From Chaos to Cosmos (and back): Steppenwolf, “Magic Carpet Ride” (1968)

The significance of all these [alchemical] rituals seems abundantly clear:  to do something well, or to remake a living integrity menaced by sickness, it is first necessary to go back ad originem, then to repeat the cosmogony.
—Mircea Eliade [1]

Some songs are recorded with chaotic-sounding prologues, like the deranged electronic gear effect at the beginning of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.”  This makes us wait and hunger for what will count as a truer beginning of the song, adding to the delight when the song really launches.  Also it’s sort of a theological teaser:  you can hear it staging the song’s creation as a miracle, like the creation or restorative re-creation of the universe.  (Artist as God; God as artist.)

“Magic Carpet Ride” start

A symphony orchestra routinely gets this effect in its tuning-up period right before a concert (mimicked by Pearl Jam at the start of “Last Exit”).

If the point of a chaotic prologue is to set up a contrast with the sweetly ordered song to follow, can the chaos be a hook in itself?  Haven’t we just defined it more as an anti-hook?  It would be a good trick indeed to create an anti-hook that we long to hear for itself.  I think “Magic Carpet Ride” pulls this off:  once we learn to recognize the opening squawk, it becomes a pretty great hook.  Even after it has grabbed us with its own Gestalt it keeps on stalking the other side of the chaos/cosmos boundary from the sleek machine of the song’s verse/chorus.

Are there other great initial-chaos hooks?

In the “Foxey Lady” prologue, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar sketches chaos but quickly turns into a screaming incoming missile that nails the song’s T minus zero, by implication nailing the lady as well.  The chaos is not the hook.

An interestingly debatable chaos hook starts the Beatles’ fast version of “Revolution.” John’s raw-toned guitar and Paul’s scream evoke walls falling down.  But the guitar lick is so regular and the scream has such a familiar rock ‘n’ roll profile that we easily hear these four measures as a conventional juicy hook.  We can choose to hear them either way, actually, or get hung up in the choice:  “count me out—in” as John sings later, apropos revolution.  (Compare the false start and studio clatter in the slow “Revolution” on the White Album, an early example of what would become a popular prologue strategy.)

A final honorable mention:  even if it won’t spontaneously replay in your imagination like my other examples will, the groaning guitars and thumping drums prologue of “Misunderstood” by Wilco is thematically tremendous, I submit, because similar unsonglike material erupts again at key points in the song—a hint at 1:40, a big dose at 3:00, and then a complete takeover from 4:50 on, like the graded series of shark appearances in Jaws.  “Misunderstood” is about finding holes in your life, your connections to home and friends having become disconnections.  Cosmos fought chaos and chaos won.

[1] Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, trans. Stephen Corrin (New York:  Harper & Row, 1971), p. 162.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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