Monday, 22 April 2013

Freak Out! In praise of Improv

© David Mainwood

Rock Improvisation?

OK. Maybe it could sound like an awful racket but what's wrong with that? It's rock music. It's supposed to be rowdy. Back before rock became predictable corporate big business it was quite often the done thing for bands to alienate the more conservative sections of their mainstream audience by dropping all pretense of form or melody and heading off into full ahead warp drive jamming mode - occasionally for quite long periods of time.

Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, even The Pretty Things (see below)... All would embrace improv in some way during live performances. After all they were a generation schooled on blues and jazz experimentation and progression.

So bands might take off on an extended 12 bar riff and the guitarist might show off a bit. However, if you were really lucky, like on say Hendrix's Voodoo Chile (long version) on Electric Ladyland or the Grateful Dead's Dark Star, the musicians would listen to and communicate with each other in order to develop a theme or an idea and the results would be truly spectacular. Of course they weren't just making it all up as they went along. There was structure but space was left for the musicians to explore the variations that could be thrown up by the riffs and changes within the song. There was a rough map. But you don't always have to take the same route to get to where you're going do you?

In a lot of cases the results may not have been so successful but whatever happened to that spirit of adventure? By the 1980s a kind of musical post-punk puritanism held sway over the UK indie scene and with it came the belief that guitar solos were the work of the devil and that any kind of jamming was mere ego wanking. The great John Peel may even been partly responsable for this as his radio show had a massive influence on the 80s indie scene in the UK and by then Peel was not a great fan of this somewhat lengthier form of musical adventure.

This, I think, was a form of musical puritanism and it held sway over the UK indie movement for too long. As a result UK rock became predictable, safe and rather backward looking. Puritan indeed. If the UK wasn't making guitarists of the stature of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Peter Green anymore, that's why.

In the 90s the US had a jam band scene of whom Phish were probably the most successful but in comparison with some of the bands featured below they seemed a little anodyne to me.

So, anyway, here are a few of my favourite examples of bands who abandoned all pretence of musical health and safety, took a risk and jumped over the edge into the improv ether and just occasionally found true inspiration...

The Pretty Things - Why?
Let's start off on reasonably safe ground with the Pretty Things doing a version of the Byrds' Why in Germany in 1969. Surprisingly for a band best known for its SF Sorrow rock opera the Pretty Things also liked a bit of a jam. R'n'B colleagues the Yardbirds were probably the band that most popularized the idea of bashing a few chords and letting the lead guitarist wail over screeching feedback when they let Jeff Beck loose on their I'm A Man single. The Who did something similar on Anyway Anyhow Anywhere where the guitar solo section is basically freeform noise and feedback. And they got that into the top 10! 
Why has a certain droning element which lends itself to extended freak-outs and here the Pretties take it all the way.

The Butterfield Blues Band Live at the Whisky A Go-Go, Hollywood California,1966
A breathtaking version of East / West. One of the first and greatest rock improvised pieces of the 1960s. According to writer Joel Selvin they had a massive influence on the direction San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane would take after playing there in late 1965.

The Soft Machine live on Dutch(?) TV in 1967 with Kevin Ayers. One of the geat jazz influenced improv bands of the late 60s and probably the best UK exponents of the art. They quite often just improvised their way through whole sets.

Cream - NSU at the Grande Ballroom, Detroit, October 15th 1967.
Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were musicians raised on jazz. Cream had ruled the roost in the UK in 1966 but by now were being upstaged by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Eric Clapton had to raise his game to respond. Here he plays some of the most inspired music of his career. This is Cream at their competitive and thunderous best. Hold tight...

Jimi Hendrix - Red House live at the San Diego Sports Arena, May 24, 1969.
One of Hendrix's best ever performances and, for me, easily the best version of this song. The solo has structure and develops. Hendrix played this at every show and there may be hundreds of versions of this song so it would have been easy for him to churn out the crowd pleasing cliches but he didn't. He followed the muse and, jazzy interludings and all, the execution here is superb. Hendrix has the chops and the ideas. He knows what he wants and by golly he nails it.

Tangerine Dream Bath Tube Session
Filmed 1969 in the Ruins near Potsdamer Platz this is very early pre-synth Tangerine Dream when they still used guitars and is really quite spectacular. There is no song at all just extended jamming. This is really freeform rock. Musical spontaneous combustion. 1-2-3-go! And the first one to the end is the winner.

The Grateful Dead - The Eleven 
October 12, 1968 at the Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco, California.

This is it. Stunning. Sublime. The finest rock jamming you'll hear. Played in an 11/8 time signature hence its title. It's like speeding down the motorway at night with no brakes. Scary but veryf exhilarating. Listen to those drummers! Jerry Garcia really swings. What is holding this together? I get goosebumps when I listen to this.

This piece should really be listened to within the context of the 40 minute non-stop Dark Star > St Stephen > The Eleven > Death Don't Have No Mercy set that the Dead regularly played at this time. Check out the full show here

The Dead were the real masters of improvisation in the late 60s. They played on acid and believed in the egoless concept of a musical "group mind" which would direct the flow of the music. In fact the band would romp their way through some pretty wild and intense music around 1968 - 69 and it begs the question that, although performed with electric guitars and drums, given the complexities, is this still rock music or the did the Dead come up with something else entirely?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent list but no Barrett-era Pink Floyd (not that there's all that much available video-wise apart from Interstellar Overdrive)? The Tangerine Dream piece owes a lot to Syd & Co.