Epic Rock

“Make Mine a Double” Intro: The Wild and Wondrous World of Rock’s Two-Disc Albums

by Rick Ouellette

Across much of rock history’s last half-century, the double album has stood for a certain stakes-raising ambition and creative envelope-pushing, with artists asking fans for a little more of their attention and a little more of their disposable income. Among the sample titles pictured in this post, you’ll find some of rock’s most revered and, in a few cases, most reviled recordings. What do these titles have in common other than they were originally released as two-disc packages? In some ways, not a lot. As one might expect, the musical styles and subject matter are as varied as the far-flung pop universe itself. Delve into these records and soon enough you’ll come across overtures, artful sidelong suites, titanic instrumental jams and concept works based on socio-political and fantasy themes. There will be room for genre dabbling, sound collages, acoustic interludes and maybe even space left over to let the bass player sing a number.

How did these outsized albums come about? After all, as conventional wisdom would have it, rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not concise. The early songs of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly et al rarely exceeded four minutes and were often closer to two. And that framework—the short, concentrated blasts of rebellion and celebration, dance and romance—are still often held up as the ideal of the art form. But art forms are rarely or ever immutable. They evolve and expand often to the point of earning a backlash, circling back closer to their original incarnation. Rock music is no exception to the rule. In its initial era of greatness, the 45 RPM single was the coin of the realm for rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers. The latest smash by Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis was played on a jukebox at the drop of a dime or heard on the AM radios of the big cruising sedans of the 1950s.
Long-playing records existed back then more as a vehicle for the most successful acts, pooling together a few hits and adding on some cover versions or dashed-off filler material.

In the wake of the Beatles’ worldwide success in 1964, rock music evolved into an artist-driven force to be reckoned with. Along with the Fab Four, bigger artists like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan were able to assert more creative control. Soon, establishment-friendly fare like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wasn’t cutting it any longer, especially as the Sixties became a more turbulent, crucial decade. Moreover, people like Dylan had multiple influences to begin with and it was just a matter of time before they all came to the fore. Sure, ol’ Zimmy was inspired by the great country artists like Hank Williams he’d pick up on his radio during lonely nights in northern Minnesota. But alongside them—and rock ‘n’ rollers like Little Richard that he would soon emulate in his high school band—there was a Beatnik strain as well.

Many of early baby boomers who came of age in the Sixties looked back in admiration at the literary rebels of the previous generation (Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac) as a touchstone to a new subversive epoch. For the Beats, the chosen music was jazz, an exploratory long-form medium that connected with a crowd searching for something more cosmic than what the Eisenhower years generally had to offer. The combined effect of a seized artistic freedom and a tempestuous era eventually led to ambitious rock music and it was Bob Dylan on the leading edge. His seminal Blonde on Blonde is widely regarded as rock’s first double album, ranging from ruminative balladry to fierce and free-associating blues rock; it set a very high bar for all four-sided efforts to follow. The officially-given release date of Blonde on Blonde was May 16, 1966 although there are claims that it didn’t show up (at least on the charts) until that July. In the month in between, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention debuted with a two-record set aptly called Freak Out! This anarchic blend of protest rock, Dadaist vocalizing, revisionist doo-wop and avant-garde aural collage was an early indicator as to how far off the margins counterculture music could go in the decade to follow.

By the end of the Sixties, the hippie masses had been treated to the Beatles’ White Album, the Who’s Tommy and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others. We were off to the races. In a few days, I’ll start with a review of Blonde on Blonde that will, like other posts in this series, look at the album in view of how it pushed out at the boundaries of rock music (or at least tried to).

Throughout 2018, I’ll post a new one every 10-14 days, jumping around in time and genre. This is for a once a maybe future book project and I have about a third of it written. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments section (you can use the album cover images here as a jumping off point). Note that I have made double live albums and best-of compilations ineligible for this series, though half-studio/half-live records will be included.
–Rick Ouellette

Epic Rock, Part One: Take Back Your Attention Span in 2014

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Happy New Year from Reel and Rock!

Here’s a preview of a feature that will begin on a regular basis sometime next month. The next few posts will be dedicated to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Beatles first arrival in America, an epochal turning point in the history of youth culture. At the rate the world spins in our hyper-technologized society, I find now more than ever the need to be lifted up and over it by the transformative power of music. Here are the first three entries in my survey of great rock tunes of over ten minutes in length, with the quixotic suggestion that they be listened to without distraction, a nearly lost art that I will expound upon in future entries.

“The Little House I Used to Live In”—Mothers of Invention (1969, 18:42)

A studious contrast to the class-clownish title of the album on which it was placed (“Burnt Weeny Sandwich”), this elegantly constructed jazz-rock piece was a big coming out party for Frank Zappa as a serious composer and bandleader. After the improv piano prelude by Ian Underwood, the group falls in abruptly with a syncopated groove of a type that was fast becoming a Zappa trademark: somewhat whimsical and marked by rigorous playing (including some stretches in 11/8 time). “Little House” is such a rewarding piece because funny-guy Frank checks his tendency to rely on pastiche and gives the work (which deftly alternates live and studio segments) a lyrical flow throughout, with emphatic jamming trading off with drifting interludes to keep things interesting. Violinist Sugar Cane Harris gets a lot of solo time and makes the most of it, while Zappa checks in with a great compact guitar lead, one foot heavy on the wah-wah pedal. A “sunburst” effect (using harpsichord, xylophone, flute and clarinet) leads to the finale, with Zappa sitting at the organ for a wild solo while the Mothers blaze away in a tempo that is barely comprehensible. Adventurous stuff for an adventurous time.

“Walk on By”—Isaac Hayes (1969, 12:00)
Though in later years he was better known as the animated character Chef on “South Park”, the late great Isaac Hayes will go down in pop history for the way he emerged from the Memphis recording scene in the late Sixties to play a huge role in the development of modern soul music. The writer-arranger-keyboardist for Stax Records may have been pictured in a suit and top hat on his 1967 debut solo LP, but by the follow-up it was a whole new ball of wax. The cover photo of “Hot Buttered Soul” was a high-angle shot that looked down on Ike’s imposing chrome dome while his bare torso sported an enormous gold chain. This guy was a player and he wasted no time in revolutionizing R&B in a way not unlike the way rock’s horizons were expanding in the psychedelic era. His epic funkification of “Walk on By”, that classic slice of Bert Bacharach-Hal David melancholia, kicked off the album. Backed by the legendary Bar-Kays and summoning all his prodigious arranging skills, the track sweeps in on a bed of strings and some hot, Southern-fried lead guitar by Michael Toles, which is soon sent thru some trippy stereo-panning effects. Flutes and female backing singers join with the steady pulse of the rhythm section as Hayes delivers the song in the deep, intimate voice soon to be world famous. What sounds like a conventional fadeout starts at the seven-minute mark and rides into the sunset with a magnificent coda longer than most singles of the time, with Toles’ soloing reaching fever pitch and Hayes’ organ glissandos adding to the building excitement. Over the course of the next several albums, Hayes would record many other tracks of similar or even greater length (witness the 18 minutes of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on side two of HBS) but none ever quite matched the grandeur of this.

“Star Storm”—UFO (1971, 18:54)
Until recently, I’ve only known UFO as those long-serving British thumpers who would occasionally turn up on a mix tape or compilation with an entertaining four-minute blast like “Doctor Doctor” or “Lights Out.” But classic rock’s golden period (roughly the mid-60s to the mid-70s) is the gift that keeps on giving and I recently found out about the group’s early, more psychedelic phase when Mick Bolton was the guitarist. Their second LP, “UFO 2: Flying” was aptly sub-titled “One Hour Space Rock.” That’s a lot to squeeze onto a single album and “Star Storm” wasn’t even the longest track, it’s nineteen minutes falling short of the 26-minute trajectory of the title track. But I’ll take this one for its way-out wayfaring, a period high point (as it were) in the annals of power-trio acid rock. The track begins and concludes with the husky vocals of mainstay lead singer Phil Mogg but it’s really all about Bolton leading the rhythm section (bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker) through a sci-fi wonderland that you’ll be too happy to get lost in. Bolton puts his axe through all its paces and then some, with bracing bluesy soloing alternating with sections that run his instrument through a panoply of processed effects.