by Jon Hunt
There is not, nor has there ever been, a musical genre more maligned than hippie rock*. Here, let me prove it to you. What do you think of when I bring up, say….Phish?
WAIT!! Don’t go. Seriously. I feel you reaching for the “back” button on your browser from here. I promise not to write about Phish.** I promise this article is about other stuff. But you get my point.
There’s something about hippie rock that creates an immediate visceral reaction in people. Part of it, of course, is that so much of it is complete horseshit. I’m lookin’ at you, Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Disco Biscuits, et. al. Part of it, too, is the image of the “trust fund hippie” – there’s no more hated character in American college life than the be-dreadlocked mommy’s boy playing you his copy of the Dead’s Red Rocks concert from ’89 and insisting it’s heavy shit, man while sucking on the $300 gravity bong he bought with this week’s food check from his parents.
And part of it – most of it, I think – is just that we have been conditioned as a culture with the notion that short = good, long = bad. Part of that came from Phil Spector (and rightly so – nobody’s crammed more into three minutes of glory than he), part of it from the punks (who, remember, were basically fighting against the very shit I’m about to write about, at least partly), and part of it from our short attention spans which -
- what was I talking about again? Oh. Right. Hippie rock. Thing is: jamming. The term itself is pejorative at this point, and implies long, meandering, aimless bullshit – “noodling” is the synonym, if that gives you any idea.
But, I mean, tell that to Miles Davis, you know? Side one and side two of Agartha are some of the most amazing shit ever, and every bit of that is improvised from every person on stage. But I bet if you told Miles motherfucking Davis that he was “noodling,” he’d beat you about the face and head with a crowbar before getting on stage and whipping your ass nine ways to Sunday, musically speaking.
So for the purpose of this article – during which I will hopefully decimate at least part of your prejudice against what is probably incorrectly called hippie music – we are not going to use the term “jamming.” We’re going to call it “improvising.” Because the stuff I will be talking about is not “noodling.” It’s not aimless. It’s occasionally made up on the spot, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s cool. That’s spontaneous combustion. That’s musicians on a stage so in tune with each other that they’re able to make amazing shit up on the spot. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. That’s nifty.
So let’s start right at the top with the band you probably hate more than any other: The Grateful Dead.
Now look. I get it. I spent a lot of time being forced against my will to listen to 80s-era dead playing “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” for twenty minutes, so I know that at various phases of their career, they were unpleasant to listen to, at least in long stretches.*** But listen. Before they were this:
They were this:
That’s right. The Grateful Dead were motherfucking cool. They were a tight, heavy little band of hipsters who played hopped-up garage-punk which they stretched out, occasionally, into long, cosmic explorations that never turned boring, not even for a second. Don’t believe me? Listen to their first record, just called Grateful Dead (and not the one with the skull and roses on it, either — look for the one with the beardless Jerry Garcia on the cover). You’re not gonna hear any damn noodling on it — this is the sound of pure amphetamine, whip-ass little punk/blues numbers sung with a sneer. It’s only on “Viola Lee Blues” that you get a sense of the band as master improvisers, starting slow and snaky and eventually whipping into a fuzztone-and-feedback frenzy. Light years away from “Iko Iko,” folks. Light years.
But the real action is found on their second record, Anthem of the Sun. You wanna know where the Flaming Lips came from? The album that spawned freak-folk? The album that was the soundtrack to two billion acid trips and convinced a generation of kids to leave home and follow these bastards around the country? Anthem, all the way. And specifically side one of Anthem, which contains a suite called “That’s It For The Other One,” a lysergic bastard of a song that starts gentle and quiet before literally lifting off into the stratosphere and disintegrating into the sound of your brain exploding, and “New Potato Caboose” which is ten times more gorgeous and satisfying and life-changing than anything on any Bon Iver record ever.
The San Fran hippie scene of the ’60s didn’t just spawn the Dead. There was the Jefferson Airplane, of course, and they’re so meaty and substantial they’re a topic for a different day. But the unsung heroes of the scene were Quicksilver Messenger Service, a weird and magnificent little psychedelic band centered around the ungodly beautiful and stinging guitar tone of John Cippolina.
Quicksilver weren’t a “cult of personality” band, really – if anything, the band were weirdly anonymous, with no super-engaging frontperson (like Jerry Garcia) and no “cute people” (like Bob Weir) to engage the teenyboppers. But they were capable of some astonishing feats of musical legerdemain. Pick up their self-titled first album and give a spin to “The Fool,” the twelve-minute side-tw0-closing epic – it’s tightly arranged and meticulously played, almost like a piece of classical music, expanding ever-outwards into a colossal drone section every bit as cool as anything the Velvet Underground ever did, before finally resolving into a gorgeously sung final section full of pretty melodies and epic harmonies and one, final, last gorgeous mmmrrrroooowwwwwwwwwww, spinning off into the night.
And let’s pause for a minute to talk about hippie rock, British wing, and the phenomenal Traffic. If you think you know Steve Winwood from his cheeseball 80s stuff like “Higher Love,” you don’t know Steve Winwood. Before he was a superbly-coiffed MOR singer, he was one of the best keyboard players in rock music, so fucking great that even Jimi Hendrix felt like he was thee guy to play with; and one of the best triple-threats, too, with a gritty, soulful voice and a playbook of killer, funk-drenched tunes that are rightly regarded as timeless classics. Add in a second damn-near-perfect songwriter in Dave Mason, who wrote the original version of “Feelin’ Alright” before Joe Cocker took it to the bank, as well as about a billion sublime, British-folk-influenced tunes, and a band (including saxophonist Chris Wood – yes, saxophonist, but don’t let it throw you) so fucking tight that they were regarded as the best in the world at the time, and you’ve basically got a recipe for sheer magnificence.
People swear by their first album, Dear Mr. Fantasy, but because I know your taste (you! the L’Etoile reader!) I’m gonna recommend their second album, simply titled Traffic (I realize I’m recommending a weird lion’s share of eponymous albums today – don’t know why that is, really). I love Dave Mason’s opening sing-along “You Can All Join In,” and the nicely funky “Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring,” but the real action is on Winwood’s heavy-as-fuck “Pearly Queen,” a nifty slab of protofunk, and on his stirring, flute-drenched “Forty Thousand Headmen.” And the original version of “Feelin’ Alright” lacks the grit-’n'-grime spasmodicism of the Cocker version but it’s a nicely pure, honest rendition, led by Dave Mason’s honey-drenched voice.
But let’s move into the modern era, shall we? And let’s address a band with a huge following of hippie fans, who play ever-longer songs and write lyrics about, basically, nonsense – science and bugs and stuff – and play ecstatic live shows with lights and funny stage-craft – oh shit, you thought I was talking about Phish again? Nah. I’m talking about the Flaming Lips. And damn right they’re similar, and damn right they belong in this list at this point. Because maybe during the ’90s and the Transmissions from the Satellite Heart era there was a difference between them and Phish, but nowadays? Not so much. When you’ve got the Lips playing 24-hour-long songs, the whole “punk brevity” thing goes out the window, and you cannot deny that the same shit you complain about with Phish is the same shit you dig about the Lips (extreme “whimsy,” though the Lips couch theirs in extreme “weirdness,” and basically a huge dollop of nerdiness).
That’s not to say they’re not doing amazing shit. The aforementioned 24-hour song, “7 Skies H3″ – you’re never gonna listen to the whole thing, but do sample a little bit of it (you don’t have to buy the real human skull the song was sold in – you can find it online, trust me). The band are basically mining a gorgeous little Krautrock vibe these days that ekes close to actual funkiness, and their improv – for this is definitely improv – has become something to write home about. They’ll never be, you know, virtuosos, instrumentally, and you don’t really want ‘em to be – their homespun, we-put-this-shit-together-with-string-and-spit quality is why they continue to be great. Or check out their album of collaborations with everybody from Ke$ha to Chris Martin, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends – you’ll hear some damn freaky music, make no mistake, including my favorite, the ominous “I’m Working At NASA On Acid,” which works its way ’round a Lennon-esque drum beat and some weirdly pretty harmonies, and the fucked-up Doctor Who tribute “2012 (You Must Be Upgrade)” which features a drugged-out (is there any other kind, really?) Ke$ha, who is apparently a Lips fan, proving – something, I’m just not sure what.
My good friend Jason Shapiro swears by an improv-freak-folk group called Akron/Family which sounds like nothing so much as a Manson Family singalong in the best of all possible ways, or maybe like a non-electronic Animal Collective if you need a modern correlate. They write these gorgeous little folk songs that sound at first like they’re going to just be one of those irritating field recordings you’d hear on MPR****, before blowing them up with giant mountains of huge guitars and improvised noise and shouting. It sounds weird and it is, but it’s got that communal sing-along vibe that makes it super likable.
Their best album is, probably, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free from 2009, which has some magnificent songwriting (“River,” the gorgeous “Set ‘Em Free Pt. 1″) set alongside moments of extreme cosmic freakout (“Creatures,” the guitar-heavy “MBF”) and neo-funk moments (all hippie rock has pretentions to funk, see: all of the above, and “Everyone Is Guilty.”) It’s a heady brew, really, like a lo-fi Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd married to the weirdest bits of ’60s Dead (especially the sound effects and “treated piano” parts).
Finally, let me point you to the band that I think has best inherited the mantle of the Dead, at least the mellow, just-post-Workingman’s Dead countrified-groove era Dead, before the 80s and disco and heroin and Christ knows what else claimed ‘em for evil, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Led by former Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson – and if you don’t love the Crowes, you need to take another listen to Southern Harmony and Musical Companion for a reminder why it’s one of the best albums of the 90s despite sounding like it spun right outta 1971 – the group has managed to channel great songwriting (Robinson knows his way ’round a pretty melody, to be sure) and great band dynamics (I especially love the vintage analog synths that drench every song) into a communal, psychedelic thing that’s equal parts freak-folk and hippie-rock and has rightly inspired its own people-following-’em-around cult.
Check out their first album from earlier this year, Big Moon Ritual, and especially the magnificent side-one opener, “Tulsa Yesterday,” which starts with one of those winding, tangly little guitar figures before leading into a stunning tune with a staggeringly pretty melody and, eventually, a deeply trippy, echo-drenched liftoff. Or the unbelievably great “Vibration and Light Suite” from their just-released Magic Door LP (yeah – two double LPs in a year, that’s pretty impressive), which sounds like a trippier, more fucked up “Eyes of the World” with a double-dose of lysergic sound-effectery at the end. It’s groovy/gorgeous/delightfully pychedelic shit. Live, too, the band manages some knockout stuff – download a live show, which…
…wait – where are you going?? Okay. Skip that last bit. Take it in stages. A bit at a time, man. Step by step. Start with the above, listen at night under the stars or something cosmic like that, and come back to me later. We’ll talk again. It’s okay. You’re loved. Peace.
*Disco? Really? Okay, yeah, nobody’s ever held a “hippie rock record burning party” in a major sports arena. But I think by now disco’s mostly been reclaimed. Try putting a Bee Gees disco-era record on at a party and see if it clears a dance floor. Spoiler: it won’t.
***That’s not to say that latter-day Dead didn’t occasionally whip out a marvelous version of “Dark Star.” And I’m pretty fond of both their last two studio records, too, and not just as nostalgia trips.
**** I love MPR, and I love field recordings, both in extreme moderation.