ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jan 22 2017 11:19PM

Whereas 1976 ended on a relatively high note for progressive rock with what I now regard as the last decent studio offering from Genesis, Wind and Wuthering, it hadn’t really been such a classic year for the progressive rock genre though there were obviously important releases. Looking back through my collection it would appear that the product from mainland Europe shined pretty brightly. 2017 has started with the inauguration of President Trump in the US but 1977 started off where 1976 ended, with a trip to see Genesis at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It continued with the much-anticipated follow-up to Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd’s Animals. The entire album was premiered pre-official release, on John Peel’s radio show (January 20th, official release January 23rd.) That single exposure was enough for me to discern a qualitative difference between Animals and its predecessor; gone were the lavish keyboard washes and cutting synthesizer lines, replaced by a more traditional rock balance with organ and piano relegated to little more than rhythm work. I still went out and bought it, to discover that Rick Wright wasn’t included in any compositional credits and even Dave Gilmour only got his name on Dogs. It was fairly common knowledge that a decent proportion of the material which made up the LP had been presented to live audiences following the Dark Side tours, with You’ve Got to be Crazy forming the bones of Dogs and Sheep gestating as Raving and Drooling, the latter including far more synthesizer than on the finalised album version. Wish You Were Here is a good example of progressive rock; four years later The Wall is most definitely not prog. Sitting between the two, Animals doesn’t really conform to the requirements of the description either, though it does have its moments and does challenge the prevailing politics of the time, inverting the anti-Stalinist narrative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and turning it into a rail against capitalism.


Animals - forty years old
Animals - forty years old

From the somewhat lacklustre and very disappointing Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! of the previous year, Jethro Tull reinvented themselves in 1977 with the prog-folk Songs from the Wood. This was not only a coherent, redefining statement (that would last for a trio of albums), it also utilised the playing talents of long-term associate and strings arranger David (now Dee) Palmer on keyboards which had the effect of adding another layer of complexity to the music. I don’t think the music could be compared to folk because it really rocked; the title better reflected the subject matter itself rather than any treatment of it, espousing green issues and contentment through a more rural way of life dressed. Ian Anderson had always utilised the acoustic guitar in a singer-songwriter way but now he had a package that harked back to a bucolic idyll and even, in Hunting Girl, hinted at Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I really like Songs from the Wood, the upfront, punchy bass of John Glascock and in general the instrumentation and arrangements. I suppose if I were to lay any criticism at this record it would be directed at the sometimes twee lyrics but overall, for a song-based album, it compares very favourably with Tull’s prog-concept pieces like Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play and Minstrel in the Gallery.


Songs from the Wood
Songs from the Wood

It would be incorrect of me to dismiss Tull as a second-division act but the first of the major players to return after an extended break from the studio were Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The pretentiously-titled Works Volume 1 may have been a cock-a-snook to punk, the dominant genre of the time, indicating that they didn’t care what anyone else thought about their approach to music. Aesthetically, even the sleeve is deadly serious in monochrome with its small neat font and the concept, one side for each band member plus one side for the ensemble comes across as an indication of artistic control. I’ve always thought Works Volume 1 and the albums just before it invoked a superficial parallel with Yes activity: Yes released Close to the Edge, their defining LP in 1972, this was followed by a triple live set (Yessongs) which in turn was followed by the magnum opus double LP Tales from Topographic Oceans; ELP released Brain Salad Surgery in 1973, the pinnacle of their career up to that date, they then released the triple live album Welcome Back My Friends and their next studio outing was the grand double LP Works Volume 1. If the analogy is pushed further, the Yes hiatus was punctuated by solo albums; ELP’s absence from the studio ended with solo material presented within a group album (though Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Emerson’s arrangement of the Meade Lux Lewis tune Honky Tonk Train Blues, released in 1975 and 1976 respectively were both charting singles, eventually ended up on the mixed bag Works Volume 2.) It’s easiest to analyse Works Volume 1 one side at a time. I find Emerson’s Piano Concerto no. 1 rather enjoyable, the piece cementing his reputation as a builder of bridges between the two worlds of classical and rock though which his influences shine. I’m not sure that it’s a great piece of composition but I like it. Lake’s side continues from where Still... You Turn Me On left off in 1973. I value Lake’s contribution to progressive rock as an integral part of the earliest incarnation of King Crimson and as bassist/vocalist for ELP. He may have considered himself a singer songwriter playing acoustic guitar who happened to play some bass but the ‘solo’ features on every ELP album bar the first are relatively poor affairs; nice voice, shame about the content. Having said that, I have a soft spot for C’est La Vie! Carl Palmer’s material works very well when the attention is on the percussion rather than his song writing; I could never work out why Joe Walsh should appear on an ELP album, which brings me to the group tracks. The Copland-penned Fanfare for the Common Man is safely back on ELP territory and the only gripe I have with it is the overrated sound of the Yamaha GX-1 when it would sound so much better using a Hammond. The Yamaha is more suited to the symphonic Pirates which, at a little over 13 minutes fits the prog mould far better, forming a mini-suite. Along with dinosaurs, you can’t go far wrong with pirates!


Works Volume 1
Works Volume 1

Yes also returned from the wilderness with Going for the One, an album which offered a nod to the punk ethos with the high-energy title track, albeit with a liberal dose of Anderson sensibility, with its trippy imagery (“so hard to find in my cosmic mind”) but the other four tracks are straight from the Yes universe. Parallels was left over from Squire’s Fish out of Water and is sonically closest to The Yes Album. With Wakeman back in the fold, the album is far lighter than Relayer and in Awaken, contains one of the best progressive rock songs, ever. There’s a nice balance in the compositions, with Wonderous Stories managing to compress a full prog epic into something less than four minutes to become a surprisingly successful single at a time when punk was riding high, and the understated, reflective Turn of the Century showing off Howe’s considerable talent on acoustic guitar. Yes music is always uplifting but this was somehow positive thinking presented in easy to digest chunks on a platter, beginning with the hope of Parallels, moving through unbounded joy (Going for the One) and reflection (Turn of the Century) to spiritual fulfilment (Awaken.) Wakeman’s return coincided with two solo releases: White Rock and Criminal Record, both very different from predecessors Journey and Myths and Legends, being much closer in style to Six Wives.


Going for the One
Going for the One

There were a number of other important releases through the year, many of which I also picked up at the time or within the next couple of years. Progressive rock fans readily took to Brand X whose 1976 debut Unorthodox Behaviour was followed up by Moroccan Roll. Their sound on the sophomore effort was fleshed out to a surprising extent with the inclusion of percussionist Maurice Pert, ensuring that any potential to stagnate as a straightforward fusion act was neatly avoided.

I’d already started to appreciate PFM and their 1977 release Jet Lag didn’t disappoint. I was catching up on jazz rock bands around this time and Jet Lag was the closest PFM would get to that sub-genre. I wasn’t too disappointed that the Sinfield lyrics had gone and was getting used to Bernado Lanzetti’s vocal style following his debut on Chocolate Kings. Bookended by the beautiful Peninsula and the anthemic Traveler the music and playing is outstanding throughout.

What did come as a shock was the change from Van der Graaf Generator to Van der Graaf. Losing both your organist and horn player might seem careless but Peter Hammill and Guy Evans reinvented the band with the return of Nic Potter on bass and the recruitment of violinist Graham Smith from String Driven Thing. The resulting The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome is no less complex but far more rough and ready than VdGG and more immediate, as though Hammill was once more channelling Rikki Nadir. I didn’t buy the album until a couple of years later but I encouraged my brother to go and see the band when they played Leeds University during what would become the tour that produced Vital. Tony also went to see Camel during their 1977 tour (and tracks played at Leeds would appear on A Live Record also released in 1977) but I had to make do with listening to a friend’s copy of Rain Dances. The arrival of Canterbury legend Richard Sinclair cemented the Moonmadness drift towards a more jazzy direction but the collection of shorter songs, though still achingly melodic, was a bit disappointing. I think that of all the albums from 1977 that I listened to at the time, this was the one which I recognised as signalling a shift in the behaviour of the record companies, requiring the band to put out Highways of the Sun as a single. Evidence of the affect of punk on prog bands is best illustrated by the difference between Playing the Fool and The Missing Piece, both 1977 releases by Gentle Giant. The former, a brilliant introduction to the band in the guise of career-spanning compositions performed live which I bought on cassette is pure prog; the latter, not added to my collection until many years later for good reason, was like nothing the band had released before and is very disappointing.


More from 1977
More from 1977

Other notable records from 1977 which I acquired later include Genesis alumni Anthony Phillip’s The Geese and the Ghost, Peter Gabriel I (I did buy the Solsbury Hill single in preparation for seeing his first solo tour) and Steve Hackett’s Please Don’t Touch; I also recently bought a second hand vinyl copy of Seconds Out. England were a band who were unfairly accused of sounding Genesis-light who released the highly regarded Garden Shed. I saw them play in Barrow but didn’t buy the album until years later, one of my first internet purchases. I’ve since invested in a 2LP version with bonus material. The first National Health album also deserves a mention as it is one of the few albums which eschewed record company directives and is brilliant, melodic and complex. Along with England, they stood out as examples of how prog could have developed. The Enid represented a bridge from the first prog era and, like Van der Graaf, were accepted by the punk movement. They followed up the excellent In the Region of the Summer Stars with the sumptuous Aerie Faerie Nonsense. The US equivalent of late golden-period prog, recently added to my collection, is the first Happy The Man album released in 1977 which is a genuine treat.


If 1977 had some highs and lows, it wasn’t obvious until much later on in the year that the genre was unsustainable, coming under pressure from an industry which was just waking up to realise its global punch, partly through political developments. It’s interesting that the year began with Roger Waters’ onslaught against this political climate but half way through we were treated to a vision of hope but things went downhill fairly swiftly from 1978; forty years on January began with President Trump and despite the amazing scenes of Women’s Marches from around the world in reaction to the US election, I’m not very hopeful.

By ProgBlog, May 1 2016 08:47PM

Though Get ‘em out by Friday (from Foxtrot by Genesis, 1972) was a piece of social commentary directed at unscrupulous private landlords in the UK during the 60s and 70s, it has once again become relevant as a majority of the population in their 20s and 30s are becoming priced out of the housing market, making them the so-called ‘generation rent’. It’s been estimated that almost 60% of those under 40 years old will be privately renting by 2025 so it’s hardly surprising that the London Mayoral election next week is being billed as a referendum on housing. All the candidates are claiming they understand the requirement to build new homes, coming up with a wide range of different reasons for the shortage, and all promising action to address the problem which was identified by a recent YouGov poll as the most important political concern for people in the capital.


Genesis used the real-life Peter Rachman as the inspiration for the scoundrel of the piece, the man who used a technique euphemistically known as ‘winkling’ to remove tenants from properties, a combination of threats and inducements then filling the properties with new tenants paying a higher rent. This gives us the Foxtrot character Mark Hall, also known as The Winkler (c.f. the lyrics: “The Winkler called again, he came here this morning with four hundred pounds and a photograph of the place he has found...” and later “sadly since last time we spoke we’ve had to raise the rent again, just a bit.”) The modern villains are Dame Shirley Porter and Margaret Thatcher and their successors who have eroded the supply of public housing stock by forcing councils to sell off properties to long-standing tenants at reduced cost without replacing homes in the pool. The Housing and Planning Bill 2015-2016 has just had its third reading in the House of Lords and will go before MPs on the 3rd May to consider amendments proposed by the Upper House before becoming an Act of Parliament. In a nutshell, the Bill concerns housing, estate agents, rent charges, planning and compulsory purchase and has been slated for its unfairness, resulting in a string of defeats in the second chamber inflicted by peers on both benches who succeeded in wringing out a number of important concessions, including stopping the proposed ending of lifetime tenancies in social housing.

The Conservatives also planned to extend the Thatcher policy of ‘right to buy’ to tenants in accommodation provided by housing associations in an outrageous attack on the provision of all forms of social housing, a mistake which caused righteous fury and further highlighted the crisis in provision of all forms of affordable homes. If selling off municipal housing without replacing it was intended to be the pinnacle of the union between the individual and free market principles, it ended up as one of the most glaring examples of market failure in post-war history, a misplaced ideology that was designed to boost the number of homeowners who, armed with their shares from public utility and building society sell-offs, would become life-long Tory voters. In reality, ownership of shares by individuals in British companies slumped from a pre-Thatcher 40% to about 12% in 2014 which reveals the implosion of the vision of a share-owning democracy. The requirement of the newly privatised industries to compete in the free market, without the government subsidies loathed by the free-market economists, had a devastating effect on the UK manufacturing base and revenue from the North Sea oil industry had to be diverted from the exchequer to redundancy settlements and social security payouts.

In 1979 a third of all homes were rented from the state but this proportion has halved. 71% of households were owner-occupiers at its peak in 2003 but this has declined to around 65%, and 18% of households rent from the private sector. Witnessing my son attempt to find a suitable place to live has been a bit of an eye-opener. He has a good job in central London and after a long search found a place to rent in a shared house in Bethnal Green, his experience illustrating the competition for decent accommodation. Though country-wide, the housing crisis is most acute in London where the developments seem to be designed to attract foreign investment and the government exacerbates the problem by embracing buy-to-let landlords. I have a problem with both these policies because they aren’t helping those in need of housing and also fuel an unsustainable economy; this is the same dogma that created the global financial meltdown in 2008 and for some unfathomable reason the majority of westerners continue to believe in this failed economic model.

I was fairly late getting into Genesis and Get ‘em out by Friday was one of the first tracks I heard, on Genesis Live (1973). For a long time I preferred the versions on Live to their studio counterparts, a tribute to the excellent playing at Leicester and Manchester and a well balanced recording. On reflection, there’s a much harder edge to the tracks on Foxtrot compare to their earlier material. They stick to writing about mythical characters on Get ‘em out but set the story in the present and (at the time) the near future of 2012, in addition carrying on with the multi-voice narrative that first appeared on Nursery Cryme (1971) that lends a ‘play for the day’ vibe. The obvious social commentary is a new thread which was continued on the subsequent album Selling England by the Pound (1973) which also includes mini-plays, a tradition that is revisited on Robbery, Assault and Battery from A Trick of the Tail (1976) and All in a Mouse’s Night from Wind and Wuthering (1976); apart from highlighting the evils of ruthless landlords there’s also a dig at corporate culture, Styx Enterprises and United Blacksprings International, out for a quick profit at the expense of tenants, and even the honours system that has rewarded corrupt business people. I like Gabriel’s use of the Styx imagery, the border to the Underworld.

Paul Whitehead depicts a concrete building on the gatefold sleeve that could be Harlow New Town’s Market Square though when talking about the cover painting he has said that the ‘Holiday Inn-style hotel’ was his way of illustrating to the band that they needed to get used to staying in anonymous places like that as he felt they were just about to become famous. The first phase of the Harlow New Town development was called Mark Hall North; Gabriel’s protagonist The Winkler is called Mark Hall. I’d like to think that Gabriel hadn’t succumbed to the tired old trope that New Towns were ‘concrete jungles’ and symbols of dystopian futures. When the lyrics were penned in 1972, Harlow Town had expanded from a population of 4500 to over 78000 and the proposed limit of 60000 was increased to 90000 in 1966 without any increase in the designated development area. Early residents of the New Towns tended to be very appreciative of the facilities in their new homes (“a block of flats with central heating...”) and Harlow Town was designed to create communities, with ‘neighbourhood centres’ including an array of shops, a pub, a library, schools, a church and a small industrial area. It may be that Gabriel’s vision of the future, with the Orwellian-sounding Genetic Control, was inspired by the apparent accelerated rise in population and modernist architect Sir Frederick Gibberd’s ten-storey 'the Lawn' (built 1951), a building often referred to as the first tower block in Britain (“...did you recognise your block across the square, over there?”)


Market Square, Harlow New Town (photo by Andrea Klettner, used with permission)
Market Square, Harlow New Town (photo by Andrea Klettner, used with permission)


The Lawn, Harlow New Town (photo by Daryl Page, used with permission)
The Lawn, Harlow New Town (photo by Daryl Page, used with permission)

As a result of the chronic housing shortage, home ownership is out of reach for many and 9m people now rent. If, as predicted by one report, half of the UK population is going to be renting privately in a generation and almost a third of private rented properties in England don't meet the government's own standard for decent homes, it’s quite evident that our rental market is broken. The spectre of Peter Rachman still haunts the private rental market. Statistics provided by housing charity Shelter show that 136,485 renters in England are at the mercy of rogue landlords. These are landlords who apply cardboard to broken windows instead of replacing the glass and don’t care that water is pouring through a light fitting in your child’s bedroom, content to pocket the rent while their tenants live in danger and squalor.

For critics who think progressive rock is no longer relevant, listen to Get ‘em out by Friday and think again.








By ProgBlog, Dec 6 2015 09:34PM

I’ve now set up my new Rega RP3 and have started to put on vinyl in preference to my somewhat larger collection of CDs. My first record deck, bought from Comet within days of finishing work at Barrow’s Steelworks during the annual two-week shutdown in the summer of 1978 (when the UK still had a sizeable steel industry) was a Pioneer PL-514. This solid piece of kit had a heavy aluminium platter and a thick rubber mat and I really liked it. I wasn’t too fussed by the tone arm lifting at the end of an LP but it had a fairly basic design and I thought it sounded pretty good – I paired it with an Ortofon OM20 and though I passed this on to my brother-in-law in the mid 80s, I still have the original Pioneer screwdriver for attaching the cartridge.


The new Rega Planar 3
The new Rega Planar 3

When I was choosing my hi-fi I believed it important to stick to basics; there was a NAD turntable that came out shortly afterwards that could be played vertically but I thought that was rather gimmicky. The speed change on the Pioneer was a choice between 33 rpm and 45 rpm whereas the record player that I had been using, a sprung turntable in a walnut-finished stereogram, include 78 rpm and may even have had a 16 rpm selection. Neither of the two Regas I’ve owned have had speed selector and you have to manually move the drive belt if you want to switch between single and album formats; the default position is 33 rpm.

One of the defining features of progressive rock is that the music expanded beyond the constraints of the sub-3 minute single, allowing for development of ideas and sonic experimentation. It’s no coincidence that the time of progressive rock was also a golden period for album sales where the gatefold sleeve was a gateway to other worlds, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in intricate artwork and song words imbued with meaning.

I don’t believe I ever played a single on my old RP2 and I can’t play any on my RP3 because I don’t own any. I have bought singles in the past, the first of which was probably Solsbury Hill (1977) by Peter Gabriel, bought in lieu of his first album to see if I liked the material enough to warrant going to see him on his first solo tour. I did. My friend Bill Burford also dabbled in singles, though his first, And You and I, with Roundabout on the B side (1973) was played at 33 rpm. I seem to recall he later went on to buy Don’t Kill the Whale (1978) as a single because I was unimpressed with the B side, Abilene; it reached no. 36 in the UK charts. His next was Rock n Roll Star (1977) by Barclay James Harvest, from Octoberon, released the previous year. We’d been to Lancaster to see BJH during their Time Honoured Ghosts tour but Octoberon, like many releases by progressive rock bands at this time, had a more commercial sound than the earlier material. Rock n Roll Star reached no.49 in the UK single charts and earned the band a slot on Top of the Pops; though Wonderous Stories wasn’t really overtly commercial it was single-length and when Yes released that in 1977 it peaked at no.7 in the UK charts and appeared on Top of the Pops on more than one occasion but I had no need to buy the single because I already owned the album. There was also no need to rush out to buy Camel’s Highways of the Sun, the single released from Rain Dances (1977). This radio-friendly number was somewhat at odds with the jazzier and experimental tracks on the album but it still didn’t manage to climb into the Top 50. It was undeniably Camel at their most melodic and was only as concise as the other material yet, though the sleeve notes for the 1991 CD reissue suggest otherwise, it does seem to possess a commercial or accessible quality that’s not present on the other songs. What I did buy was the Genesis Spot the Pigeon EP, left-over material from Wind and Wuthering (1976) that reached no. 14 in the singles charts in 1977. The two tracks on side A are very throwaway, especially Pigeons. Match of the Day is slightly better and it’s these two songs that give rise to the title of the EP, a play on the ‘spot the ball’ football competitions. Side B is a very different kettle of fish, where Inside and Out, the only one of the three songs to feature Steve Hackett in the song writing credits, hints at early Genesis and includes enough changes of mood to warrant its inclusion on Wind and Wuthering in place of the uninspiring, insipid Your Own Special Way, a track that even more than Afterglow signposts the direction that Genesis would take following the departure of Hackett.

I bought Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell (1979) from Elpees in Bexley when I was a first year student on the same day that I bought a Deutsche Grammophon release of Handel’s Water Music. I have claimed that I bought it for the use of the syndrum but I think that I had to get it because I’d threatened to buy it and friends Jim Knipe and Mark Franchetti probably didn’t believe me; I also attended an Ash Wednesday mass because I said I’d go as a joke and Mark didn’t believe me. I didn’t play Ring My Bell very often and it’s long since been despatched to a charity shop, though I can still sing along when I hear it on the radio...

I lived at various addresses in Streatham during my final undergraduate year and for the first couple of years as an employee of the National Blood Transfusion Service and picked up singles by The Enid and Marillion from the bargain bin an independent record store.



Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single
Mark Wilkinson's sleeve for the Garden Party 7" single

These were picture sleeve editions of Golden Earrings b/w 665 The Great Bean (from 1980) and Garden Party b/w Margaret (from 1983) respectively. Marillion managed to get to no. 16 but the humorous 665 The Great Bean, containing the lyrics “the discos in heaven all shut at eleven and they only serve pop in the bar, sir. I’ll put you at ease with some good Lebanese, a blue film and two or three jars, sir” and sung to the tune from The Devil (from In the Region of the Summer Stars) failed to trouble the singles chart compilers. Though not over-impressed by the live recording of Margaret I did rather like the attack on elitism in Garden Party, the lyrical content in general and some great musicianship. I could see where the accusations of imitating Genesis came from but that was really only a small part of the music; I loved Pete Trewavas’ trebly, staccato bass lines. It’s therefore somewhat surprising that it took me so long to buy any of their albums. Also in the bargain bin were copies of UK’s Nothing to Lose and I did feel that perhaps I ought to have supported the band by buying a copy, even though I already owned Danger Money (1979) and Night After Night (1979).

Throughout my youth I resisted the urge to by the odd prog single that I didn’t own on album, unable to reconcile their value and cost; I did splash out on two Asia 12” singles, at £0.99 each from the Tooting branch of Woolworth’s in 1984 or 1985 that I gave to two girlfriends. They were the last singles I ever bought and one remains in my household; one went to my wife-to-be Susan. I think she might like Asia’s music more than me...


Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain
Asia's The Smile Has Left Your Eyes with Roger Dean sleeve - 99p bargain




By ProgBlog, Oct 5 2014 07:56PM

I don’t watch very much television. Broadcasting corporations don’t really cater for my tastes and commercial stations are nauseating because you get meaningless adverts every 15 minutes; the advertising industry is really over-regarded and badly regulated. I’ll watch the odd documentary, Have I Got News for You, Crystal Palace appearing on Match of the Day and Dr Who, though I’m still unsure about Peter Capaldi. I think his Doctor has potential and this potential is helped by some more sinister storylines but I think I may be getting a bit old to make time to watch the programme. I think Matt Smith initially carried the sonic screwdriver pretty well but towards the end of his tenure I was less convinced of his suitability for the role. The writing and Who mythology weaving is admirable and, as fantasy series go, it’s pleasant escapism and easily watchable and touches on that evasive quality of ‘Englishness’ but when I start actively thinking about the suitability of the actor in the lead role, then it’s probably time to move on.

My wife is responsible for informing me of programmes that I should watch, so I was a bit shocked when I got a text from my friend Mark Franchetti yesterday, hoping that I was watching the Genesis evening on BBC2. I’ve known Mark since university and though his musical taste is far, far removed from mine (rock ‘n’ roll) his wife Gina is into progressive rock and has accompanied me on many a mission to seek out and enjoy live prog. The Franchettis frequently remind me of impending musical documentaries but I’ve normally been handed the TV remote and left to get on with it. Yesterday was different but the by-line in the Radio Times may provide Susan with an excuse; the Saturday Choices article on Genesis: Together and Apart begins: “At the vanguard of prog, uncaring of cool, Genesis wrote radio unfriendly epics about lawnmowers and failed Scottish uprisings” but concludes “while the tediously de rigueur rock-doc dissing of the group’s early oeuvre – for many, a thing of rich musicality – is largely shunned.” She may have misread this as meaning the early material was overlooked in the documentary because, when I switched over to watch the programme, 20 minutes or so after it had started, they were just skipping through Selling England on to The Lamb.

This period coincides with the start of my personal appreciation of the band. School friends Alan Lee and Geoff Hinchley were more into Genesis and my first purchase, in 1976, was the token gesture Genesis Live as a cut out distributed by Buddah Records because it covered their early history. I don’t remember where I picked up this item. It seems unlikely that Barrow had any record stores dealing in cut-outs so my guess would be that I bought it in Leeds, possibly Virgin Records, when I went to visit brother Tony at uni. I subsequently went to see Genesis twice, in Liverpool on the Wind and Wuthering tour and at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, after winning tickets in a Capital Radio competition. Part of this prize was a signed copy of Three Sides Live, which had been released four months earlier and which I later sold to a friend, Mike Chavez, for £5.

From the moment I began watching the documentary, the narrative closely followed that set out in Mike Rutherford’s autobiography The Living Years and Rutherford seemed to have more to say than the other members of the band. Steve Hackett barely featured, only commenting once after Peter Gabriel had told us that he’d often been congratulated for A Trick of the Tale. There was no mention of Bill Bruford. Not surprisingly, when you look at the Genesis timeline, there was a great dealmore about the post-Hackett Genesis which was of much less interest to me as they slid from prog greats to exceptionally successful middle-of-the-road soft rock. The definitive turning point, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Afterglow as the last track on Wind and Wuthering. Rutherford describes this album as displaying the feminine side of Genesis (he also labels Tony Banks’ chords as feminine) and though musically Afterglow comes across as prog, lyrically it’s venturing into the mundane. There’s no doubt that this lyrical style became more prevalent over the later releases and the complex, multi-section compositions with fantastical or mythical concepts were dropped. Prog isn’t about bearing your soul after a divorce, however painful, that’s more the realm of a more accessible rock medium like the Blues. Rutherford’s belief that he should handle guitar duties was originally somewhat misplaced but he developed a rather mechanical style of picking chords that came to represent a lot of 80s guitar playing; such that it was almost impossible to discern the songs he was playing in Genesis from those he was playing in Mike + The Mechanics. This process was compounded by the reduction in distinct keyboard sounds utilised by both Tony Banks and the Mechanics’ Adrian Lee and the generic soft rock available on the fledgling MTV. Some of the Genesis videos were truly awful.

I managed to watch the missing part of the programme which did include a few more words from Steve Hackett on BBC’s iPlayer. This included thoughts from original guitarist Anthony Phillips and another Charterhouse alumnus, friend and former road manager Richard Macphail. There was some archival footage of the band playing at the Atomic Sunrise festival at London’s Roundhouse, the only video documentation of Genesis with Phillips and drummer John Mayhew.

Despite what appears to be some unresolved rivalry between Peter Gabriel and Tony Banks, it was good to hear Gabriel talking about the band. The film was supplemented by commentary from comedian Al Murray, New Statesman arts critic Kate Mossman, author, former actor and stand-up comedian Mark Billingham, music journalist Chris Roberts and radio DJ Angie Greaves. Mossman interviewed Peter Gabriel for the New Statesman in October last year and she added some useful insight and analysis; the others offered opinion, Murray quite happy with the later, more commercial material.

The idea of Genesis, together and apart, was quite good but still left me feeling slightly unsatisfied. Hackett’s solo work, currently touring Genesis Revisited, was totally overlooked. I rate Voyage of the Acolyte, which features both Rutherford and Collins and easily conforms to prog form circa 1975, as good as A Trick of the Tail and better than Wind and Wuthering and all that came after. He’s the only one of the band that seems to regard their early 70s material as music that continues to deserve an airing, something that would have been worthwhile for the documentary to highlight.


By ProgBlog, Jul 13 2014 01:00PM

I’ve been lucky enough to play around on a Mellotron but I didn’t have the foresight to buy the beast. I tend to regard the Tron (as aficionados apparently prefer to call it) as one of the two instruments that define prog. Though not strictly true, it did form an integral part of the sound of most symphonic prog bands that were around during the ‘golden era’, whether adding strings, flute or choir. The other instrument that has a very strong association with progressive rock is the mini-Moog.

As a youth I used to scour the music press and album sleeves for information about instruments; I understood that Chris Squire’s use of the Rickenbacker, for instance, was a key part of the sound of Yes but at the time it was something that not many rock bassists were using. My research into the mini-Moog and the Mellotron followed these lines. I remember a competition in (I think) the NME to ‘win a £400 Moog’, illustrated with a picture of Keith Emerson that clearly showed the instrument’s controls. The competition had a simple multiple choice question and the tie-breaker was a ‘describe the music of ELP in 20 words’. I submitted a pithy verse that didn’t win. The inside sleeve of Six Wives was another frequently referenced insight into keyboard instruments and the probable source of my earliest understanding of the Mellotron, with Wakeman’s two 400-Ds used for brass, strings and flute, and vocals, sound effects and vibes respectively. What I found incredibly neat was the way that a mini-Moog would sit on top of a Mellotron, as though the two instruments were made for each other. As multiple keyboard usage became the norm, this was a frequently observed set-up.

The versatility of the mini-Moog and, to a lesser extent, the VCS3 and the ARP Odyssey or ARP 2600, encouraged bands to embrace synthesizers. Whereas a Moog was a lead instrument, putting the keyboard player on the same footing as the guitarist and marking the beginning of the era of the keyboard wizard, the Mellotron was an instrument that allowed a band to enhance their overall musical presence; it was simply too clunky and mechanical to be used as an instrument for solos. This shift of emphasis from vocalist/guitarist dominance, evident in almost all straightforward rock bands, was one of the democratic facets of progressive rock; promoting a greater equality which in turn allowed more influences and subsequently, more musical possibilities.

The ARP synthesizers (after Alan Robert Pearlman) don’t seem to have been as extensively used as Moogs, though they did have notable proponents such as Tony Banks.

It’s not strictly true that the Mellotron was only used for symphonic or choral fills; after all, the nature of the beast was as a sampler, based on recordings of any manner of instrument or sound effect committed to tapes. It’s possible to discern Mellotron sounds from the real thing and I find that part of the attraction. The flute tone is one of the best known sounds and its haunting quality is what sets it apart from the woodwind; there’s an ethereal element to it that defines the mid-70s Tangerine Dream and this sound is also used to great effect by the 72-74 incarnation of King Crimson in their improvisational flights (on Providence, for example) and on Drum Folk by Greenslade. As much as I like Crimson’s doom-laden Mellotron chords I think I prefer it used for melody lines. Having sad that, the Cross-era Crimson were hardly a keyboard band and used their two Mellotrons quite differently from most bands because of the quantity of improvised material they played. Trio, from Starless and Bible Black, is an almost fragile piece, where Robert Fripp plays delicate Mellotron in response to David Cross’ plaintive violin. This track, an improvisation from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw gig of November 23rd 1973, stands out because Bill Bruford didn’t touch his drum kit and he’s credited, quite rightly in my opinion, as a composer; his decision not to add anything to the piece really enhances what must be the most sensitive track Crimson have ever recorded. Cross, in a chapter in Nick Awde’s excellent book Mellotron, describes how Crimson used to abuse their machines by jamming the selector between two settings and Trio may be an example of this, where the sound seems to hover between flute and strings.

It was Fripp who most fully documented the lack of reliability of the Mellotron during tours, especially to destinations with different mains voltages. Reliability issues, coupled with its intrinsic mass meant that many exponents ditched their Mellotrons when more portable and more reliable string synthesizers started to appear in the mid 70s. I think it’s interesting that the decline of the use of Mellotron coincides with the end of the first wave of progressive rock and, conversely, the rise and subsequent critical reacceptance of prog in the early 90s was spearheaded by bands that appreciated the analogue sounds of the bands from the 70s, such as Ånglagard and Finisterre. 1976 seems to have been a turning point; the sleeve notes of Wind and Wuthering reveal Tony Banks played both Mellotron and Roland string synthesizer, and I regard Wind and Wuthering as the last of the progressive Genesis albums.

I feel rather dismissive towards the string synth. The sound was thin and, compared to the Mellotron, lacked warmth and timbre but it also had an unforeseen economic effect. When Mellotronics went bankrupt in 1978, manufacturer Streetly Electronics were no longer allowed to use the trademark name Mellotron and had to rename the M400 model they were producing at the time the ‘Novatron’. Rick Wakeman invested heavily and unsuccessfully into a cassette-based version and his Birotron features on a handful of albums, most notably his 1977 release Criminal Record.

Mellotron restoration was featured at a King Crimson playback event in London in the late 90s and there are Mellotron conventions; I attended MelloFest 2 at the Luminaire in 2009, featuring (amongst others) Robert Webb from England and Martin Orford. The future is looking more rosy for the Mellotron. The resurgence of prog has dragged the instrument back into the sonic requirements of bands that want a fuller sound, which includes old exponents and a younger generation of musicians who appreciate the possibilities of one of the instruments that defined prog.



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