Roots of Electronica: “Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka”
Brian Jones, Rolling Stones founder and inaugural member of the 27 Club, was famously incapable of writing songs.
Described by Mick Jagger as having “no talent” for songwriting, Jones, the former alpha-dog in the world’s greatest rock and roll band, found himself gradually phased out of his leadership position when the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards partnership revealed itself to be a hit-machine. Despite being a talented, virtuoso musician, capable of playing a variety of instruments from the sitar to the saxophone, Brian Jones could never get over the creative shortcoming that cost him his singular spotlight, and his insecurities, compounded by drug abuse and general despondency, eventually led to his being fired by the band.
The musical legacy of Brian Jones is slight but fascinating nonetheless. His tendency to incorporate unconventional instruments into Stones songs made their mid-60’s output quite distinctive, and highly influential in the popularization of “world music”. His appetite for novel sounds was the largest of anyone else in the band, and though the commonly recognized Golden Period for the Stones took place after his death, the era of the band that he defined was doubtlessly their must forward-thinking and experimental.
Outside of the Stones, Brian Jones left behind a single musical document that more than makes up for whatever songs he never penned within the band. “Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka” is, in many ways, Jones’ artistic high-point, a breathtaking, chaotic document of a mysterious Moroccan subculture that helped shed light not only on world music but on the possibilities of electronic production as well.
The trail to “Pipes of Pan” began with writer Brion Gysin who, on an excursion through Morocco in the 1950’s, happened upon a ritualistic festival in the village of Joujouka known as “Aid el-Kebir”. The centerpiece of the festival revolved around a chaotic, frenzied music that accompanied a young boy dressed as a “Goat God” running wildly through the village. Gysin believed the Goat God to be something of an exotic interpretation of the Greek God Pan (god of nature and, to a degree, sex). In 1968, Gysin took Brian Jones to see the festival, which captivated him so much that he decided to create an album showcasing the strange music of Joujouka, colored by some appropriately bizarre electronic production to enhance the sounds of the players.
Purists might have balked at calling the Moroccan Goat God “Pan”, Jones’ inclusion of his own name in the album’s title, and the electronic manipulation of the music, but the alterations made to the wild flute and drum phrases of the Joujouka players feels oddly appropriate, given the unhinged quality of the music. In a sense, electronics helped bring out the latent other-worldliness that might have been missed by consuming the music on record, rather than in person. The excessive phasing employed by Jones and the odd cut-and-paste formatting of the tracks (which fade into sections of one another rather than stopping and starting traditionally) creates an unsteady atmosphere that draws an already insane musical script even deeper into the atmosphere.
Jones’ production demonstrated an advanced understanding of the possibilities of world music within Western culture. Jones was unafraid to presume that this music was weird because it was weird, not because it was exotic, and he used unconventional sonic techniques to refine and amplify the compelling strangeness that defined the songs. The way the flutes and drums seem to flutter by one’s ears, or drown in a fluid mess of wobbly flange, makes the music visceral in a way that feels complete and natural: effects as an extension of the unseen ritual.
Conceptually, Jones’ use of his own name and his erratic sequencing of the music is also of interest. In a weird way, “Pipes of Pan” is like a primitive mixtape: a collection of obscure music by other people compiled and sequenced and interpreted electronically by a single individual. It doesn’t seem strange at all for Soundcloud mixes to be presented beneath the name of a single DJ, but for 1968, the concept was relatively novel.
It’s a shame to think that Jones was tortured by a lack of conventional songwriting abilities, because his taste, willingness to experiment, and knack for discovering unknown sounds would have made him right at home in today’s era of remixes, dubs, and dance compilations. Jones, seen the right way, is the natural predecessor to producers like Diplo and Madlib: a compulsive collector for exotic influences capable of turning those influences into interesting new expressions of music through the magic of electronics. As it is, he remains a largely unrecognized pioneer in the field, but one, at least, with a historic, wild proto-mixtape to his name.