U.K. Prog: What Happened Next 1-3 (Notes)

Volume 17 of this series brought us through 1979, the last year of prog’s greatest decade. And by that year, things were pretty dismal in Britain as far as prog rock was concerned. Not much of it was being made, and the genre’s critical fortunes were dire, to the point that they have not yet made a full recovery, and may never do so.

The music was flourishing in other parts of the world, and even as the entire house seemed to come crashing down, progressive rock in the UK did maintain some of its commercial power, at least as far as the biggest names were concerned. And in the mid-80s, a funny thing happened: new prog bands, overtly influenced by the classic groups of the 70s began to emerge. They proliferated in the 90s, and in the new century, progressive rock has become, if not exactly hip, a perfectly normal and acceptable point of reference for new bands.

Credit (or blame) Radiohead for some of that re-captured mainstream acceptability, even if the band itself would never admit to trying to make a progressive rock album—intentions aside, that’s exactly what they did in 1997, with OK Computer.

These three volumes are much more loosely organized than what came before them. They cover a huge span of time, from 1982 all the way the 2010, and they don’t cover it evenly or thoroughly. They’re meant mostly as a reflection on how the progressive rock explosion changed popular music in the UK, how it expanded the possibilities, and how it stubbornly persisted in selling records and influencing young musicians long after the music weeklies more or less wrote it out of history.

It takes in new artists, artists I wouldn’t even call rock bands, much less prog rock bands, and some of the late-career exploits of the musicians who played in the most popular prog acts. There’s also a lot to talk about, so I’ve tried to keep it concise.

U.K. Prog, Volume 18: 1982-2001 What Happened Next 1

Download Volume 18 here.

1. Asia: Heat of the Moment 3:55 (1982
From the Geffen LP Asia
2. Yes: Changes 6:20 (1983)
From the Atco LP 90125
3. Genesis: Tonight, Tonight, Tonight 8:54 (1986)
From the Virgin LP Invisible Touch

I’ll write about these together, because I included them for similar reasons. Each song finds musicians that were integral to the 70s prog boom adapting to the post-prog times, in more or less similar ways.

Asia was the biggest of all the post-prog supergroups. The original lineup, heard here, brought together some of the biggest names in prog, and found them focusing their efforts on producing arena-ready pop rock. Bassist/vocalist John Wetton was well-traveled; his most high-profile gigs were with King Crimson and U.K., but he’d played in more than a half-dozen bands. Keyboardist Geoff Downes had been in Yes and the Buggles, guitarist Steve Howe had helped define the classic sound of Yes, and drummer Carl Palmer was the “P” in ELP (They apparently considered bringing in Roy Wood before going with Steve Howe—I would’ve loved to see how that turned out). Together, they’d already sold millions upon millions of records, and they’d sell millions more playing the kinds of big choruses and simple structures they’d all previously shunned.

Yes and Genesis were in somewhat different positions. They weren’t new bands; rather, they were two of the only groups to survive the late-70s demise of prog with their drawing power intact. For Yes, it had been painful—the band’s lineup had churned for years, and when they came back in 1983, complete with cosmic warrior costumes for their massive world tour, they’d been re-made by new guitarist Trevor Rabin into a weird prog/New Wave chimera that could play in a funky time signature and sell a ton of singles. “Changes” is one of the twistier compositions on 90125.

For Genesis, the path out of the woods had been smoother. They’d become a pop-accessible trio not through tumult, but by a gradual and amicable paring process that left the band as a trio of Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks. They evolved from big prog opuses to smash singles gradually, pulling their audience with them as it grew up, and bringing in new fans as well. Still, even on the album that featured “Invisible Touch” and “In Too Deep,” they couldn’t quite help nodding to their origins with a couple of lengthy, suite-like tracks. “Tonight Tonight Tonight” is the old, epic Genesis lifting the curtain of pop songs to reveal the wizards behind it.

4. Marillion: Incubus 8:31 (1984)
From the EMI LP Fugazi

If early 80s trio Genesis sounded quite different from early 70s quintet Genesis, there was an alternative for fans who longed for that old sound. On its first few albums, Marillion sounded almost uncannily like Gabriel-era Genesis, and wrote suite-like songs that often topped eight minutes. By the time of their second album, they even had a drummer, Ian Mosley, who had been a part of the 70s prog scene, playing with Darryl Way’s Wolf, Steve Hackett, and the Dutch band Trace. The band deserves credit for being one of the first new symphonic-style progressive rock acts to emerge in the UK after prog rock’s decline—they were swimming upstream, but were good enough to draw an audience. The band is still going today, though they’ve gradually developed a more mainstream rock sound.

5. Stereolab: Percolator 3:47 (1996)
From the Duophonic LP Emperor Tomato Ketchup

No one really knows what to call Stereolab. The band draws from a crazy range of styles to make something all its own, and as its name suggests, they have a lot of interest in German kosmische rock (commonly called Krautrock), old electronic music, library records and stereo test albums (they were named for a series of these on Vanguard Records). There’s also no denying that their penchant for analog synthesizers and complex rhythms makes them natural heirs to progressive rock, even if they never thought of themselves that way. “Percolator” is prog by any other name.

6. The Verve: She’s a Superstar 5:04 (1992)
From the Hut EP The Verve EP

The Verve are most well-known in the US for “Bittersweet Symphony,” a majestic, lumbering song that got them into legal trouble. But before that, in their earliest days, they were inheritors of a long British psychedelia tradition that they played through the lens of shoegaze, which at the time was one of the dominant trends in U.K. rock. With its towering of reverberant guitar, “She’s a Superstar” is essentially space rock with earthly lyrical concerns.

7. Bark Psychosis: Tooled Up 7:37 (1991)
From the 3rd Stone EP Manman

If there’s a strain of rock in the U.K. that most firmly embodies musical ideals that were first introduced by progressive rock bands, it’s post-rock, and admittedly nebulous but nevertheless useful term. Bark Psychosis were the first band to be tagged “post-rock,” and their music did help sketch out the hallmarks of the genre, with its emphasis on texture, rhythm, tension and release over conventional songwriting. This isn’t the progressive rock of wild solos and multi-part suites, but it as the exploratory spirit of the best prog and espouses the same desire to push rock forms in new directions, away from traditional harmony and structures.

8. Coil: Ostia (the Death of Pasolini) 6:23 (1986)
From the Some Bizarre/Force and Form LP Horse Rotorvator

Coil is one of the defining groups of industrial music, though their output is wide-ranging enough to transcend that label with ease. Originally a duo of John Balance and Peter Christopherson (the latter had been in Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, and also did design work for Hipgnosis in the 70s), Coil had nothing to do with flashy musicianship or classically inspired suites, but their embrace of conceptual frameworks for their music was surprisingly similar to that of a lot of progressive rock bands. They also drew influences from the music of the academy, but rather than adapting Bartok and Dvorak to rock formats, they looked to minimalism for influence.

9. Cardiacs: Ice a Spot and a Dot on the Dog 3:34 (1984)
From the Alphabet Business Concern LP The Seaside

Cardiacs are often referred to as “prog-punk,” which is basically apt. Their hyperactive music keeps the structures simple and the tempos fast, but the band’s spastic music is always tightly controlled, and the musicianship comes through loud and clear in the outbursts of weird melody and complex instrumental interplay. If Fruupp had stuck around long enough to morph into a punk band, it might have sounded something like this.

10. Brian Eno: A Clearing 4:03 (1982)
From the Polydor LP Ambient 4: On Land

Eno was very much a part of the original prog explosion, and in the 80s, he had a lower profile but was no less ubiquitous, producing albums for a wide range of acts and cutting his own idiosyncratic path as a solo artist. He had been an early pioneer of ambient music, and in my view, On Land is the album on which he perfected his approach to the style.

11. Elbow: Bitten by the Tailfly 6:16 (2001)
From the V2 LP Asleep in the Back

At first glance, Elbow sounds a lot like a pretty straightforward post-Radiohead rock band. Except that they’re not really post-Radiohead. They formed in 1990 and simply didn’t get a chance to make an album until 2001. And their music is a lot knottier than the elegant songwriting makes it seem. With its sudden, ragged riffs, thundering drums, and lengthy, horn-laden coda, “Bitten by the Tailfly” suggests that the band have spent their share of hours lying on the floor next to a hi-fi, soaking in sounds from decades past.

12. Simian: Round and Around 4:12 (2001)
From the Source LP Chemistry Is What We Are

Simian outright quoted the main theme from McDonald & Giles’ “Birdman Suite” on the opener to this album, “Drop and Roll.” “Round and Around” isn’t so overt in revealing its influences, but really, listen to it. It’s modern prog rock rock. Those drums could have come off King Crimson’s Lizard—one aspect of prog rock that few have re-embraced in the psot-punk era is the solo, and Simian are no different, as this series has tried to make clear, prog was about more than musicianship.

13. The Moody Blues: Ride My See-Saw 5:27 (1993)
From the Threshold LP A Night at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra

You know what else old prog bands that had managed to hold on to some of their audience did? They reunited for lucrative nostalgia tours. I saw the Moody Blues in 1996 with the World Festival Orchestra playing a set almost identical to the one on this live album. It was a pretty good show! About a month later, I saw ELP and Jethro Tull at the same venue.

U.K. Prog, Volume 19: 1982-2010 What Happened Next 2

Download Volume 19 here.

1. King Crimson: Neal & Jack & Me 4:23 (1982)
From the E’G LP Beat

When King Crimson split in 1974, Robert Fripp spoke of the band with a concrete finality that could only mean one thing: he was bound to resurrect it one day. When he did, King Crimson was a very different band than any of the lineups he’d helmed in the 70s. For one thing, it was half American, but more importantly, it was heavily influenced by New Wave without actually sounding like New Wave. Fripp and Adrian Belew cultivated a guitar style that relied on complex interplay and advanced picking techniques, while Belew’s leads made heavy use of processing and early guitar synth. Bill Bruford and bassist Tony Levin kept the band rhythmically spry and elastic. This lineup recorded three albums before splitting, but all four members returned for the powerful “double trio” version of the band in the 90s. Fripp ended King Crimson again a few years ago, but who knows if it’s really the final word.

2. Radiohead: Paranoid Android 6:24 (1997)
From the Parlophone LP OK Computer

If there’s a single track that helped put prog back on the mainstream map, it’s “Paranoid Android,” which charted at #3 in the U.K., 7/4 rhythms, suite-like structure and six-and-a-half-minute runtime and all. Not that bands were lining up to sound like Genesis in its wake, but it helped puncture the decades-old veil obscuring prog rock’s memory more than any other single piece of music in the 90s.

3. Breathless: Monkey Talk 7:31 (1986)
From the Tenor Vossa LP The Glass Bead Game

Breathless were led by Dominic Appleton, who’d played with This Mortal Coil, and their music took a lot of direct cues from 70s prog. Compare the structure of this song to King Crimson’s “Starless”—you have the opening song, the harrowing build-up, and the final release. Again, the band approaches musicianship differently from its predecessors—this was probably punk’s truest and most lasting effect.

4. Appliance: Food Music 3:44 (1999)
From the Mute LP Manual

Appliance recorded two albums around the turn of the century, and they were both stuffed with analog synthesizer. German progressive rock—I prefer the term kosmische rock to Krautrock—has long been a far cooler reference point than British prog, mostly because it tended to focus more on electronics and texture than UK prog, and its influence is clear here. Thing is, German prog would have turned out quite differently without the early influence of British proto-prog (especially Pink Floyd), so when a band dips into the kosmische well, it’s absorbing indirect influence from UK prog.

5. Her Name Is Calla: The Union: I Worship a Golden Sun 6:49 (2010)
From the Denovali LP The Quiet Lamb

Her Name Is Calla make what I think of as a sort of post-post-rock, somewhat similar to their American counterparts Shearwater. It has a lot of the tension-release dynamics of post-rock, but it’s also mostly built around verses and choruses and seems to strive for a balance between accessibility and open structure.

6. Camberwell Now: Greenfingers 5:53 (1987)
From the Ink EP Greenfingers

After This Heat split, Charles Hayward established Camberwell Now. This band continued This Heat’s exploration of the intersection between live playing and tape effects, though Maria Lamburn’s saxophone does much to ground the music’s experimentalism is approachable musicality.

7. Muse: Butterflies & Hurricanes 5:02 (2003)
From the Taste Music LP Absolution

Muse get tons of shit for the bald ambition of their music, and I’m not saying they don’t deserve some of it—there are times when they shoot well wide of the mark, and times when they’re simply ridiculous, but I hate that their ambition itself gets called into question. I love that they’re always reaching, even if I don’t always love the results. “Butterflies & Hurricanes” is one of their best proggy opuses, going from stirring orchestral hard rock to neoclassical piano ballad with hardly any warning right in the middle of the song.

8. A Mountain of One: Ride 6:45 (2007)
From the AMO EP A Mountain of One

A Mountain of One is another modern group that nods openly to progressive rock, and “Ride” even goes ahead and displays musicianship with its guitar intro and the subsequent lead part.

9. Porcupine Tree: A Slave Called Shiver 4:41 (1999)
From the Snapper LP Stupid Dream

Porcupine Tree has a good claim to being the pre-eminent prog band in the UK today, though their second decade of music was a lot more pop-accessible than their first was (and recently, Steven Wilson’s association with Opeth has led to an influx of prog-metal influences on their records). Stupid Dream was a transitional LP for the band, marking the point where the band started including a lot more basic rock songs and fewer wiggy Tangerine Dream soundscapes on its albums in the wake of OK Computer. “Slave Called Shiver” doesn’t come across as all that proggy at first, but just wait for the rain of guitar that comes in halfway through.

10. Max Tundra: Labial 6:09 (2002)
From the Domino LP Mastered By Guy at the Exchange

Max Tundra is a studio wizard, and he makes fussy, intricate music that frequently recalls the manic inventiveness and unusual construction of classic prog, albeit with different ingredients.

11. Moonshake: Coward 2:27 (1991)
From the Creation EP First

Moonshake was another of the early post-rock bands, though they tempered their more out-there experiments with short and sweet songs like this that cut their explorations of texture with infectious melody.

12. Iron Maiden: Rime of the Ancient Mariner 13:37 (1984)
From the EMI LP Powerslave

Metal is one of prog’s most prosperous children, and it is essentially a child that prog sired with punk. Iron Maiden, one of the flagship bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, made music on its early albums that attacked with the brevity and ferocity of punk, but also embraced the musicianship of prog. By 1984, they’d dropped the brevity and were making multi-part songs every bit as complicated as anything Yes had done in 1972. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a metal setting of the epic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is progressive rock.

U.K. Prog, Volume 20: 1987-2010 What Happened Next 3

Download Volume 20 here.

1. Medal: Is Your Soul in Your Head? 6:10 (1999)
From the Polydor LP Drop Your Weapon

Medal is another prime example of the boomlet of mildly proggy British rock bands to emerge on the heels of OK Computer. This song’s slow build and heady subject matter invite the comparison.

2. Talk Talk: Ascension Day 6:00 (1991)
From the Verve LP Laughing Stock

Talk Talk began life as a synth-pop band, but they were never all that poppy, honestly. Their first few albums are full of strange production flourishes, and Mark Hollis was never content with being a pop star, a discontent that influenced his vocal style. By the end of the band’s run, which came with Laughing Stock, Talk Talk had dropped the synthesizers and any pretense of making hit singles. This album deals aggressively in abstraction, texture, and noise-as-music, but winds up as something surprisingly beautiful.

3. Fairport Convention: Spanish Main 4:31 (1998)
From the Woodworm LP Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Fairport Convention was among the many old-guard progressive rock bands to reunite over and over for tours and occasional recordings—even bands that never made much of a splash during their original runs came back and found their cult audiences eager to support them. Fairport sounds especially energized on this track, which rivals anything they did in their heyday for heaviness.

4. These New Puritans: We Want War 7:23 (2010)
From the Angular/Domino LP Hidden

If you want to know the shape of modern prog rock, look no further than “We Want War.” The song is a multi-part opus orchestrated with woodwinds and spiked with sound effects of knives being sharpened to complement the writhing synthesizers. As we’ve heard so far, there are no solos, and musicianship is downplayed in deference to post-punk musical politics, and so the echo of prog is heard in the song’s structure and sense of adventure.

5. Radio Massacre International: Syd 2:47 (2007)
From the Cuneiform LP Rain Falls in Grey

This prolific psychedelic band has been known to release a few albums in a year, and doesn’t shy away from putting more than one side-long epic on a single release. “Syd” is a little more concise, but it does offer a pretty sterling example of the kind of swirling texture that lies at the heart of the band’s music.

6. The Orb: Montagne d’Or (Der Gute Berg) 10:42 (1994)
From the Island LP Orbus Terrarum

The Orb gave away their affection for prog when they referenced Pink Floyd’s Animals on the covers of both Live 93 and The Aubrey Mixes, but it goes deeper than that. They’ve worked with Steve Hillage and David Gilmour, and Pink Floyd’s post-Waters touring bassist, Guy Pratt, is on their debut. And while the pulsing techno of their first two albums bears little direct prog influence in its sound, the same can’t be said for 1994’s Orbus Terrarum, which applies the band’s studio prowess to creating, sprawling, proggy ambient opuses.

7. Mansun: Television 8:22 (1998)
From the Parlophone LP Six

Mansun were already a pretty openly prog-influenced band on their debut, but on this, their second album, they went all the way, creating a long concept piece with operatic interludes, quotes from Tchaikovsky, unabashed guitar solos, multi-part songs, and seamless sequencing.

8. The Pineapple Thief: West Winds 8:54 (2007)
From the Cyclops LP What We Have Sown

The Pineapple Thief are fairly typical of 21st Century British neo-prog bands. They build songs with ambitious structures, but they keep a foot in emotional, melodic rock. I call this “bridging the Radiohead gap,” which is a convenient way of saying that they make prog that still has a chance to reach an audience outside the music’s large cult following.

9. Peter Murphy: Just for Love 6:38 (2002)
From the Metropolis LP Dust

Peter Murphy was the vocalist for Bauhaus, and after that band’s disintegration, he embarked on a fitful solo career. After embracing Sufi philosophy in the 1990s, Murphy moved to Turkey, and the influence of that country’s music has loomed large on his albums ever since.

10. Roger Waters: Four Minutes 4:00 (1987)
From the Columbia LP Radio KAOS

Roger Waters had already charted a one-way course into heavy concept pieces before leaving Pink Floyd, and in his solo career, he’s only gone further down that rabbit hole. Radio KAOS is, loosely, the story of a disabled Welsh man named Billy whose immense intelligence is hidden from the world by the fact that he’s physically unable to communicate. When he relocates to LA, he discovers that he can hear radio waves and use a cordless phone to broadcast his own thoughts and begins to call in to a certain radio station. He uses this ability to fake a nuclear war, bringing about global peace. Or something. “Four Minutes” is the part where people think the missiles are coming, and for all the ridiculous pretense, it’s actually pretty haunting.

11. Pink Floyd: High Hopes 8:32 (1994)
From the Columbia LP The Division Bell

While Waters was making high-concept albums, his old bandmates were just making music, music that’s far better than its reputation. “High Hopes” is the song that turned me on to music permanently. It was that bell that did it. The way it interlocks with the piano was so intriguing to me, and I still think it’s one of the most ingenious uses of found sound I’ve ever heard.

Tags: UK Prog notes

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.”

U.K. Prog, Volume 16: 1976 Prog Is a Four-Letter Word (Notes)

From the late 70s onward, prog rock spent a lot of time in the critical wilderness, completely unfashionable even as its cult remained strong and some of its biggest acts continued to draw as they transitioned from vital creative enterprieses to nostalgia acts, and even grew as the descendants of 70s prog bands gathered audiences for themselves.

That long banishment began here, in 1976. This was the year that punk and New Wave caught the imagination of British youth and the magazines and fanzines that served them. Initially interchangeable, the two terms quickly came to represent separate camps, with punk on the aggressive and rough end of the spectrum, and New Wave occupying space closer to pop and pub rock.

Prog didn’t die overnight, or really at all. Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull all continued to sell albums in huge quantities and tour ever bigger venues, but that fed into a problem of perception that prog had fallen victim to—what had started in the underground and grown from there had to come to be viewed by a lot of young people as a sort of enemy, a dragon to be slain. Punk was not, it must be said, a reaction to this music. It was a reaction to economic malaise and social pressures in Britain during the mid-1970s, but once it was in the ascent, punk found an easy target in lumbering prog rock bands playing side-long suites about pitched battles between ogres and wizards.

The shift in commercial fortunes had at least one practical effect on prog: no one who started a new band in the last three years of the 70s started a prog band, unless they were already famous from playing in another prog band (see: U.K.) or they were devoted to the music and didn’t mind playing local gigs to tiny audiences with no hope of ever breaking out (see: Dogwatch, whose lone album, recorded live at a tiny club called the Bridge House in 1979, is sadly almost impossible to track down in the US, though it was available on CD for a time in the UK earlier this year).

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1. Genesis: Eleventh Earl of Mar 7:44
From the Charisma LP Wind & Wuthering

In 1974, Genesis released an incredibly elaborate double concept album called The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was followed by an equally elaborate tour, during which they played the album in its entirety. Making the album had already strained things in the band; the tour was grueling, and the band grew to hate performing certain pieces of music from the album and felt trapped by the rigid setlist, which was partly held hostage to vocalist Peter Gabriel’s complicated and frequent costume changes. Gabriel announced his intention to leave the band at the end of the tour to his bandmates, and they decided to carry on without him, searching for a vocalist before realizing that they already had a pretty good one sitting in the drum chair. Phil Collins took over the lead vocal duties, and the band, which had always written its music and lyrics democratically, made two albums as a quartet. A Trick of the Tail and Wind & Wuthering measure up quite well against the band’s Gabriel-era material, and were the band’s last two full-on prog albums before guitarist Steve Hackett departed and the remaining trio of Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks turned in a more pop-oriented direction. “Eleventh Earl of Mar,” perhaps more than any of their other lengthy prog opuses, reveals the pop-friendly band living in the heart of Genesis with its dramatic themes and big, memorable chorus. I’ve written about this song at length before, so if you’re interested in understanding the history behind the song’s lyrics, which are about the Jacobite uprising of 1715, follow the link. 

2. The Alan Parsons Project: The Raven 4:03
From the Charisma LP Stories of Mystery & Imagination: Edgar Allen Poe

The Vocoder was originally developed at Bell Labs in 1928 by a man named Homer Dudley, who was seeking a way to transmit voices more clearly over long distances. Dudley was an acoustic engineer, and he based his invention on the idea that speech is a continuous sound produced by the body, which is modified by the tongue, lips, and mouth to create words and tones. By analyzing an incoming voice and splitting it across several frequencies, he could arrive at a sound that would transmit more clearly. His work led him to the refinement of the technology in the 1930s and the earliest experiments with voice synthesis. The Vocoder had been used musically in experimental environments since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 60s that Robert Moog’s development of a solid state Vocoder made its use in music practical. Bruce Haack used one of his own design on 1969’s The Electric Lucifer, and Moog helped Wendy Carlos build one in 1970—you can hear the results on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Alan Parsons Project was not the first band to use a Vocoder to process vocals—Kraftwerk had used it in 1974 on Autobahn—but their use was one of the earliest. Parsons had been an engineer at Abbey Road Studios—he helped record Abbey Road and Dark Side of the Moon, among many, many others—and he formed the Project in 1975 with Glaswegian musician Eric Woolfson, though these two and guitarist Ian Bairnson were the only constant contributors to the band, which was almost entirely a studio project. Naturally, their first record was a concept album. Tales of Mystery and Imagination is not half as dark or moody as one might expect an album inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe to be, but it is very bold musically, featuring lots of futuristic synthesizer from Parsons, and a prominent role for the Vocoder on “The Raven,” where actor Leonard Whiting’s lead vocal is accompanied by parsons himself running his voice through the processor to create an otherworldly effect.

3. Steve Hillage: Hurdy Gurdy Glissando 9:01 
From the Virgin LP L

Steve Hillage was the Zelig of the UK’s prog scene in the 1970s. He played in the seminal Canterbury group Arzachel (aka Uriel), led the quartet Khan, briefly joined Kevin Ayers’ Decadence and played with Mike Oldfield, then joined Gong. He launched his solo career in 1975, but still found time to play in National Health. He also collaborated with early punk band Sham 69 and remains active today (more on that in the notes for the next volume). For his second solo album, Hillage left Britain to record with Todd Rundgren, and L features Utopia as the core backing band (with guest spots from jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and Hillage’s girlfriend—and still partner—Miquette Giraudy). Hillage and Giraudy were early explorers of ambient music, and you can catch a bit of that in the intro to “Hurdy Gurdy Glissando,” which they wrote together. Hillage sings a sort of spaced-out hippie verse as the soundscape thickens, and then the song blows wide open at the half-way mark, slipping into a sick groove as the synthesizer solidifies into a lead instrument. We will visit Hillage again on the next volume—his early solo discography is very much worth exploring.

4. 10cc: Art for Art’s Sake 6:02
From the Mercury LP How Dare You!

I’ve talked a lot about how the ideas embodied in prog rock seeped into wider British rock scene as the 70s progressed, and it’s hard to think of a British pop band that wore those influences further out on its sleeve than 10cc. In its original configuration, the band featured two writing teams, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart, and Lol Creme and Kevin Godley; it was the latter pair that lent its ear for experimentation and proggy concept work to the band, while the Stewart/Gouldman team generally wrote more concise, pop-flavored songs. Of course, I’ve now gone and featured a Stewart/Gouldman song on this volume, but it’s fair. “Art for Art’s Sake” is a broadly poppy song, with a very catchy melody and humorous lyrics, but it also features a spacey, abstract intro, several contrasting sections, a weird, Zappa-ish breakdown right in the middle, and a lot of loud lead guitar over its six minutes. It’s essentially the sound of prog folded, stapled and mutilated into the shape of an ambitious pop song. Godley and Creme left the band after How Dare You! to record as a duo under their last names, and Gouldman and Stewart carried it on into the early 80s, by which point their former bandmates had largely put aside music to focus on directing videos for other artists.

5. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: The Road to Babylon 6:53 
From the Bronze LP The Roaring Silence

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band was another group that teetered on the border between prog and pop. 1976’s The Roaring Silence featured by far their biggest hit in their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light,” but once you get past that radio-ready track, the rest of the album is littered with musical quotes from Stravinsky and Schubert, liberal use of Mellotron, and lengthy instrumental passages. Guitarist/vocalist Mick Rogers had left the band after its last album, and he was replaced by Chris Hamlet Thompson, whose vocals are perhaps a little grittier, but no more showy than those of his predecessor. “Road to Babylon” gives him a lot of room to show what he can do, vocally and on his guitar, and they skillfully blur the line between actual vocal harmonies and a Mellotron choir. On subsequent albums, the Earth Band largely lost its progressive edge, but it proved to have amazing staying power, touring and releasing albums regularly through the mid-90s.

6. Brân: Hapus Awr
From the Sain LP Hedfan

This is the second time we’ve heard from Welsh prog-folk act Brân, who made no concessions to the dominance of English as the common language of pop music, choosing to sing Welsh. The only unfortunate thing about that decision is that it limited their audience largely to Wales, and they made some music that really deserved a wider airing. “Hapus Awr,” from their second album, is one of their best songs, blending the operatic singing voice of Nest Howells with some mildly psychedelic lead guitar. The song swings back and forth between folky verses and heavier rock passages, but it does it smoothly, without the kind of on-a-dime turns so often associated with prog rock. By the time of their final album, Howells was gone and Brân had largely abandoned their prog leanings. Several members ultimately went on to form a second prog-folk group called Pererin.

7. Neil Ardley: Prologue: Rainbow One 10:27
From the Gull LP Kaliedoscope of Rainbows

Neil Ardley was an author, editor, composer and keyboardist who kept up simultaneous careers writing science books and leading bands—if you ever had one of David MacCauley’s The Way Things Work books, you’ve seen Ardley’s work in publishing. He got his professional start in the early 60s with the John Williams Big Band (where played with a young Jack Bruce), and later became director of the new Jazz Orchestra, which included, among others, Ian Carr of Nucleus, Jon Hiseman, who played in both versions of Colosseum, and Barbara Thompson, who played sax on Manfred Mann’s Roaring Silence LP and had a long, productive jazz career as a leader and sideman. In the 1970s, Ardley began composing classically influenced themes and arranging them in a setting that was about 70% jazz and 30% rock. “Prologue” begins in a rockish vein before gradually growing into a fuller jazz arrangement as the drums loosen up and the solos get wilder. Ardley’s 70s work inhabits that prog/not prog grey zone I’ve talked about so much, but I think fans of prog rock, especially in its more jazz-oriented strains, will find plenty to like on his albums. 

8. Brand X: Born Ugly 8:16
From the Charisma LP Unorthodox Behaviour

Brand X was also a jazz band, but rather than a jazz band playing in a prog-informed style, they were prog musicians playing jazz. Phil Collins famously played drums for Brand X, and he was joined by session bassist Percy Jones, former Atomic Rooster guitarist John Goodsall, and keyboardist Robin Lumley, who had played with David Bowie. The group’s early albums are not for fusion newcomers, being full full of solo swapping, tricky time changes and a generslly heady mix of composition and improvisation. This lineup of the abnd recorded only one album before adding percussionist Morris Pert—Pert took over from Collins on drums for the band’s third album, and from there until they split in 1982, those five musicians and several others played in Brand X as a sort of jazz-rock collective. When Brand X reconvened in 1992 after a ten-year break, Collins was a superstar in his own right, and he wasn’t present for any of the albums recorded by the reconstituted band.

9. Queen: White Man 4:59
From the EMI LP A Day at the Races

For a long time, I wasn’t going to include any Queen at all on these sets, and you won’t find too many prog fans who think of them as a prog band. That’s because they really weren’t, but what they were was a band that was able to make a lot of the most outlandish things that prog rock brought to the table—choirs, multi-part suites, weird lyrical concepts, virtuoso performances—appealing and fun for a general rock and pop audience. The ambition of Queen’s flamboyant pomp rock had a lot in common with the work of their prog colleagues, and they stand out to me as a band that wouldn’t have been able to get hugely popular if prog bands hadn’t softened the ground for them in the very early 70s. “White Man” is a deep cut from their smash hit A Day at the Races LP, and it shows a much rawer and heavier rock band than the hits ever did.

10. Van der Graaf Generator: Wondering 6:49
From the Charisma LP World Record

We last heard from Van der Graaf Generator all the way back on Volume 6, and in the interim, the band had split up and reunited. During their time off, they’d barely broken up. Peter Hammill pursued a solo career, and everyone else from VdGG played on his albums, while his bandmates, Hugh Banton, Guy Evans and David Jackson, recorded an album of their own under the name The Long Hello. The band reconvened in 1975, and World Record is the third album of their first reunion the last to feature the classic Jackson/Hammill/Evans/Banton lineup. The band’s sound survived their hiatus intact, but there is a noticeable tonal shift on the reunion material, which is considerably less dark than the band’s early work, and generally more anthemic. “Wondering” presses hard on the anthem button—by the time it ends seven minutes in, one has to wonder how many more ceilings the arrangement could possibly burst through. Jackson and Banton left the band soon after this album, and the group broke up for real in 1978, but the members stayed on good terms and occasionally worked with each other. The classic VdGG reconvened again in 2005 and still tours, though minus Jackson. 

11. The Enid: The Last Judgement 8:12
From the Buk LP In the Region of the Summer Stars

Just about any time you hear someone whinging about prog rock, and the excess and the hubris and cold technicality of the music, you’re hearing someone who hasn’t actually listened to a lot of prog rock. But there is a hint of truth to those accusations, as there is with nearly any stereotype. The Enid, led by Robert John Godfrey on and off for the last four decades certainly could be superficially accused of virtually any sin anyone ever claimed for prog. Their early albums are almost comically oversized rock/orchestral suites, overflowing with huge mellotron themes and screaming guitar, and, in the case of “The Last Judgement,” little injections of choir. This song works overtime to live up to its title, and every time you think it’s gone completely over the top, it goes a little further. Godfrey was in on the joke though—he has openly spoken of the overload on his albums as ironic, and he even titled the band’s second album Aerie Faerie Nonsense, pre-empting what he figured critics might call it. Ironic or no, this music had absolutley no commercial prospects in 1976, much less in 1977, when the follow-up was released. But if you’re able to read it as parody, it pretty quickly becomes a much more trenchant comment on prog rock than anything Johnny Rotten ever said at Malcolm McLaren’s urging. 

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.

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.

Download the mix here.   

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.

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.

U.K. Prog, Volume 12: 1973b On Top of the World (Notes)

Continuing our look at progressive rock in the United Kingdom during 1973, this volume veers back and forth between highly accessible, melodic prog rock and wilder, knottier material more than the previous 1973 volume, but you’ll still be able to hear the way this music had cleaned up and shaken out since only a couple of years earlier.

At this point, progressive rock ideas and approaches permeated the rock portion of the FM dial—I actually considered opening this volume with Elton John’s “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” but left it off in favor of less-known material. But you see what I’m getting at. Granted, this was also the year that Yes followed up a single LP with three songs on it with a double LP with four songs on it. Tales from Topographic Oceans, that four-song double album, is not featured here, partly because I had no room for a side-long track, but more importantly because it’s just not very good.

Tales, for me, is basically the point where prog rock eats the apple. Yes didn’t make an album of four side-long tracks because they had four songs that were so idea-stuffed that they each had to take up a whole side. They made an album of four side-long tracks because Jon Anderson and Steve Howe decided they were going to, and then proceeded to stretch the few ideas they had past the breaking point. It’s a terrible album overall, made all the worse by the thought of how much better it might have been if they’d been modest enough to realize the potential of those songs and, say, cut them all down so that they’d be short enough to fit two to a side of a single LP.

Keyboardist Rick Wakeman, himself no stranger to excess, famously hated the album and quit the band—as it was, during the sessions he’d spent more time in the studio next door, contributing keyboards to Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, frustrated at having his input ignored. Wakeman, of course, was a few ice shows and concept albums away from himself becoming the emblem of the self-regard that helped to knock prog off its commercial pedestal.

Another liability the genre had, at least as far as its long-term commercial viability was concerned, was the overwhelming maleness of its audience. A tiny fraction of the musicians playing prog were women, and a slightly less tiny fraction of prog singers were women, and those percentages translated to the crowds drawn by many of these acts (though not all of them). There’s a media studies master’s thesis waiting to be written by anyone who wants to explore the reasons for that, but it made the genre more vulnerable to a slide that it otherwise might have been.

There will be two 1974 volumes coming up, and though it’s only a year later, you’re likely to notice some pretty distinct differences between 1973 and 1974.

Download the mix here

1. Caravan: Memory Lain, Hugh - Headloss 9:20 

From the Deram LP For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night

Caravan have been with us all along on this series. They were one of the first prog bands and one of the handful (with Soft Machine and Egg) that helped define the parameters of what became known as the Canterbury Scene. The term Canterbury Scene isn’t exactly accurate, though—it wasn’t really a scene in the real sense. Yes, many of the musicians who contributed to the early music did indeed have roots in and around Canterbury, but these bands played in London and included members from all over Britain (and Daevid Allen, an early scenester, was Australian). So Canterbury School would really be the more appropriate way of framing it. Caravan were the closest to a symphonic prog band of any of the groups the school produced—they could write a very catchy vocal melody, could jam on a hard jazz groove, and could cut a heavy rock passage with equal aplomb, and they do all of those things on the opener to their fifth album, which completely shifts tone right in the middle, from a fairly nasty hard prog thing to an upbeat prog-pop tune. We’ll hear from them one more time in 1974.

2. Steeleye Span: Alison Gross 5:30

From the Chrysalis LP Parcel of Rogues

Along with Fairport Convention and Pentangle, Steeleye Span were one of the small handful of British folk revival bands to establish themselves as a long-running, commercially successful force. Where Fairport went for an electro-acoustic sound that incorporated lots of original songs and some jazz elements, and Pentangle favored acoustic instrumentation, Steeleye Span, who were named for a character in a traditional song, built their sound around electric versions of traditional ballads. “Alison Gross” is one such ballad, the story of a witch who makes a man an offer, which he refuses. She then turns him into a wyrm (which is a type of dragon that apparently has hair); he’s later restored to his original form in a sort of princess-and-the-frog routine. The song was taken from a catalog of three hundred Scottish and English folk ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the 19th Century, and I’m guessing that Child never imagined it would be performed like this. The band had no drummer, but they still manage to get plenty of momentum out of the crunching guitars of Bob Johnson and Tim Hart. The song is probably the heaviest thing the band ever did, but their early albums are liberally sprinkled with interesting interpretations of very old songs like this.

3. Genesis: Firth of Fifth 9:38

From the Charisma LP Selling England by the Pound

Selling England by the Pound is the signature masterpiece of the Banks-Collins-Gabriel-Hackett-Rutherford quintet version of Genesis, a kaleidoscopic record that moves from strength to strength with a focus that even the band’s best material to that point had often found beyond its grasp. “Firth of Fifth” is one of the most gorgeous things the band ever did, opening with a lovely bit of time signature-hopping classical piano from Tony Banks before shifting into the relatively straightforward verse. The band seems to understand that the real meat of the song lies in the instrumental parts, though, and they spend just a few of the song’s nearly ten minutes on them. The instrumental at the song’s heart is one of the band’s most breathtaking passages. The accelerating flute melody (played by Peter Gabriel) stopped me cold the first time I ever heard this, and Banks gets one of his finest showcases, both on piano and on synth before handing the baton to Steve Hackett. This is the standard that all those symphonic prog bands that popped up in the early 70s were shooting for; very few of them ever attained it. The public recognized a good thing when it heard it, too—the album peaked at #3 in Britain.

4. Rick Wakeman: Anne of Cleves 7:55

From the A&M LP The Six Wives of Henry VIII

Ah, Rick Wakeman. As mentioned in the intro above, he’s synonymous for many people with prog rock excess. And I won’t argue that point, really—he earned the reputation. What I don’t agree with is the tendency to view his tendency toward pretension and excess as grounds for automatic dismissal. A lot of great music is utterly pretentious, after all. Wakeman recorded his first solo outing in 1972, with members of Yes and his former band, Strawbs, contributing, and yes, it is a concept album, featuring six instrumental pieces, one for each of Henry VIII’s wives. What the musical content of each piece of music has to do with each wife is something Wakeman couldn’t even tell you, but it works as a unifying idea, I suppose. Laying the very loose concept aside, though, what you’re left with is the music, and some of it is really quite good. “Anne of Cleves” is the big keeper for me, in part because it’s the album’s least over-composed track. Really, it’s a four-piece jam, featuring Wakeman excitedly going nuts on a mountain of keyboards while guitarist Mike Egan, drummer Alan White (who joined Yes in 1972 after Bill Bruford left), and bassist Dave Winter wail right along with him—Winter especially turns in an impressive performance. It’s a showcase for the musicians, but I don’t think you could properly call it pretentious—music this openly enthusiastic has a funny way of transcending the hoary concepts and big ideas it supposedly serves.

5. Tranquility: Couldn’t Possibly Be 4:16

From the Epic LP Silver

So wait, where was the boundary between prog and more conventional rock in 1973? Was there really a boundary at all? If there was, bands like Tranquility certainly weren’t very mindful of it. I don’t really know much about the band. Silver was their second and final album, and it occupied strange ground somewhere between power pop and guitar-slinging prog. They were adept harmony singers, as “Couldn’t Possibly Be” attests, and they distilled their jammy tendencies into busy backgrounds that served the songs. The guitars sound as influenced by the Allman Brothers as any particular earlier British act. Like any good prog nerd, I love stumbling across a mellotron wonderland or a spiky Moog solo, but I think discoveries like this, that took all that creative energy and funneled it into pretty darn catchy pop songs, are just as rewarding.

6. Wizzard: You Can Dance Your Rock ‘n’ Roll 4:38

From the Harvest LP Wizzard Brew

Wizzard is a tough band to categorize, and to be honest, they don’t really fit the typical prog rock mold very well. Their music is more like some sort of hideous mutant strain of early rock and roll. Roy Wood had been the leader of the Move, and had also founded Electric Light Orchestra with Jeff Lynne, he and Lynne were quickly at creative loggerheads, so he set out on his own with Wizzard. “You Can Dance Your Rock ‘n’ Roll” continues ELO’s early tendency to mix overdriven boogie with classical instrumentation, though here it’s about five times as overdriven as it ever had been in ELO. I’m not even sure how Wood managed to make this song sound this scuzzy without actually tipping all the VU meters on the board. His eccentric take on, well, everything, sent him down his own prog rock side road, one that no one ever followed him down.

7. Fusion Orchestra: Have I Left the Gas On? 8:38

From the EMI LP Skeleton in Armour

Fusion orchestra only released one album, but it was a very good one, backing the raw vocals of Jill Saward with a powerful collision of jazz and rock, with the occasional detour into spooky soundtrack music, as heard as the beginning of this song’s instrumental interlude. Stan Land and Colin Dawson were a formidable guitar tandem, and the band brought plenty of fire to their most headlong compositions. “Have I Left the Gas On?” is their finest moment and makes me wonder what they could have done if they’d stuck together long enough to follow it up—they’d been a band since the late 60s by this point, and I count us lucky that they stuck at it long enough to get noticed by EMI and record this. I don’t know the fates of most of the members, but Saward later sang for the jazz-funk group Shakatak.

8. Badger: Wind of Change 7:17

From the Atlantic LP One Live Badger

Keyboardist Tony Kaye bounced around a bit after leaving Yes, playing for a time with Peter Banks’ Flash before pulling together Badger with drummer Roy Dyke, formerly of Ashton, Gardner & Dyke and Remo Four. The band debuted with a live album, and a very good one at that—Kaye had clearly been developing this material for some time. He also doesn’t hog the spotlight—bassist Dave Foster and guitarist Brian Parrish handle vocals, and Parrish’s guitar is much more prominent in the band’s sound than Kaye’s organ—Kaye doesn’t even step out for a solo on “Wind of Change” until the very end, letting Parrish go first. It has the overall effect of giving the band a much heavier sound than Flash or even Yes, and it bears noting that “Wind of Change” has a really smashing chorus. Badger only stayed together long enough to record one studio album (it doesn’t measure up to their debut at all). Kaye eventually rejoined Yes, twice, and has remained a part of band’s extended family ever since.

9. Greenslade: Melange 7:30

From the Warner Brothers LP Greenslade

A lot of prog musicians played in several bands during their careers, and during its run in the 70s, Greenslade was home to a lot of them. Named for keyboardist Dave Greenslade, formerly of Colosseum, the band also featured the keyboard and vocal talents of Dave Lawson (formerly of Web). Former King Crimson drummer Andy McCullough and journeyman bassist Tony Reeves (Colosseum, John Mayall, etc, etc. etc.) rounded out the original lineup, which had an automatically unique sound thanks to its lineup. “Melange” provides a good idea of the band’s range, moving through a host of contrasting passages—it’s a mini-suite that a less restrained prog band might have tried to turn into a side-long track. The band lasted through 1977, and all of its members remained in music, moving on to other bands, into production and studio work (Reeves, especially), and even into technology—it was Lawson that did all the keyboard programming for Yes’ 90125.

10. Emerson Lake & Palmer: Karn Evil 9: 2nd Impression 7:07

From the Manticore LP Brain Salad Surgery

We’ve heard ELP turn a modern classical piece into a heavy rock jam, and we’ve heard them take what could have been a fairly conventional rock song and warp it into something entirely more crooked and evil. Here, they mash together bits of jazz, classical and neoclassical music, heavy rock and modern electronics into something recognizable only as ELP. Keith Emerson’s piano dominates the second half of this song, which was the second “movement” in Emerson’s 30-minute “Karn Evil” suite, but it’s what happens in the first half, when the volume is turned up and the whole band is engaged, that’s really interesting. Carl Palmer plays synth drums—one of their first appearances on record—capping his performance with a surprise interpolation of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” that provides the lightest moment in what is otherwise a very long, very serious extended suite. Brain Salad Surgery, with its title taken from a Dr. John song, its grotesque H.R. Giger artwork, and its absolute musical overload, is undeniably ELP’s masterpiece. For some listeners, that means it’s an essential addition to record collection, and for others that just means it’s the one where the band’s bombast and pomp are most unbearable. I fall somewhere in the middle, glad to have it and to have listened to it enough to understand it, but not in love. Masterpiece or no, it was ELP’s high water mark—they followed it up with two volumes of Works, which were disjointed collections of ballads, classical interpretations and ridiculous side-long excursions like “Pirates,” and finally their final LP, the awful Love Beach, which dropped in 1978 and sent the band out with a whimper. They subsequently reunited and re-established themselves as a formidable touring outfit. I saw them in 1996, and Emerson was still killing his organ with knives.

11. Capability Brown: I Am and So Are You 4:00

From the Charisma LP Voice

If you want to know just what an epidemic the side-long track had become in British rock during the early 70s, about all you need to know is that Capability Brown included one on their second and final album, 1973’s Voice. The band wandered the prog rock borderlands, churning out arty but still highly accessible music featuring a lot of big harmony vocals that drove their choruses forcefully home. In the context of these 1973 volumes, they’ve a lot closer to Tranquility than ELP, but the lure of filling one side of a record with a single song was something they couldn’t ignore, and that fact has carved out a cult following for them in prognerdland. I’m glad, because if it hadn’t, I likely never would have come across them, and I’d have missed out on the quirky charm of their more modest work, like “I Am and So Are You.”

12. Gong: Flying Teapot 11:56 

From the Virgin LP Radio Gnome Invisible, Vol. 1: Flying Teapot

We’ve heard from Gong once before, and at this point, the band was still based in France, still comprised mostly of British musicians, and still led by Australian weirdo and self-styled “pothead pixie” Daevid Allen. They were also still psychedelic warriors of the first order and played a type of space rock that no one was really close to, though there were a few bands in Germany traveling similar lanes. The three-album Radio Gnome Invisible series documented a transitional phase for the group as they pivoted from psychedelia to a more pure fusion direction, a transition that can be heard in detail on “Flying Teapot.” Radio Gnome Invisible was also Daevid Allen’s swansong with the group, which he left in 1975. We’ll hear from the band in their more fully developed fusion guise on a later volume.

U.K. Prog, Volume 11: 1973a The Main Stream (Notes)

We’re now more than halfway through this series of UK prog mixes (there will be 20 volumes total), and we’re right around the genre’s commercial peak. It was in the early to mid-70s that progressive rock and the rest of the rock scene in Britain were most thoroughly intertwined, and after this year, things start separating themselves.

This is perhaps the most immediately accessible volume in this whole series. With the exception of a few more difficult tracks in the back half, there’s very little here that the average rock listener with no interest in progressive rock couldn’t enjoy pretty easily.

It comes to a question I’ve avoided addressing so far: what does the “progressive” in progressive rock actually mean? Really? Not much. The term was already in common use in 1969, though its connotation was broader then (a lot of loud blues rock was given the label right along with King Crimson and the like). Really, all it was meant to imply is that these bands were searching for new things to do with the rock form.

It’s debatable whether covering classical music was truly progressive or just novel and self-serious, but it certainly fits the “trying something new” definition, which is the one I think makes the most sense from a modern perspective. There were musicians back then who really thought that building songs off of classical harmony and structure rather than blues-rooted forms made it more sophisticated, which has some disturbing racial implications, but these people were basically wrong.

Sophistication comes not from the ingredients but how they’re used—I’d argue that John Lee Hooker made music every bit as sophisticated as ELP, and today, the members of that band would probably admit that it’s true.

So that’s all we’re really getting at here. These bands were playing rock and roll and trying new things in that context, reaching out to different sources of inspiration in the process. In the process, they helped to vastly expand our understanding of what rock could be and how far it could stretch before it became something else.

Download the mix here.

1. Strawbs: Autumn (i) Heroine’s Theme (ii) Deep Summer’s Sleep (iii) The Winter Long 8:26

From the A&M LP Hero & Heroine

This is the song most responsible for leading me off the well-beaten path of Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, the Moody Blues, and Genesis into less widely remembered progressive rock. Peter Z played it on his free-form Sunday morning show on WPLR, an otherwise conventional classic rock station, and I as mesmerized by it. It took me ages to find it on CD, but I did, and Strawbs did a great deal to grease the slope I was already on and send me sliding into prog’s deep end. It really is an awesome piece of music. The intro, with the bass keyboard simmering below the drone, and the steady drum beat that cues the seagull noises and finally the mellotron theme, hooked me instantly. It’s a true suite, linking three separate pieces of music together into a cohesive whole, and I especially love the mix of jazz and folk feels in the “Deep Summer’s Sleep” section. The final section, “The Winter Long,” was released as a single, but it’s not quite as powerful without what comes before—the dissonance it rises from provides a setting for the pretty piano and group sing-along, which is prog rock at its most populist. Strawbs knew a things or two about that—one of their biggest hits in the UK was the folky, tongue-in-cheek “Part of the Union,” a song designed to be sung along to whilst roaring drunk.

2. Darryl Way’s Wolf: Two Sisters 4:21

From the Deram LP Saturation Point

When creative differences between Francis Monkman and Darryl Way led to Curved Air’s breakup, Way took his violin and wasted no time putting together a new band. Wolf had few of Curved Air’s more experimental tendencies, instead focusing more on tight, violin-led rock songs with strong harmony vocals and a slight hard rock edge. “Two Sisters” is downright catchy, setting breezy vocals and slow melodies against a frenetic backing. Way’s showcase in the instrumental midsection reveals a guy making the most of his new creative freedom and developing a unique rock style on his instrument.

3. Cirkus: Those Were the Days 3:57

From the RCB LP One

Cirkus named themselves for a King Crimson song, but for all their prog tendencies, they were never nearly as weird as what they named themselves for. “Those Were the Days” has a very strong chorus hook, and with better label support, it’s likely Cirkus could have made a real crossover from the art rock circuit to the pop charts. The song’s lyrics aren’t brilliant, but they do have some nice imagery (particularly the teddy bear with just one eye), and they’re well-framed by the verse arrangement. Cirkus was another band that favored the economical over the epic—they made time for instrumental breaks, but kept them well to the point. They’re one of many bands that makes the case for 1973 as the year when prog came closest to being for everyone.

4. Roxy Music: A Song For Europe 5:45

From the Island/Polydor LP Stranded

Roxy Music’s first two albums, made with Brian Eno in the band, teetered back and forth between progressive rock, crooner camp, glam, and pop in an unexpectedly satisfying way, but what a lot of people forget is that they remained a very adventurous band well after Eno’s departure. Stranded was their first album without him, and it’s as firmly in left field as either of its predecessors. What Roxy Music brought to their peculiar take on prog rock that a lot of other bands didn’t was a sense of sweeping romance. Bryan Ferry sang like a man in a constantly desperate state of mind, and his performance is a big part of what helps make the big musical moves, such as the huge syntheseizer swells 9sourtesy of new member Eddie Jobson) feel earned. This kept Roxy from getting boxed in to a prog rock pigeonhole, and they were one of the few bands that managed to seamlessly find its way to even greater success after prog rock fell out of favor in the middle of the 70s.

5. Home: The Sun’s Revenge 4:01

From the CBS LP The Alchemist

Do you think the members of Home liked Yes? Surely they must have, because even though as a band they only bear a passing similarity, the vocals on “The Sun’s Revenge” could practically have been ported in from “Siberian Khatru.” About the only key to a hit this song is missing is a big chorus, but I think the riff is catchy as hell, and even the song’s long, low-key instrumental coda is warmly appealing. A pointless but nonetheless fun game can be played trying to imagine what kind of band Home would have been had they formed four years later—I imagine them as a power pop force. They weren’t around then, though—The Alchemist was the last of their three albums, and guitarist Laurie Wisefield left to join Wishbone Ash the following year. Bassist Cliff Williams later joined AC/DC.

6. Fantasy: Circus 6:19

From the Polydor LP Paint a Picture

Fantasy was a two-album band from Kent that flourished briefly at prog’s peak but never managed more than a small following. “Circus” has its share of twisty instrumental passages, but for a six-minute prog suite whose lyrics make liberal use of the phrase “helter skelter”—well after Manson appropriated the phrase and changed its meaning—it’s remarkably restrained. That restraint may have been the things that held them back, actually. Prog’s most successful bands during this period tended to be the ones that wrung the most drama out of the musical turns they took in their lengthy songs. Understatement wasn’t the path to a big following in this world.

7. Carmen: Reprise Finale 3:02

From the Regal Zonophone LP Fandangos in Space

Carmen was a British-American band that formed in LA, moved to London, and built its sound partly around Spanish flamenco music. The best flamenco rock bands were formed in Spain as Franco’s dictatorship came to an end, but Carmen, oddly enough, set something of a precedent for them. This song, which closes out their best album with call-back to several other songs on it, accomplishes in miniature what these bands often used a suite to do. Over several sections, it references the rhythms of flamenco (the drums in the opening part mimic the rhythms of dancers’ castanets), and some of the genre’s harmonic elements as well, while setting time aside for a fair helping of overdriven lead guitar and, rhythmic jump-cuts and passages of unison riffing. The band released two more albums, breaking up in 1975, the year Franco died, allowing Spain’s flamenco rock movement to finally flourish in the open.

8. Morgan: Fire in the Head 5:01

From the RCA LP The Sleeper Wakes (aka Brown Out)

The opener of Morgan’s second and final album, an album that wasn’t officially released until 1977 because the band angered its record company, is an exercise in infectious bombast. The verses are catchy and ingratiating almost in spite of themselves, which becomes less surprising when you consider that the band’s history stretches back to the 60s, when its members were in the Soul Survivors and the Love Affair, two groups that experienced pop success. The instrumental passages are less friendly, hitting the listener upside the head with hyperspeed carnival keyboards, seemingly in the hope that if the verse didn’t win you over, these passages might at least beat you into submission. Naturally, with this album shelved, Morgan had few paths forward and called it quits—interestingly, their sound anticipates a fair number of neo-prog bands from the 90s, though it’s likely coincidence. They had all the same influences.

9. Fruupp: Decision 6:29

From the Dawn LP Future Legends

Fruupp were from Northern Ireland, and though they were only around for three years, they managed to churn out four LPs. “Decision” is from their debut, and it has two personalities. One can be heard in the verses, which have a jazz-rock shuffle and nicely rendered vocal harmonies. Let’s call this their Dr. Jekyll side. The guitar solo in the middle hints that Dr. Jekyll may be hiding a demon within, and it’s unleashed completely in the song’s final passage, as the solo grows more intense and the band finally caves completely to its Mr. Hyde side on the crazy coda, which is stuffed with tangled knots of guitar and wild double stops. It’s very ambitious passage, one the band barely has the technical skill to pull off, and this gives it a frayed quality that actually heightens the intensity. Not many prog bands let themselves go off the rails like this.

10. Riff Raff: You Must Be Joking 7:31

From the RCA LP Riff Raff

The members of heavy jazz-rock band Riff Raff were well-traveled, having played in a huge number of bands, including Ginger Baker’s Air Force, The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, Brian Auger’s Trinity, Nucleus, Juicy Lucy, as well as the backing bands for a lot of solo artists. They recorded three albums together, though the first wasn’t released, and this became their debut by default. The band’s Brazilian drummer, Aureo de Souza, could flit between straight rock rhythm and a swinging jazz feel by the measure, a skill that can be heard on full display during Pete Kirtley’s blistering guitar solo on “You Must Be Joking.” The band lasted for one more album before everyone moved on to other projects—keyboardist Tommy Eyre had the highest-profile post-Riff Raff career of any of them, playing in a lot of other groups, including the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and the Ian Gillan Band.

11. Sindelfingen: Three Ladies 8:33

From the self-released/Cenotaph LP Odgipig

Sindelfingen formed in 1972, but just a year later, the band’s knotty take on prog rock, with its quick time signature changes, hyperactive bass lines, and folk-based lyrics, sounded anachronistic; if they’d been around just two years earlier, they’d have been state of the art. That would have been a tall order, given that the band’s bass player, Mark Letley, was only seventeen when this album was recorded. Of course, the band wasn’t averse to youth: when drummer Roger Thorn left the band in in 1973, he was replaced by Letley’s brother, Matt, who was twelve at the time (Matt Letley currently drums for Status Quo). Gutiarist/vocalist Richard Manktelow appears to have been a big Gentle Giant fan—you can hear their way of phrasing things all over his vocals. This is a band that probably never had a prayer of finding a large audience, but their album is a fun find for a prog fan.

12. Henry Cow: Teenbeat 6:48

From the Virgin LP Leg End

In 1978, Henry Cow gave a name to the school of rock they helped establish when they organized the Rock in Opposition festival, featuring themselves and four continental bands that shared their love of dissonance and open structures. In 1973, they were just considered an underground group, a tag they’d held with since guitarist Fred Frith and reedist Tim Hodgkinson founded the group at Cambridge University in 1968. Leg End was their first album, and by this time the band’s most powerful rhythm section, with bassist John greaves and drummer Chris Cutler, was in place. “Teenbeat” is an absolutely sarcastic title for this music, which is a sort of chamber jazz concoction that abandoned even the barest notion that pop success was attainable. The music is intricate and constantly teetering on the brink of chaos—in a few volumes, I’ll be addressing the ways in which punk and prog are a lot more closely linked than history tells us, and Henry Cow is one of the groups that figures heavily in that story.

13. Man: Back Into the Future 4:04 

From the United Artists LP Back Into the Future

One more from Man. The Welsh space rockers behaved almost as much like a collective as a band, with members, particularly guitarists, coming and going often, only to return (I believe the same lineup never appeared on consecutive albums). They made nine studio albums (plus five live albums) during their original run from 1969 to 1976, and Back Into the Future is perhaps the best of these, though each of them has its moments. The title track is a good example of the way the band combined psychedelic sonics with a pub rock attitude for a unique combination that makes them one of the friendliest and least self-serious prog bands. After the band’s breakup, drummer Terry Williams even joined Rockpile with Nick Lowe, making the link even more obvious. Man reformed in the early 90s and has released six more studio albums since.

14. Babe Ruth: The Mexican 5:49

From the Harvest LP First Base

Today, Babe Ruth aren’t remembered as a prog rock band, even with the bizarre Roger Dean artwork that graced their first album cover. With its dual guitar/keyboard runs and lyrics about the Mexican-American war, “The Mexican” is a prog classic, but it’s subsequently become much more than that thanks to the work of successive generations of hip-hop DJs. It’s easy to see where the song’s crossover appeal comes from—the funky rhythm section and Janita Haan’s gritty vocals give it an r&b edge that’s so much earthier than most other prog. In 1983, the Funky Four +1 built their classic “Feel It” around “The Mexican,” and the song has been a hip-hop touchstone ever since. First Base sold well in North America, but tanked in Britain; a few years later when the band recorded its final album, no original members remained.

15. Tempest: Upon Tomorrow 6:50

From the Bronze LP Tempest

Allan Holdsworth is best known as an influential guitarist—he was in his late 20s when he joined Tempest at the invitation f former Colosseum drummer John Hiseman and had already played in several bands, including Nucleus and the influential but sadly unrecorded Sunship—but here, he’s just as impressive on the violin, alternating between the two instruments. “Upon Tomorrow” is nearly seven minutes long and passes through many contrasting sections, but it still feel compact and direct, and a lot of that is down to Holdsworth, whose leads never succumb to meaningless flash. Paul Williams’ vocal keeps things grounded as well—he even sounds a little like Paul Weller, though the Jam was still a few year off. Tempest recorded just two albums before its members moved on to other bands. Mark Clarke jumped on the hard rock merry-go-round, playing in Uriah Heep, Rainbow, Natural Gas, and a latter-day Mountain; Hiseman formed Colosseum II; Holdsworth played in Gong, UK, and Bill Bruford’s band and launched a solo career as well; Ollie Halsall played with Kevin Ayers, Neil Innes, and a host of others.

U.K. Prog, Volume 10: 1972b Space Is Deep (Notes)

This is the second and final volume covering 1972.

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1. Kingdom Come: Time Captives 8:18 

From the Polydor LP Journey

After the demise of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the band’s leader established Kingdom Come—we heard from them back on Volume Seven, which covered 1971. Just a year later, the band’s sound was almost completely different. Drummer Martin Steer had left after the band’s second album, and rather than replace, the band picked up a Bentley Rhythm Ace drum machine—I have read but can’t confirm that Journey was the first rock album on which all of the drums were handled by a machine. The drum machine was only part of it, though—new keyboardist Victor Peraino abandoned the heavy organ sound that had characterized Brown’s music to that point in favor of Mellotron, VCS3, and the Arp 2600, which gets a major showcase on the album’s opener. The sound the band produced here was strikingly forward-looking, and, truth be told, more of a piece with what was going on in Germany at the time than anything else happening in British prog. I think it’s aged amazingly well.

2. Stackridge: Purple Spaceships Over Yatton 6:40 

From the b-side of MCA MKS-5091

Stackridge were, by and large, not among my favorite bands usually included in surveys of British progressive rock. Their Friendliness LP is as much a prototype for soft rock as anything else, but delivered in a way that evades the earnest charm of a lot of soft rock. This b-side, though, takes that sound to some interesting places, particularly in the Holst-y orchestral mid-section, where the band comes back in after the fake-out ending. Yatton is a small town in Somerset not far from Bristol, which was the band’s home—I suppose listening to this, you can hear a narrative thrust running through the instrumental, weird that passage is the spaceships landing or blasting things with laser beams. This group offers an intriguing example of the way popular memory selects what endures—today, they’re considered a pretty obscure group, but in 1970, they were a big deal. They closed that year’s Glastonbury Festival, Renaissance opened for them, and George Martin produced their third album a couple years after that. For some reason, they didn’t stick, though, and lost out in the popular memory sweepstakes.

3. Matching Mole: Instant Kitten 4:59 

From the CBS LP Matching Mole

Robert Wyatt made four albums with Soft Machine, but parted ways with the group in 1971 over artistic differences. He dubbed the new band he started Matching Mole after the French phrase machine molle, which means soft machine. This band continued in much the same vein as the early Soft Machine albums, playing somewhat free-form instrumental rock, but where Soft Machine went fully into jazz-rock, Matching Mole stuck to knotty post-psych. The band was sticked with canterbury regulars, including Caravan’s Dave Sinclair and guitarist Phil Miller, previously of Delivery and later of Caravan, Hatfield & the North and National Health, among others. In 1973, Wyatt was in the early stages of planning a third Matching Mole album when he fell out a window and was paralyzed from the waist down. We’ll visit his early solo career a few volumes from now.

4. Hawkwind: Space Is Deep 6:23 

From the United Artists LP Doremi Fasol Latido

We first heard Hawkwind back on Volume Six, and one thing I noted then and will repeat now is that the band’s peculiar brand of psychedelic jamming didn’t really fit the UK prog mold, having more in common with Germany’s kosmische rock bands (more often referred to as krautrock). “Space Is Deep” tempers the band’s one-chord jamming a bit by couching it inside a rather taut, acoustic song. The brief drone-jam in the middle showcases the band’s then-new rhythm section of drummer Simon King and bassist Lemmy Kilmister, the latter of whom would one day found the early metal band Mötörhead. This is still Dave Brock’s show, though, and it’s his guitar that frames the heavy psychedelics and gives them form while Dik Mik and Del Dettmar use their synthesizers and noise generators to create atmospheric sounds.

5. Khan: Space Shanty (including the Cobalt Sequence and March of the Sine Squadrons) 9:00 

From the Deram LP Space Shanty

OK, so this volume has been pretty spaced-out and relatively chaotic so far. Here’s where that changes. Khan was a one-album band that found its way past the atmosphere in an entirely different manner to Hawkwind, and “Space Shanty” is their wildest ride. The instrumental passage that begins after three minutes (one presumes that this might be the “Cobalt Sequence” referred to in the parenthetical title) whips through one crazy solo after another, with Dave Stewart switching between an array of keyboards. That’s the same Dave Stewart we’ve heard in Egg and Arzachel, and will later hear in National Health and Hatfield & the North, and he was joined by a couple other guys with a lot of connections. Steve Hillage had a very successful solo career in the late 70s after stints with this band, Gong, and System Seven, and bassist Nick Greenwood had played with Arthur Brown, while original drummer Pip Pyle, who didn’t play on the album, was in Gong, Delivery, Hatfield and National Health.

This might all sound like cataloging or name-droppng, but I think this kind of exchange and fluidity is one of the things that contributed to the health and longevity of the UK’s progressive rock scene. Whereas in the United States prog bands tended to work in isolation and disappear completely when they split, in the UK, and particularly in southern England, your band splitting often meant you just joined another band. People knew each other and grew together as musicians, collaborating at multiple points in their careers, and it made a difference to the music.

6. Bram Stoker: Fast Decay 3:46 

From the Windmill LP Heavy Rock Spectacular

Bram Stoker is an odd case, but one that demonstrates just how important progressive rock was to the British music industry in 1972. They were a manufactured band, studio cats brought together to make a progressive rock album, because if you were trying to sell a rock album in 1972, a heavy prog record would be likely to accomplish your goal. Indeed, Windmill Records was owned by Woolworth’s, and most of the label’s other releases were things like The Beatles’ Golden Songs by the Studio Five Orchestra Singers and Chorus and various artist Parade of Pops sets. And really, everything about this is generic, from the fact that no musicians are credited apart from composer “T. Brodson,” to the album title, to the quick quasi-classical flights on the organ, to the project’s attempt to gain a bit of edge by naming itself for the author of Dracula. Funny thing about coat-tail riding projects like this: their attempts to ride someone else’s waves can wind up generating a compelling energy of their own, and while “Fast Decay” isn’t innovative, it’s engaging and entertaining in its own right. The cash-in attempt failed, though—Heavy Rock Spectacular is actually a pretty rare find these days.

7. CMU: Archway 272 6:19 

From the Transatlantic LP Space Cabaret

CMU stands for Contemporary Music Unit, and while that certainly sounds like it could be the recipe for another Bram Stoker-style attempt at a cash-in, it wasn’t. The first CMU album, released in 1971, was a latter-day psych record, but for their second and final album, the band’s lineup changed considerably, with Leary Hasson’s keyboards assuming a dominant role in the band’s sound. Guitarist/vocalist Lorraine Odell was a rarity in British prog, a female instrumentalist working in an overwhelmingly male-dominated form. She shared lead vocals with Richard Joseph, and their joint singing on the chorus creates a memorable hook to hang the song’s jazz-inflected verses on. Hasson (formerly of Marsupilami) mixes Rhodes and Mellotron, and the pairing is so natural it’s a wonder more bands didn’t hit upon it. Never stable, CMU broke up soon after this album, and as far as I know, drummer Roger Odell was the only one to have any kind of high-profile musical career, joining smooth jazz/funk act Shakatak in 1980.

8. Gentle Giant: A Cry for Everyone 4:06

From the Vertigo LP Octopus

This is one of Gentle Giant’s most straightforward rockers, from the band’s heaviest rock album, but even it has the jump cuts, knotty passages and strangely syncopated melodies that were the band’s trademarks. Kerry Minnear’s very brief synth lead in the instrumental midsection is perhaps the strangest detail in a song jam-packed with oddball details, but I think that overall, this song shows the band coming to grips with how to make their incredibly heady mix of styles more direct and accessible and succeeding. This album had one of Roger Dean’s cooler mid-70s album covers, featuring a particularly sinister-looking octopus—oddly, it was replaced with a much less striking image on the North American issues of the album.

9. Man: Keep on Crinting 8:18 

From the United Artists LP Be Good to Yourself at Least Once a Day

Man was a quintet from South Wales that embraced a spacey, jam-oriented prog style built around synthesizer leads that at the time must have sounded completely out of this world. Here, they’re handed by Phil Ryan, who was new to the band. Like plenty of its contemporaries, Man was a bit of a revolving door. Guitarist Clive John was in the midst of his second stint with the band on this album, while guitarist Deke Leonard was temporarily out of the band (not the only time he’d leave). “Keep on Crinting” is one of the band’s signature jams, with very little in the way of composed melodies; their songs tended to be pretty open-ended, and when played live would stretch out to twice their studio lengths. I’m a little shaky on the meaning of the word “crinting.” I assume it’s Welsh slang (the word appears in Aussie slang); otherwise, the definition I’m most familiar with is a type of woven bamboo fence made in rural Kenyan villages—I’m just guessing this isn’t what the band had in mind.

10. Curved Air: Cheetah 3:31

From the Warner Brothers LP Phantasmagoria

Curved Air was coming apart at the seams as it recorded its third album, which would be the last one made by the band in its original configuration. Violinist Darryl Way and keyboardist Francis Monkman was at odds over what direction the band’s music should take, with Way on the side of tightly controlled compositions and Monkman more interested in experimentation and open structures. The band even split the album between the two, with Way dominating side one and Monkman side two. “Cheetah” is a concise instrumental from Way’s side; he’d leave the band soon after recording to form Wolf. Vocalist Sonja Kristina revived the band without Way or Monkman, and with a much more rock-oriented sound—this version of the band was the first prominent group to feature violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson, who would go on to play in a parade of major bands, including Roxy Music, UK, Jethro Tull, and Frank Zappa’s band. That version of Curved Air didn’t last, either, and Way and Monkman both came back—this reconstituted Curved Air briefly featured a pre-Police Stewart Copeland on drums.

11. Diabolus: Three Piece Suite 7:11

From the Bellaphon LP Diabolus

Diabolus is a true lost gem of the British progressive rock scene; their only album features an original and very nicely realized jazz/symphonic sound laced with sax and flute and full of strong compositions. The fact their record label deemed the record uncommercial and refused to release it in 1972 beggars belief, really. The band broke up and came back for a time under the name Sunfly. What they didn’t know was that in Germany, a label called Bellaphon had illegally released their album, having somehow got hold of the tapes and knowing a good thing when they heard it. So this band finds itself thrust into this conversation through the back door, their excellent, sole album entirely worth tracking down. “Three Piece Suite” uses the same punning title as several other progressive rock songs, but the band justifies the title by actually delivering a series of well-constructed and highly memorable mini-songs strung together into one truly excellent epic. This band deserved to have its music heard the first time around, and it certainly deserved better than to have it released overseas behind their backs.

12. Nektar: Desolation Valley 5:16 

From the United Artists LP A Tab in the Ocean

Nektar is often included in discussions of German progressive rock, as it was formed in Hamburg by English musicians, and their sound does indeed fall somewhere between the symphonic tendencies of British prog and the more abstract, psychedelic sound of the early 70s German rock scene, with not a little debt to Pink Floyd. Side One of the band’s second LP was entirely given over to the title track; “Desolation Valley” opens Side Two, which also flows seamlessly from track to track, though on this side, the songs aren’t clearly related. Derek Moore’s bass line in particular stands out on the intro, but the whole band gels well as the song slips into its subdued jazz-psych verses. A couple years later, the band scored a hit with its Remember the Future concept album about a blind boy who communicates with aliens (British bands liked their concept albums about blind kids with extraordinary powers).

13. Flash: Children of the Universe 8:57 

From the Sovereign LP Flash

After guitarist Peter Banks parted with Yes, he formed Flash with vocalist Colin Carter, bassist Ray Bennett and drummer Mike Hough. Keyboardist Tony Kaye, who had also recently departed Yes, played on the band’s first album but declined to join, founding his own band, Badger, instead (more on them on Volume Twelve). The band’s debut yielded a small hit on both sides of the Atlantic in the form of “Small Beginnings,” but that was really it for the band on the charts, though they managed three albums before Banks went solo. “Children of the Universe” is one of the band’s most ambitious prog cuts, and reflects some of Yes’ early style, particularly in the sudden shift to a much harder instrumental passage just before the five minute mark. Capitol Records (which owned Sovereign) probably hoped that Flash’s star would rise in tandem with Yes’, but ultimately the band just wasn’t as distinctive or powerful as the band Yes became.

14. Jackson Heights: Catch a Thief 4:50 

From the Vertigo LP Ragamuffins Fool

Speaking of guys that got left behind by former colleagues, when Keith Emerson left The Nice to form Emerson Lake & Palmer (amicably, it should be noted—Emerson even loaned his keyboards to Jackson on occasion), bassist Lee Jackson and drummer Brian Davison each started his own group, too. Davison’s Every Which Way stalled after one album, but Jackson’s Jackson Heights, which he built around keyboardist/composer Brian Chatton, made four albums, the best of which was their third, Ragamuffins Fool. King Crimson’s Michael Giles joined the band on drums for their final three albums, making this among the highest-profile bands to sign to Vertigo. “Catch A Thief” finds them at their most dynamic, with Chatton’s piano and Giles’ highly creative drumming putting a serious rhythmic charge into Jackson’s surging late psych tune. Jackson Heights ran its course with its next album, as Jackson left to reunite with Davison in Refugee, a keys/bass/drums outfit in the mold of The Nice that only managed one album.

U.K. Prog, Volume 9: 1972a Thrones & Realms (Notes)

So it’s 1972, and you’re a prog band, which means you’re probably doing one of three things: breaking up, preparing a shift toward more conventional music, or doubling down, filling one side of your album with a single song and tracking down Roger Dean to have him paint weird causeways and extraterrestrial birds on your album sleeve. 1972 was perhaps the peak year of British prog from an artistic standpoint, a year when it seemed like anything was possible—studio technology was improving and getting cheaper to access, labels were mining the club and ballroom circuits for prog acts, Europe was hungry for British bands, and the music charted well.

A lot of first-wave and second-wave prog bands perished in 1972, or at least released their final albums, and there’s the sense that things were beginning to shake out a bit—nothing lasts forever. Still, there were plenty of bands toiling in obscurity, and the scene remained rich and deep, far more so than I can cover in a couple volumes.

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1. Genesis: Watcher of the Skies 7:23

From the Charisma LP Foxtrot

I could have introduced Genesis earlier in this series. They’re one of the most important groups in British progressive rock, and their story began in 1967, when the band came together at Charterhouse School. Their first album, 1969’s From Genesis to Revelation, was considerably more straightforward and pop-oriented than the music they’d come to make (it also included string arrangements added after the fact by the label). In 1970, they moved to Charisma, the label originally founded by Tony Stratton-Smith to release Van der Graaf Generator’s debut. Their first LP for the label, 1970’s Trespass, established their expansive, complex style, but the band nearly didn’t survive it—drummer John Mayhew and guitarist/composer Anthony Phillips left, the latter because of crushing stage fright. This had a few knock-on effects: drummer Phil Collins joined, and to compensate for the loss of the guitarist, Tony Banks developed a unique style of lead fuzz piano that would pop up on the band’s albums for years.

Vocalist Peter Gabriel was, of course, anything bu afraid of performing, and his operatic, many-costumed stage performances helped cement the band’s reputation as a must-see live act. The band finally recruited guitarist Steve Hackett, putting in place the classic quintet lineup that recorded a run of four classic, defining progressive rock albums. Foxtrot was the second of these, and the band’s first to crack the UK top twenty. It did that partly on the strength of the side-long “Supper’s Ready,” but “Watcher of the Skies” is the song that showcases all of the band’s biggest strengths in one superb, relatively compact statement. Banks’ slow, sour Mellotron intro is hardly preparation for the intensely rhythmic song that follows.

One of the things I love about the arrangement is the way Mike Rutherford’s bass essentially snatches the lead away from Hackett’s guitar, which is more engaged in filling the sidelines in with color. The band had a very distinctive aesthetic vision, but what’s really amazing about it is that they achieved that vision without ever settling into a predictable pattern—any instrument could lead at any time, and a song could go anywhere they felt like taking it. They remained a great band for years after the quintet version began eroding, but it was this version of the band that made the most powerful, lasting impression.

2. Wishbone Ash: The King Will Come 7:06

From the MCA LP Argus

One more from Wishbone Ash, whom we previously heard engaged in a bit of whimsical hard rock with the wordless vocal harmonies of “Vas Dis.” “The King Will Come” is decidedly more serious, about its subject matter and its ambitions as well. The Argus LP is the band’s artistic peak, and while it’s not quite as crazy with the meter changes and structural complexity of some of its contemporaries, it does have its share of excellent progressive rock workouts. The long instrumental midsection of “The King Will Come” features some of the finest interplay between guitarists Ted Turner and Andy Powell. From here, the band turned to more conventional hard rock, and even lost its signature twin lead guitar sound for a time when Powell left the band (he was replaced by Laurie Wisefield).

3. Gracious!: Blues Skies & Alibis 5:00 

From the Philips LP This Is… Gracious!!

Gracious! Released two albums, and we heard a selection from their first on Volume 6. I think they’re worth revisiting for a song from the follow-up, if only to demonstrate what was happening to the music from 1970 to 1972. “Heaven,” from the debut, was slow and sprawling, a long, melodic song with a lot of music twists and detours. “Blue Skies and Alibis” is far more streamlined, with Martin Kitcat’s Mellotron playing an unusual lead instrument role rather than its usual atmospheric, textural role. Even as structures continued to sprawl out and prog bands chose to build their music around bigger and bigger concepts, certain commercial pressures were already pressing in as early as 1972, and bands on the specialty labels (Gracious had graduated from Vertigo to Philips, the parent label of Vertigo, for LP two) were finding that with the lousy support their labels were capable of throwing behind them, they needed make hits happen for themselves. In the case of Gracious, a hit never did happen, but it’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which “Blue Skies” might have been the one.

4. Asgærd: Time 5:12

From the Threshold LP In the Realm of Asgærd

Gracious wasn’t the only band from the initial prog wave to bite the dust in 1972—the Moody Blues, whose penchant for melancholy drama, conceptual themes and big, huge waves of Mellotron had helped shape early progressive rock, recorded their last album prior to a 1978 reunion. The Moodies’ record label, Threshold, remained active, though, and Asgærd, named for the country of the Norse gods (one of the nine worlds of Norse religion), was, along with Trapeze and the American group Providence, one of three non-Moodies-related bands to be signed to the label. In the Realm of Asgard was their only album, featuring about 35 minutes of concise, pop-accessible prog. Peter Orgill’s violin gave their music an interesting edge, but the core of their sound is the harmonies of Ted Bartlett, James Smith and Rodney Harrison, the first two of whom were solely vocalists for the band (Harrison played guitar). The completely unexpected Celtic hoedown in the middle of the song is one of my favorite moments on this whole volume. I’m not sure what happened to the members of Asgærd after their split, but the name stayed around—at least two other prog bands, one from Italy and another from France, have used it.

5. Catapilla: Charing Cross 6:45

From the Vertigo LP Changes

Catapilla was another short-lived band, cutting two albums of murky jazz-rock before disappearing. Changes was the second—like most Vertigo bands, they were quite good but never found an audience for their recordings. Their take on jazz-rock was filtered through some of the wiggier elements of psychedelia, and their records feature a lot of delay and other studio effects (as well as musical effects—guitarist Graham Wilson has an extended passage of finger-tapping toward the end). Their sax-augmented lineup was fairly normal for a prog band, but they had a different kind of wild card in singer Anna Meek, whose tripped-out vocals function more like an additional instrument than a typical pop vocal. “Charing Cross” shows her approach well. If you’re unfamiliar with London, Charing Cross today is a major transit station housed in an absolutely massive building by the Thames. The name comes from the wooden cross that once stood in the intersection that occupied the site long ago.

6. Jade Warrior: Three-Horned Dragon King 6:10

From the Vertigo LP Released

Jade Warrior closed out our last volume with a sort of ghostly world music track—“Three-Horned Dragon King” is perhaps more emblematic of their overall approach, stirring together rock, jazz and bit of African-ish percussion into a whole that’s complex but coherentThe song buried in all this fusion is pretty ferocious, too, with a strong vocal and nice, ripping fuzz guitar, which was a tone that a lot of prog guys were shying away from at the time. It meshes really nicely with the sax on the main riff. There’s already been plenty of down talk about band splitting on this volume; Jade Warrior was a survivor, persisting into the 1990s (albeit with a couple of lengthy hiatuses)

7. Morgan: War Games 7:04

From the RCA LP Nova Solis

Morgan had roots in psychedelic pop groups of the late 60s; singer Tim Staffel had been in Smile with Brian May and Roger Taylor, while keyboardist Morgan Fisher and drummer Maurice Bacon had played together in several bands. The Queen connection is especially odd given that vocals really aren’t Morgan’s strong suit. Staffel was adequate, but it was really Fisher’s keyboards that dominated the band and gave them their sound. This track from Nova Solis, the band’s debut, comes in and goes out on understated drones, but nothing in between could reasonably be called understated. Bob Sapsed’s overdriven bass work in the verses gives the song a powerful groove that it really needs to make its way through all the heavy lyrics and flowery keyboard themes, though I do dig that harpsichord passage in the middle. Morgan made only one more album, 1973’s The Sleeper Wakes.

8. Emerson Lake & Palmer: Living Sin 3:14

From the Manticore LP Trilogy

When you’re addressing the big names on a volume like this, you’re first confronted with all the different points you might want to make. ELP has a well-cemented reputation for pomp and pretense, and most people who are interested in the band realize that their Greg Lake-led hits were atypical entries in their songbook, so I decided to lean away from “The Endless Enigma” and “From the Beginning” and go with “Living Sin,” a song that I think nicely channels all of the band’s bombast into something intentionally over the top and, well, fun. Greg Lake clearly loves singing this song (“twisted!”), and Keith Emerson goes totally nuts with his organ riffs, building them out into ridiculously long and yet oddly compelling tangles of blues phrasing. People tend to forget that ELP had a sometimes wicked sense of humor, and I think it’s a shame that it’s the side of them that’s been most thoroughly dropped from the conventional narratives around them.

9. Paladin: Any Way 4:20

From the Bronze LP Charge!

I don’t know how they did it, but Paladin managed to score one of Roger Dean’s wickedest cover paintings for their second album, Charge! I think the thing riding the robo-horse is supposed to be an alien knight? Dean’s fantastical landscapes and bizarre creatures are practically the visual synonym for progressive rock, and especially the symphonic variety, and I’m fairly certain that James Cameron owes the guy royalties for Avatar. On some level, they’re a little cheesy—whoa! There are fish, swimming, like, in the air!—but more to the point, they really are a perfect visual complement to the records they adorn, on which the bands in question were often attempting to build worlds no less fantastic. Paladin wasn’t quite working toward that goal—their second album is relatively straightforward and light on bombast, much less the travails of gnomes and fairies—but it is still a very nicely conceived and performed record. “Any Way” is the big ballad, and it stands well alongside just about any other 70s rock ballad I can think of. Paladin’s second album was its last, and the band split soon after making it. Keyboardist Pete Solley later joined Procol Harum just in time help them record their last album, Something Magic.

10. Tractor: Make the Journey 9:11

From the Dandelion LP Tractor

Tractor’s “Make the Journey” begins as a rather ordinary post-psych hard rock song, but when the harmonies on the chorus hit, drawing a sharp and immediate contrast against the verses, it becomes clear that this is really something else. One ferocious guitar solo and a final verse later, we’re off into a sort of dub/noise coda built around those same chorus harmonies, which blow through the noise like ghosts. All of this racket was made by two guys, Jim Milne and Steve Clayton—a studio-bound duo like Tractor was fairly unusual in the progressive rock world (and they did assemble a touring band from time to time), but they made it work, and the band has been active at various levels from the 60s to the present. Oddly, they’ve only made two albums in that time, Tractor, and another under their previous name, The Way We Live.

11. Second Hand: Death May Be Your Santa Claus 2:34

From the Mushroom LP Death May Be Your Santa Claus

Way back on Volume 3, we heard an incredibly ambitious, epic psych track by Second Hand called “Mainliner,” recorded when the band members were only in their teens. I’ve heard that their second album was recorded in 1970 and not released until 1972 (I’ve also heard that it was recorded and released in 1971), but either way, it came out a bit too late for its heavy, organ-driven psych sound to really break through. The sound was so organ driven primarily because the guitarist had left the band and they couldn’t find a good replacement. Death May Be Your Santa Claus is about as weird as its title overall, but I think it’s a fun record. The band recorded one more album, under the new name Chillum, before splitting. Bandleader Ken Elliot and drummer Kieran O’Connor went on to play together as Seventh Wave.

12. Gnidrolog: Ship 6:42

From the RCA LP Lady Lake

I’ve looked a lot, and I can’t figure out where Gnidrolog’s name comes from. It seems like it must be a reference to some sort of myth or fantasy story, but I’m hardly an expert on either, so if anyone knows, tell me. I do know that the band’s nucleus was brothers Colin and Stewart Goldring, who began playing in bands together in the mid-60s. Gnidrolog was a reasonably typical early 70s prog act, incorporating sax as a primarily rhythm-focused instrument into a more standard rock setup, and their two albums, both released in 1972, featured their share of lengthy jams. “Ship” is a bit more bite-sized, with the bass, sax, and guitar all operating somewhere between strictly rhythmic and melodic roles. It gives the slow-tempoed song a sense of constant forward momentum as the instruments twist around each other. The band broke up quickly after Lady Lake flopped, but the Goldring brothers would later join the small handful of musicians that literalized the fall of prog to punk when they formed their own scatalogically inclined punk band, the Pork Dukes, in 1976. That band managed three albums before splitting in 1979.

13. Janus: I Wanna Scream 2:47

From the Harvest LP Gravedigger

Janus is a classic one-album wonder, their sole LP for Harvest landing with a thud in 1972 even as prog was nearly its commercial peak. It was a hell of a record, complete with a side-long epic and amazing cover art (love the top-hatted skeleton). “I Wanna Scream” is the inverse of the sidelong title track, channeling all of the energy and fractured lead guitar of their core sound into less than three minutes of gloriously tripped-out hard rock. Janus may have been a one-album wonder, but their story takes a very different turn from most one-album prog acts beginning in 1990, when the band got back together and cut a second album, which also included a 20-minute track. Even stranger, they’ve been active ever since, and have added another six albums to their discography.

14. Renaissance: Rajah Khan 11:32

From the Sovereign LP Prologue

Volume 4 included a song from Renaissance, but the band that cut the first Renaissance album was a completely different entity from the one that made Prologue just three years later. Gone was Jane Relf, replaced on vocals by powerful soprano Annie Haslam. John Hawken, Louis Cennamo, Jim McCarty, and Keith Relf were all gone, too, replaced by bassist John Camp, pianist John Tout, drummer Terence Sullivan, and guitarist Rob Hendry (there were others who came and went in that span as well, most notably guitarist Michael Dunford, who would later return). Oddly, even though not a single founding member remained in the band, the style, built largely around rushing, classically influenced keyboards wasn’t all that different, though this new lineup executed it with a fair amount more finesse.

“Rajah Khan” is one of the band’s very few experiments with non-Western harmony, and it doesn’t really linger on that much past Rob Hendry’s blistering guitar opening. Haslam’s wordless vocals do some very interesting things with inflection, and there are phrases where she seems to swallow the notes before they can escape. While I love these passages, the flat-out jam the band launches into after seven minutes is probably my favorite part—that’s Curved Air’s Francis Monkman sitting in on VCS3, the first entirely British designed and built synthesizer (the most instantly recognizable VCS3 recording is Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”). This lineup of Renaissance stuck (once Dunford came back in 1973) through the end of the 70s, and it was the band that established Renaissance as one of the major British progressive rock acts.

Tags: UK prog Notes