Friday, January 23, 2009

Thoughts On Pinkoyd Nicelp

There’s no question that the introduction of the 12-inch LP (“long-playing” record) by Columbia in 1948 profoundly transformed music consumption and reception. Without the LP, would jazz musicians such as John Coltrane have been compelled to improvise at such lengths? Without the LP, would the Beatles have ceased to perform live—or perhaps more importantly, would they have made SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND? Released in the United States on 2 June 1967, SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND not only altered the way rock bands approached recording, but also altered what they wanted to record: Nick Mason, in Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd (2004) confirms this claim.

As is well known, Pink Floyd was recording THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released two months after Sgt. Peppers) at Abbey Road’s Studio Three at the same time as the Beatles’ were recording the Sgt. Pepper’s album in Studio Two. The link between the two bands is Norman Smith, the EMI staff member who was the engineer on the all the Beatles albums up through RUBBER SOUL (1965), and was the producer of Pink Floyd’s first album. Nick Mason writes:

On the other, more structured songs, Norman was able to bring his production skills to bear, adding arrangements and harmonies and making use of the effects that could be engineered through the mixing desk and outboard equipment. He also helped to reveal all the possibilities contained in Abbey Road’s collection of instruments and sound effects. Once we realised their potential we quickly started introducing all kinds of extraneous elements, from the radio voice cutting into ‘Astronomy Domine’ to the clocks on the outro of ‘Bike’. This flirtation with ‘musique concrète’ was by no means unique—George ‘Shadow’ Morton had already used a motorbike on the Shangri-Las’ ‘The Lead Of The Pack’—but it was a relative novelty at the time, and from then on became a regular element in our creative process.

Since Norman had worked with the Beatles it was predictable that at some stage of the recording we would get an audience with their eminences…. We were ushered into Studio 2, where the Fab Four were busy recording ‘Lovely Rita’. The music sounded wonderful, and incredibly professional, but, in the same way we survived the worst of our gigs, we were enthused rather than completely broken by the experience. (2005 paperback edition, 83)

As an instance of so-called psychedelic rock—a term describing both a manner of recording as well as a particular use of non-linear amplification techniques such as distortion and reverb—THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN represents one reaction to changed recording practices exemplified by SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. But another reaction, or another direction, can be seen in a band that also represents the altered way bands were putting their ideas on record, as well as the very ideas themselves—The Nice, from which emerged Keith Emerson, later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP).

The link between The Nice and Pink Floyd is guitarist David O’List, who stood in for Syd Barrett one time in 1967. Andrew Loog Oldham assembled the Nice in May 1967 to support the soul singer P. P. Arnold. The band performed with Arnold for the next few months, but by August the band’s first drummer, Ian Hague, was replaced by the jazz-influenced Brian Davison, and soon after The Nice split from Arnold, choosing to pursue a musical direction consisting of longer, extended arrangements such as “Rondo” (a version of Dave Brubeck’s 1959 “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” probably encouraged by Davison) and Leonard Bernstein’s “America” (probably encouraged by Keith Emerson; see the video here).

The Nice’s first album, THE THOUGHTS OF EMERLIST DAVJACK, was recorded the autumn of 1967 and released in the UK late that same year. David O’List bailed out during the recording of The Nice’s second album in 1968, and the band continued on as a trio. Keith Emerson, subsequently, redefined the role of keyboard instruments in rock music. He soon embraced the Moog synthesizer, helping popularize that particular technology to the audiences of the time.

What I’ve outlined are two divergent paths, two responses in the form of two contemporaneous albums, to the altered approach to recording initiated by the Beatles landmark album (I’m fully aware that the rock critical establishment is divided in its evaluation of the Beatles’ album—that’s not my point). The sound of neither album could be replicated for live audiences, a point that Mason acknowledges in his discussion of THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN that I cited above (see his discussion prior to the portion I quoted above, pp. 82-83). One album is an example of psychedelic rock, while the other is an example of so-called progressive rock.

The difference between them can be understood, I think, in how the different bands approached sonic space: psychedelia is an attempt to reproduce interior (“psychic”) space, while progressive rock attempts to expand exterior (concert hall) space—that is, the imaginary spaces where music takes place. The paradox, of course, is that both forms of music derive from medieval cathedrals, the sonic properties of which the members of both bands, The Nice and Pink Floyd, were fully aware. Psychedelic rock is a simulacrum, an attempt to recreate the echoes and reverberations of medieval cathedrals that encourage transcendent experience (which is why a certain subgenre of psychedelic rock is referred to as “space rock”). In contrast, progressive rock requires the arena or coliseum, an immense sonic space (also allowed by the medieval cathedral) that demands a band to play loud and hence discourages introspection and reflection, but rather encourages solidarity with the mass, in which one’s individuality is effaced. Perhaps this is why some rock critics associate certain forms of progressive rock with Fascism.


Bent said...

Methinks I saw a pop aphorism embedded in the first sentence of the last paragraph of this excellent piece....

Davy O'List said...

see the man live and read about the new group stemming from The Nice and Pink Floyd in 2009, Second Thoughts