ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Nov 1 2015 10:16PM

I went to a The Guardian Masterclass event a couple of weeks ago, How to self release your own music, hosted by Ian Ramage and Ann Harrison, to get some information and inspiration for putting out my own CDs. These events, mostly held in The Guardian offices in Kings Place, part of the regenerated King’s Cross area, are well organised and well attended by individuals with a range of interests relating to the topic, and sensibly priced. The first Masterclass I attended, in an attempt to broaden the reach of this blog, was How to write a successful blog. There were 100 delegates with a spectrum of abilities from those with little understanding of blogging to those who were interested in more efficiently monetising their efforts, with me somewhere in the middle; I learned enough to start a Twitter account and since then ProgBlog appears to have gone from strength to strength. Though not as popular, the audience for How to self release your own music was comprised mostly of musicians but there was at least one person who ran a recording studio; the presenters seemed a little surprised that there was no one from the music industry. Apart from being a music fan, Ramage’s encyclopaedic knowledge of music had been built up from rising through the ranks and working at a number of companies including Polydor, Warners, EMI, and Sony. Harrison was there to cover the legal aspects; a qualified lawyer, she has worked with household names and has her own legal consultancy, Harrisons Entertainment Law Limited and is the author of Music, The Business (Virgin Books) that was plugged on a number of occasions. The two speakers had a good rapport and overall, I was very pleased I’d attended. After discussing performing rights it became very clear why the Yes Union tour was such a nightmare for the musicians – I recall it wasn’t too bad for those of us the audience and I enjoyed most of the music played by the two versions of Yes although some band politics were still evident.

Another topic that was touched upon was the role of the producer who could be someone who booked the studio or had some degree of creative input. This came to mind when my last Walkman ceased to function, playing Tormato. Wakeman’s keyboards have no substance, lacking both bass and sparkle and White’s snare drum tone has no snap, as though the final production stages were rushed or the band was not given any control over the final sound, even though Yes are credited as producers – Brian Lane has a credit for ‘executive producer’ and I find it hard to believe, after the excellent sound and mix on their previous albums, that they can have been happy with the dull, compressed finished product. The sleeve design by Hipgnosis was certainly contentious; originally intended to be called Yes Tor, fitting in with some of the material on the record, the title was changed following dissatisfaction with the artwork which prompted someone, either Wakeman or Aubrey Powell, to throw a tomato at the cover. Steve Howe, who came up with the Yes Tor idea has been described as unhappy by this turn of events and I side with him. There’s something cosmic about divining (even though I think it’s nonsense) and Yes ideas were indisputably cosmic; linking the second highest point in Devon to a possible beacon for UFOs seemed a reasonable concept (even if it too was unscientific and beyond reason), not fully realised. My least favourite track is Release Release which features some double tracking on the drums to give them a fuller sound and the noise of a crowd. No. Bad idea.

Eddy Offord had worked with the band on some of the original ideas for Tormato but is not credited. Having been the recording engineer for Time and a Word (1970), an album produced by Tony Colton, Offord and the group co-produced the sequence of albums from The Yes Album (1971) to Relayer (1974), a sequence that many consider to epitomise not only the best of Yes but a considerable proportion of the golden era of progressive rock. The clarity of instrumentation on Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972) are testament to an incredible working relationship. Offord was also hired as a recording engineer for the early Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums, their eponymous debut from 1970, Tarkus (1971), the live Pictures at an Exhibition (1971) and Trilogy (1972), where production duties were in the hands of Greg Lake. Offord did not help out on Brain Salad Surgery (1973) where are I find the sound clear but biased towards the treble. Chris Kimsey (who was famous for his work with the Rolling Stones) and Geoff Young shared engineering duties on Brain Salad; Offord was immortalised in the song Are You Ready Eddy? which appears on Tarkus, a track I tend to skip..; Yes put Offord's photo on the back cover of Close to the Edge. A quick check through my albums reveals that Offord changed from 'Eddie' to 'Eddy' some time in 1971, between Tarkus and Pictures at an Exhibition and between The Yes Album and Fragile.

If the classic Yes sound is partly due to input from Offord, what about other bands from that period? King Crimson were self-produced because they weren’t happy with Moody Blues collaborator Tony Clarke, (Giles Giles and Fripp released The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp on Decca’s Deram label in 1968, the Moody’s pre-Threshold stable), one of the reasons why Lake went on to produce ELP. In the early years Charisma Records label mates Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator (and Rare Bird and Lindisfarne) were produced by John Anthony. This wasn’t an act of control by the label, which generally ceded all creative control to the bands themselves, it was a collaborative approach where the ideals of producer Anthony fitted in with both Stratton-Smith’s sensibilities and the ideology of the groups. The compositions of both Van der Graaf and Genesis matured rapidly under this guidance, until VdGG split in 1972 and self-produced when they reformed with a trilogy of sonically well balanced albums, Godbluff (1975), Still Life (1976) and World Record (1976.) Foxtrot (1972) was produced by David Hitchcock and demonstrated a harder edge than Nursery Cryme (1971.) Hitchcock had worked extensively with Caravan and would go on to produce Camel’s Mirage (1974) and Music Inspired by The Snow Goose (1975.) Genesis would utilise the experience of John Burns for subsequent releases Selling England by the Pound (1973) and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) and then form a creative relationship with David Hentschel for post-Gabriel albums A Trick of the Tail (1976) to Duke (1980.) The jazzy Camel albums Moonmadness (1976) and Rain Dances (1977) were co-produced with Rhett Davies.

I’m a big fan of Mike Vernon’s work with Focus, another producer who demonstrates that collaborative working gives the best results. Like Yes in the Eddy Offord years, there’s a particular quality that demonstrates the care taken over the music but also reveals a distinct sonic signature. When Yes changed their sound and image for 90125 (1983), it was to fit in with a more commercial music industry; the business had changed and self-production was frowned upon because it represented a loss of control by the record label. I think that the forced abandonment of cooperative principles, shared ideas and ideals was part of the grand design of the industry; record deals were harder to come by and relinquishing control of at least part of the process was a price that almost all bands had to pay. Pink Floyd were one exception; having self produced since More (1969), albeit with executive production by Norman Smith until Meddle (1971), they had enough clout to continue to call the shots. I believe the leverage applied by the record label was in most cases a destructive force, stifling creativity and narrowing the types of music that were available to listen to. Thankfully, the new wave of prog has managed to break free of the rule of the majors and though new acts aren’t likely to get rich without compromising their principles, there’s a strong relationship between the musicians and producers that mimics the ethos of 70s prog.



By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2015 09:27PM

There’s a fair amount of literature that refers to the second album by a group as the ‘sophomore’ effort. This is largely a result of American journalistic influence, the term coming from the American education system and, while any increase in the quantity of material relating to or simply discussing progressive rock is to be welcomed, I have a problem with sophomore and I’d like to register my disapproval of the term; I believe the word is an interloper.

There are many bands, especially those from the 70s progressivo Italiano scene, that only managed to release a single album but there can be a problem with a second release, in terms of critical appraisal by fans and professional music journalists, if the first album garners acclaim but the subsequent release doesn’t meet expectations. Though it’s good to diversify, in true progressive spirit, a conscious decision to avoid criticism of producing a ‘son of…’ it’s certainly not inappropriate to develop a style.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the problem occurs for both groups that developed during the late 60s and those that arrived on the scene with pre-formed expectations, like ELP. For most groups that evolved from acts that were in existence during the pre-progressive days of psychedelia and blues, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, 'progressive' describes the process of becoming prog itself and this journey was informed by cultural, demographic and technological changes. In this way The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, though certainly not prog rock, caused something of a stir and managed to reach no.6 in the UK album charts; the next album, A Saucerful of Secrets might have made it to no.9 but the ousting of Syd Barrett disappointed fans, critics and the group’s management. It’s no surprise that Piper and Saucerful are stylistically disparate; the overriding impression of Piper is the Barrett-penned whimsy and not the instrumentals that formed the core of their live set. Saucerful simply moved the band in the direction of space-rock and I get a sense of music organised as architecture, something that I think was a defining idiom of their far better, progressive material in later years.

I prefer Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Time and a Word to The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Yes respectively where there’s evidence of maturity of song writing but I have a preference for Air Conditioning over Curved Air’s Second Album because Second Album merely rehashes the same formula as on their first release. It’s my opinion that the first, fully formed prog album is In the Court of the Crimson King and, because it was a genre-defining release, anything that followed was liable to disappoint. In the Wake of Poseidon is very much in the style of In the Court but that’s no great revelation because much of the material that would go on to comprise Poseidon had already been written and road-tested by the original band members; the structure of the tracks Pictures of a City and In the Wake of Poseidon closely resemble 21st Century Schizoid Man and In the Court of the Crimson King respectively. The example of Crimson reveals another factor that needs to be taken into account: the impact of personnel changes on the direction of a group. Whereas Yes replaced members one at a time (until the joint departure of Anderson and Wakeman between Tormato and Drama) which gave the impression of a group positively seeking direction in a controlled manner, the shifting personnel involved in the very early years of King Crimson appeared as seismic changes; that In the Court and Poseidon sound closely-related is also due to the retention of key players Greg Lake and Michael Giles as guest musicians. I would class Genesis as a band who developed their style in a manner similar to Yes, and despite replacing a guitarist and a drummer at the same time, their stylistic refinement followed a smooth path, reaching maturity with Foxtrot, their fourth release; Yes reached their pinnacle with their fifth album, Close to the Edge.

ELP arrived on the scene in 1970 as individuals from known, successful groups and produced a distinct and coherent first album that still rates as one of my favourite albums of all time. Tarkus, their second album contains more developed ideas, culminating in the side long suite that gives the record its name, but it lacks the overall balance of Emerson, Lake & Palmer with two decidedly non-prog compositions, Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy? The first supergroup, ELP had to hit the ground running or face the ignominy of artistic failure. I think their output, taken album by album up to and including Brain Salad Surgery is consistent but, within each of these records there is always some material that is below-par and unnecessary.

Mike Oldfield may have spent a number of years as a jobbing musician before stunning the world with Tubular Bells but his first solo effort was a game-changer, affecting him personally and also inadvertently helping to establish the fledgling Virgin empire. That he would release a second album was beyond doubt. Whether it could possibly be as original as Bells was a far more difficult question to answer. After selling my original vinyl copy of Tubular Bells (but later regretting it) and keeping my original Hergest Ridge LP, I’ve grown to believe that his second album is a much more satisfying effort. Of course there are similarities between the two compositions but Oldfield seems to have learned and remedied the deficiencies in Bells. Embracing the talents of his erstwhile band-mate David Bedford and expanding the instrumentation to provide a symphonic scope, Hergest Ridge conjures a sense of place, of open countryside and wilderness, something that a piece titled Tubular Bells could never do. I’ve come to this conclusion after 40 years, so perhaps it’s best not to dismiss any band’s second album as ‘more of the same’ or a ‘dramatic departure’. Both approaches, seeking a definitive style and radical departure can be equally valid as long as the goal is to further the music through increased proficiency or taking on new ideas.

On reflection, most second albums by exponents of progressive rock are of a similar standard to their first albums. There aren’t that many groups who stun the world with a brilliant debut and then go on to produce a stinker but there are plenty who follow the same formula with good results; Greenslade and Bedside Manners are Extra, Trace and Birds, Fruupp’s Future Legends and Seven Secrets. The downside to this approach became evident as the 70s moved on and prog lost favour with the media and the buying public; changes in style were dictated by the requirements of the music industry and not by the artists. One of the last great prog albums of the 70s was UK by UK; the second album which contained some good material was already showing signs of a more commercial appeal.

By ProgBlog, Apr 21 2015 07:53PM

It’s indisputable that progressive rock was a genre of grand concepts from the straightforward interpretation of classic novels (Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month for example, based on Paul Gallico’s novella); the search for enlightenment (that’s my personal take on Tales from Topographic Oceans); the stresses of everyday life (Dark Side of the Moon); or allegory (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.) Though The Gift released Awake and Dreaming in 2006, a project that began in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition and which features a multi-part suite concerning the savagery of war, I find it somewhat surprising that during the golden era of prog there wasn’t an entire concept album about the horrors of warfare. I witnessed The Gift perform at the Resonance Festival in Balham last year and was impressed by Mike Morton’s musical depiction of the madness and futility of global conflict – I resigned as a member of the Labour Party because of Iraq.

Folk music was one of the keystones that enabled prog to form but in the UK, it seemed to be folk associated with tradition that informed prog, and this often tended to be dark; it was US folk that evolved into protest music because of both the inequality suffered by large numbers of the country’s own citizens and the prevailing American foreign policy from the 50s onwards. The Peace movement and the counter-culture were directly opposed to the American Dream, its imperialistic tendencies and its consumerism, and the ideals of these dissidents were imported to England when musicians, who acted as agents for change, crossed back and forth across the Atlantic. In this way John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance became an anthem of the American anti-war movement following the release of the single in 1969 by the Plastic Ono Band.

The Nice used America as a form of protest, getting banned from the Royal Albert Hall in the process, though this wasn’t about combat on foreign soil; they also included the track War and Peace on their first album, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack but this had started out as a tune called Silver Meter, played when Emerson was a member of the T-Bones. A live show staple, War and Peace was described by one critic as an ‘instrumental which seems to run like a hell-bound train through war inflicted landscapes.’ I sympathise with that view – the song is fairly raw and features some serious Hammond abuse and Davy O’List guitar histrionics.

When Greg Lake joined up with Keith Emerson in ELP, he brought with him some of the hippy ideals of Peter Sinfield. Though In The Court of the Crimson King isn’t an anti-war album, it comes across as anti-totalitarian and in 21st Century Schizoid Man Sinfield’s lyrics clearly point out the evils of contemporary warfare: “Innocents raped with napalm fire”. Though Lake had left Crimson before 1970’s In the Wake of Poseidon he did provide the vocals for the three-part Peace, the ultimate part of which follows The Devil’s Triangle, an instrumental track based on Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War; despite a lack of an explicit condemnation of warfare, the final words on the album are “Peace is the end, like death / Of the war.” One of Lake’s defining contributions to the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album was the acoustic ballad Lucky Man that though he claimed was written when he was 12 years old, contains imagery that can only have been forged later in his life, painting a picture not just of the futility of acquiring possessions but also the stupidity of war. There are a number of oblique references to war throughout the early ELP albums; one interpretation of Tarkus is that the animal-machine hybrid represents totalitarianism, crushing culture, spirituality and freedom, and technology that has gone out of control (a subject revisited on Karn Evil 9 from Brain Salad Surgery, where Sinfield had been reunited with Lake to provide lyrical ideas.) According to William Neal, who provided the cover artwork, the name ‘Tarkus’ is an amalgamation of Tartarus (gloomy pits of darkness used for punishing angels that sinned, mentioned in 2 Peter 2:4 from the bible) and carcass, indicated by the album title written in bones on the cover. Consequently, he suggests the title track refers to the "futility of war, a man made mess with symbols of mutated destruction" but I think his explanation has been fitted in retrospect; it may reflect his painting but the music and lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Jon Anderson reprised John Lennon on I’ve Seen All Good People from The Yes Album (1971.) I’m almost ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until I saw Yes playing live that I picked up the words “All we are saying is give peace a chance” during the Anderson-penned Your Move section, some three years after I’d bought the album. My only excuse is that despite the track being a favourite of most fans, it doesn’t actually move me at all; it’s too simplistic, especially the All Good People part. I even prefer A Venture where the bass line is far from conventional. The Yes Album does in fact contain one of the most explicit anti-war songs in the progressive rock canon: Yours is no Disgrace. Jon Anderson has said that the meaning of the song is recognition that those fighting in the Vietnam war had no choice other than to fight, in effect carrying out the orders of a government with policy based on dogma. As the first track on the album it gains added importance for being the first of the long-form Yes songs.

Yes returned to the theme of war with The Gates of Delirium, the side long track from Relayer (1974). It has been said to have been inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace which both Anderson and Patrick Moraz had been reading but Anderson has simplified the concept to a battle scene with a prelude, a charge, a victory tune and a peaceful resolution leading to hope for the future; he has further suggested that it wasn’t an explanation of war or a denunciation which makes the piece more descriptive than protest. I love the aggressive feel of the composition, the crashing scrap metal and the strident guitar and keyboards which give the piece a jazz rock edge.

Maybe I’d been looking for the war concept album in the wrong place. Given the political state of Italy in the early 70s and the alignment of most progressivo Italiano with left-wing ideology, it can come as no surprise that there are a number of anti-war songs in the sub-genre, music that I’ve only recently discovered. The first Banco del Mutuo Soccorso album contains the track R.I.P Requiescant In Pace where the music and words conjure a battlefield scene, aptly summed up by author and prog reviewer Andrea Parentin as a bitter reflection of the inhumanity and uselessness of war and glory. Another feature of Italian prog is the number of bands who only ever produced one album. Tuscany based Campo di Marte took their name from a suburb of Firenze and, according to band leader, composer and guitarist Enrico Rosa that name, Field of Mars, allowed them to write lyrics about the stupidity of wars. Their only, self-titled album features a cover depicting Turkish mercenaries inflicting wounds on themselves to demonstrate their strength; the sleeve notes of the 2006 AMS remastered version inform us that the entire composition was arranged with specific purpose of pointing out ‘the absurdity of war and people’s complete impotence at the mercy of violence’. Another one-album group (another self-titled album, too!) was Alphataurus, with a release from 1973 that relates a disturbing dream of the threat of nuclear war but is balanced by the hope that we don’t have to follow that path and we can start over again. The incredible cover painting, a triple gatefold, appears to include a small homage to William Neal – a stegosaurus on caterpillar tracks.



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