In thinking about the avant garde in Rock’n’Roll, I can’t help but think of the scene at the dance in Back to the Future where Marty McFly digs into the electric guitar in a way that was unheard of in 1955. A lot of rock can be referred to as avant garde, as rock has changed (evolved? matured? diversified?) in a very short period of time, relatively speaking.
Although we still haven’t clearly defined what avant garde really is, the following a smattering of music out of the rock tradition that certainly was ground-breaking, at least in its day:
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon – Because of the album’s overall success and 40 years of an ever-growing fan base, the music no longer feels terribly ground-breaking, and is even referred to as “classic”.
An Angel Moves too Fast to See by Rhys Chatham, is interested as far as sheer volume of sound is concerned. Rock has a tendency to be loud, but 100 guitars is pretty over the top. The music itself is very in-the-box and doesn’t really push any limits.
Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (1981) is an interesting piece that directly incorporates some minimalism into its form. The voice is also experimented with, as an auto-tuner is used to pitch the vocals in a mechanized sort of way. This same technique is used heavily by Imogen Heap in her 2005 hit Hide and Seek and again by Jason Derulo (via Imogen Heap) in his 2009 Whatcha Say.
Hide and Seek
For Rock, though, I see some of the legendary bands that defined the genre as being ground-breaking, thus avant garde. Buddy Hollie, The Beatles, Bob Dylan – they created specific sounds that laid the foundation for most of the rock music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Buddy Holly – “Everyday”
The Beatles on Ed Sullivan
The Beatles “Strawberry Fields” – note the use of vocal manipulation and the international influence (not to mention the use of orchestral instrumentation).
Bob Dylan – “The Times Are a-Changin'” – much of the avant garde has been political. No one figure stands out more than Dylan when discussing politics in music.
In true avant garde style, as we’ve come to appreciate the term, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975) stands as one of the most extreme examples within the repertoire. Some are obsessed, others shut it off – it’s worth a listen if you want all the edge and absurdity that comes with avant garde.