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.”
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
Syd Barrett (live with Pink Floyd)
Syd Barrett (Solo)