U.K. Prog, Volume 13: 1974a Paths Diverge (Notes)

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.

Download the mix here

1. Supertramp: School 5:34

From the A&M LP Crime of the Century

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. bmichael said: Wow good work here