Olivia Tremor Control: “The Opera House” (Dusk at Cubist Castle, 1997)
I’m not sure what to say here. I just saw that Bill Doss passed away, and I can’t quite get my head around that. I just saw him a couple weeks ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and he seemed healthy and energetic. He was only 43. What an awful thing for his friends and family.
Doss’ first band, Olivia Tremor Control, and the Elephant Six Collective he and that band helped found, made some of the most formative music for a generation of indie rock kids. their two LPs, Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, were crazily inventive, beautifully recorded albums, and moreover, ever time I go back and listen to them, I’m blown away by the quality of the songwriting.
These guys could have been content with studio tinkering and covering their songs in flanger, but Doss and his main songwriting partner, Will Cullen Hart, weren’t content to have a sound—they knew it wouldn’t amount to much if they didn’t have songs, too. “Hideaway,” “California Demise,” “Can You come Down With Us,” “Jumping Fences”… these are some of the best songs of the late 90s, period.
And there’s also “The Opera House,” which is one of my favorite album openers ever. From the first tickle of guitar, it feels like it’s ready to take on a voyage, and then it does. I can’t think of too much other music that surges like “Opera House. This song is positively stuffed with sounds, but it’s never chaotic. All of those seemingly random synthesizer phrases and bursts of tape noise contribute directly to the song’s momentum. I can’t even imagine constructing this; it must have been incredibly hard work. try not to feel energized when they sing “we feel okay!”
It was work Doss did happily, and we’re the ones who got to benefit from it. Bill Doss is gone. I can hardly believe it. I’ll be listening to this a lot today.
U.K. Prog, Volume 14: 1974b Close to the Sun (Notes)
Our second 1974 volume is no less wide-ranging than the first, but it is also a bit more accessible, particularly to people not already well-attuned to the conventions and anti-conventions of the cluster of genres we call progressive rock. We still have three epics that outlast ten minutes and some hair-raising passages, but we’re not going down and Henry Cow or Yes-like rabbit holes here.
In fact, more so than on any previous volume, you should be able to hear the early hints of connection to a similarly nebulous later genre, post-punk, particularly on the offerings of King Crimson, Roxy Music and Brian Eno. People like to think of punk as a line drawn where prog ends, but it’s way more complicated than that, and if you dig around, you’ll find that prog and post-punk are as connected as they are distinct from each other.
We’ll see some more of those connections on future volumes, but in the meantime, we have some organ and grand piano solos to attend to, as well as late work by a veteran of the British Invasion, and just a bit of Renaissance Faire fare. Enjoy.
The Neutrons recorded two albums in the mid-70s; Black Hole Star was the debut. The band was a brainchild of keyboardist Phil Ryan and bassist Will Youatt, who had played together in Pete Brown’s Piblokto!, Man, and an earlier, go-nowhere group called Iolworth Pritchard and the Neutrons. Youatt and Ryan left Man in 1973, and put the Neutrons together from old friends and former bandmates, including former Incredible String Band violinist Stuart Gordon and Gentle Giant drummer John “Pugwash” Weathers, with whom Ryan had played in The Eyes of Blue in the late 60s (The Eyes of Blue made one pretty proggy album called Bluebell Wood in 1971 under the new name Big Sleep). The band’s melodic prog-psych style definitely had commercial potential for its time, but like Man, didn’t manage a breakthrough. “Living in the World Today” features some fantastic synth work from Ryan, as well as interesting vocal interplay between Youatt and Ryan (listen to it on headphones—they’re singing from opposite speakers). The Neutrons broke up in 1975, and Ryan made his way back to Man, but the band imploded in 1976, and he returned to working with Pete Brown—he’s doing soundtracks in Denmark these days.
2. Renaissance: Mother Russia 9:20
From the BTM LP Turn of the Cards
Renaissance had a convoluted history, having started as Keith Relf and Jim McCarty’s post-Yardbirds project and evolved through a head-spinning series of lineup changes into a completely different band. By the time of Turn of the Cards, the lineup had finally settled into a quintet featuring guitarist/composer Michael Dunford, bassist John Camp, drummer Terrence Sullivan, pianist John Tout, and powerful vocalist Annie Haslem. Along with lyricist Betty Thatcher, this is now considered by most to be the “classic” Renaissance lineup, though in its day, it was largely ignored by the UK rock press, building a bigger following in the US and especially the Northeast. “Mother Russia” is the album’s powerhouse closer and a good distillation of the classic Renaissance sound, with strong interplay between the band and the elaborate full-orchestra arrangements of Jimmy Horowitz, which here briefly quote Joaquín Rodrigo’s 1939 “Concierto de Aranjuez”. The song is based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which takes place in a brutal Stalin-era Siberian labor camp. The three-album run from Ashes Are Burning through Turn of the Cards to Scheherezade and Other Stories is Renaissance’s peak and a pretty much obligatory part of any well-curated prog collection.
3. Wolf: Black September 4:51
From the Deram LP Night Music
Darryl Way’s Wolf lasted just two years, but produced three solid albums of very accessible, violin-driven prog. The last of these, Night Music, is the most accomplished and sends the band out on a high note. “Black September” is, to me, the song that probably should have put Wolf on the pop charts—John Hodgkinson joined the original quartet on vocals for this album, and he gives them a warm, pop-friendly counterpart to Way’s intense violin leads. In fact, outside of his brief showcase three minutes into “Black September,” Way mostly sticks to electric piano on this song. When Wolf split after this album, Way briefly returned to his previous band, Curved Air, and then became something of a journeyman, playing briefly with Jethro Tull, Trace, and Gong before going solo. The other members remained active, too; bassist Derek Messacar joined first Caravan and then Strawbs, guitarist John Etheridge joined Soft Machine, and drummer Ian Mosley played in Trace and with Steve Hackett before joining Britain’s pre-eminent neo-prog band, Marillion, in 1984.
4. Jethro Tull: Sealion 3:41
From the Chrysalis LP War Child
Outside of their two single-track LPs, 1972’s Thick as a Brick and 1973’s A Passion Play, which I couldn’t very well feature on these compilations, War Child is Jethro Tull’s most overtly proggy album, featuring a lot of songs with wildly contrasting sections and complicated riffing. “Sealion” is the most compact example of this, blasting through nasty guitar/flute riffs, orchestrated verses, a bit of tipsy circus music, and a sort of Renaissance-y instrumental interlude in under four minutes. Jethro Tull is often thought of as Ian Anderson’s playground, and it mostly was, but the rest of the band deserves a lot of credit for the sound of War Child, keeping a song that could have easily gone out of control tight and concise.
5. Hatfield & the North: Son of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton’ 10:11
From the Virgin LP Hatfield & the North
The musicians who established Hatfield and the North in 1972 were already Canterbury veterans. Guitarist Phil Miller had played in Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole, his keyboardist brother Steve was fresh off a stint in Caravan, Pip Pyle was the original drummer for Gong, and bass/vocalist Richard Sinclair had also been in Caravan. They took their name from a London road sign directing motorists to the A1, which led to The North, via Hatfield. By the time they made their first album, Steve Miller was gone, replaced by Egg’s Dave Stewart, whose distinctive buzzy synthesizers also became a signature of his new band. The group’s albums have similar structures to the early Soft Machine records, with lots of short tracks flowing into one another and surrounding a handful of extended pieces. “Son of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton’” is one of the extended pieces on their self-titled debut, and it typifies a distinctively Canterbury style of mostly instrumental rock that’s not quite fusion but not quite anything else either. The quietly woozy interlude features the voice of former Syporgyra lead singer Barbara Gaskin, and former Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh plays sax.
6. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: Earth Hymn 6:20
From the Bronze LP The Good Earth
South African-born keyboardist Manfred Mann and the band named for him had a couple of huge, enduring hits in the 60s with their covers of The Exciters’ “Doo-Wah-Diddy” and Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn” (and a third UK #1 with “Pretty Flamingo,” which has been relatively forgotten). By the end of that decade, though, Mann himself was in different waters, leading the experimental jazz-rock group Manfred Mann Chapter Three. When that band broke up, Mann immediately put together a new one, which would become the Earth Band. The band got started at a break-neck pace, releasing four albums in two years. The Good Earth was their fifth, and solidified the heavier prog direction they’d struck out in on the previous LP, 1973’s Solar Fire, which included an adaptation of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter.” “Earth Hymn” begins life as a deliberately paced, atmospheric, and almost funky song led by the vocals and guitar of Mick Rogers, but it shifts dramatically for its long instrumental coda, which is dominated by Mann’s zig-zagging Moog solos. We’ll visit with Mann again on a later volume.
7. Caravan: For Richard 14:18
From the Deram LP Caravan & the New Symphonia
A lot of prog bands made albums with orchestras—Procol Harum, Deep Purple, The Moody Blues, The Nice, Italy’s New Trolls and Dutch group Ekseption all spring to mind—and most of them justify with “with orchestra” billing by really doing something with the orchestra to give the band’s music a different dimension. Caravan’s album with the New Symphonia is one of these—the original LP featured the portion of a concert featuring both the band and the orchestra; the remaster appends the portion of the show featuring only the band. “For Richard” was a staple of the band’s live show, often closing their set, and this 14-minute take is the definitive version, rising from a quiet intro to a long, bombastic, and totally entertaining conclusion complete with fake-out ending. Electric violist Geoffrey Richardson pretty much steals the show in between with his range-y lead playingand aggressive solo. Leave it to Caravan as well to be the prog band that recorded with an orchestra and still managed to sound oddly humble about it.
8. Brian Eno: Baby’s On Fire 5:20
From the Island LP Here Come the Warm Jets
There are few figures in popular music as variously accomplished as Brian Eno, who’s had his fingers in all kinds of pies, from producing straight-up pop-rock albums to recording his own challenging rock records and ambient music to creating sound-art installations. He’s such a singular figure that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that he got his start as the keyboardist for Roxy Music, standing in the shadow of Bryan Ferry, though Eno’s flamboyant get-ups for the band’s photo shoots certainly drew the eye to him. Eno was never meant to be a member of a band, though, and he left Roxy Music after two albums, though he brought most of the band along for his solo debut—everyone but Ferry played on it, as did members of King Crimson, Matching Mole, Hawkwind, and the Pink Fairies, as well as solo artist and session guitarist Chris Spedding, who later was the producer of the Sex Pistols’ first demo recordings. The guitarist here, though, is Robert Fripp, who tears open the middle of “Baby’s on Fire with an absolutely obliterating solo that may be the least reserved thing he ever played. Eno’s lyrics are notable for how literally they take the song’s title—it is actually about a baby on fire and the reaction of clueless observers.
9. Gryphon: Ethelion 5:14
From the Transatlantic LP Midnight Mushrumps
A lot of bands played music that referenced Medieval and Renaissance music in the early 70s, but few of them committed to it the way Gryphon did. The band’s early albums are loaded with krumhorn, recorder, and bassoon and take compositional cues from ancient European folk music, twisting it into a somewhat more recognizable rock shape. The band released two albums in 1974; to be honest, the synthesizer-dominated Red Queen to Gryphon Three irritates me like few other albums do, but Midnight Mushrumps is earthier and more organic, and at least to my ears, this makes its jaunty instrumental themes a lot easier to take. “Ethelion” is the most endearing track on the album, with its sweeping, triple-meter melody and constantly shifting instrumentation. The band moved away from this sound on their last two albums before splitting in 1977. Most of the members went on to session work, soundtracks or theater music, but multi-instrumentalist Dave Oberlé went in a slightly less predictable direction when he helped found Kerrang!, a magazine devoted to hard rock.
10. Roxy Music: Triptych 3:09
From the Polydor LP Country Life
This is among the strangest little songs on Roxy Music’s already pretty strange early albums, and it follows pretty smoothly on from the Medieval stylings on Gryphon. Featuring, as it does, some especially archaic-sounding oboe from Andy Mackay, harpsichord, and an oddball choral passage, it’s hard not to hear this as the band’s nod to their baroque ‘n’ roll contemporaries, and perhaps their subtle message that they could do it just a bit better. The band had always teetered on a line between pop and prog, and they began to tilt more definitively toward pop after Country Life.
11. King Crimson: Starless 12:19
From the Island/E’G LP Red
King Crimson reached this point by traveling a tangled road that saw the band completely re-invented three times by guitarist Robert Fripp. In 1972, Fripp recruited percussionist Jamie Muir (Sunship and Derek Bailey), drummer Bill Bruford, who left Yes at the height of their early success to join the band, violinist/keyboardist David Cross, and bassist John Wetton, who had a lengthy resume including stints with Mogul Thrash and Family, and a ton of session work, including an appearance on former King Crimson bassist Gordon Haskell’s 1971 album It Is and It Isn’t. This band, which had lost Muir by the time Red was recorded, was a much more muscular and focused band than the lineups that preceded it, and its three albums are among King Crimson’s finest—together, they are perhaps the band’s creative peak. “Starless,” the final song on Red, is very nearly a summary of where the band had been to that point, opening with Mellotron-soaked verses and tightly controlled lead guitar from Fripp, but shifting to a long instrumental after the final refrain. That instrumental is a monumental piece of working, starting with a long, slow and dissonant climb anchored by Fripp’s nagging guitar part and Wetton’s nasty bass tone before climaxing in an explosion of saxophone (played by original Crimson member Ian McDonald). The wild, uptempo section that follows is a total thrill, and the slow recapitulation of the verse, with the melody played by former Crimso Mel Collins ends things with a finality that practically demanded that the band break up. And it did, until Fripp revived it in the 1980s. It would take a long time to discuss everything Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford did after Red, but suffice to say, they’ve all been quite successful, and this won’t be the last we hear from any of them in this series.
1. The Neutrons: Living in the World Today 6:14 2. Renaissance: Mother Russia 9:20 3. Wolf: Black September 4:51 4. Jethro Tull: Sealion 3:41 5. Hatfield & the North: Son of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton’ 10:11 6. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: Earth Hymn 6:20 7. Caravan: For Richard 14:18 8. Brian Eno: Baby’s On Fire 5:20 9. Gryphon: Ethelion 5:14 10. Roxy Music: Triptych 3:09 11. King Crimson: Starless 12:19
Gentle Giant: “Proclamation” (The Power and the Glory, 1974)
I don’t know how many times I watched The Jeffersons as a kid, but it must have been a lot, because I can sing you the whole theme song without even thinking about it, and the character of George Jefferson in particular is wandering around in the back of my brain, doing a crazy little dance where his upper body stays mostly still while his legs go crazy.
The man who played George Jefferson, Sherman Hemsley, died yesterday, and reading obituaries, I learned a lot about him. For instance, I had no idea that he shared my love of 70s progressive rock. And it’s not as though he had a couple yes albums. He was into Nektar and Gong, knew the music in detail, and even made an unreleased album with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson (Hemsley was an accomplished keyboardist).
YouTube is a never-ending font of amazing cultural tidbits, but one that’s not up there is Hemsley’s appearance on Dinah Shore’s talk show, during which he performed a dance routine to Gentle Giant’s “Proclamation.”
I wish it was, because I’d love to see what a person who was passionate about this music and also a really good dancer (really, his George Jefferson dance was meant to be comical, but it takes some skill to move like that) would have come up with to match it, especially around the three-and-a-half minute mark when the rhythm shifts and the beat drops out in favor of some grinding stop-time guitar work.
Up to that point, I can really see moving to this, though. The verses are funky, with some great backing vocals (vocals being a general strength of Gentle Giant), and unusual instrumental choices. And it does come back strong on the last verse—I suppose whatever dance one might do in the middle section would be interpretive to some degree.
Hawaiian Beach Combers (featuring King Bennie Nawahi): “Honolulu Bound” (78—possibly issued on Paloma, 1928)
A lot of the sound of modern American country music can be traced to India. It was Indian guitarists who first introduced the technique of slide playing to Hawaii, and it was Hawaiian guitarists that popularized the sound in the early 20th Century. When it first caught on big in country and western string bands in the 30s, it was often referred to as Hawaiian guitar.
There were a handful of great early Hawaiian slide players that helped spread the style. Sol Ho’opi’i, Sam Ku West, Joseph Kekuku, and Frank Ferera were all among the greats, and perhaps their most formidable competitor was King Bennie Nawahi. He actually got the “King ” in his name for his prowess on the ukelele, but it was just as apt for his slide playing, which was agile and brilliantly melodic.
Nawahi was born in Honolulu in 1899, long before Hawaii brought the count of states up to a nice, even 50, but his career brought his the mainland early on. He recorded with a lot of different groups, and when he cut this rollicking ragtime number in 1928, he was about as far from Hawaii as it’s possible to get and still be in the country, living in Boston.
Among the many other musicians he played with around this time were future members of the Sons of the Pioneers, the pioneering country band best known now for the eternal classic “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” While Nawahi had ridden a proverbial wave of fascination with all things Hawaii in the 1920s, he saw work fall off in the early years of the Depression, as did many musicians. In 1935, he went suddenly blind but continued performing and recording, switching to electric guitar in the mid-30s.
He also had a sideline as a long-distance swimmer and once swam the 26-mile channel between Santa Catalina and San Pedro, which is impressive enough even if you don’t consider that he was blind when he did it.
Nawahi lived to be 85, and by the time of his death, the steel guitar sound he helped spread had evolved into an integral part of country music, and it could even be heard playing across the top of juju grooves in Nigeria. Together with the bottleneck style developed by blues players in the Mississippi Delta, it had helped make modern popular music what it is.
To this point, with a few exceptions, I’ve largely steered away from including long, winding tracks on these prog compilations in favor of shorter tracks that allow me to cram more into each mix and touch on a lot of artists. Well, it’s 1974 now, and the prog herd has thinned, even as new bands came on the scene with fair regularity. And I thought of making things easier on myself and just doing one volume for 1974, but then it hit me: if I did two volumes, I could include some of the epic tracks I’ve been avoiding so far.
Long songs are, after all, an important part of the flavor of 70s progressive rock. They even became a sort of quest and a signifier to fans. “This album has two thirteen-minute songs, maybe I should check it out,” is something just about every prog fan has said.
We are, to some degree, okay with being punished for our eagerness. We know that most side-long tracks are horrible or only intermittently likable, and yet we seek them out like grails, in the hope that we may be the ones to find a hidden “Echoes” or “Close to the Edge.” Typically, we don’t, but the hunt is fun.
This small kind of quest is integral to being a music fan—wonks for any genre have the things they look for. Prog fans look for epics. It helps explain why themes of fantasy and exploration are so integral to the genre. Our epic stories need epic housing, and prog is musical escapism at least as much as exotica. Some prog is exotica, just taking itself a little more seriously.
This volume has three songs tipping the scales at over ten minutes. Enjoy the journey.
This UK Prog volume is not the friendliest for non-progheads, what with the lengthy songs and lots of twisty instrumental passages, but it opens with the cuddliest offering. Supertramp are best known today for a series of buoyant pop hits they had in the late 70s, and especially their Breakfast in America LP, but on their first few albums they were heavily influenced by the progressive sounds of the early 70s. The band had an unusual background. Rick Davies had played in a mostly Dutch band called The Joint, which was funded by Dutch millionaire Stanley Miesengaes, and in 1969, Miesengaes pulled his funding and told Davies to get a new band together. So he placed an ad in Melody Maker and got responses from drummer Keith Baker, guitarist Richard Palmer-James and guitarist/vocalist Roger Hodgson, who switched to bass. Palmer-James was the band’s initial lyricist, but left after their 1970 debut album and wound up the contributing lyricist for Robert Fripp’s mid-70s version of King Crimson.
That left the songwriting duties to Davies and Hodgson, and by 1974, the band was floundering. They hadn’t released an album since 1971, a huge gap by the standards of the day, and Davies and Hodgson had completely rebuilt the band. The album they made, Crime of the Century, vaulted them out of obscurity, and the single drawn from it, “The Dreamer” b/w “Bloody Well Right” was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, with Britain preferring the a-side and Americans responding to the b-side. The LP as a whole did well, too, and is one of the better examples of mainstream prog. There are long instrumental tangents, sure, but it’s all presented quite palatably, and cut with humor and a lot of foregrounded melody. “School” was the leadoff track, and it features the band’s early co-frontman style, with Davies and Hodgson trading off vocals.
2. Henry Cow: Ruins 12:11
From the Virgin LP Unrest
And now, if you’ll pivot with me a full 180 degrees, we’re going to spend twelve full minutes back in the underground with Henry Cow. We’ve heard from them once before, and here, their vision of a sort of chamber/jazz/rock/avant garde ensemble has fully crystallized into something unique and not a little bizarre. The band had been touring with Virgin labelmates Faust and had recruited classical oboist/bassoonist Lindsay Cooper to bring their sound further out of the rock mold, and indeed, they don’t ask him to conform to any conventions of rock, instead modulating their approach to meet him on his own territory. Chris Cutler never really plays a beat on his drums, Fred Frith spends as much time sawing a violin and playing xylophone as he does with his guitar, Tim Hodgkinson also plays a carousel of keyboards and woodwinds, and bassist John Greaves never settles into a pattern. “Ruins” was a studio composition written to complete the album, and Frith took a cue from Bèla Bartók, basing the rhythms and melodies on Fibonacci numbers (sequences such as 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 to give the most basic example). Henry Cow’s most lasting contribution to avant garde music came a few years later, when they organized the Rock in Opposition concert and subsequently established the RIO charter, which aimed to support bands that labored on the fringes, playing music inspired by local folk traditions and modern composition. The other bands on the original RIO bill were France’s Etron Fou Leloublon, Sweden’s Samla Mammas Manna, Italy’s Stormy Six and Belgium’s Univers Zero.
3. Yes: Sound Chaser 9:31
From the Atlantic LP Relayer
When they reconvened to make Relayer, Yes were down a keyboardist, Rick Wakeman having left in the wake of Tales from Topographic Oceans, the band’s ambitious and deeply flawed four-song double album. They brought in Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz, who had a very different style from Wakeman and preferred a different range of tones, and rather than backing down from the crazy ambition of their previous project, they went further down the rabbit hole. Relayer is only one LP, but its three tracks are among the craziest and wildest the band ever made. In some ways, it’s a totally hideous record, full of clanging percussion, whiplash rhythmic shifts, bizarre vocal passages, arrhythmic, ambiguously tonal breakdowns, and thorny tangles of grotesquely complex instrumental interplay. “Sound Chaser,” the first of the two “short” songs on side two, encapsulates all of that in nine punishing minutes. Roger Dean’s cover painting depicts a trio of tiny warriors on horseback traveling through a strange and vast landscape while a threatening snake looms in the foreground, and listening to the album, it’s easy to feel like those warriors, lost in a strange and dangerous place, just trying to stay alive until you get through it.
4. Gravy Train: Staircase to the Day 7:31
From the Dawn LP Staircase to the Day
Okay, let’s come down a bit from the Henry Cow and Yes tracks. Gravy Train’s Staircase to the Day also had a Roger Dean album cover (this one featuring some sort of flying dragon-frog that also appears to have pubic hair), but it’s considerably more approachable with its more traditional symphonic prog sound. There’s comforting Mellotron, a beautiful flute melody, vocals from Norman Barratt with just a hint of bluesy grit, and a great, sweeping conclusion with hints of both a choir and an orchestra courtesy the aforementioned Mellotron. This was Gravy Train’s last of four albums. The band had been around since 1969, trying for a breakout that never came. Along the way, they recorded for two of progressive rock’s signature record labels, Philips’ Vertigo imprint and Dawn, which was owned by Pye Records.
5. Refugee: Grand Canyon Suite 16:58
From the Charisma LP Refugee
Bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison should have been contenders. They were the rhythm section for the Nice, the original prog rock band, but when Keith Emerson left to form Emerson Lake and Palmer, they never were able to recapture the momentum of their former band. Davison formed Brian Davison’s Every Which Way, which managed one album, and Jackson formed Jackson Heights. Jackson Heights made four albums from 1970 to 1973 with a revolving-door membership that at various points included Michael Giles and Ian Wallace, both of whom had drummed for King Crimson, and Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice. In 1974, Jackson finally reunited with the drummer he’d had the most successful collaboration with, Davison, and the two recruited Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz to form the trio Refugee. If you recognize the phrase “Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz” from the Yes blurb above, you probably already know where this is going. As a keys-bass-drums trio, Refugee bore obvious similarities to The Nice, and their one album sounds something like what that band might have arrived at had it stayed together. “Grand Canyon Suite” is the album’s big centerpiece, winding like the canyon itself through instrumental and vocal passages while never veering far from a focus on melody. It wasn’t to last: Moraz left to join Yes before the year was out. Davison played with Gong for a time, but both he and Jackson had retired from music by the time the decade was out.
6. Zzebra: Spanish Fly 4:21
From the Polydor LP Zzebra
Lovers of Roger Dean album art are often puzzled to come across the covers he did for Osibisa, a band comprised of Nigerian, Ghanian, and Caribbean immigrants to Britain—Dean is so associated with prog that it at first seems an odd fit. But Osibisa did have their proggy tendencies, and after he left the band, saxophonist Lasisi “Loughty” Amao joined a couple of former members of the horn-rock band If in Zzebra. Zzebra was at its base a fusion band, but the occasional reference you’ll find to the group as “Afroprog” isn’t entirely off-base. The band’s debut leans to the rock side of the fusion mix, and the horn arrangements definitely have an Afrorock inflection. It all makes Zzebra hard to classify, which is never a bad thing, really. “Spanish Fly” is the most gripping thing on an album where the instrumentals outclass the vocal tracks by a few safe miles.
7. Robert Wyatt: Alife 6:32
From the Virgin LP Rock Bottom
In 1973, Robert Wyatt was paralyzed from the waist down after falling drunk from a window during a party. The injury killed his then-current band, Matching Mole, but Wyatt, who had made his path as a drummer up to that point, refused to be kept down. He went into the studio with Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason producing and a host of friends, including Henry Cow’s Fred Frith, absurdist poet Ivor Cutler, Mike Oldfield, South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza former Soft machine bandmate Hugh Hopper, and Canterbury scene player Richard Sinclair, and emerged with Rock Bottom, a truly strange and unique piece of work. In a rock context, the album is like abstract expressionism, and “Alife” takes the abstraction a step further by running some of the vocals backward as the music proceeds down a dark and hazy path. The bits of jazz sax (played by Gary Windo) that pass through do so almost as if they got lost on the way to another piece of music, which is rather like what happened to Wyatt on the way to this album—he’d been ready to start work on Matching Mole’s third album, and instead he wound up here.
8. Barclay James Harvest: Paper Wings 4:16
From the Polydor LP Everyone Is Everybody Else
Barclay James Harvest are the quintessential crossover prog band. They played essentially straight rock, but adorned it at the edges with the keyboard drama of symphonic prog, and also structured their songs to take advantage of prog rock dynamics. You can hear that on “Paper Wings” when it shifts gears in the middle for the guitar solo/instrumental coda, which plays at a completely different tempo than the vocal half of the song. In various configurations, the band lasted right into the 1990s, and though they never achieved the breakout success of some of their contemporaries (they even released a song about it in 1977, called “The Poor Man’s Moody Blues”), they’ve achieved something like cult status among prog fans and have never wanted for an audience.
9. Hawkwind: Wind of Change 4:36
From the United Artists LP Hall of the Mountain Grill
Over the early 70s, Hawkwind cemented a well-deserved reputation as psychedelic warriors and basically mastered the art of jamming on one or two chords. In the mid-70s, though, the band started nudging itself in different directions. Hall of the Mountain Grill found them indulging in more fully developed compositions. “Wind of Change” features a veritable arsenal of synthesizers and a carefully controlled rhythm track, but its real centerpiece is the violin of new member Simon House, which unfurls in billows across the psychedelic tundra the band paints behind him. Hall of the Mountain Grill is undeniably a transition work for Hawkwind, but it has the distinction of showing them doing both things they hadn’t done before and things they wouldn’t do again, and it has more variety than most of their other albums as well. Barney Bubbles’ cover art, featuring a colossal, ruined spaceship nicely sums up the group’s science fiction vision of a world where technology hasn’t remotely alleviated our more base tendencies.
10. Camel: Lady Fantasy 12:44
From the Deram LP Mirage
If you were conduct an informal poll, say, on a London street, my guess is that very few people would know the music of Camel, but among prog fans, they’re often cited as a favorite. To be honest, I don’t count myself among those prog fans. A lot of Camel’s music leaves me cold, and I think that their instrumental music had an unfortunate tendency to meander. Their second album, though, is pretty great, and its twelve-minute closer, “Lady Fantasy,” is, to my ears, the best thing they ever did. The band came together in 1971, when Andrew Latimer, Andy Ward, and Doug Ferguson, who had been backing a local singer in Surrey, brought in keyboardist Peter Bardens, who had released a solo album and played in several group, including Shotgun Express, a band that also featured Rod Stewart, Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood (I wish they’d made an album). All of the strengths of the original quartet—rhythmic dexterity, compositional ambition, Latimer’s understated vocals, and an embrace of dissonance and tension—are present on “Lady Fantasy,” which passes through a suite-like series of different movements over nearly thirteen minutes. Here, you can catch all the edges that the band gradually sanded off over the course of the rest of their 70s output—Latimer’s guitar would never get quite as rough as it does on his solo at the four-minute mark here. We’ll hear from Camel again, but it’ll sound like a very different band when we do.
1. Supertramp: School 5:34 2. Henry Cow: Ruins 12:11 3. Yes: Sound Chaser 9:31 4. Gravy Train: Staircase to the Day 7:31 5. Refugee: Grand Canyon Suite 16:58 6. Zzebra: Spanish Fly 4:21 7. Robert Wyatt: Alife 6:32 8. Barclay James Harvest: Paper Wings 4:16 9. Hawkwind: Wind of Change 4:36 10. Camel: Lady Fantasy 12:44
Freddie Hubbard & İlhan Mimaroğlu: “Monodrama” (Sing Me a Song of Songmy, 1971)
İlhan Mimaroğlu is not a widely known name in electronic music and modern composition, but he was a musician of singular vision who managed to carve out a distinctive niche for himself. Born in Istanbul, he was the son of architect Mimar Kemaleddin Bey, the architect that helped define the building style of the early Turkish republic in the immediate post-Ottoman years.
Mimaroğlu left Turkey in his twenties to study music in New York and became part of the early wave of composers to experiment openly with tape manipulation, working with Edgard Varèse and studying under Vladimir Ussachevsky. Recordings of his work are available, often on CDs where one of his pieces is compiled with work by other composers, and tracing his career reveals quickly how interested he was in making politically tinged statements with his work.
His greatest statement may have been Sing Me a Song of Songmy, the powerful anti-war document he made with the late jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard in 1971. Mimaroğlu was the composer and producer on the project (he produced a fair number of jazz dates, actually, including a couple of Charles Mingus LPs), and was responsible for all the synthesizer and tape manipulations. It’s an incredibly forward thinking album, and I struggle to think of another jazz album from its era that sounds like it.
"Monodrama" is the moment of contemplative calm at the center of the album, which otherwise reflects the fury and sorrow inspired by the Vietnam War. If you like this, I encourage you to seek out the whole album (it’s available on CD paired with Hubbard’s Echoes album), and also to explore some of his longer electronic works, such as 1974’s To Kill a Sunrise, or 1975’s Tract: An Agitprop Composition for Electromagnetic Tape.
It’s looking like this will be a full week of obituary posts. Yesterday, we lost Turkish experimental composer Ilhan Mimaroglu (a tribute to him will come tomorrow), and keyboardist Jon Lord, who was the heart of Deep Purple and also played in Whitesnake and bunch of other bands.
For me, it’s his work in Deep Purple that stands out. Lord had studied classical piano since he was five, and when he formed Deep Purple in 1967 with Nick Simper, Rod Evans, Ritchie Blackmore and Ian Paice, he was already nearly a decade into a professional music career. He played in several blues bands, including the Artwoods, and made money as a session player while he tried to get an acting career off the ground. He was present at the arguable birth of hard rock, playing the piano part on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
In 1966, Lord briefly helmed an outfit of his own called Santa Barbara Machine Head, where he first experimented with the heavy organ sound he perfected in Deep Purple—the other members were future Faces and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood, future Pretty Things and Pink Fairies drummer “Twink” Alder, and Birds/Creation/future Badger bassist Kim Gardner, and it’s interesting to imagine what might have been if that band had persisted.
As it was, Lord met Simper while playing with the Flower Pot Men , and by the end of the year, Deep Purple was a going concern. It’s fascinating to pay particular attention to Lord as he finds his unique style over the course of the band’s first few albums. His playing still had a strong classical influence—and it was Lord who led the charge on the band’s experimentations with a full orchestra on its two 1969 LPs, Deep Purple and Concerto for Group and Orchestra.
Where Keith Emerson went full-on into classical rock, though, Lord embraced the blues playing of the bands he’d established himself with, and wound up with an interesting hybrid style that he made his own with his signature distorted Hammond organ tone. He was able to work as part of the rhythm section or as a soloist with that sound, and when he and Blackmore combined on a riff, they could just about take your head off.
In 1970, the band replaced Simper and Evans with Roger Glover and Ian Gillan and instantly got a lot heavier, becoming one of the first true hard rock bands—Lord’s classical background gave the band a progressive edge that grew stronger as he slowly embraced early synthesizers. He also kept a sporadic solo career going on the side that indulged his most openly classical ambitions.
When Deep Purple broke up in 1976, Lord and Paice formed Paice Ashton Lord with keyboardist/vocalist Tony Ashton, which was actually a quintet (Bernie Marsden and Paul Martinez didn’t get their names on the marquee), but the project only lasted long enough to produce a single album, 1977’s Malice in Wonderland, and Lord found himself back in the studio session world, a world he frequented even after joining Whitesnake in 1978 (he was pretty underutilized in Whitesnake anyway).
Deep Purple reunited several times, often in its full Mk. II configuration, and Lord finally quit the band in 2002 to focus on other projects, including a revival of his classical work. He’d been fighting pancreatic cancer and died of a pulmonary embolism yesterday. He was 71.
I struggled a little with which song to feature here, whether to go for a deep cut like “Shield” or “Speed King” or maybe a solo track from Sarabande or settle for something a little more obvious, and, well, the obvious songs are often obvious for a reason, so I wound up going with Deep Purple’s funk, catchy cover of Joe South’s “Hush,” which features a phenomenal organ solo from Lord that occupies almost the full last minute and a half of the song.
Before the solo, though, you can hear Lord trucking away as part of the rhythm section, using his organ to push the song along in a little game of push-and-pull with Nick Simper. This is the track that put Deep Purple on the popular map and helped make all of Lord’s orchestral experimentation possible—if they hadn’t sold records, their record company likely wouldn’t have indulged them. Lord was still figuring out his sound here, but his playing already had all of the dynamism and life that made him such an interesting keyboardist.
was the record store Planet Records? They had their fair share of bootlegs I think. Might even still be there, I'm not sure. It was circa 2003-2004.
It may have been Planet Records. I seem to remember it going out of business before I left Boston in 2002, though—if I recall correctly, it was actually raided for selling all those bootlegs. It was basically their whole stock. I got some good ones there. It’s definitely where my Verve boots came from.
One could rationalize why this song wasn’t included on OK Computer*. While it has the tight evocative precision of other OKC tracks, thanks to the J. Greenwood/O’Brien double tom bash (which was resurrected a few years later for “There There”) and vaguely market-in-Cairo intro, it veers away thematically. A Third World girl’s predilection for rich white tourists with oh so straight, blindingly bright teeth? Oh boy.
As a B-side, “Pearly” is a catchy and expertly constructed gem. Despite the impromptu sounding intro (the buzz of a guitar, the tentative shaker), you get the feeling that each part was finely honed on the road and that when they went in to record it, it just came cleanly and easily, no wasted takes. Listen to the interplay just past the two minute mark, the bottom drops out and it’s just Yorke going up to falsetto and a single guitar. Then a second guitar snakes in, around the vocal, setting up a fierce bass drum thump before everyone comes back in, each part different than the other but partnered beautifully, like exquisite choreography.
Here’s a live version. How I wish the cameraman had panned out to include O’Brien, who works hard for the money on this jam, covering second drums, vocals and ambient guitar.
* The Airbag/How Am I Driving EP is SO GOOD. Any of those songs could have easily sat on OK Computer had the rest of the tracklisting not been so strong. Perhaps “Palo Alto”, despite carrying the OK theme, was deemed too cheery sounding, with too much Bendsian guitar crunch, “Polyethylene, Parts I and II” too bare and direct, “A Reminder” too ambient, too much space, more of a stand alone, and so on. They sound fantastic though and each song resonates. A highly recommended purchase. (On Amazon: Airbag/How Am I Driving?)
The Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP was my introduction to Radiohead. I had not heard them (not even “Creep”), but I had heard a lot about them, and lots of mentions of Pink Floyd and Genesis in reviews of OK Computer, so I wanted to check them out. I went to my local Circuit City, and this EP was $7.99, so I sprang for it rather than a more expensive album. The title track just about took my head off (it’s still one of my favorite songs), but I also really loved “Pearly” and remember really digging “Meeting in the Aisle,” too.
The artwork stands out in my memory, too—I didn’t think any of the content was all that interesting, but I loved the effort that had gone into it. It was a hop, skip, and a jump to gobbling up the band’s whole discography from here, including a bootleg with all the Pablo Honey and Bends-era b-sides that I found at a place near Harvard Square that was mostly bootlegs—does anyone who lived there in the 90s remember what that place was called? It had a blue sign and was on the lower, below-ground level of a two-level shopping bloc.
The great session bassist Bob Babbitt lost his battle with brain cancer yesterday at age 74. Best known for his stint as part of Motown’s Funk Brothers studio band in the late 60s and early 70s, Babbitt actually had a career that went well beyond his contributions to Berry Gordy’s hit machine. He died in Nashville, the last in a string of cities he moved to to play in the local studio scene, and the last true bastion of the session musician.
Babbitt (born Robert Kreiner) didn’t begin his career in the studio. He began it in clubs, first in his hometown, Pittsburgh, PA, and then in Detroit, where he moved in the late 50s to play in a bigger scene. He joined a band called the Paragons, who soon changed their name to the Royaltones. It was with this band, whose ranks also included future Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey, that Babbitt first entered a studio.
The band played instrumental rock ‘n’ roll led by the saxophone of George Katsakis, and they scored several minor hits, the most notable of which were 1958’s “Poor Boy” (which I think was done before Babbitt joined), and 1960’s “Flamingo Express (The Flip).” “Tacos” was the b-side to “Flamingo Express,” and it’s a fun piece of early good-time rock and roll, falling somewhere in the same league with “Tequila.”
Babbitt played with the Royaltones, often as the backing band for Del Shannon, through 1964, when he moved on to studio work, though not at Motown. He cut sides for Golden World and other Detroit labels, and got a call from Motown first in 1967, when the original Funk Brothers bassist, the great James Jamerson, was battling alcoholism and becoming less reliable if no less brilliant musically.
Babbitt played on plenty of Motown hits, including the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” and you can tell his sound from Jamerson’s—Jamerson’s lines bounce through the chord progression, parrying with the melody, where Babbitt is usually more in the pocket, with a full-bodied low-end.
There’s some debate as to exactly which songs Babbitt may have played on versus Jamerson, and Babbitt has also disagreed with L.A. session whiz Carol Kaye over which one played on which Motown L.A. session, but regardless of the details, all three players were enormously influential and have their stamps all over popular music.
Babbitt moved to New York in the mid-70s, and can be heard on a lot of Philadelphia soul recordings as well—he also held down the bottom on albums by Alice Cooper, Gladys Knight & the Pips (before and after they left Motown), Freda Payne, Frank Sinatra, the Persuaders, the Spinners, and Robert Palmer. He was even in a short-lived rock band called Scorpion that released one album in 1969 before splitting up.
Babbitt will probably never be a household name, but his bass will be heard all over the world for a long time to come. You’ve heard it yourself a thousand times and maybe never even knew. That’s the life of a session musician. Babbitt lived a good one.
Irma Thomas: “Ruler of My Heart” (Minit 666, 1963)
The brutal truth of music—any art, really—is that being great guarantees nothing. Large-scale success comes only at the confluence of quality and other factors. Connections, work ethic, timing, promotion, dumb luck—they’re all just as important to making it as being able to do your thing as well as or better than anyone else.
Irma Thomas had all those things going for her when she began her recording career in the early 60s, except luck. Falling neatly between Etta James and Aretha Franklin in terms of her singing style, Thomas by all rights could have easily joined them at the top of the r&b heap if things had simply gone her way. It could have been as simple as the right radio station picking up the right single. As it was, she only managed a couple of minor national hits, and she instead became a fixture and figurehead of the music scene in her hometown, New Orleans.
That’s no small feat in itself—New Orleans is not wanting for prominent musical figures, after all. Apart from a short break in the early 80s, Thomas has recorded and performed steadily since her teens in the very late 50s, and she stayed true to New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina forced her out by driving her club out of business. After a few years away from the city, though, she’s now moved back, and she’s remained a major performer at the city’s music festivals all along, even at age 71.
Large scale success may have eluded Thomas, but in some ways that’s what’s allowed her to build a small-scale legacy that’s just as pleasing. Her old discography is still great, too. “Ruler of My heart” is my favorite recording of hers.
Jefferson Airplane: “Today” (Surrealistic Pillow, 1967)
This morning, I listened to Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow all the way through for the first time in years. Nothing in particular led me to do it; it had just been a while, and I was looking at the tracklist and trying to remember what “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and “D.C.B.A.-25” sounded like (turns out they’re both pretty great songs).
Back when I first bought the album, in 1999, the songs that really jumped out to me were the Grace Slick-led acid rock ravers, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” They were what I bought the album for in the first place—those and “Embryonic Journey,” Jorma Kaukonen’s crystalline acoustic guitar piece, which is still as gorgeous as ever. Aside from “Embryonic Journey,” though, the song that stood out to most this morning was this one, “Today.”
Probably because he was in a band whose biggest hits featured Slick’s powerful vocals, Marty Balin is something of an overlooked vocalist. I think he had a really great voice, though, particularly for this kind of low-key, folky material. He’s front-and-center in the mix here, the only thing in the whole song not recorded to sound as though it’s a mile and a half away. Even Slick’s backing vocal is set well off in the distance, leaving Balin alone and lonely in the foreground.
It’s a really nice use of production to emphasize the content of the song; it also has the effect of making a song called “Today” feel like a journey into the past.
Speaking of which, I actually remember the exact circumstance under which I bought this album. I was home for summer after my first year at college. During college, my wife and I lived several states apart year-round, and we’d alternate months flying to see each other. She had visited me in Connecticut for a long weekend, and I had just dropped her off at Bradley International Airport. It possible to take the freeway most of the way from my parents’ house to the airport, but I always preferred the backroad route that took me along 140 through Ellington and East Windsor.
East Windsor’s western edge is the Connecticut River, and the place where Route 140 crosses the river is located in the village of Warehouse Point, named for a shipping warehouse built in 1636 by the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, William Pynchon. This spot is located just below the last natural falls in the river; from there south, it’s a clear shot for an ocean-going vessel to the open sea.
Warehouse Point has a grocery store (still the locally-owned Geissler’s, the last time I drove through), a few places to eat, the Connecticut Fire Museum, a Trolley Museum my brother and I loved as kids, a couple banks, and plenty of house—it’s a true village. Back in 1999, it also had a record store. I may be misremembering this, but I think it was called The Disc. I’m positive that its small storefront shared a building with an ice cream place. It was across the street from what’s currently a karate academy.
I only ever went in there once, on that drive home from the airport, and the only thing I bought was a used copy of Surrealistic Pillow, for $8.99. It was the original CD issue, which had horrible sound and no liner notes. Actually, in place of notes it had an advertisement in the inner fold for other CD releases on RCA, including albums and greatest hits collections for Dolly Parton, Alabama, John Denver, Eurythmics, and Taco.
The front cover also includes an incredibly ugly RCA CD emblem in the lower left corner—when record companies first started issuing their old catalogs on CD, they rarely expended much effort on giving the buyer any extra value. Perhaps they thought the novelty of a new format was enough. They certainly thought that the new format was worth bragging about.
This kind of thing is one of the reasons I still love having a physical music collection (and I should note that the mp3 above is from a much later remaster of this album, which I have digitally). I can go through my shelves and find “Nice Price” stickers I never removed, occasional prices tags, advertisements for other releases, and notes from previous owners (this is especially true of my vinyl collection).
At one point, I had a drawer full of those inserts that record companies used to put in CD cases inviting you to order their catalog or send away to the band for more information—an oddly large number of British bands directed these messages to addresses in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. I assume there was a company there that handled these things for numerous artists or record companies.
I guess I might open the properties of an mp3 and find a note in the comments reminding me which blog originally posted the song for me to take it, but it’s not quite the same as a faded price tag building an association with and actual place where you once spent time. The Disc, or whatever it was called, is long gone. I don’t know what took its place. But I do remember the hand-made bins they kept their used CDs in, the tattered name cards that aided searchers, and the pull the store’s sign had on me every time I drove by all those years ago.
Instead of uploading Volume 12 you uploaded Volume 13
This is true! Oops. Thanks for alerting me. I’m going to amend the original post with the correct link, but for anyone who followed the link in my UK prog post this morning expecting Volume 12 and getting Volume 13 instead, the correct link is here.
PS—If you did grab Volume 13, I hadn’t yet changed all the tags or formatted everything, so it’ll be pretty wonky—the correct version will go up next week.
U.K. Prog, Volume 12: 1973b On Top of the World (Notes)
Continuing our look at progressive rock in the United Kingdom during 1973, this volume veers back and forth between highly accessible, melodic prog rock and wilder, knottier material more than the previous 1973 volume, but you’ll still be able to hear the way this music had cleaned up and shaken out since only a couple of years earlier.
At this point, progressive rock ideas and approaches permeated the rock portion of the FM dial—I actually considered opening this volume with Elton John’s “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” but left it off in favor of less-known material. But you see what I’m getting at. Granted, this was also the year that Yes followed up a single LP with three songs on it with a double LP with four songs on it. Tales from Topographic Oceans, that four-song double album, is not featured here, partly because I had no room for a side-long track, but more importantly because it’s just not very good.
Tales, for me, is basically the point where prog rock eats the apple. Yes didn’t make an album of four side-long tracks because they had four songs that were so idea-stuffed that they each had to take up a whole side. They made an album of four side-long tracks because Jon Anderson and Steve Howe decided they were going to, and then proceeded to stretch the few ideas they had past the breaking point. It’s a terrible album overall, made all the worse by the thought of how much better it might have been if they’d been modest enough to realize the potential of those songs and, say, cut them all down so that they’d be short enough to fit two to a side of a single LP.
Keyboardist Rick Wakeman, himself no stranger to excess, famously hated the album and quit the band—as it was, during the sessions he’d spent more time in the studio next door, contributing keyboards to Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, frustrated at having his input ignored. Wakeman, of course, was a few ice shows and concept albums away from himself becoming the emblem of the self-regard that helped to knock prog off its commercial pedestal.
Another liability the genre had, at least as far as its long-term commercial viability was concerned, was the overwhelming maleness of its audience. A tiny fraction of the musicians playing prog were women, and a slightly less tiny fraction of prog singers were women, and those percentages translated to the crowds drawn by many of these acts (though not all of them). There’s a media studies master’s thesis waiting to be written by anyone who wants to explore the reasons for that, but it made the genre more vulnerable to a slide that it otherwise might have been.
There will be two 1974 volumes coming up, and though it’s only a year later, you’re likely to notice some pretty distinct differences between 1973 and 1974.
From the Deram LP For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night
Caravan have been with us all along on this series. They were one of the first prog bands and one of the handful (with Soft Machine and Egg) that helped define the parameters of what became known as the Canterbury Scene. The term Canterbury Scene isn’t exactly accurate, though—it wasn’t really a scene in the real sense. Yes, many of the musicians who contributed to the early music did indeed have roots in and around Canterbury, but these bands played in London and included members from all over Britain (and Daevid Allen, an early scenester, was Australian). So Canterbury School would really be the more appropriate way of framing it. Caravan were the closest to a symphonic prog band of any of the groups the school produced—they could write a very catchy vocal melody, could jam on a hard jazz groove, and could cut a heavy rock passage with equal aplomb, and they do all of those things on the opener to their fifth album, which completely shifts tone right in the middle, from a fairly nasty hard prog thing to an upbeat prog-pop tune. We’ll hear from them one more time in 1974.
2. Steeleye Span: Alison Gross 5:30
From the Chrysalis LP Parcel of Rogues
Along with Fairport Convention and Pentangle, Steeleye Span were one of the small handful of British folk revival bands to establish themselves as a long-running, commercially successful force. Where Fairport went for an electro-acoustic sound that incorporated lots of original songs and some jazz elements, and Pentangle favored acoustic instrumentation, Steeleye Span, who were named for a character in a traditional song, built their sound around electric versions of traditional ballads. “Alison Gross” is one such ballad, the story of a witch who makes a man an offer, which he refuses. She then turns him into a wyrm (which is a type of dragon that apparently has hair); he’s later restored to his original form in a sort of princess-and-the-frog routine. The song was taken from a catalog of three hundred Scottish and English folk ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the 19th Century, and I’m guessing that Child never imagined it would be performed like this. The band had no drummer, but they still manage to get plenty of momentum out of the crunching guitars of Bob Johnson and Tim Hart. The song is probably the heaviest thing the band ever did, but their early albums are liberally sprinkled with interesting interpretations of very old songs like this.
3. Genesis: Firth of Fifth 9:38
From the Charisma LP Selling England by the Pound
Selling England by the Pound is the signature masterpiece of the Banks-Collins-Gabriel-Hackett-Rutherford quintet version of Genesis, a kaleidoscopic record that moves from strength to strength with a focus that even the band’s best material to that point had often found beyond its grasp. “Firth of Fifth” is one of the most gorgeous things the band ever did, opening with a lovely bit of time signature-hopping classical piano from Tony Banks before shifting into the relatively straightforward verse. The band seems to understand that the real meat of the song lies in the instrumental parts, though, and they spend just a few of the song’s nearly ten minutes on them. The instrumental at the song’s heart is one of the band’s most breathtaking passages. The accelerating flute melody (played by Peter Gabriel) stopped me cold the first time I ever heard this, and Banks gets one of his finest showcases, both on piano and on synth before handing the baton to Steve Hackett. This is the standard that all those symphonic prog bands that popped up in the early 70s were shooting for; very few of them ever attained it. The public recognized a good thing when it heard it, too—the album peaked at #3 in Britain.
4. Rick Wakeman: Anne of Cleves 7:55
From the A&M LP The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Ah, Rick Wakeman. As mentioned in the intro above, he’s synonymous for many people with prog rock excess. And I won’t argue that point, really—he earned the reputation. What I don’t agree with is the tendency to view his tendency toward pretension and excess as grounds for automatic dismissal. A lot of great music is utterly pretentious, after all. Wakeman recorded his first solo outing in 1972, with members of Yes and his former band, Strawbs, contributing, and yes, it is a concept album, featuring six instrumental pieces, one for each of Henry VIII’s wives. What the musical content of each piece of music has to do with each wife is something Wakeman couldn’t even tell you, but it works as a unifying idea, I suppose. Laying the very loose concept aside, though, what you’re left with is the music, and some of it is really quite good. “Anne of Cleves” is the big keeper for me, in part because it’s the album’s least over-composed track. Really, it’s a four-piece jam, featuring Wakeman excitedly going nuts on a mountain of keyboards while guitarist Mike Egan, drummer Alan White (who joined Yes in 1972 after Bill Bruford left), and bassist Dave Winter wail right along with him—Winter especially turns in an impressive performance. It’s a showcase for the musicians, but I don’t think you could properly call it pretentious—music this openly enthusiastic has a funny way of transcending the hoary concepts and big ideas it supposedly serves.
5. Tranquility: Couldn’t Possibly Be 4:16
From the Epic LP Silver
So wait, where was the boundary between prog and more conventional rock in 1973? Was there really a boundary at all? If there was, bands like Tranquility certainly weren’t very mindful of it. I don’t really know much about the band. Silver was their second and final album, and it occupied strange ground somewhere between power pop and guitar-slinging prog. They were adept harmony singers, as “Couldn’t Possibly Be” attests, and they distilled their jammy tendencies into busy backgrounds that served the songs. The guitars sound as influenced by the Allman Brothers as any particular earlier British act. Like any good prog nerd, I love stumbling across a mellotron wonderland or a spiky Moog solo, but I think discoveries like this, that took all that creative energy and funneled it into pretty darn catchy pop songs, are just as rewarding.
6. Wizzard: You Can Dance Your Rock ‘n’ Roll 4:38
From the Harvest LP Wizzard Brew
Wizzard is a tough band to categorize, and to be honest, they don’t really fit the typical prog rock mold very well. Their music is more like some sort of hideous mutant strain of early rock and roll. Roy Wood had been the leader of the Move, and had also founded Electric Light Orchestra with Jeff Lynne, he and Lynne were quickly at creative loggerheads, so he set out on his own with Wizzard. “You Can Dance Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” continues ELO’s early tendency to mix overdriven boogie with classical instrumentation, though here it’s about five times as overdriven as it ever had been in ELO. I’m not even sure how Wood managed to make this song sound this scuzzy without actually tipping all the VU meters on the board. His eccentric take on, well, everything, sent him down his own prog rock side road, one that no one ever followed him down.
7. Fusion Orchestra: Have I Left the Gas On? 8:38
From the EMI LP Skeleton in Armour
Fusion orchestra only released one album, but it was a very good one, backing the raw vocals of Jill Saward with a powerful collision of jazz and rock, with the occasional detour into spooky soundtrack music, as heard as the beginning of this song’s instrumental interlude. Stan Land and Colin Dawson were a formidable guitar tandem, and the band brought plenty of fire to their most headlong compositions. “Have I Left the Gas On?” is their finest moment and makes me wonder what they could have done if they’d stuck together long enough to follow it up—they’d been a band since the late 60s by this point, and I count us lucky that they stuck at it long enough to get noticed by EMI and record this. I don’t know the fates of most of the members, but Saward later sang for the jazz-funk group Shakatak.
8. Badger: Wind of Change 7:17
From the Atlantic LP One Live Badger
Keyboardist Tony Kaye bounced around a bit after leaving Yes, playing for a time with Peter Banks’ Flash before pulling together Badger with drummer Roy Dyke, formerly of Ashton, Gardner & Dyke and Remo Four. The band debuted with a live album, and a very good one at that—Kaye had clearly been developing this material for some time. He also doesn’t hog the spotlight—bassist Dave Foster and guitarist Brian Parrish handle vocals, and Parrish’s guitar is much more prominent in the band’s sound than Kaye’s organ—Kaye doesn’t even step out for a solo on “Wind of Change” until the very end, letting Parrish go first. It has the overall effect of giving the band a much heavier sound than Flash or even Yes, and it bears noting that “Wind of Change” has a really smashing chorus. Badger only stayed together long enough to record one studio album (it doesn’t measure up to their debut at all). Kaye eventually rejoined Yes, twice, and has remained a part of band’s extended family ever since.
9. Greenslade: Melange 7:30
From the Warner Brothers LP Greenslade
A lot of prog musicians played in several bands during their careers, and during its run in the 70s, Greenslade was home to a lot of them. Named for keyboardist Dave Greenslade, formerly of Colosseum, the band also featured the keyboard and vocal talents of Dave Lawson (formerly of Web). Former King Crimson drummer Andy McCullough and journeyman bassist Tony Reeves (Colosseum, John Mayall, etc, etc. etc.) rounded out the original lineup, which had an automatically unique sound thanks to its lineup. “Melange” provides a good idea of the band’s range, moving through a host of contrasting passages—it’s a mini-suite that a less restrained prog band might have tried to turn into a side-long track. The band lasted through 1977, and all of its members remained in music, moving on to other bands, into production and studio work (Reeves, especially), and even into technology—it was Lawson that did all the keyboard programming for Yes’ 90125.
We’ve heard ELP turn a modern classical piece into a heavy rock jam, and we’ve heard them take what could have been a fairly conventional rock song and warp it into something entirely more crooked and evil. Here, they mash together bits of jazz, classical and neoclassical music, heavy rock and modern electronics into something recognizable only as ELP. Keith Emerson’s piano dominates the second half of this song, which was the second “movement” in Emerson’s 30-minute “Karn Evil” suite, but it’s what happens in the first half, when the volume is turned up and the whole band is engaged, that’s really interesting. Carl Palmer plays synth drums—one of their first appearances on record—capping his performance with a surprise interpolation of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” that provides the lightest moment in what is otherwise a very long, very serious extended suite. Brain Salad Surgery, with its title taken from a Dr. John song, its grotesque H.R. Giger artwork, and its absolute musical overload, is undeniably ELP’s masterpiece. For some listeners, that means it’s an essential addition to record collection, and for others that just means it’s the one where the band’s bombast and pomp are most unbearable. I fall somewhere in the middle, glad to have it and to have listened to it enough to understand it, but not in love. Masterpiece or no, it was ELP’s high water mark—they followed it up with two volumes of Works, which were disjointed collections of ballads, classical interpretations and ridiculous side-long excursions like “Pirates,” and finally their final LP, the awful Love Beach, which dropped in 1978 and sent the band out with a whimper. They subsequently reunited and re-established themselves as a formidable touring outfit. I saw them in 1996, and Emerson was still killing his organ with knives.
11. Capability Brown: I Am and So Are You 4:00
From the Charisma LP Voice
If you want to know just what an epidemic the side-long track had become in British rock during the early 70s, about all you need to know is that Capability Brown included one on their second and final album, 1973’s Voice. The band wandered the prog rock borderlands, churning out arty but still highly accessible music featuring a lot of big harmony vocals that drove their choruses forcefully home. In the context of these 1973 volumes, they’ve a lot closer to Tranquility than ELP, but the lure of filling one side of a record with a single song was something they couldn’t ignore, and that fact has carved out a cult following for them in prognerdland. I’m glad, because if it hadn’t, I likely never would have come across them, and I’d have missed out on the quirky charm of their more modest work, like “I Am and So Are You.”
12. Gong: Flying Teapot 11:56
From the Virgin LP Radio Gnome Invisible, Vol. 1: Flying Teapot
We’ve heard from Gong once before, and at this point, the band was still based in France, still comprised mostly of British musicians, and still led by Australian weirdo and self-styled “pothead pixie” Daevid Allen. They were also still psychedelic warriors of the first order and played a type of space rock that no one was really close to, though there were a few bands in Germany traveling similar lanes. The three-album Radio Gnome Invisible series documented a transitional phase for the group as they pivoted from psychedelia to a more pure fusion direction, a transition that can be heard in detail on “Flying Teapot.” Radio Gnome Invisible was also Daevid Allen’s swansong with the group, which he left in 1975. We’ll hear from the band in their more fully developed fusion guise on a later volume.
1. Caravan: Memory Lain, Hugh - Headloss 9:20 2. Steeleye Span: Alison Gross 5:30 3. Genesis: Firth of Fifth 9:38 4. Rick Wakeman: Anne of Cleves 7:55 5. Tranquility: Couldn’t Possibly Be 4:16 6. Wizzard: You Can Dance Your Rock ‘n’ Roll 4:38 7. Fusion Orchestra: Have I Left the Gas On? 8:38 8. Badger: Wind of Change 7:17 9. Greenslade: Melange 7:30 10. Emerson Lake & Palmer: Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression 7:07 11. Capability Brown: I Am and So Are You 4:00 12. Gong: Flying Teapot 11:56
My mother used to sing this song a lot when I was a kid. This and the traditional “Polly Vaughn.” I never actually heard the hit Coven version until high school, when I saw Billy Jack and it played over the closing credits.
And I hated it. Still do, actually. Something about the Coven version strikes me as obscene, with all these instruments climbing over one another to be heard, and the too-fast tempo. The lyrics are thunderingly obvious in delivering their message, but when I was a kid, listening to my mother while she sang it as she did things around the house, that message always sounded so genuine, even if the path to it was contrived.
My mother has no musical training or background, but she does have a lovely voice for folk music, and because of her, this song will always be slow and mournful to me, and best sung unaccompanied. I can’t hear the Coven version without hearing hers as well.
The Parliaments: “All Your Goodies Are Gone (The Loser’s Seat)” (Revilot RV 211, 1967)
Before there was Parliament and Funkadelic, there was The Parliaments, George Clinton’s vocal group, which he formed at a Plainfield, New Jersey, barber shop in 1955. Comprised of Clinton, Calvin Simon, Fuzzy Haskins, Ray Davis, and Grady Thomas, they began as a doo wop group and recorded a trickle of singles that trace their evolution into a hard-edged r&b band playing funky Northern soul.
"All Your Goodies Are Gone (The Loser’s Seat)" was one of the singles they recorded for Detroit’s Revilot label during 1967, the year they became suddenly very prolific (its b-side, "Don’t Be Sore at Me," is nearly as good) and established their own identity. It’s my favorite song by the group when it was still called the Parliaments, and one of several they’d later revisit under the Parliament and Funkadelic banners.
There are hints of psychedelia creeping in already, especially in the intro, and I like the way they kick it off by jumping into the chorus rather than a verse (it also pulls back on the choruses and ramps up for the verses, a nice inversion of usual expectations).
The thing that made me think of this was hearing the 1974 version by Parliament on shuffle while I was driving the other day. That version unfailingly gets this version stuck in my head.
Strawbs: “Autumn (i) Heroine’s Theme (ii) Deep Summer’s Sleep (iii) The Winter Long” (Hero & Heroine, 1973)
As I’ve worked my way through my UK Prog series, I haven’t bothered to break out any of the tracks I’ve included and do a full post on them, mostly because I have too much other stuff going on, and just putting these mixes and notes together has been pretty time-consuming.
But I do want to talk about this one at greater length. “Autumn” is one of my favorite songs, and really is the song that pushed me over the edge from shallow-end wading in the bits of progressive rock that crossed over to wider audiences and stayed stuck in the classic rock canon into the deep end, where I had to search hard to find bands I’d heard mentioned in a single sentence of an article about something else. Even today, with the cornucopia of the internet at my fingertips, some of the music I’ve tracked down has been difficult to find.
Back then, Strawbs were a band that took looking to find in this country. I did my record shopping at the local Circuit City and Borders, and though they were both astonishingly well-stocked for what they were, they had their limits. It wasn’t until the summer after high school that my then-friend-now-wife and I took a road trip up Interstate 91 to Northampton, Massachusetts, a college town sprinkled liberally with record stores that got well off the beaten track with their offerings.
There was one in particular that had a huge aisle of nothing but imports. I had heard “Autumn” on the best two hours of rock radio available to me at the time, Peter Z’s Sunday morning show on WPLR. I think Z was a legacy DJ, still hanging around from FM’s early glory days, when it was much more freeform than it largely is now. He played what he felt like playing, with no regard for the heavy rotation lists or what the station managers thought people might want to hear.
He played “Autumn” one Sunday, and I taped it, and scribbled the band’s name down on my ever-growing list of things to check out. Not long after, Rhino released its Supernatural Fairytales boxed set, a set of five discs offering a very light sampling of the variety of progressive rock sounds that existed across Europe during the 70s. It had two Strawbs songs on it, and they confirmed that this was a band I wanted to check out.
So in that store in Northampton, which probably no longer exists—I only remember that it was in a basement—I combed the import rack until I found A Choice Selection of Strawbs, a single-disc best-of compilation released overseas in 1992. It was $25, but I looked at the back, saw “Autumn” and immediately bought it. I even borrowed $5 from Andrea to afford it. It was the most I’d ever paid for a single CD, and on some level it seemed absurd, but on a much more important level, I had to have that music. I had to know what else I was missing.
I’m not nostalgic for the days when it was that hard to get your hands on music you wanted to hear. Seriously, it sucked not being able to find what you were desperate to hear. I understand what other oldsters are getting at when they talk about the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of the find, and I definitely loved both. But I’ll take being able to get what I want when I ant it in exchange.
These days, I have a bunch of Strawbs albums, and before I got those, I even replaced that first compilation with a better, two-disc one called Halcyon Days. “Autumn” is still unbeatable, the best song in a career that produced a lot of great songs. I think it was worth the search.
I don’t remember the name or location of that record store, but I remember the interior layout very well. Oddly, I also remember exactly where I parked the Toyota when we got into town. It was a single curbside space between the two driveways of a gas station.
U.K. Prog, Volume 11: 1973a The Main Stream (Notes)
We’re now more than halfway through this series of UK prog mixes (there will be 20 volumes total), and we’re right around the genre’s commercial peak. It was in the early to mid-70s that progressive rock and the rest of the rock scene in Britain were most thoroughly intertwined, and after this year, things start separating themselves.
This is perhaps the most immediately accessible volume in this whole series. With the exception of a few more difficult tracks in the back half, there’s very little here that the average rock listener with no interest in progressive rock couldn’t enjoy pretty easily.
It comes to a question I’ve avoided addressing so far: what does the “progressive” in progressive rock actually mean? Really? Not much. The term was already in common use in 1969, though its connotation was broader then (a lot of loud blues rock was given the label right along with King Crimson and the like). Really, all it was meant to imply is that these bands were searching for new things to do with the rock form.
It’s debatable whether covering classical music was truly progressive or just novel and self-serious, but it certainly fits the “trying something new” definition, which is the one I think makes the most sense from a modern perspective. There were musicians back then who really thought that building songs off of classical harmony and structure rather than blues-rooted forms made it more sophisticated, which has some disturbing racial implications, but these people were basically wrong.
Sophistication comes not from the ingredients but how they’re used—I’d argue that John Lee Hooker made music every bit as sophisticated as ELP, and today, the members of that band would probably admit that it’s true.
So that’s all we’re really getting at here. These bands were playing rock and roll and trying new things in that context, reaching out to different sources of inspiration in the process. In the process, they helped to vastly expand our understanding of what rock could be and how far it could stretch before it became something else.
1. Strawbs: Autumn (i) Heroine’s Theme (ii) Deep Summer’s Sleep (iii) The Winter Long 8:26
From the A&M LP Hero & Heroine
This is the song most responsible for leading me off the well-beaten path of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, the Moody Blues, and Genesis into less widely remembered progressive rock. Peter Z played it on his free-form Sunday morning show on WPLR, an otherwise conventional classic rock station, and I as mesmerized by it. It took me ages to find it on CD, but I did, and Strawbs did a great deal to grease the slope I was already on and send me sliding into prog’s deep end. It really is an awesome piece of music. The intro, with the bass keyboard simmering below the drone, and the steady drum beat that cues the seagull noises and finally the mellotron theme, hooked me instantly. It’s a true suite, linking three separate pieces of music together into a cohesive whole, and I especially love the mix of jazz and folk feels in the “Deep Summer’s Sleep” section. The final section, “The Winter Long,” was released as a single, but it’s not quite as powerful without what comes before—the dissonance it rises from provides a setting for the pretty piano and group sing-along, which is prog rock at its most populist. Strawbs knew a things or two about that—one of their biggest hits in the UK was the folky, tongue-in-cheek “Part of the Union,” a song designed to be sung along to whilst roaring drunk.
2. Darryl Way’s Wolf: Two Sisters 4:21
From the Deram LP Saturation Point
When creative differences between Francis Monkman and Darryl Way led to Curved Air’s breakup, Way took his violin and wasted no time putting together a new band. Wolf had few of Curved Air’s more experimental tendencies, instead focusing more on tight, violin-led rock songs with strong harmony vocals and a slight hard rock edge. “Two Sisters” is downright catchy, setting breezy vocals and slow melodies against a frenetic backing. Way’s showcase in the instrumental midsection reveals a guy making the most of his new creative freedom and developing a unique rock style on his instrument.
3. Cirkus: Those Were the Days 3:57
From the RCB LP One
Cirkus named themselves for a King Crimson song, but for all their prog tendencies, they were never nearly as weird as what they named themselves for. “Those Were the Days” has a very strong chorus hook, and with better label support, it’s likely Cirkus could have made a real crossover from the art rock circuit to the pop charts. The song’s lyrics aren’t brilliant, but they do have some nice imagery (particularly the teddy bear with just one eye), and they’re well-framed by the verse arrangement. Cirkus was another band that favored the economical over the epic—they made time for instrumental breaks, but kept them well to the point. They’re one of many bands that makes the case for 1973 as the year when prog came closest to being for everyone.
4. Roxy Music: A Song For Europe 5:45
From the Island/Polydor LP Stranded
Roxy Music’s first two albums, made with Brian Eno in the band, teetered back and forth between progressive rock, crooner camp, glam, and pop in an unexpectedly satisfying way, but what a lot of people forget is that they remained a very adventurous band well after Eno’s departure. Stranded was their first album without him, and it’s as firmly in left field as either of its predecessors. What Roxy Music brought to their peculiar take on prog rock that a lot of other bands didn’t was a sense of sweeping romance. Bryan Ferry sang like a man in a constantly desperate state of mind, and his performance is a big part of what helps make the big musical moves, such as the huge syntheseizer swells 9sourtesy of new member Eddie Jobson) feel earned. This kept Roxy from getting boxed in to a prog rock pigeonhole, and they were one of the few bands that managed to seamlessly find its way to even greater success after prog rock fell out of favor in the middle of the 70s.
5. Home: The Sun’s Revenge 4:01
From the CBS LP The Alchemist
Do you think the members of Home liked Yes? Surely they must have, because even though as a band they only bear a passing similarity, the vocals on “The Sun’s Revenge” could practically have been ported in from “Siberian Khatru.” About the only key to a hit this song is missing is a big chorus, but I think the riff is catchy as hell, and even the song’s long, low-key instrumental coda is warmly appealing. A pointless but nonetheless fun game can be played trying to imagine what kind of band Home would have been had they formed four years later—I imagine them as a power pop force. They weren’t around then, though—The Alchemist was the last of their three albums, and guitarist Laurie Wisefield left to join Wishbone Ash the following year. Bassist Cliff Williams later joined AC/DC.
6. Fantasy: Circus 6:19
From the Polydor LP Paint a Picture
Fantasy was a two-album band from Kent that flourished briefly at prog’s peak but never managed more than a small following. “Circus” has its share of twisty instrumental passages, but for a six-minute prog suite whose lyrics make liberal use of the phrase “helter skelter”—well after Manson appropriated the phrase and changed its meaning—it’s remarkably restrained. That restraint may have been the things that held them back, actually. Prog’s most successful bands during this period tended to be the ones that wrung the most drama out of the musical turns they took in their lengthy songs. Understatement wasn’t the path to a big following in this world.
7. Carmen: Reprise Finale 3:02
From the Regal Zonophone LP Fandangos in Space
Carmen was a British-American band that formed in LA, moved to London, and built its sound partly around Spanish flamenco music. The best flamenco rock bands were formed in Spain as Franco’s dictatorship came to an end, but Carmen, oddly enough, set something of a precedent for them. This song, which closes out their best album with call-back to several other songs on it, accomplishes in miniature what these bands often used a suite to do. Over several sections, it references the rhythms of flamenco (the drums in the opening part mimic the rhythms of dancers’ castanets), and some of the genre’s harmonic elements as well, while setting time aside for a fair helping of overdriven lead guitar and, rhythmic jump-cuts and passages of unison riffing. The band released two more albums, breaking up in 1975, the year Franco died, allowing Spain’s flamenco rock movement to finally flourish in the open.
8. Morgan: Fire in the Head 5:01
From the RCA LP The Sleeper Wakes (aka Brown Out)
The opener of Morgan’s second and final album, an album that wasn’t officially released until 1977 because the band angered its record company, is an exercise in infectious bombast. The verses are catchy and ingratiating almost in spite of themselves, which becomes less surprising when you consider that the band’s history stretches back to the 60s, when its members were in the Soul Survivors and the Love Affair, two groups that experienced pop success. The instrumental passages are less friendly, hitting the listener upside the head with hyperspeed carnival keyboards, seemingly in the hope that if the verse didn’t win you over, these passages might at least beat you into submission. Naturally, with this album shelved, Morgan had few paths forward and called it quits—interestingly, their sound anticipates a fair number of neo-prog bands from the 90s, though it’s likely coincidence. They had all the same influences.
9. Fruupp: Decision 6:29
From the Dawn LP Future Legends
Fruupp were from Northern Ireland, and though they were only around for three years, they managed to churn out four LPs. “Decision” is from their debut, and it has two personalities. One can be heard in the verses, which have a jazz-rock shuffle and nicely rendered vocal harmonies. Let’s call this their Dr. Jekyll side. The guitar solo in the middle hints that Dr. Jekyll may be hiding a demon within, and it’s unleashed completely in the song’s final passage, as the solo grows more intense and the band finally caves completely to its Mr. Hyde side on the crazy coda, which is stuffed with tangled knots of guitar and wild double stops. It’s very ambitious passage, one the band barely has the technical skill to pull off, and this gives it a frayed quality that actually heightens the intensity. Not many prog bands let themselves go off the rails like this.
10. Riff Raff: You Must Be Joking 7:31
From the RCA LP Riff Raff
The members of heavy jazz-rock band Riff Raff were well-traveled, having played in a huge number of bands, including Ginger Baker’s Air Force, The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, Brian Auger’s Trinity, Nucleus, Juicy Lucy, as well as the backing bands for a lot of solo artists. They recorded three albums together, though the first wasn’t released, and this became their debut by default. The band’s Brazilian drummer, Aureo de Souza, could flit between straight rock rhythm and a swinging jazz feel by the measure, a skill that can be heard on full display during Pete Kirtley’s blistering guitar solo on “You Must Be Joking.” The band lasted for one more album before everyone moved on to other projects—keyboardist Tommy Eyre had the highest-profile post-Riff Raff career of any of them, playing in a lot of other groups, including the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and the Ian Gillan Band.
11. Sindelfingen: Three Ladies 8:33
From the self-released/Cenotaph LP Odgipig
Sindelfingen formed in 1972, but just a year later, the band’s knotty take on prog rock, with its quick time signature changes, hyperactive bass lines, and folk-based lyrics, sounded anachronistic; if they’d been around just two years earlier, they’d have been state of the art. That would have been a tall order, given that the band’s bass player, Mark Letley, was only seventeen when this album was recorded. Of course, the band wasn’t averse to youth: when drummer Roger Thorn left the band in in 1973, he was replaced by Letley’s brother, Matt, who was twelve at the time (Matt Letley currently drums for Status Quo). Gutiarist/vocalist Richard Manktelow appears to have been a big Gentle Giant fan—you can hear their way of phrasing things all over his vocals. This is a band that probably never had a prayer of finding a large audience, but their album is a fun find for a prog fan.
12. Henry Cow: Teenbeat 6:48
From the Virgin LP Leg End
In 1978, Henry Cow gave a name to the school of rock they helped establish when they organized the Rock in Opposition festival, featuring themselves and four continental bands that shared their love of dissonance and open structures. In 1973, they were just considered an underground group, a tag they’d held with since guitarist Fred Frith and reedist Tim Hodgkinson founded the group at Cambridge University in 1968. Leg End was their first album, and by this time the band’s most powerful rhythm section, with bassist John greaves and drummer Chris Cutler, was in place. “Teenbeat” is an absolutely sarcastic title for this music, which is a sort of chamber jazz concoction that abandoned even the barest notion that pop success was attainable. The music is intricate and constantly teetering on the brink of chaos—in a few volumes, I’ll be addressing the ways in which punk and prog are a lot more closely linked than history tells us, and Henry Cow is one of the groups that figures heavily in that story.
13. Man: Back Into the Future 4:04
From the United Artists LP Back Into the Future
One more from Man. The Welsh space rockers behaved almost as much like a collective as a band, with members, particularly guitarists, coming and going often, only to return (I believe the same lineup never appeared on consecutive albums). They made nine studio albums (plus five live albums) during their original run from 1969 to 1976, and Back Into the Future is perhaps the best of these, though each of them has its moments. The title track is a good example of the way the band combined psychedelic sonics with a pub rock attitude for a unique combination that makes them one of the friendliest and least self-serious prog bands. After the band’s breakup, drummer Terry Williams even joined Rockpile with Nick Lowe, making the link even more obvious. Man reformed in the early 90s and has released six more studio albums since.
14. Babe Ruth: The Mexican 5:49
From the Harvest LP First Base
Today, Babe Ruth aren’t remembered as a prog rock band, even with the bizarre Roger Dean artwork that graced their first album cover. With its dual guitar/keyboard runs and lyrics about the Mexican-American war, “The Mexican” is a prog classic, but it’s subsequently become much more than that thanks to the work of successive generations of hip-hop DJs. It’s easy to see where the song’s crossover appeal comes from—the funky rhythm section and Janita Haan’s gritty vocals give it an r&b edge that’s so much earthier than most other prog. In 1983, the Funky Four +1 built their classic “Feel It” around “The Mexican,” and the song has been a hip-hop touchstone ever since. First Base sold well in North America, but tanked in Britain; a few years later when the band recorded its final album, no original members remained.
15. Tempest: Upon Tomorrow 6:50
From the Bronze LP Tempest
Allan Holdsworth is best known as an influential guitarist—he was in his late 20s when he joined Tempest at the invitation f former Colosseum drummer John Hiseman and had already played in several bands, including Nucleus and the influential but sadly unrecorded Sunship—but here, he’s just as impressive on the violin, alternating between the two instruments. “Upon Tomorrow” is nearly seven minutes long and passes through many contrasting sections, but it still feel compact and direct, and a lot of that is down to Holdsworth, whose leads never succumb to meaningless flash. Paul Williams’ vocal keeps things grounded as well—he even sounds a little like Paul Weller, though the Jam was still a few year off. Tempest recorded just two albums before its members moved on to other bands. Mark Clarke jumped on the hard rock merry-go-round, playing in Uriah Heep, Rainbow, Natural Gas, and a latter-day Mountain; Hiseman formed Colosseum II; Holdsworth played in Gong, UK, and Bill Bruford’s band and launched a solo career as well; Ollie Halsall played with Kevin Ayers, Neil Innes, and a host of others.
1. Strawbs: Autumn (i) Heroine’s Theme (ii) Deep Summer’s Sleep (iii) The Winter Long 8:26 2. Darryl Way’s Wolf: Two Sisters 4:21 3. Cirkus: Those Were the Days 3:57 4. Roxy Music: A Song For Europe 5:45 5. Home: The Sun’s Revenge 4:01 6. Fantasy: Circus 6:19 7. Carmen: Reprise Finale 3:02 8. Morgan: Fire in the Head 5:01 9. Fruupp: Decision 6:29 10. Riff Raff: You Must Be Joking 7:31 11. Sindelfingen: Three Ladies 8:33 12. Henry Cow: Teenbeat 6:48 13. Man: Back Into the Future 4:04 14. Babe Ruth: The Mexican 5:49 15. Tempest: Upon Tomorrow 6:50