Brass Rock

Brass rock was one of the most popular musical hybrids to emerge from the psychedelic era. All across North America, England, and Europe, brass rock bands fused the electrified rawness of rock with the chromatic fluidity of jazz. On a global scale, the most popular purveyors of this style were the American bands Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Brass rock came into existence when creative energies soared at the close of the 1960s. In England, bands like Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Soft Machine, and Traffic fused rock, jazz, folk and classical into various new forms. Meanwhile, the United States gave rise to numerous bands that combined elements of rock with everything from country and bluegrass to gospel and jazz. The mixture of rock and jazz raised the overall bar on compositional complexity and technical virtuosity for an entire generation of aspiring musicians.

In addition to Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, the chief proponents of brass rock in North America included Aura, Chase, Dreams, the Electric Flag, Gas Mask, the Ides of March, Lighthouse, Second Coming, the Sons of Champlin, and Ten Wheel Drive. A parallel development occurred throughout England with the emergence of bands like Brainchild, Colosseum, Galliard, the Greatest Show on Earth, Heaven, If, the Keef Hartley Band, and Walrus.

As brass rock grew in popularity, bands emerged throughout Europe to purvey the style. Notable exponents from around the Continent included the Swedish group Splash, the French collective Zoo, the Dutch ensemble Mr. Albert Show, and the German combos Emergency and Creative Rock.

As a style of music, brass rock was characterized by strident verse/chorus patterns that alternated crunchy guitar riffs with vibrant blasts from the brass section. Many brass rock numbers featured extended instrumental breaks in which the drum fills, piano runs, and horn charts were anchored by walking bass lines. While the style generally ran towards the heavier end of the spectrum, some of the most successful brass rock ensembles were equally adept at radio-friendly ballads.

The brass rock genre was primarily fueled by rock musicians with peripheral interests in jazz, though many of the horn players boasted authentic jazz pedigrees. As a melding of musical cultures, brass rock correlated to the fusion recordings that were being made during the early 1970s by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and other veterans from the world of jazz. Brass bands also boosted the viability of horns as core instruments across the pop/rock spectrum. The saxophone in particular became a key ingredient in many popular rock songs throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Brass rock was primarily popular between 1969 and 1972, though similar uses of horn sections would figure into subsequent genres like funk and ska. Out of all the initial brass rock bands, Chicago has enjoyed the most lucrative and lasting career. Radio evergreens from the brass rock genre include the Blood, Sweat and Tears classics “Spinning Wheel” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” the Chicago chestnuts “Beginnings” and “25 or 6 to 4,” and the Ides of March hit “Vehicle.”