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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, Jan 17 2016 07:56PM

I’ve barely touched upon the fourth music playback format, cassette tape (and I’m not going to mention the short-lived 8 track!) but guest blogger Richard Page hinted at this, a time before CDs when the domination of vinyl was slipping. The compact cassette was immensely portable, sparking the invention of the Sony Walkman and hundreds of imitations and allowing drivers to choose their own music rather than being subjected to a limited range of radio stations with their playlists of narrow choice. During the period, the mid 80s, I was attempting to get enough money together to get a mortgage so I did extra work for the Anthony Nolan laboratories, then based at St Mary Abbots Hospital in Kensington, and took my wife’s genuine Sony Walkman to listen to music of my choice while I sat at a microscope and read HLA typing plates.

Driving off to Crystal Palace National Sports Centre to play squash last weekend with a CD I’d burned of the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii soundtrack, I realised my current car has a radio and a USB port but no CD player. Since learning to drive relatively late in life at the age of 26, my wife and I have got through a number of automobiles, buying new or with delivery mileage and simply budgeting to keep each for an average of three years before selling them on. Our first car bought together was a 1986 Ford Fiesta that only had a radio. The husband of a work colleague who worked in a car audio shop fitted a (high end) removable radio cassette player that lasted into the next car, a new shaped Fiesta with a joystick device that allowed you to pan around the speakers embedded in the upholstery. I normally took public transport to get to work but used the car for on call and later, to drive to Brunel University every couple of weeks when I was doing my part time MSc in Applied Immunology. I’d got hold of Mainstream (1975) by Quiet Sun, the eponymous GTR album (1986) and Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), all on vinyl and taped them specifically for the journeys between Croydon and Uxbridge. Mainstream is an incredible album that seems to have missed out on the big time; mainstream it is not and for further discussions see my blog post http://progblog.co.uk/the-blogs/4583484660/Mainstream-(originally-posted-3-3-14)/7811326.The sound on GTR has dated but I still like the songs, even though this isn't really prog whereas Momentary Lapse is prog, cinematic, daring and true to the spirit of early-mid 70s Floyd.

The final days of my relationship with cassette tape unravelled on an out of hours car journey to work, just outside Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park football ground when I was playing Trey Gunn’s The Third Star (1996). I’d bought the CD for my brother Tony and he repaid the favour by sending me a tape which decided to fade away to silence in the player even though it had been recorded on what was considered to be a decent quality Maxell C90. At this stage I had sold off my original Technics deck that had served me for the last year at university, through the damp of a sequence of basement flats and the rigours of an on-stage appearance as the sound source for three gigs I played in 1984. It’s strange how cyclical fashion can be. That silver-finished piece of hi-fi, originally chosen for its beautifully damped ejection mechanism and the ability to cope with ‘metal’ tapes, was replaced by a Technics RS B106 cassette deck, finished in black, in the late 80s; my new system is largely silver. I also bought myself a high-end Aiwa walkman-like player and two hefty miniature HD speakers from a mall in Saudi Arabia when I was seconded to Jeddah for six weeks in 1992 so that I didn’t get prog-withdrawal. I bought the double cassette Yes anthology Yes Story (1992) from the same store and picked up some locally compiled tapes from elsewhere in the souk, including a best of early Marillion that was frequently aired in the hire-car (christened ‘the mobile lecture theatre’ for its outrageous size) that had been made available to my colleague, Consultant transplant surgeon Geoff Koffman.



Technics RS B106 cassette deck
Technics RS B106 cassette deck

I never owned many pre-recorded cassettes though the bargain bin of the Tooting branch of Woolworth allowed me to expand my music collection with some more obscure prog and jazz: TONTOs Expanding Headband’s Zero Time (1971) and Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (1976) plus some of the more usual fare (McDonald and Giles, Steve Hackett, Caravan, Colosseum II, Greenslade) for knock down prices. There was even a stage where I owned more Gentle Giant on cassette than I did on any other format. To a greater extent my tape collection comprised albums recorded from vinyl lent to me by friends and family. Preferred manufacturers were TDK, BASF and Maxell and I tried to buy a quality above the basic, like the TDK AD. I was also happy to put together what would later be called ‘mix tapes’ for others, including recordings for a couple of women students at Goldsmiths’, Sue Aspinall who was into classic prog and Jo Dziuba who was more interested in Afterglow type Genesis.

There aren’t many albums that I home-recorded that I haven’t subsequently bought on another format. One that didn’t make it into my collection was Ian Anderson’s Walk into Light (1983) lent to me by my friend Jim – we were big Tull fans at the time – but I thought the material rather sub-standard and my recording was discarded years ago. Other albums took a considerable time for me to own, sometimes through lack of availability: I eventually got Bruford’s One of a Kind (1979) when Winterfold Records started up in 2005, having only had access to a taped copy for 25 years and bought The Third Star from Red Eye Records in Sydney in 2012, the first time I’d seen it in a shop since buying it for Tony. One of the very few albums that I taped but never bought myself is psychedelic masterpiece Mass in F Minor by The Electric Prunes (1968). The original disc belonged to Tony and my cassette recording dated from the late 70s. Like with most of my tapes, in an exercise to preserve the music, I burned this to CD when home-burning software became standard on PCs. I now have the album transferred to my mp3 player.

Warning notices that ‘home taping is killing music’ appeared on the inner sleeves of LPs in the mid 80s to be ignored by everyone. I’ve thought about this and, though I understand that it reduces royalty payments to artists, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a deep irony in record companies putting out a statement like that when it’s unscrupulous managers and the labels themselves that have controlled the income of musicians. What is really killing music is the trend towards conformity, the predictability of manufactured product and insidious influence. This may make merged global entertainment businesses attractive to shareholders but it makes for a less diverse musical scene; the requirement for financial control stifles creativity. In the end the message boils down to ‘home taping is reducing shareholder dividend.’




Home taping is killing music. I don't think so
Home taping is killing music. I don't think so

A more recent example would be the issues over illegal downloads where control over output was ceded to the consumer and the cry from the labels was the same. Then Apple plonks a largely unwanted U2 album onto the devices of everyone with their iTunes software...

Home taping didn’t harm progressive rock and prog itself has prospered in recent years through the adaptation of alternative business models where the artists retain the copyright to their material and funding for new ventures is independent of the majors. The pound, euro and dollar of the fan go to the artists through crowdsourcing and album sales, with multiple platforms available to promote and provide examples of music. Let’s hope that home taping went some way to help kill off the old way of doing music business.




By ProgBlog, Dec 27 2015 11:05PM

I was very fortunate to receive a good collection of prog this Christmas. I try to help family members with a wish list but even better, my wife, who has a history of buying prog for my birthdays and Christmases, gets progressive rock-related suggestions from Amazon. One present I wasn’t expecting was the Steve Hackett: The Man, The Music DVD (Wienerworld, 2015) which is an up-to-date documentary that includes material relating to Wolflight and ends with a dedication to Chris Squire who was interviewed for the release. It also boasts a design that dovetails with that for Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith box set (InsideOut Music, 2013.) Filmed and directed by Matt Groom it includes some insights into the early Hackett family life but the parts that will be of most interest to fans are those that relate to the Genesis period and the subsequent solo (Hackett band) material. The man himself comes across as very thoughtful and very polite when he comes to discuss his former colleagues in Genesis. It may be that those interviews were conducted before the shoddy treatment he received at the hands of the Genesis: Together and Apart documentary aired in October 2014. Keyboard player Roger King features quite heavily because of the value of his long-term musical and production contributions and there are other cameos from brother John Hackett, drummer Gary O’Toole, wind player Rob Townsend, guitarist Amanda Lehmann and inimitable bassist Nick Beggs. There are also discussions between Hackett and Steven Wilson and Hackett and Chris Squire. Footage from a concert at Leamington Spa is very well recorded and it would be interesting to know if there was sufficient material from that gig for a full DVD release.

I was listening to Nursery Cryme (1971) on my commute to and from work one day last week and was surprised to hear For Absent Friends, thinking that I’d not included it when I transferred the album to my mp3 player. Described by Hackett in the DVD as one of his first contributions to the group, I find the song a little throwaway. Hackett confirmed what I’ve always suspected, that Phil Collins featured on vocals on this track though when I won tickets from Capital Radio to see Genesis for their Three Sides Live Tour, the question was “what is the Genesis track where Phil Collins first sings solo?” I answered, on a homemade postcard, More Fool Me from Selling England by the Pound (1973) which has the sleeve declaration “(Vocals Phil)”. As I put the postcard in the post box I did wonder if it was a trick question so getting the ‘congratulations!’ letter came as a total surprise. Overall, The Man, The Music is a well balanced piece of work covering all of Hackett’s output, his personal thoughts, his guitar technique and with some interesting input from collaborators and family. I’d recommend it for any Hackett fan.



Congratulations letter from Capital Radio
Congratulations letter from Capital Radio

My wife also got me David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), a CD that had been on my wish list for some time. I bought a copy of Bedford’s Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon / The Song of the White Horse (1983) on vinyl from a record fair earlier this year which I really like, having previously dug out a YouTube video of the fascinating Omnibus documentary about the commission and making of White Horse. I bought a copy of Höstsonaten’s live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Fabio Zuffanti’s stall at the Prog Résiste festival in 2014, which included a DVD of the show from December 2012. That release epitomises Italian progressive rock with its brilliant musicianship and operatic scope and it rekindled my admiration for Coleridge’s poetry; when I was an undergraduate I used to own a copy of Coleridge’s complete works that I lent to an English student who never returned the book. I thought that the David Bedford version, from over 35 years earlier and narrated by actor Robert Powell, would make an interesting comparison. White Horse is truly organic, utilising the blowing stone in the instrumentation and describing a landscape; comparisons with Mike Oldfield’s sublime Bedford-orchestrated Hergest Ridge (1974) seem quite appropriate, whereas I find Ancient Mariner closer in structure to The Odyssey (1976) with less reliance on atonality and dissonance and more on recognisable melody, created with multiple keyboard lines. Having said that, there’s a highly evocative sparse percussive section where the ship is ice bound and it sounds like lanterns and sundry deck equipment is moving in the wind.

It’s interesting that Powell’s narration isn’t a recital of the poem; rather it conforms to what Bedford set out in the sleeve notes for the album, wanting to evoke the mood and atmosphere of certain passages, an effect achieved by using the notes from the margin of the poem. One of these, “No twilight within the courts of the sun” became a track by Steven Wilson on his first full-length solo album Insurgents (2008). I really like Ancient Mariner.

Another present that I’d not accessed before is Beyond and Before - the formative years of Yes by Peter Banks with Billy James (Golden Treasures Publishing, 2001.) Banks (born Brockbanks) died in 2013 and appeared on the first two Yes albums before forming his own band Flash. His style of playing was unique and he’s remembered as being a better guitarist than he was originally regarded. Flash weren’t really prog so I didn’t follow them particularly closely though it was hard to miss their albums in record stores. Banks himself has not really featured in much of the general discussion of the genre despite his excellent guitar work with Yes so this publication can be regarded as going some way to correct that omission. The book suffers from repetition, an excess of exclamations and some poor grammar but it’s gratifying to see very little bitterness in someone who wasn’t necessarily treated as well as they deserved; there aren’t many people he doesn’t like. He reflects upon material on which he performed and though he may have not been pleased with the recorded results at the time, he reassesses the music and generally now appreciates how it has turned out. It may not be deeply analytical but it’s easy and pleasurable to read.



Beyond and Before
Beyond and Before

Cactus Choir (1976) by Dave Greenslade is another album I’ve had on my radar for some time. Recorded not long after the break-up of Greenslade, the production is much cleaner than his previous band efforts but overall it’s less proggy and more bluesy and, in my opinion, less clever. I really liked the dynamic between Dave Greenslade and Dave Lawson and I liked Lawson’s lyrics. Early Greenslade may have sounded a little raw but there seemed to be a very good understanding between the four members. Simon Phillips isn’t a bad replacement for Andrew McCulloch and Tony Reeves features on half the tracks but the vocals are disappointing, with Steve Gould sounding like Elton John on the title track. For me, only Finale reaches the standard of the old band but it’s by no means a terrible effort.

With a remastered copy of GTR (2015), another Steve Hackett connection, Solaris’ Martian Chronicles II (2014) and, from my brother Richard Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy Two this has been a good Christmas. I really appreciate all my other presents but the prog-related gifts have been exceptional.




Christmas presents
Christmas presents




By ProgBlog, Oct 25 2015 09:45PM

My Walkman is blinking at me, cycling between the home screen and the music I was last listening to on my journey home from work last Thursday, shutting myself off from the noise and the crush on the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line), Tormato by Yes. The Option and Back buttons don’t respond yet I can scroll through the different tracks on the album but when it stays on the home screen for long enough, the left, up, right and down functions don’t work. It won’t even turn off! It’s broken. At 16GB it’s not big enough to hold anywhere near my entire music collection and my life involves constant updating of the material on the player each time I acquire more music and shuffle things around. In the last couple of months I’ve been to Italy and bought more CDs than I probably should have done; bought CDs at gigs; I’ve had a birthday, which inevitably resulted in multiple CDs; and I’ve been picking up new vinyl from the internet (the English version of Felona and Sorona by Le Orme and the yet to be despatched La Curva di Lesmo by Fabio Zuffanti) plus second hand vinyl (Edgar Froese’s Aqua, 1974) from an antique shop in Crystal Palace. My last batch of CD burning was a sequence of Tangerine Dream releases, Encore (1977), the last of the Peter Baumann-era TD, Cyclone (1978) featuring Steve Jolliffe, Force Majeure (1979) which featured Klaus Krieger on drums, Tangram (1980), the first album of the Johannes Schmoelling-era, and Hyperborea (1983); the vinyl won’t be converted to mp3 until I get a new turntable. Oh, I almost forgot. BTF put out a couple of discounted CDs every week and after reading a short review of the only and eponymous LP by Paese dei Balocchi (Land of Toys) from 1972, presented in a mini gatefold sleeve for €5.99, I put in my order and I’m waiting for it to be delivered. I bought a new MP3 player yesterday, just an updated version of my old Sony, because I was happy with the balance of portability (it’s very small) and sound quality, when played through Sennheiser earphones. I find it a little strange that the new device has a time display and as BST switched to GMT in the early hours of this morning; I found it stranger that this was an electronic device that required a manual adjustment to the time.

Time is something of an abstract concept that covers both immense (astronomical) measurement and the quantum level; the second was originally defined as the fraction 1/86400 of the mean solar day but uncertainty over the exact definition of a mean solar day and irregularities in the rotation of the earth resulted in deviations from the required accuracy. In order to define the unit of time more precisely, in 1967 the 13th CGPM (Conférence générale des poids et measures – General Conference on Weights and Measures) decided to replace the definition of the second with the following: The second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom at a temperature of 0 Kelvin.

It’s hardly surprising that an examination of the concept of time should feature in prog, from time travel (Beggar Julia’s Time Trip by Ekseption, 1969) to the condition of mankind (Time, from Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.) It may be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that a fascination with time goes back to before the beginning of the genre when psychedelia was in ascendency: the ingestion of LSD may have been used by some to expand consciousness but one of the alleged effects of the drug was to alter the perception of time, such that minutes seemed to stretch into hours. An early psychedelic-progressive crossover was the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed (1967), a song cycle about a day in the life of an everyman.

Roger Waters took an interesting approach to time on The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (1984) where the track titles all incorporate a specific time, from 4.30 am to 5.11 am with the track length corresponding to the times indicated by the titles; a parallel with Dark Side is that Pros and Cons is a reflection on issues contributing to a mid-life crisis. I went to see Waters perform the show live in London in June 1984; I’ve never owned the album because it resembles The Wall too much for my taste and though the concept may be prog, the music (and musicians) belonged to a straightforward rock idiom. I’m not suggesting that writing songs about time are unique to progressive rock or even that time isn’t only referred to by progressive rock bands in a manner other than the prosaic (think of Counting Out Time from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,1974) or even without any context (the very short harpsichord-drenched instrumental Time from Time and Tide (1975) by Greenslade, a collection of short pieces without any over-reaching concept. Within prog, some aspect of time often forms an integral part of a piece: the iconic chiming clocks that precede the Floyd’s Time or Vangelis’ use of the speaking clock at the end of Pulstar from Albedo 0.39 (1976) - a pulsar (an abbreviation for pulsating radio star) emits electromagnetic radiation as it spins so that there is a set period between pulses at a particular observation point. This precise period means that some pulsars are as accurate as an atomic clock.

Tempus Fugit by Yes (Drama, 1980) is more narrative-descriptive than a particular concept; the music was primarily supplied by Howe, Squire and White before Trevor Horn provided the lyrics which seem to suggest, in a somewhat convoluted way, that despite the lack of Anderson and Wakeman, Drama is a Yes album. It’s interesting that Horn reprises one of my favourite pieces from Tormato, the line in RejoiceTime flies, on and on it goes” and Rejoice is in essence the second part of opening track Future Times. Though Tempus Fugit may have influenced Roger Dean’s cover art (or the other way round) there seem to be references in the song words to the inside sleeve of Tormato. Time Table from Foxtrot (1972) is a classic Genesis pun but it’s really a short reflection on the failure of mankind to learn from the mistakes of the past, a slightly less naive take on the subject than Stagnation from Trespass (1970.) I prefer the earlier song. There’s another agonising pun on Zero Time (1971) by T.O.N.T.O’s Expanding Headband where the third track is titled Timewhys. I can’t detect any cohesive theme on this particular release, though in accord with their synthesizer instrumentation, a couple of the song titles hint at futurism: Cybernaut and Jetsex.

There’s more to the relationship between prog and time, including a perceived obsession with length of track and unusual time signatures. King Crimson might be regarded as one of the leading exponents of very odd times but most prog acts have strayed from 4/4; Waters’ bass and cash-register sounds on Money are in 7/8 and flow seamlessly. Critics regard this as being clever for the sake of it, pretentious self indulgence, whereas I think that uncommon meters allow a band to incorporate interesting rhythmical ideas, rather than conforming to the chug-chug-chug-chug of four beats to the bar. Furthermore, the extended length of tracks allows for development, eschewing the somewhat narrow constraints of the three minute single, which may be a challenge of the attention span of some critics.



By ProgBlog, Jun 14 2015 09:43PM

Two recent family trips, on the face of it quite different, to Milan and Brighton featured common ground: the search for record stores. Regular readers will know this is something of a ProgBlog obsession but planned breaks, of whatever length, require a balanced approach to cater for all the requirements of the members of the party. This means that apart from some shared interests such as architecture and exploring historic and cultural influences, I have to drag family around record shops and, on the flip side, have to suffer antique shops and flea markets and boutiques selling trinkets though flea markets do in fact offer the possibility of finding suitable recorded music, either CDs or, more frequently original vinyl.

From arriving in London with a single Boots vinyl-coated record box in October 1978 I began to accumulate what I considered to be a worthy collection of essential progressive rock.

Though I’ve never lost interest in my records, the ubiquitous nature of the CD format and its less demanding storage requirements meant that I undertook a massive format conversion beginning in the early 90s when prog bands began to resurface with new releases and record companies worked out that they could make easy money from new format re-issues. The last new releases I ever bought as LPs included Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, 90125 by Yes, Three of a Perfect Pair by King Crimson and probably last of all, A Momentary Lapse of Reason or Big Generator, none of which I would regard as classic prog apart from A Momentary Lapse; the 1981-84 incarnation of Crimson certainly wasn’t straightforward progressive rock. Peter Gabriel’s So was a leaving present from the NBTC in 1986. I did of course continue to buy second-hand vinyl during the genre’s lean years, when Croydon’s 101 Records was actually located at 101 George Street and picking up a somewhat battered Yessongs from a boot fair in Thornton Heath and a copy, even more battered, of Tempest’s eponymous first album from the Crystal Palace Antiques Market which is a warren-like flea market, just off Westow Hill. Much more recently I picked up a pristine copy of Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost in a flea market in Lewes.

Stupidly, I also ditched some prized records as I replaced them with seductive bright, shiny compact discs. Out went Bedside Manners are Extra, In the Court of the Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Atom Heart Mother, Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here plus some not-so-loved material like England by Amazing Blondel, itself picked up second hand from somewhere. The value wasn’t really in the music itself because I’d invested in other versions, ‘definitive’ or 20th or 30th anniversary editions with extensive additional sleeve notes but without surface noise, it was the (mostly) gatefold sleeve packaging that facilitated a comprehensive sonic and visual experience. The main beneficiary of this clear-out was Beanos of Croydon who I believed would give me a fair price for my well cared for offerings. I find it funny discovering dog-eared copies of In the Court selling for £40 in some of the shops I now frequent.

On reflection, the whole listening experience of CDs was far poorer than listening to a 12 inch piece of vinyl on a record deck: the care taken when removing the LP from the inner jacket; lowering the stylus onto the run-in grooves; sitting in an armchair with legs draped over one of the arms... This behaviour made up the soundtrack of my youth and I afforded it time and effort. When the CD format came along I was in a relationship and had full-time employment so I didn’t have the same amount of time to dedicate to the process of listening to music; on a sociological-political level those two times were also very different and I think the compact disc stands as a symbol of burgeoning consumerism, when time was wasted if it wasn’t being used to generate money.

Finding record stores in other countries, and Milan and Bergamo were no exception, is not always straightforward. Google will provide a list with addresses but the information is not always up-to-date and the restrictive internet provision of some UK mobile service providers means you can’t always use your phone to get you to the door. Last year in Pisa, one of the shops listed had changed its name and was primarily an urban stylist, with records found in a back room behind the main retail space with its shoes, shirts and trousers; in Bergamo a couple of weeks ago, the record store had moved within the previous month and, as it was almost closing time when I turned up at the old address, I had no time to locate the new premises. However, Rossetti records and books wasn’t too difficult to find and I managed to get hold of some obscure progressivo Italiano including the self-titled release by Dedalus (which strays into jazz-rock territory); the experimental Il Giorno Sottile by Fabio Zuffanti project Quadraphonic; and symphonic prog Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah by Consorzio Acqua Potabile. This last example was me sticking to the idea of buying releases by local musicians.

The Lanes in Brighton may be inhabited by local hipsters and tourists but that’s hardly surprising when you find out what’s on offer. In Shoreditch-by-sea the cafés and boutiques are right-on and trendy and full of very nice things to eat or to kit out your Kemptown renovation (Brighton Architectural Reclamation.) There’s an incredible incidence of musical instrument shops; I bought a second-hand vintage style Flange pedal from Brighton Guitars (44 Sydney Street) after trying it out with the help of singer-songwriter (and very helpful sales person) Jack Pout. We chatted a bit about prog (he quite admired Long Distance Runaround) and suggested I listen to the band If.

There are a number of flea markets (I picked up The Steve Howe Album and Imaginary Voyage by Jean-Luc Ponty for £5 each in the North Laine Antique and Flea Market, 5 Upper Gardner Street) and some epic second-hand record stores where I really could have spent more time. Across the Tracks (110 Gloucester Road) has a dedicated prog section and some records I’ve not seen for a long, long time but I just came away with Spyglass Guest by Greenslade. The labyrinthine Wax Factor (24 Trafalgar Street) also sells books and there’s even a diner-style café in a back room. The selection here is immense but its arrangement, though logical, means you have to surf through the mundane to find the gems. I picked up Steve Hillage’s L on CD and Six Pieces by The Enid on vinyl.

The Brighton trip was a semi-retirement day off. Though our house needs a lot of decorating and some renovation, retirement should provide the impetus and finances to get it sorted, to be followed by an upgrade of the hi-fi and, with a bit of luck, more time to listen to vinyl.



By ProgBlog, May 19 2015 10:03PM

The presentation of an album used to be one of the factors I took into account when I was attempting to discover new music at a time when the 12 inch LP format offered the best possible option for displaying images; subsequent popular formats (cassette tape, CDs) didn’t provide such a good showcase for album art so the recent trend for releasing new music on vinyl is a positive step in returning artwork to the status it had in the 70s. My father was an Art teacher and would drag us around galleries whenever the chance arose; I seem to recall Abbot Hall in Kendal as being a popular destination. I guess his efforts to interest us in art were successful because I subjected my son Daryl to the same sort of treatment, despite me ending up as a scientist... Anyway, not knowing how the music industry actually worked, thinking that art direction was the responsibility of the group rather than the label, I hypothesised that a band that invested in decent artwork was likely to have taken equal care with their music.

There are a handful of artists and design teams who have a strong association with progressive rock though prog wasn’t necessarily the only genre they worked in. The most obvious examples include Roger Dean and Yes; Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd; William Neal and ELP; Mark Wilkinson and Marillion; Philip Travers and the Moody Blues. The relationship was most rewarding, in a symbiotic kind of way, where bands stuck with a particular designer over the course of a number of releases. This conforms to what Wagner described as ‘gesamtkuntswerk’ where music, lyrics and visual motifs create a coherent artistic vision, fitting the idea of the concept album and consistent constructed mythologies.

When I started to listen to music I took the presence of printed lyrics for granted and consequently I found it irritating when I didn’t have a lyric sheet, having been reduced to replaying sections of albums to work out what Greg Lake was singing on Tarkus (1971), for instance. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the original rock concept album, was the first rock LP to have the song words reproduced on the sleeve and the cover specifically related to the idea that the album had been released by the fictitious Sgt Pepper. Prior to Sgt Pepper most album covers featured a photograph of the band but Peter Blake and Jann Howarth pioneered a new form of album presentation, opening the doors for cover art to reflect the musical and lyrical content within.

Roger Dean’s work with Yes created a narrative that took on a life of its own, incorporating stage design for live performances (with Dean’s brother Martyn) and inspiring Jon Anderson to write and release Olias of Sunhillow (1976). I used to buy postcards of the Yessongs panels from the union shop at Goldsmiths’ College when I was a student, to use as notes to friends detailing in minutiae what I’d been doing over the preceding week or two, lectures attended, field trips, books read and albums bought. I was rather surprised when, following the group hiatus from 1975 to 1977, Yes reconvened with an album that didn’t have a Roger Dean cover. The Hipgnosis effort was similar to material that they’d provided for other musicians but I didn’t really think it was very fitting with Yes music. Perhaps this was to coincide with the Yes reaction to punk; the title track of Going for the One (1977) is more direct than any of their preceding output but the rest of the material on the album ranks as being pretty cosmic, especially the epic Awaken. Hipgnosis shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near Tormato (1978) – one of the worst album covers, ever. It did neither Yes or Hipgnosis any favours, when it could have been so good! I approved of the Drama (1980) sleeve and was indifferent to 90125 (1983) and Big Generator (1987) – they weren’t Yes music.

Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant is one of my favourite Dean covers and it’s interesting to see how Patrick Woodroffe incorporated another of my favourites, Dean’s Greenslade multi-limbed wizard figure for Time and Tide (1975) after Spyglass Guest (1973) which only featured the Dean designed Greenslade typography (the typography itself on Time and Tide is a subtle alteration); though the cover of the first Dave Greenslade solo album Cactus Choir (1976) is also illustrated by Dean, his working relationship with Woodroffe was continued on The Pentateuch of the Cosmogony (1979), an album I’ve picked up a number of times at record fairs, some in very good condition, but never bought because of the reported poor quality of the music and I’m not too sure whether I like the work of Woodroffe, either.

I do like the work of Ashok (Chris Poisson) for the Mahavishnu Orchestra that runs from Birds of Fire (1973) to Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1975) incorporating graphics, photography or both. This provides the illusion of continuity, even though the group disbanded in 1973 and reconvened with a different line-up for Apocalypse (1974) and I find the images reflect the spiritual nature of the music.

Sitting with the gatefold sleeve of Rubycon (1975) and listening to the album through a pair of headphones was a favourite pastime during the mid 70s but I like all of Monique Froese’s covers for Tangerine Dream with the silhouette image on Ricochet (1975) influencing my own technique with a camera. The graphics for covers of albums by jazz rock outfit Isotope were certainly part of the hook that got me interested in the band. I’d seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test shortly after they’d formed but my first purchase was their second release, Illusion (1974) with the mercury-like liquid splashing between the two earpieces of a pair of headphones. This form of surreal photography was repeated on Deep End (1975) and the continuity of band image was maintained by the use of the same ‘Isotope’ logo on all of their albums, created by award winning graphic designer John Pasche who, apart from providing covers for releases on the Gull label, created the ‘tongue’ logo for the Rolling Stones. Pasche provided artwork for a number of bands in the mid 70s but I believe that his photographic work for Isotope is his best.

The hypothesis that a good cover is somehow an indicator of the quality of the music within the packaging is totally misplaced. One look at Gentle Giant’s Acquiring the Taste (1971) might be enough to put off the casual browser and there are many examples of awful music wrapped in beautiful images, so the hypothesis needs modification. I visited Impacto Records in Barcelona and bought a second hand copy of Pendragon’s The Masquerade Overture (1996). My wife picked out the CD for me, suggesting that it had a ‘prog’ cover. The artwork, by Simon Williams, has hints of Mark Wilkinson about it but there’s a lot going on from art to architecture to mysticism to Eastern exoticism. If the images reflect the components that make up the music, a cover like this could only be for a work of epic proportions, i.e. prog.

Part of growing up with prog was poring over the album sleeve, whether it was a hand-drawn creation by Nick Mason on Relics (1971) or Fruupp’s Peter Farrelly (Future Legends, 1973 and Seven Secrets, 1974) or the complexity of PJ Crooks’ work for King Crimson, looking for clues linking the images and the music; thinking about the music and actively engaging, not simply playing music to create some background noise. That is what a good record sleeve is for.


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