UK Prog, Volume 3: 1968-1969 A Crack in the Chrysalis (Notes)
This is something of a bridge volume, finishing out 1968 and setting in on 1969, the year prog rock really came into its own as a subgenre. There are still a handful of songs that could best be described as “proto-prog,” but we’re starting to see the development of the various strains of prog: prog-folk, symphonic prog (which doesn’t necessarily mean orchestral), jazz-rock, space rock, ethnic rock, proto-metal/heavy prog, avant-garde, Canterbury, and even crossover prog. That why I gave this volume the intentionally florid title “A Crack in the Chrysalis.” this music was done incubating and was about to break out in a big way.
Also, a quick reminder that these mixes don’t fit on CDs—I limited myself to an hour-and-a-half per volume. Get the mix via this post.
Love Sculpture: Sabre Dance 4:51
From Parlophone R 5744 (1968)
We’ve mentioned prog rock’s classical pretensions before, but I don’t really think Love Sculpture’s cover of Georgian composer Aram Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance” quite falls into that category. For one thing, they’re not interpreting, for example, the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ “Karelia Suite.” They’re taking on a very well-known, popular piece of orchestral music that was already lodged in the pop cannon through 1950s vocalese interpretations. Their version is also noticeably lacking in pomp, instead embodying a sort of manic energy. This is the band that launched the career of guitarist Dave Edmunds, who’s now better known for his pub rock work in the mid-to-late 70s. He was inspired to take on Khatchaturian by hearing the Nice (and Love Sculpture cut a much longer version the following year that fits the “pretension” bill much better), and it landed the band a minor hit.
Second Hand: Mainliner 14:54
From the Polydor LP Reality (1968)
And now, here’s the pomp. “Mainliner” is the epic closer from Second Hand’s debut album, a psychedelic proto-prog suite complete with flute solo, spaced-out instrumental passages, a string section, and a few pretty abrupt transitions. Keyboardist Ken Elliot gives his all on the vocals—it’s hard to believe he was only 18. This band was completely unproven in 1968, and it’s sort of amazing that Polydor let them cut such an ambitious piece of music for their debut. I suppose the label saw where the wind was blowing and wrote the check for the orchestral overload of the finale hoping that Second Hand were the wave of the future. They weren’t, as it turned out, and they only recorded one more album before their lineup changed almost completely and they changed their name to Chillum. But on “Mainliner,” they made an early attempt at the kind of epic scope that prog bands would aspire to for the next decade.
The Incredible String Band: The Water Song 2:52
From the Elektra LP The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968)
Let’s not mince words here: Robin Williamson is a godawful singer. His tuneless, monochromatic warbling is the primary thing keeping me from enjoying Incredible String Band albums. That said, ISB were an important band in the development of what genre nerds commonly call prog-folk, a sort of catchall that captures a wide range of British (and Irish and Breton) folk groups that mixed and matched elements of traditional European music with the traditions of other parts of the world, or with jazz, or with psych, or rock, or what have you. Incredible String Band were mainly interested in mixing English folk with the sounds of ethnic instruments from all over Asia, with the occasional psychedelic flourish, such as the sudden plunge into water sound effects in the middle of “The Water Song.” the band was never especially popualr, but it had a big cult following, and its experimentalism cast a long shadow over the British folk scene into the mid-70s.
Eric Burdon & the Animals: We Love You Lil 8:20
From the MGM LP The Twain Shall Meet (1968)
In 1968, Dantalian’s Chariot, a psych band whose music held a lot of early hints of prog, broke up. Keyboardist Zoot Money and guitarist Andy Summers (yes, that Andy Summers, later of The Police) were snapped up by Eric Burdon, who was rebuilding the Animals. The album they made that year, The Twain Shall Meet, straddles psychedelia and progressive rock, especially on its second side, which features the minor hit “Sky Pilot,” a song that ends with a lengthy sound collage, and this, “We Love You Lil.” Summers gets to solo for something like five minutes straight as the band cooks up a heavy dirge behind him, complete with bells. The brief, Greek-sounding intro and the bagpipe outro give the song oddly folky bookends and a sense of journey that it might otherwise lack.
White Noise: Black Mass: An Electric Storm In Hell 7:22
From the Island LP An Electric Storm (1969)
David Vorhaus was an American living in London, and when he wanted to put together an electronic music project, he got the very best people he could, snagging the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, who had recently folded their band Unit Delta Plus. “An Electric Storm In Hell” is the masterstroke of the one album this version of the group recorded. Constructed mostly of manipulated vocal, drum and stand-up bass samples, it’s more a soundscape than a song, and it sounds well ahead of its time sonically while fitting in nicely with the more challenging side of psychedelia tonally. Electronic music wasn’t to be a major strain of progressive rock in Britain the way it was in Germany, but this music helped push the conversation forward and featured the first-ever use on record of a British-designed synthesizer, the VCS3.
Rare Bird: Beautiful Scarlet 5:45
From the Charisma LP Rare Bird (1969)
Every musical movement has its front-line acts. Prog had Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Van Der Graaf Generator, and (arguably) Pink Floyd. For a movement to be really rich and rewarding, though, it has to have a lot of second-tier bands pumping out good albums just a notch below the notice and acclaim of the big names. Rare Bird was one of the better second-tier acts. They had two keyboardists, made a side-long album track, scored a minor hit early on with “Sympathy,” and generally had a good run of it. “Beautiful Scarlet” nicely displays their strengths with its raw vocals, good dynamics, and anguished atmosphere. This band played prog with a lot of soul.
Clouds: The Carpenter 3:30
From the Island LP Scrapbook (1969)
Edinborough’s Clouds got a pretty raw deal. In the mid-60s, when they were still calling themselves 1-2-3, they were among the first groups to play out as an organ-bass-drums power trio, essentially setting the template that ELP would follow to massive fame. Billy Ritchie stood up at his organ on stage, breaking a long-accepted mould for keyboard players, and a lot of other keyboardists followed his lead. As influential as they were, the band didn’t record an album until 1969, by which point, progressive rock had fully emerged and their sound no longer stood out as something new and different. They persisted into the early 70s, but they never managed to break through commercially, going into the books as a footnote to a genre they helped create.
Arzachel: Garden of Earthly Delights 2:48
From the Evolution LP Arzachel (1969)
Also know as Uriel, Arzachel (named for a crater on the Moon, which is in turn named for an 11th Century Andalusian astronomer) was the incubator band for a lot of the biggest players in the Canterbury crowd that didn’t come up through the Wilde Flowers. Steve Hillage, Dave Stewart, Mont Campbell, and Clive Brooks all went on to play major roles in the British prog scene during the 70s. The one album they made as Arzachel is essentially the sound of psych turning into prog, and not just because a couple of the songs top ten minutes. Hillage’s guitar is still in freakout mode, but Stewart’s organ playing anticipates his classical style in his next band, Egg, and there is a structure to the music that’s moving a little beyond a punchy song with an extended outro.
Pussy: Tragedy in F Minor 5:01
From the Morgan Blue Town LP Pussy Plays (1969)
I wouldn’t be surprised if this band’s name started as a joke and then stuck after it got put up on a marquee before they could think better of it. As we proceed into the 70s on these volumes, more and more bands that lasted only long enough to record a single album will pop up in the tracklists. Pussy was one of those bands, a psych act that lived right on the cusp of prog rock. Their lone LP is stuffed with the signature sounds of the era, in the service of songs that aspire to the kinds of structures that would soon be commonplace. This dour instrumental is my favorite things they did—shame they never had a chance to better it.
Fairport Convention: Tam Lin 7:12
From the Island LP Liege & Lief
Fairport Convention is the premier prog-folk band, or at least the premier electric folk band, if you don’t buy into the idea of prog-folk. “Tam Lin,” then, is perhaps the quintessential prog-folk track, with its stinging unison riffs and lyrics adapted from an old Scottish legend. Fairport was trying to forge a way forward from tragedy when it recorded Liege & Lief, its third album of 1969. Drummer Martin Lamble and guitarist Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn, had both been killed when the band’s van crashed on the way home from a gig. Co-vocalist Iain Matthews left, and rather than replace him, the group brought in electric violinist Dave Swarbrick and left the vocals entirely to Sandy Denny. Jazz musician Dave Mattacks took over the drum chair. The addition of Swarbrick’s violin gives the band’s sound a whole different dimension, and here, it makes a nice counterpoint to the band’s two-guitar attack.
The Moody Blues: Higher And Higher 4:12
From the Threshold LP To Our Children’s Children’s Children
This is the last we’ll hear from the Moody Blues on these sets, but by now, their importance to the development of the genre cluster we came to call progressive rock should be clear. This song, which opened the second LP they released in 1969, was written by drummer Graeme Edge, the man responsible for all of the bits of spoken poetry on the band’s albums. I admire his poetry for its commitment to florid, faintly ridiculous language even if I don’t find it terribly profound—what I really find interesting about this song isn’t the lyrics, but that wild soundscape that opens it. At least part of that sound seems to be tape-altered recordings from the inside of a grand piano; voices and Mellotron are also present. I love the way the song claws its way up out of that hellish whorl, and especially on its guitar-dominated outro, it was easily the loudest, rawest recording the band had made to that point. To Our Children’s Children’s Children was the first album released on the band’s own Threshold label.
East of Eden: Waterways 6:49
From the Deram LP Mercator Projected
When the Moodies began releasing albums on Threshold, they jumped ship from Deram, an imprint of Decca that had been the first dedicated home for progressive and psychedelic rock acts. Deram continued as a progressive label, but never quite duplicated the success it had with the Moody Blues. Not that it didn’t have a good stable of artists. East of Eden was one of the better bands to record for the label, and their first LP is an eclectic piece of work, exploring jazz textures, Eastern instrumentation, and psychedelic pop, often in tandem. “Waterways” is one song that combines all three, and the full-bore freakout in the middle of the song offers a small preview of the tighter jazz focus of the band’s later work in the sax work of Ron Caines and Dave Arbus.
Deep Purple: April 12:03
From the Harvest LP Deep Purple
Deram may have been on the commercial decline in 1969, but that didn’t stop EMI from establishing its own progressive imprint, Harvest, a label that would ultimately become, along with Philips’ Vertigo imprint (of which much, much more later), one of the definitive prog labels. Deep Purple’s self-titled album was among the earliest releases on the label (their other 1969 LP, The Book of Taliesin, was the first), and it finds the band searching for a way forward and trying a lot of different things, including a full-on orchestral suite in the form of “April.” This was the last album of the Mark I Deep Purple, with Rod Evans on vocals and Nick Simper on bass. “April” is basically three pieces of music mashed together in one track. Keyboardist John Lord dominates the opening movement on piano and organ, the second movement features Lord’s orchestral composition, and the final movement, beginning about eight and a half minutes in, is a much more conventional hard rock song. After this, Roger Glover and Ian Gillan replaced Simper and Evans and the band took this song a step further on the 1970 live album Concerto for Group and Orchestra, an ambitious attempt to marry classical music and rock. Many more, most notably Italy’s New Trolls and British keyboardist Rick Wakeman, would follow in the rock/orchestral footsteps made here, but Deep Purple ultimately put this type of project aside and became one of the era’s defining hard rock bands.
Volume One of this series featured very little actual progressive rock, instead focusing on some of the threads that became progressive rock, and to an extent, Volume Two is similar. 1968 was a transitional year for the genre, as psychedelia proliferated in many different directions and guys with jazz and classical backgrounds who’d been playing in r&b and pop bands began to let those backgrounds come through in their own music a bit more. A lot of proto-prog is psychedelia bent into a stranger, usually longer shape.
Also, um, don’t try to burn this to a CD. I realized last night that it exceeds the 74-minute limit. In fact, every volume I’ve compiled so far does—I was shooting for 84 minutes instead of 74 the whole time, which feels like a mistake I shouldn’t have made, given how many mix CDs I’ve made over the years. Ah well, not the end of the world—you get a bit more music, and I rather doubt many people were going to burn these to CD anyway. If you must, just uncheck your least favorite tracks. I’ve had enough trouble paring things down this far and don’t particularly feel up to editing the tracklist any more, especially given that I’m in the middle of final exams and projects.
1. Pink Floyd: Let There Be More Light 5:39 (From the Columbia/EMI LP A Saucerful of Secrets)
Pink Floyd eventually disavowed the “space rock” tag, but as much as they didn’t want to be labeled with it, it’s pretty undeniable that they earned it. They weren’t running from it at all on their second album, opening the record with a literal space rock song about a visit from alien travelers—Roger Waters’ lyrics are even oddly specific about where these visitors make first contact. Mildenhall is an RAF base in Suffolk. The song’s odd structure, with its rushing, bass-led intro, choruses that don’t repeat lyrics and long, lurching guitar solo that doesn’t follow changes, instead playing modally while Rick Wright throws up a hail of sharply dissonant piano chords and squirming electronic noise (perhaps the “psychic emanations” referenced in the lyrics?). This is the song that kicked off the band’s Gilmour era, and it’s one of their finest.
2. Them: Square Room 9:59 (From the Tower LP Now And Them)
Yes, this is the same Them that launched Van Morrison’s career, but by the time they made Now And Them, Morrison had been off on his own for two years. The band’s post-Morrison output has long been lost in the shadow of the band’s former singer, but it deserves better. “Square Room” is a great example of a song that dances around the fuzzy line between psych and prog. It hovers around a single chord, and the band engages in extended modal improv, including a lengthy flute solo. That kind of instrumentation was integral to certain strains of prog rock, as was the reliance on non-traditional harmony. I love how portentously Kenny McDowell sings the phrase “just one table!”
3. Gun: The Sad Saga of the Boy and the Bee 4:49 (From the CBS LP Gun)
First of all, Gun did not have a definite article in their name, though their Wikipedia page insists they did. The group, a trio, evolved out of a beat band called The Knack and was built around the Gurvitz (nee Curtis) brothers, Adrian and Paul. Their self-titled debut is one of those albums that sits at the crossroads of several different currents of late 60s rock, playing at times like early hard rock or proto-metal, at others like psych-pop and at others still like the band was pointed in the direction of prog. With its wild orchestration, weird story lyrics about a boy seeking revenge on a bee that stung him, and sharp lead guitar work, this falls somewhere in the middle of all those things.
4. Family: Voyage 3:36 (From the Reprise LP Music in a Doll’s House)
Leicester-based quintet Family was a very strange band. Their debut, produced by Traffic’s Dave Mason, is something like a tour of the proto-prog landscape, delving into English folk, psych, jazz, and heavy rock, rolling it all together in an ambitious mix where the path a song will take is never predictable. “Voyage” exemplifies that unpredictability, detouring constantly into passages only tangentially related to the verses, on which Roger Chapman sounds a little like a nastier premonition of Peter Gabriel’s work in Genesis. The band persisted until 1973, though the departure of bassist/violinist Rick Grech (who joined Blind Faith and then Traffic) and saxophonist Jim King changed their sound significantly.
5. Caravan: Love Song with Flute 4:11 (From the Decca LP Caravan)
Caravan are the quintessential Canterbury band—my suspicion is that, if they’d wanted to, they could have made a phenomenal straight pop album, or a very good straight jazz fusion album, but instead they kept making both of those things simultaneously, resulting in a string of excellent and distinctive albums that balance pop craft, deft improvisation, and prog ambition almost perfectly. “Love Song With Flute” begins as a basic psychedelic pop song, but before long takes off on a jazzy instrumental flight led by Jimmy Hastings’ flute. Dave Sinclair’s use of organ here also pointed a way forward that many, many prog keyboardists would follow.
6/7. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown: Fanfare/Fire Poem/Fire 4:47 (From the Track LP The Crazy World of Arthur Brown)
Arthur Brown was the mad court jester of early prog, and his band was an incubator for other important acts, launching the careers of Atomic Rooster founder Vincent Crane and ELP drummer Carl Palmer. “Fire” wasn’t so much a song for Brown as an ethos. He appeared on stage in war makeup wearing a flaming helmet, was notorious for not being able to keep his clothes on, and is generally regarding as one of the inventors of stage excess for his costumes, theatricality, and pyrotechnic predilections. All the funnier when you consider that, after his career had largely run its course, he moved to Austin, Texas and got an advanced degree in counseling. He even co-founded a company in the 90s that treated people’s emotional issues by having Brown record a song about that. Can’t imagine what that must have been like for the clients.
8. Giles, Giles & Fripp: Erudite Eyes 5:03 (From the Deram LP The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp)
Giles, Giles & Fripp was the precursor to King Crimson, which in 1969 would instantly change the landscape of progressive rock with its debut album. But we’ll get to that. On their debut, the brothers Giles and guitarist Robert Fripp created a unique brand of whimsical, lopsided psychedelia that went absolutely nowhere commercially. The album is loaded with weird spoken interjections and songs about circus elephants insulting spectators, but it’s on this one that they hint most clearly at where King Crimson would go. Michael Giles’ drums are all jazz, and Fripp’s guitar has an otherworldly tone on his lead lines. The extended improvised coda set a template that King Crimson would follow through its many incarnations. Fripp also never really tried his hand at writing a sophisticated pop song like this again, which is a bit of a shame.
9. The Gods: Looking Glass 4:16 (From the Columbia LP Genesis)
The Gods were another of those bands that played host to a lot of guys who’d later go on to bigger things. Greg Lake passed through on his way to King Crimson and ultimately ELP, bassist John Glascock later found himself in Carmen and Jethro Tull, several members went on to Uriah Heep, and Mick Taylor eventually joined the Rolling Stones. Future Uriah Heep member Ken Hensley was the main vocalist for the band’s debut, cleverly titled Genesis, and on “Looking Glass” you can definitely hear shades of where that band would go in the forceful falsetto harmonies. Hensley’s organ playing and the band’s facility with tempo changes also point the way forward.
10/11. The Soft Machine: Why Am I So Short?/So Boot If At All 9:01 (From the Probe LP The Soft Machine)
On their debut, The Soft Machine were Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge, though those three make a racket that sounds like about twice as many people. Ratledge’s Lowery organ toes the line between a jazz tone and a fuzzier rock tone, and Wyatt, who was to taught to drum by American jazz player George Niedorf, plays well outside the normal vocabulary of a rock drummer. The brief psychedelic tune “Why Am I So Short?” is mostly a table-setter for the wild jam of “So Boot,” and it’s worth noting that there’s no guitar present anywhere on this record—all that fuzz comes from Ratledge’s organ. Ayers departed after this album, and with each subsequent release, The Soft Machine moved further toward outright jazz, but here their conflation of psych and fusion manage to sound very little like either.
12. The Nice: Ars Longa Vita Brevis, 3rd Movement - Acceptance “Brandenburger” 4:44 (From the Immediate LP Ars Longa Vita Brevis)
If other bands were feeling their way toward what would become prog, Keith Emerson and the Nice were head-butting their way down the same path. Guitarist Davy O’List left during the recording of this, their second album, leaving Emerson’s organ playing front and center, though drummer Brian Davison and bassist Lee Jackson were still very heavily involved in composing the band’s material. So was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose Allegro movement from the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 provides the basis for this track, which is the third “movement” of the album’s side-two orchestral suite. The band rams jazz and classical music together with all the subtlety of a particle accelerator here, and a lot of other musicians were taking notes.
13. The Moody Blues: House of Four Doors 4:13 (From the Deram LP In Search of the Lost Chord)
A few of their hits still get play on classic rock radio, but I think the Moody Blues have been rather unfairly sidelined in a lot of narratives of late 60s rock. None of their albums are perfect—not even Days of Future Past—mostly because a lot of their songs are too enamored with the idea at the center of the song to bother with refining the lyrics so they fit less awkwardly, but they are full of ideas and interesting sounds. “House of Four Doors” could fairly be placed I that category, I suppose, but its pointedly suite-like construction, use of sound effects, mellotron overload, hidden stash of harpsichord and fuzzy spirituality are all prototypes of elements that would become prominent in symphonic prog.
14. Nirvana: Rainbow Chaser 2:40 (From the Island LP The Existence of Chance Is Everything and Nothing While the Greatest Achievement Is the Living of Life, and So Say All of Us, aka All of Us)
This is perhaps the most thoroughly psych-pop moment on this volume, but Nirvana deserve at least an honorable mention on any prog overview worth its salt, not least for releasing a concept album with an elaborate, difficult-to-follow story as their debut in 1967. The Story of Simon Simopath was more interesting in concept than execution, but on the follow-up, Nirvana came much closer to hitting their target of candy-colored orchestral psych, and the goofy ambition of their first two efforts collectively add up to a big fat neon sign pointing toward prog.
15. Procol Harum: In Held ‘Twas I: a) Glimpses of Nirvana b) ’Twas Tea Time at the Circus c) In the Autumn of My Madness d) Look to Your Soul e) Grand Finale 17:30 (From the Regal Zonophone LP Shine On Brightly)
“In Held ‘Twas I” is a true milestone for British progressive rock. Procol Harum filled almost the whole second side of their second LP with this track, which cobbles several disparate songs into one monstrous epic (it actually shared side two with a much shorter song, “Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone),” but plenty of bands would later place 17+ minute songs alone on one LP side) . The reason I include the song lengths on the tracklists for these sets is pretty simple: for beginning prog fans, long songs inevitably become a fascination. I think it has something to do with the assumption, often wrong, that a long song means the band had a lot of ideas. A lot of bands released side-long epics in the ten years following “In Held ‘Twas I,” and I think all it really took was for one band to have the nerve to do it for the dam to break. I remember being enthralled with this song when I was younger, and even then thinking it was kind of funny that Gary Brooker actually admitted to being pretentious in his opening monologue.
As goofy and spiritually fuzzy as it can be, “In Held” does have its share of awesome moments, the first being that amazing moment when, after Brooker relates the Dalai Lama’s response to the pilgrim, the whole band erupts into that positively evil riff. The song has a little of everything: Robin Trower’s overdriven lead guitar, a music hall set piece, dolorous piano and spoken word passages, sitar, crunchy organ, and a long, grandiose coda featuring a full choir. If anyone out there doubts that prog was really in full swing in 1968, take a listen to this. If anything will change your mind, it’s this.
Volume Two in our ongoing series of British progressive rock mixes. Notes to follow in a second post. Obtain it here.
1. Pink Floyd: Let There Be More Light 5:39 2. Them: Square Room 9:59 3. Gun: The Sad Saga of the Boy and the Bee 4:49 4. Family: Voyage 3:36 5. Caravan: Love Song with Flute 4:11 6/7. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown: Fanfare/Fire Poem/Fire 4:47 8. Giles, Giles & Fripp: Erudite Eyes 5:03 9. The Gods: Looking Glass 4:16 10/11. The Soft Machine: Why Am I So Short?/So Boot If At All 9:01 12. The Nice: Ars Longa Vita Brevis, 3rd Movement - Acceptance “Brandenburger” 4:44 13. The Moody Blues: House of Four Doors 4:13 14. Nirvana: Rainbow Chaser 2:40 15. Procol Harum: In Held ‘Twas I: a) Glimpses of Nirvana b) ’Twas Tea Time at the Circus c) In the Autumn of My Madness d) Look to Your Soul e) Grand Finale 17:30
Rollerball: “Wet Food Twice A Day” (Bathing Music, 2000)
A couple of days ago, Insomnius mentioned LiveJournal in a post titled “Why Blog?” It was a good, thoughtful post that I think a lot of people could identify with on some level. I know I can. Not least because, like Insomnius, I had a LiveJournal. I’d sort of forgotten about it and assumed it must have been a very long time ago, but visiting it (yes, with that link, I am inviting you to go ahead and look at my old LiveJournal, rampant typos and all), I see I last posted on it in 2005. Which is seven years ago, but still, I think of it as something I briefly experimented with in college and gave up before long.
Which is also basically true. That 2005 entry is an outlier, the only one from after 2003. I never updated regularly. But looking back, I’m glad I updated it when I did, because it’s been interesting going through all the posts (there are fewer than 40) and seeing what I thought was worth logging in for.
Also fun to look at is the “now playing” field that accompanies every post. For one thing, it reminds me of how much more effort I devoted to getting into the more avant garde side of indie rock back then. The musical accompaniment to my first post was Rollerball’s Bathing Music, which I haven’t listened to in a very, very long time. I still have the CD, though.
The album came out on a tiny indie called Road Cone, which, if I recall correctly, redirected you from its website to perishablerecords.com to purchase its releases. I see Perishable’s site is still up, and has exactly the same layout that it had in 2000, though fewer pages work and it actually appears to have been updated with subsequent releases at least through the middle of the last decade.
I believe I bought this album at Newbury Comics after reading about it in Magnet. “Wet Food Twice A Day” was my instant favorite, probably because of its very deliberate beat. It was out, but not too out. As much as I once tried very hard to stretch my taste into very challenging music, a lot of harsh noise and not much structure were never really my things. One of the other early posts has Jackie-O Motherfucker’s Fig. 5 as the musical accompaniment, and that record is one of a handful of albums that convinced me to stop trying so hard to be the kind of listener I’m not.
Bathing Music came in a nicely designed paper case (you can make out the texture in the album cover jpg above), but the CD was in a plastic sleeve inside, just banging around waiting to get scratched. So I took the tray out of an old jewel case and cut it down with scissors so that it would fit in the paper case and the CD would have a backing that kept it from getting scratched.
Which reminds me of another thing: a time in my life where every piece of music that came into my life was treated with a great deal of care, listened to until committed to memory, and carefully shelved in alphabetical, then chronological order. Some time perhaps two years after that first LiveJournal post, I started to fall behind the promos, and then the internet opened wide and spewed music at me, and I’ve been sitting on mountains of unplayed music ever since.
Anyway, “Wet Food Twice A Day” is on the iPod now, and the CD’s back on the shelf, right between Roedelius’ Wasser Im Wind and Rollerskate Skinny’s Shoulder Voices. And my LiveJournal is still there, archived for no one in particular to look at.
The Band: “Acadian Driftwood” (Northern Lights - Southern Cross, 1975)
Yesterday, the terrible news went around that Levon Helm, drummer of The Band, is gravely ill. He’s been fighting cancer for the better part of ten years, and it seems the fight has reached its limit.
I have to say I’m glad this isn’t a rememberance post. There are times when it seems as though half the things I write on the blog are tagged “RIP” for some musician or other. It feels more right to celebrate Helm while he’s still with us. Thing is, it’s hard for me to think of a recording Helm made where it doesn’t sound like he’s right there with you, especial when he sings.
My favorite sound on The Band’s albums is the harmonies of Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko—the way they meld together is so unstudied and natural. The best way I can think to describe it is “campfire ambiance.”
"Acadian Driftwood" is the centerpiece of Northern Lights - Southern Cross, and it features all three trading lead vocals on the verses, then uniting on the chorus. It has an effect that compliments the lyrics, as if the three are telling overlapping stories, each one related to the expulsion of the Acadians by the British from the Maritimes in 1755.
That story is a fascinating one in its own right: the Acadians, citizens of French ancestry living in modern Nova Scotia, Maine, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick, were forced by the British to leave, dispersing to France, Quebec, Louisiana and elsewhere; many died during the voyage, including 2000 who were lost in a shipwreck. A small number stayed behind, and today there is an Acadian minority in Maine’s Madawaska region and the Canadian Maritimes.
The storytelling roundtable approach to the subject matter is one of the things that makes “Acadian Driftwood” so emotionally direct. It doesn’t feel at all like a history lesson, though in some respects that’s exactly what it is.
That was the real magic of The Band. Helm’s two singing partners are gone, Manuel in 1986, and Danko in 1999. When Helm goes, we’ll have lost all of one of the finest singing trios rock and roll ever produced. All the more reason to listen and appreciate it now.
Volume One has to start somewhere, and it might as well be the beginning. There’s no particularly convenient point of origin for what we came to call progressive rock. It’s more like a tree with a lot of roots, and what I’m trying to do on this volume is expose some of the roots and how they fed into the evolution of the genre, which itself never really had one trunk so much as several springing from the same root system.
I’m saying it’s complicated to define exactly what is and isn’t progressive rock, and my criteria are going to be as subjective as anyone else’s, though I should note that I’m trying to be as eclectic as possible on these volumes. I’ll be skipping over plenty—most years will be represented by two CD-length volumes, so omissions are unavoidable—so apologies to Dantalian’s Chariot and others who didn’t make the cut. Here’s what’s on Volume One and why I included it:
Delia Derbyshire & Ron Grainer: Dr. Who Main Title 2:10 (Opening title theme of the BBC show “Dr. Who” 1963-1970, Decca F.11837, 1964)
The Dr. Who theme seems as good a place as any to start. Composed by Ron Grainer, it was then re-composed and electronically assembled by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire, who built it entirely out of samples and tape snippets. It’s a startlingly modern-sounding piece of music, and I think it’s a landmark—most of the musicians you’ll hear on these volumes heard it, and it must have been an ear-opener. I toyed with the wobbly early synthesizer parts on the Tornados’ 1962 hit “Telstar” for an opener, but Dr. Who seems to loom larger for where the music went. For direct evidence, see the mid-section of Pink Floyd’s “One Of These Days,” in which they quote this theme.
The Yardbirds: Happenings Ten Years Time Ago 2:57 (A-side of Columbia 45 DB 8024, 1966)
The Yardbirds were one of the greatest talent incubators of the London scene in the 60s, and with time nearly everyone in the band went on to do some work in or at least near the prog rock realm. “Happenings” finds its way into this running order mostly because of the ambition of its arrangement and the sophistication of its production. This is psychedelia about a year ahead of schedule, and it bursts with the kinds of riffage and on-a-dime turns that would become trademarks of the symphonic prog subgenre.
The Wilde Flowers: Impotence 2:10 (Unreleased recording, possibly 1966; this version could have been recorded as late as 1969)
The Wilde Flowers never actually released any music during their lifetime, but they made some recordings, and from a historical perspective, it’s hard to find a band that harbored more 70s prog luminaries during their early years than this one, which was basically Ground Zero for the Canterbury scene. Hugh and Brian Hopper, Richard and Dave Sinclair, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen, Pye Hastings and Richard Coughlan all passed through its ranks—without the Wilde Flowers, there may have been no Caravan, Soft Machine or Gong. Wyatt sings lead on this demo, which may have been recorded during a brief re-convening of the band in 1969—I know that the song existed in ‘66, though, and the band is an essential root of the prog tree.
The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows 3:00 (From the Parlophone stereo LP Revolver, 1966)
A lot of people point to Sgt. Pepper’s as the true proto-prog document, but honestly, I think the Beatles were there much earlier. Their love of experimentation gave scads of musicians, established and neophyte, the inspiration to take things in new directions. I considered going with something less obvious, such as George Harrison’s raga-rock workout “Love You To,” but really, if there’s a true opening shot for prog, it has to be this, with its strange beat, weird loops, and mystical lyrics.
The Who: A Quick One, While He’s Away 9:11 (From the Reaction/Polydor LP A Quick One, 1966)
Or, for another option, how about this nine-minute embryo of the concept album by the Who? Pete Townshend laid the groundwork for Tommy here (the plot is even somewhat similar), and the song’s suite-like construction became, for better or worse, one of the cliches of prog rock.
Pink Floyd: Interstellar Overdrive (Sound Techniques version) 16:53 (Recorded at Sound Techniques, January 1967; from the soundtrack to Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London)
Strictly speaking, the first release of “Interstellar Overdrive” was the album version from Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but this version, recorded earlier, is much more illustrative of what Pink Floyd was like in concert, and it was onstage in 1966 and 1967, with their light show and penchant for expansive free improvisation, that the band cemented its place as the inventor of cosmic rock. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band got on record with group improv first with 1966’s “East West,” but this was something further out.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: If 6 Was 9 5:33 (From the Track Records LP Axis: Bold As Love, 1967)
Wait a second, Hendrix was American. Right? Well, yes. But during 1967, he had a British band (Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell) and a British producer (Chas Chandler) and was very much a part of the London scene. The Experience headlined the definitive proto-prog package tour in November and December, 1967, with the Move, Pink Floyd, Outer Limits, Eire Apparent, Amen Corner, Pete Drummond, and the Nice, and the studio and compositional experimentation of the Hendrix Experience albums was an important stepping stone on the way to prog.
Jeff Beck: Beck’s Bolero 2:55 (B-side of Columbia 45 DB 8151, 1967)
Classical pretensions are another of the great prog rock cliches, and here we have one of the earliest examples. This is not actually a cover of Ravel’s “Bolero,” but that piece of music was what Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck had in mind when they cut this track in May, 1966 with a band consisting of themselves, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins, and John Paul Jones. It wasn’t released until 1967, and then only as a b-side, but this laid out a template for the many, many bands that would follow with their own interpretations and references to classical music.
Traffic: Heaven Is In Your Mind 4:15 (From the Island LP Mr. Fantasy, 1967)
Traffic are one of the great gray-area prog bands. Most of their music doesn’t quite fit the mold, even when the mold is defined liberally, but on their early records especially, you can hear seeds being planted, particularly in the shifting rhythms and eclectic instrumentation. The saxophone is one of the most important instruments in certain types of prog rock, and Chris Wood’s use of sax in Traffic helped establish a different style of playing, integrated with the band, rather than as a strictly solo or section-based instrument.
Kaleidoscope: A Dream For Julie 2:47 (From the Fontana LP Tangerine Dream, 1967)
The lyrics are a veritable buffet of psychedelic cliches (tangerine clouds, strawberry monkeys, etc.), but the Kaleidoscope’s widescreen approach to psychedelia represents as well as any other the kind of expansiveness that most prog musicians were grasping for, particularly in the early going.
The Syn: 14 Hour Technicolor Dream 2:56 (B-side of Deram 45 DM 145, 1967)
This song is written about a fundraising concert, headlined by Pink Floyd, for the International Times, the then-fledgling counterculture newspaper (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Move, Soft Machine, The Pretty Things, Savoy Brown and Sam Gopal were also on the bill). It was a major cultural moment for Swinging London; in paying tribute to it, The Syn were grabbing a little bit of the zeitgeist for themselves. The band was also a sort of precursor to Yes; it was the first band bassist Chris Squire and original Yes guitarist Peter Banks played in together.
The Pretty Things: Defecting Grey 5:14 (A-side of Columbia 45 DB 8300, 1967)
As The Pretty Things began work on the first full-length rock opera, S.F. Sorrow, they recorded a few songs that fell outside the scope of the project. One of them was “Defecting Grey,” released as a flop single in late 1967. The song features the suite-like union of disparate sections, one a sort of lilting, slow-motion two-step, and the other a nasty, up-tempo psychedelic barrage. My favorite moment is when the bass kicks in after that dry guitar introduces the up-tempo section. You feel the whole song shift into overdrive instantly. The Pretty Things didn’t ever get to take their rightful place in the prog vanguard, toiling in commercial obscurity through 1970, before breaking up. They re-formed in 1972, but lacked stability and just never broke through. They’ll have settle for being there at the beginning.
Procol Harum: Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) 5:06 (From the Regal Zonophone LP Procol Harum, 1967)
Procol Harum are one of the pre-eminent proto-prog acts. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” quoted Bach and topped the chart, and they toyed with concept albums and even released one of the earliest side-long tracks (of which more on Volume Two). I chose “Cerdes” over “Repent Walpurgis” mostly because “Repent” was featured on Rhino’s Supernatural Fairytales prog box back in the 90s, and I’m trying not to repeat that set. “Cerdes” makes my point nicely in its own right, though, with its slow, sort of funk-derived beat, and in particular Robin Trower’s blistering guitar solo, which pointed toward the role extended solos and lead playing would figure in the music going forward.
The Moody Blues: Love and Beauty (mono) 2:26 (A-side of Decca 45 F 12670, 1967 (double A-side with “Leave This Man Alone”)
I thought of going with “Nights in White Satin,” because, well, it’s awesome, and it has pretty much every ingredient you might want for a compilation exploring the advent of prog rock, but it occurred to me that there aren’t a whole lot of people who need to be introduced to that song. If you don’t find it, there’s a good chance it’ll eventually find you. Instead, I’m going with “Love And Beauty,” which found the reconstituted Moody Blues dumping their old r&b sound in favor of a lush pop direction. Michael Pinder’s Mellotron makes its first appearance in the band’s music here, and this is also one of the earliest uses of the instrument on a pop record. And anyone who loves prog knows that the Mellotron is pretty much the mascot of progressive rock.
Chad & Jeremy: The Progress Suite: Epilogue 5:12 (From the Columbia LP Of Cabbages And Kings, 1967)
Chad & Jeremy are best known for their 1964 folk-pop hit “A Summer Song,” and they’re not a name that comes immediately to mind when someone mentions prog rock. On their 1967 LP Of Cabbages And Kings, though, they had a major brush with proto-prog, covering side two of the album with “The Progress Suite,” five related and heavily orchestrated songs and instrumentals that work as a cycle. It’s also stuffed with sitar and very heavy-handed lyrics on the state of the world, but it’s undeniably ambitious, and this final section works pretty well. Not all of prog’s roots are in places you’d expect.
The Nice: Rondo 8:18 (From the Immediate LP The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack, 1967)
And here we are. This is prog rock in its most undiluted form. This is a cover of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo Alla Turk,” but organist Keith Emerson just can’t help himself, throwing in a bit of Bach “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” during his long solo (he made a habit of playing it opposite-handed in concert, during the same routine in which he attacked his organ with a knife given to him by future Motorhead leader Lemmy, who was a roadie for The Nice). It’s bombastic and unabashed in its pretensions, and it’s also pretty damned exciting. The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (the band members were Emerson, guitarist Davy O’List, bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison) is sometimes cited as the first full-blown progressive rock album, and it is a good candidate, dropping at the end of 1967 and fairly well synthesizing all of the developments we’ve been reviewing to this point. The funny thing about it is that they took Brubeck’s song from a tricky meter (9/8) to the much more straightforward 4/4.
There’s a very simple reason I’m posting this song today: last night, after ten years of listening to it, I finally realized what Dick Witts is singing on the refrain.
I guess it’s funny that, in a time when the lyrics for just about anything can be found on innumerable websites, I never bothered to look it up, because I’ve always been curious what the words were. the way he contorts his voice into a strangled, freaked-out panic certainly makes the line feel important. All I could ever make out, though, was issatrack tomayfashamayaloe.
I love that vocal delivery, by the way. It makes what was already a pretty great post-punk groove feel apocalyptic, as the lyrics suggest it should feel. So how strange that the bit I could never understand until last night turns out to be the decidedly un-apocalyptic line, “It’s a drag that this man should be alone.” He’s a lone. And it’s a real drag. The understatement and over-delivery are a somehow perfect match.
By the way, I’m glad I never looked the lyrics up. It was much more rewarding when I realized what he was saying myself.
As I’ve been gathering tracks for my upcoming UK prog rock mix series, I’ve been going through my heavy psych obscurities to see which ones might fit on one of the early volumes that explore the transition from psych to prog. This is one that didn’t make the prog mix cut, but I still love it in all its sloppy, nasty glory.
Elias Hulk were a short-lived quintet from Bournemouth, England, and their one LP, Unchained, actually shows a fair amount of range (it also sports a truly hideous, disturbing Incredible Hulk-referencing album cover). There’s one track called “Free” that features some really nice, spooky slide guitar, for instance. It’s the headlong garage-punk maelstrom of “Nightmare” that really stands out to me, though.
The way this thunders along with everything bleeding into the red, vocalist Peter Thorpe wailing about the “asylum of the self,” and that sort of charmingly amateurish drum break section in the middle works like some sort of checklist of what I’m looking for in heavy psych and early hard rock. Believe it or not, on other tracks, Thorpe sounds a little like the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward.
Stuff like this is getting me excited about putting together this prog overview—I hope at least a few people enjoy it as much as I do.
Best ABBA cover ever? It has to be in the running.
The Favourites were from Nottingham, and they released two singles before calling it a day, but they were pretty memorable singles for such a here-and-gone band.
For their first a-side, they went to ABBA’s 1975 hit “SOS,” which had been in the UK top ten in 1975 (the only song in which both title and artist were palindromes ever to do so), and they really reinvented it for themselves. I love the bombastic guitar riff that slams in at the end of the first verse, and the general clipped indignancy of the vocal, but by far the most brilliant thing the band built into the song is the Morse code guitar part that comes in on the chorus after they sing “SOS.” That’s “dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot,” or “SOS” if you’re unfamiliar with Morse code.
I wish the band had recorded more. With their flair for the dramatic, I bet they could’ve made a pretty good album.
Here’s what I’m going to do this summer: Each week, I’ll be offering a British Prog Rock mix. I’ll keep the scope to the 60s and 70s, and I’ll choose whatever tracks I think work best and explain the reasons in each post.
I’m thinking I’ll divide up the volumes chronologically and keep each one about CD-length, because it’s good to have some kind of limit. I’ll try to keep a good balance of obscurities and top-level stuff. Should be fun.
Caravan: “Be All Right/Chance of a Lifetime” (For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, 1973)
I’ve been listening to a ton of old British prog rock lately. It’s music I’ve loved for a very long time, and music I go on a big kick with at least once a year, and it’s felt right paired with my schoolwork for the past month.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it: this music was my first love. It was what spoke to me most in high school, first through Pink Floyd and Yes and King Crimson and later through dozens of other bands (my first concert: the Moody Blues. My third: Jethro Tull and ELP).
As I started to go through all the British prog I have on CD, LP, and my hard drive, I was sort of astonished by the quantity. Some of it unfortunately lacks a bit on the quality end of things, but so much of it is really interesting or seems to lay groundwork for something that came later. I’ve made a special effort to check out the forgotten bands, investigate bands I’d spent little time with in the past and re-visit ones I’d soured on (hello, ELP) with an open mind.
One of the bands I’d never spent a lot of time with was Caravan, and I now wonder what held me back. Some of their more whimsical material still does little for me, but when these guys wanted to, they could bring some serious energy to an odd-metered jam.
These guys are a pretty foundational prog band. Caravan formed in 1968 from members of the Canterbury scene who had all played at various times in a local group called the Wilde Flowers, a band that also incubated musicians who went on to Gong, Soft Machine, Hatfield & the North, National Health and others. (The other major Canterbury incubator band was Arzachel/Uriel.)
The band never had a very stable lineup—cousins Dave and Richard Sinclair came and went and came back, and the backbone of the band was really guitarist/vocalist Pye Hastings and drummer Richard Coughlan, the only two members of every version of the band (woodwind player Jimmy Hastings was also a fairly constant presence).
My favorite Caravan LP is 1973’s For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, which I think does the best job of uniting all of the band’s many tendencies, from jazz-ish improv to hard rock to poppy ballads to classic pomp to dry wit. “Be All Right/Chance of a Lifetime” is a two-part pop suite written by Pye Hastings that contrasts a sharp, aggressive opening movement led by Geoff Richardson’s electric viola with a much more conventional song in the second half, the kind of juxtaposition that made a lifelong prog fan in the first place.