Sunday, October 30, 2016

Freak Out - When Rock 'n' Roll Became Rock

By 1966, rock took three unexpected diversions (roads less traveled) from the original nature of rock 'n' roll. Bob Dylan introduced an explicit socio-political message (and unpopularly went electric); British bands like the Stones and the Who indulged in instrumental and vocal mayhem; and The Beach Boys, The Beatles and the Byrds focused on the studio and eccentric arrangements. Each embodied ways to use music as a vehicle: the profound bard, the street punk, the sound sculptor. The Rolling Stones and the Who personified a universal attribute of youth: rebellion (here were rock's champions - music by young people, for young people). The Beach Boys and The Beatles were removed from their time sociopolitcally (the Vietnam war, the movement for civil rights, pollution), opting instead for the Peace and Love hippie thing, while Dylan was all about his time. Dylan used music as a weapon, The Rolling Stones and The Who used as an insult, The Beach Boys and The Beatles realized still that youth wasn't all rebellion, but peace and love and getting laid, and a simpler take on teen angst.

The confluence of these three very different genres gave rise to the psychedelic muse. The synthesis was fueled by hallucinogens, as if drugs were the natural meeting point of the bard, the punk and the sound sculptor. Most likely it was a coincidence: drugs just happened to represent the unifying call to arms for the generation. Drugs were readily available and stood for the opposite of what the establishment was hated for (war, bourgeois life, discipline, greed, organized religion, the old moral values).

If one were to identify an event that embodied this historical synthesis, it was in May 1966 when Dylan's Blonde on Blonde was released (a double album; already a significant departure from the old format). Until then, rock musicians operated within the Tin Pan Alley standard of three minutes of pop songs (with the exception maybe of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” in 1965, which topped out at 11:21). Suddenly LPs with free-form "songs" began to flow out of London, New York and Los Angeles: Frank Zappa and the Mothers' LP Freak Out (recorded in March and released in June), Aftermath by The Rolling Stones (recorded in Los Angeles in March), the Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico (recorded in April and May), the Who's A Quick One (released in the fall), the The Doors' eponymous first album (recorded in the summer) and Love's Da Capo were contemporaries of Blonde on Blonde, and grasped the rock epic format. Suddenly rock was too big for its radio britches; Album Oriented Rock (AOR) was born. Not much more time would pass before rock songs comprised full LP sides (a feat already a mainstay of classical music and dating to 1955 in jazz with Charles Mingus' Pithecanthropus Erectus). 

The revolution was not only televised, it was on vinyl. Frank Zappa summed it up: "Freaking out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole."