Wednesday, July 21, 2010

We Be Jammin'

The first set on Stuck in the Psychedelic Era this week is just two looooong jams. In fact, one of those is (according to some sources) the original template for all those long album cuts that feature solos by all the band members (think In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida here). To get you in the mood I'm presenting here a brief history of improvisational rock and roll.

The idea of a jam session is as old as music itself. In all likelyhood, Ook, Mog and Ugar found themselves taking turns strutting their stuff on the sticks, bones and skins they used to make their own kind of music as a way to pass the evening while digesting the day's hunt in the warmth of the cave. As music got more sophisticated, musicians became more specialized, and the concept of a composer actually writing a piece before performing it came into being. Over the millenia this would lead to the existence of two distinct musical traditions: one an increasingly complex written form primarily intended for the upper classes, the other more akin to an oral tradition shared by the common folk. In the West, those traditions would come to be called classical and folk music, although over time there would occassionally be instances of written folk songs (Stephen Foster's tunes, for example) and classical variations on folk music (Dvorjak's Slavic Dances, among others). The development of the player piano in the 19th century would further blur the lines, and by the end of the century a sub-genre of composed popular music coming from New York's Tin Pan Alley was flourishing in vaudeville houses across the US.

Then came the 20th century. For the first time in history it was possible to make a recording of music as it was being played. At first this new (and expensive) technology was used purely to record the more highbrow classical music, but as the playback equipment became more affordable, folk songs begin to appear on record as well. Because of time limitations (about three and a half minutes per side of a standard 10" 78 RPM record, even less for the short-lived cylinder recordings that Thomas Edison used) classical music, which tended to favor long complex works, found itself at a distinct disadvantage. In the US a new form of folk music called jazz swept the nation, starting in New Orleans, then spreading to the Northern cities, swallowing up Tin Pan Alley in the process. By the end of the 1920s jazz was the dominant form of recorded music in the US.

As jazz became more popular, it also became more structured, with arrangers taking a more prominent role throughout the 30s and on into the World War II years. This in turn led many of the more creative jazz musicians to start meeting after hours for informal jam sessions, where they could try out new ideas in an unrestricted environment. Many of these jam sessions would go on for hours, and usually would only be heard by a handful of fellow musicians. Actually recording one of these sessions, though, was not technically feasible until the end of WWII, when American GIs taking control of German-held radio stations discovered a new technology that would revolutionize the recording industry: recording tape.

Unlike 78 RPM records, reel-to-reel tapes could hold up to an hour's worth of material and had much higher fidelity. As the technology became better understood, improvements in both equipment and the tape itself would extend the amount of continuous recording time to as much as two hours without having to change reels. At the same time, new competing technologies from the owners of the two leading record labels, RCA and CBS, would soon make the 78 RPM record obsolete: the 7" 45 RPM single song record and the 33 1/3 RPM Long Play (LP) record.

The 45 RPM record was created to replace the 78 RPM records that had been the standard since the early days of recording. Unlike the 78s, which were made of a brittle material known as shellac that would shatter when dropped, 45s were made of vinyl and were unbreakable with normal use. The 45 RPM record, however, had the same time limitations that the 78 did; about 3-4 minutes per side, although eventually that was expanded to about seven minutes for an Extended Play (EP) version. LPs, which were also made of vinyl, played at a slower speed and were larger than 45s, coming in both 10" and 12" sizes. Both formats took advantage of the ability to first record and edit pieces on reel-to-reel tape before committing the final recording to vinyl.

As with the first records, LPs at first were used for classical music, which benefited greatly from the longer playing times (up to 25 minutes per side for a 12" LP) and higher fidelity. Once again, though, as the price of playback equipment came down, more and more popular recordings found their way onto LP vinyl. Naturally, the existing popular music industry favored the 45, as it was essentially in the same format that the industry had built itself around over the years. The more creative jazz musicians, however, saw the LP as a medium that could hold the longer improvisational pieces they were concocting during those late-night jam sessions. This led to the rise of the cool jazz movement of the 1950s, with albums having only two or three tracks per side, averaging anywhere from 6-10 minutes per track.

By 1967, such extended tracks were fairly common on jazz albums, but had only been tried a couple of times by rock bands. One of the best known early examples is a track called "Going Home" by the Rolling Stones, which had appeared on their 1966 album Aftermath. Years later in an interview, Arthur Lee would claim that the Stones were inspired when they caught Love in a club in L.A. playing "Revelation," a piece designed specifically to give individual band members a chance to strut their stuff, but that since Aftermath came out before Da Capo, Love got accused of ripping off the Stones when in reality it was the other way around. Another L.A. band, the Seeds, had a similar extended track featured on their second album, A Web of Sound, which came out either in late 1966 or early 1967, depending on the reference source.

Two bands that were, strictly speaking, electric blues bands rather than rock bands also recorded extended improvisational tracks in 1966: the New York-based Blues Project had "Two Trains Running" and "Flute Thing" on their album Projections, while the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded the classic East-West album, featuring both the title track and a long version of Cannonball Adderly's "Work Song."

The one thing that all of these early tracks had in common was that they were recorded by existing bands. The idea of members of different bands coming together to record improvisational pieces would have to wait until 1968. Which is where this week's show begins.

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