Monday, September 27, 2010

Classical Rock! The influence of Wolfgang, Ludwig and Johann Sebastian on Rock Music

Pachelbel's Canon in D as interpreted by Rob Paravonian

Yes, Rob Paravonian is a comedian, and this video is quite funny. But besides Rob's obvious love/hate relationship with Pachelbel, he slyly insinuates a much more profound message into his routine: the ofttimes subtle, sometimes overt, influence of classical composition on popular music in general and rock-and-roll in particular. Mr. Paravonian rattled off about fifteen rock tunes with almost the same chord structure as can be found in Canon in D. I am sure if Rob tried, he could add many more.

This essay is an exercise in revisionism, a follow-up to the almost infamous, nearly important, not quite legendary The Rock and Roll Hall of Shame article from a few weeks ago. In the previous piece I noted, somewhat flippantly at the time, that one might
"take the argument to its most illogical and over-the-top conclusion, then according to how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chooses its inductees, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Wagner, Mozart, Liszt, Grieg and other classical composers should all be inducted as 'Early Influences'."

Upon further consideration -- and looking at the absurd list of great soul, rap and R&B groups inductees in the 'Rock' Hall's 'performers category' -- I find the links to classical music (and jazz for that matter), certainly as germane to the rock idiom as all these other peripheral artists who are not directly related to the rock-and-roll genre (and not inducted as 'influences', which would be the correct designation, but as actual rock-and-roll 'performers'). I am sure there are critics who could present cogent cases for klezmer, polka, flamenco, Japanese kabuki and Brazilian samba music to take their rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall. I mean, after all, why only have rock-and-roll in a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? A preposterous, almost heretical idea, I know. But I will champion classical music composers and performers for induction into this homogenized, pasteurized, genre-hopping conglomeration of disparate musical categorization, particularly because there is a bias against classicism by many critics (in both popular music and modern literature), and a decided anti-intellectualism running through the media.

Induct Leonard Bernstein into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Well, he did write the first rock opera, West Side Story, didn't he?

Well, there was no actual rock in West Side Story, technically speaking, but Maestro Bernstein certainly knew his rock-and-roll -- perhaps more so than the rock composers themselves -- as shown here in Bernstein Boogies, where he identifies the rock tunes by their specific mode, either mixolydian or Dorian (terms for ancient Greek octave scales). Look, if you've already inducted Louis Armstrong into the RRHoF as an 'influence' of rock-and-roll, is too far-fetched that the passionate and heavily involved music-lover Bernstein should deserve equal status? After all, even a hell bound rocker like Alice Cooper venerated Bernstein: Gutter Cats vs.The Jets (a variation of Jet Song and The Rumble from West Side Story).

Stole songs from Beethoven and gave Tchaikovsky the blues!

Sergei Rachmaninoff could certainly change with the times. By the mid-1970's he had become a pop-rock star, complete with curly wig and de rigueur hard-ass leather, even though he was over 100 years old -- and dead. Listen to the refrain of this song (if the tune makes you physically ill, skip 40 seconds into the song for the section I am referring to): Rachmaninoff in his 70's rock outfit. Now, compare it to the original: Symphony No.2, 3rd Movement. Okay, that wasn't Rachmaninoff in a blond wig, that was sappy Eric Carmen dribbling into the microphone over his lost love. But such a blatant lift of a classical melody in order to make a #1 hit isn't really new, Procul Harum did it with Whiter Shade of Pale, but they were far cleverer than Carmen, slurring together J.S. Bach's Sleepers Awake and Air on a G String, with a countermelody of Cantata No. 140 in a batch of Bach -- a Johann Sebastianish stew. Earlier than that, Elvis Presley's I Can't Help Falling in Love With You directly lifted its melody line from Plaisir d'amour, originally composed by Jean Paul Egide Martini in 1780 and later orchestrated by Hector Berlioz. Elvis, you aint nothing but a hound dog!

From a more overarching perspective, The Beatles' fledgling career was aided by the invaluable assistance of producer George Martin, an executive at EMI/Parlophone who had recorded many classical and baroque albums for the label. His arranging ability, production experience and musical skills (he played piano on several tracks) rightfully earned him the honorific 'The Fifth Beatle'. Martin's compositional influence and in-depth knowledge of the classics allowed The Beatles to achieve more in a short span of time than any performers in popular music history. And Beatles' music is suffused with classical scoring and arrangements: hints of Bach in Yesterday, the baroque piano lead in In My Life, the orchestrated 'Greensleeves' at the end of 'I am the Walrus', the direct influence of composer Bernard Herman in the string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, as well as the entire orchestral score of 'Yellow Submarine' (from which the video of 'Eleanor Rigby' was culled). Martin even threw in some John Philip Sousa here and there!

Whether independently or taking their cue from The Beatles, cutting edge or progressively-minded bands and performers of the 60's delved into rock classicism: the avante-garde band The Velvet Underground was influenced by minimalist composer LaMonte Young, who John Cale, himself a classically-trained musician, had met before joining Andy Warhol's house band; Procol Harum's affection for Bach and Baroque has already been noted, but their release Procol Harum Live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra cemented their indebtedness to the classical form; The Moody Blues' sublime Days of Future Passed, originally envisioned as a rock version of Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World", pioneered the progressive rock movement; Frank Zappa's eclecticism was evident in the classically-arranged orchestration on The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out; even Jimi Hendrix found a kindred spirit in the music of George Handel.

New car, caviar, four-star daydream, think I'll buy me a symphony orchestra -- and tour with it!

The late 1960's and early 1970's marked even greater forays into the classical form, as more and more rock bands abandoned the strictures of blues and R&B influence, because these simpler music forms could not feed the need for greater expression by accomplished musicians. The four-chord early rock tunes and twelve-bar blues that fueled the early rise of rock-and-roll were simply insufficient to sustain the more sophisticated palates of bands that matured after the original British Invasion. Therefore, classical music and jazz-fusion proved fertile ground for a more expansive sound and a greater challenge musically. Even a band like Deep Purple -- they of the plodding, prehistoric dinosaur 'Smoke on the Water' -- would release Concerto for Group and Orchestra in 1969; but that train wreck of an album is not worth expanding upon here.

As early as 1967, Jeff Beck offered an interpretation of Ravel's Bolero, and a couple years later, the highly eccentric King Crimson came on the scene with a wide range of influences that included both Béla Bartók and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded an entire album dedicated to the music of Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, but still managed to have some fun with Tchaikovsky, Nutrocker, on the same album. ELP also recorded arrangements for Alberto Ginastera's 1st Piano Concerto, 4th Movement: Toccata Concertata (which was favorably received by the original composer), as well as Aaron Copeland's Hoedown and Fanfare for the Common Man. Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett was an ardent admirer of Bach and his Horizons follows in style Bach's Cello suite No.1 Prelude in G - Major, and the 23 minute-long magnum opus 'Supper's Ready' was influenced by Liszt and the song itself is a variation of the sonata form.

Jethro Tull flautist Ian Anderson favored Bach as well (the famous lounge-lizard version of 'Bouree'), and Tull pianist John Evan also makes a notable plunge into Rachmaninoff's 'Prelude in G Sharp Minor', Claude Debussy's 'Golliwog's Cakewalk', and Beethoven's 'Sonate #8: Pathétique' on By Kind Permission of on the Living in the Past album. In addition, classical string orchestrations show up on many Tull songs, and were arranged by band member David (Dee) Palmer, who later went on to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra for several memorable symphonic rock recordings. The band Yes preferred Stravinsky, and his influence appears on such tunes as Gates of Delirium, as well as the band playing a recorded excerpt of The Firebird at the start of every show. Rick Wakeman, the classically-trained, on again, off again keyboardist of Yes, has released several classical-based solo projects, among them Journey to the Center of the Earth, which features Edvard Greig's work prominently, and the soundtrack for the movie Lisztomania.

By the mid-1970's bands such as Electric Light Orchestra had come to prominence, producing superlative, classically-influenced albums like Eldorado, and even a witty raved-up remake of Chuck Berry's Roll Over Beethoven, which put Ludwig in context with rock. But the apex and apogee of the melding of rock and classic music occurred in 1975, when Queen released the outrageous Bohemian Rhapsody. It was nearly six minutes long! It contained an operatic section! It was actually composed in a variation of rhapsodic form! It will never sell! Well, this wasn't the first time record producers erred in their lust to push mass-marketed product, given their general disdain for art and musical substance (and general lack of taste). Which is why rap and hip-hop are foisted so heavily on the public: it's cheap to make and requires little studio work or backing musicians. Get yourself a drum machine, sequencer and music samples and -- voila! Call the publicist. It's rather like bar owners opting for karaoke music over live bands. There's no union scale to worry about; one simply buys a karaoke machine and then lets the drunks warble 'til closing time.

Mozart, the world's first rock star! And he didn't need a meat suit like Lady Gaga. Talent trumps a beef bra every time.

The Punk and New Wave movements of the late 70's and early 80's brought an inevitable downturn in the music markets, a devolution of compositional form brought on by the stagnant, redundant interchangeability of corporate-rock bands such as Boston, Foreigner, Bad Company, Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon (wash, rinse, repeat), and the death throes of superstar rock bands like Led Zeppelin (In Through the Out Door, after which drummer John Bonham died -- probably of chagrin), The Stones (Black and Blue & Some Girls -- they became irrelevant, or as critic Lester Bangs put it, the Stones "really don't matter anymore"), and Pink Floyd (The Final Cut, arguably their worst album ever). It's as if the rock music genre suddenly and collectively had a massive brain fart, and out plopped the wailing wasteland that was the 1980's, as shown in a microcosm by Falco in his plasticine paean to Mozart, Rock Me Amadeus.

But then, by the mid-to-late 1980's, the maestro's baton was picked up by an unlikely group of performers, the metal-heads! Shredding to Chopin! Rocking to Rachmaninoff! Blistering Beethoven! Led by such metal guitar virtuosos as Yngwe Malmsteen and Vinnie Moore of UFO, their brand of neo-classical metal quickly splintered further into such odd sub-genres as 'symphonic power metal' (as propagated by the band Nightwish), or 'Gothic metal'. Currently, bands such as Muse are proponents of classicism, preferably Rachmaninoff -- Prelude in G Minor, as are Dream Theater, whose various influences include Rimsky-Korsakov -- Flight of the Bumblebee, and Apocalyptica, the cello metal band from Finland (yes, 'cello metal' is what I said). And let's not forget Metallica's foray into symphonic music, the live album S&M (which ranks right up there with Deep Purple's orchestral effort in the overblown pomposity department!).

In conclusion, the classical music world is woefully underrepresented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- in fact, it is not represented at all! And yet, party animals like Mozart and Liszt were the Jim Morrison's and Keith Moon's of their era; Paganini and Chopin were the instrument-shredding idols of their day; Beethoven went deaf, and Pete Townshend has tinnitus; Stravinsky was as much of an iconoclast in the early 20th century as Bob Dylan, John Lennon or Prince; Vivaldi's powdered wig, as opposed to Frampton's curly locks; Bach's monstrous 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor' or Metallica's 'Master of Puppets'...

After all, it's only rock-and-roll.


gomro said...

Nice. Don't forget Stockhausen, enshrined forever up there in the top row of the Sgt Pepper's celebrities. A blog like that could go on forever, as I'm sure you're aware.

Then you have the reverse, modern classical composers like Takashi Yoshimatsu, who claims Emerson Lake and Palmer, the Beatles and Pink Floyd, among others, as influence on his work. So we've come full circle... You can read MY blog on HIS stuff right here

Morthoron the Dark Elf said...

Thanks for the reply, Gomro!

And you're certainly right about a 'blog like that could go on forever'. I had difficulty shoehorning in all the references that I did at 2000 words (my usual self-imposed limit for an article).

Thanks for the link and the info on Yoshimatsu. It's amazing how many current artists and bands have referenced ELP, Floyd, King Crimson, etc. in their works. Aside from your mention of Yoshimatsu, bands like Tool, Muse, Dream Theater and the like all mention those bands as influential.

I'll be by to comment on your blog shortly!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Morth, that was an interesting article. I think people easily forget that what we perceive now as venerable classical music was in it's time often the (albeit kind of upper class) entertainment. A lot of Renaissance and Baroque music is in fact meant for dancing. And I believe it is not entirely wrong to think of Mozart as a popular music celebrity of his day, even though this perception is doubtlessly influened by the Amadeus movie.


Jones Morris said...

I know. But I will champion classical music composers and performers for induction into this homogenized, pasteurized, rock music news