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Rock and Roll Experimentation: 10 of the Strangest Musical Compositions Part 1, The Past
Rock and roll was originally a blend of styles like country, jazz, blues, R & B and other styles so experimentation is part of the game. Over the years, musicians have pushed the boundaries to expand the genre beyond what probably anyone thought possible. There are lots of great songs along the way through rock and roll history, but every so often you hear a track that is a little avant garde when compared to some of the others of it's time. Maybe avant garde is not the correct term, but more experimental, something beyond the reaches of what typically defines a musical composition... something that might sound a little strange on the first listen. There have been plenty of these tracks throughout history from plenty of well known bands. They're quite a testament to a groups desire to continue to look for new directions to take their music and even new ways to make music. These explorations are sometimes more successful than others, but they're always interesting to hear.
This two day document is a tribute to some of the stranger musical compositions from across rock history starting with 5 from before I was born (aka, the past), and concluding with 5 from after I was born (aka the present). There have been lots of more experimental songs over the years, these are just a few of my personal favorites. Some are more experimental sound tracks than songs, used as introductions or simply to add to the concept/color of the album, but others border on the truly absurd. This is just a small cross section of the weirdness of rock and roll and I'm sure each person will have a few they could add to the list.
I noticed as I picked these 10 though, that many are from bands/artists I've already written about for the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll before. I guess I just have a penchant for artists who occasionally produce odd experimental compositions... go figure.
1: The Stooges - "LA Blues" from Fun House
After the invention of the electric guitar and amplifier with it's ability to create such searing tones and scorching feedback, it was surely only a matter of time before someone utilized it to it's full noisy potential. A lot of artists have experimented with varying degrees of noise rock, but only a few can match the Stooges for sheer explosive ferocity. "La Blues" is the prime example of this as it's five minutes of screeching, screaming and wailing... and not just on guitar, as the addition of saxophone licks adds that touch of acid jazz and Iggy Pop's vocals sound like they were ripped from his throat. It can be downright difficult to listen to, but at the same time it's extremely powerful in that you can almost see the band trashing the stage and smashing everything to bits to close the show. I find this actually to be one of the more successful bits of noise rock as it seems to sum up all the raw energy that makes the Stooges the band they are, without having an actual song to confuse the message in any way. You could say it's distilled down to it's essential emotions and that makes for a powerful artistic statement. Whether it's good listening is another thing all together.
2: The Velvet Underground - "The Gift" from White Light/White Heat
Like the Stooges, the Velvet Underground is also a band that dabbled in noise rock. That's one thing, but eight minute stories told in an almost deadpan over a quasi visceral backing track is something else entirely. "The Gift" really surprised me when I first listened to this album through. The combination of the backing track and the tone of the spoken word vocals is almost hypnotic, sort of drawing you into the story as it sort of pulses along. And then there is the story itself. Based around the idea of somewhat naive young man who misses his "girlfriend"... she's is away at school and obviously has moved on... and decides to mail himself to her. There's a sense of detail in the telling that adds a lot of depth and actually creates something of a lifelike scenario while still sounding pretty fictional. As the story progresses it isn't overtly obvious where things are going, but perhaps the primal rhythm is a bit appropriate for a tale that ends with the a pair of sheet metal shears embedded in the young man's head as he still sits within the box he was mailed in. A successful artistic and social commentary maybe, it is pretty chilling, especially with the inclusion of a thump as those shears hit home. It certainly isn't a track I listen to for recreation, but I'll leave each listener to judge the actual success and whether it seems worth listening to more than once.
3: Jimi Hendrix - "EXP" from Axis: Bold as Love
Introductory song tracks can be quite strange as a whole, especially in the case of concept albums. I'd consider this one to be one of the strange ones from that lot and this time period. Short and sweet, it features an interview with Mr. Hendrix playing the role of an alien (yeah, like from outer space and everything), and then the echoing sounds of the flying saucer whipping around the stereo image for the remainder of the nearly two minute track. Sure, it's a great example of how well Jimi could manipulate his guitar, creating all that swirling spaceship noise, but it doesn't really do much for me in terms of setting up the album, conceptually or otherwise. In fact, I find the album pretty grounded actually... or maybe that's the point? The use of stereo panning does make listening with headphones an interesting experience though as everything seems to circle around the head of the listener. It's a great use of 3D stereo techniques and interesting enough to keep me focused for at least half the song, but after that I'm probably skipping ahead. Still worth checking out though if you've never heard it as it does show a slightly different side of compositional experimentation from Hendrix than the style most often associated with him.
4: The Beatles - "Revolution 9" from The Beatles aka "The White Album"
Perhaps the quintessential experimental track and serving as a cerebral climax to what is a pretty stripped down album, "Revolution 9" is the ultimate creative conclusion to not only the song it started as, but also other Beatles tracks like "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "A Day in the Life". With surges of various layers of sound ranging from orchestral to various vocals to simple tone based textures, each with appropriate stereo effects, and all of it laced with that same, slightly creepy "Number Nine... Number Nine... Number Nine..." it's actually quite a haunting and disturbing track. A musical acid trip is a good description although whether it's a good trip or a bad one is not necessarily apparent. I'm actually really fond of this track as it does create quite an effective sonic landscape where lots of interesting things are going one, conjuring all sorts of images. Once again headphones are the way to go and I'd also suggest a dark room as the different surges of sound can be quite powerful and disorienting when you don't have other senses to ground you. Definitely one of the more interesting Beatles tracks, but whether regular people (not artistic music freaks like me) find it as compelling is debatable. To each their own.
5: Pink Floyd - "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict" from Umma Gumma
Of the ten songs that I picked for this piece on the stranger side of rock and roll composition, this song is my absolute favorite. For the longest time I thought of Pink Floyd as the "Dark Side of the Moon" era band. Later when I came to really investigate their music, of course I discovered the massive contributions of Syd Barrett and how the band developed over the years. Eventually I investigated the album that has this composition is on. Written by Roger Waters, the title of the track says just about everything. It is five minutes made up almost exclusively of animal noises, noises that sound like animal noises and some sparse vocals with a heavy accent that also sound a bit animalistic, creating a very organic composition completely unlike anything else. There are moments that just barely, ever so slightly hint at some of sonic layers that would be found on later albums, but overall it's just a weird track that on first listen sounds quite absurd and even humorous. If you've ever wanted to hear a series of chipmunks chitter and chatter in rhythmic time, then this the track for you. Overall, this is a pretty strange album and Pink Floyd is one of the more experimental bands, but when it comes to strange, I don't think anything compares to the glory that is "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict." Take a listen... it's deep.
Bonus: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
I'd was going to include a track from the Mothers of Invention for this list as I find the music of Mr. Zappa quite interesting, but I would also categorize it as a bit strange. In trying to pick a track though, I was having some difficulties and felt that it was best to let the music speak for itself. What's interesting about Zappa is that some tracks are almost straight forward rock and roll with just a bit of a progressive edge and a heavy dose of absurdist humor and social comment. Others are trippy experimental pieces full of strange sounds. Others still are heavily compositional with arrangements that border or symphonic. It's quite a wide gamut of "strange" music, but when you really delve into it, it's also intelligent and well crafted artistically, as well as being quite amusing to listen to if you like darker humor. Like I said, I'll let the music speak for itself, so next time you're looking for some music that is NOT like the norm, then check out Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. By comparison some of their tracks make a few of the ones I've mentioned here sound a little tame, (although not the Floyd track, that one is in a class of it's own).
This concludes part one of Rock and Roll Experimentation: 10 of the Strangest Musical Compositions. Read part two here: Rock and Roll Experimentation: 10 of the Strangest Musical Compositions Part 2, The Present