Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Freak Out

Before air guitar there was...the freak out.


When I was a fourteen year-old high school kid I really wanted to be cool. Being a bespectacled, sensitive teenager sucked.

I kidded myself that I didn’t care. But secretly I yearned to be an insider, like the freaks with long hair who self-importantly carried 'prog-rock' albums in the school hallway.

The heavy improvisatory form of music known as 'rock' had emerged in the late sixties, and the freaks were at just the right age to appreciate it. 'Rock' marked an emphasis away from pop's instantaneous emotional appeal toward self importance and overstatement.

But if the grandiose complacency of 'prog-rock' was sapping the energy from pop culture, most young teens were oblivious. Prog and blues-rock seemed to offer a stairway to heaven, all one could ever aspire to or desire.

During the school 'disco' you’d be invited - if you were cool enough - to participate in a male bonding ritual known as the freak out. Standing in a circle of your freaky peers, it involved rocking backwards and forward in the same spot while convulsively shaking your hands - a la Joe Cocker - playing air guitar and flailing your limbs in a display of serious rock abandon.

Each moment of the freak-out was loaded with symbolic meaning. As the hallowed hour approached, a bedenimed figure would sidle up to you and whisper,
"Psst. Youth. Wanna freak out?"

T
he whole evening had been a prelude to this collective celebration of greasy hair, flares and acne. The freaks assembled front of stage for their moment of glory.

Freaks wouldn’t be seen dead 'dancing' to soul or glam. Invariably it was a guitar wig-out 'rock classic' like Status Quo's Caroline, Bad Company's Can't Get Enough (the extended version, of course) or Black Sabbath's Paranoid (the freak out anthem) which would drive them into ecstasies of dementia.

My buddy Tony Heseltine had a brother called John who was particularly adept at the freak out. He had long dark hair, wore a perfectly faded denim jacket and jeans, and his technique was impeccable. During one freak out I remember watching with a mixture of admiration and bemusement as he delicately fingered the slide guitar introduction to Lynyryd Skynyrd's Freebird, his eyes closed in an ecstasy of axe worship.

As the song grew in intensity, John's performance matched it lick for lick. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen because it was pure and unforced, emerging out of a deep love for the music and the culture which surrounded it. Meanwhile his comrades were likewise attaining their own freaky nirvana.

But the days of the freak out were numbered. Punk was just around the corner and before you knew it the new wave had blown the axe gods out of the water. Just when I’d managed to grow my hair to the required length. Goddamn.

A few freaks determinedly clung onto their hippie-dom, ending up as civil servants or acid casualties. Others left it all behind and went off to college, where no one could guess their secret past. Many became punks or new-wavers, preferring to forget their freaky feelings and pretend they’d always sported short spiky hair and straight leg pants.

But once a freak, always a freak, and in their hearts there's a tiny corner which is forever devoted to prog-rock and air guitar. When they're alone, ex-freaks will secretly tune into Classic Rock FM and furtively headbang to Quo, Zep and Sabbath. And when the opening riff to Paranoid comes screaming over the airwaves they'll grin and quietly remember, “Yeah, man, I really used to freak out.”

VIDEO: Black Sabbath Paranoid, 1970. Watch Ozzy freak out:

5 comments:

Cushion Meg said...

Happy New Year, Shiffi. I’m very glad you resumed blogging. I like your blog since I always feel a history of your life and music. Yes, let's keep hope alive! As long as we do so, we can come closer to it and may fulfill it in the end, I believe.

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hello Meg, Happy New Year!

Yes it's good to blog again.

I must admit I wondered if I was washed up as a blogger. I wasn't sure whether a) I had run out of ideas, b) I was bored with blogging or c) I was just tired out after a long year!

I'm still not sure actually, but you can be sure there will always be a new musical experience which will excite me. If I can translate that into readable prose, the blogging just won't stop!

Cushion Meg said...

I understand 100% your feeling. That's Ok. Every author has a writer's block, even repeats that!
Take your time. :D

Anonymous said...

Shiffi. Tony here. That bugger of a brother of mine never did give me my Skynyrd album back!!!

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Tony! Honored indeed! Well, he obviously needed it to perfect his freak out moves!