Reading the label
By ProgBlog, Jun 5 2016 09:39PM
It wasn’t until I began to examine the causes of the demise of the first wave of progressive rock, in association with reading the essays written by Robert Fripp and printed in the sleeve notes of DGM releases at the commencement of the third wave of prog, that I really paid any attention to the record label. Part of this was due to the relatively wide range of record companies that oversaw the releases by the relatively narrow range of bands that I listened to and certainly during the early 70s it seemed that record companies, riding the lucrative wave of the 33rpm vinyl album, were content to let their charges do almost whatever they wanted as long as the coffers continued to be filled and furthermore, taking on a new act that wasn’t quite so successful wasn’t so much of a risk when there were some big acts in the stable who were guaranteed to produce hit albums.
At the time I think I was more interested in the graphic used to represent the record label, proudly applied to the centre of the disc that might give some more information about the music; the green, red/orange and white of Atlantic on my Yes albums that gave way to Roger Dean’s cover artwork on Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) and Relayer (1974); the green lava-lamp blob, another Roger Dean design, representing the EMI progressive subsidiary Harvest on my copies of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), A Nice Pair (1974) and Triumvirat’s Spartacus (1975), though the Floyd’s association with Hipgnosis and their approach to design resulted in Dark Side of the Moon (1973) boasting the iconic (triangle) prism; Wish You Were Here (1975) has a George Hardie robotic handshake and Animals (1977) has a fish eye lens dog on side one and sheep on side two. Roger Dean was evidently in demand by the progressive record labels because he also designed the replacement for the Vertigo swirl, with the UFO-like spacecraft and illustrated the first Virgin Records label, originally in black and white, and the closely related image, without the lizard, for the budget Virgin stable mate Caroline. My only copies Vertigo albums on vinyl are Octopus (1972) by Gentle Giant and the eponymous debut by Trace (1974), both of which feature the spaceships and all my albums on Virgin had a coloured logo which, by the time of Ommadawn (1975) had shed the lizard and was simply a stylised photo of the mirror girl.
I quite quickly recognised that there was one record company that appeared to have a monopoly on jazz-rock fusion, with CBS being home to The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever but it wasn’t until I discovered the link back to Miles Davis that I understood why. When I picked up Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows (from 1976) on tape in the early 80s I wondered if there was a jazz rock thing going on with Gull Records because Isotope were also on Gull; I had all three of the Isotope studio releases but never realised that it was a label associated with Morgan studios because Isotope (1974), Illusion (1974) and Deep End (1975) were recorded at Advision, Rockfield and Trident respectively.
The only label that came anywhere close to indicating that their bands were all worth listening to was Charisma. After the demise of Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label in 1970, The Nice released Five Bridges (1970) and the posthumous Elegy (1971) on Charisma. My second hand copy of Elegy has the original ‘scroll’ logo and my Five Bridges, bought new, has a bold block Charisma on a blue background surmounted by a small Mad Hatter. Almost everything else I have on the label on vinyl features the John Tenniel Hatter: Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill solo material, Refugee, Bo Hansson, Steve Hackett, Brand X; even my re-released English version of Le Orme’s Felona and Sorona, distributed by BTF in Italy, has the famous Mad Hatter image. The exceptions include Peter Gabriel Plays Live (1983) where there’s a small cover photo image of Gabriel in black and white, and sides two and four of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) which feature the shattering glass photos from the Hipgnosis cover without any text. The Charisma roster was hand-picked by founder Tony Stratton-Smith and, without the corporate restrictions of the majors, featured a good range of like-minded artists; not that I was ever tempted to buy anything by Clifford T Ward. Almost all the major labels all had an imprint that championed alternative or progressive rock. EMI had Harvest; Philips/Phonogram had Vertigo; Decca had Deram (with Camel, Caravan and the Moody Blues on their books until the Moodies set up their own label and shops, Threshold); Pye had Dawn, home to Northern Ireland’s only progressive rock band Fruupp. RCA also had a short-lived specialist label, Neon, only ever releasing 11 albums, all in 1971 but which included the only, self-titled album by Tonton Macoute (very much on the jazzier side of prog), the Mellotron-heavy self-titled album by Spring and the proto-prog of Indian Summer with their eponymous album.
One of the first labels I came across was Manticore, set up by Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973 which wasn’t too long after I first started to listen to prog, conceived as a vehicle for not just their own music but also for acts that interested the trio but which were finding it difficult to get music released. Manticore brought Italian prog giants Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and Banco to UK and US consciousness and followed in the footsteps of the Moody Blues and Threshold Records, a sub-division of their old label Decca, formed in 1969 following the release of On the Threshold of a Dream. Manticore, named after the chimeric creature that appears on the sleeve of Tarkus pre-dated Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records by a year.
Gentle Giant switched record companies from Vertigo to the Black Sabbath label World Wide Artists before the release of In a Glass House but WWA folded following financial difficulties some time after the release of The Power and the Glory in 1974 and their next effort, Free Hand (1975) was released on Chrysalis. This deal came about after Gentle Giant toured in the US supporting Jethro Tull, Tull having been the reason for the formation of the label by Chris Wright and Terry Ellis when they couldn’t get a record deal in the late 60s. Another label independent of the majors, apart from overseas distribution deals, Chrysalis may have been a pun based on the founders’ names but the imagery, the stage prior to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, captured the zeitgeist. Procol Harum were another prog band that released records on Chrysalis.
King Crimson were signed to EG music but their 60s and 70s material was released via distributors (independent) Island Records and Polydor, a UK subsidiary of Germany’s Polyphon-Musikwerke that was founded in 1913. The 80s incarnation of Crimson released three albums on EG and there were a number of other releases, called Editions EG, including albums by Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Brian Eno and Quiet Sun. EG ended up being distributed by Virgin who were then sold to EMI but in the mean time Fripp, who had been in a long-term dispute with EG, formed Discipline Global Mobile to release King Crimson and related material. From the outset DGM set out to provide an alternative business model to the majors which Fripp described as unethical and founded on exploitation. The main principle of DGM was to allow the artists to retain copyright of their material which meant that none of the DGM artists would have to go through the same process that Fripp had done with EG.
It would appear that the industry has changed. There may be only three majors now, after takeovers and mergers and there still might be multi-million dollar contracts, but the progressive rock community has witnessed to some innovative ways to release records, from the crowd-funded financing of Marillion to the founding of a progressive rock-specific label, Kscope, with the stated aim to be artistically focused and sympathetic to adventurous and explorative music. I always thought it was worth reading the label...