U.K. Prog, Volume 17: 1977-79 The Age of Dinosaurs (Notes)

I considered titling this volume After the Fall, but that seemed a little melodramatic. Prog didn’t go anywhere after punk erupted from the underground. Its most successful acts kept playing arenas. Some even adapted to the times. What really happened to progressive rock from 1977 to 1979 is that it got broken down into its constituent molecules, and those molecules were absorbed into other things. They became a part of bands and singers who wouldn’t ever have thought of themselves as progressive rock bands.

Kate Bush got some of those molecules. So did David Bowie. People think of Wire as one of the ur-punk bands. But what do you think 154 would have sounded like if the band hadn’t marinated in progressive rock? Nothing Wire did was any less conceptually high-minded than anything a prog band had ever set its musicianship to. These ideas didn’t die. They were repackaged and critics put up a bunch of walls to help us forget where they came from.

This will be the last volume in this series to cover the chronological progression of UK prog. The final three volumes, which will be released all at once in a big blow-out next Monday, deal with the aftermath in a much looser way. I hope people have enjoyed the journey to this point.

Download the mix here

1. Peter Gabriel: Moribund the Burgermeister 4:20 (1977)
From the Charisma LP Peter Gabriel

As we already heard on the last volume, Peter Gabriel left Genesis during the demanding tour for their Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album. He took three years to emerge with his first solo statement, and when he did, it was an impressive one. Where Genesis made their transition from all-out prog to FM-ready pop over the course of several albums (1974’s Lamb through 1979’s Duke, really), Gabriel kind of does it all on one album. His debut, nicknamed Car for its striking Hipgnosis cover, includes his breakout pop hit “Solsbury Hill” as well as a clutch of much harsher, more experimental material, a pattern he’d repeat on his other two self-titled records. Album opener “Moribund the Burgermeister” is one of those; with its Banks-ian keyboard fanfares, weird, warbly synth, and complex structure, it sounds a bit like, well, it sounds like Genesis. Gabriel’s old band had its big breakout pop hit just a few months later in 1978, with “Follow You Follow Me,” and from there on, the two grew in popularity in almost eerie tandem, as both embraced pop without giving up their progressive tendencies completely.

2. Anthony Phillips: Which Way the Wind Blows 5:54 (1977)
From the Passport LP The Geese & the Ghost

Long before Peter Gabriel left Genesis, Anthony Phillips left Genesis. He’d been the group’s original guitarist, but left in 1970 after the band made Trespass, citing stage fright as Genesis got bigger. He cut a low profile for most of the 70s, occasionally doing studio work with his old bandmates, and finally went solo in 1977. His first album features big contributions from Genesis’ Mike Rutherford, as well as flute played by John Hackett, the brother of the guitarist who replaced Phillips in Genesis. Phil Collins can be heard singing on this track, and the whole thing sounds very much like it could have been one of the quiet, folk-influenced tracks from an early 70s Genesis album, along the lines of “More Fool Me” (which was Collins’ first lead vocal for Genesis). Collins even sounds a little like Peter Gabriel. Phillips’ initial solo work nearly all has a low-key, pastoral prog vibe, almost as if he was hoping no one would notice he was putting these albums out in a world ruled by disco and New Wave.

3. The Alan Parsons Project: Genesis Ch. 1 V. 32 3:31 (1977)
From the Arista LP I Robot

The Alan Parsons Project never managed to score a big hit in the U.K., but their second album yielded a big one in North America in the form of “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” which wears a big disco influence on its sleeve. The I Robot LP generally sounds pulled in several directions at once, with the band attempting to combine strains of prog, New Wave, disco, and pop into something all its own and nearly succeeding. They attempt to tie it all together with a loose concept (robots, naturally), and this, the album closer is meant to be the exclamation point—there are only 31 verses in Genesis Chapter 1. The implication of referencing a nonexistent verse of Genesis is supposed to be that Man is attempting to create the robot in his own image (hence the new verse), as it helpfully informs us in the liner notes. Mostly, though, it’s a digestible, three-and-a-half-minute love letter to a sound that was itself slowly going extinct, its synthesized choir fading slowly over the last minute of the song.

4. England: Paraffinalea 4:16 (1977)
From the Arista LP Garden Shed

The global popularity of Yes spawned a lot of bands that strove to sound like them, from Starcastle in the USA to Saecula Saeculorum in Brazil to England in… England. It was pretty inevitable that a prog band from somewhere in England would name itself England (there was also a hard rock group called England), and it’s sort of funny that they’d go one further and name their first album after something as thoroughly English as the garden shed (“The Garden Shed” could easily be the title of a Wallace & Gromit short). The style at the time, of course, was to be very angry about the way things were in England—it could be argued that the punkest album released by a British band in 1977 was actually Pink Floyd’s eminently pissed-off Animals—not reverent about gardening as a way of life. England were in a hopeless situation sounding like this in 1977 to begin with, though, so it hardly mattered what they chose to sing about. Stripped of temporal context, though, Garden Shed is charming and accessible, if derivative, symphonic prog that might have fared quite well on the chart four years earlier. The band offers a sort of alternate universe Yes, where that band got friendlier instead of making Relayer.

5. Procol Harum: The Mark of the Claw 4:39 (1977)
From the Chrysalis LP Something Magic

The last time we heard from Procol Harum was a long time ago—they appeared on both Volumes 1 and 2. the band was still around in 1977, but like many of their contemporaries, they found themselves a target for critics and at the lowest ebb of their commercial fortunes. Something Magic was to be the band’s last album prior to a reunion in the early 90s, and they kind of went for it, cutting a 19-minute epic called “The Worm and the Tree” that features a lot of hyperdramatic instrumental passages and some turgid spoken word (lyricist Keith Reid claims the story of the worm and the tree was an allegory for critics trying to sink the band). By all accounts, the band’s relationship with producers Ron and Howie Albert was thorny, which could partly account for how spikey and dissonant the music gets at times. “The Mark of the Claw” is especially nasty, with its heavy guitar and bright, in-your-face synthesizer solo. Something Magic had no magic for the band’s waning fortunes, and they split up following their North American tour in support of the album.

6. This Heat: 24 Track Loop 5:56 (1979)
From the Piano LP This Heat

We met drummer Charles Hayward in this series playing with Phil Manzanera in Quiet Sun. When that band broke up, Hayward was briefly in Gong, and then worked with several other bands, including Dolphin Logic and Radar Favourites. It was in these two bands that he first worked with Charles Bullen, and in 1976, he and Bullen recruited Gareth Williams to form This Heat. Today, we’d most likely refer to This Heat’s aesthetic as post-punk, but at the time there were few words for what they were doing. They combined live performance with heavy tape editing, a technique that’s right in the title of “24 Track Loop.” The song takes the band’s live studio performances and puts them through the electonic ringer to create something that’s as much soundscape as song. This was never going to be a path to commercial success, but emphasizing experimentation was one way for progressive rock to adjust to a post-punk reality. I’ve mentioned bridges between prog and punk before—Hayward certainly is another. His own groups have often bridged the two worlds stylistically, and in addition to Gong and Quiet Sun he’s also played with Crass and Blurt.

7. Steve Hillage: The Glorious Om Riff 7:47 (1978)
From the Virgin LP Green

On the last volume, we heard Steve Hillage go from ambient psych to future funk. “The Glorious Om Riff” is full-on electronic rock, with keyboards that sound like guitars and guitars that sound like keyboards (some of the credit for this sound has to go to producer Nick Mason—this is probably his most impressive job behind the boards). Hillage had been around Europe a lot, and it seems likely that he was well familiar with the music of continental experimenters like Kraftwerk, Cluster, and Franco Battiato, but none of them quite combined rippling electronic textures with artsy rock the way Hillage did. This music is pretty close to tipping over into New Wave—a lot of similar textures would be employed in the service of pop songs over the next several years. Hillage has remained very active over the years, as a record producer (Simple Minds, Robin Hitchcock, The Charlatans, and many others), and performer. He went fully into ambient music with 1979’s Rainbow Dome Musick; today he and Miquette Giraudy play together in an electronic duo called System Seven.

8. National Health: Borogoves (Part 1) 6:35 (1977)
From the Affinity LP National Health

National Health was, for all intents, the last hurrah of Canterbury prog. Comprised of members and associates who’d played in Arzachel/Uriel, Egg, Matching Mole, Delivery, Hatfield & the North, Caravan, Khan, Gilgamesh, Colosseum II, Gong, Cozy Powell’s Hammer, and Soft Machine, among others (Bill Bruford was the band’s drummer at first, but moved on before they recorded), National Health made intensely complex instrumentals that buzzed with a dual synthesizer attack and had no commercial potential in 1977. “Borogoves (Part One)” exemplifies the band’s melodic and rhythmic approach, but one thing that a relatively short track like this (chosen in part to fit it on this mix) can’t show is how intense their music could get when they really got cooking. If you like the sound of this at all, definitely try to hear the fifteen-minute “Tenemos Roads,” which is the band’s masterwork. In varying lineups, National Health persisted into the early 80s, playing to a cult audience, and all of the members remained in music long after the band wet their separate ways.

9. U.K.: The Only Thing She Needs 7:55 (1979)
From the Polydor LP Danger Money

U.K. was the only type of new prog band that could make decent money in the late 70s: a supergroup. When Robert Fripp disbanded King Crimson in 1975, bassist/vocalist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford moved on to other projects, but found they still wanted to work together. They agreed that each would invite one other musician into the band. Wetton brought in violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson, who’d played with Curved Air, Roxy Music and Frank Zappa, and Bruford invited guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who was fresh off a stint with Gong. After one LP, Jobson and Wetton sacked Holdsworth, and Bruford followed him out the door. The remaining members replaced him with former Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio and hit the studio for a follow-up. “The Only Thing She Needs,” all eight minutes of it, is the closest thing to a radio-ready single on the album. In fact, if one were to make a four-minute edit of the song cutting out the lengthy instrumental jam, it might actually have some airwave potential. Wetton was a very direct vocalist and could sell a song (he’d sell a whole lot of them in the 80s when he co-founded Asia). Shorter songs was actually the route he wanted to pursue with UK, but Jobson didn’t agree, and the band split up. Jobson joined Jethro Tull and Bozzio formed Missing Persons with his wife, Dale.

10. Camel: Summer Lightning 6:10 (1978)
From the Decca LP Breathless

In which Camel goes disco and makes the best song on any of its late 70s LPs. Camel was perhaps the most popular of the second-tier prog bands—their cult has endured in force to this day—but the original quartet never quite broke through. Founding bassist Doug Ferguson left in 1976 and was replaced by former Caravan and Hatfield & the North bassist Richard Sinclair. Caravan fans will recognize Sinclair’s distinctive voice on this song, which perhaps the only song in the band’s whole 70s repertoire you can dance to. Andy Latimer’s guitar solo is one of his grittiest. After Breathless, Camel’s membership, relatively stable to this point, underwent major shifts, with the departure of keyboardist Peter Bardens and Sinclair. The band remained consistently active through the mid-80s and has reunited several times.

11. David Bowie: Blackout 3:49 (1977)
From the RCA LP “Heroes”

Bowie’s glam rock period and androgynous image were important influences on punk and New Wave style in the late 70s, but when punk was breaking, Bowie was in Berlin, working with Brian Eno and Robert Fripp. The records he made there are touchstones in part for the way they sit so oddly in the middle of everything that was happening at the time, from late-period prog to the German avant-garde to post-punk and early New Wave. There’s not much on these records I’d call prog outright, but in its searching experimentalism, it has the spirit of early prog without the indulgence that doomed the genre. Bowie’s odd vocal harmonies and completely counterintuitive melodies on “Blackout” are one expression of that quest for something different. The Berlin trilogy ran out of steam after “Heroes,” and Bowie returned to a more overt pop style in the 80s, but for a few albums, the doors were wide open on his music, and you never knew what might happen next.

12. Skywhale: Hydraulic Fever 7:20 (1977)
From the Firebrand LP The World at Mind’s End

These days, Bristol is known for trip-hop, but long before the city had a signature sound, it gave us Skywhale, which has to be one of the most amusing names of any band to come out of the UK’s prog and fusion scene in the 70s. Led by multi-instrumentalist Steve Robshaw, the band definitely leaned toward the fusion side of things, though passages of “Hydraulic Fever” where the meter changes just about every bar show their debt to prog, as do the Zappa-with-less-fuss horn themes of the song’s second half. Skywhale’s debut album is strong and tuneful, but the band toiled in obscurity, and never made another record.

13. Kate Bush: Hammer Horror 4:40 (1978)
From the EMI LP Lionheart

Kate Bush wasn’t a progressive rock artist, per se, but she would have been basically impossible without the precedent of prog. Thing is, the fashion shifted in favor of punk and New Wave, but people’s appetites didn’t necessarily change—people simply sought new ways to get what they wanted, and her theatrical, complex music, packaged into concise, memorable songs, was a perfect surrogate for the prog no one was making anymore. I really do think that a large portion of the UK’s record-buying public missed what it had gotten from prog at its best, and here was someone making boldly ambitious, big-budget music, who was also willing to wear the lion costume when the situation called for it. “Hammer Horror,” which takes its title from a film subgenre associated with London-based production company Hammer Film Productions, concerns the story of an actor haunted by the man he replaced in a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which wasn’t atypical of Bush’s lyrical concerns (her breakthrough hit had been “Wuthering Heights,” after all), and its orchestral arrangement and sharp lead guitar behaved as though punk hadn’t even happened. Bush went on to become one of Britain’s most successful female solo artists, and she still makes thoughtful, ambitious pop music today.

14. Art Bears: Moeris, Dancing 5:06 (1978)
From the Rē LP Hopes and Fears

In 1978, Henry Cow launched the Rock in Opposition movement with a concert that also included four continental European bands, Sweden’s Samla Mammas Manna, Belgium’s Univers Zero, Italy’s Stormy Six, and France’s Etron Fou Leloublan. The term, abbreviated to RiO, is today often used as a genre tag, but it was a real organization at the time, with a membership. Even they started the RiO organization, though, Henry Cow’s members were growing apart, and the band disintegrated not long after the concert. Guitarist Fred Frith and drummer Chris Cutler got together with ex-Slapp Happy vocalist Dagmar Krause to form Art Bears, which along with France’s Art Zoyd and Belgium’s Aksak Maboul, also joined the RiO organization. The folly of using RiO as a genre tag is that there really is no definitive RiO sound. These were bands that were united more by attitude than musical content, and more than anything, the term has come to refer to complex music with a heavy emphasis on dissonance and non-American harmony, as well as a generally experimental, non-commercial structure. Art Bears’ music certainly fits that description, as “Moeris, Dancing” attests. This was weird music made by musicians who didn’t particularly care how many people bought the records. Which, come to think of it, is pretty punk. RiO as an organization ended after a second collective concert in 1979, but the bands and their members stayed involved in music, and the vocabulary they developed, both musical and polemical, has endured and proliferated.

15. The Walker Brothers: The Electrician 6:08 (1978)
From the GTO LP Nite Flights

The Walker Brothers had been a hugely successful pop act in the 1960s. Comprised of three American ex-pats (none of whom were actually named Walker), they’d made run after run at the charts during their original run from 1964 to 1968. They broke up to go solo, but only Scott Walker managed to produce a large and substantial body of solo work (it’s worth checking out the singles made by Gary Walker & the Rain, though), and in the 70s, they reconvened to make a couple albums of bland, if well-performed, pop. And then they did this. Nite Flights is a weird album, divided into sections where each member writes and sings. Scott Walker’s four songs, which dominate side one, were sharply different from anything the group had attempted before, delving into strange, avant-garde arrangements and textures that laid groundwork for his sporadic solo career in the decades that followed. “The Electrician” may be the oddest of all for the way it inserts an orchestrated instrumental interlude that sounds very much like the kind of easy listening the group’s fans might have hoped for, smack in between droning and disquieting verses that have no interest in pop accessibility. This is another selection that can’t really be described as prog rock in the most commonly understood sense, but it clearly owes debts to Eno and Roxy Music, among others—the band even paid Hipgnosis to do the cover Nite Flights cover art.

16. Illusion: The Revolutionary 6:15 (1978)
From the Island LP Illusion

Nearly a decade earlier, a couple of former Yardbirds had pieced together a foundational progressive rock band they called Renaissance. The band recorded two albums, the second one titled Illusion, and slowly broke up as members moved on to other projects. A funny thing happened, though. New people kept rotating into the band, and ultimately, a new lineup solidified that had nothing in common with the original lineup. We’ve heard from all these versions of Renaissance over the course of this project (the original on Volume 4, the transitional lineup on Volume 9, and the classic quintet on Volume 14). In 1976, the original Renaissance guitarist, former Yardbird Keith Relf, contacted the other four original Renaissance members about reuniting. Relf was electrocuted in his home during an equipment malfunction in his practice space and died before the group could go into the studio, but the remaining four members took the name Illusion (after the second Renaissance album) and carried on without him. The reconstituted band made two albums very much in the same symphonic style they’d played in the late 60s, but found that the atmosphere of the music world had changed considerably and wasn’t nearly so welcoming as it had been so many years earlier. This band also titled its second album Illusion, and though it didn’t stand a chance on the charts when it was released, it’s an LP I think any fan of symphnic prog could enjoy. The inspiration was still there even if the commercial reception wasn’t. Not everyone was so beholden to the old sounds—the same year, Renaissance itself had a Top Ten UK hit with their New Wave-y single “Northern Lights.”