Secret Understanding: The Idiomatic Breadth Between Maximalism and Minimalism

Over the course of a creative cycle spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the incendiary musical form known as rock underwent a series of categorical reductions. But since most of those categories were devoid of musical concretes, their meanings were all but trivial. For when rock is broken down to its core foundations, there are merely two distinct outgrowths of the music: maximalism and minimalism. This is not to say that those two streams were devoid of any stylistic range; but that the developments were more associative than the factionalists cared to recognize. Therefore, I set out to chart the genesis of maximalism and minimalism in the annals of rock, and examine the variables of idiomatic breadth which the two streams attained.

First we need to define the traits which embody minimalism and maximalism within the context of rock. Minimalism in rock is an eschewal of musicality, marked by skeletal, abrasive and atonal sonic scars of the rawest nature. Skeletal traits are bore through a paucity of instrumentation and compositional breadth; rudimental songs played by tiny combos. Abrasiveness stems from tunnel frequency, in which traits like bludgeoning volume and fogbound murk are employed to lock listeners into a single state of mind. Atonality is symptomatic of carpus inertia, in which the player’s lack of tactility obliterates the fundaments of musicality for un-centered and often shapeless noises.

Maximalism in rock is an embrace of musicality, embodied through expressions of complexity, eclecticism and grandeur at the highest level. Complexity is achieved when musicians maximize the elements of composition and musicality, exploring variant song structures to the utmost extent, with full regard to melody, harmony, rhythm, sonority, lyrics, meter and counterpoint. Eclecticism is mastered when musicians achieve a synthesis of styles with adept instrumental latitude, fusing various idiomatic impulses in the spirit of creation. Grandeur is reached through presentational dynamism, in which performers transcend themselves through theatrical showmanship, elaborate stagecraft and heroic virtuosity; frozen through time in lavish, state of the art productions.

Background: From Static to Flexible Foundationalism

Rock n’ roll coalesced during the mid-1950s, as touring blues and country players throughout the eastern and southern regions of the United States fed from the musical breadth of the cross-cultural landscape; mutually radiating this explosive new form. The music swiftly caught hold because of its accessibility to upstart musicians, who could easily adopt to this raw idiom and cut cheap records with their own lean combo’s; free from the constricts of formal training and costly orchestration which had been the requisites of pre-rock pop. But rock n’ roll rescinded after a few short years due to its stylistic limitations, with performers having exhausted the twelve-bar blues structure inherent to this primarily rhythmic form. Likewise, the American public shifted upstream, for rock n’ roll started to sound uniform once the racy novelty of its chief performers had worn off. In retrospect, rock n’ roll of the 1950s could be viewed as the makeshift form of budding musicians who ultimately aspired to attain mastery of their formative idioms: country, bluegrass and blues.

Rock didn’t die entirely, however, for its torch soon passed overseas. By the dawn of the 1960s, rock itself had become a formative idiom for the young musicians of England, who stripped the music to its unfettered core, dressed it with the flexible strum of folk, and applied the melodic idiosyncrasies of their own music hall tradition, thereupon fusing a new and revitalized form of rock which, owing to its locale of origin, became known to the world as Merseybeat. Given the broadened musicality now embedded into rock, the music could only progress from this point forward. The static nature of 1950s rock had rendered the music a passing fad; the expansive richness of 1960s rock transformed the music into an art form of global vitality and cross-generational sustenance.

The rock generation’s march to the maximalist summit commenced in 1964, spearheaded by the worldwide outbreak of Beatlemania and the attendant British Invasion. Buoyed by the notion that rock could now comprise a multitude of shapes, thousands of new musicians arose during the second half of the 1960s to expand upon this vast creative template. Over the ensuing lustrum, dynamic strides were made in developing the musicological tenets of melody, harmony, sonority, meter and compositional syntax within the framework of rock, with each successive year comprising an epoch unto itself.

Melody, the highest line of formal composition, flooded into the mainframe of rock upon the initial clutch of Beatles releases during 1964, with the unique patterns of “Please Please Me” and “All My Loving” serving to free this music from twelve-bar confines once and for all. Harmony, the combination of notes and sounds, was only foreign to rock in the chordal sense; the Everly Brothers, the Four Seasons and the Beach Boys had fused vocal harmonies with rock in the immediate years beforehand. But harmolodics – or the fusion of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements – commenced in this mid-1960s flurry, abetted by the chordal harmonies inaugurated through the dual-guitar interplay heard on the Searchers seminal “Needles and Pins”. Sonority, or the character of sound, was first addressed in rock with the pioneering releases of 1964 and 1965 which transformed the sonic identity of instrumentation. Examples include the manicured feedback of “I Feel Fine” by the Beatles, and the sitar-like buzz coursing through “Heart Full of Soul” by the Yardbirds. Even more influential to the sonic shape of rock was the development of raw waveforms through guitar pedals and amplifiers, as popularized by the chordal distortion on “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks, and through the fuzz-laden effects of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones.

The preceding developments infused rock with a newfound complexity, which greatly broadened the music’s compositional syntax, or the pattern of formation regarding song structure. Breaking earliest from the diatonic confines of blues and pop were the classically-trained Zombies, who ushered lateral shifts upon rock foundationalism with the fluid, jazzy chromatics embedded in their lilting hits “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”. The Zombies further distinguished themselves through their introduction of dramatic, theatrically affected vocalizations into the context of rock; an approach more lavishly presented by bands in the virtuous years ahead. But in the playgrounds of 1965, structural expansion was most immediately employed through cross-cultural assimilation, as international touring exposed musicians to foreign sounds and modalities. A stop in Bombay, India by the Kinks inspired their front-man, Ray Davies, to compose the first raga-rock tune, “See My Friends”, which set a circular scale against a continuously sounded note, or drone. By the close of 1965, rock had developed from delinquent to wunderkind.

1966 would mark the graduation of rock into a mature form, as propelled by the newly harnessed medium of the long player, or LP. Though the format had been in existence since 1948, LPs had been maximized primarily by purveyors of serious idioms like jazz and classical. But now that rock itself was becoming a more serious musical form, the challenge was set for bands to refocus themselves; away from cuts and singles, and onto the album as a solid, cohesive unit. Thus 1966 marked the release of two seminal albums which redefined rock in terms of transcendent might, sonic grandeur and idiomatic breadth: the Beach Boys’ orchestral-laden Pet Sounds, and the Beatles’ eclectically woven Revolver.

Pet Sounds would ultimately serve as an initial demonstration of rock’s classical potential, but Revolver unveiled a myriad of templates for the ensuing years to come. Paul McCartney’s exuberant “Got to Get You into My Life” laid Stax and sax to a martial music-hall beat, presaging the brass rock style which rose to prominence by decade’s end. Meanwhile, the frontal four-square bassline which punctuated George Harrison’s “Taxman” would set precedent for one of the leading urban genres over the next twenty years: funk. And John Lennon furthered the cross-cultural campaign with his kaleidoscopic “Tomorrow Never Knows”, in which echo-laden studio trickery wove through the drone of sitar strings, fashioning a most otherworldly creation.

But in spite of these singular accomplishments, 1966 was yet another year of baby steps in the annals of rock, with the majority of bands still hewing to simpler, garage-bound conventions. The jazz idiom – now alight in the thirdstream output of Miles Davis, the bossa nova craze imported from Brazil, and the newly emerged free form of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor – still held center stage in the grand scheme of musical artistry.

Triumph: The Ascendance of Rock into the Maximalist Stratosphere

Within a few short months of 1967, rock officially dethroned jazz in the kingdom of creation, for it was here that the instigative forces of maximalism and minimalism came into being. Maximalism was spawned by the June release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, in which the drive to usurp the broader idioms of music – rock, jazz, classical – into an all-encompassing meta-style was unveiled. Pepper presaged numerous futures, of which the most immediately employed was the ornamental whimsy of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which psychedelic upstarts Pink Floyd meshed with their own warped sonics on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. That autumn, the marriage of rock and classical, as proposed by the epic symphonic strides of “A Day in the Life”, was taken full-length with the integration of an orchestra on the Days of Future Passed LP by the Moody Blues.

Minimalism, meanwhile, was sounded by the emergence of the Velvet Underground in early 1967. On The Velvet Underground and Nico, they presented an utterly contrarian approach to musical progress, with the fuzzed-out simplicity of the dwindling garage rock style deconstructed here with droning, atonal elements. As with Sgt Pepper, the Velvet’s debut was pregnant with potential futures, from the brash pop skeletalism of “I’m Waiting for My Man”, to the piercing fractures which bring down “Heroin”. But for the time being, the Velvet’s rock minimalism would have to content itself as a party of one.

Things were much sunnier on the other side, as 1968 witnessed the gradual development of maximalism in the United Kingdom. Inspired by Pink Floyd and the comical elements of Sgt Pepper (“For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”), a slew of bands mined the style of popsike, which fused music-hall jauntiness with psychedelic phasing, replete with the lingering aftertaste of beat music. Amongst the numerous popsike bands were the colorful likes of Art, Blossom Toes, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Dantalian’s Chariot, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, the End, Grapefruit, the Idle Race, Jason Crest, Kaleidoscope, the Move, Nirvana, Orange Bicycle, Rainbow Ffolly, Skip Bifferty, the Syn, Tomorrow, and Timebox, all of whom charmed with brief bursts of toytown whimsy. Though most of these bands were short-lived, their personnel would feature in many of the more stable maximalist rock heavyweights that launched at the start of the 1970s.

In contrast to the above tweeness, a clutch of emergent blues-oriented combos strove for a gruffer sound, yet their penchant for virtuosic soloing and colossal amplification placed them firmly inline with the maximalist party. Either spawned or inspired by the English blues rock guru John Mayall, this gravelly route was tread by the likes of Blodwyn Pig, Chicken Shack, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Free, the Groundhogs, Gun, the Jeff Beck Group, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Love Sculpture, Savoy Brown, Spooky Tooth, Steamhammer, Taste, and Ten Years After. Though this wave of blues rock only lasted for a few years, its musicians were skilled enough to advance to more dynamist levels, as witnessed in the deification of Hendrix, the stadium rock stability of Free and Spooky Tooth, and the pop/rock transportation of the unstoppable Fleetwood Mac.

Even more important were the bands who added their own unique dimensions to the maximalist aesthetic. Traffic, Family, Jethro Tull and Man mixed rock, blues, folk and jazz into an ever-tightening hybrid over the course of their lengthy careers. Meanwhile, the appropriation of odd time signatures like 5/4 and 7/8 – imprints from the arcane corners of jazz – was spearheaded by Soft Machine, who forged a complex brand of asymmetric rock which remains influential to this day. Finally, the classical aspirations laid out by “A Day In the Life” and through the works of the Moody Blues was now furthered by such organ-rich ensembles as the Nice, Deep Purple, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and Procol Harum, the last of whom pioneered the side-long symphonic rock suite with their eighteen-minute epic “In Held ‘Twas in I.”

Amidst these shifting currents, rock’s prevailing lights set further afoot on the maximalist march. The Beatles consolidated their triumphs in compositional syntax with the anthemic balladry of “Hey Jude”, whose song-proper was bested by its swelling, elongated coda; a technique employed abundantly over the ensuing decade of album-oriented rock. Elongation loomed forevermore in the Rolling Stones’ seismic “Sympathy for the Devil”, the Zombies’ moody “Time of the Season”, and the Kinks’ melodramatic “Shangri-La”. The Who, meanwhile, saw their novelty ‘rock opera’ concept – which they first unveiled on the nine-minute suite “A Quick One While He’s Away” – taken full-length by the Pretty Things on S.F. Sorrow. This, in turn, inspired Pete Townshend to further develop the operatic concept, in tandem with his newfound fascination with philosophy: the genesis for the Who’s epochal Tommy double-set the following year.

Over on the minimalist aisle of 1968, the Velvet Underground met with further indifference from the outside world as they pressed their shrill, under-produced cacophony to the extreme on their sophomore release, White Light/White Heat.

1969 consolidated the prior year’s experiments by refining them all into superior forms of everlasting sustenance. Blues rock and heavy psych were compressed into the thunderous riffage, brawny solos and wailing vocals of the heavy metal style, as founded on the first two albums by Led Zeppelin. Elsewhere, the orchestral backdrops of the Moody Blues were channeled into the compact portability of the symphony-simulating Mellotron, which facilitated the rise of symphonic progressive rock, as unveiled on In the Court of the Crimson King, the debut album by King Crimson. Meanwhile, jazz musicians were taking note of rock’s advancing sophistication, prompting Miles Davis to electrify his ensemble for the seminal recording of In a Silent Way.

On the minimalist side, the Velvet Underground abandoned their dissonance for the bleak, skeletal, under-produced ditties which comprised their eponymous third album. Dissonance, however, was furthered by the second significant minimalist band to emerge: the Stooges, who employed bleating blasts of cacophony into a trebly and shrill deconstruction of the vastly emerging hard rock style.

As the 1970s beaconed, maximalism had taken full shape, with the symphonic range expanded by the fortuitous onset of Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant, Renaissance and Van Der Graaf Generator, while heavy metal solidified with the emergence of Black Sabbath, Atomic Rooster, Uriah Heep, UFO and a radically revamped Deep Purple. Elsewhere, African American ensembles such as Earth Wind & Fire, Funkadelic, Mandrill and War were combining brassy Stax stridency with a jam-based fluidity, forging a maximal form of R&B termed ‘funk’. Nearby, jazz and rock conjoined, with lavish brass-augmented groups like Chicago and Colosseum making the rock unit swing, whilst Miles graduates John McLaughlin and Tony Williams paired the best of both worlds into a style of utmost idiomatic breadth: fusion. And Pete Townshend continued to expand upon his influential rock opera concept, which would ultimately peak in 1973 with the Who’s towering chef d’oeuvre, Quadrophenia.

Plenitude: The Idiomatic Breadth of Maximalism

The early 1970s witnessed a fragmentation of the rock public as audiences divided into factionalist subsets: metalheads, progsters, folkies, etc. But considering how most of these soaring styles were figments of a greater maximalist myriad, this splintering speaks wonders of the idiomatic breadth comprised therein. For when the greater idioms are broken down to their core, there are essentially just three overall types of music: folk, jazz and classical. From its inception, rock was derived from two subsets of folk: blues and country. With Sgt Pepper, the march was on to usurp the greater idioms with a new meta-rock style. From the diaspora of this maximalist explosion emerged new hybrids of rock and jazz, rock and folk, and rock and classical. Let’s examine these hybrids to shed light on the strengths they drew from the maximalist aesthetic.

Chief amongst the hybrids of rock and classical music was the symphonic progressive style; henceforth known as ‘prog’. In terms of complexity, prog accounted for the most stratospheric strides of any genre within the rock era. Prog bands stretched the bounds of composition to a multitude of lengths, from twenty-minute suites in sonata and leitmotif form like “Close to the Edge” by Yes and “Suppers Ready” by Genesis, to ‘songs’ which comprised the entirety of a forty-minute LP, namely “Thick as a Brick” and “A Passion Play” by Jethro Tull. Prog bands were also highly eclectic in their use of instruments from a mix of styles and a span of periods, from the krummhorns and recorders heard in the music of Tudor-tinted progsters Gryphon, to the cellos, reeds and xylophones which intermingle on various tracks by Gentle Giant. Such eclecticism prompted a maximalist surge across foreign cultures, many of which had felt alienated by the earlier rock basics. Leading the international wave was Italy – the birthplace of the classical language itself – which by 1972 was brimming with such globally vital talents as Acqua Fragile, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Il Balletto di Bronzo, Le Orme, and Premiata Forneria Marconi; bands who variable enriched symphonic rock maximalism with their own operatic heritage.

Most crucial to the popular transcendence of prog, however, was the presentational dynamism of its leading lights. The members of King Crimson, Yes and Emerson Lake & Palmer wielded levels of instrumental dexterity heretofore unmatched in the annals of rock, with guitarists Robert Fripp and Steve Howe, keyboardists Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, bassists Chris Squire and John Wetton, and drummers Bill Bruford and Carl Palmer frequently topping musician’s polls in their respective categories throughout the 1970s. The virtuosity of these players enriched their music with utmost contrapuntal intensity, as displayed in the harmolodic counterpoint which featured in many a symphonic masterwork; from the interlocking arpeggios dueling throughout “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes and the Tarkus suite by Emerson Lake & Palmer, to the abstract filigree woven into “The Devils Triangle” and the Lizard suite by King Crimson. Furthermore, the lavish, palatial production sheen which graced the top-selling prog recordings have engendered an infinite lifespan of airplay for epics and evergreens like “Roundabout”, “Long Distance Runaround” and “Your Move/All Good People” by Yes, and the Emerson Lake & Palmer classics “Lucky Man”, “From the Beginning” and “Karn Evil 9”.

As the 1970s progressed, the prog style multiplied into various sub-forms. British artists like 10cc, Supertramp, Electric Light Orchestra, John Miles and the Alan Parsons Project combined the lush, symphonic fullness of Genesis and Yes with sprinklings of the music-hall jauntiness embedded in vintage tracks by the Beatles and the Kinks. Across North America, bands like Boston, Styx, Kansas, Heart and Rush propelled the epicism and grandeur of both prog and metal with a stridency owing more to the latter; which brings into question the maximalism of heavy metal.

Though heavy metal was more exclusively ‘rock’ in form, stemming as it did from the raunchier side of the blues rock boom, metal nonetheless wielded much the same level of presentational dynamism as prog. As musicologist Ed Macan has noted, masterful guitarists like Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath would often play the role of Romantic hero to their predominantly working class audiences; “the fearless individualist whose virtuoso exploits model an escape from social constraints” (1). Metal anthems were often rife in grandiose riffage, as beheld in “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and the Purple warhorses “Space Trucking” and “Smoke on the Water”. And as a further testament to their maximalism, the metal bands often fused their style with prog, as heard on the electro/acoustic buildup of “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, the organ-raised intensity of “Child in Time” by Deep Purple, the demi-theatrics of “Demons and Wizards” by Uriah Heep, and the cyclic dynamics which course through the Sabotage LP by Black Sabbath.

The classical/rock fusion borne out of Sgt Pepper also lured players with classical backgrounds into the margins of rock. Electronic technicians like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Jean Michel Jarre could all be viewed as modernist simulators of classical sonorities, relying as they often did on rhythm-less tonal colorization. Though comprising an un-eclectic mix of synthesizers, sequencers and more synthesizers, electronic music of the 1970s was still maximalist in its lavish production warmth and luminous sound waves, as heard on such glimmering aural hallucinates as the Tangerine Dream long-players Phaedra (1974) and Rubicon (1975), and on Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygen LP from 1976. As the 1980s loomed, electronic music would ironically spawn one of the most divergent outgrowths of any 1970s genre, inspiring both the minimalist cold wave and maximalist new age styles.

Adding further to the idiomatic breadth of the maximal myriad were the numerous hybrids of rock and jazz which flourished between the late-1960s and mid-1970s. Musicians hailing from rock backgrounds flexed their peripheral jazz aspirations by forming bands enlarged with brass sections. Chief amongst the brass rock purveyors were the American bands Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Chase, Ten Wheel Drive, and the Sons of Champlin, as well as the British acts Colosseum, If, Galliard, the Keef Hartley Band, and the Greatest Show on Earth, all of whom mixed raunchy riffs with brassy blasts; their songs veering between anthemic choruses and filigree-rich interludes. The most monumental of all these bands was Chicago, whose first three albums were doubles; of which Chicago II featured their grandest creation in the thirteen-minute “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon” suite, which displayed their inclusive mastery of American idioms in much the same manner that the prog bands were doing with European styles.

In the more exclusive confines of Canterbury, England, the enigmatic Soft Machine emerged in the midst of psychedelia with their compact organ/fuzz-bass/drums setup, through which they spun a tapestry of chromatic key changes, improvised solos and asymmetric time signatures. The loosely defined Canterbury style soon expanded through the likes of Caravan, Egg and Gong, who crossed vocal whimsy with dazzling harmolodics over long, alternately jagged/spacey passages. Others, such as Quiet Sun, National Health and the Muffins, veered between dissonance and dexterity, often forsaking melodies and key centers altogether. Considering this genres’ lack of commercial success, Canterbury has shown to be a most impenetrable style for the more strophically attuned listener. Yet Canterbury has been a perennial influence upon musician’s musicians despite its dwarf-like stature within the Anglosphere, and a spirited clutch of purveyors from Denmark (Burnin’ Red Ivanhoe, Dr. Dopo Jam), Finland (Wigwam, Tasavallan Presidentti), Germany (Brainstorm, Xhol), Italy (Arte e Mestieri, Picchio dal Pozzo), France (Moving Gelatin Plates, Forgas), Belgium (Pazop, Mad Curry) and the Netherlands (Supersister, Bonfire) have amassed a recorded plenitude nearly on par to their hard rock and symphonic counterparts from those countries.

The most startling development in the jazz/rock nexus was sounded by the crossover of bona fide jazz musicians, who harnessed rock’s advancing sophistication at the close of the 1960s by amplifying their ensembles and ultimately adopting rock instrumentation. Miles Davis led the way, consolidating his shift into fusion in 1970 with the acidic double-punch of Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson. Graduating from those sessions, guitarist John McLaughlin funneled the legato licks of jazz into an electrified rock ensemble, Mahavishnu Orchestra, whose dazzling dynamism influenced fellow Miles’ alumni Chick Corea to revamp his own band, Return to Forever, into a prog/fusion extravaganza. By the mid-1970s, the fusion style had united rock and jazz musicians globally, spawning stateside shredders like the Dixie Dregs, Shadowfax, and Dave Sancious & Tone, in addition to the English wonders Brand X, Isotope and Colosseum II, with famed axeman Jeff Beck signing on for the fiery dexterity of his twin triumphs, Blow by Blow (1975) and Wired (1976). Furthermore, the musical intensity of fusion proved so inspirational to aspiring virtuosos of every stripe that fusiony licks became commonplace in pop/rock and blue-eyed soul, particularly amongst sophisticates like Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Hall & Oates, Gino Vannelli, Boz Scaggs and the Doobie Brothers.

Maximalism through the hybridization of rock and folk may have produced a more meager set of examples, but they’re not without merit. Virtuosos of English traditional music were inspired by the refinement and widened topicality of late 1960s rock to form bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The English folk rock boom produced numerous expressions of grandeur, particularly when woven with prog influences, as on “Benedictus” by the Strawbs and “Sun Symphonica” by Jan Dukes de Grey. Singer/songwriters of the 1970s would also employ maximalist grandeur to their recordings, from the sectional suites partaken by Cat Stevens and Roy Harper on their respective Foreigner (1973) and HQ (1975) LPs, to the romantic elegance which elevated the Parsons-produced trio of LPs by Al Stewart: Modern Times (1975), Year of the Cat (1976), and Time Passages (1978).

In the American south, country-bred boys of the rock generation were inspired – by both the sonic enlargement of blues rock and the virtuosity of jazz fusion – to mine the outer-reaches of improvised song form, as bested on the mammoth Live at Fillmore East set by the Allman Brothers from 1971. Ambition below the Mason-Dixon Line soon cascaded into the southern rock genre, which encompassed everything from the string-dueling might of the Outlaws and the Marshal Tucker Band, to the Dixie-dressed Beatleisms of the Amazing Rhythm Aces. Southern rock reached a maximal apogee with the monumental buildup and climax of “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1973.

Schism: The Malcontents of Minimalism

So how did idiomatic breadth measure up on the minimalist side? Given how minimalist ethos spurned eclecticism, the hybridization frequent amongst maximalists was a rarity here. Minimalists were attracted foremost to musical deconstruction, rendering their lineage in the annals of rock a relatively simple one: the shrill dissonance of White Light/White Heat spawned the schizoid ruckus of the Stooges; the under-produced skeletalism of The Velvet Underground imbibed the lo-budget pop ironist Jonathan Richman; and the audacious expressionism coursing through “Black Angels Death Song” and “European Son” inspired Roxy Music.

Now Roxy Music were ostensibly a maximalist band, responsible for a string of highly sophisticated compositions – “A Song for Europe”, “Out of the Blue”, “For Your Pleasure” – which they presented through lavishly produced albums and melodramatic concert performances, replete with a keen sense of fashion. But lurking under the sound of their first two albums was the dissonant, often shapeless guitar work of Phil Manzanera, sonically morphed through the pedals of their untutored keyboardist Brian Eno. In England, Roxy Music engendered a young audience that felt alienated by the prevailing classicism of rock, yet enchanted by the campiness of Roxy front-man Bryan Ferry, co-spawning the glam movement; a fashionable, if not musical, form of maximalism. Nonetheless, musicality was the first priority in Roxy Music, and while the departing Eno dabbled in everything from Genesis to the German scene, his replacement Eddie Jobson was a world-class virtuoso of keyboard and violin who engendered himself to scores of maximalist heavyweights, ultimately co-founding the prog/fusion supergroup UK. Roxy Music remains one of the few bands in which the musical tenets of maximalism and minimalism have intertwined, and their strides would influence future courageous straddlers like Be Bop Deluxe, the Doctors of Madness, Gary Numan, Gloria Mundi, Japan, Magazine, Metro, and Ultravox; the musical vanguard for rock’s maximalist climax in the New Romantic movement at the dawn of the 1980s.

Roxy’s fellow traveler in the glam sweepstakes, David Bowie, swayed frequently between maximalist and minimalist endeavors. The extended buildup and melodramatic sweep of songs like “Space Oddity”, “Quicksand”, “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” and “Station to Station” was indeed maximalist, as was the très chic campiness of “Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)”; the latter drawn from a cabaret flamboyance so befitting to the maximalist end of glam, as further exemplified by Cockney Rebel, Sparks, Sailor, Jobriath, and Deaf School. Contrastingly, Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of albums from the late 1970s – glaciated by trebly sonorities atop brittle guitar/synth layers – hewed minimalist. As such, Bowie boosted the legacy of the Velvet Underground by covering “White Light/White Heat” during his 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour, exposing that band’s catalog to a wider UK audience.

Glam’s most exclusive members of the minimalist pantheon were the New York Dolls, who crossed the seedy topicality of the Velvets with the dissonant brashness of the Stooges, to which they injected an angsty, adolescent snarl harkening back to the early Rolling Stones. Consequently, the mid-1960s would form a revitalized catalyst for rock minimalists, a period that Bowie revisited with a set of mod rock covers on his 1973 Pinups LP. Given how this minimalist stream was so vastly outsized by the maximalist diaspora of the early-1970s, it’s no wonder that dissatisfied minimalists were looking elsewhere on the calendar.

Such concerns were put into perspective by the 1972 release of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968. Compiled by bohemian rock stalwart Lenny Kaye, this two-record set conveyed a message: mid-1960s garage rock had been a creative goldmine, with simple combos wielding fuzz-laden ditties, and the times had evolved much too swiftly for people to realize that maybe they should’ve halted rock’s advance and just upheld the spirit of 1965 indefinitely. This concept of fleshing, as opposed to superseding, the musical bounds of the mid-1960s would form the basis behind many acts that emerged from the mid-1970s Bowery scene in New York City, as spearheaded by those gonzo pop primitives, the Ramones.

This is not to say that regression was the order of the next wave; just that there was an emerging cadre who sought to return rock to the pre-maximalist model, and start progressing anew in an alternate manner. Gary Valentine, bassist for Bowery kitsch pop darlings Blondie, put it bluntly whilst speaking for his band-mates in a 1977 Rolling Stone interview, stating how “1968 or ’69 was the last year, and a new year hasn’t happened yet; evolution in rock & roll stopped there and it just stagnated” (2). Thus, the call was sounded for an evolution from the core of rock, free of broader idiomatic usurpation.

Whatever the case, the story gets complicated from here on out. The cycle of high-meta idiomatic pairings have completed, only to be followed by subdivisions of those pairings, hence the reinstatement of categorical reductionism. Further maintenance of the two streams would make for a slippery slope because soon enough, currents of maximalist and minimalist ethos would intertwine; making the future an intriguing if unstable route to tread. As Howard Devoto – vocalist of Magazine, the most maximalist of bands to emerge from punk, the most minimalist of genres – bellowed in his band’s 1978 signature tune:

Shot by both sides
They must have come to a secret understanding


Works Cited

1. Macan, Edward. Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counter Culture.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
2. “Blondie: Wild About Harry” – Rolling Stone. # 237. April 21, 1977
3. Magazine. “Shot By Both Sides”. Real Life. Virgin, 1978.


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