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Is there rivaly between progressive rock bands or is the genre like an extended happy family?

ProgBlog investigates...

By ProgBlog, Oct 7 2018 11:44AM

The three days between Gryphon at the Union Chapel and the original reason for my brother Richard’s visit, Camel at the Royal Albert Hall, included trips to Wanted Music in Beckenham where I bought the eponymous debut LP from Gryphon and Cured by Steve Hackett, something I’d only ever owned on cassette, a bargain from the long gone Woolworths in Tooting and long gone itself, and a trek out into leafy Surrey for the W&W Vinyl Records and CD Fair in Ashtead, held in the Ashtead Peace Memorial Hall. This trip was quite successful as I’d identified a number of omissions from my vinyl collection and managed to tick off two of them; Camel’s Rain Dances and Romantic Warrior by Return to Forever, then added to my record count with Live at the Fillmore (November - December 1969) an unofficial King Crimson 2x LP that duplicates material that can be found on the Epitaph CD box set, and The Orchestral Tubular Bells, bought because I’d enjoyed the David Bedford at 80 concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall earlier this year. This was a good-sized record fair; not too big to be intimidating, yet big enough to be able to spend over an hour sifting through containers and to pick up some good-quality progressive rock at bargain prices.



Also squeezed in between these LP buying sprees were a necessary trip to my optician and a cultural event, the London Design Biennale at Somerset House. My optician was based in St George’s Walk, a pedestrianised, semi-covered parade of shops incorporated into a 1960’s office and retail development that included the 79m tall St George’s House (architect Ronald Ward and partners, completed 1964), home to the headquarters of Nestlé UK until 2012 and potent symbol of the combined effects of a broken planning system and austerity politics. Other shops of note, pre-dating the short-term lets that proliferated once the area had been earmarked for redevelopment included Croydon’s only dedicated ski shop, Captain’s Cabin, and Cloake’s Record store which migrated from inside St George’s Walk to the High Street frontage of the arcade sometime after 1969; I only discovered the shop in the late 80s, possibly around the same time as signing up with Young’s opticians, watching the vinyl get replaced by CDs and DVDs. That was where I bought the Caravan CD Live at the Fairfield Halls, 1974 – Fairfield Halls (architect Robert Atkins and partners, 1962) is opposite the northern end of St George’s Walk. Plans for redevelopment were originally submitted long before Nestlé departed but a Chinese-led consortium, who bought the buildings in 2017, gave a month’s notice to the tenants in August indicating that they were about to commence work. My optician was the last of the businesses to leave so I stopped by to pick up supplies of contact lenses and solutions and took some photos to document the area before the parade was demolished.



In contrast to the rather sombre atmosphere of shuttered units in Croydon, the Design Biennale was based around the theme of ‘emotional states’ and was interpreted in a variety of optimistic ways by artists from participating countries. Less difficult and less provocative than the Venice Biennale, it was a very enjoyable way to spend a few hours before the main event of the extended weekend, the Camel gig.



The last time Camel played the Royal Albert Hall was when they performed (and recorded) The Snow Goose with the London Symphony Orchestra on October 17th 1975; the last time I saw them was at the Barbican Hall, performing a re-worked Snow Goose in its entirety on October 28th 2013. Though this tour was the first ever to include all of Moonmadness, it didn’t represent any special anniversary that I was aware of but it was nevertheless greeted with heartfelt appreciation by all their fans; in my opinion Moonmadness is a contender for the best album of 1976.

The last release by the original line-up, Moonmadness was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the notion that each of the main tracks was a musical representation of the traits of the band members: Chord Change was keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night was bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born was guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea was drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes arose from a feeling that the farmhouse where Bardens and Latimer were writing the material was haunted, as strange things happened, especially at full moon. References to the moon appear throughout the album, from the track title Lunar Sea, lyrics on Another Night, and the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

Though I don’t think it can be called a forgotten classic, it does seem that in the panoply of progressive rock that Moonmadness has been overlooked. All the preceding Camel albums contained material of a uniformly high standard though of all their releases, Snow Goose stands out as a remarkable work that never dips in quality. However, Moonmadness has not just exemplary song-based music but also has a very satisfactory balance where neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant; the two lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. Lunar Sea, with its odd meter and alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, and where the solid, unflashy Doug Ferguson positively bubbles, remains one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time.




Aristillus was a recorded introduction, at the end of which Latimer, Colin Bass, Denis Clement and new recruit Pete Jones (the gifted mastermind behind Tiger Moth Tales) took to the unadorned stage to enthusiastic applause. Thinking back, this was the first time I’d ever seen the band as a quartet: for the 1979 I Can See Your House from Here tour there were two keyboard players; on the 1982 Single Factor tour they expanded to a sextet with two keyboard players and a second guitarist, Andy Dalby; they reverted to a quintet for the Stationary Traveller tour in 1984; and when I last saw them in 2013 they were a quintet with two keyboard players. This year’s four piece pulled off a magnificent performance of the full Moonmadness album, with Jones faithfully recreating Peter Barden’s keyboard lines and tones, delivered in album running order with minimal interaction with a spellbound, appreciative audience. Only Another Night was noticeably different from the original recording but it was good to have another vocalist in the line-up, with Latimer struggling to reach his former standard, modified as it was by effects and kept fairly low in the mix on their albums, and Bass faring only a little better, but these two were effective enough singing three-part harmony alongside Jones’ much stronger voice. I had thought that for the London show, the last performance of the tour, we might have seen a guest appearance from Mel Collins before King Crimson commence their UK dates. Sadly we didn’t, but Jones added saxophone, reprising a little of the role Collins played in Camel during the mid 70s.



It seemed pretty strange to have an interval after only 40 minutes of music but this provided an opportunity to invest in some merchandise. There were some bargains to be had, notably Dust and Dreams and Rajaz CDs for £10 each (I’d been encouraged to get these when I met up with my old school friend Bill Burford in August) but there were no tour programmes and T-shirts were selling for £30. The second set kicked off with the excellent Unevensong from Rain Dances (1977), pretty much the same vintage as Moonmadness and continued with the brilliant Hymn to Her from 1979’s I Can See Your House from Here, both of which were faithful to the respective studio versions and consequently really enjoyable. I thought the remainder of the set was a mixed bag; Ice, humorously introduced by Jones with a tale of the track being his audition piece, is an undisputed Camel classic (though I think Hymn to Her might be the best track on I Can See Your House) and Coming of Age is something like a reprise of all the best themes from Harbour of Tears (1996), but the Dust and Dreams (1991) tracks End of the Line, Mother Road and Hopeless Anger, and to a slightly lesser extent the title track from Rajaz (1999), came across as more straightforward rock, lacking any form of progressive edge. Rajaz included a lengthy, crowd-pleasing saxophone solo from Jones which added a welcome new texture to the band’s sound but I didn’t think it was terribly dynamic. The final number of the set, Long Goodbyes (from Stationary Traveller, 1984) was largely forgettable rather than an inspired conclusion so it was fortunate they played Lady Fantasy as an encore.



While I appreciate that the band might like to air material from a full range of albums because playing only 70s songs only tells a small portion of their story, I can’t believe that I’m the only one to have missed Rhayader and Rhayader Goes to Town or even anything from the first album. It may be that I’m hard to please; I was disappointed with the inclusion of two tracks from A Nod and a Wink on the last tour in 2013 when everything else was superb. I am well aware that they don’t devise a set list just for me.

I had a couple of other gripes, too, beyond the control of the band. The house lights remained on throughout the first half, illuminating the crowd and detracting from the sense of occasion, and the resurfacing of an old grumble; the sound in parts of the auditorium is quite poor. I originally disliked the venue because I’d experienced it from the gods and the upper gallery but a string of performances witnessed from the arena floor, the rising tier and the ground level seating won me over. However, for the Steven Wilson Hand.Cannot.Erase tour my seat was in-line with the front of the stage and I was surprised that the sound was rather muddy; for the Camel show I was seated in the arc that extends behind the line of the stage, behind the speakers suspended above the stage.



Overall, I enjoyed the show. Camel never quite managed the commercial success enjoyed by some of their contemporaries that their music deserved, possibly because they were relative latecomers to the genre, and though industry changes affected them more than the big names, they continued to ply hyper-melodic rock and occasionally, before their activity was curtailed by Latimer’s illness, managed to recreate some progressive gems. It’s great that they’re back.







By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2016 03:34PM

April 1976. Forty years ago. This was late summer-early autumn in the progressive rock golden era timeline though none of us knew it at the time; it was also in the middle of the major player hiatus and consequently there were only three significant releases that month which, on reflection, may have been an indication of change in the musical landscape. During this period I had limited cash for buying albums, though my part-time job delivering the Cancer and Polio Research Fund News Letter to households around the Infield and Hawcoat wards of Barrow could sometimes result in a substantial tip if the recipient won a respectable sum on one of the bingo cards that were sold with the newsletter. Back then I was still catching up with previous releases by a range of prog bands and it wasn’t until a few years later that I acquired the cream of the April 1976 crop: Moonmadness by Camel, Interview by Gentle Giant and Still Life by Van der Graaf Generator.

There isn’t too much common ground between the three albums with Camel’s efforts moving from symphonic prog towards a jazz-tinged melodic prog, Gentle Giant providing their usual eclectic mix of styles, albeit with a distinct rockier feel than some of their earlier work that equates to an increased degree of accessibility, and Van der Graaf Generator’s second release from the stabilised second generation four piece which I believe represents the creative pinnacle of their career, more composed (in both senses of the word) than the albums of the 70 – 72 incarnation and Godbluff (1975) with some of Hammill’s best lyrics and exploration of philosophy.


Moonmadness hardly needs any introduction. The last release by the original line-up, this was a deliberate move by the band to create something other than ‘son of Snow Goose’, and the result was an album loosely held together with the concept that each of the main tracks represented a member of the band: Chord Change is keyboard player Pete Bardens; Another Night is bassist Doug Ferguson; Air Born is guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is drummer Andy Ward. The album title comes from a pun on Lunar Sea and there are other references to the moon throughout the album, from lyrics on Another Night to the title of the concise opening track Aristillus, a prominent impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium. This song features Andy Ward reciting ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’ (a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus.)

All the preceding Camel albums contained songs of a uniformly high standard and Snow Goose stands out as a major composition that never dips in quality. The band was finding its feet with the eponymous debut and got more confident, and heavier, with Mirage (1974). Moonmadness returns to the song format but the quality has notched up a level and though on balance I probably prefer Snow Goose, its successor rates very highly with Lunar Sea remaining one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. Though most evident on Lunar Sea which features alternating lead guitar and keyboard lines, the entire album has a very satisfactory balance and neither Bardens nor Latimer comes out as particularly dominant, with the lead musicians giving each other ample space to conjure those beautiful, melodic lines. The rhythm section also performs admirably; I’ve always been a fan of Andy Ward’s drumming but Doug Ferguson, if we had to choose the weakest contributor, provides really solid bass throughout and positively bubbles on Lunar Sea.

Interview could almost act as a statement of Gentle Giant’s career up to that point. The subject matter concerns some well-trodden Giant subject material, concerning aspects of the music business, with another look at a roadie’s perspective but there was supposed to be a concept behind the whole project, the crassness of the interview process to publicise the output of a band. There are clips of an imaginary interview: “how would you describe your music?” Unfortunately the concept falls a little flat, without any real conviction and the interviewer is Phil Sutcliffe, one of the only journalists to genuinely appreciate the band.

Musically, the title track which opens the album continues from where 1975’s Free Hand left off. It’s clever, rocky and accessible, a style that continues on the original LP side 2 opener Another Show. Empty City is more gentle and reflective but it’s only in the first half of final track I Lost My Head, that the band show off their acoustic, medieval chops, then conclude with a muscular, rocking section that is also featured on the live set Playing the Fool (1977); I think this is probably the most satisfactory track on the album. The one departure from the previous Giant musical direction comes in the form of the proto reggae of Give it Back which reminds me of Dreadlock Holiday, the most memorable single from 10cc’s Bloody Tourists (1978.) Though there are a number of parallels with Free Hand, the production on Interview allows a good deal of space between the instruments that almost adds a feeling of sparseness. Gentle Giant remain one of the only progressive rock bands I never got to see, even outside of the golden era but at least their music seems to have reached a wider audience than that attained during the 70s.


When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.
When I bought Still Life I had the choice between that and Godbluff, both in the bargain bin of the Streatham branch of that well known purveyor of vinyl, WH Smith. I plumped for Still Life because I preferred the cover and I could see Hammill’s lyrics. I might have been swayed by the two-track per side format of Godbluff but without the song words and with what I thought was a less attractive title, I saved Godbluff for another day.

There’s a sort of roughness to the production of the early 70s VdGG albums, with the surprise possible exception of H to He, which suits the music. Godbluff is also fairly raw in contrast to Still Life which comes across as though the band have spent as much time as they needed to produce the record. It sounds well rehearsed and controlled so that even when the band lets rip it almost feels as though they’ve got something in reserve. Not that Still Life could truly be described as polished in the sense of being over-produced; the anthemic Pilgrims and the full-on La Rossa were written during the Godbluff sessions so that in effect the band only required three pieces to complete the album, arriving at the hymn-like title track, the relatively calm My Room (Waiting for Wonderland) where the lyrics really grabbed me: “Searching for diamonds in a sulphur mine...” and the deep, epically structured Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End. The band employed some simple and effective devices during the recording with the aim of stirring the listeners’ emotions, including delaying the introduction of the drums (and horns) on the track Still Life and using single-track vocals on My Room, where there’s also some fine bass work from Banton. The cover photo by Paul Brierley adds to the impression that considerable thought went into the making of the album. A chance find in a magazine, the image is of electrical discharge from a Van der Graaf generator though I’ve always felt that it had the appearance of mineralisation or a treated photograph of a fossil fern, a reference to still life. The Paul Whitehead sleeves may have been iconic but Still Life is class. It’s not an easy album to listen to, coming across more of an aural assault and I still don’t think my brother Tony gets it, even though he was the one that got me into progressive rock in the first place. I think it’s a brilliant work, one of the best pieces of music to emerge from the whole of 1976 and probably the most adventurous; Van der Graaf Generator didn’t really know how to play safe!






By ProgBlog, Aug 5 2015 09:10PM

The skies over Croydon last Friday night (31/7/15) were cloud-free and, despite the light pollution from the streets, the ‘blue moon’ was really clear. I’m something of a fan of astronomy and as a youth members of the Infield Park Gang (IPG) would venture off to watch meteor showers from the vantage point of a local school playground, lying down so that the town’s sodium streetlights were obscured by the surrounding trees, or heading off to the ruins of nearby Furness Abbey, nestled in the Vale of the Deadly Nightshade where the night skies were so dark it could be quite hazardous walking up Manor Road in the direction of Yarlside; we used to frequent The New Commercial in Newton (now The Village Inn) at the top end of the derelict iron ore mine workings, a free house where the beer was excellent and the juke box contained a reasonable selection of prog and prog-lite, possibly where I first heard Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush.

The term ‘blue moon’ is a bit of a misnomer and a bit confusing. The moon reflects the sun and appears yellow-white as normal but the name, which had been documented well over 100 years before the popular definition ascribed by amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett in 1946 was simplified to indicate the second full moon in a calendar month. The lunar cycle of 29.5 days means that Pruett’s blue moons occur seven times every 19 years; the original name derives from the Native American Algonquin, who gave names to all full moons throughout the year and introduced the Blue Moon, the fourth full moon in a single season, as a way of maintaining their lunar-calendar month alignment. So is an event described as ‘once in a blue moon’ rare? With an occurrence of once every 2.7 years they are certainly infrequent...

The moon is highly symbolic with multiple meanings and interpretations, primarily based on observations of its regular cycle; the brightness of the full moon waning to complete darkness at the new moon and waxing again to the full moon. At a very basic level the constant regular appearance, growth and subsequent disappearance can be interpreted as a symbol of life, death and rebirth. The reflectivity of the moon – the albedo (as in Albedo 0.39 by Vangelis, the reflectivity of the earth in 1976 when the album was released) – averages at 0.12 due to the changes of brightness linked to different lunar phases and gives rise to the notion of the moon as a mirror that reflects the mystery and fear within our souls.

The common association of the moon with femininity comes about because lunar cycles were thought to mirror the life of a woman, a representative of the Triple Goddess; her three incarnations of maiden, mother, and crone were matched with the lunar phases of new, full, and old so that the complete triad of goddesses is symbolised in the changing face of the moon. Another reason that the changing moon is particularly associated with women is because the regular lunar cycle closely matches the menstrual cycle. The English word month is derived from the Anglo-Saxon monath, from mona, the moon; menses is from the Latin mensis, meaning month. This once more brings to mind Kate Bush who not only injected literacy into the pop world but featured a song about menstruation, Strange Phenomena, on her debut album The Kick Inside (1978). The space rock of early Gong, most notably Camembert Electrique (1971) which features the so-called space whisper of Gilli Smyth strikes me as feminine, if we’re allowed to attach gender to music, an opinion possibly influenced by the inclusion of the track Selene - the Greek goddess of the moon; also, the influence of Gong on Steve Hillage, even after he’d left the band in December 1975 along with girlfriend Miquette Giraudy, may have been partially responsible for Lunar Musick Suite (from L, 1976.)

With the plethora of possible interpretations, the moon makes a number of appearances in the prog canon, from the straightforward interpretation of the moon landings on Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983), a documentary film that was originally shown without narration, simply featuring footage of the Apollo space missions with Eno’s predominantly dark ambient soundtrack, to the moon as a symbol of reflected self in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon where every day pressures can lead to madness. Eno has indicated his album is intended to be an exploration of space travel, not some kind of adventure film soundtrack and I think the moods he successfully creates somehow tap into the idea of expanding the human experience, something that has acted as an inspiration for some of my own ambient music (Lunar Surface Magnetic Anomalies, 2013.)

Camel’s Moonmadness (1976) might not seem to be a conceptual piece of work on first hearing, certainly not in the Dark Side mould, but moon references recur throughout the album. The short first track Aristillus is named after a prominent lunar impact crater that lies in the eastern Mare Imbrium and features drummer Andy Ward reciting the names ‘Aristillus’ and ‘Autolycus’, the latter being a slightly smaller crater due south of Aristillus. The obvious moon reference is the track Lunar Sea (hence Moonmadness) which is one of my favourite instrumental tracks of all time. The alternating guitar and keyboard leads are understated and beautifully melodic, giving the track a great balance; the Moog tones evoke the ebb and flow of a cosmic ocean and Ward’s drumming is neat and crisp while Doug Ferguson’s bass bounces and bubbles. Even the heavy Another Night gets in a lunar reference: “Dark Clouds before my eyes / Can’t face the morning skies / Day comes a day too soon / I’m waiting for that silver moon” but Camel had set out to avoid a concept album in the style of Snow Goose after pressure from their record companies; if Moonmadness has a loose concept it’s that four of the tracks are said to represent the members of the band: Chord Change is Pete Bardens; Another Night is Doug Ferguson; Air Born is Andy Latimer; and Lunar Sea is Andy Ward.

Another moon link is on Mad Man Moon from Genesis’ A Trick of the Tail (1976) though I don’t think it’s really about madness or the moon, just an obsession with what others have: envy. I’ve racked my brains trying to find some link between the lyrics and the title of the song, other than in the line of the chorus, but Tony Banks sticks pretty much to drought/flood imagery. I recall Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Act 2 scene 2: “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” but, despite the allusion to lost love, I suspect I’m way off the mark.

The moon represents mystery but the moon landings, coinciding with the rise of progressive rock, may have resolved some of the unknowns. This has encouraged prog to delve deeper into the cosmos.



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