Over The Hill: Bitches Brew & Fun House

It could be said that the 70s were a schizophrenic decade set on either purifying rock n’ roll (Sabbath, Zeppelin), putrefying rock n’ roll (Styx, Bee Gees), complicating rock n’ roll (Rush, Yes), glossing rock n’ roll (Bowie, T-Rex), or starting from scratch (Ramones, Sex Pistols). Inasmuch as the 60s as a whole, (The Beatles and The Stones especially), can justifiably lay claim to the progression of rock music, even if its foundations were poured in the 50s by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, I believe the 70s have had the most profound and timeless effect on what we consider “rock,” especially with art and punk colliding and jazz and rock learning to coexist. In both you have Bitches Brew and Fun House, two diametrically opposed worlds birthed by a shared understanding that their respective genres had reached a peak. It was time to think differently once the 60s were over.

Cover art for Rhino's 2005 Fun House reissue
The same could be said for idealistic views of peace and love, as most of those weekend warriors caught up in the vibe of free love and expanded consciousness eventually bought into the American dream anyway, wound up voting for Reagan and propagated the generational cynicism that supplied 80s hardcore its vitriol and 90s alternative its disillusionment. As far as “peace and love” was concerned, The Stooges had already dispensed with that lie, focusing instead on twat vibes, low minds and feeling “dirt,” a snarling abrasiveness lacing every yelp from Iggy Pop’s throat and Ron Asheton drawing anti-notes and kerrangs from his six-string with Detroit Rock vigor. The Stooges were, as history has told, a natural step in the devolution and dismantling of 60s rock n’ roll, The Velvet Underground and The MC5 already cultivating anti-hippie radicalism by bringing a sense of citified grit and street-infused poetry to the chagrin of sundazed flowerchildren begging for change at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, their collective two-fingered “V” stagnating the San Franciscan air. One year after Woodstock, Fun House was bred to offend.




It isn’t as if sex, drugs and rock n’ roll suffered at the hands of hippie-dom; the unholy trinity was alive and well. The Stooges, though, bore less a musical and meditative brand, Iggy an intense performer and the loud simplicity of the music, (although that’s debatable since Fun House has yet to be perfectly facsimiled), repetitious, obnoxious and even a little confrontational. The sex was in your face, lines like “I’ll stick it deep inside” (“Loose”) sort of canceling out any need for interpretative contemplation.

But, aside from the album’s lyrical candor, the music seemed meant to pummel and degrade whatever height the previous era had achieved with Lennon/McCartney, Dylan, Hendrix, Richards or Clapton. “TV Eye,” “1970” and “Fun House” were all in relentless pursuit of aural battery, Steve Mackay’s saxophone even diminishing jazz’s artistic integrity to some extent.

And while jazz may have suffered at The Stooges’ behest, Miles Davis, a veritable institution in the world of jazz music, also saw a need to begin anew. Davis saw a new future in Sly & The Family Stone, James Brown and Hendrix, so he began to incorporate those sounds into his music, thereby fashioning jazz fusion. Before Bitches Brew, Davis had already worked with jazz keyboardist, Joe Zawinul, in recording In A Silent Way, his first true foray into this new blend of jazz and electricity.



In the same way The Stooges began to tread their way into an anti-mainstream with their self-titled debut, In A Silent Way was the quiet before the storm of Bitches Brew: two LPs of jazz-infused tantrums that essentially dictated the next forty years in avant-garde and progressive music. But, also in the vein of The Stooges, Davis found loops. Jazz itself was already based on the principals of improvisation over steady rhythm, (at least this was what Davis had explored via his period with the second great quintet), but the rock version of repetition: persistent, unchanging bass lines and percussion, chugging rhythms that allowed for sporadic trumpet blasts and keyboard and guitar builds, this was a perversion of Charlie Parker’s grand insult to swinging jazz, be-bop’s powers of corruption plugged into a mass of “turned on” individuals. Try and wrap your head around the 27 minutes it takes to listen to the title track, Davis trading his brass exhalations with Chick Corea and Zawinul, an eerie and thick bass line making itself known. And then the drum kicks: maddening, frustrated, chaotic with spells of mild order transpiring as if the music itself needs to relax.

Cover art for
Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition
In both instances, whether seen as the epitome of Detroit trash or the misguided whim of an otherwise dependably reputable auteur, both albums challenge the conventional wisdom of rock music by making it what it should always be: Unconventional. Forty years later, both Fun House and Bitches Brew are appreciated for the liberation they’d offered, given credit for undoing the notion that there’s a school of thought for music meant to inspire and alter perceptions. The school of capitalization, however: Check out Rhino Handmade’s 7-disc 1970: The Complete Fun House Sessions, or Rhino’s 2005 2-disc Fun House reissue and Columbia/Legacy’s The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions released in 1998, or the new 6-disc Bitches Brew: 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition.

After “Feio,” Davis jests, “Ssssssssock it to me!” as if to both honor and abandon his esteemed reputation, almost like he’d realized the album he’d just finished was going to lead him into a new artistic world full of possibilities and uncertainty. The Stooges proper were no longer after Fun House, James Williamson joining the band later on and aiding in creating the seminal Raw Power LP as part of the renamed Iggy & The Stooges.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead
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