There are a lot of fine candidates, and “Echoes” is one of the rare songs from their setlists of the early 70s that tended to vary only in small ways, whereas most of the other non-Dark Side material they played around that time could change shape and length radically from night to night.
I’ve always like the split-in-two Pompeii version, actually—the first half in particular is very intense. It’s also split in half, though.
A few full versions that come to mind include the May 19th, 1973 version at Earl’s Court (a generally incredible show), the Nov 16th, 1974 version at Empire Pool, and the September 22nd, 1972 version at the Hollywood Bowl.
This last ranks among the best shows they ever played, and this take on “Echoes” is amazing—the band was on fire when it hit southern California in 1972. The intro is super-spacey, with a prominent slide guitar lead, and Wright’s organ work is really interesting. Gilmour’s fuzzed-out lead after verse two gives me chills. Also, the middle “scream” section is really out-there, with a lot of dissonant organ.
The Earl’s Court version is one of the heaviest they did—the double stops after the final verse hit very hard.
A dark horse candidate might be the version from June 28th, 1975 at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario. Gilmour does some really odd things on the intro, and they come in at an unusually slow tempo that gives it an even more ethereal effect. This is also one of the late versions that includes a sax solo after the second verse, which never quite equals Gilmour’s usual work on that section, but lends an interesting feel nonetheless. I have a fantastic crowd source of this show—I’ll try to find or put a link up later this week.
If you forced me to pick, I’d probably go with Hollywood Bowl.
Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson & Ricky Scaggs: “Down in the Valley to Pray” (The Three Pickers, 2003)
Back in March, we lost Earl Scruggs, the great banjo innovator who invented a much-imitated three-finger style of playing. Yesterday, we lost one of his closest friends, Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, a man whose flat-picking guitar style was nearly as influential.
Watson was 89, and had been performing since his childhood. Watson was blind, having lost his sight at the age of one, but he wasn’t slowed by his handicap. He earned the money to buy his first guitar by chopping down trees and selling the wood.
By the mid-40s, Scruggs was a major figure in the emerging bluegrass movement, while Watson had a much lower profile. the two met when Watson sat in with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys on a night when Monroe was sick and needed someone to take some of the vocal burden off of him. Scruggs and Lester Flatt left the Bluegrass Boys to form Flatt & Scruggs and became bluegrass superstars; for Watson, it was a much more winding path to stardom.
It was really the 1960s folk music revival that brought him to fame. His first few recordings were made for Folkways, and he recorded for Vanguard in the mid-60s. He made records with his son Merle until Merle’s untimely death in 1985; he never really crossed over the way Flatt & Scruggs did, but he remained highly respected in the country and folk music worlds.
The Three Pickers album is a classic of modern bluegrass, celebrating the music and the people responsible for it. It brings Scruggs and Watson together with a younger guy who learned a lot from Watson, Ricky Scaggs, and there is a lot of crazy picking on the album for sure.
It’s this one that always leapt out at me, though. This is a very old spiritual that Watson originally found in an 1872 collection of songs frequently performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a popular vocal group of the late 19th Century formed by students at the all-black Fisk University in Nashville to raise funds for the school.
There’s no wild guitar or banjo on this song, but it does put Watson’s dusky baritone front and center, and for that reason alone, it’s powerful. I don’t have a religious atom in my body, but you don’t have to to feel the special energy burning at the center of this performance.
Artist: The Buckinghams Track: Susan Album: Portraits Year: 1967
Theme: Girls Names
So what’s the deal with the Satanic-sounding instrumental section?
Severe differences occurred between the Buckinghams and their producer [James William Guercio]. The group opposed the producer’s treatment of the song “Susan” by adding a psychedelic section. It included a short portion of Charles Ives’ “Central Park in the Dark” and sounded very similar to the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life”, with an orchestral crescendo. This caused several radio stations to ban the song from the airwaves, or to omit the psychedelic section altogether. The producer had the last word, and the Buckinghams could do nothing about the treatment of the song. The group currently does not include the psychedelic portion in their performances.
Huh… I like that part, but mostly for the weirdness factor.
Oh my god! I have been looking for this for nearly twenty years.
In high school, I made a lot of tapes off the radio, mostly from classic rock and oldies stations. They had full songs on them, of course, but also a lot of interstitial garbage, especially at the end of a side where there wasn’t enough room for a full song, but I didn’t want silence.
I’d roll back and forth along the radio dial, getting a melange of static and quick snippets of songs I was passing. On one of the early tapes, a peel of static suddenly lifts to reveal the crescendo of this song’s psychedelic interlude, and as the Buckinghams begin to sing “love love love love,” it lurches away into more static. It always sounded pretty out-there and I always wondered what it was. I can’t even count the number of things I’ve listened to because they were described as similar to this, only to find out they weren’t what I was looking for.
Stevie Loraine & the Clansmen: “If You Always Say” (Philips ME-0196-SE, 1967)
I hardly know anything about Stevie Loraine. She was a singer from Singapore who had a brief career in the mid-1960s, releasing two four-song EPs, one with backing by a band called the Dukes, and another with backing by the Clansmen.
They both came out on Philips, which seemed to have people everywhere in the 60s—the label released music in dozens of countries, covering a huge range of styles. There was money to be made, of course—recording local beat groups in Southeast Asia served the needs of a then-burgeoning market—but in the process of turning profits, Philips gave us an enormous gift by documenting thousands of bands that never otherwise would have had the chance to record.
One of my fantasy places would be a complete Philips vault, actually. Every release that ever came out on the label and its subsidiaries, all in one building, waiting to be listened to. You could take quite a journey across the 20th Century, through highlife, MPB, French ye-ye, progressive rock, early metal, jazz, electronic music, garage rock, New Wave, punk, disco, beat from every continent, ethnic recordings, and classical music. Fontana and Vertigo were Philips imprints. It was the first company to sell CDs commercially.
No such vault exists, of course, and a lot of the label’s more far-flung operations didn’t preserve their original tapes, so it would be hard to even make one retroactively. From what I’ve read, their Singapore operation was one that didn’t keep its tapes.
The records are still out there, though, and a lot of them are really good. This one is among my favorites. I love Abdullah Abu’s lead guitar on this—his work on the intro makes this song feel as though it’s emerging from the mist of time. The rest of the Clansmen (rhythm guitarist Derrick Nunis, bassist Raymond Lazaroo, and drummer Philip Monteiro) are as solid as can be, too. They recorded at least one single on their own.
There’s really no American or British pop single that this song, one of two originals on the EP written specifically for Stevie by Terry Marsden, can’t hang with. Loraine’s voice was powerful, and she clearly was a true English speaker—the hesitation in the pronunciation is often one of the few things holding singles like this from around the world back. Nothing holds this one back, though—it’s a perfect song.
This is the companion volume to Volume Five, featuring more music from 1970. One thing you might notice as you look over the tracklisting is that there are a lot of songs from self-titled LPs here. Bands were coming on the scene at a furious pace in 1970, from the high profile to the no-profile, and this volume captures a lot of that new talent.
King Crimson’s debut hit the British rock scene like the shockwave from a supernova, instantly changing the progressive rock game, but the band itself couldn’t stay together as the music it helped invent rose to prominence. Their second album was pieced together by a patchwork group of musicians, some held over from In the Court of the Crimson King, some new, and it didn’t really carry the band forward so much as keep its foot in the door. By late 1970, guitarist Robert Fripp and lyricist Peter Sinfield had managed to construct a new version of band with a sound just as distinctive, if not quite as mind-rending, as the first version. Fripp’s school friend Gordon Haskell, who would later have a decent career as a solo pop act, took over bass and vocals, and his bizarre baritone is part of what gives “Cirkus” its freaky carnival atmosphere. That and the wildly stabbing mellotron, odd lyrics and Fripp’s manic acoustic guitar runs.
I think Lizard is a generally overlooked album by the band, especially side one—Yes’ Jon Anderson was the guest vocalist on the side-long track that covered the flip, a guest spot that throws into relief just how much less accessible Crimson was than Anderson’s band. Crimson fractured again after this album and didn’t find relative stability again until 1972, when Fripp brought together the classic Bruford/Muir/Wetton/Cross version of the group. That band was a different animal entirely, one we’ll hear from on a future volume. I think this version was no less interesting.
2. Czar: Cecelia 8:21
From the Fontana LP Czar
King Crimson (or perhaps more correctly, the idea of King Crimson) was a mainstay of 70s progressive rock in Britain; Czar was one of the many bands that gave us a single album and flew to pieces. They’d been together for about four years by that point, relentlessly touring under name Tuesday’s Children (they released six singles under that name, including the 1967 psych gem “Strange Light from the East,” plus another as Czar). The constant touring schedule didn’t let up when their name changed, and Czar was recorded in a hurry between gigs. Among the many groups they played shows with were King Crimson and the Moody Blues, and Bob Hodges’ Mellotron work certainly owes something to them, but he also gave his own voice to their music—the way he pairs his Mellotron parts with Hammond organ is fairly unique. The huge main theme of “Cecelia” uses the Mellotron very assertively on a faux-eastern melody to achieve the perfect kind of overload the band was striving for. It’s basic stuff, but sometimes basic is all you need.
3. The Ghost: In Heaven 3:23
From the Gemini LP When You’re Dead - One Second
The Ghost was practically two bands on its only album, one a tame folk-pop group led by singer Shirley Kent, and the other a weird prog-psych band led by Paul Eastmont, a former member of Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Fogg. “In Heaven” has elements of prog, hard rock, and psych, all jumbled together, and when it hits its chorus, it has a character not dissimilar to a less polished Uriah Heep. The organ sounds left over from 1968, but I always loved that organ sound and kind of love that Terry Guy didn’t drop it in favor of the heavier Hammond sounds that dominated the early 70s—the song wouldn’t move nearly as well without such a light organ tone. Eastmont’s guitar solo is simple and direct, too—prog’s pop side can be just as enjoyable as its most difficult and ambitious sides.
4. Aardvark: Very Nice of You to Call 3:40
From the Deram LP Aardvark
Aardvark only made one album, but it was a good one, covering a lot of ground. Its best highlight, “Very Nice of You to Call,” calls to mind a compact, complex version of Brian Auger’s jazz-rock. This was partly aided by the band’s lack of a guitar player—keyboardist Steve Milliner was the guiding force of the band musically, and though he certainly used it, he wasn’t entirely addicted to heavy organ sounds. His piano here is excellent, flecked with jazz phrasing but also comfortable with the occasional classically-inspired run. Aardvark originally did have a guitarist—Paul Kossoff was in the band for several months, as was drummer Simon Kirke, but both of them would leave before the band hit the studio to form Free with Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser. From then on, the group wasn’t much of a touring concern, which left them ill-positioned to follow up on this album. Our loss.
5. Fairport Convention: Sloth 12:18
From the Island LP House Full: Live at the Troubadour
This is cheating, a bit—House Full was recorded in 1970, and actually saw release in 1977, but it’s clearly representative of the music Fairport Convention was making in the wake of Sandy Denny’s departure. The song is simple enough, but it’s the long instrumental passage that follows that demanded inclusion here—this is one of Richard Thompson’s finest moments, and he doesn’t belabor the point, either, backing off just as his searing solo reaches its peak. What the band does next is nearly as interesting, playing through a very quiet breakdown that features tight interplay between Dave Pegg’s bass and Dave Swarbrick’s violin. “Sloth” was also featured in a similarly great but tamer and shorter version on the group’s 1970 studio album Full House, so I’m going with this one instead.
6. Atomic Rooster: Friday 13th 3:35
From the B&C LP Atomic Rooster
“Sloth” is slow and languid and erupts in measured bursts; Atomic Rooster’s “Friday the 13th” is essentially the polar opposite of that, blasting in with a rapid-fire B3 riff and Nick Graham’s gruff vocals. Atomic Rooster formed in 1969, when keyboardist Vincent Crane and drummer Carl Palmer left The Crazy World of Arthur Brown to pursue their own project. They may as well have called it The Crazy World of Vincent Crane, as he was the only member of the band to play in every lineup, and his occasional bouts with manic depression sometimes interrupted the band’s momentum. Crane’s Hammond style was hugely influential, though, and even though his band slid down to prog’s second tier when it failed to find stability or sustained popularity, he was one of the architects of the genre. Palmer, for his part, left almost immediately after recorded the band’s debut to join ELP and never looked back. Graham also left, leaving Crane to assemble a completely new band for the group’s second album, which we’ll hear from on the next volume.
7. Web: Love You 5:35
From the Polydor LP I Spider
Like plenty of prog bands, Web began in more of a blues mold, and actually had an African American singer, John Watson, for its first two LPs. They had hints of prog in their early sound, but it was after Watson and the band’s original bassist left that keyboardist Dave Lawson joined and they became a full-fledged prog act. “Love You” opens in a sort of prog-folk vein, but rather quickly turns in a doomy jazz-rock direction more along the lines of Colosseum. They’d take that direction further on their final album, for which they added a saxophonist and changed their name to Samurai. Lawson later wound up playing in Greenslade with Colosseum keyboardist Dave Greenslade.
8. Cressida: Depression 5:02
From the Vertigo LP Cressida
Cressida released two albums of accessible, pop-oriented prog around the turn of the 70s before splitting. They’re often compared to the Moody Blues, mostly because singer Angus Cullen sounds a lot like Justin Hayward, but I don’t think the comparison is all that strong beyond the vocal similarity. Cressida keyboardist Peter Jennings used the organ rather than the Mellotron, and you can hear how loud and overdriven John Heyworth’s solo is on “Depression,” a sound that rarely reared its head on Moodies albums. Nonetheless, Cressida were a Vertigo band, and Vertigo rarely gave adequate promotion to its releases, so they never made much in the way of commercial inroads, and by 1972, most of the members had been absorbed into other bands.
9. Gracious!: Heaven 8:08
From the Vertigo LP Gracious!
Sometimes the exclamation mark appears to be a part of this band’s name and other times it doesn’t. Either way, the two albums they made earn the mark; both are great examples of a minor prog band making inspired music. By the time they cut their debut, Gracious had a long history, having formed in 1964 at Catholic school under the name Satan’s Disciples. The recorded an unreleased concept album in 1968 about the four seasons, but it was after playing a show with King Crimson in 1969 that they found the sound we remember them by—keyboardist Martin Kitcat fell in love with Crimson’s Mellotron, and that was that. “Heaven” seems to recall the bands Catholic school roots, with majestic organ passages and choir-ish harmonies. One of the things I like most about this band is that they weren’t virtuosos and didn’t attempt to play as though they were. Alan Cowderoy’s sparing lead guitar parts are economical and melodic, without a hint that he’s getting beyond himself. If they’d found their way to a label that could have better promoted them, Gracious may have made a much bigger impact. As it was, they made one more album and were split up before it even came out.
10. Van Der Graaf Generator: White Hammer 8:16
From the Charisma LP The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other
Back on Volume 4, we heard Peter Hammill’s unique approach to love songs; this time, it’s his singular way with political content. Between 1969 and 1970, VdGG’s flute player, Dave Peach, left and was replaced by David Jackson, who also played sax and adopted a heavy sound on the instrument that nicely complemented Hugh Banton’s organ. Jackson gets in a raving freakout during the intense, heavy coda of “White Hammer.” For Hammill’s part, his lyrics are gleefully esoteric, referencing the Malleus Maleficarum (literally, “Hammer of the Witches”), a 1487 German treatise that seeks to prove the existence of witches and witchcraft, holding it up as an example of how a charismatically conveyed idea can lead to ruin and the destruction of innocents. Witches, wizards, demons, gnomes, fairies, ogres, and a host of other fantasy archetypes all made appearances in prog songs, but not quite like this. On Volume 5, we heard Affinity tackle witches in a much more straightforward way, following along with their recipe; here Hammill is talking as much about the real people who were needlessly executed as witches under righteous pretenses as he is about the possibility of magic.
11. Hawkwind: Hurry On Sundown 5:01
From the Liberty LP Hawkwind
Hawkwind was an odd duck in the UK prog pond, sounding largely more of a piece with the German bands of the same era—they are in some ways the definitive UK space rock band. They also produced a handful of songs that helped define underground rock in the post-psych, pre-punk interim, and “Hurry On Sundown” is one of them. A lot of the band’s songs were built on hypnotic rhythms and a chord or two, but this one is unique for the way it doesn’t bother to dress up that dead simple structure with a lot of psychedelic guitar and electronic effects. There’s a little bit of guitar at the beginning that seems designed to mimic a sitar, and even some bluesy harmonica, but for the most part, Dave Brock’s lyrics about “looking into your mind’s eye” are left unadorned. These guys were far from your typical prog band, and you’ll hardly ever hear any kind of solo on their albums, but they captured the spirit of the age in their own way, and we’ll hear from them again later.
12. Rare Bird: Hammerhead 3:32
From the Charisma LP As Your Mind Flies By
We’ve already heard one example of Rare Bird’s particularly soulful take on early prog on Volume 3; “Hammerhead” is another example of the same, showcasing the band’s heavier side. This band was never subtle about the politics of its music, and “Hammerhead” is as bald an anti-war song as you’ll find, though they run their message through a heaping helping of flowery language to convey it. The band’s dual keyboard attack was still in effect at this point, and the way Graham Field and Dave Kaffinetti interact, setting buzzing organ against piano, or combining two distinct organ tones, is always interesting. This is borne out much more thoroughly on “Flight,” the twenty-minute track that occupies side two of the LP. Field left after this album, and the band’s sound changed significantly with the addition of guitars.
13. Quatermass: One Blind Mice 3:22
From Harvest 1C 006-92383
Where Rare Bird addressed its lack of guitar by having two keyboardists, Quatermass, named for a BBC science fiction franchise, made due with just one, building a power trio sound around Peter Robinson’s overdriven organ and John Gustafson’s proto-hard rock vocals. Drummer Mick Underwood had played in Episode Six with Deep Purple’s Roger Glover and Ian Gillan, and Gustafson played in a later version of that group after Quatermass quickly dissolved in the wake of its lone album. That album is one of the finest examples of the blurry intersection between early prog and early hard rock, and in that respect, it’s a great companion to Deep Purple In Rock, the album Underwood’s former bandmates released that year—play this back-to-back with “Speed King” and you’ve got most of the continuum of the two genres as it stood in 1970.
14. The Human Beast: Maybe Someday 6:24
From the Decca LP Volume One
The Human Beast were a trio from Edinburgh, and Volume One is a good album of late psych/early prog that’s unafraid to back off on the volume and let things breathe. This Incredible String Band cover lies at the heart of the album and is the album’s best track, in part because the songwriting is stronger than the group’s originals. It has a nicely desolate atmosphere, but the biggest treat is Gillies Buchan’s wah-soaked lead guitar playing—so many of these nth-tier prog bands features at least one guy who could play beautifully, and that’s one of the things that makes exploring the genre fun. The Human Beast broke up up after this album’s release and never made a Volume Two.
Ralph McTell: “Streets of London” (Spiral Staircase, 1969)
During my recent week in London, the song I heard most often was not a contemporary hit. It was this, a 40-year-old folk song about homeless people. I heard it three times, performed by three different buskers, two in Underground stations, and another in Convent Garden Market. Each played it very true to McTell’s original.
I wasn’t surprised to hear it—why wouldn’t a song like this be a common choice for buskers literally playing on the streets of London? It did, however, get me thinking about what a song like this means in 2012. It was first released in 1969, but didn’t become a hit until it was re-recorded and released as a single five years later. Since then, it’s been the song McTell will never escape, not that he seems to have tried.
I first heard it in its 1974 version on the syndicated classic rock radio program “Flashback,” which two stations near me played on Sunday mornings. I taped it, and because I listened to the radio tapes I made a lot when I was a teenager, I’ve internalized the song pretty deeply.
But back to that question: it was odd hearing this song so faithfully performed while standing in Convent Garden Square today—London now is not the same city it was in 1969, even if many of the buildings haven’t changed, but there’s the song, as ever. And it’s not a song anyone would write today, not because Londoners today have fewer problems than they did back then (there are still homeless people in the city, for instance), but because there’s a type of “you” that lives in the chorus of this song that songwriters rarely address today.
That “you” is no one in particular, which means it becomes everyone not named Ralph McTell (who wasn’t really named Ralph McTell—he was born Ralph May), and it therefore sets the singer on a bit of a high horse, admonishing “you” not to dwell on your own loneliness because other people have it worse.
It was the way a lot of songwriters wrote in the 60s and early 70s, at a time when the songwriter-as-moralizer was widely accepted. It’s not completely died, but I think people are more sensitive today to being told what they feel; we also tend to wear our knowledge of the insignificance of our day-in-day-out problems more fully on our sleeves, and I think in some respects that his rather negates the need for a six-string- plucking sage to provide us with perspective.
Because really, isn’t the “you” in this song and so many others like it made primarily of straw? I think one thing we risk in lining up our problems and ranking them relative to those of others is that we start to feel that our problems don’t matter, and that if they don’t matter, we might not either. Forget the grand scheme for a second—it’s possible for anyone to feel lonely, regardless of the type of life that person is living. Someone else’s poverty doesn’t make it less real.
I don’t want to come off as though I don’t like the song—I rather do, especially in this early, stripped-down version—but hearing it in London, it sounded old, as much a museum piece as anything in the Tower Museum. It’s a song you hear when you travel through London, in the markets and on the platforms, and it likely will be for a very long time.
Bees Gees: “Odessa (City on the Black Sea)” (Odessa, 1969)
So long to Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, who died Sunday in London after a long bout with cancer. With his passing, only one Gibb brother, Barry is still with us, and one of the most popular groups ever is gone forever.
The Bee Gees were an unusually long-lived group, scoring #1 hits in the 60s, 70s and 80s, including an incredible run from 1975 to 1979 where they dominated the American and British charts like no group since the Beatles. The hits Robin and his brothers Barry and Maurice wrote in a weekend for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack are burned into the popular consciousness, and yet I’ve never heard them and thought they sounded stale.
Understandably, this massively popular music is what’s best remembered today, but this band had a lot of hits before reinventing itself in a disco mold, and listening to the ten or so albums they released before their change in direction is rewarding, showing a band with incredible range and a sound that, in spite of all the change, was unmistakable because of the Gibb Brothers’ harmonies.
Robin was the one with the mid-range voice and heavy tremolo. He sang a lot of leads on the group’s albums, including a few of their big early singles such as “I Started a Joke” and “Massachusetts,” on which he shared the lead with Barry. In fact, it was a dispute over which song made the a-side of a single, one sung by Barry or one sung by Robin, that led Robin to quit the band for a year and embark on a short solo career.
He sings lead on “Odessa (City by the Sea),” one of the group’s strangest, most psychedelic songs, from the 1969 double LP Odessa. They may have been a masterful pop group, but the Bee Gees also had their share of moments where they experimented and toyed with slightly more out-there ideas.
If they’d done nothing but Saturday Night Fever, their place would still be assured, but the group was so much more than that, and I hope that gets remembered as we think about Robin Gibb in the coming days.
I consider the Golden Age of British Progressive Rock to have lasted from 1970 to 1973. The music remained commercially viable for a few years after this range, and creative as well, but the determination is based on a few things beyond that.
One of the biggest factors for me in choosing that date range is the sheer number of musicians who wanted in. As early as 1969, a lot of existing bands were stretching out their songs, letting new influences shine through, trying out tricky meters, and all that, but 1970 was the year in which dozens of new bands popped up specifically wanting to play this music, and also the first year in which prog acts really covered every stratum, from successful album chart acts to bands so off the map that they hit the private press to release their albums.
In short, 1970 is the first year when the full variety of the music can be heard, and the full variety of the fates of these bands can be seen. Prog had firmly established itself as part of rock and roll’s main stream. We’ll get to the end of the Golden Age later. To download this mix, go here.
1. Emerson Lake & Palmer: The Barbarian 4:32
From the Island LP Emerson Lake & Palmer
We enter the 70s with the opening track of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s debut album. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to do it, really. ELP’s debut was the loudest, most bombastic signal that prog had fully arrived—the band was a prog supergroup in the real sense, Keith Emerson coming from The Nice, Greg Lake from King Crimson, and Carl Palmer from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster. They introduced themselves with a rock trio arrangement of a 1911 piano piece by Bela Bartok (Allegro Barbaro), which was a taste of things to come, as all of their subsequent albums had at least something on them based on a classical composition.
This particular piece of music finds ELP at their very best, in my opinion—it’s concise, focused, powerful, and fully realizes the group’s potential. ELP exemplified both the best and worst of progressive rock, and were one of the genre’s most popular acts, selling out stadia with their over-the-top live shows and selling 30 million albums during the 70s (10 million more since then). They also had trouble controlling their tendency toward excess and wound up making a lot of ugly, self-indulgent music. There was a joke in the 70s: “How do you spell pretentious? E-L-P.” Ultimately, they became a critical punching bag, but during the golden age of prog, they captured the zeitgeist remarkably well, making challenging music completely on their own terms.
2. Curved Air: Vivaldi 7:33
From the Warner Brothers LP Airconditioning
We’ll stay in the classical realm for this next track, which isn’t a direct cover of any one piece by baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi so much as it is a reference to the very well-known first movement of his “Winter” violin concerto. Curved Air’s original violinist was Darryl Way, who co-founded the group with composer Francis Monkman, and his electric violin playing was versatile. He could play achingly gorgeous melodies (as on the outro to “It Happened Today”), or more outre, experimental material, as on “Vivaldi,” which opens with a fairly straightforward rock/classical movement before veering off into a lengthy passage wherein Way gives his four-string the Hendrix treatment, running it through distortion and generating controlled amplifier feedback. The track exemplifies the adventurous tangents that prog bands rarely refrained from taking when the opportunity presented itself.
3. T.2.: In Circles 8:38
From the Decca LP It’ll All Work Out in Boomland
In the late 60s and early 70s, progressive rock and early hard rock evolved in tandem, and the line between them was so blurry as to barely qualify as a line. Long songs, extended soloing, improvisation, heavy rhythm—the distinction between the two was really as much attitudinal as it was aural. T.2. lived for a short time right in the middle of the blur. Group members Peter Dunton, Bernard Jinks and Keith Cross had played together before—Dunton and Jinks in please and Jinks and Cross in Bulldog Breed (Dunton had also played in Neon Pearl and Gun with the Gurvitz brothers)—but this new power trio took the heavy psych they’d all been playing and stretched it as far as possible. Their lone LP (until a 1990s reunion) features a side-long track, balanced against three shorter songs, of which “In Circles” is the heaviest. Cross’ guitar playing here is particularly dynamic.
4. East of Eden: Leaping Beauties for Rudy 7:02
From the Deram LP Snafu
We heard a track from East of Eden’s debut on Volume 3, but by the time they recorded Snafu, the band had moved away from psychedelia almost completely in favor of a much stronger jazz focus. “Leaping Beauties for Rudy” opens with an essentially straight free jazz passage before shifting into a more forceful fusion mode, with a rock beat backing up a really interesting unison riff played on violin and saxophone. I love the combination of timbres and the way it combines with the quasi-Eastern melody. East of Eden left Deram for Harvest after this album, but the loss of saxophonist Ron Caines and guitarist Geoff Nicholson precipitated a major change in direction, and the band essentially became something altogether different, shifting from jazz-rock to country rock. East of Eden only came close to hitting big once, with the minor hit single “Jig-A-Jig,” but pretty much everyone has heard violinist Dave Arbus—he played the violin solo at the end of the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.”
5. Argent: Be Free 3:49
From the Epic LP Argent
Rod Argent originally came to fame as the keyboardist for the Zombies, a group whose sophisticated psych-pop inarguably helped lay the groundwork for progressive rock in the late 60s. “Be Free,” written by Argent with former Zombies bassist Chris White, builds heavily on what the two men had been doing with their old band, and it’s as good an example as any of the intersection of progressive rock and pop (later in the decade, bands like Be Bop Deluxe and 10CC explored this intersection pretty heavily). Argent had more typically prog songs (for instance the Tolkein-referencing “Lothlorien” on their second LP), and scored a couple of pretty big hits in “God Gave Rock And Roll To You” and “Hold Your Head Up,” the latter of which is perhaps the ultimate prog-pop this side of Yes.
6. Skin Alley: Take Me to Your Leader’s Daughter 8:57
From the CBS LP To Pagham And Beyond
Skin Alley is another group we’ve heard before (on Volume 4), and much like East of Eden, they went further into jazz on their second LP. During the recording of this album, bassist Tom Crimble left to join Hawkwind, and was replaced by former Atomic Rooster member Nick Graham—as these volumes progress further into the 70s we will see plenty of further examples of prog rock’s revolving door of band membership, with members coming and going and returning, and playing in other bands in between. “Take Me To Your Leader’s Daughter” opens in a moody vein similar to what Jethro Tull and Traffic were up to around the same time, but the shift to 5/8 for the verse and subsequent jam takes it somewhere else. The band released two further albums (both on Transatlantic, which licensed them to Stax in the US), but by the end they’d lost their edge and were compensating by loading their music up with extra orchestration.
7. Yes: Astral Traveler 5:57
From the Atlantic LP Time And a Word
Yes was, without a doubt, one of British progressive rock’s most important bands. Their sound epitomizes the symphonic prog subgenre and was perhaps the most imitated style by other prog bands around the world, from Starcastle in the US to Saecula Saeculorum in Brazil to, well, England, a British prog band that formed in Yes’ wake. We’re joining the band already in progress here, on a track from their second album, and the last with original guitarist Peter Banks (original keyboardist Tony Kaye also left after this LP, but he’d be back later). “Astral Traveler” concisely sums up why this band became one of the most popular and enduring prog acts—it’s catchy and forceful, led by Jon Anderson’s distinctive but immediately accessible singing. The real secret weapon of yes, though, was its rhythm section. Bassist Chris Squire, the only member to appear in every lineup of Yes, had a unique tone that could both hold down a heavy low-end rumble and also jump out as an extra lead instrument, and Bill Bruford’s drumming was both rhythmic and highly detailed. It was the band’s next LP that really shot them to global fame, but even early on, Yes had a strong identity, and one that would remain largely intact even as the band’s membership shifted.
8. Beggar’s Opera: Passacaglia 7:10
From the Vertigo LP Act One
Glasgow-based Beggar’s Opera was a fairly typical second-tier prog band, with a sound dripping in Hammond organ and Mellotron and very strong musicianship, but few songs that quite matched up to what the best bands were putting out. Their debut is their strongest album, in my opinion, and is also the LP that most prominently foregrounds their classical influences (one of the songs on side two is a medley of classical and baroque pieces). “Passacaglia” may be named for a type of composition that originated in the 17th Century, but it’s not based on any particular piece of old music, nor is it anything like an actual passacaglia, which are typically composed in triple meters. It does feature some entertaining flights on the organ and some nice, stinging rhythm guitar in the middle section, though, and I’m not going to hold the misappropriation of a random compositional term against them.
9. The Move: Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited 7:42
From the Regal Zonophone LP Shazam
The Move were never a full-fledged prog band, but they had their proto-prog moments, and their last few albums of experimental pop take several detours into pretty proggy waters. “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited” literally revisits a song the band had already recorded on its first album, giving it a much heavier rhythm and slower tempo. Carl Wayne’s spoken intro sets up the song’s story of man more than happy to be committed to an institution, and if all they did was play the super-heavy version of the song that follows, I probably wouldn’t have included it, but the band segues from the song to an extended instrumental incorporating bits of Bach, Dukas and Tchaikovsky that gives it a sort of madcap boost into open prog territory.
10. Egg: Fugue in D Minor 2:50
From the Deram LP Egg
Egg were three-quarters of Arzachel/Uriel, a band whose late prog-psych we heard on the last volume. Where Beggar’s Opera called a song “Passacaglia” and didn’t bother to make the song match its title, though, Egg’s “Fugue in D Minor” is an actual cover of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Fugue in D Minor,” hammered into a jazz-rock shape. Dave Stewart’s organ playing in this band is a prog rock archetype in the making, a gentler, less flashy version of what Keith Emerson had done in The Nice and brought with him to ELP. Egg’s debut was also an important release in the development of the Canterbury aesthetic—along with Soft Machine, this band was helping to define a different way of doing things that became so associated with bands from the Canterbury area that the word “Canterbury” is often applied to groups from nowhere near that city simply because they adopted a similarly skewed perspective.
11. Affinity: Three Sisters 5:00
From the Vertigo LP Affinity
Progressive rock is as much about an extended moment in time and what musicians could get away with in that moment as it is about any particular type of music. “Three Sisters” is a song that pretty much only could have been recorded in that moment. This is partly down to Linda Hoyle’s toil-and-trouble lyrics about making a witch’s brew, the type of subject matter heard frequently in the 1968-1974 window and quite rarely outside that window. But another part of it is Lynton Naiff’s heavy Hammond organ, which leads the song. That organ sound was all over the place in the early 70s but has just about been lost since then. Affinity never managed to follow this album up—Hoyle needed vocal cord surgery and they never recovered—but as a one-off document, it showcases a very skilled, creative band.
12. Clear Blue Sky: Journey to the Inside of the Sun: a) Sweet Leaf 8:04
From the Vertigo LP Clear Blue Sky
The members of Clear Blue Sky were teenagers when they recorded their only LP (they reunited in the 90s for two more), and in some ways their inexperience shows—the vocal songs are generally pretty timid—but when they just let loose on a heavy instrumental, they showed genuine promise. “Sweet Lead” has nothing to do with the Black Sabbath song of the same name apart from a similar level of heaviness, but I think it’s the band’s finest moment. Guitarist John Simms shows inventiveness in his soloing, and I like the way the band contrasts its own heavy music with interjections of a quotation from the end of Holst’s “Jupiter.” Like most Vertigo releases, this one died on release, poorly promoted and poorly distributed, and the band split for twenty years. I do wonder how different things would have been had Philips properly supported its prog and hard rock imprint.
13. Titus Groan: Liverpool 6:04
From the Dawn maxi-single DNX 2503
This band, another one-off act, named itself for a 1946 novel by Mervyn Peake (the character Titus Groan was set to be the 77th Earl of Groan in the book). “Liverpool” is actually not taken from the band’s only LP—it comes from the b-side of their only single, a three-track maxi-single released around the same time as the album. Tony Priestland’s woodwinds were the band’s signature, but I think the thing I love most about the instrumentation of “Liverpool” is the way John Lee’s bass twice punches through the rest of the mix to take the lead. It lends the song unexpected textural variety, especially given that the rest of the mix is fairly muddy. I chose this song to end this volume in part because it’s so opposite in tone to the song that begins it—ELP took things very seriously. Titus Groan, on the other hand, seems to be having fun and letting things happen organically. We know which of the two conquered the world, but sometimes unassuming and freewheeling is the more appealing approach.
And away we go into the 70s. Honestly, the titles of these volume are afterthoughts, but I think “The Hard Stuff” works on a couple of levels. We’re getting into some of the music that real prog junkies value most highly, for instance, but in a much more real sense, the music is getting more complicated and requiring more skill to play effectively. This volume also explores a bit of the nexus between early prog and early hard rock, something I’ll be devoting an auxiliary volume to later. Download the mix here.
1. Emerson Lake & Palmer: The Barbarian 4:32 2. Curved Air: Vivaldi 7:33 3. T.2.: In Circles 8:38 4. East of Eden: Leaping Beauties for Rudy 7:02 5. Argent: Be Free 3:49 6. Skin Alley: Take Me to Your Leader’s Daughter 8:57 7. Yes: Astral Traveler 5:57 8. Beggar’s Opera: Passacaglia 7:10 9. The Move: Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited 7:42 10. Egg: Fugue in D Minor 2:50 11. Affinity: Three Sisters 5:00 12. Clear Blue Sky: Journey to the Inside of the Sun: a) Sweet Leaf 8:04 13. Titus Groan: Liverpool 6:04
The Hollies: “Crusader” (For Certain Because, 1966)
I’ve been thinking about this song recently and I’m not sure why. It’s been my favorite Hollies song since I heard it a couple years ago at a time when I hadn’t really given the group a second thought beyond enjoying a few of their old hits.
I grew up listening to those old hits—“Bus Stop,” “Just One Look,” Stop Stop Stop,” “On a Carousel,” etc.—because my parents tended to tune in oldies radio a lot. I hadn’t even really thought of them as a British Invasion group, though I knew that’s where they were from.
This was an album track, buried in the middle of side two of For Certain Because, the first of the band’s albums they wrote entirely themselves. Graham Nash and Allan Clarke usually wrote separately, but they co-wrote this, which is probably the most haunting thing the band recorded. That minor-key verse melody and the beautiful guitar part have a dream-like quality that makes the imagery of the lyrics easy conjure.
Interesting lyrics, too—the crusader of the title is a literal Christian crusader from the eleventh or twelfth century, returned from the Middle East to Britain, where he finds that nothing is quite as he left it. There’s even a hole in the roof.
History records so little about the individual stories of the people who left their homes to fight a religious war in a far-off Holy Land that they likely had no real conception of before they left, outside of what priests had told them. Surely many of them felt some sort of conflict about what they were doing, or at least about leaving their lives behind to do it.
Europe was such a different place then. Nearly everyone lived in crushing poverty, and almost no one had much education—it was a world where you lived to survive. So the idea that so many from successive generations went off, willingly or unwillingly, to fight for an abstract cause like the glory of Christendom is kind of amazing to me. I find, looking at history, that societies that place a high premium on honor tend to waste a lot of lives.
So here’s this song, and it has an unusually intimate and astute angle on what it must have been like to come back home after traveling thousands of miles to a place whose terrain and native culture might as well have been alien to fight, essentially, for the honor of having fought. Let’s say you were part of one of the crusades that actually accomplished some of its territorial objectives. Back home, what would that actually have meant to you?
Abstractly, you might know that this or that city was back in Christian hands. You might find the thought immensely satisfying. But then, there’s a hole in the roof, and you need firewood, and people who once were under your thumb seem to have forgotten about you in your absence, not to mention the fact that the old political disputes with your neighbor remain unresolved.
I’m sure that the intense piety of the crusaders (those that went willingly, anyway) mitigated some of the emptiness they must have inevitably felt on their return, but I just can’t imagine that any thinking person wouldn’t have felt at least a little of that emptiness. It makes me think of the the way Winston Churchill described England’s crusader king, Richard I The Lion-Hearted: “His life was one magnificent parade which, when ended, left only an empty pain.”
1969 was the year that progressive rock really arrived at the fore of UK rock. Elements of psychedelia were still prominent, but the songs were stretching out, the structures were getting bolder, the instrumentation was changing, and groups were taking bigger risks with unconventional harmony, improvisation.
Major labels were putting a lot of skin in the game—Decca had made its Deram imprint a home for progressive rock bands in 1967, but in 1969 it was joined by EMI’s Harvest imprint and Philips’ Vertigo label—Chrysalis, Island, and Transatlantic were all still independent, and all of them planted a flag in progressive rock. Other labels you’ll see pop up pretty frequently from here on include Dawn, Chrysalis, RCA’s Neon imprint, Polydor, and, later on, United Artists and CBS.
Prog rose from the underground in just a few short years—by the time the 70s officially dawned, it was big business, and there was a profusion of bands. This volume is really where this series starts to get exciting, exploring all the weird side avenues, bands that flashed into existence long enough to cut one album and then disappeared, great groups that never made it, and the giants of the genre, side by side. There’s a bit of all of that here. Enjoy. (Download the mix at this post.)
1. King Crimson: 21st Century Schizoid Man 7:21
From the E’G/Island LP In the Court of the Crimson King
Because I’m not attempting to do any kind of definitive chronicle of prog, I’m largely steering away from the best-known tracks to highlight some worthy ones people might be less familiar with, but come on, “21st Century Schizoid Man” is awesome. It’s like prog’s self-organized coming out party, where the optimistic psychedelic daydream tumbles (or crumbles) headlong into the cynical night terror of the 70s, with saxophone. And it starts with a practical joke: several seconds of barely audible noise designed to get you to turn the volume up and lean in toward the speaker before the most bombastic riff in history spin-kicks your ear drum. The song is almost comically dissonant and harsh—Robert Fripp doesn’t even bother to play a guitar solo, instead holding out a series of clustered sustained tones while the rest of the band flies along almost out of control. Ian McDonald’s evil sax established a template many other players would work from, and the band’s crazy unison runs would become a staple of symphonic prog and, later, metal.
2. Van Der Graaf Generator: Orthenthian St. 6:19
From the Charisma LP The Aerosol Grey Machine
VDGG were an odd one—I think the fact that Peter Hammill chose to be their vocalist as well as their main songwriter may be the main reason they never became as commercially successful as some of their counterparts. He just doesn’t have a melodic voice, or at least chooses not to sing in one. Admittedly, it makes it hard to follow the tunes, which is where the band’s inventive arrangements come in. Hammill’s band, including long-time rhythm section Hugh Banton and Guy Evans, never failed to devise clever ways to lead listeners through Hammill’s songs, which tended to cover lyrical territory a lot of other prog bands actively avoided: love and specific political issues. He’s tackling the former here, and we’ll hear him do the latter on a subsequent volume. This song has an amazing sense of dynamics, and even though VDGG didn’t feature a lot of solos or flashy instrumental work, a lot of bands took cues from their way of using contrasting textures, rhythms and harmony to flesh out the story of the song.
3. Blossom Toes: Peace Loving Man 4:53
From the Marmalade LP If Only for a Moment
Speaking of contrasts, if you thought King Crimson went a little over the top with the heavy bits of In the Court of the Crimson King, check this out. Blossom Toes, who are in the running for worst band name of the 60s, had already released one album of psychedelic pop, called We Are Ever So Clean, but for the follow-up, they got much weirder and heavier, and “Peace Loving Man” is the weirdest, heaviest song of the bunch. The main body of the song features heavy guitar riffs and vocals that are essentially a proto-metal growl, especially in the transition away from the chorus. About that chorus: it’s almost as if the previous version of the band somehow got trapped inside the new, nightmarish version. When it pops up out of nowhere the first time, with its chipper harmonies and suddenly clean guitars, it sounds so out of place, but the band totally knows it. I think they may actually be making fun of their younger selves. Then there’s that crazy whispered interlude—you really have to listen to it several times to get your head all the way around this song.
4. Pink Floyd: Careful with That Axe, Eugene 8:51
From the Harvest LP Ummagumma
This will be the last time we hear from Pink Floyd in these volumes—even though plenty of their subsequent work could be classified as prog, the most important point to be made about their place in the genre is that they were a guiding force at the beginning, helping to establish a series of improvisatory frameworks that a lot of other bands would use. Funny thing, though, is that not a lot of other British groups sounded like the Floyd, even when they tried to—the music the band made was that singular. Floyd also had a huge shaping effect on the underground rock scenes in continental Europe, where they were a constant touring fixture, and especially in Germany and the Netherlands.
They’d originally released a comparatively wan, three-minute studio version of this song on the b-side of their “Point Me At The Sky” single in December, 1968, and they’d been playing it since early that year under various titles, including “Keep Smiling People” and “The Murderistic Woman” (later, they would also call it “Beset By Creatures Of The Deep” when they used it as part of the live suite “The Journey”). I have literally dozens of recordings of this song, but none quite top the version included on Ummagumma. The song wasn’t specifically composed, but rather sketched out to build up to a wild climax and then decay (it’s the blueprint for a lot of post-rock), and on this version, they get every phrase, every drum fill, every action and reaction spot-on. The song stayed in the band’s set lists into 1974, but was only played once after that, as an encore for an audience the band particularly liked at a 1977 show in Oakland, California.
5. Skin Alley: Night Time 5:37
From the CBS LP Skin Alley
About four minutes in, “Night Time” finds Skin Alley putting a very literal stamp on the term “jazz rock,” breaking into an outright soul jazz coda topped by piano and flute solos. Prior to that, there’s a bit more emphasis on the rock side of things, though the vocal portion of the song is pretty minimal, acting more as a table-setter for the instrumental that follows. Bob James pretty much owns the middle of this track with his flute playing—he was one of the few rock players to come along early enough not to be heavily influenced by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, and he has a much more classically-based style. James also played sax for the band, which was dominated by him and keyboardist Krzysztof Juszskiewicz—outside of occasional contributions from James, the band didn’t even have a guitarist.
6. The Soft Machine: Esther’s Nose Job, part 5: 10:30 Returns to the Bedroom 4:13
From the Probe LP Volume Two
Kevin Ayers left Soft Machine after their first album, and was replaced by bassist Hugh Hopper. This change pushed their sound further toward jazz, though in their case, it was a thorny, psychedelic, free-leaning type of jazz. British rock groups around this time were particularly enamored of heavy, overdriven organ sounds, and most turned to the Hammond to get the sound. Mike Ratledge’s Lowery has a much scruffier sound than most guys ever got out of their Hammonds, though, sounding guitar-like in places. I’ve mostly avoided drum solos on these volumes, but Robert Wyatt earns his right to be heard with his solo here, never sacrificing rhythm for flash. “10:30 Returns to the Bedroom” is the final section of the larger “Esther’s Nose Job” cycle.
7. Third Ear Band: Ghetto Raga 10:31
From the Harvest LP Alchemy
Third Ear Band started life under a different name, recording half an album for the Standard Music Library (produced by Ron Geesin) under the pseudonym National-Balkan Ensemble. European folk music was one of the main ingredients of their sound, as were experimental and medieval music, and as suggested in the title of this song, Indian music. The band’s instrumentation was entirely acoustic, and bandleader/percussionist Glen Sweeney played only hand percussion, two things that immediately gave the group its own sound—the fact that those acoustic instruments were mostly violins, cellos and oboes underlined their distinctiveness. Their music was largely improvised (on their second album, it was entirely improvised) following basic guidelines. Alchemy was an early release on the Harvest label (it also includes a guest spot by John Peel on jaw harp), and it’s probably the best distillation of the group’s aesthetic. They’d later go on to do soundtrack work, including the spooky score to Polanski’s 1971 version of MacBeth, and lasted in various lineups all the way to the 1990s, when Sweeney finally ended the project.
8. Andromeda: Too Old 5:00
From the RCA Victor LP Andromeda
Psych group The Attack never recorded an album, but over the course of six singles, the band served as a pit stop for several musicians who’d move on to prog bands. When that band split in 1968, guitarist/vocalist John Du Cann joined Andromeda, another short-lived group that stayed together just long enough to put together an LP that was released in a small run to near-total indifference. Du Cann left to join Atomic Rooster and the band was done. That one LP is pretty good, though, and its opening track is a nugget for the ages, perched right on the psych/prog divide, it’s pushed just a bit to the latter by the band’s striking musicianship—Du Cann was a fantastic guitarist, and Mick Hawksworth’s bass and Ian McLane’s drumming made for a formidable rhythm section. It’s too bad Hawksworth and McLane couldn’t put something else together after Du Cann left.
9. Synanthesia: Morpheus 5:51
From the RCA LP Synanthesia
Synanthesia only released one album, but they had a sound that was completely their own. Jim Fraser’s saxophone has a lot to do with that—most prog players in the late 60s and early 70s adopted a rough tone modeled on Ian McDonald’s King Crimson playing, but Fraser is more clearly rooted in jazz, with a smoother tone and highly melodic style. The band didn’t have a drummer, though Les Cook does play some pretty wild bongos on the instrumental bridge of “Morpheus,” a song that pretty well sums up the group’s distinctive jazz/folk hybrid. Fraser’s harmonized opening riff actually does bear some of the harmonic signatures of a lot of the symphonic prog that would follow. Records like this go a long way toward illuminating just how wide-open the album marketplace had grown by 1969. Labels put up capital for a lot of out-there stuff, though they didn’t always promote it afterward. Sadly, this was the case with Synanthesia, who got very little support from RCA and ultimately broke up before they could put together a follow-up.
10. Renaissance: Wanderer 4:05
From the Island LP Renaissance
When the Yardbirds split in 1968, drummer Jim McCarty and vocalist Keith Relf set about forming a new band, recruiting Relf’s sister, Jane, former The Herd bassist Louis Cennamo, and pianist John Hawken, who had been a member of beat group the Nashville Teens and also played in a short-lived project with BJ Cole and former Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja. They chose to call themselves Renaissance, and their debut is one of the first full-fledged symphonic prog albums. When we talk about “symphonic prog,” it has nothing to do with orchestra, though—the term has gradually been applied over the years to a broad swath of prog-rock groups that featured prominent keyboard parts, references to classical music or instrumentation, general non-reliance on blues-based harmony, and extended song forms. Yes, Genesis, and ELP are generally considered the standard-bearers for this subgenre.
Hawken’s dual harpischord and piano parts on “Wanderer” are prototypical symphonic prog, as are all of the rhythmic shifts and sudden changes in tone that the band manages to cram into the song’s four-minute runtime. This version of Renaissance recorded one more album, but by the time the band recorded its third in 1972, the entire lineup had turned over, and it was a completely different group. John Hawken went on to play in Strawbs, and Louis Cennamo became a sort of jazz-rock free agent, showing up in Colosseum, Steamhammer, and Armageddon over the next several years. The group reunited in 1977 under the name Illusion (without Keith Relf, who passed away in 1976), and released two more albums, but by that time, prog was swinging from punk’s gallows and the reformed group had little success.
11. Pentangle: Lyke-Wake Dirge 3:37
From the Transatlantic LP Basket of Light
If Fairport Convention was the prog-folk flagship, Pentangle was next in line, and Basket of Light may just be their masterpiece. The awesome over art is a composite image constructed from photographs of the band’s show at Royal Albert Hall, and the back cover takes pains to point out that the band’s instrumentation is entirely acoustic. Bert Jansch and John Renbourn are one of the all-time great guitar tandems, Terry Cox and Danny Thompson were an excellent rhythm section that brought hints of jazz into their folk playing, and Jacqui McShee had the perfect voice for interpretations of traditional songs. On “Lyke-Wake Dirge,” an adaptation of a very old traditional English song about the travails of the disembodied soul as it travels to purgatory after death, the whole band (except Thompson) joins her on vocals. Medieval music was a frequent reference point for prog bands, especially the ones that played in the prog-folk realm, but very few bands could make archaic English and ancient melodies this haunting.
12. Jethro Tull: Living in the Past 3:18
From Island WIP 6056
This isn’t exactly Jethro Tull’s proggiest moment, but I’ve chosen to include it for a few reasons. One is that it was a pretty big hit and remains in rotation on classic rock radio even today, and it became a hit partly on the strength of its unusual rhythm, which is subtly in 5/4. In 1969, prog bands were just beginning to experiment with odd meters and complex time changes, and both would become staples of the genre, and this song is a perfect example of how pleasing the effect can be when it’s done with skill and musicality rather than for the sake of it. The second is that we have to feature Ian Anderson’s flute playing before we get too much further into this, because his unique style was hugely influential across the genre. Anderson was a self-taught flautist, and he only taught himself to play the instrument a few months before Jethro Tull recorded its debut album—he’d been a full-time guitarist to that point. In teaching himself to play, he made several errors in technique, all of which turned out to be to his benefit. In particular, his tendency to overblow and talk through his flute contributed to the originality of his playing, and a lot of other players found what they heard very exciting. Much later in his life, Anderson learned to play the flute properly, but it’s a good thing he waited as long as he did.
13. Colosseum: The Valentyne Suite: a) Theme One: January’s Speech b) Theme Two: February’s Valentyne c) Theme Three: the Grass Is Always Greener 16:56
From the Vertigo LP Valentyne Suite
Colosseum’s Valentyne Suite was the first release on Philips’ new progressive and hard rock imprint, Vertigo. Its second side is devoted to the nearly 17-minute title track, which offers a pioneering fusion of jazz, rock, and classical form. It also brings this volume nicely full circle—it’s pretty easy to hear the parallels between Ian McDonald’s sax on “21st Century Schizoid Man” and Dick Heckstall-Smith’s playing here, particularly on slow theme that closes the suite. Dave Greenslade’s organ playing shows shades of Keith Emerson, but his incorporation of vibraphone, and the way the band quickly trade off leads sets this apart from a lot of other early prog, where extended soloing was more the norm. Colosseum had direct connections to the UK jazz scene—Heckstall-Smith had been active on the scene since the 50s, while Greenslade, bassist Tony Reeves and drummer John Hiseman had all started out playing in jazz combos, and they worked directly with jazz bandleader Neil Ardley on some of their arrangements. Every member of the group went on to play in other prog bands after the band broke up in 1971. Fun fact: guitarist James Litherland is the father of current critic’s darling James Blake.
Here’s where things really start to get fun. Prog was in full swing by the middle of 1969, and the various subgenres were starting to shake out. By the following year, so many bands would be playing in this space that it gets hard to keep track of them all. But here we have the pioneers, some of whom only lasted long enough to make one album before giving way to others. Get this mix here.
King Crimson: 21st Century Schizoid Man 7:21
Van Der Graaf Generator: Orthenthian St. 6:19
Blossom Toes: Peace Loving Man 4:53
Pink Floyd: Careful with That Axe, Eugene 8:51
Skin Alley: Night Time 5:37
The Soft Machine: Esther’s Nose Job, part 5: 10:30 Returns to the Bedroom 4:13
Third Ear Band: Ghetto Raga 10:31
Andromeda: Too Old 5:00
Synanthesia: Morpheus 5:51
Renaissance: Wanderer 4:05
Pentangle: Lyke-Wake Dirge 3:37
Jethro Tull: Living in the Past 3:18
Colosseum: The Valentyne Suite: a) Theme One: January’s Speech b) Theme Two: February’s Valentyne c) Theme Three: the Grass Is Always Greener 16:56
Booker T. & the MG’s: “Melting Pot” (Melting Pot, 1971)
Making the morning news rounds this morning, I was saddened to see that we’d lost the great session bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. Dunn was best known for his time as part of Booker T. & the MG’s, the great quartet that gave so many Stax recordings their signature muscle. Dunn joined the group in 1964, replacing Lewis Steinberg.
The combination of Dunn’s fat tone and steady playing fit nicely with the economical playing of organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Al Jackson Jr. these four lived a double life together from ‘64 to ‘71, releasing commercially successful instrumental LPs under their own name, and playing behind dozens of other performers, from Albert King to Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, William Bell, and Carla Thomas.
Basically, this band helped define the sound of Southern soul. This was made a little sweeter by the fact that they were an integrated band, with two black and two white members. And their musical chemistry was only part of the bond between the band members—these guys really liked each other. They were friends as well as collaborators.
The thing that brought the MG’s to a halt was the deterioration of Stax Records, which sent Cropper and Jones to the coasts to escape what they felt was an increasingly poisonous atmosphere. The group reunited frequently, though, and was planning a full-fledged reunion in 1975 when Jackson was hideously murdered in his Memphis home.
Dunn remained based in Memphis for the rest of his career, and did session work for a pretty mind-blowing array of other people, and he stayed on the road until the very end—he died in Tokyo after playing two shows at the Blue Note.
"Melting Pot" is the title track of the last album the MGs recorded together during their original run. It’s their best album, largely because it finds the group breaking out of the limiting reliance on pop covers and short tracks of their earlier LPs for a set of group-written tunes that let them stretch out and jam a little.
Dunn’s always there, holding down the low-end with his Fender Precision. He and Jackson had a phenomenal sense of time, and the two of them could make a song go without even seeming to break a sweat. Cropper, who was also in Dunn’s first band, the Mar-Keys, has claimed that Dunn taught himself to play bass by playing along with records, filling in the bits he thought ought to have been played, and it gave him an usual style that always pushed the rhythm forward, because he was syncopating his phrasing over parts of the beat where other people usually didn’t.
Plenty of people structure their bass lines like that now because of Dunn’s influence—and sometimes it’s a little more direct than that, even. “Melting Pot” alone has been sampled at least half a dozen times. Dunn may be gone now, but his work will live for a long time.
Ruth White: “Spleen” (Flowers of Evil: An Electronic Setting of the Poem of Charles Baudelaire, 1969)
Pretty wild use of the Moog synthesizer—she even did the vocal processing with it.
I don’t usually elaborate much on the things I contribute to The Theme Is, but Ruth White’s Flowers of Evil is worth commenting on.
White was an entirely self-taught electronic composer, and her avoidance of formal training gave her a unique vocabulary on her equipment, which by 1969 included a Moog synthesizer. Flowers of Evil finds her choosing nine English translations of poems from Charles Baudelaire’s landmark 1857 poetry volume Les Fleurs du Mal.
White reads each of them straight, then processes her voice and builds soundscapes around the readings, and these can range from whimsical to profoundly bizarre and creepy. “Spleen” is one of the best tracks—she’s using the Moog to alter her voice—but it’s also sort of a prelude to the final track, a queasy, nearly seven-minute take on Baudelaire’s most notorious poem, “The Litanies of Satan.”
If you like old electronic music or weird settings of poetry, the album is well worth tracking down. It’s been out of print for ages, but can be found online pretty easily.
I recently wrote an article for a forthcoming issue of One More Robot, in which the Funkees featured prominently. It had been a little while since I’d listened to the band’s albums, and it was nice getting back to them—this band was one of the best rock groups to come out of Nigeria in the 70s, during that country’s post-Civil War musical explosion.
They formed in the eastern university and oil town of Warri, in Delta State, and the members were veterans of the Biafran Army; their connections to people who traveled abroad often gave them access to a lot of British and American records that competing bands couldn’t hear. Much in the same way that Jamaican soundsystems tried to get their hands on records no one else had, band in Nigeria would try to build unique covers into their set lists to set themselves apart, so it was a valuable resource for the band.
After a series of singles, the band upped stakes and moved to London, where they recorded two LPs. “Salam” is one of the highlights of the second one, Now I’m A Man, mixing a little bit of every ingredient that made the LP interesting into a sharp proto-disco rock song.
The band didn’t last too long beyond this LP. Band leader and guitarist Harry Mosco became a top producer and popular solo performer on his return to Nigeria (his 1980 Afro-disco LP Peace & Harmony is worth tracking down). He passed away in March. If you’re looking to hear more Funkees but don’t want to have to track down the band’s LPs, either in real life or online, Sound Way just released an awesome overview compilation of the band called Dancing Time.