Improvisation in Rock: A Child of its Time? Part 1


The Song Remains the Same is subject to real time extemporisation

I gave up actively listening to Heavy Rock or, as it was increasingly being called, ‘Heavy Metal’, back in 1980. I can provide the exact date – the day after the final gig of my High School band (ahem) Kashmir.

Over the preceding months I had discovered that I had no interest in an emerging NWOBHM scene, and the bands that had initially turned me on to Rock had either disintegrated or seemed to have transformed into cliché ridden self- parodies.[1] [2]

But this relatively short period of immersion (though 18 months is a long time in a teenager’s life) had a disproportionate impact on my development as aspiring musician; more intense and lasting because it coincided with the emotional and physical developments, heightened awareness and steep learning curves that these years often entail. This, combined with a naturally reserved and introverted nature, meant that the opportunity to communicate and interact with other likeminded ‘misfits’ and proto – musicians through a newly discovered creative process was compelling.

Coincidentally, and equally inspiring, was the discovery of several live albums by the likes of The Who, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.[3] The immediate attraction was ‘that sound’, but also, to a teenager naively trying to figure out how to generate his own sonic material, the way these records appeared to capture the energy of music as it was created; the improvised nature of the tracks seemingly confirmed as each album presented ‘superior’ versions – longer, with additional material to that of their tame studio counterparts.

When our band was formed we had little in the way of learned material. Simply to prolong the joy of playing what we did have needed to be repeated then extended and the result was that, however inexperienced and incompetent, we began composing sections of music in real time. The departure points for these shambolic improvisations were inevitably the memorable and, crucially, more playable pentatonic riffs of groups like Sabbath, Zeppelin and Deep Purple.[4] Through necessity, and a junkie like desire to catch the thrill of creation (or was that just me?), we seemed to be creating music – just like them.

Deep Purple and I

Sometime in the late 1970s, pre – Kashmir, I bought a copy of Deep Purple in Rock, and still recall the visceral thrill of hearing Speed King’s opening – the moment the disc hit the turntable. [5] I’d come across the song before, or thought I had. But here, in its place, was an impossibly loud wall of group generated noise seemingly coming from another, undiscovered sound world.

Lasting just 45 seconds, Speed King’s manic introduction was over too soon, but its energy seemed to then propel the ‘song proper’ through its remaining 4 and a half minutes. As the album played itself out, however, this collective energy and sonic power began to dissipate and fade. [6]

But the promise and challenge contained in ‘Speed Kind’ and their subsequent live recordings (in particular Made In Japan) proved inspirational and, when confronted with the possibility of actually creating ‘similar’ music, urgent.

I now see these records as representing the tail end of a first wave of highly amplified blues based music that, live at least, often embraced a degree of spontaneity and improvisation, and, in the hands of a few pioneers who were inspired by technological advancements and musical traditions outside of Rock, in the Studio too.[7] Live performance had not yet been so circumscribed by commercial necessity and audience expectation so as to prevent the creation of new material in concert.[8]

Facilitating this relative openness was the fact that this music was, unlike much subsequent Metal, built upon a jazz – influenced foundation [9] containing a fluidity, swing and flexibility that allowed real time collective interaction. By the late 1970s the roles of drummer and bass player had become more fixed and it was the power, volume and speed that Heavy Metal, and other Rock genres, would prioritise.

But Deep Purple’s legacy to a developing Heavy Metal was not a Jazz inspired improvisational approach. Despite the simplicity of their famous riffs, their influence can be seen as further consolidating Rock’s ‘unfortunate’ prioritisation of instrumental virtuosity – the element also isolated and embraced from the likes of Hendrix, Cream and Zeppelin.[10] In particular, Ritchie Blackmore’s precise and dextrous playing, which increasingly incorporated a classical influence harking back to a ‘Romantic’ conception of solo instrumental hero, became something of a template for a ‘neo – classical’ metal that reached a peak with the ‘arpeggio shredders’ of the mid 1980s.[11] [12]

This focus on virtuosity became supercharged by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, with an emphasis shifting ever further to the soloist and away from the collective and the possibilities of group interaction. Just like orchestral soloists of the Western Art Music tradition, ‘greatness’ in these players was recognised in the accuracy and speed in which they recreated intricate compositions; the sheer technical challenges involved ever widening the gulf between audience and God like performer.

Next to the recordings of these virtuosos, the music of The Who, Led Zeppelin, even Hendrix might now sound crude, even sloppy, but for me their music was never about perfection – rather possibility. Though wrapped up in 1970’s rock spectacle, and (heaven forbid!) entertainment, at its best it was also infused with an energy and possibility of unpredictable collective creation and, let’s not apologise, the pleasure of simply playing.


Post Script

If a driver in the evolution of a blues based Rock can be seen in terms of a ‘drive towards virtuosity’, recognisable counter dynamics have rejected the importance of perfecting and demonstrating skill and/ or focused more on collective music making. Both were often most apparent in artists whose practice involves improvisation.

The most visible movement championing of ‘anti – technique’ was Punk Rock – its immediate aftermath coinciding with my own entry into the world of music making. Punk’s rejection of the necessity of technical expertise and associated DIY ethic was highly influential but I only became aware of Rock artists rejecting blues rock language, using different kinds of improvisation which were focused ‘against’ virtuosity when I first heard post – punk artists such as PIL, The Pop Group and The Raincoats.

My more recent excavations are revealing how other artists had been pioneering similar approaches for some time.





[1] John Bonham’s Death saw the demise of Led Zeppelin; the deaths of Keith Moon and Bon Scott and sacking of Ozzy Osborne left behind ‘less authentic’ versions of The Who, ACDC and Black Sabbath; Deep Purple had long since imploded.

[2] From post – punk to blues and jazz, other music had caught my attention and heavy rock suddenly appeared conservative and juvenile.

[3] Live at Leeds (Track, 1970), Made in Japan (EMI, 1972), The Song Remains the Same (Swansong, 1976).

[4] ‘Whole Lotta Love’, ‘Strange Kind of Woman’ and ‘Black Night’ would figure highly. And, for the connoisseur, bravely extended versions of The Who’s ‘Relay’.

[5] Deep Purple in Rock (Harvest, 1970).

[6] Listening back to many of Deep Purple’s studio albums we might wonder what all the fuss was about. The riffs of ‘Deep Purple Mark 2’ – the group’s most ubiquitous legacy – sound uninspired, lacking the ‘tritonic’ menace of Black Sabbath or syncopated grooves of Zeppelin: two bands who have enjoyed greater critical acclaim (albeit retrospectively) and acknowledged influence.

[7] Jimi Hendrix was exemplar in both respects – from incendiary live performances to the studio ‘jams’ of Electric Ladyland (Polydor, 1968). The late 1960s saw the release of a several live and studio albums containing extended improvisation: The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, East West (Electra, 1966); Cream, Wheels of Fire (Polydor, 1968), Soft Machine, The Soft Machine (Probe, 1968); Jefferson Airplane, Bless its Pointed Little Head (RCA, 1969); Frank Zappa, Hot Rats (Reprise, 1969); The Grateful Dead, Live Dead (Warner Bros, 1969).

[8] Analogous to Classical Scores, Studio Albums increasingly came to represent fixed artefacts that must be reproduced exactly on stage – constraining the performers’ creative role.

[9] Ginger Baker was inspired by the likes of Elvin Jones. Similar jazz influences can be heard in the drumming styles of Ian Paice, Mitch Mitchell and Bill Ward.

[10] Paul Hegarty, Noise Music: A History (London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2007).

[11] Yngwie Malmsteen, Rising Force (Polydor, 1984). Racer X, Street Lethal, (Shrapnel, 1985). As noticeable as the dominance of soloist in these recordings, is the relative anonymity and fixed roles of bass and drums.

[12] Blackmore’s early ‘solos’ (see ‘Speed Kind’ and live versions of ‘Wring that Neck’ and ‘Mandrake Root’) are heavily Hendrix influenced; peppered with blues inflected ‘free form’ sound manipulation, extensive feedback and extreme tremolo bar bends. They also form part of a collective real time group interactions and provide a contrast to the more measured arpeggiated patterns and major and minor scalic runs that dominate later recordings.


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