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Regarded as a prog metal classic, Dream Theater's Metropolis pt.2: Scenes from a Memory is now 20 years old

ProgBlog reflects on the current state of prog metal

By ProgBlog, Jun 5 2016 09:39PM

It wasn’t until I began to examine the causes of the demise of the first wave of progressive rock, in association with reading the essays written by Robert Fripp and printed in the sleeve notes of DGM releases at the commencement of the third wave of prog, that I really paid any attention to the record label. Part of this was due to the relatively wide range of record companies that oversaw the releases by the relatively narrow range of bands that I listened to and certainly during the early 70s it seemed that record companies, riding the lucrative wave of the 33rpm vinyl album, were content to let their charges do almost whatever they wanted as long as the coffers continued to be filled and furthermore, taking on a new act that wasn’t quite so successful wasn’t so much of a risk when there were some big acts in the stable who were guaranteed to produce hit albums.

At the time I think I was more interested in the graphic used to represent the record label, proudly applied to the centre of the disc that might give some more information about the music; the green, red/orange and white of Atlantic on my Yes albums that gave way to Roger Dean’s cover artwork on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) and Relayer (1974); the green lava-lamp blob, another Roger Dean design, representing the EMI progressive subsidiary Harvest on my copies of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), A Nice Pair (1974) and Triumvirat’s Spartacus (1975), though the Floyd’s association with Hipgnosis and their approach to design resulted in Dark Side of the Moon (1973) boasting the iconic (triangle) prism; Wish You Were Here (1975) has a George Hardie robotic handshake and Animals (1977) has a fish eye lens dog on side one and sheep on side two. Roger Dean was evidently in demand by the progressive record labels because he also designed the replacement for the Vertigo swirl, with the UFO-like spacecraft and illustrated the first Virgin Records label, originally in black and white, and the closely related image, without the lizard, for the budget Virgin stable mate Caroline. My only copies Vertigo albums on vinyl are Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant and the eponymous debut by Trace (1974), both of which feature the spaceships and all my albums on Virgin had a coloured logo which, by the time of Ommadawn (1975) had shed the lizard and was simply a stylised photo of the mirror girl.


I quite quickly recognised that there was one record company that appeared to have a monopoly on jazz-rock fusion, with CBS being home to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever but it wasn’t until I discovered the link back to Miles Davis that I understood why. When I picked up Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (from 1976) on tape in the early 80s I wondered if there was a jazz rock thing going on with Gull Records because Isotope were also on Gull; I had all three of the Isotope studio releases but never realised that it was a label associated with Morgan studios because Isotope (1974), Illusion (1974) and Deep End (1975) were recorded at Advision, Rockfield and Trident respectively.


The only label that came anywhere close to indicating that their bands were all worth listening to was Charisma. After the demise of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label in 1970, The Nice released Five Bridges (1970) and the posthumous Elegy (1971) on Charisma. My second hand copy of Elegy has the original ‘scroll’ logo and my Five Bridges, bought new, has a bold block Charisma on a blue background surmounted by a small Mad Hatter. Almost everything else I have on the label on vinyl features the John Tenniel Hatter: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill solo material, Refugee, Bo Hansson, Steve Hackett, Brand X; even my re-released English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona, distributed by BTF in Italy, has the famous Mad Hatter image. The exceptions include Peter Gabriel Plays Live (1983) where there’s a small cover photo image of Gabriel in black and white, and sides two and four of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) which feature the shattering glass photos from the Hipgnosis cover without any text. The Charisma roster was hand-picked by founder Tony Stratton-Smith and, without the corporate restrictions of the majors, featured a good range of like-minded artists; not that I was ever tempted to buy anything by Clifford T Ward. Almost all the major labels all had an imprint that championed alternative or progressive rock. EMI had Harvest; Philips/Phonogram had Vertigo; Decca had Deram (with Camel, Caravan and the Moody Blues on their books until the Moodies set up their own label and shops, Threshold); Pye had Dawn, home to Northern Ireland’s only progressive rock band Fruupp. RCA also had a short-lived specialist label, Neon, only ever releasing 11 albums, all in 1971 but which included the only, self-titled album by Tonton Macoute (very much on the jazzier side of prog), the Mellotron-heavy self-titled album by Spring and the proto-prog of Indian Summer with their eponymous album.



One of the first labels I came across was Manticore, set up by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973 which wasn’t too long after I first started to listen to prog, conceived as a vehicle for not just their own music but also for acts that interested the trio but which were finding it difficult to get music released. Manticore brought Italian prog giants Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Banco to UK and US consciousness and followed in the footsteps of the Moody Blues and Threshold Records, a sub-division of their old label Decca, formed in 1969 following the release of On the Threshold of a Dream. Manticore, named after the chimeric creature that appears on the sleeve of Tarkus pre-dated Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records by a year.


Gentle Giant switched record companies from Vertigo to the Black Sabbath label World Wide Artists before the release of In a Glass House but WWA folded following financial difficulties some time after the release of The Power and the Glory in 1974 and their next effort, Free Hand (1975) was released on Chrysalis. This deal came about after Gentle Giant toured in the US supporting Jethro Tull, Tull having been the reason for the formation of the label by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis when they couldn’t get a record deal in the late 60s. Another label independent of the majors, apart from overseas distribution deals, Chrysalis may have been a pun based on the founders’ names but the imagery, the stage prior to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, captured the zeitgeist. Procol Harum were another prog band that released records on Chrysalis.


King Crimson were signed to EG music but their 60s and 70s material was released via distributors (independent) Island Records and Polydor, a UK subsidiary of Germany’s Polyphon-Musikwerke that was founded in 1913. The 80s incarnation of Crimson released three albums on EG and there were a number of other releases, called Editions EG, including albums by Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Brian Eno and Quiet Sun. EG ended up being distributed by Virgin who were then sold to EMI but in the mean time Fripp, who had been in a long-term dispute with EG, formed Discipline Global Mobile to release King Crimson and related material. From the outset DGM set out to provide an alternative business model to the majors which Fripp described as unethical and founded on exploitation. The main principle of DGM was to allow the artists to retain copyright of their material which meant that none of the DGM artists would have to go through the same process that Fripp had done with EG.


It would appear that the industry has changed. There may be only three majors now, after takeovers and mergers and there still might be multi-million dollar contracts, but the progressive rock community has witnessed to some innovative ways to release records, from the crowd-funded financing of Marillion to the founding of a progressive rock-specific label, Kscope, with the stated aim to be artistically focused and sympathetic to adventurous and explorative music. I always thought it was worth reading the label...







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.



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