From the Beginning
By ProgBlog, Mar 17 2014 10:55PM
One Saturday morning in September 1972 I accompanied my brother into Barrow town centre, and though this was not uncommon in itself, it was in fact the beginning of an obsession with progressive rock that continues to this day.
Tony is nearly three years older than me. I wasn’t entirely sure what music he had been listening to, though the only interesting act that I’d seen on Top of the Pops, the British staple music TV show, was Roxy Music performing Virginia Plain, released in August 1972. At the time, most of the music floating around our house was jazz. Our father was a keen fan, and though his preference was for swing and big bands, the radio provided sufficient variation to give us an appreciation of the different styles.
We went into Kelly’s, an odd shop which sold vacuum cleaners and washing machines downstairs but on the first floor, accessed by a narrow wooden staircase was a display of a small number of musical instruments and amplification and the record department. Tony asked if we could listen to a rather interesting looking album, Close to the Edge by Yes. We were allowed to take the gatefold sleeve into the listening booth, with its dearth of information; six photographs and the names of the band members and the instruments they played. We were both intrigued by the waterscape depicted inside the open sleeve, but nothing prepared me for the amazing music that came out of the speakers. This was rock of symphonic proportions: A single piece of music divided into four distinct sections with thematic continuity and reprise; it was quite evident that the musicians were extremely able, if not virtuoso; the musical production was faultless, with all the instruments and Jon Anderson’s vocals crisp and distinct; and the album packaging was exceptionally well crafted. Alan Farley writing in 2004 conveyed exactly how I had felt holding the album sleeve and listening to the album for the first time, “[CTTE] is a monumental and stunningly brilliant album. ...Particularly in the large format of the old vinyl records, opening the vivid green gatefold cover was like entering another world. In my view the title track ranks as one of the most significant pieces of music ever recorded...” and Bill Martin neatly summarises Close to the Edge as “perfection.”
One of the striking differences between CTTE and most other music around at the time was the lack of a feeling of “maleness.” That’s not to say the music was not flimsy or feeble, because Chris Squire’s opening bass lines are forceful and punchy, riding high in the mix. Even without analysing the lyrics (we didn’t have the lyric sheet in the listening booth) it was obvious there were no overt references to sex and that this was not run-of-the-mill rebellious rock ‘n’ roll. In 1972 I was not aware that CTTE conformed to the form of a sonata but it was obvious to even my untutored ears that this piece of music was different from everything else I had ever heard and that it was really special. At the time I was also unaware that this was an example of progressive rock, but it marked the start of a lifelong journey of musical exploration, and Close to the Edge remains my favourite album of all time. I genuinely felt that I had connected with the vanguard of a musical movement and not only did I need to spread the word, I had to find other music that moved and challenged me in a similar way.
So, what next? An obvious choice was to listen to the back catalogue of Yes, and Tony received Fragile for Christmas that year. School friends who had moved beyond pop or straightforward rock introduced new directions and this helped us discover The Nice. Record stores became a regular haunt. There were two established shops in Barrow, Kelly’s and Wells, but the move away from the single towards the LP format encouraged other shops to give up space for album racks: Boots the chemist, Woolworth and even Blackshaws, a local hardware shop better known for selling nuts and bolts and lawnmowers, converted around 100m2 of the upper floor to a record department with hastily fabricated chipboard racks. Earthquake Records was established in November 1976 by an ex-Barrow student who ended his academic career when he failed to find funding for a PhD. The store was fairly rough and ready, but was housed in the Civic Hall complex next to Barrow’s indoor market. For the princely sum of 5p you could join the Earthquake Music Club. I still have my handwritten note, “Congratulations punk, you have paid your 5 pence. You are now in the club.” I can’t actually remember what this entitled you to, unless it was for the coach trips to a variety of northern cities for live gigs. I went to see Peter Gabriel on his first solo tour in Liverpool (with Robert Fripp as Dusty Rhodes on guitar) and Genesis doing their Wind and Wuthering tour in Manchester. Earthquake closed down in 1983.
Album sleeves sometimes indicated a potentially interesting band. Based on the cover of CTTE which enclosed a real gem, anything that looked as though it could be interesting was scoured for possible clues to the direction of the music. The logic behind this “interesting sleeve – interesting music” hypothesis was that we believed that progressive bands were interested in presenting their work as a total concept: the music; the package; the live stage show. Assuming that each of these elements was given equal weight by the band, a “good” sleeve (or to put it less subjectively, a professionally presented album cover) suggested to us that if the band cared about the presentation of the outer package, they cared for the music inside.
This strategy didn’t always work. For instance, One Live Badger, the first album from ex-Yes organist Tony Kaye released in 1973 had a really stunning Roger Dean sleeve that included a pop-up Badger in the early pressings. Badger bassist David Foster was a former member of the Warriors (along with Jon Anderson) and contributor on the second Yes album Time and a Word, but the music didn’t challenge and the lyrical content tended towards the religious, rather than the spiritual. Equally, there were favoured bands that had awful album covers, such as Gentle Giant’s 1971 offering Acquiring the Taste.
We looked for the instrumentation of bands that we’d not heard. Multiple keyboards were regarded as a definite requirement, but unusual instruments were also considered acceptable because we were interested in bands with a wide sonic palette. Song titles sometimes gave a hint what had inspired the artists: Bo Hansson had brought out Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings but his next release Magician’s Hat included Elidor and Findhorn’s Song, suggesting that not only did he like Tolkien, but he also read Alan Garner. Hansson would subsequently release Attic Thoughts (which included the two part track Rabbit Music) and Music Inspired by Watership Down. This had a positive effect on me because it seemed as though we shared some connection or a common bond, simply by virtue of the fact that we were reading the same authors.