Brian Eno

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Experimental artist and Pink Floyd founder, Syd Barrett.

Experimental artist and Pink Floyd founder, Syd Barrett.

By Jennifer Elizabeth Rose (Social/Cultural Writer and Music/Arts Historian)

For decades Experimental Rock has developed, undeveloped and done 360 degree turns. We can say that Experimental Music started with Classical and Jazz but in Rock the first pioneers lied seemingly quiet and dormant under their more traditional rock and roll peers since the early 60’s until listeners were ready for the next “thing.”

Luckily, the social and cultural climate was becoming more interested in outside or even foreign idea(ls), modes of thinking, fashion and art. This would of course inevitably happen in music as well. The most popular music of course was rock and roll. And one of the grandfathers, Frank Zappa, composer, producer, album art designer and director, while known for his dozens of records with The Mothers of Invention and solo actually had a rough start getting into music… Business wise. Though in his youth he studied advanced composers while still partaking in his generation’s R&B and Roll and Roll he was at first (like most innovators) overlooked as the standout artist he would grow to become.

He began writing contemporary classical in his youth and attempted to front projects before his first well known one, Captain Beefheart. He recorded some tracks with the name The Soots but they were turned down due to having no selling point. In the early 60’s, (at the height of Beatlemania) he began recording and experimenting with multiple overdubs, tape manipulation and less likely instrumentation. As a film composer he paid the bills and managed to take over what became his own studio, Studio Z. In addition, he started as guitarist with The Mothers, which managed to get paying gigs.

While Zappa made ends meet he still did it creatively though he was producing and writing songs for other groups throughout the early and mid 60’s. Actually, though none of them achieved much commercial success, he managed to get his music heard on a late night syndicated show, hosted by Steve Allen wherein he did what well he pleased with experimentation and sonic architectures.

The Velvet Underground was also experimenting, though eventually more known as a Psychedelic band (subgenre) their use of instrumentation was outside of the framework though they did still compose “hooky” melody lines.

These two artists were pinnacle in the many that were to follow experimentation, even the Beach Boys (a pop group) were on board, as composer Brian Wilson always admired advanced composition and the famous Pet Sounds resulted.

Onto England, Syd Barrett and his project, The Pink Floyd formed and their first record The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, was recorded in 1967 (the same year of the aforementioned musical developments were made alongside in the US.) The Infamous Summer of Love was the name of this music explosion in American but also in England. Pink Floyd was on board this movement whether Syd knew it or not, as were the Beatles. In fact, the first Pink Floyd record was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, by former Beatles engineer Norman Smith.The Beatles were recording, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which also put experimental rock into the limelight in their own psychedelic pop/rock way. In August, Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne” reached honorable status on the English charts in part due to their other single, “See Emily Play.” The full length, Piper at the Gates of Dawn was unexpectedly successful in England, hitting the top of the album charts and subsequently their third single the very baroque pop, “Apples and Oranges,” perhaps because it was about a common theme, love.

During their British tour with Jimi Hendrix in November 1967, around the time of his third hit single, several guitarists began to replace Barrett though he was a the brainchild of the band because of his legendary erratic behavior, which was due to a chemical imbalance made worse by LSD use. Speculation suggests that though he achieved commercial success it aggravated him and his schizophrenia. He was soon to be seemingly forgotten. Nonetheless, he remains an innovator in sonic exploration and (often bizarre) rhythmic experimentation and overall, a master architect of guitar.

In later years, he reemerged as a “bedroom” songwriter of odd little ditties that were melodic but still arrhythmic. Lyrics might have not been as relatable as many songwriters are known for but they allowed for more abstract understanding such as achieved by daydreaming or meditation. One feels like fly on the wall of a man trying to distinguish between lucid dreams or his waking on a Sunday morning as he tries to make as mundane  a decision about whether to have coffee or tea.

Hendrix, on tour with Barrett and early Pink Floyd rose to his success in 1967 as well but in terms of what he wanted this music to be called he once was very defensive. He was quoted as saying:

“We don’t want to be classed in any category… If it must have a tag, I’d like it to be called, ‘Free Feeling’. It’s a mixture of rock, freak-out, rave and blues.”

Though not known as a pop artist, he appeared on British television shows, Ready Steady Go! and the Top of the Pops, though his single, “Hey Joe,” made a small splash in 1966.

In Spring 1967, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s singles, “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” and the album Are You Experienced? joined the queue with the Beatles and Pink Floyd. And through Zappa, Barrett and Hendrix experimental rock had a large impact and subsequently Psychedelic and Space Rock which was born in the sixties and of course even more sub and sub-genres flourished throughout the seventies until today.

Throughout the seventies, Pink Floyd kept going with the Psychedelic elements into Space Rock and finally to Concept(ual) Rock. Alongside the ever changing climate of the seventies Zappa continued his career and in Europe, Kraftwerk introduced us to electronic instrumentation which was then considered extremely progressive with their first LP, “Autobahn.” Though many electronic elements were used it was still classified as rock and led to yet another subgenre, Krautrock.

Sonic Youth began experimenting back in America and of course became the example for many new bands and defied subgenres into the 00’s. In both rock and electronic, composer, Brian Eno and Thom Yorke of the very successful Radiohead, began to become household names to many musicians to the present day when it comes to experimental and sonic architecture, much like Zappa. Modern Baroque Pop artists such as the Animal Collective and Arcade Fire also have owe much to these innovators who influenced even the previously mentioned former “bubble gum” writers like Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson who continue to impact every songwriter in ANY genre.

Many artists and subgenres developed merely from musicians wanting to think outside the perimeters of rock and roll song structure and instrumentation. Very obvious references to Jazz, notably Acid or Progressive Jazz have been made especially early one all but at the core Experimental Rock is about using other elements and bringing them back to rock whilst being inventive yet not “being weird for the sake of being weird…” as Hendrix once remarked.

Picks of the Week leading to this article:

  • “Room Full of Mirrors,” Jimi Hendrix
  • “Joe’s Garage,” Frank Zappa
  • “Interstellar Overdrive,” Syd Barrett/Pink Floyd
  • “Octopus,” Syd Barrett

Frank Zappa

Syd Barrett (live with Pink Floyd)

Syd Barrett (Solo)

Sonic Youth

Brian Eno

Lou Reed

Lou Reed

By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)

Visionary, trailblazer, cool, godfather, original, genius, brooding, artistic, inspirational. Those are just some of the terms that come to mind when referencing the godfather of art rock, Lou Reed.

Reed’s 46-year career spanned several eras, trends and movements. Somehow, the iconic rocker always managed to be cited as a leader or influence. And up until his passing last month, Reed was still going strong, still challenging his audience and still making an intellectual and trend-setting statement.

Reed’s career begin in the mid-60’s as frontman of The Velvet Underground. While most bands of the time were drenched in psychedelia and trying to play louder than their predecessors, Reed and his bandmates were taking an intellect in rock and roll to a whole new level, birthing the sub-genre of art rock.

The Velvet Underground were, at the time, rock’s best-kept secret. With themes of sex, drugs and violence, it certainly wasn’t very in step with much of the “hippie” movement. They were arguably the first cult band, with a devoted underground audience despite a serious lack of national radio play or television exposure. In a pre-Internet world, they were among the first acts to connect others like-minded, one a smaller yet wide-ranged scale, selling only 30,000 copies of their debut album. As Brian Eno was once famously said, “…everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”

Their association with Andy Warhol and their artsy approach gained the band even more popularity throughout three studio albums in the late 60’s and lasted long after the group disbanded in 1970.

Reed’s career was far from over after The Velvet Underground. He took the world by surprise in 1972, releasing two of rock’s greatest masterpieces, his self-titled solo debut and the David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced Transformer. Transformer was arguably the first glimpse of Gothic rock, featuring Reed on the cover donning black clothing and eyeliner. The album’s smash hit, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” was a dark and ironic tune, paying homage to all the misfits and freaks that surrounded The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol in the late 60’s.

The following year, Reed took steps into progressive rock, releasing the concept album, Berlin. Darker than Transformer, Berlin told the story of two junkies in love in the city of Berlin. Songs of severe drug addiction, prostitution and suicide further expanded Reed’s fascination with the darker side of the human experience.

By 1975, Reed released another critical work, Metal Music Machine. Although the album was considered a commercial failure and sold poorly compared to Transformer and Berlin, it’s influence spread wider than originally imaged. The album consisted heavily of electronic noise and feedback; a stark contrast to his well-produced earlier solo works. However, the album’s noisiness went on to heavily inspire early NYC punk/alternative acts like the Talking Heads, as well as entire sub-genres such as noise rock and proto-industrial.

Reed’s experimentation, both sonically and lyrically, continued over the next 30 years. With the occasional commercial successes and the equally occasional commercial flops, Reed always managed to remain relevant through out the ages. Punks admired his ambition and lack of interest to play nice with the music industry. Acts as diverse as Iggy Pop, The Flaming Lips, The Smiths, Sonic Youth and Jane’s Addiction all cite Reed, as well as The Velvet Underground, as critical influences on their music.

His final musical stand came as a very unlikely collaboration when he teamed up with metal icons Metallica in 2009. He first performed with them at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s 25th Anniversary Concert, and later announced he would be recording an entire album with them. The result was 2011’s Lulu. The album, based on a late-1800’s German play, went straight to number one on the Billboard charts. However, the album was quickly deemed a critical and commercial flop. Both parties stood behind the project, as Reed again managed to challenge his audience, whether they liked it or not.

Reed’s unrelenting search for thought-provoking and challenging artistic statements were ultimately the reason for his long-lasting relevance and his wide-spread influence. Reed never tamed himself and never necessarily gave his fans the music they were expecting to hear next. It’s because of his ambition and fearlessness that he remains a true icon, visionary, and the King of Cool. Even after his death, as long as rock and roll is still kicking, his life and influence will continue to be celebrated.