A Brief History of Experimental Rock


Experimental rock – aka “avant garde” – is the lowly, deformed, bastard child of classic rock & roll music. She was sired in the turbulent and decadent 1960s, producing offspring of her own by the names of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Sun Ra, John Cale, The Residents, and several others. She even temporarily adopted a few major label pop acts of the 60s like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Pink Floyd.

The most common thread in experimental rock musicians is an eagerness to “wank it”, musically speaking. For example:

  • Experimental rock composers are all interested in being interesting. Its an experience, man!
  • Art school dropouts (or even bona fide, earning artists) are disproportionately represented among the experimental rock band community

1970s

Things did get significantly better in the 1970s, however. Frank Zappa cut the Mothers of Invention loose and recruited a fleet of top-notch studio musicians who could realize his sometimes-bizarre creations with such pleasing exactitude that that harsh pill of experimentalism just went down easier for listeners.

On the other hand, Brian Eno and his “ambient” cohort came on the scene in the 70s, too. That was one movement in music we could’ve done without. It was good that Eno tried to enact composer Paul Hindemith’s well-intentioned Gebrauchsmusik philosophy – which was to create “useful” music. Think about it – where would the massage industry be without the canned drip-drip sounds and far-off reverberating mandolins that Eno’s pioneering ambient albums of the 70s made possible?

1980s

Ahh… the era of Sonic Youth. That band set the template for MCALBHYIBMusic Critics Aspiring to Lick The Boots of Hot Young Indie Bands. By the time Radiohead came along 15 years later, those critics had perfected the boot-licking to an art. Listen – I’m not saying Sonic Youth didn’t put out some great songs. I’m just saying that they started the album sequencing cliche of the silly, goofy noise experiments interspersed among songs of real quality and rock and roll drive. Critics hailed them as visionaries for those stupid experiments, when they should’ve been respected for the well-crafted songs that had…horrors…a verse, a chorus and a verse!

It may be a stretch to include John Zorn in the Experimental Rock category, since he has actual skill, training and musical knowledge. But his “hardcore” work in the late 80s with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and others was some of the nastiest, freshest experimental music ever. One needs to be in a schizoid mood to handle it, but still…solid.

1990s

Did I mentioned Radiohead yet? They came up in the 90s, but like Sonic Youth they were also a good group of traditional rock song writers. But the 90s were actually a very good time for slightly experimental rock. Guided By Voices came up in the early 90s, there was Beck doing his thing, and of course the seminal madness of Mr. Bungle.

Mr. Bungle deserves its own paragraph. This was/is the favored project of major label act Faith No More’s lead singer Mike Patton. They cop to being disciples of Zorn and Zappa, but they earn all props for their hilarious, virtuosic and very heavy spin on experimental pop.

2000s and Today

Like in most genres of popular music, experimental rock and roll these days is just exploding. The low barrier to recording and production technology and skill acquisition, the leveled playing field distribution, the internet and all its liberating glories – these have all conspired to make the 21st century the inevitable heyday for avant garde rock. I suggest simply listening to the Pandora stream for “experimental”, or thumbing through Bandcamp’s archives to hear the amazing music bands are producing today.