U.K. Prog, Volume 14: 1974b Close to the Sun (Notes)

Our second 1974 volume is no less wide-ranging than the first, but it is also a bit more accessible, particularly to people not already well-attuned to the conventions and anti-conventions of the cluster of genres we call progressive rock. We still have three epics that outlast ten minutes and some hair-raising passages, but we’re not going down and Henry Cow or Yes-like rabbit holes here.

In fact, more so than on any previous volume, you should be able to hear the early hints of connection to a similarly nebulous later genre, post-punk, particularly on the offerings of King Crimson, Roxy Music and Brian Eno. People like to think of punk as a line drawn where prog ends, but it’s way more complicated than that, and if you dig around, you’ll find that prog and post-punk are as connected as they are distinct from each other.

We’ll see some more of those connections on future volumes, but in the meantime, we have some organ and grand piano solos to attend to, as well as late work by a veteran of the British Invasion, and just a bit of Renaissance Faire fare. Enjoy.

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1. The Neutrons: Living in the World Today 6:14

From the United Artists LP Black Hole Star

The Neutrons recorded two albums in the mid-70s; Black Hole Star was the debut. The band was a brainchild of keyboardist Phil Ryan and bassist Will Youatt, who had played together in Pete Brown’s Piblokto!, Man, and an earlier, go-nowhere group called Iolworth Pritchard and the Neutrons. Youatt and Ryan left Man in 1973, and put the Neutrons together from old friends and former bandmates, including former Incredible String Band violinist Stuart Gordon and Gentle Giant drummer John “Pugwash” Weathers, with whom Ryan had played in The Eyes of Blue in the late 60s (The Eyes of Blue made one pretty proggy album called Bluebell Wood in 1971 under the new name Big Sleep). The band’s melodic prog-psych style definitely had commercial potential for its time, but like Man, didn’t manage a breakthrough. “Living in the World Today” features some fantastic synth work from Ryan, as well as interesting vocal interplay between Youatt and Ryan (listen to it on headphones—they’re singing from opposite speakers). The Neutrons broke up in 1975, and Ryan made his way back to Man, but the band imploded in 1976, and he returned to working with Pete Brown—he’s doing soundtracks in Denmark these days.

2. Renaissance: Mother Russia 9:20

From the BTM LP Turn of the Cards

Renaissance had a convoluted history, having started as Keith Relf and Jim McCarty’s post-Yardbirds project and evolved through a head-spinning series of lineup changes into a completely different band. By the time of Turn of the Cards, the lineup had finally settled into a quintet featuring guitarist/composer Michael Dunford, bassist John Camp, drummer Terrence Sullivan, pianist John Tout, and powerful vocalist Annie Haslem. Along with lyricist Betty Thatcher, this is now considered by most to be the “classic” Renaissance lineup, though in its day, it was largely ignored by the UK rock press, building a bigger following in the US and especially the Northeast. “Mother Russia” is the album’s powerhouse closer and a good distillation of the classic Renaissance sound, with strong interplay between the band and the elaborate full-orchestra arrangements of Jimmy Horowitz, which here briefly quote Joaquín Rodrigo’s 1939 “Concierto de Aranjuez”. The song is based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which takes place in a brutal Stalin-era Siberian labor camp. The three-album run from Ashes Are Burning through Turn of the Cards to Scheherezade and Other Stories is Renaissance’s peak and a pretty much obligatory part of any well-curated prog collection.

3. Wolf: Black September 4:51

From the Deram LP Night Music

Darryl Way’s Wolf lasted just two years, but produced three solid albums of very accessible, violin-driven prog. The last of these, Night Music, is the most accomplished and sends the band out on a high note. “Black September” is, to me, the song that probably should have put Wolf on the pop charts—John Hodgkinson joined the original quartet on vocals for this album, and he gives them a warm, pop-friendly counterpart to Way’s intense violin leads. In fact, outside of his brief showcase three minutes into “Black September,” Way mostly sticks to electric piano on this song. When Wolf split after this album, Way briefly returned to his previous band, Curved Air, and then became something of a journeyman, playing briefly with Jethro Tull, Trace, and Gong before going solo. The other members remained active, too; bassist Derek Messacar joined first Caravan and then Strawbs, guitarist John Etheridge joined Soft Machine, and drummer Ian Mosley played in Trace and with Steve Hackett before joining Britain’s pre-eminent neo-prog band, Marillion, in 1984.

4. Jethro Tull: Sealion 3:41

From the Chrysalis LP War Child

Outside of their two single-track LPs, 1972’s Thick as a Brick and 1973’s A Passion Play, which I couldn’t very well feature on these compilations, War Child is Jethro Tull’s most overtly proggy album, featuring a lot of songs with wildly contrasting sections and complicated riffing. “Sealion” is the most compact example of this, blasting through nasty guitar/flute riffs, orchestrated verses, a bit of tipsy circus music, and a sort of Renaissance-y instrumental interlude in under four minutes. Jethro Tull is often thought of as Ian Anderson’s playground, and it mostly was, but the rest of the band deserves a lot of credit for the sound of War Child, keeping a song that could have easily gone out of control tight and concise.

5. Hatfield & the North: Son of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton’ 10:11

From the Virgin LP Hatfield & the North

The musicians who established Hatfield and the North in 1972 were already Canterbury veterans. Guitarist Phil Miller had played in Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole, his keyboardist brother Steve was fresh off a stint in Caravan, Pip Pyle was the original drummer for Gong, and bass/vocalist Richard Sinclair had also been in Caravan. They took their name from a London road sign directing motorists to the A1, which led to The North, via Hatfield. By the time they made their first album, Steve Miller was gone, replaced by Egg’s Dave Stewart, whose distinctive buzzy synthesizers also became a signature of his new band. The group’s albums have similar structures to the early Soft Machine records, with lots of short tracks flowing into one another and surrounding a handful of extended pieces. “Son of ‘There’s No Place Like Homerton’” is one of the extended pieces on their self-titled debut, and it typifies a distinctively Canterbury style of mostly instrumental rock that’s not quite fusion but not quite anything else either. The quietly woozy interlude features the voice of former Syporgyra lead singer Barbara Gaskin, and former Henry Cow member Geoff Leigh plays sax.

6. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: Earth Hymn 6:20

From the Bronze LP The Good Earth

South African-born keyboardist Manfred Mann and the band named for him had a couple of huge, enduring hits in the 60s with their covers of The Exciters’ “Doo-Wah-Diddy” and Bob Dylan’s “Mighty Quinn” (and a third UK #1 with “Pretty Flamingo,” which has been relatively forgotten). By the end of that decade, though, Mann himself was in different waters, leading the experimental jazz-rock group Manfred Mann Chapter Three. When that band broke up, Mann immediately put together a new one, which would become the Earth Band. The band got started at a break-neck pace, releasing four albums in two years. The Good Earth was their fifth, and solidified the heavier prog direction they’d struck out in on the previous LP, 1973’s Solar Fire, which included an adaptation of Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter.” “Earth Hymn” begins life as a deliberately paced, atmospheric, and almost funky song led by the vocals and guitar of Mick Rogers, but it shifts dramatically for its long instrumental coda, which is dominated by Mann’s zig-zagging Moog solos. We’ll visit with Mann again on a later volume.

7. Caravan: For Richard 14:18

From the Deram LP Caravan & the New Symphonia

A lot of prog bands made albums with orchestras—Procol Harum, Deep Purple, The Moody Blues, The Nice, Italy’s New Trolls and Dutch group Ekseption all spring to mind—and most of them justify with “with orchestra” billing by really doing something with the orchestra to give the band’s music a different dimension. Caravan’s album with the New Symphonia is one of these—the original LP featured the portion of a concert featuring both the band and the orchestra; the remaster appends the portion of the show featuring only the band. “For Richard” was a staple of the band’s live show, often closing their set, and this 14-minute take is the definitive version, rising from a quiet intro to a long, bombastic, and totally entertaining conclusion complete with fake-out ending. Electric violist Geoffrey Richardson pretty much steals the show in between with his range-y lead playingand aggressive solo. Leave it to Caravan as well to be the prog band that recorded with an orchestra and still managed to sound oddly humble about it.

8. Brian Eno: Baby’s On Fire 5:20

From the Island LP Here Come the Warm Jets

There are few figures in popular music as variously accomplished as Brian Eno, who’s had his fingers in all kinds of pies, from producing straight-up pop-rock albums to recording his own challenging rock records and ambient music to creating sound-art installations. He’s such a singular figure that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that he got his start as the keyboardist for Roxy Music, standing in the shadow of Bryan Ferry, though Eno’s flamboyant get-ups for the band’s photo shoots certainly drew the eye to him. Eno was never meant to be a member of a band, though, and he left Roxy Music after two albums, though he brought most of the band along for his solo debut—everyone but Ferry played on it, as did members of King Crimson, Matching Mole, Hawkwind, and the Pink Fairies, as well as solo artist and session guitarist Chris Spedding, who later was the producer of the Sex Pistols’ first demo recordings. The guitarist here, though, is Robert Fripp, who tears open the middle of “Baby’s on Fire with an absolutely obliterating solo that may be the least reserved thing he ever played. Eno’s lyrics are notable for how literally they take the song’s title—it is actually about a baby on fire and the reaction of clueless observers.

9. Gryphon: Ethelion 5:14

From the Transatlantic LP Midnight Mushrumps

A lot of bands played music that referenced Medieval and Renaissance music in the early 70s, but few of them committed to it the way Gryphon did. The band’s early albums are loaded with krumhorn, recorder, and bassoon and take compositional cues from ancient European folk music, twisting it into a somewhat more recognizable rock shape. The band released two albums in 1974; to be honest, the synthesizer-dominated Red Queen to Gryphon Three irritates me like few other albums do, but Midnight Mushrumps is earthier and more organic, and at least to my ears, this makes its jaunty instrumental themes a lot easier to take. “Ethelion” is the most endearing track on the album, with its sweeping, triple-meter melody and constantly shifting instrumentation. The band moved away from this sound on their last two albums before splitting in 1977. Most of the members went on to session work, soundtracks or theater music, but multi-instrumentalist Dave Oberlé went in a slightly less predictable direction when he helped found Kerrang!, a magazine devoted to hard rock.

10. Roxy Music: Triptych 3:09

From the Polydor LP Country Life

This is among the strangest little songs on Roxy Music’s already pretty strange early albums, and it follows pretty smoothly on from the Medieval stylings on Gryphon. Featuring, as it does, some especially archaic-sounding oboe from Andy Mackay, harpsichord, and an oddball choral passage, it’s hard not to hear this as the band’s nod to their baroque ‘n’ roll contemporaries, and perhaps their subtle message that they could do it just a bit better. The band had always teetered on a line between pop and prog, and they began to tilt more definitively toward pop after Country Life.

11. King Crimson: Starless 12:19

From the Island/E’G LP Red

King Crimson reached this point by traveling a tangled road that saw the band completely re-invented three times by guitarist Robert Fripp. In 1972, Fripp recruited percussionist Jamie Muir (Sunship and Derek Bailey), drummer Bill Bruford, who left Yes at the height of their early success to join the band, violinist/keyboardist David Cross, and bassist John Wetton, who had a lengthy resume including stints with Mogul Thrash and Family, and a ton of session work, including an appearance on former King Crimson bassist Gordon Haskell’s 1971 album It Is and It Isn’t. This band, which had lost Muir by the time Red was recorded, was a much more muscular and focused band than the lineups that preceded it, and its three albums are among King Crimson’s finest—together, they are perhaps the band’s creative peak. “Starless,” the final song on Red, is very nearly a summary of where the band had been to that point, opening with Mellotron-soaked verses and tightly controlled lead guitar from Fripp, but shifting to a long instrumental after the final refrain. That instrumental is a monumental piece of working, starting with a long, slow and dissonant climb anchored by Fripp’s nagging guitar part and Wetton’s nasty bass tone before climaxing in an explosion of saxophone (played by original Crimson member Ian McDonald). The wild, uptempo section that follows is a total thrill, and the slow recapitulation of the verse, with the melody played by former Crimso Mel Collins ends things with a finality that practically demanded that the band break up. And it did, until Fripp revived it in the 1980s. It would take a long time to discuss everything Fripp, Wetton, and Bruford did after Red, but suffice to say, they’ve all been quite successful, and this won’t be the last we hear from any of them in this series.