This past week, I went to the CMJ conference at NYU in NYC. Originally a gathering of college radio people, the CMJ Music Marathon is now a huge agglomeration of performances by new bands hoping to get noticed by record labels, radio music directors, promoters, and so on. Oh, yeah, and a conference with some panels. One of which, “2007: The Year in Tech”, had me as a panelist.

I spent the vast bulk of my college years at the radio station, WPRB in Princeton, NJ. Now I run the alumni board that oversees the station, but I’m not involved on a day-to-day basis. Two weeks ago, WPRB had its first ever on-air fund drive; I went down to help out, take phone calls, and even do my first radio show in over 12 years. That, combined with soaking up the atmosphere of CMJ, gave me a glimpse into the college radio scene nowadays.

CMJ — it originally stood for College Music Journal, now it’s just… CMJ — first appeared during my undergrad years of 1979-1983. For the first time ever, it gave college radio DJs an easy way of finding out what their peers at other college stations were playing. It was a great source of information. Around the same time, and not coincidentally, punk and new wave were emerging — and college stations were virtually the only ones that played that music. CMJ collected college radio playlists and produced charts, which record labels began to notice.

This had a major effect on the rock music industry. In fact, it was probably the biggest source of internal change until 1992, when automated SoundScan retail reports superseded retail managers’ payola-fueled “take our word for it” sales reports — resulting in the “sudden” vault of Grunge (Nirvana) past Urban Contemporary (Lionel Richie) to the top of the charts. With CMJ charts, record labels quickly understood why bands like the Police, Clash, U2, Talking Heads, and REM were selling healthily, and they took action: they signed bands, and the major record companies acquired punk and new wave labels like Stiff and Sire.

Over time, CMJ began to carve up the college radio sound into charts representing narrow — and basically trendoid — micro-segments like “American Stars & Bars.” These were very effective both in sending signals to college DJs about what’s hip and giving A&R people at record labels blueprints for their next signings.

CMJ was the serpent in the college radio Garden of Eden. The good news was that record labels finally began to take college stations seriously enough to provide them with decent record service (plus concert tickets and other bennies). The bad news was that college DJs began to look to their semi-weekly issues of CMJ to find out what they should play; as a result, music played on college radio began to homogenize, and much of the creativity got sucked out of the medium.

Nowadays, many college stations actually pride themselves on playing the CMJ Top 20. XM Satellite Radio even has a station called XMU, which plays it too — though with no blown segues and no announcers saying “ummm” and “uhhh.” Much of the music of the CMJ Top 20 sounds similar to what we played on college radio in the early-mid 80s. First it was called punk, then it was new wave, then it was alternative rock, then more simply alt-rock, and now it’s indie rock.

But it’s largely the same sounds. During a lunch break in the CMJ conference track, a band called La Laque played. They sang in French and had a female lead singer, but otherwise they might as well have been called Les Nouvelles Tetes Parlantes. The guitarist not only looked and jerked around stage like David Byrne, he even played the same vintage Fender Mustang guitar that Byrne played during the Talking Heads’ early days.

All in all, college radio today strikes me as much the same as it was 25 years ago. There are little differences. Some DJs plug their iPods into the studio mixing board instead of bringing a crate of albums in; this increases the chances of musical serendipity but decreases sound quality. The ubiquity of email, IM, and cell phones makes it easier to fit station management duties in with a class schedule, but it reduces station hanging-out time that leads to stronger commitment.

College radio perseveres because it has come to be identified closely with a type of music whose fans know is available there. Just as there was a rite of passage during my high-school days when you moved from Elton John to ELP and from Top 40 to progressive FM radio, today’s rite of passage from Avril Lavigne to Animal Collective often involves a college radio station (as well as various MySpace pages).

Of course, college radio doesn’t just play indie rock. It also perseveres because it offers two things that commercial radio does not. One is what Peter Gabriel has called a curatorial function: as the Internet makes music more ubiquitous and easier to get for free, the value is shifting to those who can help you discover music you don’t know but would like, or who can juxtapose different music in new and exciting ways.

In the 1960s and 70s, FM radio used to be a tastemaker. Now commercial radio is more of a taste reflector. One indie label guy I met at CMJ told me that his most successful artist, a folk-pop singer-songwriter, got her big break doing background music for TV, including the theme song for a prime time network series (I forget which one). Only now is commercial radio starting, slowly, to play her music. This is completely backwards from the way it used to be. College radio is virtually the only tastemaker left on broadcast radio.

The second is the human element. In commercial radio, with its automated music formats and generic, disembodied jocks, the human element has passed to talk radio — which partially explains its staggering rise from the fringes to the top during the last 10-15 years. College DJs are refreshingly, unabashedly, unapologetically human.

Many college radio people today talk about whether or how the Internet threatens the medium. The human element in radio is inherently non-scalable, and it’s what’s missing from net radio a la Live365.com. Many of the most successful college stations simulcast online. WPRB does this and got a significant number of pledges during its recent fund drive from Internet-only listeners.

Tastemaking is also not all that scalable online. The sheer volume of music-geek blogs, and the fact that most of them don’t last long before they are abandoned or discredited (as losers or as record-label shills), makes them a rather unreliable source. Recommendation engines like Pandora can be great but have significant limitations. College radio continues to emerge as a (user-)friendly, often reliable, and self-editing source of tastemaking information.

Back at the CMJ conference, someone from a new Internet-only college station asked a question to panelists: how can we get an FM license? My question to him was: why would you want to? He couldn’t give me an answer other than duh, it’s obvious. His lack of eloquence spoke volumes about the contiuning viability of college radio, even in the Internet age.

Quick: name two early-70s albums by British hard rock bands with proggish tendencies that get played to death on classic rock radio. That’s right: Jethro Tull’s Aqualung (1971) and Deep Purple’s Machine Head (1972). Now: name any other album that either of those bands recorded.

Can’t do it? Not surprising. That’s the power that tightly formatted commercial radio has achieved over the past 20 years or so. No doubt that those albums were those bands’ best, but the overfamiliarity of tracks like “Smoke on the Water,” “Highway Star,” and “Space Truckin'” (Purple), and “Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” and “Locomotive Breath” (Tull) dull their value almost as if they were the advertising jingles that surround them.

Those two bands had other great albums. For Jethro Tull, my vote goes to Stand Up (1969), the band’s second LP. Aqualung, Tull’s fourth, was the first album that singer/flutist Ian Anderson dominated; the previous three were really band albums. The difference is readily apparent in the mix: Anderson’s vocals are less assertive and much less pretentious, and his flute is more of an ensemble instrument than a source of solos; Martin Barre’s guitar is more of a source of creativity in general, not just hooky lead lines.

Stand Up is a wonderfully eclectic yet unassuming collection of tunes. “New Day Yesterday,” the opener, features a heavy guitar riff pasted on top of an odd meter. “Nothing Is Easy” is swinging and jazzy, as is the album’s best-known track, “Bouree,” a reworking of Bach’s Bouree in E Minor. Other tunes like “Back to the Family” and “Fat Man” add light touches without being precious in the manner of Aqualung’s “Mother Goose.” Incidentally, Stand Up was Tull’s only UK No. 1 album.

Deep Purple started out with a different lineup than the one that recorded Machine Head, which is known as Deep Purple Mark II. But Mark II’s pre-Machine Head albums, Fireball and Deep Purple In Rock, were nothing special. Machine Head magically pulled all of the band’s raw materials together into a coherent style and milked it for almost all it was worth.

I say “almost” because the true excellence of this now-all-but-fogotten band (not even listed in the latest edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide!) was onstage. Made In Japan was released in a hurry to the Japanese market in 1972 to capitalize on the breakaway success of Machine Head. Its popularity led the band’s label, EMI, to release it in the US and Europe as well.

Made In Japan is one of the greatest live rock albums of all time. Deep Purple plays for the crowd in Osaka as if its life depended on it. The album is guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s crowning career achievement, and Jon Lord’s performance on organ — Jimmy Smith bluesy one moment, Mike Ratledge noisy the next — shows at least as much risk-taking experimentalism within the blues-rock format as Keith Emerson showed with The Nice and ELP. Roger Glover and Ian Paice pound away like crazy. Ian Gillain’s astounding shrieks show that he was most definitely not just a creature of studio artifice, and at times (such as during “Strange Kind of Woman”), he sounds like he is actually having fun.

Made In Japan‘s greatness derives from the fact that these were not just recreations of studio tracks from Machine Head and earlier albums. The extended improvs, many of them jousts between Blackmore and Lord in the time-honored tradition of jazz “cutting contests,” show true fireworks far more often than self-indulgence.
This is just one of those albums that must be listened to at ear-shattering volume or the entire point is lost.

Further evidence of Purple’s vitality as a live act is in the Mark II band’s reading of “Mandrake Root,” a track from the Mark I band’s 1968 debut album Shades of Deep Purple. Mark II really made this track its own on stage, though it doesn’t appear on Made In Japan. To get it, seek out the otherwise inferior In Concert, originally released in the early 1980s.

Ironically, Made In Japan was one of the first live albums released as “pure product” to capitalize on a band’s momentum, as opposed to The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, the Grateful Dead’s Europe 72, and the Who’s Live at Leeds, which served to document those bands’ primacy as live acts. The pure-product greatest-hits live album became the rule after Made In Japan, give or take a few exceptions such as Cheap Trick at Budokan that prove it.

Frank Zappa’s prolific career as composer, arranger, guitarist, satirist, dada art conceptualist, producer, and record company entrepreneur spans a breathtaking array of American and European styles, often brought together in combinations through his own idiosyncratic filter.

Zappa first moved into commercial rock & roll music — relatively speaking — with his 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation. This was a collection of short songs about sexual deviants and other oddballs, like the dental floss farmer in “Montana,” which turned out to be Zappa’s first hit. Longtime fans cried sellout, while feminists were enraged.

Commercial-sounding rock would be Zappa’s primary mode of expression for much of the remainder of his career. The next album, Apostrophe (‘), featured the hit “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (with its “huskie wee-wee”) and the is-he-racist-or-is-he-not “Uncle Remus” in addition to brief gems liks “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Excentrifugal Forz.”

Just as it seemed as though Zappa was descending irrecoverably into commercialism and cheap satire, he did something that saved his career trajectory for the next few years: he hired an absolutely killer band. The live Roxy & Elsewhere, from 1974, was the first document to feature a lineup that included tuned-percussion virtuoso Ruth Underwood; reed player and manic vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock; the airy, jazzy keyboards and vocals of ex-Cannonball Adderley sideman George Duke; the Fowler brothers (Tom on bass, Walt on trumpet, Bruce on trombone), and Chester Thompson on drums. This band achieved an ideal balance of personal style with the ability to play Zappa’s daunting music flawlessly.

Roxy is a fine album, but the greatest achievement by this band is You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore – Vol. 2 (YCDTOSA #2), one of the series of live albums that Zappa released in 1992, this one culled from a series of concerts that a smaller version of the band played in Helsinki. Where Zappa couldn’t rely on his audience’s command of the English language, he toned down some of the cheap humor and focused more on the music itself. The result was one of the best live progressive rock albums ever recorded, up there with Phil Manzanera’s 801 Live, Magma Live, and King Crimson’s Night Watch. The band rips through “serious” instrumentals like “RDNZL” and “T’Mershi Duween” along with pop tunes like “Village of the Sun,” theatrical showpieces like “Room Service,” and repertory favorites ranging from “Montana” back to “Uncle Meat.” The communication amongst the musicians is telepathic.

Zappa went into the studio with the Roxy band and produced his best studio album of the mid-70s, the unjustly overlooked One Size Fits All. This sparklingly-produced collection of songs includes “Inca Roads,” featuring one of Zappa’s most memorable guitar solos (pasted in from the aforementioned Helsinki concerts); the heavy-metal-ish “Florentine Pogen,” the two German lieder-influenced “Sofas,” and no cheap porn whatsoever. The programming, material, and playing make this one a standout among Zappa’s rock albums.

Fans of the Roxy lineup should also look for the DVD Frank Zappa: Dub Room Special, which contains clips of that lineup from a live TV special (as well as others of a later, less interesting band).

Another interesting sidelight to this band is Road Tapes, Venue 2, which was released in 2013.  It was recorded in Helsinki a year before the YCDTOSA #2 concerts.  The material is much the same, but the band is a transitional one from the previous Zappa era: in addition to George Duke, Ruth Underwood, and Tom Fowler, it featured Tom’s brother Bruce on trombone, Ian Underwood (of older Zappa bands) on keyboards and reeds, and special guest Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Zappa’s approach to this material was more tentative, and the band hadn’t jelled as on YCDTOSA #2, but the material still shines.

The two-year existence of the prog supergroup U.K. was notable for marking the end of the glory days of progressive rock. Although the initial nucleus of the band was drummer Bill Bruford and bassist/vocalist John Wetton, who made up the rhythm section in the celebrated 1972-74 edition of King Crimson, the band’s collective c.v. read like a Who’s Who of British Prog.

Bruford began in Yes, toured with Genesis after Crimson broke up, and sat in with various bands including the cerebral post-Canterbury-hippie outfit National Health and space-rockers Gong and Absolute Elsewhere. Wetton had stints in Uriah Heep, Family, and Roxy Music as well as Crimson. Bruford brought along guitarist Allan Holdsworth, a true virtuoso who introduced an entire school of legato, saxophone-style playing and was an acknowledged influence on Eddie van Halen; his resume included prog (Soft Machine and Gong) and heavy metal (Tempest) as well as fusion (Tony Williams, Jean-Luc Ponty). Wetton brought in keyboard and violin whiz Eddie Jobson from Roxy; Jobson had also been with Curved Air and (most recently) Frank Zappa’s band.

The lineup was promising enough, as was the 1978 eponymous debut album U.K.. The featured track was “In the Dead of Night,” which showed off the band’s basic style: a mixture of King Crimson-style blockbuster prog and sophisticated fusion. The main elements were Jobson’s atmospheric keyboards; Holdsworth’s liquid-lightning soloing; and Bruford’s crisp, distinctive drumming. The instrumental “Presto Vivace,” which Jobson wrote while touring with Zappa, sounded like Zappa with a British stiff upper lip. The dark, reflective “Nevermore” featured Wetton’s increasingly competent singing – he was clearly becoming more interested in that than in his bass playing – and a mesmerizing Holdsworth solo. In all, a solid slab of up-to-the-minute prog.

Then a schism in the band led to its breakup: Bruford and Holdsworth wanted to keep things on the edge, while Wetton and Jobson had plans for rock stardom. The former duo departed to form the decidedly fusion-y band Bruford, with much the same band that had appeared on Bruford’s pre-U.K. debut solo album Feels Good to Me (1977): ex-National Health keyboardist David Stewart and the Berklee-trained American bassist Jeff Berlin.

Meanwhile, Wetton and Jobson kept U.K. going. They brought in drummer Terry Bozzio from Zappa’s band, but no guitarist to fill Holdsworth’s slot.

Danger Money was a transitional album that combined prog epics (“Carrying No Cross”) with poppish tunes (“Rendezvous 6:02”) and a few in between (the ELP-ish title track). Bozzio was a technically impressive but less distinctive replacement for Bruford (he had fit in better with Zappa); the lack of guitar made the sound monochromatic, notwithstanding Jobson’s violin solos. The ensuing live album Night After Night was pure product, and U.K. broke up in 1979.

The final membership of U.K. then proceeded to finish selling out. Wetton formed the mutant arena-rock outfit Asia with Yes guitarist Steve Howe, Yes/Buggles keyboard player Geoff Downes, and ELP drummer Carl Palmer. Bozzio teamed up with his wife Dale and ex-Zappa bassist Patrick O’Hearn to form the new-wave-pop outfit Missing Persons. Jobson, after a brief stint in Jethro Tull, drifted off into the sunset through production and session work. Thus ended the prog saga.

There’s a short list in Rock & Roll Heaven of musicians whose influence far outshone their popularity. Jeff Beck has got to be near the top of that list, just before or after the Velvet Underground.

Jeff Beck was the chronological middle of the Holy Trinity of Yardbirds guitarists in the ’60s; the fact that the other two (Clapton, Page) are rarely thought of as “Yardbirds guitarists” attests to their own massive fame. The epithet “experimental” is most often attached to Beck’s early playing.

When Beck started his own group in the late ’60s, he was mining the same territory as Led Zeppelin: heavy rock takes on the blues. The first Jeff Beck Group’s debut album, Truth, predated Zep’s debut by five months. It featured Rod Stewart on vocals and included a version of Willie Dixon’s “I Ain’t Superstitous” that hasn’t lost its hair-raising, menacing quality. The second Beck band, with Bobby Tench singing, was a strange mixture of Beck’s dive-bombing guitar style with R&B.

Blow by Blow (1975) featured Beck’s third band, not counting the short-lived power trio BBA (Beck, Bogert and Appice). It’s generally referred to as Beck’s first “fusion” album and as a “landmark.” But is it?

Well, it was the first all-instrumental album by a rock guitarist, at least since Duane Eddy. The pacing and programming of the album are tasteful, as are the arrangements by legendary Beatles producer George Martin. But besides that, if we look at what we have come to expect from fusion guitar albums, it falls short.

His next album was Wired, from 1976, which rock critics described using phrases like “jumped in at the deep end” with respect to jazz-rock fusion. It’s true that the album featured two alumni of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, keyboard player Jan Hammer and drummer Narada Michael Walden, both excellent players. But it doesn’t really compare to “real” fusion guitarists like McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Allan Holdsworth, or even early Al DiMeola. Many of the tracks tantalize with propulsive grooves, and Beck’s guitar melds raw power with thoughtfulness in a way that few others could match; but too often the solos and tunes come to an end just as soon as they are starting to catch fire.

Tracks from Wired like the wonderful “Blue Wind” ought to have been doubly exciting live, with such constraints absent. Unfortunately, Beck’s next album, Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group Live, shatters that possibility; it’s a mess. It sounds like Beck barely rehearsed with Hammer and his band; they gamely keep up with him on his tunes, while he sounds like he could hardly be bothered playing on Hammer’s numbers, and both musicians try to get over on gimmickry.

Beck’s final “fusion” album was 1980’s There and Back. It was a more consistent, less varied effort than the previous two, featuring the sensitive playing of keyboardist Tony Hymas and the well-traveled drummer Simon Philips. This album moved even further away from jazz — if the previous albums were even close to jazz (beyond the the Mingus cover on Wired) — and towards the instrumental guitar rock genre that is Beck’s true legacy.

Legions of rock guitarists, from Mick Ronson to Todd Rundgren, claim Jeff Beck’s original rock sound as their inspiration. But the progeny of Jeff Beck’s so-called fusion period are instrumental rock fretboard-shredders like Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson. In terms of pure technique, they and others can play rings around Jeff Beck, but their eventual sublimation of technique to restraint and soul is the true legacy of Beck albums like Blow by Blow, Wired, and There and Back.

One of the strangest tributaries of rock in the mid-70s was Todd Rundgren’s foray into progressive rock and fusion with the band Utopia. The band’s lineup for its 1974 eponymous debut album featured three keyboard players, a bassist, drummer, and Todd on guitar and lead vocals.

Many critics point to this album as the quitessential evidence of Todd’s inner conflict between solipsistic technocrat and first-rate pop melodist. It begs the question of who was responsible for what aspects of the music on this bizarre, uneven album.

The opening track “Utopia Theme” (recorded live) and the 30-minute epic “The Ikon” are the two most emblematic tracks on the album. Both are compendia of what were even by then prog and fusion cliches: low-rent Genesis, bargain-basement ELP, and factory-clearance Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Much of these two tracks are sequences of riffs that repeat ad infinitum, interspersed with glorious “chorus” sections that show Todd’s light melodic touch to good effect; the juxtaposition of these two elements is jarring and just plain weird. It helps neither that the band had no virtuoso instrumentalists on the order of Keith Emerson or John McLaughlin, nor that the album’s sound quality suffers from the need to jam so much music onto two sides of an LP.

Yet after repeated listenings, the album grows on you. It almost sounds like an enthusiastic young garage band’s approach to progressive rock — especially compared with the jaded, slick later efforts of bands that influenced Utopia in the first place. It’s progressive rock that actually rocks.

The Utopia lineup on this album didn’t survive, and the band flirted with progressive rock with two more albums before completely selling out. As it turns out, the best prog album that Utopia ever made was not under its own name: it was L, by ex-Gong (and future System 7) guitarist Steve Hillage, produced by Rundgren, with Utopia as one hell of a backup band.

Back in the mid-1970s, there were a zillion hard-rock bands that sounded like the fictitious band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 movie Almost Famous. The band that served as a blueprint — not only for Stillwater but for bands like that in general — was Humble Pie. Consider that the Pie’s original lead guitarist, Peter Frampton (remember him?), served as musical consultant to the film and appeared in a cameo… as Humble Pie’s roadie.

Although Humble Pie was more than almost famous in the early 70s, few remember them now. They were the key transitional band between various British rock styles of the 60s and the Foghats, Bad Companies, and so many other bands that sounded like them in the mid- and late-70s. The Pie was actually something of a supergroup when the band came together in 1968: lead singer and rhythm guitarist Steve Marriott came from the psychedelic Small Faces (“Itchycoo Park”); Frampton came from the pop-oriented Herd; and bassist Greg Ridley had been in the heavy, bluesy Spooky Tooth. (Drummer Jerry Shirley was 17 years old when he was hired.)

The first two Pie albums, As Safe as Yesterday Is and Town and Country, melded “respectful” British blues influences with the rustic feel of The Band. (As Safe as Yesterday Is is superior but only available as a high-priced import CD nowadays.) But when manager Dee Anthony convinced the band to turn up the volume in order to conquer the States, Humble Pie recorded its first album in what became known as its signature style, 1971’s Rock On.

Rock On sounds like an almost clinical grafting of crunching guitar riffs and heavy drums onto blues and R&B; the twin influences were both there but hadn’t been synthesized into a truly individual style the way Cream or Led Zeppelin did it. If you listen to this album, you can tell where this now-cliche set of influences came from — and you can see how so many bands found it easier to cop this style than those of Zep or Cream.

Humble Pie’s ensuing double live album, Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore (also 1971), was its peak achievement — and it’s a scorching document. Steve Marriott whips the audience into a party-hearty frenzy while Frampton plays at his melodic best on a collection of blues and R&B covers, including Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone,” Ashford and Simpson’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” and the side-long Dr. John cover, “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” which almost ventures into Allman Brothers jam-band territory.

The Pie’s sole gift to classic-rock posterity is “30 Days in the Hole,” a paean to drugs, sex, drugs, rock & roll, and drugs, from the ensuing Smokin’ album (1972). By this time, Frampton had left for his solo career. The new guitarist, David “Clem” Clempson, felt even more at home in the riff-rockin’ style, though ironically enough, his previous gig was with the jazz-rock band Colosseum.

Other bands followed Humble Pie’s example by moving from psychedelic, blues, or progressive roots into hard rock, such as Bad Company (Free/Mott the Hoople/King Crimson), Foghat (Savoy Brown), Jo Jo Gunne (Spirit), and Foreigner (Spooky Tooth/Crimson), while the next generation of swaggering hard-rock bands had no such roots.

Yet as they say, what goes ’round comes ’round. Several modern-day bands are deep in hock to Humble Pie, the most obvious being the Black Crowes. Crowes lead singer Chris Robinson married Kate Hudson, who played the female lead in Almost Famous – Penny Lane, Stillwater’s muse. Need I say more?