End of a era
By ProgBlog, May 29 2018 06:10PM
One of my Record Store Day 2018 purchases, that is one of the limited editions specially produced for the occasion rather than one of the albums I happened to buy as I wandered through the stalls set out in Cremona’s Corso Campi on the day itself, was a 40th anniversary edition of UK by UK. My original vinyl pressing of this album is in perfectly good condition and I think it’s a well produced record but I was seduced by the promise of the booklet and intrigued by the idea of an Eddie Jobson re-mastering; I’ve not listened to the original LP for some time so I can’t be certain but I think the individual instruments are more discernible on the new release – it has a nice clarity.
Eight years on from the birth of progressive rock in the form of In the Court of the Crimson King, the genre was getting a little tired and large numbers of the record-buying public were getting tired of prog. Not helped by self-imposed exile from the UK for tax reasons but surely driven by creative burn-out to a great extent, the hiatus between studio albums meant that the three really big players in the field slipped out of the music paper headlines and created a void to be exploited and filled by the standard-bearers for Punk, claiming that the excesses of prog indicated how out-of-touch these bands were.
It wasn’t enough to simply release a ‘best of’ (though Yesterdays, released in 1975 was really my introduction to the first two Yes albums and something I still like.) Following the completion of the British leg of the Relayer tour in May 1975, bar an appearance at the Reading Festival in August that year, there wasn’t another UK appearance by the band until October 1977, though all five members of the group issued a solo album. ELP might be perceived as being the worst offenders, not playing on UK soil for 18 years after their 1st May 1974 show in Liverpool and though they performed in Europe and the USA later in 1974, they were absent from the stage between 21st August 1974 and 24th May 1977 with only a Christmas single (I Believe in Father Christmas, Greg Lake, 1975) and a near-novelty single (Honky Tonk Train Blues, Keith Emerson, 1976) to satisfy their fans. Pink Floyd seemed to have managed fans’ expectations quite well, despite the length of time taken between The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, then Wish You Were Here and Animals and the lack of live dates, especially in the UK. Between 14th December 1974 and the first Wall show in Los Angeles on February 7th 1980, they undertook a three month long North America tour and then played Knebworth in July 1975, toured Animals around Europe including the UK with dates in London and Stafford and North America between January and July 1977. Two of the members also produced solo albums, David Gilmour and Rick Wright’s Wet Dream.
For my part, I was less satisfied with ELP’s Works Volume 1 and Pink Floyd’s Animals than I had been with their preceding records; Yes’ Going for the One was a radical departure from Relayer but I thought it was still high quality, with Awaken high up in the list of all-time great prog tracks. In the case of the former and the latter, I wasn’t over-impressed with the keyboard tones from the Yamaha GX-1 and Polymoog respectively; Animals featured far less keyboards than Wish You Were Here so that I hesitate to call it progressive rock. By 1977, other acts like Camel, Caravan and Gentle Giant had stopped writing epics and both Caravan and Gentle Giant had begun to lose their appeal to core fans; Focus seemed to have disbanded, having released an uneven album of studio scraps the previous year; and Genesis may have released Seconds Out but this coincided with the departure of Steve Hackett. I thought that the future belonged to jazz rock and bought my first Isotope LP.
Looking back, 1978 started on an exceptionally good note with the release of Bill Bruford’s first LP as a band leader Feels Good to Me and the eponymous debut from National Health, both records being examples of jazz sensibilities mixed with prog leanings which resulted in complex, melodious albums. I think Feels Good to Me has a more experimental feel, thanks to Annette Peacock’s vocals and using flugelhorn in a (broadly) rock context; National Health is more intricate and, in the tradition of the band’s forerunner Hatfield and the North, didn’t take itself too seriously.
Then came UK.
Following the demise of the trio version of King Crimson in 1974 which took Robert Fripp away from music for a couple of years, Bill Bruford and John Wetton continued their musical education by rotating through a number of different bands. I thought Bruford’s involvement with Gong and National Health were interesting and it was definitely quite pleasing to find him sharing a drum stool with Phil Collins for Genesis’ Trick of the Tail tour, as he appeared to be helping out all the right bands. Wetton’s move to Roxy Music and then Uriah Heep impinged less on my consciousness; I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy and thought Uriah Heep’s music unadventurous. However, his touring arrangement with Roxy started before King Crimson officially ceased to exist . It was meant to be a temporary measure before Crimson was due to recommence touring, and served to introduce him to Eddie Jobson. The proposed 1977 collaboration between Wetton, Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing but its failure to get off the ground ultimately resulted in the formation of what was hailed as a ‘supergroup’: UK. Their eponymous debut is a slick progressive rock album with jazz rock styling thanks to Bruford and Holdsworth but the modern sound, courtesy of Jobson, made it seem quite different from long-standing progressive acts and newer groups from that time, like symphonic prog band England; the three-part In the Dead of Night is an indisputable prog classic though it’s only now that I’ve got the 40th anniversary edition, complete with lyrics, that I can distinguish the words. The song writing was mature, involving all the group members, leading to a truly coherent effort where equal weight was afforded to each individual and it’s my belief that this equality, the fluid guitar lines from Holdsworth, the power and precision of the rhythm section along with Jobson’s virtuosity on keyboards and violin, adding a contemporary feel but with a past tied to the early progressive era, that made the record stand out as something with significance for the whole genre, like a new In the Court of the Crimson King.
Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses was also released in April 1978 and I really like this second offering in the prog-folk trio of albums, with an enhanced palette thanks to the guest violin of Darryl Way, though there was a distinct sense of continuity from Songs from the Wood rather than being something that stood out as unique. My copy of the LP, bought in Barrow, was a swap for King Crimson’s Earthbound which I had just bought but thought was disappointing. Thanks to the staff in Blackshaw’s for sanctioning the exchange.
Steve Hackett released his second solo album Please Don’t Touch which was quite different to 1975’s Voyage of the Acolyte, an album I rate higher than any post-Gabriel Genesis. I found it a bit of a mixed bunch and it’s that lack of consistency that marks it down – it’s not really UK progressive rock. Meanwhile, Hackett’s erstwhile bandmates released the decidedly thin end of the wedge ...And then there were Three... I first got a copy of Please Don’t Touch on cassette in 1981 or 1982 so I could also compare it to the excellent Spectral Mornings (1979); And then there were Three was acquired by a friend shortly after its release and I gave it a couple of listens before giving it the thumbs down. The seeds sown by the second-rate Your Own Special Way in 1976 were bearing a bitter fruit – Genesis could no longer be classed as a progressive rock band. Hackett’s other former colleague Peter Gabriel released the second of his self-titled albums which I don’t think can be called prog, either, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Rather, it was an example of what we might today call post-rock, very much a successor of the first Gabriel solo album. If prog was to wither away, this would provide a reasonable alternative; the highlight has to be Exposure.
Van der Graaf Generator shed an organist, a saxophonist and the ‘Generator’ for 1977’s The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome, becoming more urgent sounding and, despite the excellent lyrics, more basic; it could even have been classed as prog-punk for sheer attitude. Bolstered with an appearance from David Jackson and with Charles Dickie on cello and synth, the group bade farewell (until the 2005 reunion) with a live album Vital. My brother went to see them in Leeds during that tour but it wasn’t until the reformation that I could really appreciate the intensity of the group. When I first saw Hammill performing solo in 1984 it was full-on but in a band context, it was off the scale.
Camel managed to keep one foot firmly in the prog idiom with Echoes and The Sleeper from their ’78 album Breathless but however good the melodies on the other tracks and the bright production, the relative brevity of most tunes makes it seem almost pop-prog descending into funk on Summer Lightning and outright silliness on Down on the Farm. This was another album bought by a friend at the time of its release but I don’t remember listening to it very often; I think we anticipated Peter Bardens’ departure because there appeared to be a tension between chief song-writers Bardens and Latimer, fuelled by an interfering record label, as they moved away from the early, classic Camel sound.
The cracks had not yet appeared in Yes but the cover of Tormato was a hint that all was not well. I bought the album on the day of its release, shortly before heading off to university armed with what I would discover was the best hi-fi in my hall of residence. I also managed to get to see them for the first time that October, in the round at Wembley Arena on the Tormato tour. The album contains some great ideas but the heavy-handed production detracts from the quality of the writing and the lack of a over-arching concept makes it appear devoid of a distinct identity. Taken on its own it doesn’t indicate the end of the golden era of progressive rock but it did suggest that Yes needed to rethink their future plans. The end of progressive rock was most starkly illustrated by Emerson Lake and Palmer with Love Beach. If the image on Tormato was a poor excuse for an album sleeve, the band photo on Love Beach was the antithesis of prog and that, more than anything else, meant I avoided the album until last year, and I only bought it then because it was cheap and I was filling a gap in my record collection. Even taking the best moments of Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman into account, it’s a really poor affair, succinctly exposing the true meaning of ‘contractual obligation’.
1978 ended with another National Health album, with a subtly different line-up to the debut but equally as good and, if anything, even more adventurous: Of Queues and Cures. National Health may get lumped in with the rest of prog but though the music conformed to many of the prog traits, the ease with which a substantial number of the musicians fitted into the British jazz and avant-garde scenes made them stand apart. Prog had withered without anyone to grasp the possibilities revealed by UK, whose 1979 follow-up Danger Money was a bit schizophrenic; reduced to a trio the material was a mixture of first-class retro-prog and verse-chorus-verse-chorus FM-friendly tunes played by progressive rock musicians.
The golden era of progressive rock was over.