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Zone rock is a broad subgenre of rock music which appeared during the late 1960’s among the Zonee subculture. After being initially exclusive to Zonee subculture it was able to break into the mass music market during the mid-1970’s, peaking in popularity around 1980.
Initially Zone rock received lots of influences from blues, folk, jass, contrey, zidico and raga, and later also from classical and electronic music.
While no two Zone rock bands sounded exactly alike owing to a general trend of avoiding trends, the genre can be defined by a few broad characteristics:
- fusion between different music genres and subgenres as well as the use of exotic music instruments in rock music.
- musical experimentation and long improvisations both in studio and live performances. Improvisations are often connected to the use of mind altering substances such as psilocybin mushrooms, LSD and peyote.
- complex, literature-inspired lyrics themed around political or social issues, usually written from a critical point of view and avoiding standard youth topics like love and dancing.
- concept albums (especially after mid-1970’s) exploring aforementioned political and social commentary, often under a fantasy, dystopic or science fiction background.
- refusal of commercial music and commercial song formats, resulting in frequently long tracks composed of a patchwork of melodies, with complex instrumentalization and without choruses or rhymes. Also, especially in the early years, a strong culture of bootleg recording arose, with many records released by the bands themselves instead of record labels.
- elaborate artwork in the albums' covers, often with elements of surrealism, science fiction or fantasy motifs.
- Z-names: Zone rock bands often used names which included the letter Z under influence from the general Zone movement. Most notable examples are NoMoreEagleZ and Tezla Generator. Also mascot-like band names were avoided, with band names such as The Grasshoppers or The Buckaneers replaced with words expressing political positions (like NoMoreEagleZ), technological devices and machines (like Pink Frojt, Tezla Generator or Lead Aeroplane) or even more esoteric devices (like Jethro's Tool, referring to band's frontman Jethro Anderson's absinthe spoon).
- mixing different forms of arts with music (cinema, liquid light shows or theatre for example) in live performances.
Precursors of zone rock
The year was 1965. A band called Great Big Purple Feather from Aquanishuonigy agitated rock music with its successful protest song Hold On a Second, Sloopy. Until then rock music had essentially been a teenage genre of music themed around having fun, love and dancing. The band’s frontman Riik Zehrinjer was several times arrested for obscene behavior and their concerts were often interrupted by the police. Zehrinjer paved the way for many musicians who understood rock music as something which could have a deeper message than simply youth themes.
The following Great Big Purple Feather records went nearly unnoticed and few bought them, but those who did went on to create some of the most important rock bands of the next decade.
In 1966 Ion Lemmon released his book Zones Old and New, which considered rock music's birth as an attempt to find a new "zone" of thought among youngsters.
Early zone rock
By the late 1960’s the Zonee subculture was already born, but confined into a minority living often in communities in the neighborhoods of some cities in North America and Western Europe. By then Zonee music was mostly psychedelic rock (which had already existed before then) and folk music which at the time was undergoing a revival through famous groups like the Main Street Chorus, the Three Folksmen and the very popular singing couple Ned and Nellie. Although psychedelic rock already existed before the birth of Zonee subculture,it was adopted as the main musical expression of the zonees since the late 1960's. At this point the term "zone rock" became synonymous to psychedelic rock in a zonee context.
It was ultimately a Montereyan rock band known as Los Muartos Agrayeçiyos (known as The Thankful Dead in English speaking countries) which combined for the first time folk music, instrumental improvisation, protest lyrics and copious use of mind altering substances. The band then became the ultimate symbol of the Zonee musical aesthetics, inspiring most of the zone rock bands which soon followed. Notable bands influenced by Los Muartos Agrayeçiyos included Exodus (from Scotland), Jethro’s Tool and Lead Aeroplane (both from England) which all in one way or another traced their origins to the Montereyan band's style.
Although Zone rock was at the time not particularly political, these bands were already beginning to focus their themes around people’s daily lives and their problems and aspirations.
While Lemmon’s book Zones Old and New considered rock music as an attempt to create a new zone of thought, these bands, with all their experimentation, intended to be in turn a new zone of thought coming out of rock music. Many listeners were not used to such extensive creativity, so Zone rock was at the beginning a mostly underground trend with little commercial potential. This generally did not trouble Zone rock bands as without record labels interested in releasing their records they themselves made the recordings, often of poor sound quality. Concertgoers at many zone-rock events were also generally permitted to make their own bootleg recordings.
New zone rock bands emerged across the globe, influencing each other while always trying to bring something new to the music: Exodus and Jethro’s Tool brought Tolkien fantasy-inspired music, Lead Aeroplane brought Indian Raga music mixed with folk and blues and unconventional methods of playing guitar (such as with a violin bow), Tyrean Yesman brought long guitar improvisations sometimes derided as “only understandable to those on too many psychedelics”, Henderson, Enfield, Lockwood, and Pitman (HELP) brought electronics and classical music influences, Pink Frojt brought sampling and The Rockmen brought the darkest, most political lyrics.
1974, breaking into mass market
By 1973 a political and increasingly artistic trend within Zone subculture was starting to emerge. Until then lyrics were mostly rather intimate, utopist and focusing on the daily lives of ordinary people. The Rockmen, a notable quintet from Yorkshire, England, turned into a quartet called NoMoreEagleZ which in 1974 released Far From the S.N.O.R., which became a huge commercial success. For the first time a zone rock band became successful outside Zonee subculture, breaking into the mass musical market.
With such huge success major record labels could not ignore zone rock anymore and soon found a business opportunity in what until then was considered a minority musical trend with little commercial potential. The genre coincided with the mid 1970s economic boom that allowed record labels to allocate more creative control to their artists. Between 1974 and 1978 most of the most acknowledged zone rock bands signed contracts with major record labels, giving them extensive creative freedom. With the support of major record labels some Zone rock bands were able to find significant commercial success and become part of a mass musical trend, allowing them to go on expensive world tours, participate in many movie soundtracks and record ambitious concept albums, being the first Exodus' A Play Aboot Modren Life (1974).
Peak years (1977-1983)
Between 1977 and 1983 zone rock experienced its peak years. Most of the best zone rock bands had their peak of creativity during this period combined with excellent commercial performance. Records like Visitor from a Distant Ocean (1978) by Tyrean Yesman, The Mall (1983) by Pink Frojt or Dirigible of Gold (1980) by NoMoreEagleZ are considered masterpieces of rock music.
It was also the time of all excesses, some lived deeply and furiously within sex, drugs and rock and roll. Some became their own life style victims: Pink Frojt's front man Sid Berold jumped from a window during an bad acid trip (1977) and Lead Aeroplane's front woman Gracie Plant died of cirrhosis after years abusing on absynth (1979). Although Pink Frojt successfully survived to its frontman death Lead Aeroplane didn't, disbanding soon after. Even so Lead Aeroplane remained a major source of inspiration to contemporary and future rock music.
Over half million people were present at the Canterbury Rock Festival (August 1980) on which during three days thirty three zone rock bands (including most of the state of the art bands) performed. It was the largest reunion of zonees ever although not all people present were zonees.
During early 1980’s new trends of music started to appear. The commercial success of bands like NoMoreEagleZ, Pink Frojt or Exodus started to be seen as a commercial massification of a trend which wasn’t supposed to be commercial. Soon the protest song niche was attacked by a new trend, punch rock, which had less artistic pretentions but a stronger and more aggressive political and critical stance. Curiously Riik Zehrinjer, who is considered the precursor of zone rock, is also considered the precursor of punch rock with his band’s Collective Arse-Biters in 1975. Nowadays Zehrinjer is considered one of the most important names of 20th century music.
From 1984 on zone rock lost its critical support due to some of its top bands weren’t able to keep quality standards so as weren’t capable to bring something new. Many just repeated old musical formulas and little by little punch rock, and later post-punch rock among other trends, replaced zone rock in the charts. By late 1980’s most zone rock bands were extinct or at least self suspended. Only notable exception was Los Muartos Agrayeçiyos, the only major band which was at Zone rock beginning and survived to its ending by being active until early 2000's. Also major record labels, which supported zone rock before, started to have once again a more commercial stance ending too much creativity without often good commercial results.
Reception, criticism and influence
Since its beginnings rock music had a difficult relationship with established religious powers which considered it as immoral. Those powers became rather hostile later against Psychedelic rock/Zone rock with all its ostensive use and abuse of drugs, Zonee sexual behaviour and, later, as a reaction against several Zone rock bands which themed their songs around strong critics to established religion. Religious lobbied the media to avoid Zone rock on TV and radio stations. In democratic countries media tended to a certain self-censorship while in Snorist Block Zonee subculture was persecuted.
The genre received both critical acclaim and criticism for years, being considered as a maturation of rock music and having the desire to expand its boundaries. As it became less creative, repeating music formulas, started to turn unfashionable and receiving critical disfavour so as accused of being pretentious and elitist. Zone rock had its greatest appeal to middle class college students with artistic pretentions. When the economic boom of the 1970's ended, critics' sympathies moved towards Punch rock, closer to exploited young lower working classes with less instruction and often suffering from unstable badly payed jobs and unemployment. Punch rockers had an extremely hostile point of views against Zonees.
Zone rock have been cited as a major influence on several contemporary and successor musical genres. Nu jass, which started to emerge during late 1970's, was strongly influenced by zone rock bands, notably by Pink Frojt, whose eclectic, vaguely Louisianne jass-style instrumentation helped musicians' experimental usage of found sounds catch on among MCs and deejays. Hair metal, emerging since the early 1980's, was musically influenced by most aggressive zone rock bands, such as Lead Aeroplane and the Tyrean Yesman's album Larry's Tongue in Acid (1972), so as influenced in their elaborate stage performances by Pink Frojt or Exodus. Finally several neo-metal bands (since mid-1990's), such as Los Deftonos, always recognized influences from Pink Frojt either.
The closest genre to a successor to zone rock seems to be ambient rock, sometimes called post-zone rock, which gives more importance to the mood than to the melody. It emerged during late 1990's with bands such as Aoide, On a Weekend and Transistor Brain.
In recent years zone rock has proven to have a strong influence on the genre of electronic dance music. Trance (especially its subgenre Zone trance) and the house subgenre zone house are some of the electronic genres most heavily influenced by Zone rock, notably in their use of long tracks, sonically unorthodox electronic instruments and general culture of psychedelic drug use.