ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Jul 11 2017 10:42PM

I’ve just ripped a rather large pile of my wife’s CDs to mp3 for her, nothing that remotely interests me but which does indicate the breadth of her musical tastes, according to categories ascribed by Windows Media Player: Soul and R&B; folk; electronica (not the sort that I like); country; pop; world. The selection generally dated from within the last five years and I noticed that most of the albums play for around 45 minutes with an average track length of a little over four minutes within a range of sub-three minutes to just over five. This near-standardised format would suit a release on 12” LP and though quite a few of these recent additions to her collection were originally released before the current vinyl revolution, at least one has been re-released in audiophile format and two, by the same artist, have ridden the recent vinyl wave with the one of them allegedly becoming the fastest selling LP for 20 years.



It’s well documented how progressive rock bands found the standard three minute single something of a constraint and it’s equally uncontroversial to suggest that in the late 70s, as the golden era was drawing to a close with very few exceptions, bands who were obliged to attempt to write a hit single by their label produced failures; prog relied on album sales and was a spectacular success in doing so. It’s hard enough to put together a winning formula for a hit single without attempting to include some form of coherent story or message and most of the singles in the 70s were aimed at a particular demographic, the adolescent in the early 70s and then when punk came along, older teenagers. On a sociological level this was to do with burgeoning self-awareness and searching for inclusivity; call me dumb but the tribe I ascribed to had long hair, wore flairs and suede desert boots and carried albums to and from school under our arms, as if to show the world how deep and interesting we were.


I’m not going to comment on the provenance of some, undeniably successful singles from prog-associated artists such as Greg Lake or the 1980s version of Yes and equally, I’m not thinking of edits of album tracks cut-down to favour air play but, in my opinion, the only genuine full-on hit progressive rock song of single length is Wonderous Stories by Yes which entered the UK Singles Chart at number 31 in mid-September 1977. Over the next four weeks climbed to its peak, reaching number 7 for the week of 8 October and it remained in the chart for the next five weeks. A favourite with fans and band members alike, the track somehow condenses epic Yes into 3’45, possibly because the song structure, built around a classical framework, incorporates signature features such as the harmony vocals and an uplifting vibe. It’s unclear to me how many new fans they attracted, especially in an era of punk. I didn’t buy the single in either of its formats because I owned the album but I imagine a fair number of pre-existing fans bought the special edition picture-sleeve 12” version in blue vinyl.




So what is the ideal track length, and what is the perfect album duration? As someone who began listening to music when the vinyl LP was the dominant format, I’m used to and therefore favour an album of 35 – 45 minutes of music. There are plenty of shorter length albums such as Electric Prunes’ Mass in F minor which, at 26 minutes, must be one of the shortest LPs ever, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII (just over 36 minutes), and many of the 70s progressivo Italiano releases. At the other end of the scale, Genesis had a bit of a reputation for eking out every square millimetre of the record surface with Foxtrot lasting over 51 minutes, Selling England by the Pound at over 53 minutes, Trick of the Tail at 51 minutes and Wind and Wuthering just shy of 51 minutes; [the non-prog] Duke was over 55 minutes. Progressive rock is known for its utilisation of full dynamics and the more music included on an LP means less space between grooves and a reduced dynamic range, plus the increased likelihood of damage from a worn stylus and though my Genesis records play well, the side-long title track on Autumn Grass by Continuum which lasts over 26 minutes, has reproduction problems on my current set-up, my former set-up and on the system in the shop I used to check the quality of the (second-hand) disc.

I’m very much in favour of side-long tracks and most of my favourite groups have committed one side of an album to a single piece of music; all of them have indulged in long-form, which I consider to be one of the defining qualities of prog. From the ultimate progressive rock album Close to the Edge to each of the four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans and Gates of Delirium; Atom Heart Mother and Echoes to Eruption and Hamburger Concerto; Tarkus to A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers; Music Inspired by The Snow Goose to Nine Feet Underground; Supper’s Ready (Horizons is the prelude) to Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play; Lizard to Mumps; Rubycon to Tubular Bells; Trace’s Birds to The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Dream, there are also other brilliant almost side-long tracks like Grand Canyon Suite and Credo on the only studio album by Refugee.




It’s not that I don’t like sub-five minute tracks but I just don’t think they represent the best a band can do. Anything around 10 minutes or over should give sufficient scope for development of ideas to transport the listener on a journey through the composition; there ought to be sufficient time to employ a variety of rhythmic devices, changes in amplitude and different instruments or instrumental voices.

The CD format opened up a whole new world of possibilities and prog supergroup Transatlantic managed to fill an album with a single piece of music, The Whirlwind, lasting 77 minutes. This may be an exception but the temptation to fill the available time on a CD, whether with a single track or a series of shorter tracks, is ever-present. Where should we stop? My brother Richard has specifically commented on Nad Sylvan’s 2015 solo album Courting the Widow, suggesting that as much as he likes the compositions, he finds it hard to reach the end of the album (it lasts just over 70 minutes.) I think Richard’s observation applies far more generally and that there’s no real requirement to release something over 50 minutes long. Before the 90s King Crimson came along I’ve held ‘Crimson days’ where I played all original (vinyl) releases one after the other; I’ve done the same for Yes and Pink Floyd but unless you have the time to dedicate to listening to music, there’s no point. I’m someone who believes in the importance of the album as a complete entity and that the running order described by the artist is sacrosanct yet I’m unsure if it’s the lives we lead (wake/commute/work/commute/eat/sleep/repeat) which is restricting our ability to fully connect with music or if the length of a CD album itself that we find hard to assimilate in a single sitting. Is this a generational thing affecting those of us who grew up happy to turn over an LP on the platter or is it a Page family thing? Yes magnum opus Tales from Topographic Oceans was derided for its length (amongst other things) and attracted criticism for passages regarded as ‘filler’, so would it have benefitted from a CD format, if that had been available in 1973, allowing it to be produced as a 60 minute-long piece of work? I like to think that the natural breaks afforded by changing sides and changing discs provide enough break to allow us to enjoy the full 80 minutes. Then again, as much as I enjoy Anderson/Stolt’s Invention of Knowledge which lasts around 65 minutes, I find it difficult to listen to from beginning to end on vinyl or in digital format; perhaps familiarity plays a large part and it’s not just the length of the album. I no longer have the time I once had to sit down and properly listen.




In fact there’s no perfect length of either a single track or of an album. The physical restraints of the 12” LP which allowed up to 27 minutes of music each side, has the capacity to hold music which can have any number of twists and turns, whether they’re presented as one piece or as a series of tracks. It’s not the length that counts – it’s the quality of the music itself.


By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2016 10:05PM

Sometime in July my wife forwarded me an Amazon recommendation, Peter Hammill and the K Group Live At Rockpalast – Hamburg 1981, a DVD and double CD production available for pre-order. I’ve come to rely on her input for potential new purchases, though their appearance in her Amazon suggestions must irritate her as much as the People You May Know feature on Facebook infuriates me; I don’t know these people and I don’t want to know them, so please stop trying to expand my social network. I can count my Facebook friends just using my fingers and toes. I’m a sociopath. Leave me alone with my music.

I’m a Peter Hammill fan and the K Group’s The Margin (1985) recorded at live shows in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London in 1983 is something of a favourite, with a raw, seat-of-the-pants feel, even though the band had been touring with Hammill’s solo material since 1981, so I ordered it immediately. On Friday 26th August I received an email from Amazon informing me that the item was due for delivery that day and, not knowing how it was packaged and whether or not it would fit through the letterbox, my wife stayed at home to take collection. By the time I got home from work, with a short detour to the shops in Addiscombe, there was still no sign of my parcel. I utilised the tracking facility on Amazon’s email and was informed that it was out for delivery. After dinner, a little before 8pm, I looked again and Amazon reported a ‘delay in delivery due to external factors, Croydon GB’ but didn’t provide any explanation. At 10pm, without any further changes to the message, I contacted Amazon customer services to be told that there was a problem with their system and that they couldn’t check my account. I thought that they may be able to tell me at what point I should give up waiting without going into details; apparently they deliver up to 9.30pm. The package was pushed through my letterbox at around 1.30pm on Saturday, some time after I’d seen announcements of its arrival with other recipients on Twitter, despatched from Burning Shed. It’s a good job that I’ve used Burning Shed for the forthcoming VdGG release Do Not Disturb and King Crimson’s Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind.



In the sleeve notes to Live at Rockpalast, Hammill is quoted as saying of The K Group “I was the boss; it was ‘my’ band. But our human and musical interaction was unimpeachable.” This suggests that it was a band put together to perform his solo material in order to present the material in a way that fully reflected the power of songs from his then most recent album, Sitting Targets (1981), not something that represented a true collective. When I first discovered prog, the genre appeared to me fairly egalitarian, but it may be that my thinking has been influenced by two of the first few albums I heard; the completeness of Close to the Edge is to a great extent down to the balanced roles of the musicians and predecessor Fragile, which appeared after CttE in our house, reinforced that view with its five ‘solo’ spots interspersed with some quite amazing band compositions. The first ‘solo’ album I bought, a joint enterprise with brother Tony, was Rick Wakeman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), where all the music was written Wakeman and guitar, bass and percussion were provided by guest musicians, gathered together for this one-off release. It was this formulation of the solo album that I regarded as being the archetypal model, one that was repeated by Wakeman’s erstwhile band mates during the Yes hiatus of 1975 – 1977. Solo projects allowed a member of a band to record material that might not have been suitable for their regular work outfit though the circles in which they moved were quite evident from the list of guest musicians; following the example of Wakeman, Steve Howe and Chris Squire borrowed fellow members of Yes, and Steve Hackett utilised Genesis colleagues on his first solo venture, Voyage of the Acolyte (1975). Meanwhile, Alan White, releasing Ramshackled (1976) under his own name despite not writing any of the material, borrowed the vocal and guitar talents of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe respectively for one track. Patrick Moraz chose to release The Story of i (1976) without any members of Yes, so that whereas you could detect the DNA of Yes in Fish Out of Water (1975) and Beginnings (1975) because of the distinctive playing and song writing styles of Squire and Howe, Moraz’s effort was a frenetic jazz rock workout which borrowed from Mainhorse (his first band) and world music without referencing Yes. Anderson’s Olias of Sunhillow (1976) was the only genuine solo effort which may have not sounded particularly like Yes but certainly embodied the spirit of the band.


Even though there was considerable debate about the true solo nature of Olias of Sunhillow, with suggestions that Vangelis had some uncredited physical input (Vangelis having borrowed Jon Anderson for a vocal contribution on So Long Ago, So Clear, from 1975’s Heaven and Hell, another genuine solo album if you discount the vocal and choral parts), there could be no disputing the stand out solo album of the period, even with contributions from Lindsay Cooper on string bass and Jon Field on flutes, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (1973) where one man pushed multi-tracking to the extreme. This brings us back to Hammill, whose second and third solo albums Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night (1973) and The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage (1974) fall between the initial break up and reformation of VdGG but, due to the inclusion of (In The) Black Room/The Tower and A Louse is not a Home, long-form compositions which would have featured on a studio follow-up to Pawn Hearts, the line between solo and group material becomes heavily blurred. In Camera (1974) marks a departure from over-reliance on other members of Van der Graaf Generator (Guy Evans is still on hand to provide some of the drums) but this is the beginning of the Sofa Sound home recordings, utilising extensive multitracking. There were two more Hammill solo venture featuring more than just a couple of the Hammill coterie; the entire cast of Van der Graaf Generator appeared on the pre-reformation, proto-punk Nadir’s Big Chance (1975) and Over (1977) includes members of the somewhat different Van der Graaf. Hammill’s appropriation of the alter ego Rikki Nadir heralded his later adoption of an alternative character, K, leader of the K Group. The pared-back solo outings The Future Now (1978) and pH7 (1979) were the last two releases on Charisma and I regard them as a sort of pair. The only guest musicians are Graham Smith and David Jackson, the songs could be interchangeable and the covers are stylistically similar; I also bought both of them from WH Smith in Streatham from a sale bin.

The next two albums, A Black Box (1980) and Sitting Targets (1981) provide many of the songs played by the K Group. The epic Flight deserves full band treatment but the songs that made up the K Group set list all benefit from a band performance. I’ve seen Hammill perform solo shows and loved them, watching him play on two successive nights in 1984 as I was catching up on his solo records and Van der Graaf. His emotion and projection are quite incredible and there’s always a sense that you’re being taken into uncharted territory, however well you know the material. A good place to start for the uninitiated is the double CD Typical (1999) taken from concerts in 1992).




But where does solo begin and band end? Hammill wrote almost all the material for Van der Graaf Generator but there’s no way you could call VdGG the backing band. I think that the solo artist Hammill is the singer/songwriter performing material primarily sourced outside of VdGG, with or without accompaniment, and whether or not he’s alone with piano and guitar, or has someone like Stuart Gordon on violin helping out or even backed by the full K Group, he’s always interesting to listen to on record and compelling to watch live. Live at Rockpalast is worth buying just for the DVD.






By ProgBlog, Apr 17 2016 11:22PM

Yesterday was Record Store Day, the ninth year that it’s been running, an event to advertise your local record store, wherever you live in the world. Some of the comments I’ve seen on social media suggest that there are a lot of vinyl fans who don't subscribe and though I’m very much in favour of Jo(e) Public getting off their backside and going out into the high street to support the local record store, the concept smacks of the promotion of non-events like Halloween, mother’s day and father’s day and in any case, you should be patronising all the local shops in your area and make at least weekly visits to the local vinyl emporium. Croydon used to have a good selection of stores selling vinyl but now there are only two in the town centre that I can think of: HMV with its limited range of popular albums; and 101 Records which has a wide, varied but chaotic selection of second hand LPs and singles. Addiscombe, the bit of Croydon where I live, used to have two or three stores with Woolworth and Addiscombe Music Centre selling new records and The Vinyl Resting Place selling second hand records, books and memorabilia. The global economic crash saw the end of Woolworth (it became a Sainsbury’s Local); the tiny Addiscombe Music Centre was pulled down when trams returned to Croydon just before the current millennium; and the Vinyl Resting Place closed down after a series of unforeseen climatological events and the knock-on effects of global terrorism coupled with the inexorable rise of eBay. The owner Barbara Day told the Croydon Guardian: "I think record stores can still come back, maybe not in our lifetime, but we are hoping that people will get bored of the internet and go back to these shops.” She might be please to hear that a new record store has opened up in Addiscombe, DnR Vinyl, that I’ve yet to step inside – it specialises in UK garage classics, grime, dubstep and bassline – so there’s little chance of me picking up the new Höstsonaten album Symphony #1 Cupid and Psyche from there but I still hope that they are successful and that their appearance indicates an upturn in the fortunes of the local economy. It’s good to see new stores opening up in Addiscombe; it makes a change from charity shops and bookmakers. Though I walked right past Fopp in Shaftesbury Avenue yesterday, I didn’t go in. I was thinking about the economy, or more specifically an alternative economy as I was taking part in The People’s Assembly March for Heath, Houses, Jobs and Education from University College Hospital in Gower Street to a rally in Trafalgar Square. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave a short speech during which he outlined what an incoming Labour government would do regarding the NHS (no privatisation), housing (building council homes for fair rent, not for private sale), ensuring the survival of the UK steel industry by nationalisation, if necessary, and supporting overworked teachers. Quite rousing stuff! I also like the way he’s been listening to Yanis Varoufakis who has convinced McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn that remaining in the EU, bringing about the necessary changes from within, is better than Brexit. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of McDonnell but more so after he made some complimentary comments about a speech I gave at a rally in support of the NHS in 2012.


Back in Addiscombe, DnR is next to musical instrument shop Tuga Sounds, another recent addition to the local retail landscape. I popped into Tuga last year to enquire about a Washburn Taurus T14 bass because I’d seen they had a Washburn six string for sale and at the time I believed that I’d have more time to dedicate to music during my semi-retirement. I own a Hohner B2A, a headless, almost bodiless bass bought in 1987 when they were quite trendy but I saw reviews of the fantastic looking T14, T24 and T25 models and thought that adding to my guitar collection, rather than replacing the Hohner, was not an unreasonable thing to do. A lengthy discussion with the store owner made me doubt the wisdom of acquiring a 5 string bass, an instrument that is quite prevalent in progressive rock, because he said he always reached for his four string bass. I was thinking of going for the lighter (and cheaper T14) but I’m tempted to go for the T24...

Dedicating more time to playing, writing and recording music would have been justification to buy another bass and I have followed music long enough to have seen some of my guitar heroes collect and utilise a range of different guitars. The first player of multiple guitars I came across was Steve Howe with his collection displayed in the Fragile (1971) booklet. There are 14 guitars visible, plus a violin/viola, a banjo and something I can’t identify.


According to the man himself in an interview that appears in the current edition of Prog magazine, the collection is now of the order of 100 guitars. His use of different guitar styles, one of the defining features of Yes music, is reason enough to have this variety where he is able to choose the instrument most appropriate for the sound required in a particular piece. Brother Tony used to have a post-Bruford Yes poster that was displayed on our bedroom wall and Howe features with the guitar I most associate with his work, the Gibson ES 175 D, a feeling reinforced by the picture on the inner gatefold of The Yes Album (1971) where the instrument can also be seen and on the cover of his first solo album Beginnings (1975). It goes without saying that this doesn’t tell the whole story. On side two of Close to the Edge (1972) he also uses 12 string acoustic guitar and pedal steel guitar, bringing a full symphonic range to the guitar parts. I don’t know but it sounds to me as though his use of instruments on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) closely matches those used on Close to the Edge; Gates of Delirium from Relayer (1974) has a harsher sound and this is partly down to his use of a 1955 Fender Telecaster. I think that there are strong hints of jazz rock on that album so I’d also expect his ES 175 to feature, being more of a jazz instrument. We expect progressive rock keyboard players to use multiple instruments on one track but it’s more unusual to see a guitarist swap instruments. Howe’s live performances with Yes feature frequent changes within one song and he’s come up with some innovative ways to carry this off without dropping a note, most notably the guitar fixed to a stand that gets wheeled out for And You And I.


Using different effects pedals and studio multitracking allow different guitar parts to come through on record and listing all the equipment used by a band in the sleeve notes was integral to my appreciation for progressive rock. Howe doesn’t list the guitars used on Beginnings but does, by track, on The Steve Howe Album (1979.) Though some of the albums I own hint at a number of different guitars used, it seems that it’s only Howe who lists instruments by track, though Mike Oldfield does kind of list his guitars (and other instruments) though not by manufacturer or model, on Tubular Bells (1973) and Ommadawn (1975). This is in contrast to keyboard players who list their instruments in minutiae. Other players may have collections of instruments but I believe it’s Howe who best demonstrates the value of owning a number of guitars, for both studio work and live performance.








By ProgBlog, Apr 26 2015 09:27PM

There’s a fair amount of literature that refers to the second album by a group as the ‘sophomore’ effort. This is largely a result of American journalistic influence, the term coming from the American education system and, while any increase in the quantity of material relating to or simply discussing progressive rock is to be welcomed, I have a problem with sophomore and I’d like to register my disapproval of the term; I believe the word is an interloper.

There are many bands, especially those from the 70s progressivo Italiano scene, that only managed to release a single album but there can be a problem with a second release, in terms of critical appraisal by fans and professional music journalists, if the first album garners acclaim but the subsequent release doesn’t meet expectations. Though it’s good to diversify, in true progressive spirit, a conscious decision to avoid criticism of producing a ‘son of…’ it’s certainly not inappropriate to develop a style.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the problem occurs for both groups that developed during the late 60s and those that arrived on the scene with pre-formed expectations, like ELP. For most groups that evolved from acts that were in existence during the pre-progressive days of psychedelia and blues, Pink Floyd, The Nice, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, 'progressive' describes the process of becoming prog itself and this journey was informed by cultural, demographic and technological changes. In this way The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, though certainly not prog rock, caused something of a stir and managed to reach no.6 in the UK album charts; the next album, A Saucerful of Secrets might have made it to no.9 but the ousting of Syd Barrett disappointed fans, critics and the group’s management. It’s no surprise that Piper and Saucerful are stylistically disparate; the overriding impression of Piper is the Barrett-penned whimsy and not the instrumentals that formed the core of their live set. Saucerful simply moved the band in the direction of space-rock and I get a sense of music organised as architecture, something that I think was a defining idiom of their far better, progressive material in later years.

I prefer Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Time and a Word to The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack and Yes respectively where there’s evidence of maturity of song writing but I have a preference for Air Conditioning over Curved Air’s Second Album because Second Album merely rehashes the same formula as on their first release. It’s my opinion that the first, fully formed prog album is In the Court of the Crimson King and, because it was a genre-defining release, anything that followed was liable to disappoint. In the Wake of Poseidon is very much in the style of In the Court but that’s no great revelation because much of the material that would go on to comprise Poseidon had already been written and road-tested by the original band members; the structure of the tracks Pictures of a City and In the Wake of Poseidon closely resemble 21st Century Schizoid Man and In the Court of the Crimson King respectively. The example of Crimson reveals another factor that needs to be taken into account: the impact of personnel changes on the direction of a group. Whereas Yes replaced members one at a time (until the joint departure of Anderson and Wakeman between Tormato and Drama) which gave the impression of a group positively seeking direction in a controlled manner, the shifting personnel involved in the very early years of King Crimson appeared as seismic changes; that In the Court and Poseidon sound closely-related is also due to the retention of key players Greg Lake and Michael Giles as guest musicians. I would class Genesis as a band who developed their style in a manner similar to Yes, and despite replacing a guitarist and a drummer at the same time, their stylistic refinement followed a smooth path, reaching maturity with Foxtrot, their fourth release; Yes reached their pinnacle with their fifth album, Close to the Edge.

ELP arrived on the scene in 1970 as individuals from known, successful groups and produced a distinct and coherent first album that still rates as one of my favourite albums of all time. Tarkus, their second album contains more developed ideas, culminating in the side long suite that gives the record its name, but it lacks the overall balance of Emerson, Lake & Palmer with two decidedly non-prog compositions, Jeremy Bender and Are You Ready Eddy? The first supergroup, ELP had to hit the ground running or face the ignominy of artistic failure. I think their output, taken album by album up to and including Brain Salad Surgery is consistent but, within each of these records there is always some material that is below-par and unnecessary.

Mike Oldfield may have spent a number of years as a jobbing musician before stunning the world with Tubular Bells but his first solo effort was a game-changer, affecting him personally and also inadvertently helping to establish the fledgling Virgin empire. That he would release a second album was beyond doubt. Whether it could possibly be as original as Bells was a far more difficult question to answer. After selling my original vinyl copy of Tubular Bells (but later regretting it) and keeping my original Hergest Ridge LP, I’ve grown to believe that his second album is a much more satisfying effort. Of course there are similarities between the two compositions but Oldfield seems to have learned and remedied the deficiencies in Bells. Embracing the talents of his erstwhile band-mate David Bedford and expanding the instrumentation to provide a symphonic scope, Hergest Ridge conjures a sense of place, of open countryside and wilderness, something that a piece titled Tubular Bells could never do. I’ve come to this conclusion after 40 years, so perhaps it’s best not to dismiss any band’s second album as ‘more of the same’ or a ‘dramatic departure’. Both approaches, seeking a definitive style and radical departure can be equally valid as long as the goal is to further the music through increased proficiency or taking on new ideas.

On reflection, most second albums by exponents of progressive rock are of a similar standard to their first albums. There aren’t that many groups who stun the world with a brilliant debut and then go on to produce a stinker but there are plenty who follow the same formula with good results; Greenslade and Bedside Manners are Extra, Trace and Birds, Fruupp’s Future Legends and Seven Secrets. The downside to this approach became evident as the 70s moved on and prog lost favour with the media and the buying public; changes in style were dictated by the requirements of the music industry and not by the artists. One of the last great prog albums of the 70s was UK by UK; the second album which contained some good material was already showing signs of a more commercial appeal.

By ProgBlog, Apr 13 2015 03:58PM

During the halcyon days of progressive rock, when bands took time out to recharge their batteries and subsequently, when punk came along and the influence of prog artists waned, there was always an outlet for creative talent (enough to keep up the mortgage repayments) especially for keyboard players: film score work. Instrumental prog has cropped up in a variety of TV and film roles, from the exceptionally famous Tubular Bells overture in The Exorcist to Greenslade performing the soundtrack to the gritty, post-modern criminal gang drama Gangsters, set in multi-cultural Birmingham that began life as a BBC TV play in 1975 and was followed by two series in 1976 and 1978. A portion of Pink Floyd’s Echoes even featured in Jacob Bronowski’s seminal series The Ascent of Man in the early 70s.

The last film soundtrack I listened to was the live performance of Profondo Rosso as an accompaniment to the film at the Barbican in February. I have to admit that even though I enjoyed the entire event, I had just gone to see legendary progressivo Italiano band Goblin.

I’m not really much of a soundtrack person. The first examples I ever owned were Pink Floyd’s Cirrus Minor and The Nile Song which appeared on Relics, having originally come from the album Soundtrack from the film More (marking the directorial debut of Barbet Schroeder.) Whereas Cirrus Minor fits in with my idea of a Pink Floyd song, with its church organ tone and spacey effect-ridden organ that calls to mind the title track from A Saucerful of Secrets, the overtly heavy rock Nile Song, which had previously been released as a single in 1969, seems out of synch with the rest of the Floyd oeuvre. At the time, the only other Floyd albums I’d heard were Dark Side of the Moon and a rather confusing bootleg of Atom Heart Mother and, though I listened to and found Hawkwind’s Silver Machine and Black Sabbath’s Paranoid amusing, I didn’t actually attach any musical value to heavy rock. It’s stretching a point but another soundtrack piece from Relics is Careful with That Axe, Eugene, originally the B side of the single Point Me at the Sky; t was re-recorded as Come in Number 51, Your Time is Up and featured in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).

The Floyd also released Obscured by Clouds (1972), music from the film La Vallée (also directed by Barbet Schroeder) and though I’d heard Free Four on Alan Freeman’s Saturday Show and at least one of my friends in Infield Park owned the album, I thought that the material was rather lightweight, similar in nature to the material on the first side of Meddle and the second side of Atom Heart Mother and I was never motivated enough to buy a copy. Possibly the most interesting aspect of the album were the rounded corners of the original sleeve!

Apart from two Goblin albums, Profondo Rosso and Suspiria, I only own two soundtrack albums. The first of these is Rick Wakeman’s White Rock which I think is an admirable fit for the film of the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics and is much better than his two preceding studio releases because it is entirely instrumental. The second is a work by another Italian prog outfit, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. Wakeman’s first foray into film soundtracks, something that he has since disowned, was Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975) where Wakeman interpreted Liszt and Wagner. He would later provide soundtracks to more films: The Burning (1981); Crimes of Passion (1984), another collaboration with director Ken Russell and starring Kathleen Turner in which he used themes from Dvorak’s New World Symphony; and Phantom Power (1990), a remake of Phantom of the Opera.

More recently, during my efforts to acquire as much Italian prog as possible, I bought Garofano Rosso (Red Carnation) by Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. The film, directed by Luigi Faccini was based on the novel of the same name by Elio Vittorini, best known for his much admired Conversation in Sicily. Once again located in Sicily, the story deals with tentative youthful longings set within the charged political background of Italy of 1924. The hero is 18 year old Alessio Mainardi, who receives a red carnation from a girl named Giovanna which becomes a symbol of love, desire and a representation of the struggle for political freedom in opposition to Fascism. This sounds like my kind of film but I’ve yet to see it; Banco had a reputation for left-wing politics though for this soundtrack album the operatic vocals of Francesco Di Giacomo, a sound that defines Banco, are missing and the compositions are much shorter. It’s not possible for me to comment on the fit of the songs to the film but this is my least favourite of the early Banco albums, despite the outstanding musicianship. It’s as though the music never gets a chance to develop and consequently is unfulfilling.

I’d been a fan of director Alan Parker since Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express and though I’d been overlooked for the role of Pink in the film of The Wall (which I’m not counting as a soundtrack album), I dutifully went off to the West End to see Birdy (1984) which had a soundtrack by Peter Gabriel including adaptations of tracks from PG III (Melt) and IV (Security). The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by William Wharton, though the setting is changed from World War II to Vietnam; it stars Matthew Modine as Birdy and Nicholas Cage as his long-time friend Al.

It’s surprising that Keith Emerson stuck with writing movie scores after his experience on his second venture into the film business with Nighthawks (1981) after what he considered a massive, unnecessary strip-down of the music he had delivered; his first venture was a move into Goblin-territory, providing the music for Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980), which prompted some unfavourable comparisons with Goblin’s performance on Suspiria. Emerson would go on to perform some not-quite blockbusters Best Revenge (1985), Murder Rock (1986), China Free Fall (1987), Iron Man Vol.1 (2001), La Chiesa (2002) and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). Patrick Moraz was another of the 70s keyboard greats to provide music for films, beginning with Les Vieilles Lunes (1969), before he’d formed a rock band.

Shortly after I first heard Tangerine Dream I thought that their compositions would be suited to film music, not realising that they had provided soundtracks for films and TV shows that were later to be released via their own fan project, Tangerine Tree. They have now produced over 50 scores but not all of them have been officially released. The first that I was aware of was William Friedkin’s Hollywood action-adventure film Sorcerer (1977).

Vangelis is another prolific film score composer. Blade Runner has just been re-released (as The Final Cut) and it’s this score, along with Chariots of Fire (1981) that I find most memorable. Chariots of Fire features my friend Mark Franchetti as an extra in some running scenes, having to run slowly to let the stars of the film Ian Charleson and Ben Cross beat him. I turned down the chance to be an extra; I refused to get my hair cut...

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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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