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.

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1. Caravan: Memory Lain, Hugh - Headloss 9:20 

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.

10. Emerson Lake & Palmer: Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression 7:07

From the Manticore LP Brain Salad Surgery

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.