There I was, stuck in the house, couch-potatoed with a cocktail in front of the tube and clicking around the Netflix "Watch Instantly" library of titles with my IR mouse when I stumbled across Nothing Is Easy, a so-so documentary cobbled together from totally jaw-dropping footage of a 1970 Jethro Tull performance (the final night of the almost-out-of-control Isle of Wight Festival). This was not the turgid, studio-fied Jethro Tull worn down to the nub on FM radio over the past 40 years ("Aqualung" must die!). This was raw, youthful exuberance, a blues-jazz-rock fusion by turns heavy, lyrical and absurd. Frontman Ian Anderson is 23, wearing yellow pajamas, a tattered bathrobe and a fuzzy codpiece that flops around as he spazzes and gyrates. The band has so much hair they’re like a pack of hippie lions. This is punk rock, not arena rock. And that corny flute? Hell, it works. Holy shit.
I am pretty sure those guitars are not plugged in.
And here’s another goodie: Jethro Tull a year earlier on French TV doing some kind of mutant redneck hobbit rock with swooning mod girls in the foreground. Too bad they would later devolve into an artier and more boring version of themselves, but what rock band hasn’t? (More long-haired, one-legged PJ-RFVotD here.)
Can’t … resist … another … krautrock … video. Thanks to the enduring kitsch value of “Autobahn” and the hip-hop appropriation of Trans-Europe Express by the likes of Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash, just about everyone with ears has heard (or heard of) Kraftwerk. What’s still totally obscured by clouds, however, is Organisation, the pre-K project featuring Kraftwerk founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. The track performed here (at Essener Pop und Blues Festival, 1970, per Wikipedia) is a version of “Ruckzuck,” also on the hard-to-find seminal Kraftwerk LP. Dig those bongos, baby. (Alert mid-80s PBS viewers may recognize this tune as the original theme to the kidvid science show Newton’s Apple.)
Two things hard to find on YouTube at the same time: nice filmmaking and decent sound quality.
This episode we stay in Germany because the beer is strong, the women are beautiful, and the early electronic experimentation is as primal as it could possibly be. Florian Fricke’s krautrock project Popol Vuh (named after the Mesoamerican mythological tome) is probably best known for providing the crashing, guitar- and sitar-laden soundtracks for many of Werner Herzog’s deeply weird narrative films (esp. Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Heart of Glass), but this very early clip (circa 1970) shows them in an embryonic state, just a couple of holy technicians worshipping at a Modular Moog and another dude on tabla. This improvisation and others were released as Affenstunde, one of the dreamiest, most contemplative electronic records of all time (hell, it’s even name-checked by Mixmaster Morris).
Nope, not jazz, rock or fusion. But highly psychedelic.
Lucky number 7 out of 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 is another one of those nicely-videographed performances from Der Beat-Club, this one featuring shaggy thunder gods, Amon Düül II, showing all these so-called “stoner rock” bands how the fuck it is done. ADII’s krautrock discography includes such monumental slabs as Phallus Dei (yes, that’d be translated “Penis of God”) and (take note, Nick Brown) Yeti, a double LP that Julian Cope calls one of “the top 50 albums of all time, ever” because it so utterly “destroys the credibility of so many of the so-called 'great' progressive bands of this era.” ADII were the “real” musicians who split off from the LSD-taking hippies of Amon Düül I and selflessly devoted themselves to a take-no-prisoners form of heavy, improvised acid rock with eye-shaking results. (Here’s another, higher-quality clip from the same performance, which mean old YouTube won’t let me embed.)
Italy, 1990. YouTube comment: “What was it like going thru customs with these guys?”
Herman “Sun Ra” Blount followed his own weird vector through life and music, leading an “Arkestra” (as he deliberately misspelled it) variously prefixed with phrases like “Myth Science” or “Astro Infinity” or “Jet Set Omniverse” depending on the position of the heavens and other signs known only to Sun Ra himself. His music was as multifarious as his sci-fi nomenclature, embracing (among other things) big-band jazz, electronic experimentation, pure noise and show tunes. His straight-faced declaration to the world that he was an angelic being descended from Saturn was just the icing on the cake.
Sun Ra’s influence continues to echo in new “spiritual jazz” projects like Carlos Niño’s Build an Ark.
So what’s the rock connection? Well, the Parliament/Funkadelic inspiration is bloody obvious, MC5’s “Starship” is built around a Ra poem, Yo La Tengo covered the Sun Ra tune “Nuclear War” (as in, “Nuclear war, it’s amotherfucker.”), and in 1992 your correspondent was in the right place at the right time to catch the Arkestra sharing the bill with Sonic Youth at a free concert in Central Park. When they rolled Sun Ra out in his wheelchair (he’d had a stroke in 1990), the audience erupted into a standing ovation. Pretty cool.
Here we are, five episodes deep into PJ-RFVotD and still no sign of Weather Report or Spyro Gyra. Well, get used to it. First off, a candidate for this series has to be psychedelic (nicely defined by Wikipedia as “creative exuberance of the mind liberated from its ostensibly ordinary fetters”) and those bands are anything but. The fusion part we can kinda think of in its more generic sense of “a merging,” and so I don’t feel a particular need to exhaustively hunt down jazz-rock-pop practitioners who meet the narrow definition of “fusion jazz.”
All this yapping serves as prologue to today’s selection, a grainy 1988 security-cam-quality video of dead guitar god Sonny Sharrock, whose heroic, saxophone-like guitar blasts supported Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, and NYC noise-jazz unit Last Exit. Supposedly, he though of himself as "a horn player with a really fucked up axe,” which I think this clip aptly demonstrates, starting at around 2:30. If you dig the sound, you could do worse than scoring a copy of his final album, the mighty Ask the Ages (which, believe it or not, you’ll find at branches throughout the Albuquerque Public Library system--clearly the guy who placed the jazz CD order had good taste).
Can is one of the few bands that can accurately be (and frequently are) described as “ahead of their time.” This partially shirtless 1971 performance from Der Beat-Club (a German TV show that was also apparently the source of PJ-RFVotD III) aptly demonstrates this incontrovertible fact.
“Paperhouse” is the first track off the monolithic, influential and tremendously groovy double-slab Tago Mago. Is it fusion? Fuck no. It’s way beyond all that. Who woulda thought a couple of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s students and a skinny Japanese singer would totally reinvent rock? But they did. Check out Michael Karoli’s guitar solo around 4:00. Nobody was playing guitar like that in 1971. Prove me wrong.
Here’s a perfect distillation of England’s Canterbury Scene: “[T]he tension between complicated harmonies, extended improvisations, and the sincere desire to write catchy pop songs.” And Soft Machine was perhaps the most Canterburyesque of all the Canterbury bands, evolving from self-consciously witty and weird pop songs into side-long fusion excursions within the course of three albums. A work pal overheard me listening to some of this crazy groove and said, “It sounds like John Coltrane meets The Doors.” Which it kinda does. (And if you dig part one, here’s part two.)
Set the controls for the heart of the sun: Miles electric, Montreux ’73.
Announcing a new alibi.com feature. No, really. If NPR can have Performance Today (i.e., daily updates in a field of music where there has been no appreciable development for a hundred years), who’s gonna say it can’t be done?
The back-story: After hooking up with his hot young wife Betty (herself the subject of some recent reissues), Miles Davis realized he was out-of-fucking-touch with youth culture and retooled his career with a sound that would horrify jazz traditionalists and echo for decades in pop culture. Miles forbade his musicians to practice. They had to just feel it. And, baby, they did. Here’s proof.