ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Nov 22 2015 09:33PM

My daily commute now involves taking the London Overground (aka the Ginger Line) from Norwood Junction to Whitechapel. Whereas the journey to London Bridge for Guy’s Hospital involved a 19 minute walk, a five minute wait in a carefully worked-out spot so that I’d get a seat on the 08.05 on a journey that took a minimum of 18 minutes, I now have an 18 minute walk through more pleasant surroundings (Brickfields Meadow in Woodside) and a theoretical 4 minute wait for the train, standing as close as fellow travellers allow to the position of the last doors of coach four when the carriage pulls to a halt. This is important. The East London Line service, which opened in 2010, was designed for four coach trains, i.e. the platform length of the new, dedicated Overground stations was equivalent to the length of a four coach train. This wonderful piece of prescience must have been an attempt to save money but such were the demands on the service that they added an extra car to each train and the doors of the last coach don’t open at the stations between New Cross Gate and Dalston Junction; the exit steps at Whitechapel are at the end of the train. I think I’ve managed to bag a seat only twice on outward journeys in the two months that I’ve been working at the Royal London, such is the inadequate provision of seats on these trains; I embark at the second station on the route. The boast ‘5 car train’ at the front of each service is a twisted joke - I’ve seen toy trains that have been longer.

I read my Guardian until capacity is reached, normally by Sydenham, when I’m no longer able to turn the pages; this depends on how the entire service is running and though I check BBC travel before I set off to the station, the situation is liable to change drastically by the time I step into Norwood Junction for reasons that the service operator seem unable to divulge. The result is that the train can be overcrowded before it has left and in these situations the mp3 player is essential.

The journey is timetabled to take 33 minutes but rarely achieves this so theoretically I could listen to a full, short album but choose to stow the Walkman before I pull into Whitechapel to facilitate a rapid exit; I seriously think I have some form of claustrophobia. On Friday I was listening to Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra and it struck me that though this is hailed as one of the fusion greats it stylistically leans much more towards the side of rock. That incarnation of the band seems to possess a remarkable musical understanding though the recording demonstrates urgency and, surprisingly, a fairly raw sound that I’d not really noticed before. With compositions primarily riff-based, the sheer power and attack of McLaughlin’s electric guitar reminds me of Cream but it’s when at least two of the lead instruments are playing the same lines where this aggressiveness is most evident. From a jazz perspective, there are solo spots for guitar, Jerry Goodman’s violin and Jan Hammer’s keyboards, however I find the band most thrilling when the musicians play call and response lines at breakneck speed. McLaughlin may be credited as composer on all tracks on Birds of Fire (and The Inner Mounting Flame, 1971) but I’ve noticed that when played on my PC there are other credits, to young keyboard player Jean-Philippe Rykiel, who had shared the stage with Miles Davis, for the track Hope; and to trombonist/pianist Bob Brookmeyer for Open Country Joy, two tracks where the writing is sympathetic to Goodman. I’ve just looked at my LP, bought in 1975 and there’s no indication that anyone else had a hand in writing the tunes; my remastered CD is currently out of reach, boxed away waiting for the new CD racks to appear.


I don’t remember quite why I got into the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s possible that Tony heard either The Inner Mounting Flame or Birds of Fire on Derek Jewell’s radio show, but when I saw the Ashok Chris Poisson cover on the latter I was intrigued; the Miles Davis connection was a bonus because I quite liked our father’s Miles records. Bill Burford bought The Inner Mounting Flame and I got Birds of Fire which, until recently, I’d always preferred out of the two; the earlier album occasionally veered too much towards Country music for my taste. My favourite album is Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973) which I also bought in 1975, because the three coherent long-form tracks make it the closest the band came to prog; I love the dynamics and the playing is of such a remarkable standard you’d never guess that internal tensions were about to bring a close to that particular chapter. Jan Hammer, possibly most famous in non-musical circles for Crockett’s Theme (from Miami Vice) or the recent Mars Bar advert where a dog plays the tune on pan pipes, gets a full song writing credit for Sister Andrea but it’s undeniably Mahavishnu material. The studio version of these pieces, released as The Lost Trident Sessions (1999) also includes tracks by Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird. It would be remiss of me not to mention the rhythm section; Laird was very solid and unflash and Billy Cobham was stunning throughout, an undeniably super-talented musician who inspired a generation of jazz rock drummers. The live performance was remarkably true to the tracks laid down on The Lost Trident Sessions.

By ProgBlog, Sep 23 2015 04:06PM

I’m currently reading Marcus O’Dair’s authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time (Serpent’s Tail, 2014) and thoroughly enjoying it; I’ve just reached the part where Wyatt becomes paralysed after falling out of a window at Lady June’s party on 1st June 1973. This was just after Wyatt had asked Nick Mason to produce the third album by a reconfigured Matching Mole, the original line-up having been disbanded by Wyatt after the release of Little Red Record (1972) because he found himself unable to take the decisions required of a band leader. This time point coincides with the start of my interest in music; in June 1972 I had no idea what I liked but by August I’d noticed there was a qualitative difference between Chinn and Chapman pop and the art-rock of Roxy Music. It wasn’t until much later in the 70s that I started to collect Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt related material but the first time I came across Wyatt’s music was a performance of I’m a Believer on Top of the Pops in the autumn of 1974, made more intriguing by the presence of Nick Mason and his ‘wave’ drum kit; I also seem to recall that Wyatt sung with his eyes closed. By this time I’d been become a regular reader of Melody Maker and New Musical Express so I had some idea of how well he was regarded as a musician.

Never mind his inability to hand out orders, he’d also proved unable to take them towards the end of his time in Soft Machine and though his departure from that band represented the end of a chapter in the Softs’ history, in reality the band had changed dramatically over that time going from pop psychedelia to power trio to to big band septet to jazz rock quartet so that none of the first four albums sounded alike. Third (1970) was released after the line-up had stabilised as a quartet (the septet never committed to the studio) and Fourth (1971) was performed by the same personnel. The difference between the two albums is creative input from Wyatt. Fourth had no Wyatt-penned material and though limited to one track (the entire side three of the original Third LP), Moon in June is essentially a Wyatt pop song, albeit a very clever one and it indicated the future course of the drummer; the ensemble hardly contributes and there’s a guest musician, Veleroy Spall, who adds violin. O’Dair suggests that Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge really didn’t like the vocals but also demonstrates that Wyatt’s preferred direction was back to song-based material, making the split inevitable. I can detect continuity between Moon in June and the eponymous Matching Mole debut that was released in 1972.

Fourth demonstrates Elton Dean pulling the band towards free jazz and it was only after I’d discovered jazz rock and fusion and subsequently lost faith in the sub genre that I thought William Burroughs’ term ‘soft machine’ meaning the human body, was no longer appropriate as a moniker. I think that at the beginning of the fusion movement, with jazz musicians moving towards rock and rock musicians moving towards jazz, the spark of creativity produced some incredible music. Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew / In a Silent Way period, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever uncovered new musical ground to populate but eventually technique became valued above all else. The jazz rock of Fourth may have been cerebral but it was disconnected from warmth and feeling; I prefer the organic nature and humour of Matching Mole and Little Red Record. It’s not really surprising that Wyatt should return to a song format with his own band, encouraged by Dave Sinclair, and reusing material like Instant Pussy that was originally aired in 1969.

The trajectory of Gong, originally fronted by ex-Soft Machine Daevid Allen who instilled a sense of mischievous fun into music, evolved from space rock psychedelia into very slick jazz rock similar to that produced by Soft Machine in the mid-late 70s, Allen being jettisoned during the process. First coming to my attention when Camembert Electrique was reissued by Virgin in 1974 for the price of a single, I subsequently picked up Time is the Key (1979) on cassette from the bargain bin in the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1981 to discover a very different sound. It’s only since then that I’ve gone back and filled in some of the missing pieces: You (1974); Shamal and Gazeuse! (both 1976.) Similarly, from being the long-time owner of only one Soft Machine album Softs (1976) that I picked up for £1.99 in Virgin in January 1982 and having been donated a copy of The Soft Machine (1968) that I can no longer find, it’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to move to complete the collection.

It’s the coincidence of filling in the gaps at the same time that allowed me to hear the similarities but it’s no coincidence that there’s one individual who appears at the pivotal time point in both bands – Allan Holdsworth.

Apart from some Kevin Ayers guitar on the first Soft Machine album, the band eschewed guitar in favour of keyboards and saxophone, until Holdsworth was recruited for Bundles (1975.) Holdsworth’s guitar style is instantly identifiable, with fluid, fast melodic runs and a unique tone. I’d first come across him on the first Bruford album and subsequently on the first UK album (both 1978) and I bought a battered second-hand copy of the first Tempest album featuring Holdsworth, from a flea market in Crystal Palace sometime in the mid 80s. I also managed to get to see him play at the 100 Club as part of Plough with Jeff Clyne, John Stevens and Gordon Beck in the early 80s that I described as ‘complex, challenging music’ in a letter to my brother Tony. Superimposing the guitar over the almost mathematical keyboard work of Karl Jenkins (with Ratledge becoming less involved) added a degree of feeling to what I described as ‘sterile’ jazz rock; Bundles and Softs, where Holdsworth had been replaced by John Etheridge, were the only high points after Third. Perhaps the parallels between Soft Machine and Gong aren’t so surprising when you consider their origins and shared members. Daevid Allen may have left Soft Machine when he was unable to return to the UK with the rest of the band after some gigs in France, so he formed Gong with a group of largely French musicians; the inclusion and subsequent leadership of tuned percussionist Pierre Moerlen, during which phase Holdsworth was part of the band, was characterised by jazz percussion which was used to play fast, melodic, extended and repeated riffs, much as keyboards were used by Soft Machine. Even today, the Gong-Soft Machine cross-pollination continues with Theo Travis.



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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.

The first weekend in September marked the return of live prog in England, and ProgBlog was there...

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