Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Greatest Rock Instrumentals of All Time

This time, I am parting the waters a bit -- if I may use so Mosaic a term for inconsequential trivia -- offering fifteen electric instrumental jams and also fifteen acoustic pieces that I consider the thirty best in the rock milieu, genre, idiom, etc. As always, I am being purely subjective in the matter, keeping strictly to rock music, with one or two noted exceptions (you can make up your own lists adding in classical composers, jazz musicians, polka accordionists and klezmer bands). I am also certain that I missed a few hundred worthy songs, but to hell with it; this list has taken up too much time as it is.

In regards to the songs I chose, I omitted works by the great Stevie Ray Vaughan, as many of his instrumentals are based on Hendrix tunes (who is already represented here), and Joe Satriani, because I do not really care for his Van Halenesque hammer-ons and pull-offs and sterile studio percussion sections (Satriani's schtick is done with greater gusto by Eddie here: Eruption). I stuck within the strictest definition of an instrumental: not a long solo, nor an extended musical piece bookended or interspersed with lyrics (like Pink Floyd's Echoes or Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick. Nope, just completely instrumental rock songs here.

In addition, the acoustic pieces are, for the most part, well-known but beautifully rendered airs, and are not necessarily virtuoso compositions that would make Segovia weep; although I did add in some stellar works from Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges just to appease those with a need for complex arrangements (but no Phil Keaggy as I prefer Kottke or Hedges).


ELECTRIC INSTRUMENTAL JAMS

Hocus Pocus by Focus
-- Wait, these guys are Dutch? Who knew they even had guitars in Dutchland...I mean, the Netherlands (the Netherlands -- shouldn't that be bordering the River Styx or something?). Anyway, Thij Van Leer and the boys had one phenomenal song in them, and this tune rocks, yodels, whistles and has the best damn guitar licks that ever came out of the Benelux countries. Yes, Benelux. It sounds better than Luxenetherbelgiumbourg.

Soul Sacrifice by Santana
-- Forget Hendrix, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin, the best single tune at Woodstock, 1969 was this fiery, Santanic assault featuring 20 year-old Michael Shrieve's blistering drum solo.

Frankenstein by The Edgar Winter Group
-- Funny thing, Edgar Winter has a helluva vocal range, and can sing the lights out on R&B tunes (check out Edgar Winter's White Trash and their version of Tobacco Road). But, his biggest hit was an instrumental. Go figure. Why is it called 'Frankenstein'? Well, reportedly Rick Derringer suggested to Winter that a 20 minute-long jam they had called simply 'instrumental' could be made into something. So, they got stoned in the studio and spliced and cut and cut and spliced until tape was covering the floor. At that point, their drummer, Chuck Ruff, sighed,‘Wow, man, it’s like Frankenstein.’ The rest, as they say, is history.

One of these Days by Pink Floyd
-- Evidently, the full title is 'One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces' (which can be heard toward the end of the track as voiced by drummer Nick Mason through a ring modulator). It seems the reference was meant for a certain DJ at BBC radio named Jimmy Young, whom the band despised because he was far too chatty on the air.

Misirlou by Dick Dale and the Deltones
-- Most likely the only U.S. hit based on a rebetika song from early 20th century Greek refugees from Turkey. Dick Dale learned it from his Lebanese uncle (also a musician), and the famous one-string guitar lead is based on Dale's Uncle's playing of the oud (an Arabic stringed-instrument, cousin to the lute). 'Misirlou' means 'Egyptian Girl' in Greek. And no, I am not making any of this up. Dale's version is also sometimes titled 'Miserlou' for no apparent reason.

Third Stone From the Sun by Jimi Hendrix
-- The height of Hendrixian rock psychedelia and the advent of electric jazz fusion all rolled into one ball of confusion, complete with distorted mumblings and Jimi's spoken, drug-induced ode to 'Starship: Euphoria'. Beam me up, Jimi, the third stone from the sun is populated by Republican tea-baggers and Muslim extremists! I had also considered Hendrix's version of The Star-Spangled Banner because of its historical significance; however, that performance is, technically speaking, more of a guitar solo.

Fire on High by Electric Light Orchestra
-- Once upon a time, I really liked Electric Light Orchestra. Albums like 'Eldorado' are really wondrous fusions of rock and classical. 'Fire on High' from 'Face the Music' is the last of such bold voyages onto the uncharted seas of symphonic rock, as this album marked the turning point from whence Jeff Lynne transmogrified from a Captain of rock odysseys to an Admiral of the commercial liner 'Poopdeck Pop Excrement'. In then end, shit floats.

Glad by Traffic
-- As the the title emphasizes, 'Glad' is Traffic's playful romp into realms of R&B and Jazz. Steve Winwood's memorable piano runs on this song and other eclectic choices of material on the album 'John Barleycorn Must Die' (from 16th century English folk to jazz fusion) caused consternation in some critics, like those from 'Rolling Stone', who were obviously annoyed by the diffuse selection, which forced them to listen longer than was usually necessary for rock albums they often praised. You know, the kind with four chords and unintelligibly screamed lyrics.

Jessica by The Allman Brothers
-- If you had a list of songs meant for listening to on a long drive with the top down on a sunny, summer day, wouldn't this Allman Brothers tune be among them? 'Jessica' is certainly a non-prescription mood modifier, Mr. Grumpy Pants.

Freeway Jam by Jeff Beck
-- Speaking of Mr. Grumpy Pants, Jeff Beck is a rock visionary who is so obviously obsessive that he uses other musicians like a new mother uses diaper wipes. He goes through bands like us normal folks go through stick matches while lighting a Hibachi. And yet, even through hundreds of permutations and band reformations, Beck comes up with rock fusion gems. 'Freeway Jam' captures the chaos of rush hour, except without the more current sound of 'road rage' gun shots.

Los Endos by Genesis
-- The live album 'Seconds Out' displays Genesis at their creative and performing zenith, with or without Peter Gabriel (who had left the band after the album 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway'). After this live album, guitarist Steve Hackett left the band also, and Genesis turned to the lucrative lobotomized listeners of elevator muzak market for their fanbase. This version of the song 'Los Endos' from their 'Trick of the Tail' album, features both Phil Collins and Weather Report's Chester Thompson on drums. Listen closely and you will catch snippets of 'Dance on a Volcano' and 'Squonk' in the song's mix.

Green Onions by Booker T. and the MG's
-- The venerable finger-snapping, toe-tapping John Lee Hooker-esque blues boogie from Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper features the best soulful bite on a Hammond B-3 organ ever heard from a teenager (Jones was only 17 year-old at the time, and Cropper was only 20!).

Hoedown by Emerson, Lake and Palmer
-- Aaron Copeland and ELP go together like franks 'n' beans. In fact, I could have added ELP's version of Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man to this list and probably wouldn't get much of an argument. But I chose 'Hoedown' because of its frenetic pace and that it was an anthem played for Detroit Red Wings games back when they were the last place 'Dead Things' in the 70's. The ELP song was the best part of those dismal games.

Larks Tongue in Aspic by King Crimson
-- A clash of minimalism and metal. The composition begins with ambient percussion -- wind chimes on a blustery day -- and slowly builds with strident strings and buzzing guitars, then suddenly bursts in a furious explosion. Then, the aftermath, a progressive metal/jazz fusion that was most innovative for 1973. The title alludes to Ralph Vaughan William's 1914 composition Lark Ascending, which is an absolutely stunning piece in and of itself. The oriental motifs Williams provided were an influence to King Crimson, who in turn influenced such bands as Tool and Radiohead.

Whammer Jammer by J. Geils Band
-- I couldn't find the definitive version of this song from J. Geils' 'Live Full House' album (recorded at the Cinderella Ballroom in Detroit, 1972) on the Internet, but this live version offers a decent enough rendition of this classic juke-joint party tune with 'Magic Dick on the lickin' stick'. Great blues harp, there, Mr. Dick, complete with the use of a Shure 'Green Bullet' microphone (de rigeur equipment for any aspiring blues harmonica player, by the way -- great distortive properties).


ACOUSTIC INSTRUMENTAL PIECES

Classical Gas by Mason Williams
-- This is the only piece of easy-listening pop music that was embraced by Hell's Angels, hippies and Lawrence Welk alike. Perhaps because it was composed by Mason Williams, the head writer of the subversive and much-censored 'Smother Brothers Comedy Hour', and 'Classical Gas' first aired on that hit show in 1968, that it reached a huge counter-culture audience who tuned in every week to see The Who, The Doors, Steve Martin and Jimi Hendrix. Needless to say, you'll see this song on many folks' MP3 players right before Black Sabbath's 'Megalomania' and right after King Crimson's 'The Night Watch'. At least that's the way it is on mine.

Mood For A Day by Yes
-- This Spanish Flamenco treatment by Steve Howe from the Yes album 'Fragile' has often been mistaken as a Bach piece, but it is all original, and only slightly seasoned with a dash of Johann Sebastian. I am sure some readers prefer Howe's The Clap from 'The Yes Album', but I believe 'Mood For A Day' is a bit less chaotic and tighter.

Laguna Sunrise by Black Sabbath
-- Back in the late 70's, TV stations signed off for the day with the playing of the 'Star-spangled Banner' and an inspirational 'Come to Jesus' minute. One night, I was up quite late (a usual thing) and there came the inspirational minute. It was a pastoral scene with a little girl and a lamb and some Psalm or another, all pointing toward the infinite goodness of Christianity as the only religion allowed to be broadcast in the United States. What made this minute different? The background music was Black Sabbath's 'Laguna Sunrise'! I laughed my ass off, and wondered if this was some studio's idea of a joke, or whether the programmer had only heard 'Laguna Sunrise', mistook it for a reverent, Christian melody, and was unaware of which band composed it. The ultimate in irony!

Little Martha by The Allman Brothers
-- The only song written solely by Duane Allman (at least as part of the Allman Brothers). The song's namesake is Martha Ellis, a twelve year-old whose grave Duane Allman had come across in the Rosehill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. Duane was buried in the same cemetery only a few weeks after he had recorded the song. After the cold chill is done going down your spine, you will find the song lighthearted, playful and as winsome as a little girl.

Black Mountainside by Led Zeppelin
-- An old Irish air named 'Down by Blackwaterside' given a decidely Middle-Eastern treatment by Jimmy Page on various guitars and Viram Jasani on the tabla drums. Page eventually lengthened the tune and played it on electric guitar, renaming it White Summer/Black Mountainside. It is said that the interest in Middle-eastern music derived from playing 'Black Mountainside' eventually led Page to Morroco and his subsequent composing of 'Kashmir' (the latter sharing a variation of the first's D modal or 'Celtic' tuning).

Aerial Boundaries by Michael Hedges
-- Michael Hedges died in a car accident in 1997 at the age of 43. At the time, I had barely made the acquaintance of this guitar virtuoso via some artist compilations from Windham Hill records. Several years removed, I have a deeper understanding of his music and his genius. Whatever you wish to term it, 'new edge', 'heavy mental' or 'acoustic thrash', Hedges' work deserves a wider audience. Here's a one-man-band version of All Along the Watchtower.

Vaseline Machine Gun by Leo Kottke
-- Like Micheal Hedges, Leo Kottke is underrated and virtually unknown in this dismal age of demographically rigid, machined and milled, plasticine music. If you have the time, pull up some Kottke cuts on YouTube and be amazed! Here's one for the road: Bean Time.

Embryonic Journey by Jefferson Airplane
-- Jefferson Airplane will soon be appearing on this blog under 'The Most Overrated Rock Artists of All Time' (along with The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead and Lou Reed, among others). I mean, after one eliminates 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit' (originally performed by Grace Slick's first band, 'Great Society'), what have you got left? Not much but the morning-after downer from a bad buzz. But there are some exceptions to every rule, and just such a one is Jorma Kaukonen's gentle and reflective tune which first appeared on 'Surrealistic Pillow'. But even Kaukonen admitted that he wrote the song in 1962. So technically, even that one is borrowed material.

Horizons by Genesis
-- You see, the way to get glue-sniffing, pot-smoking teenagers in the 70's to listen to classical music was to repackage the original (usually Bach but Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mussorgsky were also prevalent) and plop it in the middle of a rock album, much like hiding a pill in ice cream. A palatable portion of some Baroquish Bach appears on Genesis' 'Foxtrot' album in the form of 'Horizons', which follows in style Bach's 'Prelude of the First Cello Suite'. 'Horizons' also acts as a prelude to 'Supper's Ready', Genesis' epic 23 minute-long magnum opus.

Bourée by Jethro Tull
-- Ah yes, progressive rock's love affair with Bach continues, and this time Tull does a version of 'Bourrée in E minor', with what flautist Ian Anderson refers to as 'a piece of cocktail jazz' from the superb 'Stand Up' album. Perhaps the inclusion of all the Bach-cum-rock interludes means that, I too, like Bach. That would be an affirmative, maestro.

Dueling Banjos by Eric Weissberg
-- While this cannot be defined in even the loosest sense as a 'rock song', Weissberg spent most of his time playing with rock luminaries such as Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Rick Danko, The Talking Heads and Richie Havens. Besides, the movie 'Deliverance' was rather anti-country and anti-pork: Ned Beatty, 'the other, other white meat'.

Anji by Simon & Grafunkel
-- Paul Simon is noted as one of the greatest 20th century American composers. It sometimes doesn't register with the public that writing such great songs as 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', 'The Boxer' and 'The Sounds of Silence' requires the ability to play guitar exceptionally. Simon proves it here.

Theme from the Last Waltz by The Band
-- Rather than include polka by Jimmie Sturr and his Orchestra (who have won multiple Grammys simply by being the only band left in the 'Polka category'), I thought a fresh take on a waltz would be in order. So, direct from Martin Scorsese's memorable rock-u-mentary (memorable for the giant flake of coke sticking out of Neil Young's left nostril), I give you The Band.

Bron-Yr-Aur by Led Zeppelin
-- If there is such a thing as an 'underrated Led Zeppelin album', then 'Physical Graffiti' would be it. Personally, I consider the album second only to 'Volume IV' (ZoSo) as Zeppelin's best. The song 'Bron-Yr-Aur' is a sterling example of the diverse moods and styles evident on this sprawling double album. The song's title is the name of a cottage in Gwynedd Wales where the band recorded 'Led Zeppelin III', and the song strongly evokes the pastoral Welsh countryside and the mountain retreat with breathtaking sunrises so fondly remembered by the band.

The Choice Wife by Richard Thompson
-- Well, there's any number of choice Thompson instrumentals in DADGAD Celtic/D modal tuning, but this one's short and has some amazing arpeggios. If you'd like, pick up Thompson's all-instrumental 'Strict Tempo' album, where you'll find songs in the Celtic tuning, as well as something remarkable like Duke Ellington's Rockin' in Rhythm, with all the instruments (guitars, mandolins, bass, dulcimer, etc.) played with amazing dexterity by Thompson (fellow Fairport Convention bandmate Dave Mattacks accompanies him on drums).

2 comments:

AgProv said...

You seem surprised Holland produced one good rock band in Focus (actually, I can see why you respond well to them - a lot of their opus is very reminiscent of a Dutch Jethro Tull, same sort of rock-blues-jazz fusion right down to nutty flute player/vocalist).

But you must have heard Golden Earring's "Radar Love?"

at age thirteen this blew my head open - I was so used to hearing wither British or American hard rock that discovering there was a third way, a lot nearer to hand than America, was revelation. Golden Earring are another Dutch band who do heavy rock, and their Euro-rock was just... wow...

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

Oh yeah, definitely enjoyed "Radar Love" in high school. The thing about Golden Earring, they were rather chameleon-like, changing their musical style noticeably several times over the course of their careers. I could live without hearing "Twilight Zone" and the repeated phrase "When the bullet hits the bone" ever again. Ever.