In many ways, the concept album reinforced psychedelic practice, allowing music to act as a kind of “trip,” and so it is thus not surprising that so many groups whose musical roots were in Sixties rock found the concept album idea appealing. Some groups even used their live shows to further extend an album’s concept, sometimes with props, lights, and images, but also at times by acting songs out in a theatrical manner. Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and Alice Cooper were perhaps the best known for this, but it was Kiss that took rock theater to its most extravagant point by the end of the decade. Even for those Seventies band and artists who did not release concept albums, the album remained an important aesthetic context for their music. In many ways, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band initiated the era of “album-oriented rock,” which celebrated the idea that the album as a whole is more important than any single song on it. Before the overwhelming success of Sgt. Pepper’s, singles were central to a band’s commercial success; after Sgt. Pepper’s, it was the album that mattered most.

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1. Introduction / The Historical Frame

2. The "Hippie Aesthetic"

3. The Hippie Aesthetic and Rock's History


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