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A way of life collapses: What were they thinking?

I’m sitting here in the dark — figuratively speaking — no Internet or cell phone service.

There’s no power at my house at the moment (leaving me no access to the column I had written over the weekend). I can’t draw on the resources of Web sites or Wikipedia. It might as well be the dark ages.

Cannibalism is sure to follow. We’re already dressed like a bunch of extras from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

I doubt I’ll be selected for eating; I’m rather thin, not much meat and, what there is is probably tough.

We look to the younger members of the staff and lick our lips.

Thus, if I have chops, the time to bust them out is at this very moment. Free-style, improvise. Work this like Ornette Coleman on “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”

Which seems appropriate given the circumstances, as we await uncertain and ignominious fate.

Sometimes an artist or band releases something so revolutionary, so different, so inexplicably “out there” that it gives the listener pause to think, “What were they thinking?” (after the initial, “Wow. Simply wow”).

Might as well give that a go and give a shout out to those albums, as I said, with some improvisational elan. With no Internet (a cut fiber optic cable that was not buried deep in the ground — “What were they thinking?”), we have nothing to lose; much in the spirit in the sides discussed, here.

Last week I confessed to some awful artifacts still taking up space in my music collection. I asked “What was I thinking?” and I hope readers had a similar experience, asking, “What was he thinking?” (Karl certainly had that reaction when I ratted myself out regarding the Dave Matthews Band). This week, however, I want to admit to some selections I own that causes the listener to ask, “What were they thinking?” in that the release was so outside the mainstream or so oddly beautiful that they stand far beyond their peers — if there are any.

In this space, I’ve already discussed two of those: The Velvet Underground and Nico (my maiden column) and Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. Both of those disks were so radically different than anything that was being done at the time that listeners had to ask themselves, “What were they thinking?”

Pet Sounds introduced the artful possibilities of the studio at a time when multi-tracking and added sounds were unheard of, a time when cutting a record was essentially a live performance in the studio. In fact, The Beatles acknowledged that without “Pet Sounds” there would not have been a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Velvet Underground and Nico was almost the opposite in its effect, raw and primitive to an almost disconcerting level. Produced two years after Pet Sounds, TVU&N rejected the ornate production values that became the norm after the influence of Pet Sounds took hold in the recording industry. Likewise, whereas most records at that time were awash in flower power and the “make love not war” ethos of the era, TVU&N dealt with drug addiction, violence, sexuality that was miles away from the “free love” attitude of moment and a view of life on the streets that was definitely harshing the buzz that was so ubiquitous at the time.

Fortunately, those two albums broke the doors wide open, clearing the path for all other artists to create work that would allow us to ask, “What were they thinking?”

Released a year and a half after Pet Sounds, “We’re Only In It For the Money,” by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention took a well-deserved poke at Sgt. Pepper’s (with a parody of the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover), and extended the studio possibilities, that Brian Wilson had made manifest on Pet Sounds, to unprecedented heights.

Using what Zappa called “montage editing” to place snippets of noise as counterpoints to recurring thematic elements, the Mothers created four sides of challenging (and often, confusing) music that set casual listeners of rock and roll wondering what the whole affair was supposed to mean.

It was to Warner Brothers’ credit that it conceded to the Mothers’ demands that “We’re Only In It For the Money” be released as a double album. Not only were double albums unheard of at the time (with the exception of classical releases), but doing so as a debut album was an act of sheer insanity. The album contained no obvious singles for radio programming and the entire release was a caustic satire of the hippie culture that ruled rock and roll at the time.

Someone at Warner Brothers must have recognized Zappa’s unquestionable talent and obvious genius. Influenced by 20th-century classical composer Edgar Varese, the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, along with a genuine affection for ’50s doo-wop, Zappa created a kind of rock and roll that would, for better or worse, give permission to bands like Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer to do what they did, giving birth to the entire “art rock” or “prog rock” movement.

Zappa was not done, however: Not only did he extend his ideas over the next few years with “Freak Out” and “Absolutely Free,” he also helped produce “Trout Mask Replica” for Mothers member and collaborator Dave Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart).

Truly one of the weirdest albums ever produced, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band create a brand of crazy blues, twisted rock and roll and extreme psychedelia that confounds description or categorization. Using his voice as an instrument (that had an incredible three-octave range, Beefheart drew heavily on the Mothers collective to create an unprecedented sound (even by Zappa’s standards) and would not be replicated for at least a decade (with bands like Pere Ubu, Tin Huey or, in instances, the Talking Heads).

While “We’re Only In It For the Money” and “Trout Mask Replica” remained on the margins for most contemporary listeners at the time, gaining critical acclaim but negligible commercial success, “Are You Experienced,” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was embraced by American listeners as something light years beyond anything heard at the time.

With Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding providing rhythm for Hendrix more in the tradition of a jazz trio than a rock band (not playing behind Hendrix so much as playing around him), “Are You Experienced” not only showcased Hendrix as the premier rock and roll guitarist — a distinction that remains and may always stand — but created a sound for rock and roll that was as thundering as it was skilled.

While bands like the Who and the Yardbirds had experimented with feedback (the noise that comes when sounds from a speaker are passed through a guitar’s pick ups), none had used it with as much control and skill as Hendrix had done, actually using feedback as a compositional element.

Furthermore, while guitarists like Jeff Beck, Jimi Page and Eric Clapton (all Yardbirds alums) were putting the electric guitar front and center in rock, it was Hendrix who defined what rock lead guitar playing was and would become on “Are You Experienced.” His playing on the album is far beyond anything recorded at the time and he displays a skill and expertise and mastery that few guitarists could even begin to match.

Next week (if there is one), I’ll write about more modern examples of “What were they thinking?” as the trend, thankfully continues to the present.

Fires have been lit and knives are being sharpened, as we continue to sit here in the dark at The SUN. As Hunter S. Thompson used to say, “Big Dark soon come.” If we survive being plunged into the realm of the primitive, you’ll get the column I’ve promised.

Fortunately, my iPod has enough “What were they thinking?” selections to keep us in the light.

jim@pagosasun.com