ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jul 3 2020 07:42PM

By this time of the year in 2019, even with a slow start, I’d seen ten gigs and attended Steve Hackett’s The Edge of Light playback, hosted by the man himself. So far this year I’ve been to two and there’s little hope of adding many more to the tally until the autumn unless travel restrictions from and to the UK are lifted within the next couple of weeks: the Porto Antico Prog Fest is due to take place on July 11th.


It’s good to see Covid-19 lockdown restriction eased where the infection and death rates have dropped to low double figures or lower, provided there are sustainable test, track and trace schemes in place, but the UK isn’t one of them. The economy is being put before lives and it appears to be the same economic model that we were running before the pandemic, based on consumer spending rather than taking the opportunity to green our services and industries. For an all too brief period almost everyone could benefit from improved air quality but rather than applying anti-pollution conditions on loans to industries to tide them over until the crisis had passed, we’ve just returned to business as usual. If someone was candid enough to admit the true reason why opening up car showrooms was one of the first restrictions to be lifted I’d admire them for their honesty but point out that giant factory car parks filled with new petrol- and diesel-engine vehicles is an indication of a huge crisis in the automotive industry, not least because the manufacturers have made more cars than they can shift, and that there is a tangible nervousness in the UK’s £75bn car loan market, where 6.5m vehicles have been financed through leasing deals with monthly payments that are already proving unaffordable for individuals laid-off as a result of the coronavirus situation leaving Britain’s car market resting on billions of pounds of consumer debt.


Physical distancing to reduce the spread of infection has always seemed like a good idea (unless you’re on the right of the Conservative party) but one of the obvious downsides is that keeping a band, the road crew and the entire audience 2 metres apart is incompatible with a sustainable live music industry. The inaugural Music By Numbers report, an economic study by UK Music and its members published in November 2019, revealed that the live music sector made a contribution of £1.1bn to the UK economy in 2018, up 10% from £991m in 2017, and the overall employment in the music industry was at an all-time high of 190,935 so it’s clear that live music, as part of the entertainment and hospitality sector and the last piece of the economy to open, is missed not only by me.


In the absence of live events, there are always live recordings to listen to. I’ve used live albums as an introduction to a number of bands: Barclay James Harvest Live (1974); Genesis Live (1973); Gentle Giant Playing the Fool – the Official Live (1977); Be Bop Deluxe Live! in the Air Age (1977), allowing me to become better acquainted with an artist’s back catalogue. In a similar manner to my preference for buying a group’s albums in their home city, I make an effort to buy concert performances of gigs I’ve attended, should they become available, because it feels as though there’s a stronger bond between myself and the music. So as a lockdown exercise, notwithstanding my presence or absence at a particular concert slated for subsequent release, I thought that I’d examine what makes a great live album, illustrated by a list of my top 10. Factors like recording quality, essential for conveying the musical content; the material present on the release, providing an accurate representation of the band up to the time of the performance; and the relationship between the performers and the audience.


Yes - Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015)


Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two
Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two

I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been truly happy with the sound quality. It has so much going for it – the triple gatefold with a series of some of the best Roger Dean illustrations for the band, explaining the narrative begun on Fragile (1971); it captures Yes at their creative peak, despite falling between two classic line-ups, covering all the essential songs that were instrumental in getting them to that point; and the musicians have clearly gelled for the performances, interacting well and playing brilliantly. So when the tapes that made up the source material for Yessongs were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be even stricter than the content of some of the King Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, all presented in a sonically accurate manner.



King Crimson - USA (1975)


USA (three different versions)
USA (three different versions)

Robert Fripp was able to beat the bootleggers, maintain an income stream and remain relevant in a cutthroat industry by releasing archive live material through official DGM channels and also, for material of less good audio quality, the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Great Deceiver (1992), The Road to Red (2013) and Starless (2014) box sets, plus the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 – a cut-out from my local store Elpees in Bexley, and it remained something of a treasured possession even after I bought the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition (2004) on CD, and subsequently invested in the 40th Anniversary expanded edition on vinyl. I used to blast USA out of my room at university, posing at the window with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM – I now have the entire piece on the 40th anniversary vinyl edition.



Mahavishnu Orchestra - Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973)


Between Nothingness and Eternity
Between Nothingness and Eternity

Between Nothingness and Eternity represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album. The quality of the recording, from the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, New York on August 18th 1973 is exceptionally good and the material, eventually given a studio release as part of The Lost Trident Sessions (1999), saw the band tilting towards the rock spectrum from their jazz-rock axis, a progressive rock direction. There’s a qualitative difference between Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1972) but the intensity was upped even further on Between Nothingness and Eternity. The CD liner notes from The Lost Trident Sessions suggest that tensions were running high between band members, compounded by constant touring, but the decision to release a live album rather than the slated third studio album, taken because there was no consensus over whether the studio recordings were complete or required overdubs, meant that Between Nothingness and Eternity captured the band, in the words of Jan Hammer, as ‘working on all 12 cylinders.’



The Official Live Gentle Giant - Playing the Fool (1977)


The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool
The Official Live Gentle Giant Playing the Fool

Playing the Fool is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette, my first Gentle Giant album. I’d heard In a Glass House (1973) not long after its release when my brother borrowed it from a friend, and was totally impressed by the title track from Free Hand (1975) when that was played on the radio by Alan Freeman – and frequently gawped at the cover of Playing the Fool when browsing in record stores, so I’m unsure why I never bought one of their albums, unless it was (for a prog band) the brevity of the individual songs, until I saw the Playing the Fool cassette at a price I couldn’t resist. I’m also not sure why I bought it on tape, a medium I’ve never particularly favoured, when I’d previously been entranced by what appeared to me as an intricate, complex constellation, the band’s tour route, on the inside of the gatefold sleeve. When I eventually took the plunge, Gentle Giant albums were an uncommon sight in shops, apart from Giant Steps – The First Five Years (1975), a 2LP compilation of the Vertigo produced records which came close to what I was after – but obviously didn’t contain anything from the Chrysalis-issued Free Hand. The arrangements on Playing the Fool are exquisite and the band were at their creative peak, gaining widespread appreciation in the US and mainland Europe but barely registering attention in their native UK. This is only album I’ve ever owned on cassette, CD and vinyl.



Van der Graaf Generator – Real Time (2007)


Real Time
Real Time

Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... and I can tell him because I was there: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. It was a great gig and is a great live recording of the gig. Van der Graaf’s Vital (1978) is wild and raw, capturing the group in flux between the departures of Hugh Banton and David Jackson and splitting up; the post-Jackson VdGG gigs from this millennium have also been a band that seems to be teetering on the edge of chaos but somehow, the Festival Hall performance in May 2005 contained and channelled a sonic energy that felt like it was pinning me to my seat. The recently released Live at Rockpalast (2020), recorded at the end of the 2005 tour from the Leverkusen jazz festival is another impressive album, but with a truncated set compared to Real Time it lacks the emotional clout of the inaugural performance of the reformed band, even though I have the 3LP set.



Five more live albums for lockdown will appear in part 2

By ProgBlog, Aug 7 2017 02:46PM

I pay £1.47 for four pints (2.27 litres) of milk at our local Co-op, and I choose to pay almost half as much extra than is strictly necessary (there are supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, which is also very close to me, where that volume of milk only costs £1) because a supermarket price war over essentials which began in 2015 depressed the price of milk to a level below production costs, threatening the UK dairy industry. Consumers suggested that they were willing to pay more for the product and the supermarkets, faced with protests involving cows being herded through their aisles, agreed to pay a minimum price for processed milk to the dairies, which was set at around 26p to 28p per litre. However, guaranteeing a minimum price for milk doesn’t necessarily mean that dairy farmers will benefit because the large dairies supplying the supermarkets might not pay the minimum cost to the farmers. Something is broken in the economy when a staple like milk is sold for less than what it cost to produce so it’s fortunate that consumers, who stand to benefit in the short-term from this high-street competition, have decided that paying 47% more is worth avoiding the collapse of the industry.



I’ve been buying a fair amount of vinyl recently, both new and second-hand, and I’ve started to wonder if today’s prices are anywhere near equivalent to what I paid for albums in the 70s and 80s. Inflation in the UK was recorded at 2.9% in June and is expected to average out at 2.8% for 2017 and an online calculator shows me that the total inflation in the UK economy since 1973, the year I first bought an LP, is 1113.42%; if the laws of economics have held true, the equivalent of a new release costing £2.50 in 1973 would now set you back a little over £30 so it would appear that a new release 12” LP is good value for money compared to prices in the 70s. Of course I used to seek out bargains if I could but these tended to be old releases (my copy of Fripp and Eno’s Evening Star for example, bought for £2.99 from Simons Records in a large basement on London’s Oxford Street in 1981), and ‘cut outs’, sleeves with small slits in one corner or punch holes just off centre which would also penetrate the label in the middle of the LP. These items were slow selling records that had been returned to the record company by a retailer, subsequently bought by a third party at a reduced cost (they weren’t selling well anyway) and put back into record stores where they were sold at a discounted price. During the late 70s and early 80s it is hardly surprising that albums by prog acts were slow selling and ended up at sale prices. My cut out edition of Livestock by Brand X cost £2.49 from Virgin Records in Oxford Street in August 1981.


It’s interesting that a full price album, using Bryan Ferry’s Boys and Girls as an example because it’s still got the Our Price sticker on it, which cost £5.29 when it was released in 1985, would sell for £15.64 at today’s prices and that the total inflation since 1985 is only of the order of 195%. The massive hike in inflation occurred in the mid 70s with CPI inflation peaking at around 24% in 1975 and high inflation persisting into the early 80s. The oil crisis of 1973, precipitated by an embargo by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Export Countries in response to US support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, generated inflationary forces which increased energy and commodity prices, quadrupling the price of oil in less than four months. At the same time, the world economy was in recession and this was mirrored in the UK economy. It was a period of 'stagflation', in which recession combined with inflation; inflationary wage increases were accompanied by a rise in unemployment, reaching one million in early 1976. High unemployment required increased government expenditure and borrowing.

The oil crisis had a direct effect on vinyl, a petrochemical offshoot, causing shortages and a concomitant rise in LP price. Some vinyl got thinner and my copies of The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Rick Wakeman and Fruupp’s Seven Secrets from this time are semi-transparent (with a red hue.)



The Labour Party was elected to government in February 1974 without an overall majority and they pursued a commitment to the 'social contract' (voluntary wage restraint in return for better bargaining rights) and public spending. Unfortunately, an international loss of confidence in sterling followed due to the combination of recession, instability and commitment to social expenditure, and led to the devaluation of sterling. Labour was again voted into power, this time with a tiny majority, after a further election in October 1974 and the subsequent budget in April 1975 attempted to reduce the deficit by increasing the basic rate of taxation to 35%, cutting the rate of growth of public expenditure and restricting the supply of money but it was viewed critically in the financial sector; the Wall Street Journal advised against investment in Sterling. By mid-1976 the economy was under extreme pressure and Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healy made a nationwide broadcast on TV in an attempt to reassure the markets and investigated the possibility of loan arrangements with the chairman of The Group of Ten (richest countries.) Late that year the government was forced to apply to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan of $3.9bn, with IMF negotiators insisting on deep cuts in public expenditure, which had a huge effect on immediate economic and social policy but also on the politics of the 1980s and beyond.

At this stage I’d like to point out that I have no faith in economic theory because movement of capital seems to be reliant on whim or the perception that a country or organisation may be at any given time in a state of stability or instability, and built on exploitation. The inflexibility of thinking within the IMF and the European Central Bank dragged out austerity and caused near-irreversible damage to most of the southern European countries and Greece in particular, spawning groups of right-wing nationalists looking for someone to blame for their economic misery. Furthermore, I believe that the global financial system is run by chancers and geared towards enriching those already with great wealth. When a government intervenes to bail out some venerable banking group because it’s too big to fail, the bank denounces regulation and carries on as though nothing happened.


I should also make it clear that I’m not buying vinyl as an investment but because it has always been my preferred medium for listening to music. If there’s anything nostalgic about my habit, buying LPs I used to own but got rid of because the music/band fell out of favour so that I stopped playing the records (Rubycon by Tangerine Dream, L by Steve Hillage, The Civil Surface by Egg, Camembert Electrique by Gong and Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) or because I needed to fund the replacement of old vinyl with shiny new CDs and maybe get some bonus material), it’s the desire to hold a gatefold sleeve in my hands and look at the artwork as originally presented and maybe to count my leisure hours in (roughly) 20 minute chunks.

I don’t buy very many LPs where I have some updated form of CD though replacing my original King Crimson and Pink Floyd albums was a must; I tend to look in second-hand stores for particular recordings or bands that interested me when I was a youth but never took the plunge – Spyglass Guest by Greenslade, Ricochet by Tangerine Dream, Aqua by Edgar Froese are examples, along with Mother Focus. One of my first excursions from home to see a gig at Lancaster University was for Focus, promoting the just-released follow-up to the excellent Hamburger Concerto. It was one of the most disappointing performances I’ve ever witnessed, where Philip Catherine had replaced Jan Akkerman and the new material was not of a good standard.



I thought it was worth testing the inflation theory some more, wondering if it applied to beer. I go to the pub perhaps every couple of months and on a night out earlier this month I was paying £4.50 for a pint of Shepherd Neame (the oldest brewery in the country) Bishop’s Finger in the Bishop’s Finger pub between St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Smithfield market. I accept that’s central London but when I first started drinking in 1977, a pint of Hartley’s XB (‘best’) bitter cost 28p and by the same calculation I’d expect to pay £1.85 today. Of course Hartley’s was brewed in Ulverston and there’s a documented price disparity between northern and southern beers. I can’t remember how much I paid for a pint of bitter when I first arrived in London because I actively had to seek out decent beers in an era when real ale in London was in decline and I was never a fan of Courage – the CAMRA Good Beer Guide was an essential part of the student survival kit. Two worthwhile London breweries were Young’s of Wandsworth and Fuller's of Chiswick but there were a few free houses where the 70s equivalent of the ubiquitous Sharp’s Doom Bar, Ruddles County, could be found. I’m pretty sure this used to sell for a little shy of 50p in 1978 so I shouldn’t really expect to pay more than £2.86 for a pint in London today.

A final piece of economics: Ruddles brewery was based in Langham, in Rutland, the smallest historic county in England and produced a good-quality bitter (allegedly at least part due to the unique Langham water) which travelled well. This independent brewery was bought out by Watneys in 1986 and sold on again, to Grolsch in 1992. Following a downturn in fortunes, the beer and brewery were valued at £4.8m and sold to Morland & Co. in 1997. The brewery was closed down in 1999 and production moved to Abingdon but Greene King bought Morland in 2000 and shut down the Abingdon site...


The bottom line (as economists might say) is that whether I’m searching for second-hand or new vinyl, in real terms I’m paying less than I did when I started collecting albums. Yes, you might see pristine original pressings of In the Court of the Crimson King selling for £50 but equally, it’s possible to come across an original pressing of Tubular Bells with the black and white Virgin labels, etched stampers without matrix numbers, laminate sleeve, pinched spine top and bottom and a back cover which states "Printed in England by Robor Limited" in the bottom right corner (later sleeves were printed by E J Day), for just £5.50 and in excellent condition.



Vinyl, please!








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ProgBlog's lockdown solution to a lack of live concerts - likely to be the last part of the economy to be re-started - is a list of ten of the best lives albums

 

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