The Scene: Solid State University, the Music Appreciation 101
Class is finally meeting again after a long hiatus.
Our worthy professor of music enters the room with his long graying hair pulled
back in a ponytail. He looks out at the students over his small wire rim glasses
low on his nose as he walks to the lectern. He seems a little annoyed by
something. Laying down his lecture materials, he speaks.
Well, I'm glad to see you all here today. I must apologize for the long
break in the lecture series, but the university administration saw fit to
use the hall for ROTC recruitment after September Eleventh and they've
released the hall back to us just in time for the new semester. For those
of you who've missed the first three lectures, they are available on the
Net in a complete form, but I will synopsize some of it for you here
today. Any questions?
Yes, what's your name, my dear? Joanne? Okay, what's the question? What
are the URL's for the other lectures? I'll write those out at the end of
the lecture on the board here.
Very well. This lecture concerns the American brand of Art Rock as
produced from about 1967 to 1979. In earlier lectures we went over the
Side Long Song Phenomenon, the major Orchestral Rock compositions and some
of the lesser known English Art Rock groups, especially that branch that I
like to call the Canterbury Hippies. This lecture may seem a lot like the
first lecture about the side long songs because it covers the same period
pretty intensively, but we'll broaden the scope to include music that
wasn't necessarily in the long format and proceed into some of the
mainstream Art Rock that Americans produced in the Seventies.
Question here? Can I give a definition of Art Rock? Damn, I thought I did
that before! Well, the Supreme Court version is "I know it when I hear
it," but seriously, it's a piece of music in the rock idiom that is
appealing more intellectually or musically, that is, not formulated along
pop lines for mass consumption. It's usually somewhat experimental. It
often employs a long structure with several themes like classical music,
though sometimes it's a suite of individual songs. One unifying feature is
that Art Rock almost always features keyboards more than guitar. The
earliest pieces used either Leslie organs or mellotrons, but these
instruments gave way to synthesizers in the early Seventies. The keyboards
rule, though the best Art Rock has them balanced with some of the most
fantastic rock guitar ever recorded. It usually allows each musician the
space for a solo, and it may be part improvised, but it's not to be
confused with the long jams that many American bands indulge in.
Ultimately Art Rock is not so much for dancing as for listening and it
often tells a story or has a philosophical theme to the lyrics, but there
are no firm rules to any of these things.
In America Art Rock is less about bands and more about individual pieces.
In the late Sixties there was an explosion of long compositions by quite a
few bands, each trying to out-psychedelic the other, however very few
bands stayed with Art Rock and really made a career of it. So, a pop
review quiz, what was the piece that caused the explosion of Art Rock more
than any other, starting in 1968? Hands? C'mon, wake up! It was also the
first platinum album. Yes, over there, Iron Butterfly's
That piece was covered pretty well in the first lecture, but it can't be
over emphasized what happened after its release. Suddenly lots of groups
were making Art Rock, hoping for the same kind of platinum success, most
notably the Hippie groups that were charging forth from San Francisco,
including Jefferson Airplane, The Steve Miller Band, The Grateful Dead,
Quicksilver Messenger Service, H.P. Lovecraft and It's A Beautiful Day. FM
radio was into playing all these groups back then, even their long pieces;
I don't think a similar wave of music could happen today.
The biggest of these in the late Sixties was The Jefferson Airplane and
probably the most Art Rock of the bunch. Why? Because they never seemed to
care much about making hits, but strangely they didn't have the keyboard
emphasis that most other Art Rock bands did. The band hit their peak in
Art with After Bathing At Baxters, but there wasn't a hit single on that
album and afterwards they concentrated on shorter pieces. The great
exception to this was Paul Kantner's 1970 solo album Blows Against The
Empire, which features Grace Slick and Jack Cassady of the Airplane in
addition to David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart, David
Freiberg, and others. The title piece was a twenty minute suite that told
the story of hijacking the first starship and contained some fantastic
work, and there were more keyboards than most Airplane albums, including
some fine spacey sound effects that simulated the Starship. The final
piece of the suite, "Have You Seen The Stars Tonight," still ranks as one of
the best single pieces out of the Airplane's whole catalogue and that
suite is arguably the best single side on any of their albums.
The Steve Miller Band also had quite a lot of Art Rock in the early
albums, but especially so on the first, Children Of The Future, which has
quintessential mellotron work and segues through completely on the title
side. It rivals anything the Moody Blues ever did with the mellotron.
Steve still had a flair for Art Rock well into the Seventies on shorter
pieces like "Baby's House" from Your Saving Grace that features Nicky
Hopkins on piano and organ. By the way, Nicky Hopkins, almost wherever he
plays, you can consider the cut Art Rock, even when it's with the Rolling
Question over here, David? Isn't Hopkins from England?
Absolutely he is. But he also shows up in so many fine American pieces and
I really hadn't the proper place to mention him before. He's one of the
all time great session men of the Sixties and Seventies and is probably
most famous for his piano work on several albums by the Rolling Stones,
Jeff Beck and on a lot of The Beatles solo work; but Hopkins was also a
full member of the American band Quicksilver by their third album and gave
much of their later work strong keyboard presence. Check out a cut called
"Edward the Mad Shirt Grinder" or the title track from Shady Grove.
Quicksilver developed the long jam to high art when they had no keyboards,
something the Grateful Dead came to a little later in their development.
Quicksilver then moved into shorter pieces where The Dead became the kings
of the long jam form, all the way into the Nineties.
In the back, a question? Okay, not a question but a challenge? You don't
consider the Grateful Dead an Art Rock group. Well, by and large I would
The Dead used a lot of drugs in their music. Sorry, improvisation in their
music. Just throwing a curve to see if you're awake still! Oh hell, it's
not a curve at all, both statements are true! Anyway Art Rock requires
more structure than The Dead used on most of their performances but some
of the later albums from the Seventies, most notably Blues For Allah and
Terrapin Station, are very good examples of Art Rock. Also you should
include Jerry Garcia's first solo album, Garcia, in this category as it was
very experimental and features quite a lot more synthesizers than any
other Dead album. In their live shows, you're right, their music melted
into this big pot of bubbling hippie jazz. Fun in its own way but not Art
Let's move on. Other notable San Francisco Art Rockers include David La
Flamme's group It's A Beautiful Day whose self titled first album in 1969
yielded an unlikely hit single, "White Bird." The second side of that
album is a dark and mysterious suite composed of three songs, "Bombay
Calling," "Bulgaria" and "Time," which I still rank as an all time
favorite. The whole album is beautifully produced and has lots of really
nice electric violin, a rare treat. Another personal favorite is the group
H.P. Lovecraft whose second album--also with a brilliant title, H.P.
Lovecraft II, ho hum!--has some marvelous psychedelia on it like "Moebius
Trip." Both groups made several records but they never achieved the same
level of inspiration again.
Over here question, hey it's my old buddy Fred! What about the places
besides San Francisco? Well, certainly in LA you had everyone from Frank
Zappa to the Beach Boys. And then in New York the standout is certainly
The Velvet Underground. Why Velvet Underground? Early works like The Gift,
Heroin and Sister Ray are very experimental, non-pop affairs that are very
intellectual but in a confrontational, shocking way and I think they
qualify as Art Rock even though the Velvets weren't much for keyboards and
don't sound at all like the flower power types from the West Coast. Punk
owes a lot more to them than Art Rock.
The Doors in LA certainly had the required keyboards though. Their two
main long pieces, "The End" from their first album and "When The Music's
Over" from their second, both caused a dark revolution that
counterbalanced the hippie anthems of the Bay Area bands. Even "Not To
Touch The Earth," "The Soft Parade" and the more popular "Riders Of The
Storm" from later albums are good examples of Art Rock. Depressing,
Los Angeles also saw groups like Arthur Lee's Love blossom in 1967, way
ahead of Iron Butterfly. Again, if you can, find a copy of Da Capo and
give a listen to "Revelation" on it. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds could be
included in Art Rock as well as some of the later pieces on the later
album Surf's Up. You can't listen to "Feel Flows" and say that's not Art
Rock. You could even call the early Neil Young Buffalo Springfield piece,
"Broken Arrow," a bit of Art. A lesser known Art Rocker would be Tim
Buckley, the father of Jeff Buckley, who had some lovely work before his
untimely death. Though he seems to be catalogued by most people as a
folk-rock artist, listen to "Pleasant Street" from the Hello Goodbye
And you can't talk about LA in this period without mentioning Frank Zappa.
He was always off in his own dimension of course; his albums just don't
have the sweetness that accompany most art rock work and the keyboards
usually are not the focal point of the piece; and yet he put together lots
of longer thematic pieces that deserve note, such as "Lumpy Gravy," "Billy
The Mountain," "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" and later "Gregory Peccary."
Without question his monumental three album Joe's Garage is an Art Rock
masterpiece. Dare we call it rock opera? Its 1979 release marks the last
of Art Rock's Golden Era, even though he also released another long
thematic album, Thing Fish, in the mid-Eighties.
Another personal favorite that came out of LA was the band The United
States of America. They were sort of the opposite of a garage band in that
many members were classically trained and hailed from a music workshop at
UCLA, but all were true Art Rockers and quite experimental. They were
known as electronic pioneers and made great use of early synthesizers,
ring modulators and even repeating samples via tape loops in their spacey,
avant-garde music. They released only one self titled album in 1968, but
its key member, Joe Byrd, went on to record The American Metaphysical
Circus (confusingly, that's also the name of a track on the first record)
as Joe Byrd and The Field Hippies in 1969. Did I say classical? Strangely,
the Field Hippies' album was released on Columbia's Masterworks label,
which normally only featured orchestral music. Both albums still resonate
and sound very modern; I suggest checking out "Cloud Song" from the USA
and "Kalyani," just about the most eerie, psychedelic three minutes ever
recorded, from a short suite called "The Sub-Sylvan Litanies" on the
However the main thrust of American rock music moved away from Art Rock
early in the Seventies with the success of major groups like the Eagles,
and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, plus the Southern Rock of The Allman
Brothers and others. The Allmans certainly took the blues to new heights
but I have to mention that they also had a flair for long inventive jams
that bordered on jazz. The best early example is "In Memory Of Elizabeth
Reed" and an even better example of Southern Art Rock is "High Falls,"
which came along in 1976. Other than those exceptions guitars seemed to
rule the world of rock and quite a few artists who made very artsy music
for their first album moved away from it on later work.
The first half of the Seventies was still before disco really took hold
and some major American bands got their start as Art Rockers. Most notable
in this category is Journey, whose first album was composed mostly of
refugees from Santana and had some nice instrumentals on it. Later when
they added Steve Perry on vocals, they changed to a much more commercial
sound. Lesser known was the LA group Ambrosia who made a very artsy debut
album but later became known for more mainstream pop ballads. The two main
Seventies bands that managed to bang out more than a couple Art Rock
pieces were Styx and Kansas.
Styx was built around the keyboards of Dennis DeYoung and the guitars of
James Young and Tommy Shaw from Chicago. Their self titled first album is
a little hard to find these days but it contains a great suite called
"Movement For The Common Man," which showed a bit more revolutionary edge
to it than the Bay Area bands. By their second album they were already
into short pop ballads. Their keyboard driven sound eventually
took them back to Art Rock and the later albums, The Grand Illusion and
Come See The Paradise, are very, very good. They attracted quite a few fans
and a lot of airplay from album oriented rock radio in the late Seventies
and early Eighties. I liked them a lot but they still kind of left a funny
taste in my mouth. I think mostly I was overexposed to their hit singles
like, "Lady." Later offerings like "Mr. Roboto" further tainted their Art
Also in the early Seventies another major Art Rock outfit started, Kansas.
The key members here were Steve Walsh, lead vocals and keyboards, Robby
Steinhardt on violin and vocals, and Richard Williams on guitar. They had a
great, powerful sound that rivaled many of the British Art Rockers like
Yes or Emerson, Lake and Palmer but maintained a uniqueness due to
Steinhardt's violin work. Their music was quite impressive overall even
though lyrically they weren't really that strong.
Yes, in the back? What exactly do I mean by that? Well I'm sorry if you're
a Kansas fan but let me give you a quick example. Remember "Dust In The
Wind?" You've got to admit a lyric like "I flew ever higher, but I flew
too high" isn't exactly poetic. That's just a minor gripe on my part
though; I will agree they were monster stage performers and a lot fun.
Beginning in 1974 with Kansas and continuing through Song for America,
Masques and Point of Know Return, Kansas ruled album radio and became a
major arena act. Their peak was the album Leftoverture, which contained a
huge single "Carry On My Wayward Son," but also a nice suite called
"Magnum Opus." In a way they suffered from the progressive rock crown they
won and when they tried to make the sound more commercial, they only
succeeded in losing Steve Walsh, whose keyboards which were a big part of
the Kansas sound. The group broke up in the early Eighties, but there have
been a couple of reunion albums featuring most of the members.
Okay, I'm sure I'm remiss in mentioning quite a few groups, but now it's
pop quiz time, class. Who do you think I'm going to present next as the
ultimate master of American Art Rock in the Golden Age?
The Professor looks out at the students over the top of his
granny glasses and is greeted by silence.
Oh come on now! Make a guess! Over here, Boston? Sorry, too commercial for
real Art Rock though they had a few moments. Santana? A better choice and
some of the mid-seventies albums like Borboletta and Welcome are very
jazzy and artsy, but no. Michael Quatro? Wow, now that brings back
memories! Quatro's best album, In Collaboration With The Gods, is a hard
rock take on Art Rock that is a real favorite, but he's kind of a flash in
the pan. No, the guy I'm thinking of made some serious Art Rock happen over
several albums. I think I heard in the back Jimi Hendrix. Well, you could
certainly make a case for him, especially if you listen to "Third Stone
From The Sun" or side 3 of Electric Ladyland which is totally art and has
a lot more than guitar going on, but in spite of his towering talent I
don't usually include him in the first rank of Art Rock groups. Over here,
Happy The Man? Great stuff but hardly anyone heard them. Joanne again,
hello, Joni Mitchell, you say? Hey, don't laugh the rest of you! Have you
ever heard her album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter? That's some serious
Art! She still made some great Art Rock that's uniquely her own right up
through the Eighties and even today. Check out Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm,
Night Ride Home or Turbulent Indigo.
But still you haven't guessed whom I'm thinking of. No, I'm looking for a
guy who put out great solo work, was a major producer and a fantastic
guitarist in his own right and had extremely talented band that made Art
Rock of great density, almost fusion music. Over here, well it's old
reliable Fred! Right, that's the guy! I'm talking about Todd Rundgren.
The quintessential American Art Rocker has got to be Rundgren. In the late
60's he was the fiery young guitarist for the Nazz, a fine rock and roll
outfit from Philadelphia that had three albums, but he also developed into
a fine singer and songwriter. In the early Seventies he penned some
wonderful pop music like "Hello It's Me" and he's certainly gifted at
that, but starting with his solo album A Wizard A True Star in 1973, Todd
blew the lid off Art Rock. Not to be missed is "The International Feel,"
also known as The Wizard Side of that album, which is a long suite about
Art itself. It even makes a reference to the Spanish Surrealist painter
Salvador Dali in one song and covers "Never Never Land" from Peter Pan.
Part of the wizardry came from his cutting edge synthesizer work but in a
larger sense his instrument was the studio and was almost all recorded by
Todd himself. All through the Seventies he kept pushing the limits with
his solo albums like Initiation, which has a long mostly electronic piece
called "A Treatise On Cosmic Fire."
Outside the studio he also mounted some fantastic productions with his
band Utopia, starting in 1974. In Utopia Rundgren stayed on guitar and
gave keyboards over to Roger Powell mostly, but early on there was also
Mary Moogy Klingman and M. Frog Labat. For a time Utopia had all three
keyboardists onstage, but on most of their later albums they were a
quartet composed of Rundgren, Powell, Kasim Sultan on bass and Willie
Wilcox on drums. The peak of Todd's stagecraft was achieved by this lineup
for "Singring And The Glass Guitar" from the Ra album in 1976. However, I
still think the best piece from Utopia is "The Ikon" from their first
album. Monstrously ambitious, over 35 minutes, it goes through several
mostly instrumental movements with impossibly tight work from the whole
band. It has a few lyrics which are all about achieving a state of
enlightenment and wonder, something you could say the music is trying to
demonstrate for you. It also has fabulous synthesizers and guitar work in
it, resembling a lot of work by Yes or Zappa, but it barrels ahead with a
frantic energy all its own. Seriously, you need about six listenings just
to appreciate the thing, but once it has its hooks into you, you won't
Todd also was a talented producer and I think that was his secret way of
funding so many of his adventurous solo albums and keeping Utopia going
without a series of hit singles. He produced albums for several major
acts; by far his largest selling work as producer is Meat Loaf's Bat Out
Of Hell album.
Question over here, does Bat Out Of Hell qualify as Art Rock? It's
borderline in some ways but I'm inclined to include it. There's a lot more
than just hard rock going on there and Todd himself plays on the album
along with most of Utopia. Plus Meat Loaf's voice is positively operatic
and there's a sense of humor inside several tracks. There's a sort of
Bruce Springsteeny feel to a lot of the record. Hits like "Two Out Of
Three Ain't Bad" aren't that artsy but the title track would qualify and I
think "For Crying Out Loud" definitely is.
But that's really a digression in Todd's career. Todd and Utopia throttled
back quite a lot as the Eighties arrived. Later solo albums like The
Tortured Artist Syndrome still have memorable Art Rock milestones but the
mid-Seventies was truly the peak for him. He's remained on the cutting
edge in the world of techno music with keyboards and digital production,
and yes, we won't try to label his lounge remakes of his early work as Art
[Pictured: Laurie Anderson]
Strangely, even as keyboards took center stage in Eighties New Wave Music,
Art Rock faded away to the background. You could argue that the last
American to make a career doing nothing but Art Rock was Laurie Anderson,
who had wonderful solo albums like Mr. Heartbreak and Strange Angels even
up into the Nineties. Recently of course there's Moby but many of his
records alternate beautifully realized Art Rock with raucous punk attacks
and they are a little hard to take as a whole. Likewise Beck and The
Chemical Brothers have produced lots of work from the Art Rock dimension
in addition to their hip-hop hits. Strangely, pop queen Madonna qualifies
with her Ray Of Light album, one of the best American Art Rock albums of
any era, so American Art Rock continues even today, though in a much
different form than it was in its hippie roots and its Golden Age.
That's it for today. Moving forward we still have a discussion of the pure
electronic artists and other synthesizer pioneers from the Golden Age Era,
and this will include people like Vangelis, Beaver and Krause, Terry Riley
and others from both sides of the Atlantic. Then finally we can get back
to a discussion of the big fish from England that really made the Golden
Age golden. And platinum. Class dismissed.
URLs for the earlier installments of The Golden Age Of Art Rock: