By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2017 09:13PM
The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that on Wednesday last week (August 23rd), Gentle Giant were inducted into Portsmouth Guildhall’s ‘Wall of Fame’. The Guildhall, originally the Town Hall, was renamed after Portsmouth gained city status in 1926. The neoclassical building was severely damaged during the Second World War but restored, with much of the original detail missing, and reopened in 1959 with standing space for an audience of 2500 in the largest performance space. The Wall of Fame is a recent feature, introduced in 2014 to honour (mainly) local artists who have achieved great success. Gentle Giant join artists like Mark King of Level 42 (originally from the Isle of Wight); local boy Mick Jones, who formed Foreigner with Ian McDonald; another local boy Spike Edney, probably most famous for his live work with Queen; and Steve Hackett, voted on by fans in recognition of his amazing musical career who was inducted in May this year.
The Shulman family originally hailed from Glasgow but set up home in Portsmouth in 1948 after the father of the yet-to-be Gentle Giants had been posted there during the war. The three Shulman brothers Phil, Derek and Ray first formed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound along with Eric Hine (keyboards), Pete O’Flaherty (bass) and Tony Ransley (drums) in 1966 and had a hit in 1967 with Kites, originally a ballad written by Lee Pockriss and Hal Hackady which the band were quite unhappy with, insisting it wasn’t in their chosen musical idiom. They eventually recorded a version at the insistence of their manager John King, in psychedelic style featuring a variety of odd studio instruments in Abbey Road, including Mellotron and a wind machine; they even got an actress friend to recite some Chinese during a spoken interlude and, to their surprise, the single did very well, ultimately peaking at no. 8 in the charts. Simon Dupree and the Big Sound had no further success but evolved into Gentle Giant in 1970 when the Shulmans recruited Kerry Minnear (keyboards), Gary Green (guitar) and Martin Smith (drums.)
The first Gentle Giant album I heard was In a Glass House (1973) and the first I bought, in an effort to hear as much of their material as possible, was Playing the Fool – The Official Live (1977) on cassette. It was obvious from a very early stage that GG were highly accomplished musicians playing incredibly complex material and it wasn’t until I heard Free Hand (1975), premiered on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show, that I realised they could also really rock without compromising their identity. At that stage, GG being a band that I looked out for, I had no idea of their relative lack of commercial success. What I heard of The Missing Piece (1977) indicated a major change, and not a good one. The Sight & Sound in Concert performance, filmed at London’s Golders Green Hippodrome on January 5th 1978 and shown on BBC TV a couple of weeks later was a must watch occasion, but Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought we Couldn’t Do It were major disappointments. I started to build up a full collection of GG in the 80s and in the mid 90s, when progressive rock was slightly less vilified than it had been for almost 20 years and when the nascent internet was mostly accessed for academic purposes, I signed up to a couple of web-based forums: Elephant Talk for all things Crimson and On Reflection, the internet discussion list for GG fans; it was a revelation to read fans’ thoughts and anecdotes. There’s no doubt that the band deserve their place in the Portsmouth Guildhall Wall of Fame.
photo from http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/leisure/news/15494134.Gentle_Giant_inducted_into_Wall_of_Fame/#gallery0
London obviously exerts a pull on musicians and in the late 60s and early 70s the sheer mass of opportunity, the music papers, the range of clubs, the presence of record labels, recording studios and publishing firms was enough to make most artists gravitate towards the capital. Perhaps more important than any of those things was the presence of sufficient numbers of punters willing to listen to something which offered more than ephemeral pop; Pink Floyd may have had roots in Cambridge but it was London which formed the base for their success. In the very early days, their reception outside of the capital was frequently hostile and it’s 'Pink Floyd London' stamped on their banks of WEM speakers, clearly visible during the Echoes part 1 footage from Live at Pompeii, not 'Pink Floyd Cambridge'. Similarly, Floyd contemporaries Soft Machine may have formed in Canterbury and been responsible for an entire prog sub-genre, but they also migrated 100km along the route of Watling Street in search of fame and fortune. That doesn’t mean that the south coast of England was unimportant for progressive rock; an hour’s drive west of Portsmouth is Bournemouth, half an hour’s drive inland from Bournemouth is Wimborne and 10km due west of Bournemouth is Poole. This relatively small area is where Michael and Peter Giles, Robert Fripp, Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell, John Wetton, Richard Palmer-James and Andy Summers all began playing.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been to a number of towns on the south coast, lured by a combination of a bracing sea breeze and the prospect of browsing through second-hand records in both favourite and new haunts. One of the reasons for progressive rock musicians having a connection to the south coast can be detected in the architecture of the seaside towns which is another reason for getting on a train south from East Croydon station; the inter-war suggestion that swimming provided universal health benefits resulted in something of a seaside boom, coinciding with a penchant for streamlined art deco apartment blocks, hotels and public buildings, and the upturn in visitor numbers meant that there had to be provision of suitable entertainment; dance halls and dance bands. Likewise, when armed forces were barracked in the dockyards at Portsmouth or at one of the RAF radar stations, they needed an outlet for R&R. Both Robert Fripp in Bournemouth and Keith Emerson in Worthing played in hotel- and dance bands where the predominant genre was jazz; the young Emerson even played piano for a local dance class, covering a variety of styles and playing a range of tempos, all excellent experience for the future combination of rock, jazz and classical music exemplified by prog.
Our trip to Worthing wasn’t entirely successful. This was the most westerly of the towns visited recently and was intended to be a reconnaissance mission. I’d identified a couple of independent record stores, along with an HMV in the Montague shopping centre but the condition of the interesting records in the flea market on Montague Parade wasn’t brilliant and after thinking about replacing my sold off copy of Barclay James Harvest Live (1974) for £4, I decided against it. Next stop was Music Mania in West Buildings but this was closed until the end of August for holidays. I did manage to find a copy of Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975) by Synergy, aka Larry Fast, for £2.99 in Oxfam. It was very breezy on the beach but at least the architecture was good: the brutalist Grafton car park, given a colourful makeover by street artist Ricky Also, and the 1930s art deco flats of Stoke Abbott Court, even though their restoration wasn’t in keeping with their original, aerodynamic form.
Brighton is just brilliant. On our most recent trip I picked up an original copy of Tubular Bells for £5.50, David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), Pink Floyd's Obscured by Clouds (1972) and the rather obscure US electronic album Zygoat (1974) by Burt Alcantara under the name of Zygoat. These were all from Snoopers Paradise in North Laine; I then popped into Across the Tracks and bought a new copy of Stranded (1970) by Edwards Hands.
A short way east along the A27 is Lewes, and though it’s not costal, the river Ouse is tidal. Octave Music has now closed down but Union Music Store and Si’s Sounds are both worth looking around. Si’s was closed on the day of our visit and I was tempted by some unsold record store day bargains in Union, but not tempted enough. Lewes has a number of antique shops and I managed to locate David Sylvian’s double LP Gone to Earth (1986) which to some degree presages the Sylvian-Fripp collaboration in 1993, plus Phallus Dei (1969) by Amon Düül II, Moraz-Bruford Flags (1985), Barclay James Harvest Time Honoured Ghosts (1975), and the surprisingly good Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas. The architecture in Lewes is very interesting and one of the most recent additions, a concrete and glass 5 bedroom house clad in Cor-Ten steel set on the banks of the Ouse on the site of an old workshop, is really special.
Most recent on the list of coastal visits was Hastings. Again, I’d identified suitable record shops to visit but the duration of the train journey, a little over 100 minutes each way, restricted our time for wandering around. It’s been some considerable time since I was last there and in the intervening years the town has been used as an overspill for London boroughs facing a housing crisis, shifting the pressure from the capital to local services in East Sussex. However, that’s not what we witnessed. The relative ease of the commute to central London and the laid-back vibe appears to have encouraged a degree of regeneration. The beach was empty and very clean; the pier has been redeveloped and shortlisted for the 2017 Sterling prize; George Street is like a short stretch of Brighton’s Laines with some unique gift shops, independent coffee bars, antique shops and best of all, Atlas Sound Records, which hadn’t been on my list. The cash-only shop acted as an outlet for at least three sellers who travelled the world to find suitable vinyl. I came away with Rakes Progress by Scafell Pike (1974) – folk rather than prog, but for £5 its Lake District name and the fact I’d only ever seen it twice before, once around the time of its release in Kelly’s Records, Barrow, and much more recently in a market stall in Vicenza, Italy, meant I had to buy it. I also picked up Midnight Mushrumps (1974) by Gryphon and Mass in F Minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes, a piece of gothic psychedelia that I’d only got in mp3 format, converted from a home taping of my brother’s copy of the LP back in the late 70s. I was encouraged to return because I was told that the stock had a good turnover.
Bob’s Records was on my list, in the basement of an antique shop in High Street; disorganised but reasonably well-priced and mostly in very good condition, there were bits of memorabilia for display like the framed cover of In the Land of Grey and Pink for £7 and three laminated back-stage passes for Pink Floyd concerts presented in a frame at £40. I bought a copy of the last Colosseum II album War Dance (1977). In another of Hastings’ antique shops I saw a framed Pink Floyd at Hastings Pier poster on sale for £20 and as far as I can make out, they only ever played in Hastings on one occasion, Saturday 20th January 1968, just before Dave Gilmour was invited to join the band, and I’m not sure if the article was genuine.
I think the atmosphere of some of the towns on the south coast is accurately captured by the melancholy of Exiles (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973); those responsible for the track’s writing credits, Cross, Fripp and Palmer-James all had a history linking them to the south coast, as did vocalist/bassist Wetton (Cross was from the Plymouth area.) The contrast of a parochial existence with the glamour, real or superficial, found in cities around the world resonates today: Worthing town centre has certainly seen better days and the empty public spaces in Eastbourne are equally sad; Bexhill would be nowhere without the De La Warr pavilion and the towns seem to cling on to the remnants of a faded glory. Fortunately there are places like Brighton and Lewes, and now Hastings, where there’s a positive vibe... ...and good record shops.
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I was lucky enough to get to see two gigs in Italy last summer while the UK live music industry was halted and unsupported by the government, and the subsequent year-long gap between going to see bands play live has been frustrating - but necessary.
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