Irma Thomas: “Ruler of My Heart” (Minit 666, 1963)

The brutal truth of music—any art, really—is that being great guarantees nothing. Large-scale success comes only at the confluence of quality and other factors. Connections, work ethic, timing, promotion, dumb luck—they’re all just as important to making it as being able to do your thing as well as or better than anyone else.

Irma Thomas had all those things going for her when she began her recording career in the early 60s, except luck. Falling neatly between Etta James and Aretha Franklin in terms of her singing style, Thomas by all rights could have easily joined them at the top of the r&b heap if things had simply gone her way. It could have been as simple as the right radio station picking up the right single. As it was, she only managed a couple of minor national hits, and she instead became a fixture and figurehead of the music scene in her hometown, New Orleans.

That’s no small feat in itself—New Orleans is not wanting for prominent musical figures, after all. Apart from a short break in the early 80s, Thomas has recorded and performed steadily since her teens in the very late 50s, and she stayed true to New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina forced her out by driving her club out of business. After a few years away from the city, though, she’s now moved back, and she’s remained a major performer at the city’s music festivals all along, even at age 71.

Large scale success may have eluded Thomas, but in some ways that’s what’s allowed her to build a small-scale legacy that’s just as pleasing. Her old discography is still great, too. “Ruler of My heart” is my favorite recording of hers.

UK Prog, Volume One Notes

UK Prog, Volume One: 1963-1967 Dawning

Volume One has to start somewhere, and it might as well be the beginning. There’s no particularly convenient point of origin for what we came to call progressive rock. It’s more like a tree with a lot of roots, and what I’m trying to do on this volume is expose some of the roots and how they fed into the evolution of the genre, which itself never really had one trunk so much as several springing from the same root system.

I’m saying it’s complicated to define exactly what is and isn’t progressive rock, and my criteria are going to be as subjective as anyone else’s, though I should note that I’m trying to be as eclectic as possible on these volumes. I’ll be skipping over plenty—most years will be represented by two CD-length volumes, so omissions are unavoidable—so apologies to Dantalian’s Chariot and others who didn’t make the cut. Here’s what’s on Volume One and why I included it:

  1. Delia Derbyshire & Ron Grainer: Dr. Who Main Title 2:10 (Opening title theme of the BBC show “Dr. Who” 1963-1970, Decca F.11837, 1964)

    The Dr. Who theme seems as good a place as any to start. Composed by Ron Grainer, it was then re-composed and electronically assembled by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire, who built it entirely out of samples and tape snippets. It’s a startlingly modern-sounding piece of music, and I think it’s a landmark—most of the musicians you’ll hear on these volumes heard it, and it must have been an ear-opener. I toyed with the wobbly early synthesizer parts on the Tornados’ 1962 hit “Telstar” for an opener, but Dr. Who seems to loom larger for where the music went. For direct evidence, see the mid-section of Pink Floyd’s “One Of These Days,” in which they quote this theme.  

  2. The Yardbirds: Happenings Ten Years Time Ago 2:57 (A-side of Columbia 45 DB 8024, 1966)

    The Yardbirds were one of the greatest talent incubators of the London scene in the 60s, and with time nearly everyone in the band went on to do some work in or at least near the prog rock realm. “Happenings” finds its way into this running order mostly because of the ambition of its arrangement and the sophistication of its production. This is psychedelia about a year ahead of schedule, and it bursts with the kinds of riffage and on-a-dime turns that would become trademarks of the symphonic prog subgenre.

  3. The Wilde Flowers: Impotence 2:10 (Unreleased recording, possibly 1966; this version could have been recorded as late as 1969)

    The Wilde Flowers never actually released any music during their lifetime, but they made some recordings, and from a historical perspective, it’s hard to find a band that harbored more 70s prog luminaries during their early years than this one, which was basically Ground Zero for the Canterbury scene. Hugh and Brian Hopper, Richard and Dave Sinclair, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen, Pye Hastings and Richard Coughlan all passed through its ranks—without the Wilde Flowers, there may have been no Caravan, Soft Machine or Gong. Wyatt sings lead on this demo, which may have been recorded during a brief re-convening of the band in 1969—I know that the song existed in ‘66, though, and the band is an essential root of the prog tree.

  4. The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows 3:00 (From the Parlophone stereo LP Revolver, 1966)

    A lot of people point to Sgt. Pepper’s as the true proto-prog document, but honestly, I think the Beatles were there much earlier. Their love of experimentation gave scads of musicians, established and neophyte, the inspiration to take things in new directions. I considered going with something less obvious, such as George Harrison’s raga-rock workout “Love You To,” but really, if there’s a true opening shot for prog, it has to be this, with its strange beat, weird loops, and mystical lyrics.  

  5. The Who: A Quick One, While He’s Away 9:11 (From the Reaction/Polydor LP A Quick One, 1966)

    Or, for another option, how about this nine-minute embryo of the concept album by the Who? Pete Townshend laid the groundwork for Tommy here (the plot is even somewhat similar), and the song’s suite-like construction became, for better or worse, one of the cliches of prog rock.

  6. Pink Floyd: Interstellar Overdrive (Sound Techniques version) 16:53 (Recorded at Sound Techniques, January 1967; from the soundtrack to Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London)

    Strictly speaking, the first release of “Interstellar Overdrive” was the album version from Piper at the Gates of Dawn, but this version, recorded earlier, is much more illustrative of what Pink Floyd was like in concert, and it was onstage in 1966 and 1967, with their light show and penchant for expansive free improvisation, that the band cemented its place as the inventor of cosmic rock. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band got on record with group improv first with 1966’s “East West,” but this was something further out.

  7. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: If 6 Was 9 5:33 (From the Track Records LP Axis: Bold As Love, 1967)

    Wait a second, Hendrix was American. Right? Well, yes. But during 1967, he had a British band (Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell) and a British producer (Chas Chandler) and was very much a part of the London scene. The Experience headlined the definitive proto-prog package tour in November and December, 1967, with the Move, Pink Floyd, Outer Limits, Eire Apparent, Amen Corner, Pete Drummond, and the Nice, and the studio and compositional experimentation of the Hendrix Experience albums was an important stepping stone on the way to prog.  

  8. Jeff Beck: Beck’s Bolero 2:55 (B-side of Columbia 45 DB 8151, 1967)

    Classical pretensions are another of the great prog rock cliches, and here we have one of the earliest examples. This is not actually a cover of Ravel’s “Bolero,” but that piece of music was what Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck had in mind when they cut this track in May, 1966 with a band consisting of themselves, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins, and John Paul Jones. It wasn’t released until 1967, and then only as a b-side, but this laid out a template for the many, many bands that would follow with their own interpretations and references to classical music.

  9. Traffic: Heaven Is In Your Mind 4:15 (From the Island LP Mr. Fantasy, 1967)

    Traffic are one of the great gray-area prog bands. Most of their music doesn’t quite fit the mold, even when the mold is defined liberally, but on their early records especially, you can hear seeds being planted, particularly in the shifting rhythms and eclectic instrumentation. The saxophone is one of the most important instruments in certain types of prog rock, and Chris Wood’s use of sax in Traffic helped establish a different style of playing, integrated with the band, rather than as a strictly solo or section-based instrument.

  10. Kaleidoscope: A Dream For Julie 2:47 (From the Fontana LP Tangerine Dream, 1967)

    The lyrics are a veritable buffet of psychedelic cliches (tangerine clouds, strawberry monkeys, etc.), but the Kaleidoscope’s widescreen approach to psychedelia represents as well as any other the kind of expansiveness that most prog musicians were grasping for, particularly in the early going.

  11. The Syn: 14 Hour Technicolor Dream 2:56 (B-side of Deram 45 DM 145, 1967)

    This song is written about a fundraising concert, headlined by Pink Floyd, for the International Times, the then-fledgling counterculture newspaper (The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, The Move, Soft Machine, The Pretty Things, Savoy Brown and Sam Gopal were also on the bill). It was a major cultural moment for Swinging London; in paying tribute to it, The Syn were grabbing a little bit of the zeitgeist for themselves. The band was also a sort of precursor to Yes; it was the first band bassist Chris Squire and original Yes guitarist Peter Banks played in together.

  12. The Pretty Things: Defecting Grey 5:14 (A-side of Columbia 45 DB 8300, 1967)

    As The Pretty Things began work on the first full-length rock opera, S.F. Sorrow, they recorded a few songs that fell outside the scope of the project. One of them was “Defecting Grey,” released as a flop single in late 1967. The song features the suite-like union of disparate sections, one a sort of lilting, slow-motion two-step, and the other a nasty, up-tempo psychedelic barrage. My favorite moment is when the bass kicks in after that dry guitar introduces the up-tempo section. You feel the whole song shift into overdrive instantly. The Pretty Things didn’t ever get to take their rightful place in the prog vanguard, toiling in commercial obscurity through 1970, before breaking up. They re-formed in 1972, but lacked stability and just never broke through. They’ll have settle for being there at the beginning.

  13. Procol Harum: Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of) 5:06 (From the Regal Zonophone LP Procol Harum, 1967)

    Procol Harum are one of the pre-eminent proto-prog acts. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” quoted Bach and topped the chart, and they toyed with concept albums and even released one of the earliest side-long tracks (of which more on Volume Two). I chose “Cerdes” over “Repent Walpurgis” mostly because “Repent” was featured on Rhino’s Supernatural Fairytales prog box back in the 90s, and I’m trying not to repeat that set. “Cerdes” makes my point nicely in its own right, though, with its slow, sort of funk-derived beat, and in particular Robin Trower’s blistering guitar solo, which pointed toward the role extended solos and lead playing would figure in the music going forward.

  14. The Moody Blues: Love and Beauty (mono) 2:26 (A-side of Decca 45 F 12670, 1967 (double A-side with “Leave This Man Alone”)

    I thought of going with “Nights in White Satin,” because, well, it’s awesome, and it has pretty much every ingredient you might want for a compilation exploring the advent of prog rock, but it occurred to me that there aren’t a whole lot of people who need to be introduced to that song. If you don’t find it, there’s a good chance it’ll eventually find you. Instead, I’m going with “Love And Beauty,” which found the reconstituted Moody Blues dumping their old r&b sound in favor of a lush pop direction. Michael Pinder’s Mellotron makes its first appearance in the band’s music here, and this is also one of the earliest uses of the instrument on a pop record. And anyone who loves prog knows that the Mellotron is pretty much the mascot of progressive rock.

  15. Chad & Jeremy: The Progress Suite: Epilogue 5:12 (From the Columbia LP Of Cabbages And Kings, 1967)

    Chad & Jeremy are best known for their 1964 folk-pop hit “A Summer Song,” and they’re not a name that comes immediately to mind when someone mentions prog rock. On their 1967 LP Of Cabbages And Kings, though, they had a major brush with proto-prog, covering side two of the album with “The Progress Suite,” five related and heavily orchestrated songs and instrumentals that work as a cycle. It’s also stuffed with sitar and very heavy-handed lyrics on the state of the world, but it’s undeniably ambitious, and this final section works pretty well. Not all of prog’s roots are in places you’d expect.

  16. The Nice: Rondo 8:18 (From the Immediate LP The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack, 1967)

    And here we are. This is prog rock in its most undiluted form. This is a cover of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo Alla Turk,” but organist Keith Emerson just can’t help himself, throwing in a bit of Bach “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” during his long solo (he made a habit of playing it opposite-handed in concert, during the same routine in which he attacked his organ with a knife given to him by future Motorhead leader Lemmy, who was a roadie for The Nice). It’s bombastic and unabashed in its pretensions, and it’s also pretty damned exciting. The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (the band members were Emerson, guitarist Davy O’List, bassist/vocalist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison) is sometimes cited as the first full-blown progressive rock album, and it is a good candidate, dropping at the end of 1967 and fairly well synthesizing all of the developments we’ve been reviewing to this point. The funny thing about it is that they took Brubeck’s song from a tricky meter (9/8) to the much more straightforward 4/4.

UK Prog, Volume One: 1963-1967 Dawning

Here is Volume One, which explores the music that laid the groundwork for progressive rock. Tracklist below, comments to follow in the next post. Get it here

  1. Delia Derbyshire & Ron Grainer: “Dr. Who Main Title” 2:10
  2. The Yardbirds: “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” 2:57 
  3. The Wilde Flowers: “Impotence” 2:10
  4. The Beatles: “Tomorrow Never Knows” 3:00
  5. The Who: “A Quick One, While He’s Away” 9:11
  6. Pink Floyd: “Interstellar Overdrive” (Sound Techniques version) 16:53
  7. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: “If 6 Was 9” 5:33
  8. Jeff Beck: “Beck’s Bolero” 2:55
  9. Traffic: “Heaven Is In Your Mind” 4:15
  10. Kaleidoscope: “A Dream For Julie” 2:47
  11. The Syn: “14 Hour Technicolor Dream” 2:56
  12. The Pretty Things: “Defecting Grey” 5:14
  13. Procol Harum: “Cerdes (Outside The Gates Of)” 5:06
  14. The Moody Blues: “Love and Beauty” (mono) 2:26
  15. Chad & Jeremy: “The Progress Suite: Epilogue” 5:12
  16. The Nice: “Rondo” 8:18

The Ventures: “Out Of Limits” ((The) Ventures In Space, 1963)

Ah, surfing and space, the two great pop music loves of the early 1960s. They make a nice pair, don’t they?

The Ventures were one of the quintessential bands of their era. Formed in 1958 in Tacoma, Washington, they came to define the sound of instrumental rock and roll in the next decade. The classic lineup of Don Wilson and Nickie Edwards on guitars, Bob Bogle on bass and Mel Taylor on drums made some of the most influential pre-Beatles rock and established the group as something of an institution—it still tours and records today, though much further from the limelight than it once did.

But seriously, this band was a commercial force in its day. From 1960 through 1972, they released 36 studio albums, all but two of which charted in the US. They’ve sold over 110 million records worldwide, which is the equivalent of every single person in Mexico, the world’s 11th most populous nation, owning a Ventures album (for comparison, the Beatles have sold something like 1.3 billion records worldwide, counting singles and LPs).

My dad had two Ventures albums. One of them was 1969’s Swamp Rock; I don’t remember the other, but I know I listened to both of them when I was a kid. That may be where I acquired my voracious appetite for surf music, or it could simply be the fact that this music had such a wide impact you can hear it all over the place without even trying.

Anyway, (The) Ventures In Space is a really neat album, and I recommend it to anyone who likes the sometimes cheesy adventurousness of Space Age pop. On the album, the band, sometimes joined by steel guitar session giant Red Rhodes, squeezes all manner of otherworldy noises out of its guitars—the album art even makes a point of saying that no electronic devices were used. Presumably they weren’t referring to amplifiers or the other devices they’re clearly using to alter the tone of their guitars (most likely just pre-amps, mic placement, tremolo, vibrato, overdrive and echo chambers; the only commercially available stand-alone effects pedal at the time was the Maestro Fuzz Tone, which can be heard on the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”).

On “Out Of Limits,” they get some really nice distortion tones out of the guitars, and I like the freaky shimmer of the opening figure. This record opened the eyes of a lot of kids in the early 60s to just how many different sounds you could get out of an electric guitar, and by the time a lot of them were playing in their own bands, the possibilities were even greater.

Liner Note:

I see a lot of sources that say this album was released in January, 1964, but as far I can tell from research, it was actually released in November, 1963, and first charted in January, 1964.

Ray Price: “Night Life” (Night Life, 1963)

Sam Cooke’s Night Beat is paired in my mind with another album that came out in 1963: Ray Price’s Night Life. From the titles alone, it should be obvious why—both albums excel at capturing the dark hours between days, when there’s too much time to think, too much time to drink and too much time to get yourself in trouble.

I like Cooke’s album more—it hits a certain spot for me in a way no other record does, and his voice just slays me—but Price’s is also excellent. The album cover, showing a woman whispering into a man’s ear at a table while Price strums his guitar in the background, neatly reflects the album’s content, which essentially reads like Price telling the stories of select members of his audience. And just as Cooke’s album defines the transition from r&b to soul, Night Life marks a tipping point of its own, where honky tonk country spilled over into the mainstream as the album topped the country charts.

One of the things I love most about this song is how spectral the backing band sounds. Price is right out there, singing Willie Nelson’s lyrics in his fullest voice, but the Cherokee Cowboys are laying low, blurring the line between country and jazz. There’s a bit where he sings “Well listen to the blues they’re playin’,” and the steel guitarist (it’s either Buddy Emmons or Jimmy Day) gets in this wild little solo that makes me perk up every time. I love a good steel guitar solo—the instrument has a naturally cosmic sound, and the phrasing of the solos here adds a whole extra layer to the song, which is already great.

Sam Cooke: “Trouble Blues” (Night Beat, 1963)

That Andrew Bird song I posted a couple days ago ("Gotholympians") got me thinking about Sam Cooke’s amazing version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, which opens his 1963 masterpiece Night Beat. Which in turn got me thinking about “Trouble Blues,” which is one of my favorite Cooke songs. It’s relegated to the middle of the album’s second side, but it stood out to me immediately the first time I ever heard it. The haunting, worldess intro is a hell of a hook, but the rest of the song also fully embodied everything implied in the phrase Night Beat.

Night Beat is a special, essential record in part because it gives us a Sam Cooke we rarely got to hear: Sam with a small band. The record allows you to really focus on his amazing voice without all the vocal groups and string sections that are slathered all over his pop records in the name of achieving crossover hits. That strategy for crossing over obviously worked—try to listen to an oldies station for a day without hearing “Cupid” or “Chain Gang”—but it also meant that his incredible talent was often obscured on his singles.

The simple organ (played by a 16-year-old Billy Preston), piano, bass and drum backing he gets here gives him all the space he needs to deliver a performance that in my opinion ranks among the best vocals ever. Most of the record rises to the same level, even as it retains the casual feel of an informal late-night session. I think it’s the best thing Cooke did aside from “A Change Is Gonna Come.”