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The counter revolution and the 1960s

During the late sixties, Jimi Hendrix considered to be of particular significance in the development of British progressive rock. As he just as influential in the development of psychedelic rock his music will also be analysed for counter coding to see the extent to which the counter music and progressive rock are comparable terms. Progressive rock and the counter-culture are often considered as inseparable. Perceived as a social force, music was thought to express things of cultural and political significance, to have a message.

‘Orientated towards a collective experience, rock appeared to provide the means whereby young people could explore the politics of consciousness, ‘love, loneliness, depersonalisation, the search for the truth of the person and the attempt to set up an alternative life style’ (Bindas 90). In the United States elements of the counter culture were sympathetic to New Left politics (Students for a Democratic Society), and embraced some political concerns, especially community activism in relation to health, education, and the environment.

While this led some observers to see youth as a generationally political progressive group, at heart the movement represented a form of symbolic, cultural politics (exemplified by the hippies). Jimi Hendrix did not abandon a particular rock style, but instead he added to it, chose elements that continued to express his own personal style and developed techniques and spatial dimensions which resonated with the new vocabulary of counter rock. This work examines the impact of Jimi Hendrix and the counter music revolution on the American culture of the 1960s.

Indicating a loose, expressive social movement, the term counter culture was initially applied to groups such as the beats in the 1950s (see below), and subsequently to the largely middle-class subcultures of the mid-to late 1960s. The 1960s counter culture was especially evident in North American communal and anti-conformist lifestyles, but it quickly became an international phenomenon. It was strongly present in the UK, where it was more commonly referred to as the underground. The term counter culture continues to be applied to various groups/subcultures outside of, and at times in opposition to, the social and economic mainstream.

Musically, the counter culture was linked to the genres of progressive and psychedelic rock. The hippies’ preference for psychedelic rock was consistent with the other values of the subculture, especially its ‘laid back’ orientation and drug use (Macan 67). Counter culture ‘radical’ youth, mainly students, were part of the US Civil Rights movement, with its use of political folk songs and negro spirituals, and supported the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the United Kingdom, which drew on similar sources, along with trad, jazz during its marches in the late 1950s.

All of these musics were soon subject to commodification, with sincerity becoming highly marketable during the mid-1960s. Clearly this was not a new trend; rock music is eclectic by nature. What was really new, however, was the accent on meaning in music which was not simply the lyrics, but extended to the sound itself. As Neville wrote at the time: ‘All the relevant sounds seemed somehow associated with acid and universal love. The Beatles, Donovan, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish all celebrated the acid experience and revived our faith in each other’ (Seay 34)

It is believed that the counter-culture and musical innovation as progressive rock were inseparable. Progressive rock was located where specific sociological, cultural and musical innovations crossed. In reality, however, progressive rock was a specifically heterogeneous genre and while the diversity of musical styles may have reflected the variety of radical movements and concerns within the counter-culture, the area of meaning presents problems.

For example, the counter-culture was mostly connected with alternative modes of living which involved, at the most, the use of drugs as a means of self-examination, the imagination and self-actualisation. Progressive rock also required experience, with the form of the music depending upon comparison for symbolic communication. Its form of communication is pre-conditioned by the structures of previous symbolic transfer.

Unlike Pink Floyd, however, whose progressive rock (e. g. Astronomy Domine, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun) is melodically and rhythmically simple, relying on electronically produced sounds to create a dramatic realisation of the vastness and potential beauty of space, Hendrix appeared more intent on destroying conventional reality to constitute instead the anarchic through the mutation of sound (Scheurer 267). In the music of both bands, progressive rock exhibits comparability between psychedelic rock and hallucinogenic experience: both talk of flight, of colours, of the extra-ordinariness of experience.

In terms of composition, Pink Floyd were equally influential in the development of counter music, but in their music there was a move towards Progressive rock, as composed and performed by Cream, Hendrix, and Pink Floyd, was constituted by specific musical features which show a sense of development and originality from a base style. Clapton, Baker and Bruce had all come out of the British rhythm and blues movement; Pink Floyd began as a rhythm and blues band and Hendrix was equally acquainted with the style.

Pink Floyd’s interest in electronic feedback techniques is similar to that of Hendrix, but whereas the former moved increasingly to studio-based taped sounds and complex electronic equipment, the Jimi Hendrix sound was characterised more by individualised distortion of his own guitar through wah-wah pedal and fuzz tone. Electronics appear to reinforce his already personalised, physical feeling for the guitar sound itself (Whitmer 78). In contrast, Floyd mingled voices, guitars, organ, drums, timpani with electronic and stereophonic effects to create elaborate sound collages.

Clapton initially shared Hendrix’s interest in guitar electronics, using wah-wah pedal, fuzz and reverb on Disraeli Gears but on the whole he preferred to experiment with different guitars to obtain new sounds rather than distorting the sound of one or two. All three bands, however, focus on the development of musical ideas through extensive improvisations. Progressive rock was of particular importance to the counter-culture, who saw it not only as a major source of communication but also as symbolically representing their own search for alternative cognitive and social modes beneath and outside the dominant culture (Whiteley 45).

It was thought to have a message, to say things of political and cultural significance; it was experimental and focused on an immediacy of experience (which is reflected both in the apparent spontaneity in improvisation and the emphasis on live performance and festivals), and was often drug-centred (if not always drug-induced) and offered heightened awareness of the world. Progressive rock could bridge social and national differences and, especially in the USA, racial differences.

While festivals in particular reflect this immediate search for the experience of community, the LP, and in particular the concept album, was also recognised as providing a means to a mutuality of consciousness whereby the individual could be confirmed as one part of a collective whole. While the emphasis on a spiritual quest was perhaps the counterculture’s most epic means of protest against the values of industrial society, many progressive rock lyrics are concerned with protest on a somewhat less cosmic (and arguably a more immediately effective) scale.

In Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon ( 1973), lyricist Roger Waters explores just those abstractions of modern industrial society that depersonalize, dehumanize, and ultimately drive people to madness: time (More accurately, industrial society’s conception of it), money, war and violence ( “Us and Them”), the futility of the nine-to-five career ( “On the Run”). In the last song of this great song cycle, “Eclipse,” Waters suggests that there is indeed a cosmic blueprint that informs the apparently random events of everyday life; we have simply grown too dun to perceive it.

The dehumanizing tendencies of industrial society received frequent treatment by rock groups throughout the 1970s, but seldom with the power and insight displayed here. By the mid-1970s, as the dreams of the counterculture faded, Waters’s own lyrics took on an increasingly bitter, pessimistic tone, culminating in the angry pseudo-political stridency of The Wall (1979).

To many rock critics, especially those associated with Jimi Hendrix, progressive rock’s aesthetic stance was anathema, nothing short of heresy. First of all, the critics resented the insinuation that progressive rock’s appropriation of the classical tradition somehow “expanded the frontiers of popular music,” enabled the pop scene to “break out of its vulgarism,” or “encouraged kids to listen to music that has more quality” (Roszak 56).

There is the intimate relationship between progressive rock as a musical style and the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Salzman 13). The proto-progressive bands of the late 1960s played a direct role in the countercultural scene, while the major progressive rock bands of the 1970s drew their mass audience from a post-hippie extension of the counterculture. The subject matter of the lyrics is above all an expression (sometimes direct, most often veiled) of countercultural ideology.

The main elements of the music itself reflect important aspects of the counterculture as well. The heavy reliance on tone colors derived from the Western art music tradition reflects the sense of significance and even ritual that the hippies attached to the music, while the consistent use of lengthy forms such as the programmatic song cycle of the concept album and the multimovement suite underscores the hippies’ new, drug-induced conception of time.

The intricate metrical and wayward harmonic schemes of the music, as well as the frequent appeals to instrumental virtuosity, reflect the elements of surprise, contradiction, and uncertainty that the counterculture prized so highly, as well as serving as a gate that separated the “real” hippies from the uncomprehending “straights” (i. e. , nonhippies).

Furthermore, the juxtaposition within a piece or an album of predominantly acoustic with predominantly electric sections, one of the hallmarks of the progressive rock style, seems to encapsulate many of the conflicts that were of great significance to the counterculture. For instance, it is possible to see in the style’s acoustic/electric dichotomy the contrast of the pastoral and organic with the technological and artificial, the conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal values, between ancient and modern ways of life, and between the folk and psychedelic musical styles that progressive rock drew from (Riesman 6).

Finally, the rise and fall of progressive rock as an idiom with mass popularity reflects the rise and fall of the counterculture itself. Both appeared as oppositional forces to mainstream society during the mid-1960s, were gradually absorbed into the mainstream between the early and mid-1970s, and dissolved beyond recognition between the mid- and late 1970s.

A contemporaneous idiom like heavy metal that has remained the nexus of a thriving subculture has been able to retain its aesthetic and commercial viability into the 1990s. While progressive rock offshoots have continued to undergo stylistic evolution into the 1980s and 1990s, the difficulty the genre has experienced as a commercially viable idiom since the late 1970s is a reflection of the fragmentary nature of the fan base that has surrounded it since the dissolution of the counterculture.

For this reason, while the “classic” progressive rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s may continue to sell millions of records for some time to come, the new strains of progressive rock that have developed since the mid-1970s are likely to remain cult styles with no mainstream commercial viability (like classical and most jazz styles, for instance) for the foreseeable future (Randall 234). Psychedelic music of the sixties period was considered at the time to be a single style, and certainly there are common elements which unite the music of the psychedelic era.

Long pieces (ten minutes or more was not uncommon) with prominent instrumental sections and lengthy solos became a hallmark of psychedelic music. So did a fascination with electronic experimentation: the exploitation of feedback, the use of echo machines and other effects devices that appeared during the late 1960s, and the utilization of then novel tape effects such as multitracking and splicing.

References to North Indian classical music – the use of instruments such as sitars and tablas, the employment of exotic modes drawn from Indian ragas, the utilization of ornamental, melismatic lines in instrumental solos – also became common among some psychedelic bands of this period and exemplified the powerful influence exerted by Eastem spirituality upon the counterculture (Curtis 12). Nonetheless, despite these similarities, one can already detect in psychedelic music of this period the roots of a number of new genres that erupted around 1970 with the fragmentation of psychedelia.

The appearance of this slew of new styles is in turn indicative of the fragmentation of the essentially unified youth culture that existed between 1966 and 1970 into a number of distinct subcultures along national, regional, and class lines. These factors all had a great impact on the development of progressive rock as a style. Progressive rock could have never emerged from the working-class milieu that was responsible for the formation of genres such as heavy metal and later, punk rock; throughout the 1970s, progressive rock’s audience consisted largely of a middleclass, post-hippie extension of the counterculture.

Some would say the music grew up in the 1960s. Probably those same people also would say the music died in the sixties. Whatever the view, rock ‘n’ roll exploded on the national scene in 1954 when Bill Haley and the Comets sold 16 million copies of their hit song “Rock Around the Clock. ” As a cultural barometer, the evolution of music provides important clues about how American social and political attitudes were in flux. Hendrix has been dead for over twenty years, and there are half a hundred books about him.

There are complicated analyses of his playing technique: his use of wah-wah pedals and whammy bars; how he used rings and bottle necks and occasionally even his teeth; how he played not only on his guitar but also “on” his amplifier, with switches and controls; how he retuned his instrument, fast as lightning, in the middle of a song, employing totally unusual tunings; the way he seemed to drum his guitar rather than pick it; the way he played with his own feedback, waiting for it and then answering it, returning it to the amplifier, as if asking questions that he then would try to reply to, which would lead to further questions.

Most directly rooted in Hendrix (and in the blues) are the rock players whom we can only mention summarily in this context: Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Carlos Santana, Jeff Beck, Adrian Belew, Robert Quine, Prince, and, perhaps the most individualistic rock guitarist of them all, Frank Zappa—to name only a very few (Perone 2004).

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