U.K. Prog, Volume 7: 1971a Halcyon Days (Notes)

As I said in my notes for Volume 5, the early 1970s were progressive rock’s heyday in the U.K. On the two 1971 volumes, you’ll see a lot of new bands, mixed in with a healthy sprinkling of old friends. This was a fluid scene, and we’ll see some of the turnover in the way musicians who might have appeared on the last volume in one band are now popping up here in another.

Another thing that the next several volumes will explore is the ways in which the initial prog explosion generally affected rock in the U.K. Not everything here is some symphonic odyssey (or odessey, if you prefer) or jazz-rock jam. There are selections like Still Life’s “Don’t Go,” which sounds a bit like Faces going slightly prog. Not every band in the U.K. adopted progressive rock, obviously, but the genre’s ascendance kicked down a lot of doors, and I don’t want to ignore the crossovers and attempts to cross over.

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1. Electric Light Orchestra: 10538 Overture 5:32

From the Harvest LP Electric Light Orchestra

Electric Light Orchestra might be the ultimate prog crossover, but the massive commercial success the achieved under the leadership of Jeff Lynne was still to come. On their first LP (titled No Answer in the US after a telephone miscommunication), the band wasn’t Lynne’s playground yet. He still shared it with Roy Wood, and between the two of them, they arrived at a startling and highly original vision of orchestral rock. Make no mistake, ELO’s first album is bizarre, with none of the streamlined rock + strings =££££££ pop genius of their later years. First of all, the production puts everything in the red, from the guitars to the cellos to the oboes. It’s a loud, heavy record, but in the weirdest way possible, and every sound has a raw immediacy. “10538 Overture,” written by Lynne, is a lurching beast of a tune, sung in his most nasal head voice, and the open-wound hacking of Wood’s cello is matched by Bev Bevan’s caveman pounding on the drums and the occasional burst of hunting horn.

2. Audience: Jackdaw 7:28

From the Charisma LP The House on the Hill

A jackdaw is a type of bird common to Britain and much of the rest of Europe. They’re rather serious-looking. Howard Werth seems to be using it as a stand-in for a good-for-nothing freeloader here, though. Werth’s incredibly gritty lead vocal is one of the things that makes this song so incredibly absorbing, but it’s only one. The band’s flirtations with jazz during the long instrumental passage in the middle and generally interesting way with texture (the acoustic guitar set against Keith Gemmell’s harmonized sax lines, for example) set them apart, even on the Charisma label, with was also home to Van der Graaf Generator, another band that made tremendously inventive use of the sax. For their last two LPs, including this one, the band was joined by Gus Dudgeon on percussion—Dudgeon already had a long career as an engineer and producer for Decca, and would go on to work with Elton John at the height of his success, among many others.  

3. Still Life: Don’t Go 4:37

From the Vertigo LP Still Life

Still Life formed in the late 60s and lasted for several years, though the band only ever managed one album for Vertigo (Vertigo releases generally had great artwork, and the gatefold on this one is particularly gorgeous). One thing I didn’t even notice the first time I listened to it is that they had no guitarist at all—everything one would have played is covered by keyboardist Terry Howells. If I had to come up with a hyphenate to describe their music, something along the line of roots-prog might do—part of the earthy feel of their music comes from Martin Cure’s lead vocals, which have shades of Rod Stewart around the edges. The band’s informal harmonies add to the effect. In a different era, these guys probably would have been playing straight blues rock.

4. Uriah Heep: Look at Yourself 5:09

From the Bronze LP Look at Yourself

Here’s another from the borderlands. Uriah Heep were a pioneering hard rock band, one of the handful that can legitimately be said to have helped invent heavy metal. They also had their heavy prog side, especially early on, recording their share of lengthy, organ driven workouts, with a healthy side of wizards, demons and other fantasy world creatures. Roger Dean even pitched in for a couple of album covers. Look At Yourself wasn’t one of them—it had a piece of reflective foil stuck to the front of it in a mirror frame so you could… look at yourself in the album cover. This song was a fair hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and it’s no wonder. It’s catchy, and for all its impressive guitar and organ pyrotechnics, it really moves. I think this is a good example of the myriad ways in which progressive rock had wider ripple effects through the British rock world in the early 70s.

5. Jan Dukes de Grey: Mice and Rats in the Loft 8:21

From the Transatlantic LP Mice and Rats in the Loft

Yorkshire-based Jan Dukes de Gray got their start in 1969 as an acid folk duo (and a very good one at that!), and their first LP, Sorcerers, is a fine example of that subgenre. For their second album, Derek Noy and Michael Bairstow added drummer Denis Conlan, ditched a lot of the more eclectic instrumentation of their debut, and turned in a wild, often thrilling follow-up that spreads just three loosely structured tracks over its two sides. The title track is the shortest and most direct of the three, riding Conlan’s frenzied percussion through a psychedelic hellstorm of squealing sax and distortion-drenched guitar. Noy’s vocals ride a line between singing and theatrical bellowing, and the thing never relents for even a second. It’s hard to maintain this kind of intensity over any time span—they do it or more than eight minutes, and it’s a must-hear.

6. Motiffe: Analogy 6:17

From the Deroy LP …Motiffe

Motiffe were a pretty basic jazz-rock group, but they were a talented one—flautist Ian Wilson and guitarist John Grimaldi were both excellent soloists, and the rhythm section was strong too. Their talent never led to a record deal, though, and their lone album was a private press affair that’s nonetheless developed a decent and deserved reputation over the years. The only unfortunate thing about the album is that, in 1971, affordable recording equipment wasn’t quite what it is today, and the record’s fidelity is pretty low, which is definitely not typical for a prog release. That doesn’t prevent it from being enjoyable, though, and the waltzing “Analogy” is a particular standout, with a good sense of dynamics, especially when Mick Avery’s electric piano takes over in the second half.

7. Kevin Ayers: There Is Loving/Among Us/There Is Loving 7:23

From the Harvest LP Whatevershebringswesing

Kevin Ayers was there at the birth of the Canterbury scene, joining the Wilde Flowers early and going on to co-found the Soft Machine. He wasn’t exactly a local, though. He’d grown up for much of his childhood in Malaysia, an experience that caused him to leave Britain for sunnier climes often later in his career. He wrote most of his first solo album in Ibiza, for instance. By the time of Whatevershebringswesing, he’d developed a unique personality on record, one as prone to whimsy and a good musical joke as it was to experimentation and sophisticated composition. This three parter ranks among his most ambitious album tracks, and it skims what it wants from several genres, taking care to step on all the cracks in between. At 3 minutes, it sounds as though it’s going to transform from an off-kilter small chamber work into an all-out Isaac Hayes soul epic, but instead it boils down instead of boiling over, and finds its way back to oddball orchestration. Ayers remained active right through the 80s, and recently returned after a long layoff.

8. Kingdom Come: No Time + Internal Messenger 6:15

From the Polydor LP Galactic Zoo Dossier

After his Crazy World band fell apart with the loss of Carl Palmer and Vincent Crane, Arthur Brown put together a new crew that could take him places just as wild as the ones he’d been hanging out in. Kingdom Come’s debut is patchy, but it has several awesome heavy prog tracks that carry traces of the blue and psych that colored the Crazy World albums. And of course, there’s Brown’s eternally freaked-out voice, leading the way with yelps and shouts into the cosmic void. Crane replacement, Michael Harris does some wonderful things on the organ here, not only in his lead playing, but also to accent the many shifts in the track’s direction. By this point, Brown had lost the shock factor that helped catapult him to fame in the late 60s. Kingdom Come kept him in the the hunt, and ultimately became the vehicle for some of his best music.

9. Fuzzy Duck: Country Boy 6:04

From the MAM LP Fuzzy Duck

Speaking of bands that retained a bit of the heavy blues of the late 60s proto-prog years, here’s Fuzzy Duck, yet another one-shot group (this one with terrible album art that nonetheless gave the band its name). Most of the band members were vets—organist Roy Sharland came from a late version of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, drummer Paul Francis had played in early hard rock band Tucky Buzzard, and bassist Mick Hawksworth was coming off the breakup of Andromeda. Guitarist/vocalist Graham White fit right in with them, and their album is a pleasingly heavy and relatively straightforward prog outing, though it still loves its tempo changes and sophisticated lead playing. The band was short-lived. Paul Francis had the most prominent career afterward, joining Tranquility, a pop-rock band with the occasional progressive flourish (their “Couldn’t Possibly Be” is a personal favorite).

10. Wishbone Ash: Vas Dis 4:46

From the MCA LP Pilgrimage

Wishbone Ash were among the best of the huge crop of hard rock groups that arose as the last major wave of psych receded. Led by the twin-guitar attack of Andy Powell and Ted Turner, they played in a complex, heavily prog-tinged style with occasional forays into classical structures and mythology-based lyrics. This song, the opener of their second album, actually shines as bright a spotlight on the band’s crack rhythm section of bassist Martin Turner (no relation to Ted) and drummer Steve Upton. Turner is the engine of this song, with its odd wordless vocal and deep groove. We’ll hear form these guys again on a later volume.

11. Spring: Gazing 5:51

From the RCA/Neon LP Spring

For every band that released one album and promptly found the exit, it seems there’s another that managed to squeeze out two and do the same. Spring fall in that category, and their first LP is a good one, following somewhat in the footsteps of the Moody Blues, albeit with a guitarist much more firmly rooted in the blues. Still, that guitarist and two other members played Mellotron, and the instrument is pivotal in defining the overarching texture of the album—if you love the swelling sound of that instrument, you’ll find plenty to like on this LP. “Gazing” is a pretty good representative of the band’s range and overall sound.

12. Dr. Z: Summer for the Rose 4:36

From the Vertigo LP Three Parts to My Soul “Spiritus, Manes et Umbra”

There were a lot of bass-drums-keys trios roaming the prog landscape by 1971—ELP were only the biggest. Where most keyboardists in those bands preferred the Hammond organ and maybe flirted with the Moog, Keith Keyes seems to have preferred the harpsichord, a predilection that gives the band an instantly distinctive sound on its only album. Keyes’ reedy vocals are actually a strong match for the harpsichord, and the band manages a fairly heavy sound in spite of being led by two rather delicate instruments. Keyes was a professor, and his lyrics put a decidedly intellectual twist on the usual mysticism and brotherly love themes (I also like his appropriation of terms from the Catholic mass, such as “kyrie eleison”). This was released on Vertigo, but in a ludicrously tiny run of less than a hundred copies. It’s been rescued from oblivion many times by reissue labels, though, and it’s one of the most fun U.K. prog obscurities I’ve come across.

13. Egg: Contrasong 4:25

From the Deram LP The Polite Force

Egg was also a keys-bass-drums trio, though Dave Stewart fell pretty thoroughly in the organ-and-synth camp. One important thing to note about Egg is that it was a very democratic band, with compositions and ideas contributed by all. Bassist/vocalist Mont Campbell wrote a lot of their material. We heard from them earlier, playing a light, airy version of a Bach fugue—“Contrasong” is a very different animal, riding a sinister odd-metered groove bolstered by a taut horn arrangement. It’s also a concise distillation of what a lot of the very best progressive rock did, presenting lopsided, ambitious material in a memorable and accessible way. Egg made one final album before splitting, but it wasn’t nearly the last we heard from any of the members, all of whom moved on to other groups after the split (and in Stewart’s case, before the split—he’d already joined Hatfield & the North).

14. Atomic Rooster: Tomorrow Night 4:00

From the B&C LP Death Walks Behind You

Vincent Crane had to completely rebuild Atomic Rooster to record the band’s second album after the departure of bassist/vocalist Nick Graham and drummer Carl Palmer. He did pretty well for himself, recruiting drummer Paul Hammond from The Farm and guitarist/vocalist John Du Cann from Andromeda. The resulting LP, Death Walks Behind You, is an early prog touchstone, with a heavy sound and, thanks to Hammond, an unusually funky underpinning. Du Cann’s vocals fit nicely with Crane’s organ work, though anyone who’s heard Andromeda will likely lament that his guitar is kept on a much shorter leash in this band. With the addition of vocalist Pete French, this lineup lasted for one more album, until Crane had to completely rebuild the band again—that version of the band moved sharply away from its prog rock origins into boogie and hard rock and frankly just wasn’t as interesting as the early versions of the band.

15. Fields: A Place to Lay My Head 3:41

From the CBS LP Fields

How many one-album bands can we fit on a single UK Prog volume? A lot, apparently, and here’s one more. Fields didn’t come out of nowhere like Dr. Z, though. They were lead by former Rare Bird keyboardist Graham Field, and included former King Crimson drummer Andy McCullough as well. Bassist/guitarist/vocalist Alan Barry rounded out the group, and much like Still Life their sound fell somewhere in the wide swath of grey between prog and more conventional strains of rock and roll. “A Place To Lay My Head” even carries shades of gospel in its chord progression, though the strange rhythm on the coda knocks it pretty firmly back into progland. Fields had a tough time forcing CBS to release its album, and the strain broke the band up. McCullough found his way to the drum chair in Greenslade, while the others made their way backstage and did session work.

16. Comus: Diana 4:34

From the Dawn LP First Utterance

We’ve heard the magisterial prog-folk of Fairport Convention and Pentangle, but neither will quite prepare you for the batshit crazy prog-folk of Comus. “Diana” has a chorus worthy of a pop song, but everything else about it is off the rails. That this band, whose music seethes with aggressive sensuality, was named for a masque by John Milton written in praise of chastity will never make sense to me. The tweaked, jittery vocals of Roger Wootton and Bobbie Watson are just the most noticeably weird element of the song. Check out Andy Hellaby’s bass line at the beginning, for instance, or Glen Goring’s slide guitar. Rob Young was usually the band’s oboist and flautist, but here he contributes the hand drums that underpin Colin Pearson’s pulse-quickening violin break. And this is not nearly the wildest song on the album—in fact, it’s probably the most accessible. The band didn’t quite make it out of this alive; when they finally reconvened for a second album in 1974, only three of the original six members remained.

Tags: UK Prog Notes