Rock Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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Machine Head

Deep Purple

Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” lives wherever guitars are sold. Like its obvious model, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” it’s an insanely memorable riff that boils rock and roll down to an easily mastered (and endlessly repeatable) four-bar code. It still crawls regularly from the din of amateur hour in the guitar department, an easy shortcut to cool for misfit kids.

It’s also the rare rock song that describes the circumstances of its creation—“Smoke” tells how the five-piece Deep Purple, then just beginning to attract attention, had its recording plans derailed by a fire. Under pressure to create its seventh album quickly, the band had rented the famous Casino in Montreux, Switzerland, and the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio. The night before the recording was to start, an audience member (“some stupid” in the song) fired a flare gun into the ceiling during a performance by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. The resulting fire sent smoke all over the coastal area, ruined the venue, and forced Deep Purple to scramble for an alternate location. They landed in the vacant Grand Hotel, where they set up in corridors and had to walk through a mazelike series of rooms and balconies to reach the recording equipment.

Though the arena-rattling “Smoke on the Water” was the band’s breakthrough (and the reason the album hit the top five in the U.S. and sold over two million copies in a year), it’s perhaps the least musically substantial offering on Machine Head. The other tracks show Deep Purple differentiating itself from the heavy-rock heavyweights (Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin) then ruling England: The opener, “Highway Star,” scoots along, sleek and almost jazzlike, a caterwauling groove that inspires one of the most demonically intricate solos in the hard rock canon. Each track is rendered with steady-handed precision, and is spiked by head-swiveling solos that all but taunt aspiring axmen: “Sure, you can cop the riff, but let’s see you do this!”

GENRE: Rock.
RELEASED: 1972, Warner Bros.
KEY TRACKS: “Highway Star,” “Space Truckin’.



Like many self-styled punks of the late 1980s, Ian MacKaye of the seminal Washington, D.C., bands Minor Threat and Fugazi talked the ideological talk, railing about the evils of corporate music and the soul-rotting effects of consumer culture. But unlike many of his peers, who eventually went into business with major labels and compromised their values, MacKaye actually walked the walk. As both a musician and a label owner, he used all available business leverage to advocate what he thought best for his audiences. He insisted on cheap tickets (at the height of Fugazi’s popularity, admission was usually $15, with no service charge) and cheap CDs, and no liquor or tobacco advertising.

MacKaye became more of a hero for his thinking—he pioneered the clean-living approach that came to be known as “straightedge” within the hardcore punk community—than for the music his bands made. That’s unfortunate, because when future generations look beyond the MacKaye media profile, they’ll discover an iteration of punk that was both intelligent and thrilling, and far more original than many scenesters at the time recognized. Named for Vietnam-era GI slang (Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In), Fugazi built an abrasive attack from two disciplined overlapping guitars (played by MacKaye and Guy Picciotto) and chanted taunts expressing varying levels of outrage. “Merchandise” is typical: Over an almost Neanderthal, gleefully mangled ska beat, MacKaye and company imagine themselves as evil shopkeepers, yelling the refrain, “We owe you nothing, you have no control.”

Repeater, the band’s full-length debut, is American hardcore with energy to burn. Though the lyrics do tend to hit MacKaye’s pet themes over and over (could that explain the title?), the music moves all over the place—as they progress, these wound-too-tight tunes touch dub reggae and island polyrhythm as well as scalding free jazz and four-on-the-floor rock. All of it feels guided by a strong sense of purpose, which might be the X factor missing from so much hardcore: When every other punk band was selling out and cashing in, Fugazi stayed true to its ideals. It didn’t cave when it easily (and profitably) could have. Even in the soul-sucking music business, that oughta count for something.

GENRE: Rock.
RELEASED: 1990, Dischord.
KEY TRACKS: “Turnover,” “Merchandise,” “Greed,” “Sieve-Fisted Find.



Choppy, hiccuping grooves? Check. Endlessly long solos from a flamboyant guitarist? Check. Vaguely exotic sounds? Check. Yup, it’s jazz-rock fusion all right. Yet somehow Gong’s finely-tuned Gazeuse! neatly sidesteps the clichés associated with the form. It’s a totally engrossing journey, one of the few fashion records that’s plenty verbose yet doesn’t get tangled up in its own discourse.

Gong began, in the early ‘70s, as an exceptionally versatile band intent on exploring new amalgamations of jazz and rock. Camembert Electrique (1971), masterminded by the Australian guitarist, vocalist, and mythmaker Daevid Allen, told of life on Planet Gong, and introduced a cast of whispering gnomes and Pothead Pixies who hung around for three similarly spacey subsequent albums. Then came a huge shake-up. Allen and others left, and the band ditched the interstellar conceits to emphasize muscular, hard-driving, super-intense instrumental music.

Virtuoso drummer Pierre Moerlen, the band’s new leader, put together a frontline consisting of two mallet players, on vibraphone and marimba—they sometimes play together, but often their lines overlap and interlock, connecting ancient (the wood of marimba) with modern (the metallic ping of the vibraphone), tribal ritual with subway ride. Into that latticework steps Allan Holdsworth, a demonically inventive guitar soloist whose approach changes depending on the atmosphere. He lunges and snarls like a heavy-metal god, and then, when the rhythm’s more funky, plays a twisted melody that sounds like the aural representation of a calculus equation.

When Holdsworth’s playing, this band sounds like it’s on a purposeful quest. A notoriously technical musician, he may have a ton to say, but doesn’t feel compelled to say it all at once. He moves over these percolating soundscapes with the patience of a great storyteller, and as you follow his thoughts on the swervy “Night Illusion” and the booty-shaking “Ensnuria,” you can’t help wondering how fusion ever got such a bad name. This bubbly stuff sure doesn’t deserve it.

GENRE: Rock.
RELEASED: 1976, Virgin.
KEY TRACKS: “Night Illusion,” “Percolations.

Exile in Guyville

Liz Phair

Liz Phair’s lo-fi debut Exile in Guyville got lots of attention for its forthright lyrics—on one song she advises a lover that she wants to be his “blowjob queen,” on another she casually mentions that she’s been getting rough treatment from boys since she was twelve. Phair used this luridness to give her relationship snafus an uncomfortable level of detail. The words helped draw the initial attention, but it was the music that ultimately set her apart from everything else in indie rock: This eighteen-song cycle is overstuffed with sweet, insinuating melodies, and offhand remarks that blossom into breathtaking gorgeous refrains.

The mostly homemade Exile sprays Phair’s musings across an ambitious range of music. There are several grinding Rolling Stones–style rockers—Phair once claimed, somewhat preposterously, that her album was a track-by-track “response” to Exile on Main St. These are offset by giddy pop confections like “Never Said,” which masks its bitterness behind an exuberant harmony chorus, and trembling, tentative waltzes that catch Phair singing in a kind of swan-diving free fall. At once elegant and primitive, Exile is that rare debut loaded with such a dizzying range of leaps and zingers, you begin to wonder whether all of them came from the pen of the same artist.

Exile was all Phair, and it made her more than a star—she became a spokesperson and symbol for countless struggling female rockers. Ten years later, after a series of erratic follow-ups, Phair did an artistic spinout: She hired the Matrix, the L.A. pop production team that created immense hits for Avril Lavigne and others. The result was the awkward Liz Phair, which attempted to graft Exile in Guyville’s brazenness onto polished Lavigne-like girl-pop—exactly the kind of inane stuff Phair would have ridiculed during the Exile era.

GENRE: Rock.
RELEASED: 1993, Matador.
KEY TRACKS: “Johnny Sunshine,” “Never Said,” “Stratford on Guy,” “Flower.”