UK Prog, Volume 4: Breakthrough (Notes)

1969 was the year that progressive rock really arrived at the fore of UK rock. Elements of psychedelia were still prominent, but the songs were stretching out, the structures were getting bolder, the instrumentation was changing, and groups were taking bigger risks with unconventional harmony, improvisation.

Major labels were putting a lot of skin in the game—Decca had made its Deram imprint a home for progressive rock bands in 1967, but in 1969 it was joined by EMI’s Harvest imprint and Philips’ Vertigo label—Chrysalis, Island, and Transatlantic were all still independent, and all of them planted a flag in progressive rock. Other labels you’ll see pop up pretty frequently from here on include Dawn, Chrysalis, RCA’s Neon imprint, Polydor, and, later on, United Artists and CBS.

Prog rose from the underground in just a few short years—by the time the 70s officially dawned, it was big business, and there was a profusion of bands. This volume is really where this series starts to get exciting, exploring all the weird side avenues, bands that flashed into existence long enough to cut one album and then disappeared, great groups that never made it, and the giants of the genre, side by side. There’s a bit of all of that here. Enjoy. (Download the mix at this post.)

1. King Crimson: 21st Century Schizoid Man 7:21 

From the E’G/Island LP In the Court of the Crimson King

Because I’m not attempting to do any kind of definitive chronicle of prog, I’m largely steering away from the best-known tracks to highlight some worthy ones people might be less familiar with, but come on, “21st Century Schizoid Man” is awesome. It’s like prog’s self-organized coming out party, where the optimistic psychedelic daydream tumbles (or crumbles) headlong into the cynical night terror of the 70s, with saxophone. And it starts with a practical joke: several seconds of barely audible noise designed to get you to turn the volume up and lean in toward the speaker before the most bombastic riff in history spin-kicks your ear drum. The song is almost comically dissonant and harsh—Robert Fripp doesn’t even bother to play a guitar solo, instead holding out a series of clustered sustained tones while the rest of the band flies along almost out of control. Ian McDonald’s evil sax established a template many other players would work from, and the band’s crazy unison runs would become a staple of symphonic prog and, later, metal.

2. Van Der Graaf Generator: Orthenthian St. 6:19 

From the Charisma LP The Aerosol Grey Machine

VDGG were an odd one—I think the fact that Peter Hammill chose to be their vocalist as well as their main songwriter may be the main reason they never became as commercially successful as some of their counterparts. He just doesn’t have a melodic voice, or at least chooses not to sing in one. Admittedly, it makes it hard to follow the tunes, which is where the band’s inventive arrangements come in. Hammill’s band, including long-time rhythm section Hugh Banton and Guy Evans, never failed to devise clever ways to lead listeners through Hammill’s songs, which tended to cover lyrical territory a lot of other prog bands actively avoided: love and specific political issues. He’s tackling the former here, and we’ll hear him do the latter on a subsequent volume. This song has an amazing sense of dynamics, and even though VDGG didn’t feature a lot of solos or flashy instrumental work, a lot of bands took cues from their way of using contrasting textures, rhythms and harmony to flesh out the story of the song.

3. Blossom Toes: Peace Loving Man 4:53 

From the Marmalade LP If Only for a Moment

Speaking of contrasts, if you thought King Crimson went a little over the top with the heavy bits of In the Court of the Crimson King, check this out. Blossom Toes, who are in the running for worst band name of the 60s, had already released one album of psychedelic pop, called We Are Ever So Clean, but for the follow-up, they got much weirder and heavier, and “Peace Loving Man” is the weirdest, heaviest song of the bunch. The main body of the song features heavy guitar riffs and vocals that are essentially a proto-metal growl, especially in the transition away from the chorus. About that chorus: it’s almost as if the previous version of the band somehow got trapped inside the new, nightmarish version. When it pops up out of nowhere the first time, with its chipper harmonies and suddenly clean guitars, it sounds so out of place, but the band totally knows it. I think they may actually be making fun of their younger selves. Then there’s that crazy whispered interlude—you really have to listen to it several times to get your head all the way around this song.

4. Pink Floyd: Careful with That Axe, Eugene 8:51

From the Harvest LP Ummagumma

This will be the last time we hear from Pink Floyd in these volumes—even though plenty of their subsequent work could be classified as prog, the most important point to be made about their place in the genre is that they were a guiding force at the beginning, helping to establish a series of improvisatory frameworks that a lot of other bands would use. Funny thing, though, is that not a lot of other British groups sounded like the Floyd, even when they tried to—the music the band made was that singular. Floyd also had a huge shaping effect on the underground rock scenes in continental Europe, where they were a constant touring fixture, and especially in Germany and the Netherlands.

They’d originally released a comparatively wan, three-minute studio version of this song on the b-side of their “Point Me At The Sky” single in December, 1968, and they’d been playing it since early that year under various titles, including “Keep Smiling People” and “The Murderistic Woman” (later, they would also call it “Beset By Creatures Of The Deep” when they used it as part of the live suite “The Journey”). I have literally dozens of recordings of this song, but none quite top the version included on Ummagumma. The song wasn’t specifically composed, but rather sketched out to build up to a wild climax and then decay (it’s the blueprint for a lot of post-rock), and on this version, they get every phrase, every drum fill, every action and reaction spot-on. The song stayed in the band’s set lists into 1974, but was only played once after that, as an encore for an audience the band particularly liked at a 1977 show in Oakland, California.

5. Skin Alley: Night Time 5:37

From the CBS LP Skin Alley

About four minutes in, “Night Time” finds Skin Alley putting a very literal stamp on the term “jazz rock,” breaking into an outright soul jazz coda topped by piano and flute solos. Prior to that, there’s a bit more emphasis on the rock side of things, though the vocal portion of the song is pretty minimal, acting more as a table-setter for the instrumental that follows. Bob James pretty much owns the middle of this track with his flute playing—he was one of the few rock players to come along early enough not to be heavily influenced by Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, and he has a much more classically-based style. James also played sax for the band, which was dominated by him and keyboardist Krzysztof Juszskiewicz—outside of occasional contributions from James, the band didn’t even have a guitarist.

6. The Soft Machine: Esther’s Nose Job, part 5: 10:30 Returns to the Bedroom 4:13

From the Probe LP Volume Two

Kevin Ayers left Soft Machine after their first album, and was replaced by bassist Hugh Hopper. This change pushed their sound further toward jazz, though in their case, it was a thorny, psychedelic, free-leaning type of jazz. British rock groups around this time were particularly enamored of heavy, overdriven organ sounds, and most turned to the Hammond to get the sound. Mike Ratledge’s Lowery has a much scruffier sound than most guys ever got out of their Hammonds, though, sounding guitar-like in places. I’ve mostly avoided drum solos on these volumes, but Robert Wyatt earns his right to be heard with his solo here, never sacrificing rhythm for flash. “10:30 Returns to the Bedroom” is the final section of the larger “Esther’s Nose Job” cycle.

7. Third Ear Band: Ghetto Raga 10:31

From the Harvest LP Alchemy

Third Ear Band started life under a different name, recording half an album for the Standard Music Library (produced by Ron Geesin) under the pseudonym National-Balkan Ensemble. European folk music was one of the main ingredients of their sound, as were experimental and medieval music, and as suggested in the title of this song, Indian music. The band’s instrumentation was entirely acoustic, and bandleader/percussionist Glen Sweeney played only hand percussion, two things that immediately gave the group its own sound—the fact that those acoustic instruments were mostly violins, cellos and oboes underlined their distinctiveness. Their music was largely improvised (on their second album, it was entirely improvised) following basic guidelines. Alchemy was an early release on the Harvest label (it also includes a guest spot by John Peel on jaw harp), and it’s probably the best distillation of the group’s aesthetic. They’d later go on to do soundtrack work, including the spooky score to Polanski’s 1971 version of MacBeth, and lasted in various lineups all the way to the 1990s, when Sweeney finally ended the project.

8. Andromeda: Too Old 5:00

From the RCA Victor LP Andromeda

Psych group The Attack never recorded an album, but over the course of six singles, the band served as a pit stop for several musicians who’d move on to prog bands. When that band split in 1968, guitarist/vocalist John Du Cann joined Andromeda, another short-lived group that stayed together just long enough to put together an LP that was released in a small run to near-total indifference. Du Cann left to join Atomic Rooster and the band was done. That one LP is pretty good, though, and its opening track is a nugget for the ages, perched right on the psych/prog divide, it’s pushed just a bit to the latter by the band’s striking musicianship—Du Cann was a fantastic guitarist, and Mick Hawksworth’s bass and Ian McLane’s drumming made for a formidable rhythm section. It’s too bad Hawksworth and McLane couldn’t put something else together after Du Cann left.

9. Synanthesia: Morpheus 5:51

From the RCA LP Synanthesia

Synanthesia only released one album, but they had a sound that was completely their own. Jim Fraser’s saxophone has a lot to do with that—most prog players in the late 60s and early 70s adopted a rough tone modeled on Ian McDonald’s King Crimson playing, but Fraser is more clearly rooted in jazz, with a smoother tone and highly melodic style. The band didn’t have a drummer, though Les Cook does play some pretty wild bongos on the instrumental bridge of “Morpheus,” a song that pretty well sums up the group’s distinctive jazz/folk hybrid. Fraser’s harmonized opening riff actually does bear some of the harmonic signatures of a lot of the symphonic prog that would follow. Records like this go a long way toward illuminating just how wide-open the album marketplace had grown by 1969. Labels put up capital for a lot of out-there stuff, though they didn’t always promote it afterward. Sadly, this was the case with Synanthesia, who got very little support from RCA and ultimately broke up before they could put together a follow-up.

10. Renaissance: Wanderer 4:05

From the Island LP Renaissance

When the Yardbirds split in 1968, drummer Jim McCarty and vocalist Keith Relf set about forming a new band, recruiting Relf’s sister, Jane, former The Herd bassist Louis Cennamo, and pianist John Hawken, who had been a member of beat group the Nashville Teens and also played in a short-lived project with BJ Cole and former Yardbirds bassist Chris Dreja. They chose to call themselves Renaissance, and their debut is one of the first full-fledged symphonic prog albums. When we talk about “symphonic prog,” it has nothing to do with orchestra, though—the term has gradually been applied over the years to a broad swath of prog-rock groups that featured prominent keyboard parts, references to classical music or instrumentation, general non-reliance on blues-based harmony, and extended song forms. Yes, Genesis, and ELP are generally considered the standard-bearers for this subgenre.

Hawken’s dual harpischord and piano parts on “Wanderer” are prototypical symphonic prog, as are all of the rhythmic shifts and sudden changes in tone that the band manages to cram into the song’s four-minute runtime. This version of Renaissance recorded one more album, but by the time the band recorded its third in 1972, the entire lineup had turned over, and it was a completely different group. John Hawken went on to play in Strawbs, and Louis Cennamo became a sort of jazz-rock free agent, showing up in Colosseum, Steamhammer, and Armageddon over the next several years. The group reunited in 1977 under the name Illusion (without Keith Relf, who passed away in 1976), and released two more albums, but by that time, prog was swinging from punk’s gallows and the reformed group had little success.

11. Pentangle: Lyke-Wake Dirge 3:37

From the Transatlantic LP Basket of Light

If Fairport Convention was the prog-folk flagship, Pentangle was next in line, and Basket of Light may just be their masterpiece. The awesome over art is a composite image constructed from photographs of the band’s show at Royal Albert Hall, and the back cover takes pains to point out that the band’s instrumentation is entirely acoustic. Bert Jansch and John Renbourn are one of the all-time great guitar tandems, Terry Cox and Danny Thompson were an excellent rhythm section that brought hints of jazz into their folk playing, and Jacqui McShee had the perfect voice for interpretations of traditional songs. On “Lyke-Wake Dirge,” an adaptation of a very old traditional English song about the travails of the disembodied soul as it travels to purgatory after death, the whole band (except Thompson) joins her on vocals. Medieval music was a frequent reference point for prog bands, especially the ones that played in the prog-folk realm, but very few bands could make archaic English and ancient melodies this haunting.

12. Jethro Tull: Living in the Past 3:18 

From Island WIP 6056

This isn’t exactly Jethro Tull’s proggiest moment, but I’ve chosen to include it for a few reasons. One is that it was a pretty big hit and remains in rotation on classic rock radio even today, and it became a hit partly on the strength of its unusual rhythm, which is subtly in 5/4. In 1969, prog bands were just beginning to experiment with odd meters and complex time changes, and both would become staples of the genre, and this song is a perfect example of how pleasing the effect can be when it’s done with skill and musicality rather than for the sake of it. The second is that we have to feature Ian Anderson’s flute playing before we get too much further into this, because his unique style was hugely influential across the genre. Anderson was a self-taught flautist, and he only taught himself to play the instrument a few months before Jethro Tull recorded its debut album—he’d been a full-time guitarist to that point. In teaching himself to play, he made several errors in technique, all of which turned out to be to his benefit. In particular, his tendency to overblow and talk through his flute contributed to the originality of his playing, and a lot of other players found what they heard very exciting. Much later in his life, Anderson learned to play the flute properly, but it’s a good thing he waited as long as he did.

13. Colosseum: The Valentyne Suite: a) Theme One: January’s Speech b) Theme Two: February’s Valentyne c) Theme Three: the Grass Is Always Greener 16:56 

From the Vertigo LP Valentyne Suite

Colosseum’s Valentyne Suite was the first release on Philips’ new progressive and hard rock imprint, Vertigo. Its second side is devoted to the nearly 17-minute title track, which offers a pioneering fusion of jazz, rock, and classical form. It also brings this volume nicely full circle—it’s pretty easy to hear the parallels between Ian McDonald’s sax on “21st Century Schizoid Man” and Dick Heckstall-Smith’s playing here, particularly on slow theme that closes the suite. Dave Greenslade’s organ playing shows shades of Keith Emerson, but his incorporation of vibraphone, and the way the band quickly trade off leads sets this apart from a lot of other early prog, where extended soloing was more the norm. Colosseum had direct connections to the UK jazz scene—Heckstall-Smith had been active on the scene since the 50s, while Greenslade, bassist Tony Reeves and drummer John Hiseman had all started out playing in jazz combos, and they worked directly with jazz bandleader Neil Ardley on some of their arrangements. Every member of the group went on to play in other prog bands after the band broke up in 1971. Fun fact: guitarist James Litherland is the father of current critic’s darling James Blake.