U.K. Prog, Volume 15: 1975 Fade of the Golden Age (Notes)

Progressive rock had ruled Britain for about six years by the time the calendar flipped to 1975, but the seams had been showing for some time, and it could be argued that from about 1967 onward, music had simply changed too quickly and too often for any one thing to capture the popular imagination for much longer than the time prog had already spent in the spotlight.

Simply put, things were changing, and in just two short years, hardly any new bands would be forming to play this kind of music, and the few that did were mostly comprised of people who had already played in the most successful prog bands. But we’re still a little ways off from super groups and punks.

1975 was not a bad year for prog rock in the UK, though the number of quality releases to choose from was definitely shrinking, and you could find self-parody pretty easily if you went looking for it. This volume collects tracks from some of the best releases that year (and overlooks a few classics, such as Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, which you probably already know). Enjoy.

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1. Steve Hackett: Ace of Wands 5:23
From the Charisma LP Voyage of the Acolyte

Peter Gabriel left Genesis after the band’s wildly ambitious 1974 double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. This left the band searching for a singer (and when they found one, it turned out that he conveniently was already their drummer) and catching its breath. Guitarist Steve Hackett took the opportunity to make his first solo album while Genesis regrouped, and Voyage of the Acolyte adds a nice little annex to the house of Genesis. Hackett certainly got to display his guitar skills in that band, but on this album, they are front and center nearly all the time. The guy could play, there’s no doubt (and he was doing a lot of double tapping before Van Halen came around, too), but he also had a strong sense of musicality, so all the crazy soloing, while it carries a whiff of liberation, still comes across as something you might enjoy listening to. “Ace of Wands,” named for a tarot card, is the opening track and features one of Hackett’s most blistering leads.

2. Nektar: Cybernetic Consumption 2:11
From the Decca LP Recycled

Nektar had begun playing a heavily psych-indebted form of prog rock, which may have partly been a product of the fact that they were British but based in Germany. In that country, symphonic prog was pushed to the margins in favor of a rock scene dominated by jazz-influenced improvisers, heavy psychedelia, and electronic experimentation. In 1973, their Remember the Future LP heralded a shift in direction to something less psych-oriented and more fully conceptual, and they followed it up with Down to Earth, a second concept LP. Recycled is also a concept album, but it’s split into two sides that take different angles on the concept. Side one is about a dystopian future, while side two offers a sort of backstory of the environmental degradation that leads to that future. “Cybernetic Consumption” isn’t explicitly part of that narrative, given that it’s an instrumental, but it plays into the narrative with its heavy mechanization and industrial sound effects. After this, Nektar’s sound changed again, becoming at once more eclectic and more pop-oriented. The band split in 1980.

3. Camel: Rhayader Goes to Town 5:20
From the Decca LP The Snow Goose

Camel’s first two albums were fairly eclectic symphonic prog albums with a prominent Canterbury influence. Their third album, the instrumental Music Inspired by the Snow Goose, took them in a somewhat different direction. The title was a tribute to Paul Gallico’s novel The Snow Goose, and the “Music Inspired by” tag was added after Gallico threatened to sue the band because he thought they were affiliated with the cigarette company Camel (it was an easy mistake to make, given that the band’s previous album had a cover based on the design of a pack of Camel cigarettes). I don’t really know how this is supposed to have anything to do with that novel—I assume that the tone of the music changes to reflect the plot or something like that—but the album features orchestral arrangements on many tracks and occasionally veers into something like proto-New Age. “Rhayader Goes to Town” is really more of a showcase for guitarist Andy Latimer and keyboardist Peter Bardens, who goes to town with his ring modulator during his solo. The shift to a slightly funkier beat mid-way through makes Latimer change up his phrasing, and for a little while, the band sounds quite a bit like Pink Floyd.

4. Strawbs: Ghosts (i) Sweet Dreams (ii) Night Light (iii) Guardian Angel 8:31
From the A&M LP Ghosts

Strawbs cut a lot of quality folk-rock and quite a few great short-form prog songs, but they really excelled when they put their heads down and constructed an epic. We heard “Autumn” back in 1973 (see Volume 11), and here is the band’s last great prog statement. “Ghosts” opens with a densely layered pile-up of harpsichord themes, which are joined by Leslie cabinet-aided guitar after the first verse. Dave Cousins is in his finest form throughout the song, on the soft opening verses, and then on the song’s up-tempo “Night Light” section, which features some of guitarist Dave Lambert’s best work with the band. He’s matched in intensity by Cousins here, whose “I hope your dreams are not like mine” hook is one of the strongest he ever wrote. The song fully recapitulates to John Hawken’s opening harpsichord fanfare for its optimistic final section. Songs like this are one of the reasons I’ve always loved prog rock—there’s little else that will take you on such a satisfying journey.

5. Brân: Y Gwylwyr 3:01
From the Sain LP Ail-Ddechra

One thing a lot of people from outside the United Kingdom forget is that the “United” actually means something. The country isn’t a single nation—it’s a collection of smaller nations with distinct cultural histories. Scotland, Northern Ireland, Man, Wales, and England share much, but they’re anything but interchangeable (and even smaller regions, such as Cornwall, have very distinct cultures and languages). Even after centuries of union with England, Wales has managed to maintain its ancient, pre-Roman language, and beginning in the late 60s, a pretty large crop of Welsh bands worked to combine Welsh folk music and language with rock and roll. Brân rose from this scene, and while they weren’t strictly a progressive rock band, a lot of the music on their first two albums fits the bill quite snugly. “Y Gwylwyr” has the knotty, harmonized guitar of John Gwyn and Gwyndaf Roberts and the pure-toned voice of keyboardist Nest Howells, which is practically engineered for singing antiquarian folk music, and it makes for an interesting fusion. We’ll visit with this band again on the next volume.

6. Quiet Sun: Sol Caliente 7:36
From the Island/E’G LP Mainstream

Quiet Sun was a one-off collaboration amongst several prog rock veterans and one hungry new drummer who’d go on to do some quite amazing things after the group split up. The veterans were Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, ex-Matching Mole bassist Bill MacCormick, ex-High Tide keyboardist Dave Jarrett, and producer Brian Eno. The hungry newcomer was drummer Charles Hayward, who would later join Gong and found the influential avant-rock groups This Heat and Camberwell Now, among his many other projects. Quiet Sun’s lone album, cheekily titled Mainstream, is an intense, mostly instrumental record with hints of Canterbury fusion, but also something a little darker and more experimental. “Sol Caliente” blazes like its title suggests, and Manzanera’s guitar in particular sounds like he’s just letting everything go after showing so much restraint in Roxy Music. Hayward’s drummer is already unorthodox and excitingly disorienting—he handles rhythm and meter a bit like Bill Bruford with less technique but a lot punky grit. After Quiet Sun, Manzanera and MacCormick continued to collaborate in their 801 project.

7. Chris Squire: Lucky Seven 6:54
From the Atlantic LP Fish Out of Water

Chris Squire was the heart of Yes. He played bass in his singular style and sang backup, sure, but he was also a creative force in the band and a source of stability—he was, in fact, the only member of the group to appear on every one of its studio albums and tours. It’s funny how people in bands together tend to wind up sounding similar. Here, on his first solo outing (the title refers to Squire’s nickname, the Fish), he sounds just a little like a less operatic Jon Anderson when he sings lead (and maybe a little like Sting, too). The song title refers to the meter of the song as well as the lyrics, and we get to hear something that only rarely happened in Yes: Squire plays a lot of lead bass on this track, and his bright, meaty tone, which always sounded so good backing up Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, works quite well stepping out in front.

8. Kestrel: In the War 7:31
From the Cube LP Kestrel

This song from the lone Kestrel album opens with what appears to be aimless jamming, with strong lead guitar and an odd-metered rhythm with an uncertain destination, but it’s just a fake-out. Before long, a strong riff comes sliding out of the tangle to get things pointed in the right direction. By this point, not a ton of bands were breaking out the Mellotron with any regularity—it had largely been replaced by easier-to-manage synths, though none sounded quite like it did—but Kestrel uses one on occasion, and it comes out full-bore for the final forty seconds of “In the War.” This song is somewhat indicative of where prog was in 1975. it has that into, and the jazz-inflected riff, and that first verse where the rhythm section drops out, not to mention the out-of-nowhere coda, but buried in all that is a pretty catchy, straightforward rock song about a soldier celebrating the fact that he gets to go home now. Kestrel, having won the right to record an album after years of toiling on low-level touring circuits in Britain, watched their album go nowhere commercially and called it a day. Guitarist Dave Black later spent years playing in David Bowie’s band.

9. Jethro Tull: Minstrel in the Gallery 8:13
From the Chrysalis LP Minstrel in the Gallery

It was 1975, and Jethro Tull was in its own universe, making records that critics hated or ignored, and that fans routinely placed on the charts. No one sounded like them, though, and Ian Anderson’s songwriting had a voice all its own. The title track of the band’s eighth album is like a little nutshell version of the things this band could do. The transition from the Tudor-era folk melodies of the opening verses to Martin Barre’s piling-drive guitar playing in the middle passage is almost hilarious, and I can’t think of another band that could have pulled it off so effortlessly—I think the band was having a bit of a laugh at the scribes who wouldn’t give them the time of day. Here’s the thing, though: the transition is handled with an intentionally heavy hand, but it turns out that the seemingly disparate pieces of music they’re stitching together fit quite nicely. Anderson resurrects his flute melody late in the song and places it directly on top of Barre’s riffing, and it works. Drummer Barriemore Barlow has nearly as much fun as Barre here, and it seems clear that the whole point of that crazy instrumental passage is to push things over the top. Tull’s saving grace was always its sense of humor, humor that can be seen in the band’s always weird publicity photos and heard in the flurry of riffs, double-stops and unaccompanied cowbell hits at the heart of this song. Tull, of course, buried all their critics, lasting into the 1990s with their unique aesthetics almost entirely intact.

10. Gong: Cat in Clark’s Shoes 7:44
From the Virgin LP Shamal

Here’s where Gong makes the shift fully into fusion from the wooly psych of their early days. The shift was enabled in part by the departure of the group’s founders, Daevid Allen and Gill Smyth, whose “pot-head pixie” aesthetic had ruled the band since day one. At this point, the group had more French than British members, and was still based in France—on their next album guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who isn’t even on Shamal, would be the only British member—and their sound reflected it, showing minor influences from France’s Zeuhl school of prog (particularly in the way the bass sometimes jumps into the lead). From here on, Gong became as much a brand as a band, with numerous spin-offs located all around the world, and the flagship group, which remained in France, bearing no resemblance, in membership or sound, to the band that made all those spacey psych albums back in the early 70s.

11. Gentle Giant: Mobile 4:49
From the Chrysalis LP Free Hand

In the late 70s, even Gentle Giant moved with the times and let their music become more streamlined and accessible, but 1975, they still had a lot of heavy prog fight in them, not to mention plenty of complex melodies and weird ideas about arrangement and rhythm. “Mobile” has a ludicrously catchy vocal melody that nevertheless never settles comfortably into any kind of conventional pop cadence, and even the quick jig that the song opens with has little chance to get our feet fully on the ground before the band starts kicking them out form under us. Some prog bands seemed to work to make their songs bigger and more difficult than they otherwise might have been. Kerry Minnear and the Schulman brothers actually seem to have thought about music in this demented way naturally. They made some great records on the strength of that natural bizarreness, and they’re one of a handful of bands I’d say is essential listening for anyone looking to build a deep understanding of 1970s prog rock in the United Kingdom.

12. Hatfield & the North: Share It 3:03
From the Virgin LP The Rotters’ Club

“Tadpoles keep screaming in my ear!” goes the opening line of “Share It.” In 1974, we heard Hatfield & the North’s expansive, experimental side. Here’s a look at their other, more concise and charmingly loopy side. “Please do not take it seriously” seems to have been a sort of mission statement for this band, and Richard Sinclair’s affable vocal sells the philosophy ably, as does Dave Stewart’s airy keyboard solo. Really, to see this band’s sense of humor, you don’t have to look much further than their tracklists, which include titles like “(Big) John Wayne Socks Pyschology on the Jaw,” “Gigantic Land Crabs in Earth Takeover Bid,” and “Your Majesty Is Like a Cream Donut.” The band split up after this album, but all of the members remained active, and we’ll hear three quarters of them again on a later volume, playing together in National Health.

13. Isotope: Frog 2:32
From the Gull LP Illusion

Isotope, a fusion group that released three mid-70s LPs, was another band loosely in the Canterbury orbit—their bass player was Hugh Hopper, who had once been a member of the original Canterbury band, Wilde Flowers, and went on to play in Soft Machine. The band’s sound here, though, was dominated by guitarist Gary Boyle, who uses the squishy keyboards of “Frog” launchpad for his own virtuoso explorations. Isotope was a decidedly unstable band—they were already on their second lineup when they recorded this album, and Hopper was mostly out by the time they recorded their last one. In its last days, the band was a stopover for keyboardist Geoff Downes on his way to The Buggles (not to mention Yes and Asia).

14. Mandalaband: Roof of the World 4:34
From the Chrysalis LP Mandalaband

David Rohl had been in a band called Anhk in the late 60s, but spent the early 70s working as a photographer. By the time he put together Mandalaband, the type of dramatic, complex music he wanted to make was already on the decline, but that didn’t stop him from helming an ambitious and ultimately very impressive concept album about the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the subsequent efforts of Tibetans to reclaim their national identity. “Roof of the World” is directly about the destruction of Tibetan culture by the Chinese, even going so far as to use the word genocide. Rohl didn’t actually play in the band, serving instead as composer and producer (he was aided by engineer Tim Friese-Greene, who would achieve a kind of fame working with Talk Talk in the 1980s). There was a second Mandalaband album, but it was a completely different type of project, pieced together by Rohl after the original group broke up with the help of Barclay James Harvest and members of the Moody Blues and Steeleye Span.

15. Mike Oldfield: On Horseback 3:24
From the b-side to Virgin ZS8 9505

It’s been impossible to include anything by Mike Oldfield to this point, because his first two solo albums both feature one single composition stretched out over both LP sides. Actually, his third album, Ommadawn, does too, but the side two portion of that composition was actually only thirteen minutes long, which is manageable by Oldfield’s standards. “On Horseback” was originally released as the b-side to a single edit of “Ommadawn,” and while it’s hardly Oldfield’s biggest prog gesture, it is a relatively bite-sized taste of his aesthetic universe, surrounding its schoolyard sing-along chorus with mumbly spoken word, ghostly slide guitar, and a bank of whimsical keyboards. Oldfield was an active player in the London prog world, appearing as a session player on numerous albums; he had also been a member of Kevin Ayers’ band The Whole World and played in a duo with his sister Sally, who began releasing albums of her own in 1978 (Mike and Sally’s brother Terry is also a musician).

16. Fripp & Eno: Wind on Wind 3:11
From the Island/E’G LP Evening Star

We’re going to close out 1975 on a contemplative note. Robert Fripp and Brian Eno were two of the most productive eccentrics in London’s music scene, and their brainy approaches to music complemented each other quite nicely. They first collaborated in 1973 on the monumental No Pussyfooting LP, an album that probably did more to establish the template for drone-based ambient music than any other. After Fripp put King Crimson to bed in 1974, the two reconvened and recorded Evening Star, which takes at least in part a gentler and more melodic approach to the loop-based music they first made on No Pussyfooting. “Wind on Wind” is beautifully contemplative, and takes really no appreciation of the conceptual and technical underpinnings of its creation to enjoy.