Epic Rock, Part One: Take Back Your Attention Span in 2014

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Happy New Year from Reel and Rock!

Here’s a preview of a feature that will begin on a regular basis sometime next month. The next few posts will be dedicated to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Beatles first arrival in America, an epochal turning point in the history of youth culture. At the rate the world spins in our hyper-technologized society, I find now more than ever the need to be lifted up and over it by the transformative power of music. Here are the first three entries in my survey of great rock tunes of over ten minutes in length, with the quixotic suggestion that they be listened to without distraction, a nearly lost art that I will expound upon in future entries.

“The Little House I Used to Live In”—Mothers of Invention (1969, 18:42)

A studious contrast to the class-clownish title of the album on which it was placed (“Burnt Weeny Sandwich”), this elegantly constructed jazz-rock piece was a big coming out party for Frank Zappa as a serious composer and bandleader. After the improv piano prelude by Ian Underwood, the group falls in abruptly with a syncopated groove of a type that was fast becoming a Zappa trademark: somewhat whimsical and marked by rigorous playing (including some stretches in 11/8 time). “Little House” is such a rewarding piece because funny-guy Frank checks his tendency to rely on pastiche and gives the work (which deftly alternates live and studio segments) a lyrical flow throughout, with emphatic jamming trading off with drifting interludes to keep things interesting. Violinist Sugar Cane Harris gets a lot of solo time and makes the most of it, while Zappa checks in with a great compact guitar lead, one foot heavy on the wah-wah pedal. A “sunburst” effect (using harpsichord, xylophone, flute and clarinet) leads to the finale, with Zappa sitting at the organ for a wild solo while the Mothers blaze away in a tempo that is barely comprehensible. Adventurous stuff for an adventurous time.

“Walk on By”—Isaac Hayes (1969, 12:00)
Though in later years he was better known as the animated character Chef on “South Park”, the late great Isaac Hayes will go down in pop history for the way he emerged from the Memphis recording scene in the late Sixties to play a huge role in the development of modern soul music. The writer-arranger-keyboardist for Stax Records may have been pictured in a suit and top hat on his 1967 debut solo LP, but by the follow-up it was a whole new ball of wax. The cover photo of “Hot Buttered Soul” was a high-angle shot that looked down on Ike’s imposing chrome dome while his bare torso sported an enormous gold chain. This guy was a player and he wasted no time in revolutionizing R&B in a way not unlike the way rock’s horizons were expanding in the psychedelic era. His epic funkification of “Walk on By”, that classic slice of Bert Bacharach-Hal David melancholia, kicked off the album. Backed by the legendary Bar-Kays and summoning all his prodigious arranging skills, the track sweeps in on a bed of strings and some hot, Southern-fried lead guitar by Michael Toles, which is soon sent thru some trippy stereo-panning effects. Flutes and female backing singers join with the steady pulse of the rhythm section as Hayes delivers the song in the deep, intimate voice soon to be world famous. What sounds like a conventional fadeout starts at the seven-minute mark and rides into the sunset with a magnificent coda longer than most singles of the time, with Toles’ soloing reaching fever pitch and Hayes’ organ glissandos adding to the building excitement. Over the course of the next several albums, Hayes would record many other tracks of similar or even greater length (witness the 18 minutes of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on side two of HBS) but none ever quite matched the grandeur of this.

“Star Storm”—UFO (1971, 18:54)
Until recently, I’ve only known UFO as those long-serving British thumpers who would occasionally turn up on a mix tape or compilation with an entertaining four-minute blast like “Doctor Doctor” or “Lights Out.” But classic rock’s golden period (roughly the mid-60s to the mid-70s) is the gift that keeps on giving and I recently found out about the group’s early, more psychedelic phase when Mick Bolton was the guitarist. Their second LP, “UFO 2: Flying” was aptly sub-titled “One Hour Space Rock.” That’s a lot to squeeze onto a single album and “Star Storm” wasn’t even the longest track, it’s nineteen minutes falling short of the 26-minute trajectory of the title track. But I’ll take this one for its way-out wayfaring, a period high point (as it were) in the annals of power-trio acid rock. The track begins and concludes with the husky vocals of mainstay lead singer Phil Mogg but it’s really all about Bolton leading the rhythm section (bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker) through a sci-fi wonderland that you’ll be too happy to get lost in. Bolton puts his axe through all its paces and then some, with bracing bluesy soloing alternating with sections that run his instrument through a panoply of processed effects.

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