Jack Medell & His Orchestra: “Umbe” (United U-213, 1957)
If you’ve ever followed conversations about music, you know that one topic that rears its head fairly often, no matter how many times we think we’ve banished it, is authenticity. The debate around Vampire Weekend was soaked in various interpretations of and reactions to this notion, to name a recent example, but it rears its head more subtly, too, all the time.
I hate this line of debate. Not least because it has the effect of positioning the debaters as arbiters of other people’s sincerity and qualifications to sound or act a certain way, but also because, frankly, a lack of authenticity, however defined, doesn’t mean a piece of art can’t be awesome and fulfilling, for the artist and the experiencer of the art.
One of my pet genres, one I’ve always collected in the background of my various obsessions with prog rock and Afrofunk and post-rock and soul and all the other things I’ve dove deeply into, is exotica, which is in some ways built on inauthenticity. It’s not real African or Latin or Asian music, it’s a simulacrum of same, or at least somebody’s second-hand idea of it.
But it’s more than that, even. Surely a lot of it was garbage, uninspired cash-in trash that rightly moldered in people’s basements for decades after the hi-fis got put away.
But at its best, exotica was inspired, and in the hands of its most creative practitioners, like Les Baxter, it became an imaginarium where borrowed rhythms from locales its creators and listeners might never visit collided with early stereo experimentation, new-fangled electronic noisemakers, unusual harmonic and arranging decisions, and a spirit of adventure and excitement at the new that dovetailed nicely with the Space Race that kicked into high gear at the end of the 50s, exotica’s peak decade.
"Umbe" was recorded in Chicago in 1957, the year that physical exploration reached beyond terrestrial destinations for the first time with the launch of Sputnik 1. Little is known about Jack Medell, the bandleader of the recording, and it doesn’t appear that he had any releases beyond this, which was paired on a 45 with a tune called "Enchantment."
United released mostly blues, gospel, and r&b, and I wonder at the circumstances that led them to put out a moody orchestral instrumental that opens with a chant that may or may not be based on something actually found within Afro-Cuban music. It sounds like it could be, which is the kind of blurriness that makes exotica compelling to me. One thing that definitely is real is Dom Garaci’s fantastic trumpet solo. I particularly love the way he slinks away after stating the main theme with that series of rough, descending notes before the strings and then piano move forward (just guessing that it’s Medell on piano). Geraci may also have played on this LP.
I don’t know who the singer was or what he’s saying, although I think he does say “incendio” in the intro, which means the lyrics have something to do with fire, a not uncommon element of the imagined rituals of exotica. Regardless, his performance matches Garaci’s for intensity, and between the two of them, they elevate this from a humid little mood piece into something captivating that earns all the motion in its rhythm section.
Does it exploit ignorance and the ideal of the exoticized Other in the hopes of selling a few records? Probably. Does it sound exciting and full of vitality almost sixty years after it was recorded? Absolutely. “Umbe” is ersatz Afro-Cuban music with enough fire in it to claim a personality of its own. It’s not authentic world music, but to me it sounds authentically awed by the possibilities of the world outside immediate experience, and that makes it worth listening to.
After the demise of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the band’s leader established Kingdom Come—we heard from them back on Volume Seven, which covered 1971. Just a year later, the band’s sound was almost completely different. Drummer Martin Steer had left after the band’s second album, and rather than replace, the band picked up a Bentley Rhythm Ace drum machine—I have read but can’t confirm that Journey was the first rock album on which all of the drums were handled by a machine. The drum machine was only part of it, though—new keyboardist Victor Peraino abandoned the heavy organ sound that had characterized Brown’s music to that point in favor of Mellotron, VCS3, and the Arp 2600, which gets a major showcase on the album’s opener. The sound the band produced here was strikingly forward-looking, and, truth be told, more of a piece with what was going on in Germany at the time than anything else happening in British prog. I think it’s aged amazingly well.
2. Stackridge: Purple Spaceships Over Yatton 6:40
From the b-side of MCA MKS-5091
Stackridge were, by and large, not among my favorite bands usually included in surveys of British progressive rock. Their Friendliness LP is as much a prototype for soft rock as anything else, but delivered in a way that evades the earnest charm of a lot of soft rock. This b-side, though, takes that sound to some interesting places, particularly in the Holst-y orchestral mid-section, where the band comes back in after the fake-out ending. Yatton is a small town in Somerset not far from Bristol, which was the band’s home—I suppose listening to this, you can hear a narrative thrust running through the instrumental, weird that passage is the spaceships landing or blasting things with laser beams. This group offers an intriguing example of the way popular memory selects what endures—today, they’re considered a pretty obscure group, but in 1970, they were a big deal. They closed that year’s Glastonbury Festival, Renaissance opened for them, and George Martin produced their third album a couple years after that. For some reason, they didn’t stick, though, and lost out in the popular memory sweepstakes.
3. Matching Mole: Instant Kitten 4:59
From the CBS LP Matching Mole
Robert Wyatt made four albums with Soft Machine, but parted ways with the group in 1971 over artistic differences. He dubbed the new band he started Matching Mole after the French phrase machine molle, which means soft machine. This band continued in much the same vein as the early Soft Machine albums, playing somewhat free-form instrumental rock, but where Soft Machine went fully into jazz-rock, Matching Mole stuck to knotty post-psych. The band was sticked with canterbury regulars, including Caravan’s Dave Sinclair and guitarist Phil Miller, previously of Delivery and later of Caravan, Hatfield & the North and National Health, among others. In 1973, Wyatt was in the early stages of planning a third Matching Mole album when he fell out a window and was paralyzed from the waist down. We’ll visit his early solo career a few volumes from now.
4. Hawkwind: Space Is Deep 6:23
From the United Artists LP Doremi Fasol Latido
We first heard Hawkwind back on Volume Six, and one thing I noted then and will repeat now is that the band’s peculiar brand of psychedelic jamming didn’t really fit the UK prog mold, having more in common with Germany’s kosmische rock bands (more often referred to as krautrock). “Space Is Deep” tempers the band’s one-chord jamming a bit by couching it inside a rather taut, acoustic song. The brief drone-jam in the middle showcases the band’s then-new rhythm section of drummer Simon King and bassist Lemmy Kilmister, the latter of whom would one day found the early metal band Mötörhead. This is still Dave Brock’s show, though, and it’s his guitar that frames the heavy psychedelics and gives them form while Dik Mik and Del Dettmar use their synthesizers and noise generators to create atmospheric sounds.
5. Khan: Space Shanty (including the Cobalt Sequence and March of the Sine Squadrons) 9:00
From the Deram LP Space Shanty
OK, so this volume has been pretty spaced-out and relatively chaotic so far. Here’s where that changes. Khan was a one-album band that found its way past the atmosphere in an entirely different manner to Hawkwind, and “Space Shanty” is their wildest ride. The instrumental passage that begins after three minutes (one presumes that this might be the “Cobalt Sequence” referred to in the parenthetical title) whips through one crazy solo after another, with Dave Stewart switching between an array of keyboards. That’s the same Dave Stewart we’ve heard in Egg and Arzachel, and will later hear in National Health and Hatfield & the North, and he was joined by a couple other guys with a lot of connections. Steve Hillage had a very successful solo career in the late 70s after stints with this band, Gong, and System Seven, and bassist Nick Greenwood had played with Arthur Brown, while original drummer Pip Pyle, who didn’t play on the album, was in Gong, Delivery, Hatfield and National Health.
This might all sound like cataloging or name-droppng, but I think this kind of exchange and fluidity is one of the things that contributed to the health and longevity of the UK’s progressive rock scene. Whereas in the United States prog bands tended to work in isolation and disappear completely when they split, in the UK, and particularly in southern England, your band splitting often meant you just joined another band. People knew each other and grew together as musicians, collaborating at multiple points in their careers, and it made a difference to the music.
6. Bram Stoker: Fast Decay 3:46
From the Windmill LP Heavy Rock Spectacular
Bram Stoker is an odd case, but one that demonstrates just how important progressive rock was to the British music industry in 1972. They were a manufactured band, studio cats brought together to make a progressive rock album, because if you were trying to sell a rock album in 1972, a heavy prog record would be likely to accomplish your goal. Indeed, Windmill Records was owned by Woolworth’s, and most of the label’s other releases were things like The Beatles’ Golden Songs by the Studio Five Orchestra Singers and Chorus and various artist Parade of Pops sets. And really, everything about this is generic, from the fact that no musicians are credited apart from composer “T. Brodson,” to the album title, to the quick quasi-classical flights on the organ, to the project’s attempt to gain a bit of edge by naming itself for the author of Dracula. Funny thing about coat-tail riding projects like this: their attempts to ride someone else’s waves can wind up generating a compelling energy of their own, and while “Fast Decay” isn’t innovative, it’s engaging and entertaining in its own right. The cash-in attempt failed, though—Heavy Rock Spectacular is actually a pretty rare find these days.
7. CMU: Archway 272 6:19
From the Transatlantic LP Space Cabaret
CMU stands for Contemporary Music Unit, and while that certainly sounds like it could be the recipe for another Bram Stoker-style attempt at a cash-in, it wasn’t. The first CMU album, released in 1971, was a latter-day psych record, but for their second and final album, the band’s lineup changed considerably, with Leary Hasson’s keyboards assuming a dominant role in the band’s sound. Guitarist/vocalist Lorraine Odell was a rarity in British prog, a female instrumentalist working in an overwhelmingly male-dominated form. She shared lead vocals with Richard Joseph, and their joint singing on the chorus creates a memorable hook to hang the song’s jazz-inflected verses on. Hasson (formerly of Marsupilami) mixes Rhodes and Mellotron, and the pairing is so natural it’s a wonder more bands didn’t hit upon it. Never stable, CMU broke up soon after this album, and as far as I know, drummer Roger Odell was the only one to have any kind of high-profile musical career, joining smooth jazz/funk act Shakatak in 1980.
8. Gentle Giant: A Cry for Everyone 4:06
From the Vertigo LP Octopus
This is one of Gentle Giant’s most straightforward rockers, from the band’s heaviest rock album, but even it has the jump cuts, knotty passages and strangely syncopated melodies that were the band’s trademarks. Kerry Minnear’s very brief synth lead in the instrumental midsection is perhaps the strangest detail in a song jam-packed with oddball details, but I think that overall, this song shows the band coming to grips with how to make their incredibly heady mix of styles more direct and accessible and succeeding. This album had one of Roger Dean’s cooler mid-70s album covers, featuring a particularly sinister-looking octopus—oddly, it was replaced with a much less striking image on the North American issues of the album.
9. Man: Keep on Crinting 8:18
From the United Artists LP Be Good to Yourself at Least Once a Day
Man was a quintet from South Wales that embraced a spacey, jam-oriented prog style built around synthesizer leads that at the time must have sounded completely out of this world. Here, they’re handed by Phil Ryan, who was new to the band. Like plenty of its contemporaries, Man was a bit of a revolving door. Guitarist Clive John was in the midst of his second stint with the band on this album, while guitarist Deke Leonard was temporarily out of the band (not the only time he’d leave). “Keep on Crinting” is one of the band’s signature jams, with very little in the way of composed melodies; their songs tended to be pretty open-ended, and when played live would stretch out to twice their studio lengths. I’m a little shaky on the meaning of the word “crinting.” I assume it’s Welsh slang (the word appears in Aussie slang); otherwise, the definition I’m most familiar with is a type of woven bamboo fence made in rural Kenyan villages—I’m just guessing this isn’t what the band had in mind.
10. Curved Air: Cheetah 3:31
From the Warner Brothers LP Phantasmagoria
Curved Air was coming apart at the seams as it recorded its third album, which would be the last one made by the band in its original configuration. Violinist Darryl Way and keyboardist Francis Monkman was at odds over what direction the band’s music should take, with Way on the side of tightly controlled compositions and Monkman more interested in experimentation and open structures. The band even split the album between the two, with Way dominating side one and Monkman side two. “Cheetah” is a concise instrumental from Way’s side; he’d leave the band soon after recording to form Wolf. Vocalist Sonja Kristina revived the band without Way or Monkman, and with a much more rock-oriented sound—this version of the band was the first prominent group to feature violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson, who would go on to play in a parade of major bands, including Roxy Music, UK, Jethro Tull, and Frank Zappa’s band. That version of Curved Air didn’t last, either, and Way and Monkman both came back—this reconstituted Curved Air briefly featured a pre-Police Stewart Copeland on drums.
11. Diabolus: Three Piece Suite 7:11
From the Bellaphon LP Diabolus
Diabolus is a true lost gem of the British progressive rock scene; their only album features an original and very nicely realized jazz/symphonic sound laced with sax and flute and full of strong compositions. The fact their record label deemed the record uncommercial and refused to release it in 1972 beggars belief, really. The band broke up and came back for a time under the name Sunfly. What they didn’t know was that in Germany, a label called Bellaphon had illegally released their album, having somehow got hold of the tapes and knowing a good thing when they heard it. So this band finds itself thrust into this conversation through the back door, their excellent, sole album entirely worth tracking down. “Three Piece Suite” uses the same punning title as several other progressive rock songs, but the band justifies the title by actually delivering a series of well-constructed and highly memorable mini-songs strung together into one truly excellent epic. This band deserved to have its music heard the first time around, and it certainly deserved better than to have it released overseas behind their backs.
12. Nektar: Desolation Valley 5:16
From the United Artists LP A Tab in the Ocean
Nektar is often included in discussions of German progressive rock, as it was formed in Hamburg by English musicians, and their sound does indeed fall somewhere between the symphonic tendencies of British prog and the more abstract, psychedelic sound of the early 70s German rock scene, with not a little debt to Pink Floyd. Side One of the band’s second LP was entirely given over to the title track; “Desolation Valley” opens Side Two, which also flows seamlessly from track to track, though on this side, the songs aren’t clearly related. Derek Moore’s bass line in particular stands out on the intro, but the whole band gels well as the song slips into its subdued jazz-psych verses. A couple years later, the band scored a hit with its Remember the Future concept album about a blind boy who communicates with aliens (British bands liked their concept albums about blind kids with extraordinary powers).
13. Flash: Children of the Universe 8:57
From the Sovereign LP Flash
After guitarist Peter Banks parted with Yes, he formed Flash with vocalist Colin Carter, bassist Ray Bennett and drummer Mike Hough. Keyboardist Tony Kaye, who had also recently departed Yes, played on the band’s first album but declined to join, founding his own band, Badger, instead (more on them on Volume Twelve). The band’s debut yielded a small hit on both sides of the Atlantic in the form of “Small Beginnings,” but that was really it for the band on the charts, though they managed three albums before Banks went solo. “Children of the Universe” is one of the band’s most ambitious prog cuts, and reflects some of Yes’ early style, particularly in the sudden shift to a much harder instrumental passage just before the five minute mark. Capitol Records (which owned Sovereign) probably hoped that Flash’s star would rise in tandem with Yes’, but ultimately the band just wasn’t as distinctive or powerful as the band Yes became.
14. Jackson Heights: Catch a Thief 4:50
From the Vertigo LP Ragamuffins Fool
Speaking of guys that got left behind by former colleagues, when Keith Emerson left The Nice to form Emerson Lake & Palmer (amicably, it should be noted—Emerson even loaned his keyboards to Jackson on occasion), bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison each started his own group, too. Davison’s Every Which Way stalled after one album, but Jackson’s Jackson Heights, which he built around keyboardist/composer Brian Chatton, made four albums, the best of which was their third, Ragamuffins Fool. King Crimson’s Michael Giles joined the band on drums for their final three albums, making this among the highest-profile bands to sign to Vertigo. “Catch A Thief” finds them at their most dynamic, with Chatton’s piano and Giles’ highly creative drumming putting a serious rhythmic charge into Jackson’s surging late psych tune. Jackson Heights ran its course with its next album, as Jackson left to reunite with Davison in Refugee, a keys/bass/drums outfit in the mold of The Nice that only managed one album.
1. Kingdom Come: Time Captives 8:18 2. Stackridge: Purple Spaceships Over Yatton 6:40 3. Matching Mole: Instant Kitten 4:59 4. Hawkwind: Space Is Deep 6:23 5. Khan: Space Shanty (including the Cobalt Sequence and March of the Sine Squadrons) 9:00 6. Bram Stoker: Fast Decay 3:46 7. CMU: Archway 272 6:19 8. Gentle Giant: A Cry for Everyone 4:06 9. Man: Keep on Crinting 8:18 10. Curved Air: Cheetah 3:31 11. Diabolus: Three Piece Suite 7:11 12. Nektar: Desolation Valley 5:16 13. Flash: Children of the Universe 8:57 14. Jackson Heights: Catch a Thief 4:50
For some reason, one of the pop stations around here has been playing the hell out of No Doubt’s 2003 cover of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life” lately. At least I think it’s the No Doubt cover—I’ve never been able to hear it that clearly, but the several times I’ve noticed it in stores and other places, it’s sounded like their version, and I don’t know of a new one that would be playing.
Someone pop savvier than I might have an explanation. All I know is that it drove me to listen to It’s My Life, the full album, for the first time in a while today. Talk Talk’s modern reputation is mostly built on its extraordinarily otherworldy late work (Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock), but before Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene created those singularly weird works, Talk Talk made some really fantastic synthpop.
I don’t think there’s as much true distance between the band’s early and late output as it seems at first glance. Hollis’ powerful voice and disinclination toward diction are certainly a strong link between the two, but it goes a little beyond that. For one, across all their records, there’s a very consistent sense of space, that there’s an empty part that the song is built around. It helps even small moments sound huge.
"It’s My Life" still sounds amazing int eh hands of its original creators today, and that cover, which is extremely faithful to the original, still sounds pretty good too. In the context of modern pop programming, it also stands out, which is maybe why I’ve noticed it as much as I have while everything else glides past me. The chord progression here is really different from anything else I’ve heard lately, and that open feel, which is so written into the song that it carries into the cover even with very different production, is also pretty opposite to the packed-to-the-gills-and-in-the-red maximalism of Dr. Luke-era pop.
So what’s the deal? Has this No Doubt version been in heavy rotation everywhere for some reason, or just here?
The Dream Academy: “Life in a Northern Town” (The Dream Academy, 1984)
Yesterday, in responding briefly to Travis Morrison’s entry in this most recent round of debate about paying for music, I agreed with him that Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” was great.
As it happens, I paid for this record. The band didn’t see a dime from it, though, because I bought it used, at an NPR record sale when I was in high school. It cost me a dollar, and I never missed the dollar.
When I went into that record sale, I had no idea what I was looking for. Just… something good. I’d been spiraling deeper into a consuming love for music, and when I first stepped into that giant room crammed with tables covered in boxes of records, I just about shorted out. Where was I supposed to start?
I found a row of boxes in the “rock/pop” section that had no one picking through them and put my hands in. I wish I knew what I blew past then because I didn’t know. Or maybe I don’t. All I know is that my limited knowledge at the time also limited what I came away with.
I came across the Dream Academy’s self-titled album in one of those boxes. I would have passed it by if I hadn’t been struck by the cover and turned it over. There, on the back, were the names of the band members. Gilbert Gabriel, Nick Laird-Clowes, and Kate St. John, in that order. It was the middle name that struck me, because I’d seen it before, in the liner notes to Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell, liner notes I’d completely internalized.
Laird-Clowes was credited as a co-writer on “Poles Apart” and “Take it Back.” I pulled out the inner sleeve, and there were lyrics, and more credits. David Gilmour was a co-producer, and he played guitar on two songs. And that was it. I knew it was coming home with me.
Thing is my knowledge was limited, but what I did know, I knew inside and out. I didn’t have to snap my fingers a few times and say to myself, “oh, I know that name. He was in… what was he in?” It was instant, and of course if it was related to my favorite band, I had to give it a spin.
I still have that LP, almost literally half a lifetime later. I’ve digitized it, too, which is why you’re able to listen to “Life in a Northern Town” while reading this. It’s a classic 80s anthem, isn’t it? Big, booming percussion, massed voices, and the whole rest of it make for a pretty great shebang in total.
The fact that I paid for it with no benefit to the maker means something in this whole debate. The very act of buying music doesn’t mean the people who made it will be compensated. How you buy it matters, too. And people have been buying used records for as long as there have been records. That’s easy to forget.
“I would psychopathically hound DJs at Q107 or WAVA to play this or that song. I would call the request line until my finger fell off from dialing. Please Please Please play Life In A Northern Town by Dream Academy in the next 20 minutes I have soccer practice at 4!!!! And then I’d sit. With my finger on the record button on my boombox. With more laser-like focus than a Central Park squirrel waiting for a German tourist to drop their pretzel. Please don’t let the preceding song overlap too much; Please don’t talk over the intro you douchebag DJ; Please no ads for Jerry’s Ford ruining the ending. I always kept a tape ready in my boombox in case of suprises. The day that Q107 played “Ship Of Fools” by World Party—an unusual tune in the context of 80s pop radio, with weird sounds and misanthropic lyrics, my idea of a good time and probably an error that got a DJ fired—I swear to god I knocked over every piece of furniture in my room to hit record. ”—
—Travis Morrison of Dis. Plan/Hellfighters responds to David Lowery’s music-stealing essay by revisiting his many memories of stealing music. I know from spending some days in the DP tour van, dude is serious about his World Party. (via tinyluckygenius)
I can identify with Travis Morrison here—I was an obsessive taper, too, and had all the same thoughts he did, particularly about the DJs and commercials. I definitely knocked over a chair or two to get to the pause button. Also, “Life in a Northern Town” is awesome.
1984, we traded in our two-tone Datsun B2-10 (one of the colors was yellow, the other was rust) in for a Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon as big as a yacht. I was four, but I still remember the day—it’s one of the earliest days in my life that I have very clear memories of. I even remember my mother’s reaction when she realized her purse was still in the Datsun as a dealer employee and customer took it out for a spin while we were test-driving the wagon (it was panic).
It also left me with virtually no memories tied to the contemporary pop music of my own childhood, something that has persisted in my life to the present. Contemporary hits have never been the soundtrack of my life—pop music was something you approached when you wanted to, usually retroactively.
This created a certain amount of disconnect with a lot of the people I grew up and went to school with. The Dave Matthews Band would play the Meadows, and the next day, three quarters of my high school would be wearing the same Dave Matthews t-shirt. Not me though. I’d spent the night at home, listening to Jethro Tull. My first concert was the Moody Blues. Also, I still listen to NPR every morning and evening.
All that said, there were particular things my parents got me into. I’ve mentioned this before, but my father very deliberately introduced me to my first real hero (after my father himself, that is), “Weird Al” Yankovic. He also listened to Loudon Wainwright III, which I think taught me that humor had a place in less joke-focused music as well. Years later, I have quite a few LWIII albums myself.
There were Beatles and Paul Simon albums in the house, and Motown LPs, and a Vanilla Fudge album neither of my parents remembers owning, and of course I listened to those when I started looking for music to love on my own. I also dug through their old box of 45s, a grab-bag of Beatles, Byrds, Chicago, Elvis and Buddha Records singles.
Aside from the Beatles and Paul Simon, there were very few other things either of my parents actively introduced me to in a “hey, check this out” sort of way. In fact, recently, I’ve been introducing my father to new music based on what I know he already likes—he’s become a pretty big Andrew Bird fan.
There’s another, more roundabout way that my parents have introduced me to music, too. My mother had records by Peter Paul & Mary and the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia, and when I was in high school, I didn’t give them a second thought. But when Mary Travers died, I found myself buying the very same PP&M LP my mother had, and recently I picked up an Ian & Sylvia LP at a junk shop specifically to hear what she heard all those years ago.
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time at my mother’s childhood home in Coventry, Connecticut while my grandparents were still with us. I remember the way that house felt, and I like to think of my mother, in her teens, in that little blue bedroom, listening to Ian & Sylvia—I can put myself there in my mind.
So they may not have turned me on to much directly, but the things my parents exposed me to when I was young have unquestionably shaped the way I listen and what I love, I think more profoundly than introducing me to a particular artist ever could have.
My favorite band is Pink Floyd, for a host of reasons—it’s funny, even across all their eras, they made very little music I dislike. I think the best answer to this is a toss-up between “Not Now John” and “The Dogs of War.” Not to say that the band had a light touch with social commentary, but these two are the most bludgeoning songs in their whole discography, and bludgeoning is not the band’s strength.
Even so, I don’t hate either song. I just think they pale next to the rest of the band’s output. “Not Now John” particularly loses points for using f-bombs in a wan attempt to sound more… I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish, actually. The song is too strident to sound like it doesn’t care. Not a good look for Pink Floyd.
20: favourite concert ever.
Not being a huge concertgoer, I tend to remember most of them pretty well. The best show I’ve ever seen was Godspeed You Black Emperor! with Bonnie Prince Billie and the Marquis de Tren at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Massachusetts on December 1st, 2000.
The band’s name still had the exclamation point in the right place, and they were at the peak of their powers. I expected something good, but not as I good as I got.
My friend Craig and I found out about the show the day of, and originally weren’t going to go. But we got to talking about it and the band with our friends at lunch (we were in college at the time), and they, who had never heard GYBE! but listened to a lot of darkwave, industrial and other intense music, sounded intrigued.
So all four of us went ahead and took the Red Line up to Somerville to see if we could get in. It was sold out, and a long line of people was wrapped around the building waiting to get in. The guy who sold us our tickets didn’t even mark them up from the face value—they were ten dollars, and his friends couldn’t make it down from New Hampshire, so he let us have them for the actual price. It was that kind of crowd.
So there we were, in the balcony of the Somerville Theater, which is a beautifully decorated old place with a vaguely crumbling vibe, just a perfect match for the music. The audience was rapt and silent for Bonnie Prince Billie, and you could hear Jim White hitting his lap with his brushes all the way up where we were seated.
GYBE!’s set was the most intense live music I’ve ever experienced. “Moya” opened their set, and I have never seen a band do anything to an audience like this again—as they rose along the song’s big crescendo, the whole crowd moved to the front of its seats, and when they finally hit the big release, everybody sat back at once. People had tears streaming down their faces.
Like I said, intense. And impossible to beat. My friends had never heard of the band that morning. They bought every release they could at the merch table after the show.
excellent blog -- interesting conceptually (i'm really into the idea of canonicity), very good writing. rare to encounter someone who will a) write about prog and b) write about it in a way that is neither too self-serious nor exoticizing of the material. also, I see you have some connection to Duke -- I'm actually at my place of employment in Durham right now, but I'm a UNC student the rest of the year.
Progressive rock was really my first love, so I’ve wanted to tackle it in a big way since I started this Tumblr a few years ago. I possibly shouldn’t have waited until I was in grad school. I hear what you’re saying about writing about prog—my thought is just to approach it as music I love and see where that takes me.
The Duke connection is pretty tenuous—I’ve contributed some to their performing arts blog, which is edited by my colleague, Brian Howe, who is a really fantastic editor. Wish I could do more work for him, actually.
Galaxie 500: “Fourth of July” (This Is Our Music, 1990)
The first day of summer is tomorrow, though honestly, it’s felt like summer arrived months ago this year. It’s supposed to be in the 90s today in southeast Michigan—August weather, really.
One of the things I love most about summer in the Detroit area is that this is the time of year when all the gearheads and enthusiasts pull their old cars from under the dust covers and cruise. Or in recent years, simply display them in the driveway, because gas is expensive, and an 18-foot-long Impala uses a lot of it.
People do this all over the country, of course, but Detroitland takes a special pride in it, and the sheer number of people harboring some old, very well-kept automobile in their garage while their everyday car sits in the elements is astonishing. There are tons of late 60s muscle cars and Corvettes from through the ages, not to mention a decent complement of big old Lincolns and Packards with flared fenders and running boards and rumble seats, but the biggest concentration is from my favorite era for car design, the late 50s and early 60s.
This was, of course, the Jet Age, and the nascent Space Age. The cars people designed and built during this period were optimistic for a future in the air and beyond, with fins and wings, and tail-lights shaped like rocket boosters. The front grilles look like turbine cowls; the hoods ornaments were chrome and jutted sharply toward a better, sleeker tomorrow.
This optimism wasn’t entirely misplaced—we did, after all, make it to the moon before the 60s were out—but it’s hard to skirt the realization that in many respects the future never came, and the society that produced these optimistic designs had horrible systemic problems that were standing in the way of real progress. Even as we gave gravity the slip, the convulsions of the 60s dealt the first blows to our hope for a near future among the stars by reminding us that we had accounting to do in this world. What began with “Telstar" ended with "Whitey on the Moon.”
Still, I love it when those cars come out, because in amongst all that history and the problems that still reflect it today, those tail lights and hood ornaments believe that one day we’re going to get it together, and as despairing as the times may get, they jsut might be proven right some day.
One of my neighbors has a classic Ford Galaxie 500, with a ragtop and all. It’s been parked on the street across from my house during the day lately, and I love it. My sedan is more practical, but I can’t imagine anyone doting over it for half a century and proudly displaying it in an August car parade like the one my town holds every year during the Woodward Dream Cruise. My car doesn’t say anything except “where to?”
Galaxie 500 the band are named after that car parked across the street. “Fourth of July” is one of their best songs, with one of the most hilarious opening lines ever written for a breakup song: “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit, and your dog refused to look at it.” This band’s open ended psychedelia embodied a lot of the same optimism of the car they were named for, at least to my ears. Enjoy it on this hot, almost summer day.
So it’s 1972, and you’re a prog band, which means you’re probably doing one of three things: breaking up, preparing a shift toward more conventional music, or doubling down, filling one side of your album with a single song and tracking down Roger Dean to have him paint weird causeways and extraterrestrial birds on your album sleeve. 1972 was perhaps the peak year of British prog from an artistic standpoint, a year when it seemed like anything was possible—studio technology was improving and getting cheaper to access, labels were mining the club and ballroom circuits for prog acts, Europe was hungry for British bands, and the music charted well.
A lot of first-wave and second-wave prog bands perished in 1972, or at least released their final albums, and there’s the sense that things were beginning to shake out a bit—nothing lasts forever. Still, there were plenty of bands toiling in obscurity, and the scene remained rich and deep, far more so than I can cover in a couple volumes.
I could have introduced Genesis earlier in this series. They’re one of the most important groups in British progressive rock, and their story began in 1967, when the band came together at Charterhouse School. Their first album, 1969’s From Genesis to Revelation, was considerably more straightforward and pop-oriented than the music they’d come to make (it also included string arrangements added after the fact by the label). In 1970, they moved to Charisma, the label originally founded by Tony Stratton-Smith to release Van der Graaf Generator’s debut. Their first LP for the label, 1970’s Trespass, established their expansive, complex style, but the band nearly didn’t survive it—drummer John Mayhew and guitarist/composer Anthony Phillips left, the latter because of crushing stage fright. This had a few knock-on effects: drummer Phil Collins joined, and to compensate for the loss of the guitarist, Tony Banks developed a unique style of lead fuzz piano that would pop up on the band’s albums for years.
Vocalist Peter Gabriel was, of course, anything bu afraid of performing, and his operatic, many-costumed stage performances helped cement the band’s reputation as a must-see live act. The band finally recruited guitarist Steve Hackett, putting in place the classic quintet lineup that recorded a run of four classic, defining progressive rock albums. Foxtrot was the second of these, and the band’s first to crack the UK top twenty. It did that partly on the strength of the side-long “Supper’s Ready,” but “Watcher of the Skies” is the song that showcases all of the band’s biggest strengths in one superb, relatively compact statement. Banks’ slow, sour Mellotron intro is hardly preparation for the intensely rhythmic song that follows.
One of the things I love about the arrangement is the way Mike Rutherford’s bass essentially snatches the lead away from Hackett’s guitar, which is more engaged in filling the sidelines in with color. The band had a very distinctive aesthetic vision, but what’s really amazing about it is that they achieved that vision without ever settling into a predictable pattern—any instrument could lead at any time, and a song could go anywhere they felt like taking it. They remained a great band for years after the quintet version began eroding, but it was this version of the band that made the most powerful, lasting impression.
2. Wishbone Ash: The King Will Come 7:06
From the MCA LP Argus
One more from Wishbone Ash, whom we previously heard engaged in a bit of whimsical hard rock with the wordless vocal harmonies of “Vas Dis.” “The King Will Come” is decidedly more serious, about its subject matter and its ambitions as well. The Argus LP is the band’s artistic peak, and while it’s not quite as crazy with the meter changes and structural complexity of some of its contemporaries, it does have its share of excellent progressive rock workouts. The long instrumental midsection of “The King Will Come” features some of the finest interplay between guitarists Ted Turner and Andy Powell. From here, the band turned to more conventional hard rock, and even lost its signature twin lead guitar sound for a time when Powell left the band (he was replaced by Laurie Wisefield).
3. Gracious!: Blues Skies & Alibis 5:00
From the Philips LP This Is… Gracious!!
Gracious! Released two albums, and we heard a selection from their first on Volume 6. I think they’re worth revisiting for a song from the follow-up, if only to demonstrate what was happening to the music from 1970 to 1972. “Heaven,” from the debut, was slow and sprawling, a long, melodic song with a lot of music twists and detours. “Blue Skies and Alibis” is far more streamlined, with Martin Kitcat’s Mellotron playing an unusual lead instrument role rather than its usual atmospheric, textural role. Even as structures continued to sprawl out and prog bands chose to build their music around bigger and bigger concepts, certain commercial pressures were already pressing in as early as 1972, and bands on the specialty labels (Gracious had graduated from Vertigo to Philips, the parent label of Vertigo, for LP two) were finding that with the lousy support their labels were capable of throwing behind them, they needed make hits happen for themselves. In the case of Gracious, a hit never did happen, but it’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which “Blue Skies” might have been the one.
4. Asgærd: Time 5:12
From the Threshold LP In the Realm of Asgærd
Gracious wasn’t the only band from the initial prog wave to bite the dust in 1972—the Moody Blues, whose penchant for melancholy drama, conceptual themes and big, huge waves of Mellotron had helped shape early progressive rock, recorded their last album prior to a 1978 reunion. The Moodies’ record label, Threshold, remained active, though, and Asgærd, named for the country of the Norse gods (one of the nine worlds of Norse religion), was, along with Trapeze and the American group Providence, one of three non-Moodies-related bands to be signed to the label. In the Realm of Asgard was their only album, featuring about 35 minutes of concise, pop-accessible prog. Peter Orgill’s violin gave their music an interesting edge, but the core of their sound is the harmonies of Ted Bartlett, James Smith and Rodney Harrison, the first two of whom were solely vocalists for the band (Harrison played guitar). The completely unexpected Celtic hoedown in the middle of the song is one of my favorite moments on this whole volume. I’m not sure what happened to the members of Asgærd after their split, but the name stayed around—at least two other prog bands, one from Italy and another from France, have used it.
5. Catapilla: Charing Cross 6:45
From the Vertigo LP Changes
Catapilla was another short-lived band, cutting two albums of murky jazz-rock before disappearing. Changes was the second—like most Vertigo bands, they were quite good but never found an audience for their recordings. Their take on jazz-rock was filtered through some of the wiggier elements of psychedelia, and their records feature a lot of delay and other studio effects (as well as musical effects—guitarist Graham Wilson has an extended passage of finger-tapping toward the end). Their sax-augmented lineup was fairly normal for a prog band, but they had a different kind of wild card in singer Anna Meek, whose tripped-out vocals function more like an additional instrument than a typical pop vocal. “Charing Cross” shows her approach well. If you’re unfamiliar with London, Charing Cross today is a major transit station housed in an absolutely massive building by the Thames. The name comes from the wooden cross that once stood in the intersection that occupied the site long ago.
6. Jade Warrior: Three-Horned Dragon King 6:10
From the Vertigo LP Released
Jade Warrior closed out our last volume with a sort of ghostly world music track—“Three-Horned Dragon King” is perhaps more emblematic of their overall approach, stirring together rock, jazz and bit of African-ish percussion into a whole that’s complex but coherentThe song buried in all this fusion is pretty ferocious, too, with a strong vocal and nice, ripping fuzz guitar, which was a tone that a lot of prog guys were shying away from at the time. It meshes really nicely with the sax on the main riff. There’s already been plenty of down talk about band splitting on this volume; Jade Warrior was a survivor, persisting into the 1990s (albeit with a couple of lengthy hiatuses)
7. Morgan: War Games 7:04
From the RCA LP Nova Solis
Morgan had roots in psychedelic pop groups of the late 60s; singer Tim Staffel had been in Smile with Brian May and Roger Taylor, while keyboardist Morgan Fisher and drummer Maurice Bacon had played together in several bands. The Queen connection is especially odd given that vocals really aren’t Morgan’s strong suit. Staffel was adequate, but it was really Fisher’s keyboards that dominated the band and gave them their sound. This track from Nova Solis, the band’s debut, comes in and goes out on understated drones, but nothing in between could reasonably be called understated. Bob Sapsed’s overdriven bass work in the verses gives the song a powerful groove that it really needs to make its way through all the heavy lyrics and flowery keyboard themes, though I do dig that harpsichord passage in the middle. Morgan made only one more album, 1973’s The Sleeper Wakes.
8. Emerson Lake & Palmer: Living Sin 3:14
From the Manticore LP Trilogy
When you’re addressing the big names on a volume like this, you’re first confronted with all the different points you might want to make. ELP has a well-cemented reputation for pomp and pretense, and most people who are interested in the band realize that their Greg Lake-led hits were atypical entries in their songbook, so I decided to lean away from “The Endless Enigma” and “From the Beginning” and go with “Living Sin,” a song that I think nicely channels all of the band’s bombast into something intentionally over the top and, well, fun. Greg Lake clearly loves singing this song (“twisted!”), and Keith Emerson goes totally nuts with his organ riffs, building them out into ridiculously long and yet oddly compelling tangles of blues phrasing. People tend to forget that ELP had a sometimes wicked sense of humor, and I think it’s a shame that it’s the side of them that’s been most thoroughly dropped from the conventional narratives around them.
9. Paladin: Any Way 4:20
From the Bronze LP Charge!
I don’t know how they did it, but Paladin managed to score one of Roger Dean’s wickedest cover paintings for their second album, Charge! I think the thing riding the robo-horse is supposed to be an alien knight? Dean’s fantastical landscapes and bizarre creatures are practically the visual synonym for progressive rock, and especially the symphonic variety, and I’m fairly certain that James Cameron owes the guy royalties for Avatar. On some level, they’re a little cheesy—whoa! There are fish, swimming, like, in the air!—but more to the point, they really are a perfect visual complement to the records they adorn, on which the bands in question were often attempting to build worlds no less fantastic. Paladin wasn’t quite working toward that goal—their second album is relatively straightforward and light on bombast, much less the travails of gnomes and fairies—but it is still a very nicely conceived and performed record. “Any Way” is the big ballad, and it stands well alongside just about any other 70s rock ballad I can think of. Paladin’s second album was its last, and the band split soon after making it. Keyboardist Pete Solley later joined Procol Harum just in time help them record their last album, Something Magic.
10. Tractor: Make the Journey 9:11
From the Dandelion LP Tractor
Tractor’s “Make the Journey” begins as a rather ordinary post-psych hard rock song, but when the harmonies on the chorus hit, drawing a sharp and immediate contrast against the verses, it becomes clear that this is really something else. One ferocious guitar solo and a final verse later, we’re off into a sort of dub/noise coda built around those same chorus harmonies, which blow through the noise like ghosts. All of this racket was made by two guys, Jim Milne and Steve Clayton—a studio-bound duo like Tractor was fairly unusual in the progressive rock world (and they did assemble a touring band from time to time), but they made it work, and the band has been active at various levels from the 60s to the present. Oddly, they’ve only made two albums in that time, Tractor, and another under their previous name, The Way We Live.
11. Second Hand: Death May Be Your Santa Claus 2:34
From the Mushroom LP Death May Be Your Santa Claus
Way back on Volume 3, we heard an incredibly ambitious, epic psych track by Second Hand called “Mainliner,” recorded when the band members were only in their teens. I’ve heard that their second album was recorded in 1970 and not released until 1972 (I’ve also heard that it was recorded and released in 1971), but either way, it came out a bit too late for its heavy, organ-driven psych sound to really break through. The sound was so organ driven primarily because the guitarist had left the band and they couldn’t find a good replacement. Death May Be Your Santa Claus is about as weird as its title overall, but I think it’s a fun record. The band recorded one more album, under the new name Chillum, before splitting. Bandleader Ken Elliot and drummer Kieran O’Connor went on to play together as Seventh Wave.
12. Gnidrolog: Ship 6:42
From the RCA LP Lady Lake
I’ve looked a lot, and I can’t figure out where Gnidrolog’s name comes from. It seems like it must be a reference to some sort of myth or fantasy story, but I’m hardly an expert on either, so if anyone knows, tell me. I do know that the band’s nucleus was brothers Colin and Stewart Goldring, who began playing in bands together in the mid-60s. Gnidrolog was a reasonably typical early 70s prog act, incorporating sax as a primarily rhythm-focused instrument into a more standard rock setup, and their two albums, both released in 1972, featured their share of lengthy jams. “Ship” is a bit more bite-sized, with the bass, sax, and guitar all operating somewhere between strictly rhythmic and melodic roles. It gives the slow-tempoed song a sense of constant forward momentum as the instruments twist around each other. The band broke up quickly after Lady Lake flopped, but the Goldring brothers would later join the small handful of musicians that literalized the fall of prog to punk when they formed their own scatalogically inclined punk band, the Pork Dukes, in 1976. That band managed three albums before splitting in 1979.
13. Janus: I Wanna Scream 2:47
From the Harvest LP Gravedigger
Janus is a classic one-album wonder, their sole LP for Harvest landing with a thud in 1972 even as prog was nearly its commercial peak. It was a hell of a record, complete with a side-long epic and amazing cover art (love the top-hatted skeleton). “I Wanna Scream” is the inverse of the sidelong title track, channeling all of the energy and fractured lead guitar of their core sound into less than three minutes of gloriously tripped-out hard rock. Janus may have been a one-album wonder, but their story takes a very different turn from most one-album prog acts beginning in 1990, when the band got back together and cut a second album, which also included a 20-minute track. Even stranger, they’ve been active ever since, and have added another six albums to their discography.
14. Renaissance: Rajah Khan 11:32
From the Sovereign LP Prologue
Volume 4 included a song from Renaissance, but the band that cut the first Renaissance album was a completely different entity from the one that made Prologue just three years later. Gone was Jane Relf, replaced on vocals by powerful soprano Annie Haslam. John Hawken, Louis Cennamo, Jim McCarty, and Keith Relf were all gone, too, replaced by bassist John Camp, pianist John Tout, drummer Terence Sullivan, and guitarist Rob Hendry (there were others who came and went in that span as well, most notably guitarist Michael Dunford, who would later return). Oddly, even though not a single founding member remained in the band, the style, built largely around rushing, classically influenced keyboards wasn’t all that different, though this new lineup executed it with a fair amount more finesse.
“Rajah Khan” is one of the band’s very few experiments with non-Western harmony, and it doesn’t really linger on that much past Rob Hendry’s blistering guitar opening. Haslam’s wordless vocals do some very interesting things with inflection, and there are phrases where she seems to swallow the notes before they can escape. While I love these passages, the flat-out jam the band launches into after seven minutes is probably my favorite part—that’s Curved Air’s Francis Monkman sitting in on VCS3, the first entirely British designed and built synthesizer (the most instantly recognizable VCS3 recording is Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”). This lineup of Renaissance stuck (once Dunford came back in 1973) through the end of the 70s, and it was the band that established Renaissance as one of the major British progressive rock acts.
Be-Bop Deluxe: “Sleep That Burns” (Sunburst Finish, 1976)
I’ve been working ahead on my UK Prog volumes, and yesterday I put the finishing touches on my 1976 volume, which will be posted several weeks from now. As I put it together, I did a lot of peripheral listening to other British rock from 1976. The volume will reflect this when I post it, but I found it really interesting how far the ideas embodied in progressive rock had burrowed into the mindset of rock musicians in Britain by that point.
Be-Bop Deluxe had been around for a minute by ‘76. The band, which was essentially the name for guitarist Bill Nelson and whoever happened to be playing with him, came out of Yorkshire in 1972, and Sunburst Finish was its third album. Nelson was established as a sort of guitar hero, and you can hear his skill all over “Sleep That Burns,” which is also slathered with dive-bombing synth leads.
It’s prog-pop, and it hit right on the cusp of punk and prog’s final slide out of the mainstream, a slide that had already begun. Sunburst Finish produced the band’s biggest hit, “Ships in the Night,” which is fantastic, but the multi-sectioned “Sleep That Burns” has an undeniable ambition and pull to it that makes it my favorite from the album. If more prog bands had gone in this direction instead of upping the ante on side-long suites and tedious fusion projects, the genre may never have been exiled.
U.K. Prog, Volume 8: 1971b Travelers in Space and Time (Notes)
We’re still in 1971, and just as the first volume from this year emphasized the eclecticism of the prog banner, this one reaches all over the place from hard rock to symphonic sounds to late psych, jazz-rock, and pompous, evil sax riffs.
Gentle Giant was among the most accomplished British prog bands never to achieve much commercial success. The band was originally built around the core of brothers Derek, Phil and Ray Shulman and Kerry Minnear, though perhaps the most prominent member on this song is longtime guitarist Gary Green. At their best, as heard here, this band had an uncanny way of presenting very complex music palatably and efficiently—they were as ambitious as any other prog band, but never got caught trying to stretch a limited idea over the whole side of an LP. One of their trademarks was their intricate vocal arrangements, in which they toyed with ancient musical techniques like hocketing and polyphony. Multiple members played a wide variety of instruments, and you can hear bits of sax and trumpet flitting through “Pantagruel’s Nativity” alongside the early synth work, Mellotron and heavy guitar. Amid all the tempo changes and sudden shifts in arrangement, Gentle Giant albums united disparate strains of Renaissance and Medieval music, hard rock, jazz, blues, pop, musique concrete, neoclassical, and contemporary symphonic prog into a mix that was entirely their own.
2. Mogul Thrash: Going North, Going West 12:06
From the RCA LP Mogul Thrash
In the name of covering ground and squeezing in variety, I’ve largely avoided including a lot of songs that range past ten minutes on these volumes, but “Going North, Going West” is awesome, and definitely the best Mogul Thrash song, so consider this my concession to the fact that just about every album released by a prog band from the U.K. at this point included at least one track over ten minutes long (in Italy and Germany, side-long tracks were as common as blades of grass on a lawn). Mogul Thrash was formed by James Litherland (James Blake’s father, dubsteppers) after he left Colosseum, and in some respects was fashioned on Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears, two bands whose success had not gone unnoticed in the British music scene. The group included a full horn section, but rather than leaning toward jazz, pop and blues like those American groups, Mogul Thrash played their way right into the progressive rock wheelhouse, with rapid-fire unison riffs, winding compositions, and extended passages of improvisation. Future King Crimson bassist/vocalist John Wetton held down the low end for this group, which proved to be a pit stop for all involved, lasting long enough to record just one album.
3. UFO: Silver Bird 6:55
From the Beacon LP Flying
On their earliest albums, heavy metal pioneers UFO sat right at the hard rock/prog nexus, and they weren’t much concerned with efficiency—two songs on their second LP are over 18 minutes long. “Silver Bird” is more compact and even performed modestly as a single. It trades a bit in the space rock implied in their name—the phrase “space rock” even appeared on the album cover. Frankly, the recording could be better—Phil Mogg’s vocal is pretty buried, but the rest of the band gets pretty ample opportunity to really wail in the long instrumental coda. Bassist Pete Way and drummer Andy Parker were a powerful rhythm section, and Mick Bolton was a good, post-psych guitarist. Bolton left in 1972, and his ultimate replacement was German guitarist Michael Schenker, who was recruited from an early lineup of the Scorpions. With Schenker in the band, they pursued a much more straightforward hard rock direction and became a guiding force in the development of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.
4. Yes: South Side of the Sky 7:58
From the Atlantic LP Fragile
Yes were by this point the masters of making insanely complex rock music not only palatable but positively infectious. Original guitarist Peter Banks had been replaced by Steve Howe, and original keyboardist Tony Kaye left, to be replaced by Rick Wakeman, who at the time was a journeyman coming off a stint with prog folk act Strawbs. Fragile was the group’s second album of 1971 (after The Yes Album), and the first of two to feature the short-lived but still enormously influential Jon Anderson/Rick Wakeman/Bill Bruford/Steve Howe/Chris Squire lineup. “South Side of the Sky” may be built on an odd-metered groove and intricate instrumental interplay, but it doesn’t feel difficult or particularly esoteric, in part because the playing is all so forceful (Squire’s bass is especially punchy), but also because Anderson’s vocal melody is so catchy and relatively simple. The Wakeman-led interlude provides a nice respite from the intensity of the rest of the song. If you have trouble parsing out what all the subgenre tags you’ll encounter in prog mean, consider that Yes is one of the quintessential symphonic prog bands.
5. Gong: Fohat Digs Holes in Space 6:23
From the Virgin LP Camembert Electrique
In 1967, Australian-born Daevid Allen, who had been playing in an early version of Soft Machine and was also an original member of Canterbury incubator Wilde Flowers, went to France and couldn’t get back into the U.K. because of visa trouble. Instead of pouting, he put a band together in France, and that band became Gong, a group with one of the most tangled histories in all of progressive rock (their Wikipedia page even has a diagram showing all the different variations and offshoots of the band). The band was a derailed for a time by legal troubles of a few members who’d been involved in the 1968 student riots, but solidified in 1970 and began to record. The band’s second album features Allen with drummer Pip Pyle (another big Canterbury guy), reedist Didier Malherbe, bassist Christian Trisch and vocalist Gilli Smyth, a British-born professor at the Sorbonne. I like the way “Fohat” gradually comes into focus, beginning as a cosmic jam before the sax brings it slowly to earth. Then it becomes a sort of absurdist hard psych tune not too unlike a much friendlier Mothers of Invention (without Frank Zappa’s condescension).
6. McDonald & Giles: Tomorrow’s People - The Children of Today 7:03
From the Island LP McDonald & Giles
Michael Giles and Ian McDonald were founding members of King Crimson, and McDonald was perhaps the primary architect of their early sound, playing saxophone and Mellotron. Nevertheless, after In the Court of the Crimson King, they parted ways with Robert Fripp, leaving him the Crimson name (Giles drummed on the group’s second LP as a session player). The album they made as a duo is charming, sounding about as home-spun as a progressive rock album possibly could. The cover even features them with their girlfriends in a candid moment. The side-long track (“Birdman Suite”) is disjointed but features some very impressive passages, while side one features a couple of very sweet folk tunes among the prog numbers. The prog numbers are endearingly ramshackle, and Michael Giles’ “Tomorrow’s People” is the most endearing of all of them, featuring McDonald’s layered sax and Giles’ own everyman vocal. His drumming on this song is crazily funky, too—the Beastie Boys sampled it for “Body Movin’” (at 1:46). Giles and McDonald parted ways after this. Giles wound up playing alongside Mogul Thrash’s James Litherland in Leo Sayer’s band, and McDonald went on to found Foreigner, who of course ruled the airwaves around the turn of the 80s. By the way, I’ve tried to avoid drum solos as much as possible on these volumes; this one seemed worth including, because it’s more of a break than a true bash-and-crash solo.
7. Raw Material: Ice Queen 6:46
From the Neon LP Time Is…
You knew we had to get to the heavy bombast at some point, right? Raw Material bring it on the opener to their second and final album. Bearing not a little similarity to Van der Graaf Generator (specifically their monster song “Killer”), “Ice Queen” features nasty sax riffs from Mike Fletcher and a great instrumental midsection featuring some really nice jazz piano work from vocalist Colin Catt. I guess this is another thing that indicates just how thoroughly prog permeated the British rock world in 1971—VdGG was one of the best band in the genre, but never broke through commercially, and they still managed to inspire imitators, and good ones at that. Neon records was RCA’s prog imprint.
8. Indian Summer: From the Film of the Same Name 5:53
From the Neon LP Indian Summer
Another short lived band from RCA’s Neon stable, Indian Summer made just one LP, but it was a good one that imaginatively cuts its hard-hitting jazz-rock with a heavy dose of symphonic arrangement, complete with elaborate flights on the Hammond organ. I like the way this opens with a fake-out, implying that the whole song will ride a slow, slogging beat, but quickly gives up the ruse, launching into a weird melodic passage where the keyboards and guitar double each other, right down to the keyboard fluttering to match the guitarist’s hammer-ons. They weren’t strictly an instrumental band, but this instrumental is probably the best thing they did.
9. Beggar’s Opera: Time Machine 8:09
From the Vertigo LP Waters of Change
We’ve heard from Scotland’s Beggar’s Opera before, and when they recorded their second album, they were still putting the “second” in “second tier UK Prog.” but they managed to have a minor hit in Germany and the Netherlands with this song. Riding a wave of Mellotron, it’s amusingly dramatic about its subject matter, but they’ve put aside the classical pretensions of their debut to focus more on atmospherics, and it’s an effective shift. Their next album veered back toward hard rock, and after that, they pretty much abandoned progressive rock, which I suppose one could say made them a little ahead of their time.
10. Accolade: The Spider to the Spy 2:41
From the Regal Zonophone LP 2
You’ve heard of regression to the mean? I don’t mean for this to sound nearly as insulting as it does, but Accolade’s “Spider to the Spy” is pretty much British prog rock’s mean circa 1971. It embodies so many things about so many different strains of prog rock that if I were trying to build a portrait of average UK prog, this is one of the first things I’d point to, for its mixture of acoustic and electric instrumentation, oddball sax part, flue solo, unusual vocal recording and lurching rhythm. Keep in mind that I don’t mean “average” in terms of quality, because it’s a great song from a good album by a band that never made another one. At least they managed two, though. Not many bands of their profile did.
11. Marsupilami: Prelude to the Arena 5:22
From the Transatlantic LP Arena
From their weird name to the freaked-out, tweaked-out vocals on “Prelude to the Arena,” Marsupilami could never be mistaken for boring. Their music was wildly complex and ambitious, with pretty much every song they did on their two albums moving through several sections. This band was also one of the few UK prog acts to feature a female instrumentalist in flautist Jessica Stanley-Clarke (more on that on the next volume). Arena is a concept album about Roman fighting culture, and “Prelude” is meant to set the tone for the album, which is does ably with its incredibly bombastic intro. I love the sense of movement built into this composition, and I wish this band had gotten a chance to keep developing its sound.
12. Tonton Macoute: Flying South in Winter 6:28
From the Neon LP Tonton Macoute
Another Neon band, another one-album wonder, Tonton Macoute was named for the special forces security unit of Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, which is turn was named for a folk monster that carried off misbehaving children in a sack and ate them the next day. The band wasn’t nearly as crazy or nasty as its name implied, though. They were fundamentally a jazz-rock group, and reedist Dave Knowles dominated their music melodically. “Flying South in Winter” has some nice faux-Eastern melodies, some great interplay among the musicians, and a generally unhurried vibe that’s a little refreshing in the context of some of the group’s more musically strident colleagues.
13. Jade Warrior: Masai Morning (including: Casting of the Bones, the Hunt, a Ritual of Kings) 6:41
From the Vertigo LP Jade Warrior
In various configurations, Jade Warrior has been around on and off for four decades now, but their earliest music, when they were among the first rock bands to experiment widely and thoroughly with ethnic music, remains their most exciting to me. “Masai Morning” closes out their debut with a short suite that ties together a sort of ethno-ambient introduction and a fuzzy, jazz-inflected rock song. This isn’t the last we’ll hear of this band, which went on to make quite a few good records.
1. Gentle Giant: Pantagruel’s Nativity 6:50 2. Mogul Thrash: Going North, Going West 12:06 3. UFO: Silver Bird 6:55 4. Yes: South Side of the Sky 7:58 5. Gong: Fohat Digs Holes in Space 6:23 6. McDonald & Giles: Tomorrow’s People - The Children of Today 7:03 7. Raw Material: Ice Queen 6:46 8. Indian Summer: From the Film of the Same Name 5:53 9. Beggar’s Opera: Time Machine 8:09 10. Accolade: The Spider to the Spy 2:41 11. Marsupilami: Prelude to the Arena 5:22 12. Tonton Macoute: Flying South in Winter 6:28 13. Jade Warrior: Masai Morning (including: Casting of the Bones, the Hunt, a Ritual of Kings) 6:41
Yesterday, we lost Bob Welch, one-time singer/guitarist for Fleetwood Mac. He was 65.
Welch was a member of the band from 1971 to 1974, during which time the band recorded five albums. Fleetwood Mac was still a blues band when Welch became the group’s first American member in ‘71. He was hired to be the rhythm guitarist while Danny Kirwan continued to handle the lead parts, but Kirwan exited the band a year later.
Kirwan was replaced by guitarist Bob Weston and singer Dave Walker (from Savoy Brown)—Walker lasted one album before departing amicably, but Weston lasted longer and nearly destroyed the band by having an affair with drummer Mick Fleetwood’s wife, Jenny Boyd. In the wake of Weston’s dismissal, Fleetwood was too despondent to tour, and the band’s manager attempted to fulfill the group’s scheduled dates with a completely different band, leading to a legal slugfest that again nearly torpedoed the group.
Meanwhile, John and Christine McVie had divorced, and Christine had joined Welch in leading the band toward a much more pop-oriented rock sound. Welch encouraged the band to move to his hometown, Los Angeles, and they did. One of his contributions to 1973’s Mystery To Me, “Hypnotized,” scored the band its biggest hit to that point (it’s my favorite Mac song).
Welch was the stable core of the band during his time as a member—the group simply would not have survived were it not for his contributions and stewardship. If you love the band’s Buckingham-Nicks years, thank Welch for making them possible, because that hit-making machine never could have been built without him.
Welch had a solo career after leaving Fleetwood Mac, and scored a hit in 1977 with a new version of “Sentimental Lady,” a song he’d originally written for Fleetwood Mac’s 1972 LP Bare Trees. The other song he wrote for that album was “The Ghost.”
"The Ghost" is one of several songs, "Hypnotized" among them, that reveals Welch’s interest in the supernatural (he even tackled the Bermuda Triangle on a song of the same name on 1974’s Heroes Are Hard to Find). it gives his songwriting an interesting spin, even occasionally when he’s singing mostly about something else, such as on Penguin’s “Night Watch,” in which UFOs appear in an otherwise rather conventional narrative about a struggling relationship.
I wish Welch could get the respect he deserves for his role in transforming and guiding on of rock’s great bands through its most tumultuous years—as it is, when the band made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Welch wasn’t included in the list of members to be inducted. This despite the fact that the band never would have merited inclusion if he hadn’t been around to help hold it together. Not to give the Rock Hall too much credit, but hopefully with his passing they’ll see fit to correct that mistake.
I don’t think too many people know this song. I know it jumped out at me, along with “Sentimental Lady,” when I bought my old vinyl copy of Bare Trees years ago. With luck, it’ll stand out to you, too.
I’m going to start a new writing project here, and I hope you will enjoy it. Here’s the idea: I’ll choose an artist, listen to their entire discography to date in order of release, and write a little something about each release. Simple.
I have a few reasons for taking this approach. The most…
As I said in my notes for Volume 5, the early 1970s were progressive rock’s heyday in the U.K. On the two 1971 volumes, you’ll see a lot of new bands, mixed in with a healthy sprinkling of old friends. This was a fluid scene, and we’ll see some of the turnover in the way musicians who might have appeared on the last volume in one band are now popping up here in another.
Another thing that the next several volumes will explore is the ways in which the initial prog explosion generally affected rock in the U.K. Not everything here is some symphonic odyssey (or odessey, if you prefer) or jazz-rock jam. There are selections like Still Life’s “Don’t Go,” which sounds a bit like Faces going slightly prog. Not every band in the U.K. adopted progressive rock, obviously, but the genre’s ascendance kicked down a lot of doors, and I don’t want to ignore the crossovers and attempts to cross over.
Electric Light Orchestra might be the ultimate prog crossover, but the massive commercial success the achieved under the leadership of Jeff Lynne was still to come. On their first LP (titled No Answer in the US after a telephone miscommunication), the band wasn’t Lynne’s playground yet. He still shared it with Roy Wood, and between the two of them, they arrived at a startling and highly original vision of orchestral rock. Make no mistake, ELO’s first album is bizarre, with none of the streamlined rock + strings =££££££ pop genius of their later years. First of all, the production puts everything in the red, from the guitars to the cellos to the oboes. It’s a loud, heavy record, but in the weirdest way possible, and every sound has a raw immediacy. “10538 Overture,” written by Lynne, is a lurching beast of a tune, sung in his most nasal head voice, and the open-wound hacking of Wood’s cello is matched by Bev Bevan’s caveman pounding on the drums and the occasional burst of hunting horn.
2. Audience: Jackdaw 7:28
From the Charisma LP The House on the Hill
A jackdaw is a type of bird common to Britain and much of the rest of Europe. They’re rather serious-looking. Howard Werth seems to be using it as a stand-in for a good-for-nothing freeloader here, though. Werth’s incredibly gritty lead vocal is one of the things that makes this song so incredibly absorbing, but it’s only one. The band’s flirtations with jazz during the long instrumental passage in the middle and generally interesting way with texture (the acoustic guitar set against Keith Gemmell’s harmonized sax lines, for example) set them apart, even on the Charisma label, with was also home to Van der Graaf Generator, another band that made tremendously inventive use of the sax. For their last two LPs, including this one, the band was joined by Gus Dudgeon on percussion—Dudgeon already had a long career as an engineer and producer for Decca, and would go on to work with Elton John at the height of his success, among many others.
3. Still Life: Don’t Go 4:37
From the Vertigo LP Still Life
Still Life formed in the late 60s and lasted for several years, though the band only ever managed one album for Vertigo (Vertigo releases generally had great artwork, and the gatefold on this one is particularly gorgeous). One thing I didn’t even notice the first time I listened to it is that they had no guitarist at all—everything one would have played is covered by keyboardist Terry Howells. If I had to come up with a hyphenate to describe their music, something along the line of roots-prog might do—part of the earthy feel of their music comes from Martin Cure’s lead vocals, which have shades of Rod Stewart around the edges. The band’s informal harmonies add to the effect. In a different era, these guys probably would have been playing straight blues rock.
4. Uriah Heep: Look at Yourself 5:09
From the Bronze LP Look at Yourself
Here’s another from the borderlands. Uriah Heep were a pioneering hard rock band, one of the handful that can legitimately be said to have helped invent heavy metal. They also had their heavy prog side, especially early on, recording their share of lengthy, organ driven workouts, with a healthy side of wizards, demons and other fantasy world creatures. Roger Dean even pitched in for a couple of album covers. Look At Yourself wasn’t one of them—it had a piece of reflective foil stuck to the front of it in a mirror frame so you could… look at yourself in the album cover. This song was a fair hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and it’s no wonder. It’s catchy, and for all its impressive guitar and organ pyrotechnics, it really moves. I think this is a good example of the myriad ways in which progressive rock had wider ripple effects through the British rock world in the early 70s.
5. Jan Dukes de Grey: Mice and Rats in the Loft 8:21
From the Transatlantic LP Mice and Rats in the Loft
Yorkshire-based Jan Dukes de Gray got their start in 1969 as an acid folk duo (and a very good one at that!), and their first LP, Sorcerers, is a fine example of that subgenre. For their second album, Derek Noy and Michael Bairstow added drummer Denis Conlan, ditched a lot of the more eclectic instrumentation of their debut, and turned in a wild, often thrilling follow-up that spreads just three loosely structured tracks over its two sides. The title track is the shortest and most direct of the three, riding Conlan’s frenzied percussion through a psychedelic hellstorm of squealing sax and distortion-drenched guitar. Noy’s vocals ride a line between singing and theatrical bellowing, and the thing never relents for even a second. It’s hard to maintain this kind of intensity over any time span—they do it or more than eight minutes, and it’s a must-hear.
6. Motiffe: Analogy 6:17
From the Deroy LP …Motiffe
Motiffe were a pretty basic jazz-rock group, but they were a talented one—flautist Ian Wilson and guitarist John Grimaldi were both excellent soloists, and the rhythm section was strong too. Their talent never led to a record deal, though, and their lone album was a private press affair that’s nonetheless developed a decent and deserved reputation over the years. The only unfortunate thing about the album is that, in 1971, affordable recording equipment wasn’t quite what it is today, and the record’s fidelity is pretty low, which is definitely not typical for a prog release. That doesn’t prevent it from being enjoyable, though, and the waltzing “Analogy” is a particular standout, with a good sense of dynamics, especially when Mick Avery’s electric piano takes over in the second half.
7. Kevin Ayers: There Is Loving/Among Us/There Is Loving 7:23
From the Harvest LP Whatevershebringswesing
Kevin Ayers was there at the birth of the Canterbury scene, joining the Wilde Flowers early and going on to co-found the Soft Machine. He wasn’t exactly a local, though. He’d grown up for much of his childhood in Malaysia, an experience that caused him to leave Britain for sunnier climes often later in his career. He wrote most of his first solo album in Ibiza, for instance. By the time of Whatevershebringswesing, he’d developed a unique personality on record, one as prone to whimsy and a good musical joke as it was to experimentation and sophisticated composition. This three parter ranks among his most ambitious album tracks, and it skims what it wants from several genres, taking care to step on all the cracks in between. At 3 minutes, it sounds as though it’s going to transform from an off-kilter small chamber work into an all-out Isaac Hayes soul epic, but instead it boils down instead of boiling over, and finds its way back to oddball orchestration. Ayers remained active right through the 80s, and recently returned after a long layoff.
8. Kingdom Come: No Time + Internal Messenger 6:15
From the Polydor LP Galactic Zoo Dossier
After his Crazy World band fell apart with the loss of Carl Palmer and Vincent Crane, Arthur Brown put together a new crew that could take him places just as wild as the ones he’d been hanging out in. Kingdom Come’s debut is patchy, but it has several awesome heavy prog tracks that carry traces of the blue and psych that colored the Crazy World albums. And of course, there’s Brown’s eternally freaked-out voice, leading the way with yelps and shouts into the cosmic void. Crane replacement, Michael Harris does some wonderful things on the organ here, not only in his lead playing, but also to accent the many shifts in the track’s direction. By this point, Brown had lost the shock factor that helped catapult him to fame in the late 60s. Kingdom Come kept him in the the hunt, and ultimately became the vehicle for some of his best music.
9. Fuzzy Duck: Country Boy 6:04
From the MAM LP Fuzzy Duck
Speaking of bands that retained a bit of the heavy blues of the late 60s proto-prog years, here’s Fuzzy Duck, yet another one-shot group (this one with terrible album art that nonetheless gave the band its name). Most of the band members were vets—organist Roy Sharland came from a late version of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, drummer Paul Francis had played in early hard rock band Tucky Buzzard, and bassist Mick Hawksworth was coming off the breakup of Andromeda. Guitarist/vocalist Graham White fit right in with them, and their album is a pleasingly heavy and relatively straightforward prog outing, though it still loves its tempo changes and sophisticated lead playing. The band was short-lived. Paul Francis had the most prominent career afterward, joining Tranquility, a pop-rock band with the occasional progressive flourish (their “Couldn’t Possibly Be” is a personal favorite).
10. Wishbone Ash: Vas Dis 4:46
From the MCA LP Pilgrimage
Wishbone Ash were among the best of the huge crop of hard rock groups that arose as the last major wave of psych receded. Led by the twin-guitar attack of Andy Powell and Ted Turner, they played in a complex, heavily prog-tinged style with occasional forays into classical structures and mythology-based lyrics. This song, the opener of their second album, actually shines as bright a spotlight on the band’s crack rhythm section of bassist Martin Turner (no relation to Ted) and drummer Steve Upton. Turner is the engine of this song, with its odd wordless vocal and deep groove. We’ll hear form these guys again on a later volume.
11. Spring: Gazing 5:51
From the RCA/Neon LP Spring
For every band that released one album and promptly found the exit, it seems there’s another that managed to squeeze out two and do the same. Spring fall in that category, and their first LP is a good one, following somewhat in the footsteps of the Moody Blues, albeit with a guitarist much more firmly rooted in the blues. Still, that guitarist and two other members played Mellotron, and the instrument is pivotal in defining the overarching texture of the album—if you love the swelling sound of that instrument, you’ll find plenty to like on this LP. “Gazing” is a pretty good representative of the band’s range and overall sound.
12. Dr. Z: Summer for the Rose 4:36
From the Vertigo LP Three Parts to My Soul “Spiritus, Manes et Umbra”
There were a lot of bass-drums-keys trios roaming the prog landscape by 1971—ELP were only the biggest. Where most keyboardists in those bands preferred the Hammond organ and maybe flirted with the Moog, Keith Keyes seems to have preferred the harpsichord, a predilection that gives the band an instantly distinctive sound on its only album. Keyes’ reedy vocals are actually a strong match for the harpsichord, and the band manages a fairly heavy sound in spite of being led by two rather delicate instruments. Keyes was a professor, and his lyrics put a decidedly intellectual twist on the usual mysticism and brotherly love themes (I also like his appropriation of terms from the Catholic mass, such as “kyrie eleison”). This was released on Vertigo, but in a ludicrously tiny run of less than a hundred copies. It’s been rescued from oblivion many times by reissue labels, though, and it’s one of the most fun U.K. prog obscurities I’ve come across.
13. Egg: Contrasong 4:25
From the Deram LP The Polite Force
Egg was also a keys-bass-drums trio, though Dave Stewart fell pretty thoroughly in the organ-and-synth camp. One important thing to note about Egg is that it was a very democratic band, with compositions and ideas contributed by all. Bassist/vocalist Mont Campbell wrote a lot of their material. We heard from them earlier, playing a light, airy version of a Bach fugue—“Contrasong” is a very different animal, riding a sinister odd-metered groove bolstered by a taut horn arrangement. It’s also a concise distillation of what a lot of the very best progressive rock did, presenting lopsided, ambitious material in a memorable and accessible way. Egg made one final album before splitting, but it wasn’t nearly the last we heard from any of the members, all of whom moved on to other groups after the split (and in Stewart’s case, before the split—he’d already joined Hatfield & the North).
14. Atomic Rooster: Tomorrow Night 4:00
From the B&C LP Death Walks Behind You
Vincent Crane had to completely rebuild Atomic Rooster to record the band’s second album after the departure of bassist/vocalist Nick Graham and drummer Carl Palmer. He did pretty well for himself, recruiting drummer Paul Hammond from The Farm and guitarist/vocalist John Du Cann from Andromeda. The resulting LP, Death Walks Behind You, is an early prog touchstone, with a heavy sound and, thanks to Hammond, an unusually funky underpinning. Du Cann’s vocals fit nicely with Crane’s organ work, though anyone who’s heard Andromeda will likely lament that his guitar is kept on a much shorter leash in this band. With the addition of vocalist Pete French, this lineup lasted for one more album, until Crane had to completely rebuild the band again—that version of the band moved sharply away from its prog rock origins into boogie and hard rock and frankly just wasn’t as interesting as the early versions of the band.
15. Fields: A Place to Lay My Head 3:41
From the CBS LP Fields
How many one-album bands can we fit on a single UK Prog volume? A lot, apparently, and here’s one more. Fields didn’t come out of nowhere like Dr. Z, though. They were lead by former Rare Bird keyboardist Graham Field, and included former King Crimson drummer Andy McCullough as well. Bassist/guitarist/vocalist Alan Barry rounded out the group, and much like Still Life their sound fell somewhere in the wide swath of grey between prog and more conventional strains of rock and roll. “A Place To Lay My Head” even carries shades of gospel in its chord progression, though the strange rhythm on the coda knocks it pretty firmly back into progland. Fields had a tough time forcing CBS to release its album, and the strain broke the band up. McCullough found his way to the drum chair in Greenslade, while the others made their way backstage and did session work.
16. Comus: Diana 4:34
From the Dawn LP First Utterance
We’ve heard the magisterial prog-folk of Fairport Convention and Pentangle, but neither will quite prepare you for the batshit crazy prog-folk of Comus. “Diana” has a chorus worthy of a pop song, but everything else about it is off the rails. That this band, whose music seethes with aggressive sensuality, was named for a masque by John Milton written in praise of chastity will never make sense to me. The tweaked, jittery vocals of Roger Wootton and Bobbie Watson are just the most noticeably weird element of the song. Check out Andy Hellaby’s bass line at the beginning, for instance, or Glen Goring’s slide guitar. Rob Young was usually the band’s oboist and flautist, but here he contributes the hand drums that underpin Colin Pearson’s pulse-quickening violin break. And this is not nearly the wildest song on the album—in fact, it’s probably the most accessible. The band didn’t quite make it out of this alive; when they finally reconvened for a second album in 1974, only three of the original six members remained.