Composition And Experimentation In British Rock 1967-1976

:: Home :: :: Index :: :: Workshop :: :: Search:: :: Staff ::


The Hippie Aesthetic: Cultural Positioning and Musical Ambition in Early Progressive Rock

This study takes its point of departure from two problems that regularly recur in historical accounts of rock music.  The first problem consists of a strong tendency among many writers to neglect much mainstream rock from the Seventies, often to focus on the rise of punk and its transformation into new wave in the second half of the decade, or perhaps also to chronicle the emergence of disco and the strong reactions to it.  Bands such as Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Elton John, the Eagles and many others are frequently mentioned only in passing, while highly successful progressive rock bands such as Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Yes are neglected almost entirely. (1) The second problem is that rock music from the 1966-69 period--frequently referred to as "psychedelic" music--is  often kept separate from the mainstream Seventies rock that follows.  There is even a tendency on the part of some writers to view early Seventies as a period of decline for rock, resulting in a celebration of psychedelia without much consideration of its clear musical affect on the rock that followed. (2) These two tendencies result in unbalanced historical accounts of rock that not only leave out much of the music many listeners today associate with "classic rock," but also miss some of the important larger themes in the development of the style as a whole. (3)
One historical thread that can be traced almost all the way back to rock's earliest days in the mid-Fifties is the theme of musical ambition--the idea that pop can aspire to be "better" or more sophisticated  kind of music by employing techniques and approaches often borrowed from other styles (like classical and jazz) to make pop more interesting and original.   In the second half of the Sixties, the musical ambition increasingly evident in a series of recordings by Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, The Beatles, and the Beach Boys begins to coalesce into an attitude toward music making that I call the "hippie aesthetic."  Identifying and delineating this aesthetic attitude helps us to recognize the strong connections between psychedelic rock in the late Sixties and the variety of rock styles that proliferated in the Seventies, suggesting a stylistic arc that extends from about 1966 to at least as far forward as 1980.  Consideration of the hippie aesthetic not only helps to unify styles that are often considered in relative isolation from one another, but it also establishes what disco and punk (and new wave) were rejecting at the end of the Seventies, clarifying how these styles created enough stylistic distance from mainstream rock to be considered new and different to listeners at the time.  As we shall see, progressive rock turns out to be the Seventies style that most clearly and completely manifests the hippie aesthetic.  Placing progressive rock at the center of a historical account of the Seventies is perhaps the most radical interpretive assertion in what follows.
Before engaging in a more detailed discussion of these issues, however, it is probably helpful to acknowledge that this paper offers an American perspective on rock's history.  An understanding of rock’s history from a British, Italian or other perspective may well differ from the one presented here.  In Italy, for instance, progressive rock eclipsed many other rock styles in the Seventies, making Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and even Gentle Giant much bigger stars in Italy than they were elsewhere at the same time.  And in the UK, Yes regularly won polls and stole headlines in the music newspapers Melody Maker and New Musical Express during the early Seventies, garnering praise for the sophistication of their music and arrangements, as well as for the instrumental virtuosity of the band members.  The American market remained the key to greatest success for many acts, however, and even there, progressive rock bands did quite well, even if the field of play was arranged in some significantly different ways.

The Historical Frame

Before considering the attitudes that helped form the culture and aesthetics of late Sixties and early Seventies rock, it will be useful to briefly review the history of these years.  In the 1966-69 period, rock music was filled with musically ambitious experimentation and eclecticism.  During these years, rock musicians continually experimented with many musical styles and approaches, creating diverse and often surprising musical combinations.  In San Francisco, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead experimented with classical influences, and with long, improvised arrangements influenced by jazz practices (this was especially true in live performances).  In Los Angeles, the studio experimentation of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys that had resulted in Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations began to give way to the new jazz and country influences in the Byrds’ music, as well as the dramatically dark music of Jim Morrison and the Doors.  In London, the mainstream went psychedelic under the influence of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream, significantly affecting American bands, while the more radical and often avant-garde experimentation of Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, Tomorrow remained within the British psychedelic culture. (5)
The Seventies were a period of musical development and expansion for hippie rock.  Rock musicians refined some of the stylistic blends from the psychedelic years into a wide variety of specific sub-styles.  In progressive rock, British bands such as Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Henry Cow extended and further explored the use of classical music in rock, often producing concept albums of symphonic scope and filled with classical references and aspirations.
(6) Following along stylistic lines explored by Cream’s long jams and Miles Davis’ fusion of jazz with rock, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever brought jazz to rock audiences, while horn bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears, and song-oriented bands such as Traffic and Steely Dan brought a strong dose of jazz to their music.  In the late Sixties, the Byrds and Bob Dylan had both experimented with bringing together country and rock styles, and in the Seventies Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Eagles, and America all refined this approach, blending vocal harmonies and acoustic guitars with a strong pop sensibility.  Jim Morrison’s theatrical tendencies with the Doors were picked up by Alice Cooper and David Bowie, who each adopted stage personae and were outdone in this regard late in the decade only by blood-spewing, flame-spitting stage productions of Kiss.  The blues rock tendencies of the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds were continued by Deep Purple, whose blending of blues and classical would form the foundation for later heavy metal, and Led Zeppelin, whose ambitious Stairway to Heaven became one of the decade’s most well-known tracks.  The earnestness of Sixties singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon was continued by Elton John, Billy Joel, and (in a career rebirth from her Brill Building days of the early Sixties) Carole King.  Far from being a period that is stylistically distinct from the late Sixties, the Seventies are clearly a continuation and extension of psychedelia, different mostly in the separation of late-Sixties stylistic features to form a wide variety of distinct sub-styles.
In the 1977-79 years, punk and disco markedly reject the hippie musical values that can be traced back to the mid Sixties.  In the second half of the Seventies, many fans and musicians began to believe that rock had become too professional and polished, and that the music had been compromised by the tremendous growth of the music industry, calling the result “corporate rock.”  One result of this backlash was punk, which celebrated a back-to-basics simplicity, while another was disco, which celebrated dancing.  In the UK, the punk movement was led (if only briefly) by the Sex Pistols, whose scandal-ridden success inspired the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Police.  In the US, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie had all been active before the Sex Pistols burst onto the scene and enjoyed varying degrees of success after, though the Cars were the first to score hit records and radio play in the wake of the punk tantrum.  Because punk quickly developed a trouble-making image that scared off record label and others inside the music industry, “new wave” emerged as a safer alternative, substituting violent social misbehavior with a cool and calculated sense of irony.  While punk and new wave had little in common socially with disco—indeed, it would be tough to find stranger bedfellows in the late Seventies—these two musical cultures were united in their rejection of hippie rock and most of what it stood for: both styles defined themselves in part by what they were not, and they definitely were not hippie rock.

1 2 3 >



1. Introduction / The Historical Frame

2. The "Hippie Aesthetic"

3. The Hippie Aesthetic and Rock's History


.pdf (171 kb)


Versione italiana