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.