Articles » Inside-Out: Electronic Rock - from Electronic Music Review, Vol. 5 (January 1968)

Listening to rock bands has convinced me - and I’m old enough to have teen-aged children of my own - that we are in the process of evolving a new kind of electronic music.

“I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.

When Karlheinz Stockhausen’s long piece, Kontakte, came out years ago on LP, I played it for someone used only to popular music and got the comment it would have been a groovy thing if all the “wandering around” could be cut out. “Wandering around” has long been identified with electronic music. In Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, the composer commented: “The shortest pieces of electronic music seem endless, and within those pieces we feel no time control.” And this time-sense has, along with strange sounds, kept electronic music from a large audience in the past. In the past, popular music - rock - has been the opposite of both “wandering” and strange; it’s always been three minutes of rigid metrics, and unvarying dynamics and instrumentation: loud electric guitars. Yet now, just in the past year, rock groups are beginning to not only wander around, they’re making strange soft sounds as well, and along with these new, and previously unpopular, sounds, has come a time change: in most cases, the strangest sounding cuts on the new rock records are also the longest. At times, even the inviolate Beat is abandoned in a timeless stream of sound.

My friends have lost their way. We’ll be over soon, they said - Now they’ve lost themselves instead.

It took jazz years to lose the beat and slowly disassemble into introspection. The musicians gradually stopped swinging and went inside themselves; solos became longer, and both the melody and the beat ceased to matter much - and when the pulse stopped, the patient died. (You may not agree jazz is dead, that it’s still alive and living in Poland. But for me, it died when it stopped swinging, and most of its young audience left it at that time for rock - including a great many people who took it seriously, and now take rock seriously.) Rock, with its strong beat and direct melody, took over the large young audience left stranded by the musicians’ departure for Infinity. Now something like this is starting to happen to rock - very fast. It still holds its vast audience, but Infinity is beckoning again, this time in the form of “electronic” sound and time. Yet, if anything does succeed in killing rock - and many futile attempts have been made on its life in the past - I think it will turn out to have been an overdose, not of tape echo, but of drugs.

“One pill makes you larger, And one pill makes you small, And the ones that mother gives you Don’t do anything at all.

Five years ago, long before any of this happened, I was asked at the end of a radio interview if I thought there was a similarity between the effect on the listener of a piece of mine (Quatermass, Owl Records, ORLP 8) and LSD. At the time, I thought the question silly; now, I’m not so sure. If I thought about “the listener” at all, it was to assume he’d gradually come around somehow to electronic music, though it would probably take him years to do it; I never thought he would try and catapult himself into it, because I realized some profound changes in aural orientation were involved. But the catapult is at hand:

lf you take the trip tonight, Focus in on the flashing light. Take a step right through the door When it’s done, you’ll ask for more. You’re on the one-and-only home-made time machine.

One of the few guaranteed effects of the most widely used and least exotic hallucinogen, marijuana, is an expansion of time perception - or the loss of it. Time, under the effects of pot, seems to go on and on, and one ceases to be concerned with the lengths of things. A three minute song can go on indefinitely, and the form of the piece is lost in a slow procession of fascinating detail. This detail becomes enlarged; sounds that were before almost inaudible can emerge abruptly from the background and become startlingly clear and_present - and their identity (as instruments), no longer automatic, now seems irrelevant. Also, these now unfamiliar sounds can appear to come from outside the room and behind your head, as well as from the speakers - a kind of super-stereo that is not always pleasant to be in. (In short, an experience not unlike that to be had at a concert of “serious” electronic music. It should be noted now that what I say about these drugs is not an endorsement of them; if you play with your head in this way, you stand a real chance of losing it.) I suspect it is this composite experience, and not the influence of electronic music per se, that has led to the sUddenly accelerated change in rock - and it’s an experience shared in part by both the musicians and their audience:

Why don’t we sing this song all together - Open our heads and let the pictures come.

This new music began life as something called “acid rock”. Acid rock didn’t sound very hallucinated, but the lyrics began to establish the new experience:

Remember what the Dodo said - Feed your head, feed your head.

The progression from acid rock to what is now being called “electronic rock” is particularly evident in the three LP’s so far released by the Jefferson Airplane. Their first LP was regular high-school rock - Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me-Anymore-Baby lyrics, but with more inventive instrumental playing and varied beat. The second LP contained the White Rabbit, which became a hit single. The third, and latest, album is hallucinated in lyric and sound, and time. The new time-sense sounds, in many cases, “electronic”; the whole LP contains only five cuts, while their earlier records had at least five on a side, and it is not always clear where one song ends and another begins. Time goes on, unspiraled, and sometimes unmeasured by any beat at all. One “song” (A Small Package…) is entirely vocal mumbling and giggling in tape echo, moving to and fro between the speakers. (The use of tape echo exemplifies the change in rock: faint tape reverb was common in the first days of rock recording and then abandoned; now it’s reappeared in a more dramatic use, repeating vocal figures into infinity and pushing instrumental sounds into a totally white-noise distortion.) In Two Heads (in this case, a “head” is a regular user of hallucinogens) Grace Slick’s voice splits in two and goes wandering in and out of the echo chambers and back and forth between channels; throughout the piece, everything is in constant motion, including the drummer.

The first electronic rock record I came across was a little-known release by a group called The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. Most of the cuts on this record were nice acid rock, with love-lyrics, but two cuts contained the first (to my knowledge) examples of dis-organized sound in rock music. (I do not include the Mothers of Invention here because their sound is disorganized for purely anarchic reasons - intended as a kind of philosophical insult. In fact, the very existence of this group is an insult, as their live appearances make clear.) In Leiyla and Help, I’m a Rock the guitars were scraped and slammed~ amplifier feedback was built up into sustained howls, and vocal growls, barks, and shrieks completed the din. “Fuzz boxes” were used to , heavily distort the guitar sound into something like a square wave. (The fuzz box is a kind of clipping amplifier, introduced into rock several years ago but not used until recently to achieve total distortion.) This was “performable” electronic rock in that everything could be done live on a stage. Besides the familiar fuzz box, other devices came to be used to change the sound of live performance: a pedal volume-control was used to eliminate the naturally sharp attack of the guitar (the fuzz box also does this) and turn it into an organ-like sound. The Blues Project had a long piece called Flute Thing in which the “electric” flute (a contact microphone was taped to it) worked through an amplifier and a tape-loop device. The flautist controlled the amount of tape echo mix with his feet (there were two pedals, one for volume and one for tape speed) playing a kind of duet with himself and sometimes building the tape echo up into great burbling cascades of sound. (This piece can be heard without electronics on Projections [Verve/Forecast 3008]; without electronics, the piece is half as long and a good deal less rambling.) Pushing guitar amplifier levels up so high that acoustic feedback loops resulted became a favorite addition to the already deafening sound. (“Deafening” = a steady 120 Db, measured in the hall.) The tremolo circuit (a blocking amplifier) of the-guitar amplifier is used in the Rolling Stones’ new LP to shake the singer’s voice throughout the song In Another Land. (This particular use is a striking example of the sudden search for new sounds on the part of rock musicians. The tremolo circuit has been available for years as standard equipment on guitar amplifiers, yet not until this has it been used to affect anything but a guitar.)

“It’s a wild time - I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet.

Most of these new effects are less impressive on records than they are in live performance. (The popular idea that rock groups can’t play a note outside of a recording studio - that they exist only on records - falls apart when you hear them in concert. In most cases, their recordings are a faint carbon of the hair-raising power they can achieve on stage. Rock, if you want to listen to it at all, must be heard clean and loud, and this is hard to achieve outside of a concert. You can, if you’ve never been to one of these concerts, get some idea of the sound by listening to the Clear Light’s Mr. Blue through stereo headphones and a pair of clean 30-watt amplifiers with the volume all the way open; at the same time, try to visualize six rather rancid-looking young men on a distant stage, producing this sound with an apparent minimum of effort. My warning about playing with your head might also apply to this experience; keep your hand on the knob.) As these groups move farther into electronic-tape sound, however, the problem of repeating a recorded performance - of living up to it - on stage will get serious. They may have to include an engineer in the group to play tape-tracks and circuitry. More likely, they will begin to abandon live performance altogether, as the Beatles have done, and then they will exist only on records. I think if this happens, their audience will begin to drift away toward other groups that still can perform their material live. Most reputations are still based on concerts - even in rock - and this is particularly true for new groups getting started; these new groups may be discouraged from developing electronic rock for this reason. To a “Groupie” (a rock fan) the 3-D photograph of Mick Jagger which adorns the cover of the new Stones album just can’t generate the same hysteria as being there - with Him! in the same place! - even if the same place is Shea Stadium. And it’s the Groupies, not the intellectuals (who, though they take rock seriously, prefer not to have to look at Mick Jagger if they can possibly avoid it) who have been keeping rock alive through all the attacks it has sustained.

The Beatles have reached the stage where they can exist only on records (and in films and TV) and have to, because their influential ideas are now so complex they are largely unperformable. Sgt. Pepper, their first “acid” LP, has been called a Complete Trip - yet I find in it little use of what could be called truly hallucinated sound, certainly not the kind of sound in either the Airplane’s or the Stones LP’s which followed and were largely influenced by it. A Day in the Life ends the LP with the line “I’d love to turn you on” but the turning-on is done with straight, though unprecedentedly complex, orchestration and tracking (building a piece like a layer cake on eight or sixteen track tape). This song has a Wozzeckian full orchestra effect in it which sounds electronic, but isn’t. What this LP did do was to present the work of a rock group - work usually divided up into singles - as a total experience. It’s a vast (and expensive) show, a concert for loudspeakers.

The Beatles’ newest LP, Magical Mystery Tour, has cuts in it that do use tape-sound. In Flying and Blue Jay Way backwards vocal and instrumental tape passages are used, and in Blue Jay Way everything is in constant phase-shift. In I Am the Walrus a complicated superheterodyne-radio-tuning cacophony ends the piece, full of inaudible voice fragments and other unidentified sounds. This ending din is exactly the sort of thing that can become unaccountably interesting under pot; without that, it remains another example of creeping infinity.

An attempt to play infinity-rock, while keeping the beat, is Third Stone from the Sun, a long and rambling instrumental on Jimi Hendrix’s LP that uses backwards-tape rhythm and half-speed voices growling a cosmic-air-to-ground communications “lyric”. This LP has the most terrifying fuzz I’ve ever heard; the guitar sound is completely destroyed by it. This kind of fuzz is also responsible for a powerful percussion sound in the Clear Light’s Mr. Blue - it sounds like a five-foot coiled steel spring being hit with an axe, instead of the single guitar note it is. The Beach Boys’ new LP incorporates a Theremin and tape speed acceleration, yet the overall sound of this album (despite its Middle-Earth cover) is, to my mind, more Disneyland than Hobbit-land. Yet this LP represents a schoolgirl’s-world shaking change in sound for the Beach Boys. Similarly, the Pearls Before Swine LP has a properly hallucinated cover (by Hieronymus Bosch) but the sound inside is straight (though varied, in the acid style. One nice effect is the lead singer’s speech impediment). A sine-wave oscillator does appear in one cut, but only to dit-dah out a four-letter synonym for passionate cohabitation in Morse code. The Doors’ new LP has one cut, Horse Latitudes, that has no beat and no melody, being entirely a mad babble of voices that flutter rapidly back and forth between speakers; the declaimed lyric is an example of what heads would call a “bummer”. (Another bad-trip lyric is in the Airplane’s Rejoyce which refers, I assume, to a famous acid incident with: “I’ve got his arm. I’ve got his arm. I’ve had it for weeks.” This sort of thing may indicate that the romance with drugs is about over.)

Finally, the Stones’ new LP: probably the most extreme example to date of Infinity-Through-Electronics (a correlation to the heads’ Better Living Through Chemistry). This LP was influenced inside and out by Sgt. Pepper. The eye-wrenching cover has the costumed group seated in an out-of-focus 3-D landscape, with Beatles’ faces hidden in the Hobbit-trees. The record, like Sgt. Pepper, is a never-to-be-performed concert, involving complex orchestration and tracking. Voices mumble an introduction to one song; a prepared piano (coat-hangers on the strings), running both forwards and backwards, introduces 2000 Light Years from Home, and during the vocal of this song, phrases are run backwards and an oscillator burbles up and down in variable-speed tape echo; one long cut is a kind of add-a-part chaos (Sing This All Together - See What Happens); and the last cut on the first side is entirely electronic in both sound and organization: waves of white noise washing up on the label.

Most of the electronic rock I’ve heard so far recalls the musique concrète of the fifties. (The all-electronic cut on the Stones’ LP, for instance, is a slowed-down Christmas carol.) There is, as yet, little evidence of sophisticated generation or control of sound. There are a few efforts being made outside of rock to totally synthesize the rock sound, but none of these has so far surfaced in LP’s, and the few I’ve heard, on tape, couldn’t be said to swing. The curiously lumpy, mechanical beat recalls the strained effort of the RCA Synthesizer to play Blue Skies. (It conjures up a picture of a metal man you put a quarter into and his eyes light up, and after much clanking a little metal disc comes out with your name stamped on it.) A partial attempt at synthesis has appeared on LP, produced by a non-rock duo named Perrey-Kingsley, but they depend on a straight (and uninspired) rhythm section of bass and drums for an inflexible beat, and the music, despite the funny sounds, is as rigid as the earliest three-minute rock. The whole effect sounds as forced as the titles (Jungle Blues from Jupiter; Computer in Love) and as square. Somehow, it seems to me, totally electronic rock will have to swing on its ~ new terms, and not as an imitative thing, as this is.

So far as I know, no one from the “serious” electronic discipline has ever worked with these groups. (I hear that some work is going on at Columbia-Princeton Downtown [The Electric Circus] involving Morton Subotnick, and some of this work surfaced in the Circus’s Electric Christmas celebration at Carnegie Hall last year. But since the electronic work was accompanied by an eye-splitting Walpurgis light show of multiple strobes, it was hard to know at the time what the music was doing on its own. I have the feeling, from what I heard at this concert, and from Subotnick’s LP, that he may be the first to really pull it off.) The unassisted rock groups seem to be in the process of finding it out all over again for themselves, with the inevitable awkwardnesses. But they’re moving fast, and they are unhampered by the lack of money for time and equipment that has plagued electronic composers in the past. (A single cut on the Beach Boys’ LP cost, in studio bookings alone, the equivalent of a fully-equipped electronic music studio for a school.) These groups now book recording studios for months at a time - in effect, they are “playing” the studio, and they’re bound to come upon all the devices they need to get the sound they want. Whether or not this ultimate sound will be all electronic, or whether they’ll begin to find their huge audience falling behind them and retreat to the original Beat, abandoning everything they’ve picked up on in the past year - or trip on into Infinity to join the jazz musicians of the past - seems to depend on how turned-on they, and their audience, can remain as both the government and old age move in on them. They have not yet developed a self-sustaining form, as serious electronic music is; right now they’re running on an extra-musical fuel, a common experience that faces extinction by law.

Drugs began this new trip for rock, and enriched it by forcing open a lot of plugged young ears, resulting in new ideas; and electronics furnished the new sounds to express these new ideas. I don’t know if this new rock can survive the inevitable withdrawal; I do know it can’t survive the withdrawal of its audience (unUke serious electronic music, which has survived two decades with very little audience at all). These groups are playing for the heads - not, as in the past, the feet - of their audience, and it may be I’m underestimating all those heads. I hope so. I’ve liked rock for a long time, and I think the introduction of electronics into it could, by itself, power a great new popular music. I don’t think anybody’s truly heard this new music yet, because nobody’s succeeded yet in making a sustained original electronic rock that swings on its own terms, and not on those of either the infinity-gropers or the electronic-pop paste-up people who are doing it now. That it has to swing, I have no doubt. Wandering around inside a piece of music is what I listen to (and make) electronic music for, and getting lost inside is part of the joy of it, because there’s enough time in the form to find my way out again. But rock is short pieces of time, and a clear road ahead, and I like it for that. If electronics can build a yellow rock road (I wonder why no one has used the Oz books for rock lyrics. and group names, like “Toto and the Munchkins ll ) that’s even better - but no detours; Stockhausen Builds Better Detours.