Jeff Beck and Zappa Jr live in LA


The Evolution of RnR Part One

Pretty much, everyone would agree – Rock n Roll has come a long way – from Louie Louie to the music of Dream Theater. Rock n Roll has evolved from party guitar stomp into an art form – the musical contributions by numerous outfits of varying styles over the last 45 years has put the “Classic Rock” and subsequent “Progressive Rock” stylings of the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s SOUND on the map of ‘timeless classic music’ with the same credence of genius as Beethoven, Bartok or Bach. 

The Evolution of RnR Part One

Pretty much, everyone would agree – Rock n Roll has come a long way – from Louie Louie to the music of Dream Theater. Rock n Roll has evolved from party guitar stomp into an art form – the musical contributions by numerous outfits of varying styles over the last 45 years has put the “Classic Rock” and subsequent “Progressive Rock” stylings of the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s SOUND on the map of ‘timeless classic music’ with the same credence of genius as Beethoven, Bartok or Bach. 

 In 1988, while living at Barrington Hall, a student cooperative at UC Berkeley where the Dead Kennedys and Primus and many other Bay Area local bands played in the 1980’s at our Wine Dinner parties – the Primus song Frizzle Fry tells of that Acid Punch party in 1987 – during this time, one of our Barrington house members ‘Nils’, a UC Berkeley Music major – composed Stravinski’s Rite of Spring for guitar, bass, drums, violin, and flute – which Nils’s band Acid Rain, an RnR quartet, performed lived – their musicians often changing instruments in an instrumental drama of wordless discourse and diatribe. Purely instrumental.  Monumental.

Showcasing this classical music extravaganza – the theatrical bunch called Acid Rain in the 80’s, Idiot Flesh in the 90’s – performed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the grassy lawn in front of the Music Building on the UC Berkeley campus that spring afternoon in 1988. We were all better people because of that performance. 

 If God really existed, he/she would have been turning summersaults.

After the initial recital of Stravinski’s Rite of Spring out on the lawn, Acid Rain finished their show; that is, they played original RnR for the next 25 minutes, closing with the RnR classic Free Bird. Gene Jun, the other guitarist/singer, cigarette dangling from his lips, Korean by ethnicity, long black hair opposite Nils with his Nordic blonde locks, and Brian Walls on bass with his long blonde hair and flip flops – they were RocknRoll Gods for a Day on that lawn with nothing but music and marijuana and someone had macaroons, so all munchies were spoken for, or would be in a perfect world. 

There’s something about Rock Music. There is something about music performed live. There is no hierarchy except in terms of time signatures and rhythms and complexities of melodies and pulsating bass lines and strings that crescendo in a crash that bring tears to human’s eyes, if there is a feeling boned body in the audience. Gene and Nils grew up on 70’s rock, created a colossal RnR band in the 80’s, but by the 90’s Idiot Flesh’s music drew its strength from the ideology which they promoted – Rock Against Rock.  Their theory, based on the writings of black mathematician John Kane, was that Rock had ramified into so many different subheadings and styles by the end of the 80’s that Rock would eventually turn on itself and be destroyed – Idiot Flesh’s theatrical showcases expressed this absurd, nihilistic view of RnR music. Idiot Flesh made incredible music.

 Twenty five years earlier, in the mid-sixties, a British rock band called the Yardbirds, at one time, had three of RnR’s all time greatest guitar players together on one stage.

The first, Eric Clapton, needs no introduction. And, actually, he was REPLACED by Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds, so the three were never actually IN the band together. Still, I’m sure they jammed together a great deal, as did Clapton with KRichards and Mitch Mitchell and John Lennon on rhythm guitar and vocals in the Rolling Stones 1968 movie, Rock n Roll Circus.   

Eric Clapton is considered one of the greatest blues/rock guitarists of all time. I’ve seen him live many times – I saw Eric Clapton live in Seoul in 1998 at Olympic Stadium, as well as at the old Universal Ampitheater in 1985 in Universal City and he rocked both times.

But I think, what has made Clapton so great is not so much his guitar prowess, as much as his proximity to genius – Clapton’s ability to be in bands with other musical prodigies. 

Clapton left the Yardbirds and went on to work with GBaker and JBruce in the power trio of Cream. Clapton later collaborated with Steve Winwood and made the legendary Blind Faith album, which accompanied me on my mp3 player through India and Nepal for my 5 month odyssey in 2009 and never ceased to entertain. I am wasted and I can’t find my way home.  Eric was also part of Derek and the Dominoes. Plus, Eric’s had a pretty solid career for the last 40 years following his departure from the Yardbirds. Clapton’s elite – Cocaine, Layla, Lay Down Sally, Forever Man. I’m not that big a fan, but still, Clapton’s elite. Where is he now?

Let’s look at Jimmy Page – Jimmy left The Yardbirds to form Led Zeppelin, and then later the Firm. From 1973 until Eddie Van Halen came on the scene at the end of the 70’s, Jimmy Page was considered THE GREATEST ROCK N ROLL GUITARIST IN THE WORLD – That’s no mere Grammy, that’s about as elite as you can get. Jimmy Page – every rock guitarist’s wet dream – where is he now?

Page and Clapton – what have they done lately?

That leaves only one guitarist – Jeff Beck. Jimmy Page said in an interview back when Zeppelin was formed in 1967 that Beck basically taught him how to play guitar. What bands did Beck go on to play with? Who the fuck is Jeff Beck?

Jeff Beck, before forming the Jeff Beck Group, played with Rod Stewart and Ronnie Lane and Ron Wood who later formed the Faces, but for the most part, over the last 45 years, Jeff Beck has been an instrumentalist, a soloist – the front man of his own instrumental orchestra. And, ever since the sixties, Jeff Beck has worn this stylish mop of black hair – the quintessential Mick Richards coif – you can picture Beck stumbling around London bars with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, all with their big hair, space boots, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, can’t understand a single word they say.

It was strange because when I saw Jeff Beck headlining last Saturday night on Aprils 16th at the Nokia Theater, I would’ve have never have believed that – the man on stage with his sunglasses, silver space boots and muscle shirt, with wide silver rings around his bicep and wrists like a Viking – Jeff Beck is 67 years old!

I grew up listening to the albums Wired and Blow By Blow (1975&1976), songs like Led Boots, and Blue Wind, and Good-bye Porky Pie Hat, Head for Backstage Pass. Beck’s music falls largely into the category of PROGRESSIVE ROCK, but it is so much more.

After Hendrix and Clapton and Page turned the electric guitar into a solo instrument, a whole new genre of music emerged. Bands like Genesis, Yes, Rush, even Pat Metheny and Al Demiola, who claimed to be ‘jazz’ but they were just as much noodlers as the others. Rock with keyboards and endless scales and musicians who took it to the limit (to quote the Eagles) transformed RnR from some angst driven drivel to a sophisticated art form. Kurt Cobain and David Bowie really straddled the line between the two, and in doing so have given the world some of the greatest music ever written.

In 1970, shortly after the bombing of Cambodia by the US army, which Nixon’s America tried to bury, but could not, Neil Young assembled the members of CSN and told them, “I’ve written a song. We have to get it out.” Within the week, Ohio was recorded, pressed to a 45 (it would never be released on album, except later in a ‘hits’ collection) and distributed to radio stations around the country. 

True RnR has always been right there in the thick of it. 

While all this classic rock was being brought into the mainstream in the early 1970’s, classically trained musicians from Europe like the Shenker Brothers, Michael and Rudolph, formed their bands – UFO and The Scorpions, which emerged featuring these guitarists that played faster than anyone had every seen. Dream Theater, Inwie Malmsteen, and others all came from this.

And at the same time, those who criticized this terribly complicated array of scales and time signatures – all under the heading of rock, couldn’t help but be entranced by ONE individual who seemed to characterize all this musical evolution of insanely scripted melodies and notes; and who surrounded himself with the most talented of musicians in the 1970’s playing complex rhythms and melodies; but instead of the ‘usual lyrics’ which appealed primarily to DnD addled 15 year olds who’d just discovered marijuana, this musician’s lyrics were comical – singing about the Zombie Woof, and Stink Foot, and Nanook of the North, and Big Legged Emma. I’m talking about Frank Zappa.

This Saturday night, I had the pleasure to catch in concert, a double bill. Headlining the show was The Jeff Beck Group, with a full orchestra. The opening act was Zappa plays Zappa.

I’ve written about a band called Caress of Steel, a Rush Tribute band, where I said that the Music of Rush, is very similar to that of Mozart, in that, years later, it can still be enjoyed LIVE, performed by musicians NOT the original.

This is a testament to the fact that some RnR music is an art form. Not all, some. Furthermore, the instrumentation of Rush’s music is phenomenally complex and there is no reason why their music, or Zappa’s music should not be enjoyed LIVE by future generations. 

In the case of the music of Frank Zappa, it was about 5 years ago that Dweezil, the son of the late Frank Zappa, first assembled the musicians who worked with his father – Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and others and sat down and learned several hours of his father music and then toured the world – the US, Europe, Asia playing their two and ½ hour show, different songs on different nights. 

This time around, Dweezil has assembled younger musicians – he actually had a small band – Himself on guitar and vocals, a bass player, a drummer, and second guitar player, a percussionist/xylophone player, and this African American woman, who did all the female vocal parts, played the keyboards and sax and flute. And there was a second vocalist.

You could tell at the end of their show that they wanted to play more. They couldn’t. You could see it in Zappa’s eyes. He wanted to play longer. Still, they jammed as many songs as they could into their 70 minute set and it was plenty. They opened with the instrumental Apostrophe, and did many songs including: Nanook, Stinkfoot, Purple Lagoon, Montana!

Jeff Beck played a little over 90 minutes. He had a small band – bass, drums, keyboards, himself; plus, he had a full orchestra behind him that came in and out, via the lighting. They made really smooth transitions between the big band, and the small band – each member of the small band had his/her showcase – Beck’s bass player was an African-American woman.

Jeff Beck closed his show with an instrumental version of the Beatles, A Day in the Life. The song ended with that sustained crash of strings that we’ve all heard so many thousands of times at the end of the song on the album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.



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