The song’s co-writer, the late guitarist Mike Bloomfield, is currently receiving attention for an upcoming career-spanning box set. Seems like a good time to re-visit the distinguished player’s landmark song.
But first, some context.
Song Form in Popular Music
Rock music songs, for the genre’s first decade, obeyed a pretty predictable formula.
Songs were short, had vocals, were arranged in their totality, and stuck to the Tin Pan Alley structure of verse/chorus/bridge. Understandable, given rock’s roots in genres with similar song structures: blues, rhythm and blues, country and pop.
However, another genre influenced rock: jazz.
As jazz modernized in the 1930s and 40s it experimented with traditional song structure. As a result, by the time rock and roll emerged in the 1950s, jazz had a significant body of work which broke with the short-form song structure. The jazz canon included long instrumental works with movements, including improvisatory passages.
Now, go outside popular music, and long-form music is common, in orchestral works for example. But – maybe it’s an attention span issue – popular music songs outside of jazz have tended to adhere to the short-form structure.
Through the 50s and early-60s, rock songs abided by the predictable formula described above.
During the same time period, jazz, relieved of its commercial burden to produce top 40 hits, produced innovators like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who followed bebop’s bold breakthroughs with even bolder experimentation. In the tradition of Duke Ellington’s 1943 “Black, Brown and Beige,” they sometimes composed long works with movements. One exemplar: Coltrane’s groundbreaking A Love Supreme, an album-length song with four movements, an instrumental (except for a brief chanted mantra).
Jazz works like this also broke another rule, that a song had to be based on chord changes. Instead they were based on modes.
The same year Love was recorded, 1964, rock and roll evolved into rock. Major rock artists like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds drew heavily from American blues and jazz. These musicians extended the traditional short-form song by including lengthy improvised passages.
Two early examples of this are “Smokestack Lightnin’,” and “I’m a Man,” from the album Five Live Yardbirds recorded in March, 1964. Another, “Goin’ Home,” by the Rolling Stones was recorded in December, 1965.
“Goin’” begins with a standard song form – three verse/chorus rounds based on a set of chord changes. But, these are followed by extended modal section based on the tonic chord only, rooted in a repetitive bass line. This section begins, develops and climaxes, led by Mick Jagger’s R & B inspired vocal improvisations. This was one of the first times in a rock song that, like in blues and jazz, a standard song was extended by an improvisatory section.
However, while the above songs broke the limitations on song-length, and allowed improvisation, they maintained rock’s dependence on standard verse-chorus structures based on chord-changes, and the need for vocals.
This would soon change, due largely to a group of new bands interested in the jazz’s traditions of improvisation and instrumental virtuosity. Probably the most significant of these was the Paul Butterfield Blues band, out of Chicago.
The Butterfield Band began performing “East-West” around February, 1966. It was recorded in July, 1966 and released in August on the album of the same name.
Reviews were mixed.
One of the founders of rock criticism, Jon Landau, wrote in Crawdaddy! that he found “East-West” uninteresting and would have preferred “three or four blues cuts in the thirteen-minute spot the song occupies.”
But, another founding figure, Dave Marsh, called it a “magnificently soulful piece of music.” I agree, and believe that it is one of the most significant songs from an era of uncommonly significant songs.
Why do I believe this? A record’s musical value derives from one or both of two things:
- Is it innovative?
- Does it reach a new level of development within an existing tradition?
For “East-West” the answer to both questions is “yes.”
It appears to be the first recorded instance of an instrumental long-form song by a rock band based on a mode rather than on chord changes.
The structure of “East-West” is complex and ambiguous. Depending on how it’s viewed, it may be accorded any one of several possible structural readings.
To my ears, there are two primary movements.
The first movement begins with a solo by “2nd chair” guitarist Elvin Bishop over a minor-key modal bass line. The solo ends with an insistent harmonica plea to cut in by Butterfield, followed by the bandleader’s only solo on the song. The solo builds to the first of three “rave-up” style climaxes which mark turning points in the song.
As the last beat of the climax decays, a third solo, by Mike Bloomfield, unfolds. Or, more accurately, unspools, swirling to a dervish intensity. Bloomfield’s attack ranges from cool to screaming. The solo ascends and descends in rapid sitar-like flurries of string-bending microtones.
Bloomfield’s melisma maelstrom builds into the song’s second rave-up. The listener is dropped into a momentary silence, marking the end of the first movement.
Movement 2 announces itself with a major-key mode based on the first. But, and this is one of those ambiguities I spoke of earlier, this transition unlike the others, doesn’t lead to a new solo. Instead, Bloomfield’s guitar returns and it’s apparent that his solo hadn’t really ended, just paused.
Now, in stark contrast to the howling legato tones of the earlier sonic drama, Bloomfield improvises probing riffs with softly staccato tones.
The riffing builds and Bishop joins in, their single-note melodies intertwine like a Dixieland counterpoint. This sort of twin-guitar interplay would soon become a staple of sixties counterculture bands like the Grateful Dead.
The intertwined solos build to the third, and last climax, and “East-West” (and East-West) ends.
In the months and years following the release of East-West, a number of critically acclaimed recordings of long-form rock songs were released by rock bands, most likely influenced by this song.
The most direct similarities are seen in instrumentals such as “Flute Thing,” by the Blues Project and “Toad,” by Cream. Cream, in songs such as “Spoonful,” extended standard-length songs by adding lengthy improvised sections. In these, the guitar solo became the main expression of improvisation.
These songs were the precursors of the jam band phenomena which began with the Grateful Dead and other bands of the San Francisco Sound starting in 1965. It reached extraordinary levels of development in music by Santana, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jeff Beck’s bands, the Allman Brothers and others.
We should also note that the succession of long-form songs which followed “East-West,” weren’t all instrumentals, or standard songs with lengthy improvisatory sections.
Once the model of the 3-minute, verse/chorus, chord-based rock song was broken, bands began experimenting with long-form song structures incorporating vocals and spoken-word sections. Songs such as “The End” by the Doors, and “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground exploded old boundaries of songwriting and performance. Later, a new form emerged, the rock opera.
As song structures changed, so did album structures. Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the recording of which began 4 months after the release of East-West) introduced the concept album.
Of course, to attribute all of these innovations to “East-West” would be a stretch.
But, “East-West” appears to be a game-changing event. It contributed to a new branch of rock music based on longer, improvisatory works. This branch continued to be critically and commercially successful through the seventies, until its excesses caused it to be supplanted by genres which returned to the short-form song, such as punk.
However, long-form improvisatory rock regained mass popularity by the nineties through 2nd generation jam bands like Phish and various incarnations of the Allman Brothers and splinter bands by their members. Today it thrives in the music of groups such as the Tedeschi Trucks Band and a sub-culture of unrecognized but musically exemplary bands.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013