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A frantic fortnight of  gigs for ProgBlog began on March 9th at Genova's Angelo Azzurro Club, a much loved venue under threat of closure. Marina Montobbio's series of Lady Prog Nights was on its third event featuring local symphonic prog bands Melting Clock and Panther & C...

By ProgBlog, Mar 6 2018 03:20PM

The Instagram and Twitter trend ‘9 albums that changed my life/mean most to me’ (#9albums) that appeared in January didn’t pass me by but its appearance on various social media platforms made me somewhat wary; as a piece of social investigation it’s an interesting topic but when internet monopolies get involved it becomes a little more sinister. I can’t be the only person in the world to get annoyed by adverts, including smart adverts, driven by clicks on Google, Facebook and Amazon. I want to make my own choices and, just because a large proportion of Yes fans might like Rush, it doesn’t mean that I do, or want to. Put another way, I’m not a lemming or a sheep and I know what I like (in my wardrobe). Why nine albums? Is it because it forms a neat 3x3 square for an Instagram photo or does the Instagram generation have an average of nine significant events in their lives? How should we define significant?

There were appearances of this question in January 2016 and 2017 but there’s evidence that the trend goes back to at least 2013. I suggest that it fits in with the New Year resolution phenomenon; a reflection on your life but one that doesn’t necessarily require any form of reappraisal or change. It’s all part of the challenge!

There don't appear to be any specific rules so I’ve arranged my nine choices chronologically by date of impact on my life. I got into prog fairly early so the chronology also fits roughly, but not exactly with the release date of the albums.

These are my personal choices:

Close to the Edge (1972) – Yes

It wouldn’t be fair to include the debut Roxy Music album, released three months prior to Close to the Edge, although Roxy were the first band to pique my interest in rock music when they appeared on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops playing Virginia Plain, because I only ever heard that single from the album. In September 1972 Close to the Edge was unlike anything I’d ever heard before and remains, in my opinion, the definitive progressive rock album and as close to musical perfection as you can get. It’s the reason I got into prog.

The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – Pink Floyd

Likely to appear in a large number of the lists compiled across the world but this was the first new Floyd album to appear after I’d set out down the road of progressive rock. Before its release I’d borrowed a couple of bootlegs from a school friend and bought Relics but this seemed like a massive leap forward. I was hooked by the whole package; not just the music and the way the whole album linked together but the stickers and posters and the prism and pyramid imagery (I studied physics at school.) I was even impressed by Roger Waters’ lyrics which came in for some criticism in the music press.

Focus 3 (1972) – Focus

I was given a small transistor radio as a present for Christmas 1972 and one of the things that always seemed to be on Radio Luxemburg around 10pm was Sylvia, released as a single by Focus in January 1973. Focus 3 was circulated amongst friends of my brother and I was struck by the flute and what I felt was a distinct branch of highly melodic prog, to which I’d later add Camel and Steve Hackett’s earlier solo works.

Birds of Fire (1973) – Mahavishnu Orchestra

Jazz was the predominate musical form in our household even after my brother and I began to buy our own records, so the fusion of jazz and rock was something quite easy to get into, having been introduced on rock radio. The fluency and attack of the guitar, drumming like I’d never heard before and the interplay between guitar, keyboards and violin was just amazing; I bought the album in 1975 and it became key to opening up the extraordinary world of jazz rock where melody was sometimes sacrificed for proficiency: Isotope, Brand X, Weather Report, Return to Forever and even mid-70s Soft Machine.

Starless and Bible Black (1974) – King Crimson

This was the first Crimson album in our household and I still regard it as a mixed bag which goes relatively unnoticed between the groundbreaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and the influential Red. I find the first side of the original LP slightly unfulfilling despite the strength of Lament and The Night Watch; side two is brilliant and demonstrates the power of the group and a sublime mastery of tension and release. This obviously kick-started a life-long fascination with King Crimson but the cover inspired me to seek out Tom Phillips’ work at the Tate when I first arrived in London and more than that, I became such a great fan of John Wetton’s bass playing that I bought myself a bass guitar on my 18th birthday.

Rubycon (1975) – Tangerine Dream

This was my introduction to electronica. One of my rules for discovering and enjoying new music was the presence of keyboards, so Tangerine Dream had something of an advantage! I bought Rubycon shortly after its release having heard and been intrigued by Phaedra in 1974 and sold on the suggestion that they were influenced by Pink Floyd. I loved the single composition format over the two sides of the LP (Rubycon part 1, Rubycon part 2) which seemed to be a Virgin Records thing, but it was the amorphous other-worldly nature of the music, transporting you somewhere alien but largely benevolent which most attracted. I still maintain it’s the best record to listen to through headphones in the dark.

Cook (1974) – Premiata Forneria Marconi

Cook has probably had the most profound effect on my life after Close to the Edge and is responsible for my appreciation of Rock Progressivo Italiano. I can’t remember exactly how PFM came across our radar but I must have seen their performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and Alan Freeman must have played them on his Saturday afternoon radio show. Cook was the first of their records that I bought but we were also listening to Photos of Ghosts, Chocolate Kings and Jet Lag, blown away by the musicianship and intrigued by the Italian take on prog.

UK (1978) – UK

As brilliant as this album is, it’s disappointing because it marks the end of the first era of progressive rock. At the time it seemed like it marked a new beginning, a strong album with excellent tunes and great playing and incorporating, through Allan Holdsworth and Bill Bruford, a jazz rock sensibility. Following the demise of King Crimson, it seemed like the formidable rhythm section which drove Crimson from 1973 – 1974 had, after some wandering that added to their musical educational, found an ideal home. Of the other ostensibly prog releases that followed, only National Health produced music of a quality that could match anything from the golden age of progressive rock. Genesis were down to three members and consciously going pop; Camel, directed by their record company, had given up on epics; Yes seemed bereft of a coherent concept and put out the patchy Tormato, where poly-Moog drenches everything apart from flanged bass, and ELP produced Love Beach.

Lux Ade (2006) – La Maschera di Cera

By 2005 I had begun to fully appreciate the breadth of output from Italian prog bands operating during the golden period of progressive rock, despite rarely featuring in the UK music press at that time. 2005 was the first year of an almost unbroken series of annual pilgrimages to Italy and the first where I consciously sought out record stores in an attempt to build up a collection of classic Italian prog. Fast forward to 2008 and it was only by chance that I came across a copy of Lux Ade in Beano’s second hand record store in Croydon and, tempted by the obvious 70’s keyboard set up, production courtesy of PFM’s Franz di Cioccio, plus the fact I had a 50% discount as a ‘member’ of Beano’s, that I handed over £5 to complete the best ever speculative buy I’ve ever made. This CD opened up the Italian progressive rock scene that re-emerged in the mid 90s to me and, in a parallel to hearing Close to the Edge, the first rock album I’d ever listened to, I think that Lux Ade is the best of the current wave of Rock Progressivo Italiano albums.

I found it relatively easy to come up with the bands that made up my nine but I originally chose Moving Waves instead of Focus 3 and Red instead of Starless. I seem to recall hearing The Inner Mounting Flame before Birds of Fire, but I didn’t own the first Mahavishnu album for some time and I actually most like Between Nothingness and Eternity (which I also bought in 1975.) It seems a shame to miss out some of my favourite albums but that’s not the point of the exercise; I tried to choose titles which had the most meaning and my taste tended to expand organically, with an appreciation for The Nice opening up ELP and then Refugee. It’s not unfair to say that my predilection for music hasn’t really changed at all in the 35 years I’ve been buying records, and that includes life-affirmative events like getting married and becoming a father. My wife went through the exercise and almost instantly came up with a fairly eclectic mix that seems to have more to do with life events than mine but also reflects a constant evolution, partly spurred by the discovery of music through Shazam: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits, Let’s Get it On by Marvin Gaye, Bat out of Hell by Meat Loaf, Vienna by Ultravox, Private Eyes by Hall and Oates, Dare by The Human League, Chris Rea’s self-titled fourth album, True by Spandau Ballet and ending up with Truth Came Running, the first album by Australian singer-songwriter Mark Wilkinson, bought from the man himself as he was busking in Sydney in 2012.

I thought it might be interesting to ask a group of close friends and relatives, all with an interest in prog that was nurtured in the golden age, to come up with their nine albums. I grew up with almost all of them and most are regular gig companions; there’s no evidence that they’ve taken part in the challenge before and I didn’t stipulate that they must choose progressive rock releases. This is certainly not hard science but I thought it would be interesting to note their route into music and any divergence from core prog. Their responses, and an attempt at some analysis, will be published in the next blog...

By ProgBlog, Nov 28 2017 02:24PM

My first dalliance with a form of rock music other than progressive rock or jazz-rock came in the guise of Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen who played at the London School of Economics 37 years ago, on the 29th November 1980. Probably best described as post-punk, Fripp’s dance band provided a very up-front, driving beat courtesy of Sara Lee on bass and Kevin Wilkinson on drums, with the organ of ex-XTC Barry Andrews adding stabbed fragmented chord backing and the occasional top line, and Fripp scattering guitar over the whole thing. The show was delayed for some considerable time due to problems with the guitarist’s pedal board, which seemed at affect the artist himself as much as a restless crowd. I seem to recall that a degree of functionality was attained, enough to allow the gig to proceed, but this was the last of the LoG concerts and when I next saw Fripp play live, six months later at Her Majesty’s theatre in London’s West End and leading a band which would change its name to King Crimson before the release of an album, it looked like the pedal had been replaced with a Roland guitar synthesizer.

League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates
League of Gentlemen and Discipline dates

I was in my final year as an undergraduate when I saw The League of Gentlemen and as it was a cold November evening, I’d turned up in my greatcoat, still clinging on to the vestiges of progressive rock fashion at a time when everything about the genre was derided. I’d gone along to the LSE with Jim Knipe, not knowing what to expect but drawn by Fripp’s name and also bemused by the pairing with Barry Andrews, so we had a good idea that it wasn’t going to prog. What we got was hard to describe and, despite the obvious beat, quite enjoyable. The fast picked cyclical guitar previewed here would become a staple of the ’81-84 Crimson where twin guitars could play slightly different lines to produce knotty, complex patterns which weaved in and out of synch. There is a sonic relationship between The League of Gentlemen and 80’s King Crimson but the addition of Adrian Belew on second guitar (and guitar synth) and vocals, the reappearance of Bill Bruford with a kit augmented with electronic drums, and the introduction of Tony Levin on bass and Chapman Stick opened up vast possibilities, shifting the idiom from something very raw to a highly sophisticated form of energetic art-rock.

Though not necessarily the beginning of ‘math rock’, this version of Crimson is very likely to have influenced the first identifiable math rock bands like Don Caballero, when the genre emerged in the US in the late 80s, possibly attracting the description as a joke. Linked to prog through a common absence of blues influences and a shared embrace of non-standard time signatures, this style of music is predominantly instrumental, taking some cues from 20th century minimalist composers where riffs are tightly structured and repeated. When different time signatures are used by different instruments it produces complex, often chaotic or dissonant sounding phrases which resolve when the different rhythmic patterns converge on a mutual first beat; there are guitar parts book-ending Frame by Frame from King Crimson’s Discipline (1981) which have been compared to Steve Reich compositions and there is a section where Fripp plays in 13/8 with Belew playing in 14/8. The listener may perceive chaos but the music is rigidly structured and follows a defined layout where changes are counted out; if it sounds difficult to follow for the listener, it’s not so straightforward for the players! It’s just an observation but it seems to me that there is minimal use of distortion, which facilitates a better degree of separation of the instruments playing in different times and is more pleasing to listen to than what might simply come across as a mush of noise.

Maths and music have an obvious overlap and whether it’s the ancient Greeks looking at the ratio between notes and deriving scales, or Bach and Mozart inserting numerological games into their compositions, it’s impossible to ignore the numerical value of frequency of sound, the tempo and meter which define the rhythm, the velocity of a percussive strike, and the mathematics which can be applied to a sound wave. I was fortunate to have a good physics teacher at school and the lessons on sound were very interesting; the school had somehow managed to acquire some wooden organ pipes which were not only instructive for the investigation of wavelength, for someone who liked sound and the possibilities of progressive rock, they were educational toys. We often see representation of the Fibonacci series in nature in the growth patterns of plants and animal shells but the golden ratio is also present on a piano keyboard; the five flats/sharps and the eight notes of the octave correspond to 5:8:13 in Fibonacci’s numbers.

Anyone who has read this far will understand that the whole prog genre can be subdivided and subdivided some more. I think the idea of math rock as a distinct part of the prog spectrum isn’t too outrageous and there’s always going to be some blurring of boundaries. However, I’m not entirely sure if post-rock fits somewhere within the prog definition or if the term should be abandoned because it’s so nebulous. I’ve recently been listening to the music of Groundburst, a Dublin-based trio consisting of Si Dunne (keyboards); Phil Dunne (guitar) and Erik (drums) who formed in 2005 and who list their music as variously post-rock, math rock, progressive rock and soundtrack!

This version of the trio has recently released an EP, Triad, available as a download from their Bandcamp page but they’ve released a number of downloads, plus a very interesting physical EP (in CD format) Everything I didn’t say and all the things I wanted to and provided a soundtrack to the short, independent film Champagne, Intimacy, Alan written and directed by a friend of the band, David Martin. There’s an identifiable trajectory in their material from 2007’s EP1, with its dreamy feel, gorgeous electric piano and laid-back jazzy guitar to the tighter sounding, well-constructed Everything I didn’t say (2009) and their concise soundtrack compositions from 2014, the longest of which is 3’44 and four of the seven tracks are less than a minute long, to what really is a very well executed recording, Triad, from September this year. Noodles from EP1 has traces of repeated, short riffs but the overall feel is trippy jazz; Everything I didn’t say is probably the most proggy of their releases as it utilises more sounds but it could still pass off as modern jazz; the constraints of matching music to filmed sequences for Champagne, Intimacy, Alan resulted in a more timed and time-conscious style which can be identified as math rock and when you watch the film (which was nominated for an award and is rated 8.3/10), the music is a surprisingly easy fit, consisting mostly of snatches of guitar patterns and jazz piano apart from the looser Finding a Rope which also includes saxophone provided by Derek and Alan O’Callaghan, and the highly reverbed Alan’s Blues (which is not in the blues idiom.) For those interested, the film is about middle class couple Alan and Carol who are in their mid-40s and growing apart. They attend a swinger's party on the recommendation of a therapist and it’s evident that Alan has the greatest expectations, so that when they attend the party, held in a large country house he is keen to pair-off with the beautiful Sonya and her tall, handsome husband Dan, who obviously have a great deal of experience in the swinger lifestyle. Alan is clumsy and performs poorly, possibly intimidated by Carol’s obvious enjoyment, despite her initial reservations, and Alan goes off to question love, sex, marriage, life and everything.

Triad is a very focused offering and consists of three tracks. Law of Fives is clever jazz-rock, with staccato riffs and pauses and angular lines, properties that have been described as features of math rock. I’ve attempted to count out the time signature a few times but it’s not easy (Phil Dunne has said that the opening section is in 23/8 time!) Erik’s drumming adds appropriate elements which underline the riffs and it’s possibly his rhythmic input which has helped to refine the band’s style. Parlour Games has some Canterbury-like electric piano picking out an odd melody and when the guitar riffs give way to piano riffs and takes on the melody line it reminds me of The Civil Surface by Egg; it’s on the jazz side of rock, rather than the other way round but despite its relative accessibility, it retains the tightness which marks this particular set of tunes. Mazomba begins with urgent guitar feedback and is an altogether heavier prospect. Si plays electric piano over crunchy guitar riffs until halfway through when Phil plays a moderately distorted solo over the electric piano chords, and the roles of lead and backing are once again reversed before the end. Apparently, one of the albums the band had been listening to around the time the EP was put together was King Crimson’s Red and though Si suggests its influence can be heard in opening track Law of Fives, I think the proto prog-metal of Red surfaces in Mazumba.

Despite what might appear to be a very serious approach to their music, especially as it would be easy to suggest that math rock has an inherent geekiness, there is an intelligent humour behind it all. Law of Fives relates to the mathematically incorrect notion that everything has some form of relationship to number five, by being divisible by or a multiple of five, or somehow else directly or indirectly related to 5. The number 23 obeys the Law of Fives, because 2 + 3 = 5, however meaningless this is, and the band thought it amusing to link this illogical notion with a tune which included a riff in 23 time. Parlour Games evolved from the day job frustration caused by applying theoretical ideas to qualitative phenomena in ways that just didn’t seem to work, and finding a musical analogy to the idea of forcing something rigid over something organic.

Triad (2017)
Triad (2017)

Groundburst are currently finishing recording an album, provisionally titled Vortex Street for release in 2018. According to the band it’s going to feature longer songs than those in the current repertoire to allow for the development of themes and include more instrumentation and orchestration. It’s no surprise that we can expect more complex rhythmical material but it will be good to get to hear a full album from a band which has delivered such great promise in small doses.


By ProgBlog, May 7 2017 06:11PM

When my son was young we had family membership of both English Heritage and the National Trust and some part of most weekends was spent on outings to properties and gardens in the south east, with occasional forays into the north west when we returned to visit my family. Our subscriptions lapsed when Daryl became an adult; not only would this have incurred extra cost but we also saw less of him when he graduated and went off to do a Master’s degree in Oxford and then went to work in Australia for 18 months.

Remarkably for someone who graduated after the global economic meltdown, his career is based on his academic choices, architecture and historic conservation, and it’s this calling which has rekindled our interest in wandering around London in search of bits of fascinating architecture and design. When I first came to London in 1978 I roamed the streets from Notting Hill to Holborn looking for sites both off and on the tourist radar and, after almost weekly trips for three years, I considered myself well acquainted with the capital. This obsession with exploring the urban environment was an extension of my behaviour in Barrow, where almost all accessible and many (theoretically) inaccessible parts of the Furness peninsula were forensically investigated, inviting derision from anyone outside of a close circle of friends. Genetic or environmentally influenced, Daryl’s fixation with seeking out architectural gems means his knowledge of London’s streets is far better than mine ever was.

On a recent trip to the Design Museum in Kensington, a must for lovers of modernist architecture or anyone with a curiosity about the history of design, we stopped off at Café Phillies for a coffee and some lunch. I was intrigued to see a minibus pull up outside, the London Rock Legends Tour, on a stop to visit Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers restaurant which is opposite Café Phillies in Phillimore Road. I’m sure there are plenty of music-related sights, from the Abbey Road zebra crossing in St John’s Wood to The Hendrix/Handel museum in Brook Street, Mayfair, but it can’t be easy planning a sightseeing tour in London by road; the roadworks and sheer volume of traffic are hardly conducive to a strict schedule.

Inside the Design Museum
Inside the Design Museum

I was amazed to see the Yes logo on the side of the bus, along with more rock ‘n’ roll acts but, as the itinerary takes in pubs and clubs, it could be that there’s a stop at what used to be La Chasse at 100 Wardour Street, just down from the old Marquee. Writing songs about a particular location is nothing out of the ordinary but it tends to be a bit of a rarity in progressive rock; The King Crimson improvisations given the title of the town or city where they were recorded don’t count, whereas Egg’s A Visit to Newport Hospital (on the Isle of Wight) from The Polite Force (1971) is an excellent example – at this point it’s pertinent to mention that former Egg drummer and Pink Floyd drum tech Clive Brooks died last week, another loss to the progressive community.

I decided to challenge myself and go through my collection in search of London-themed compositions, requiring lyrics about the place, to see if it was possible to put together a virtual tour of physical locations, streets or landmarks which warranted a mention somewhere in the prog catalogue.

Public transport may have its problems but a combination of rail, tube and foot is by far the best way to move around the city and coincidentally, the tube map turns out to be a good place to start looking. Crimson’s Doctor Diamond from the Red-era, a song that never managed to get a studio release, doesn’t mention a place despite the reference to an ‘underground train’. I’d always assumed it was a New York subway train because Fallen Angel from the same cohort of songs is set in New York, but there’s every possibility that it’s London Underground, with a capital ‘U’. The most comprehensive reference to London Underground is on Alight, released earlier this year by progressivo Italiano Cellar Noise, where apart from the track Underground Ride, other songs are named after District and Circle Line stations Embankment, Temple, Blackfriars and Monument. This remarkable debut effort is a concept album where the narrative takes place somewhere between the real world and the imagination of the protagonist who, stuck in the monotonous grind of the daily commute through the underbelly of London, who suddenly finds a reason for existence. Musically and lyrically there are parallels with Genesis, from the Trespass-era to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (another New York-themed album) and the opening track on the album, Dive with Me is stylistically and harmonically linked to Foxtrot. It comes as no surprise that the play The Knife at gigs as an encore.

Genesis name-checked Epping Forest on Selling England by the Pound, a remnant of ancient woodland straddling the Greater London-Essex border where Peter Gabriel set his fictitious skirmish between rival East End gangs, apparently inspired by a piece in a newspaper that he’d read some years earlier. As much as I like this track, the piece has so much going on that when you include the four-minute instrumental After the Ordeal, it feels as though it’s taken up the entire side of the record when you’ve still got the ten-minute Cinema Show to come! Epping Forest is served by a number of stops on the Central Line and Forest Road, lined with its luxury cars (according to the song) heads into the forest from Loughton.

Also on the London Underground network is Turnham Green, served by the District and Piccadilly lines. This appears in Suite in C from McDonald and Giles’ self-titled album released in 1970, as a sub-section of the 11’40 mini-epic. This is a love song dedicated to Charlotte Bates, where the Turnham Green lyrics refer to the first time McDonald set eyes on Bates and the tube station where she disembarked. Besotted, McDonald placed an advert in International Times and remarkably, this was spotted by Bates’ friend who had been on the tube with her. It’s not really like Crimson but Michael Giles’ jazzy drum patterns do call to mind his work with his former band and his brother’s bass wouldn’t have been out of place on anything by the Crims; the subject matter is quite different, giving a more Beatles-like feel to the track.

Perhaps there’s a link between London geography and songs by King Crimson alumni. The UK song Nevermore, from their first album is about Soho, though it doesn’t relate to one particular location. Lyrically, it appears to be thematically linked to In the Dead of Night; commencing with some beautiful Allan Holdsworth acoustic guitar, it’s an altogether underrated piece with changes of dynamics and an experimental middle section. If Nevermore is a little hazy in its precise location, Rendezvous 6:02 from subsequent UK album Danger Money describes both time and place. When I first arrived in London I used to use the Sidcup branch of the railway from Charing Cross to Dartford, because my hall of residence was in North Cray, between Sidcup and Bexley. Stopping at Waterloo East, this journey afforded an excellent view of the (now Grade II Listed) Victory Arch leading into the main Waterloo Station. Built from Portland stone and completed in 1922, I find it an ugly piece of architecture but it relates to one of the most memorable UK songs, the poignant Rendezvous 6:02, which first describes the car journey from Hyde Park to Waterloo before specifically mentioning the arch itself. It was always a favourite pastime reviewing the departures timetable for trains leaving at two minutes past six in the evening and the last time I attended a talk at the nearby BFI, I deliberately arranged to meet Daryl at 18:02 under the arch.

It may not be part of the Underground network but Bill Bruford wrote the tune Palewell Park for the last of the Bruford albums. I’m labouring the point here, but this location, like the somewhat lengthier (in terms of both track timing and ground dimensions) Hergest Ridge was to Mike Oldfield, was evidently very inspiring to Bruford who lived close by in East Sheen and it's surprising because it's a piano-bass duet!.

Ian Anderson dedicated almost a full side to Baker Street on Minstrel in the Gallery, and Fulham Road features in A Passion Play. Of the former, which also mentions Blandford Street and Marylebone Road, this is the district inhabited by Anderson during 1974, making observations of everyday life in London W1. It’s possible that some of the lyrical content reflects some of the rehearsals for the album, where Anderson took on a great deal of the work as his fellow band members entertained themselves around Monte Carlo; there’s certainly more of a singer-songwriter feel to parts of the album, more acoustic guitar and less flute, but it remains one of the high points of the Jethro Tull canon. I’m less convinced about A Passion Play, particularly the use of saxophone and synthesizer, although the storyline is rather good. Is Fulham Road referenced because Brompton cemetery is close by?

Returning to modern prog, Big Big Train recite the names of underground and former waterways in Lost Rivers of London, from 2016’s Folklore. Citing Old Kent Road and Turnagain Lane (off Farringdon Road), there is much to be admired in their approach which reconnects modern, melodic prog with the importance of the roots of the genre. With the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Neckinger, the Westbourne, the Walbrook and the Effra, there are plenty of places to put on a progressive rock map of London.

...and there are a number of mews around Baker Street!

By ProgBlog, Feb 5 2017 07:20PM

I bought myself a bass guitar shortly after my 18th birthday, a sunburst finish Fender Precision copy with no manufacturer’s details. I was aware that there were hundreds of budding guitarists of my age, all with a head start over me, so I chose four strings instead of six, reasoning it would be easier to get into a band as a dedicated bassist. By this stage, with five years of listening to progressive rock under my belt, I’d also worked out what sort of bassist I’d like to be; I’d figured out there was a small cohort of what I called ‘classic English rock bassists’ who didn’t necessarily have the flash of their fusion counterparts but, despite the difference of rock idioms in which they operated, had a distinct harmonic style which suited their particular genre. Chris Squire’s bass work stood out; Martin Turner’s playing was perfect for the twin guitar approach of Wishbone Ash, propelling them to the verge of prog; Paul McCartney may have been highly regarded for his song writing but his bass was very inventive if somewhat understated; John Entwistle first used the high treble style that influenced Squire; and John Wetton.

My first bass
My first bass

I’d missed out on Wetton’s early career in Mogul Thrash and Family and my introduction to his playing was in 1974, hearing The Great Deceiver played on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show when Starless and Bible Black was released. A few months later a friend bought the outstanding Red (1974) and my brother Tony bought the ground-breaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973). As my appreciation for King Crimson increased, it became obvious that the bass and vocals of John Wetton were an integral part of the sound of the incarnation of King Crimson that convened in 1972, unbelievably forceful and inventive. It wasn’t until I found a copy of USA (1975) in the record store local to my hall of residence at the end of the decade that I began to understand the power of the group in a live setting; Asbury Park is probably my favourite Crimson improvisation. All this was without realising that the bulk of Starless and Bible Black and Providence from Red were live tracks but the Night Watch playback and CD in 1997 put everything into context, further clarified by the superb Great Deceiver box set where not only the alchemy of David Singleton but also the diary notes and reflections of Fripp, Cross and John Wetton allowed the awesome sound of the band in full tilt to be fully appreciated.

Wetton-era King Crimson LPs
Wetton-era King Crimson LPs

Wetton-era King Crimson box sets
Wetton-era King Crimson box sets

Following the demise of Crimson, I regarded Wetton’s move to Uriah Heep as a retrograde step, though his later move to Wishbone Ash for Number the Brave (1981) was of note, as I harboured a begrudging regard for the Ash. It just wasn’t of enough interest to make me go out and buy the album though I did think that Wetton’s bass playing was suited to the early Wishbone Ash style; restricting his song writing was evidently too much for him to take. As for the Roxy Music and Brian Ferry band period, I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy. The touring arrangement with Roxy started before King Crimson officially ceased to exist, a temporary measure before Crimson was due to get back to touring. With shared management it was easy to help out friends (reciprocated on USA where Eddie Jobson provided violin overdubs) and helping to formulate Wetton’s next band.

The seemingly unlikely collaboration between Wetton, Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing but the collapse of that project resulted in the formation of supergroup UK. Their eponymous debut (1978) was a slick progressive album with leanings towards jazz rock and quite different from long-standing progressive acts and newer groups like England. The song writing was mature with a coherent sound, as though the individuals were all treated as equals and were all pulling in the same direction. That meant it came as something of a shock when Bruford and Holdsworth departed, the former being replaced by an unknown (to me) Terry Bozzio and the guitarist not being replaced at all.

UK albums
UK albums

I didn’t manage to get to see the original quartet but I did manage to see the pared-down Danger Money incarnation of the band at Imperial College, their only British appearance before shooting off on tour to support Jethro Tull. As good as this gig was, my enthusiasm was tempered by the feeling that the band was under-rehearsed. Danger Money (1979) was a stylistic nod to the earlier progressive era but the balance present on the debut had gone, ushering in a radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus direction with shorter numbers like Caesar’s Palace Blues and Nothing to Lose, the latter released as a single. Despite the more commercial slant there are some classic prog moments, especially the Jobson organ work. The evocative Rendezvous 6:02, another outstanding but understated song, is one of my favourite Wetton tracks and I think his vocals would be the best they’d get


Caught in the Crossfire
Caught in the Crossfire

Wetton’s Jack-Knife project resulted in I Wish You Would (1979), an album recorded in Munich over 10 days. This was a reunion with Richard Palmer-James and covered material that the two played together in Tetrad. More a demonstration of his remarkable versatility, it included Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Eyesight to the Blind and a self-penned song called Mustang Momma - hardly challenging for the players or listeners. Presented in an awful cover, I gave my copy away to a charity shop. I have kept Wetton’s first solo album, Caught in the Crossfire (1980) where, despite a guest appearance by Martin Barre, the content is well removed from progressive rock; the track When Will You Realize? was apparently cited by Eddie Jobson as the song most responsible for the demise of UK.

The formation of Asia, Wetton getting back together with prog luminaries promised so much but I have to admit being disappointed with the end product. I wasn’t aware that he was deliberately choosing to depart from the band members’ pasts and eschew long instrumentals in favour of short songs, an approach that runs counter to my love of long-form. I dutifully bought the first three albums when they came out, Asia (1982), Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985) and even bought the compilation on CD Then and Now in 1990. I was pleased that the venture was successful though I was perturbed that Steve Howe appeared to have been ejected from the band after Alpha and was unable to work out why Wetton also left, to be replaced, briefly and somewhat ironically, by Greg Lake.

Asia albums and the 12" single The Smile has left Your Eyes
Asia albums and the 12" single The Smile has left Your Eyes

Towards the end of the 90s I went to see John Wetton with his band on three occasions, at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, in Croydon and in Bromley. I didn’t really know what to expect but I thought his re-emergence, with progressive rock no longer a dirty word, was something to follow. I was able to track his progress over a couple of years from the quality of playing of the music that made up the set list, a mixture of Crimson, UK, Asia and solo songs, watching the evolution of the band. I wasn’t over-impressed with guitarist Billy Liesgang though drummer Tom Lang was good; these two were eventually replaced by Dave Kilminster and Steve Christey (ex-Jadis) respectively. Martin Orford was a constant and consistent presence on keyboards. A major highlight was in September 1997 when I saw him along with other members of the 72-74 King Crimson for the Night Watch playback at London’s Hotel Intercontinental. He performed a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday and signed copies of the double CD at the end of the event. Sadly, mine was stolen from the boot of a taxi in Miami in 2003.

In 1998 I began subscribing to ARkANGEL, the official John Wetton ‘infomagazine’, a labour of love put together with a cheap word processing package by Gary Carter and it was through this fanzine that I discovered a host of Wetton solo material, adding Battle Lines (1994), Chasing the Deer (1998), Arkangel (1998), Hazy Monet (1998), Live at the Sun Plaza Tokyo 1999 (2000) and Sinister (2001) to the copy of Akustika (1995) I’d bought from the merchandise stand at the Astoria gig. The vast majority of this is well-produced AOR but there are some stand-out tracks like The Circle of St Giles and E-Scape and I enjoy all of Chasing the Deer. I also invested in a copy of the authorised Wetton biography, My Own Time by Kim Dancha, which is a bit short on detail and concludes in 1997.

ARkANGEL - The John Wetton infomagazine
ARkANGEL - The John Wetton infomagazine

John Wetton CD collection
John Wetton CD collection

Qango were a short-lived band that attempted to recreate the highs of prog. Alongside Wetton on bass and vocals were Carl Palmer on drums, John Young on keyboards and Dave Kilminster on guitar. I saw them play at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon, using material from Asia and ELP, plus Wetton favourite All Along the Watchtower. They released a live album (Live in the Hood, 2000) but sadly, plans for a studio album were abandoned.

Qango played Croydon in May 2000
Qango played Croydon in May 2000

I managed to catch a re-formed UK at Under the Bridge in May 2012, a great venue with the right level of intimacy, somehow just right for the return of a premier-league prog act. The performance included more than just material from the two studio albums, notably Starless, Jobson’s favourite King Crimson song. Wetton and Jobson were joined on stage Alex Machacek who beautifully recreated the Holdsworth guitar licks and Gary Husband was an inspired choice to fill in on drums. It seemed to me that Wetton’s voice was a little strained at times but these moments were neatly covered with some effective echo; he managed to keep in tune throughout and hit the higher notes. I’m delighted I got to see the show.

UK at Under the Bridge, May 2012
UK at Under the Bridge, May 2012

John Wetton was one of the reasons I picked up the bass guitar. I followed his career from true prog great (the King Crimson improvisations) to polished AOR and though it’s his time with Crimson and UK that remain a highlight for me, all his work, the collaborations and the ‘solo’ material are all very much respected. Wetton’s death is another huge loss to the prog world.

John Wetton b. 12th June 1949 d. January 31st 2017

By ProgBlog, Nov 20 2016 08:22PM

I’m currently dipping in and out of Time and a Word – The Yes Story by Martin Popoff and thought that this latest piece of writing about the band, which includes thoughts on Heaven and Earth from 2014 and covers Chris Squire’s death from leukaemia last year, might help me work out where I stand on an issue that’s been raging for some time, spilling over on to the letters and comments pages of Prog magazine, concerning the validity of calling Yes ‘Yes’ and whether or not it is time to call an end to the venerable institution. In keeping with the progressive rock genre, debate on this particular subject has attracted opinion from all parts of the spectrum.

I’m not over-impressed by the book because it seems to me as though it’s been put together with minimum effort. I don’t doubt Popoff’s appreciation of the music and it can’t be denied that he’s a successful music writer but, not being a fan of the particular idiom he’s most closely associated with, I’ve not knowingly read anything else that he’s penned and I’m therefore not really qualified to comment on how much work was involved. What I can say is that you can’t compare Time and a Word to something almost academic like Bill Martin’s Music of Yes – Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock or even Chris Welch’s more mainstream journalist/fan account Close to the Edge – The Story of Yes, both of which I did enjoy. Perhaps the closest work to Time and a Word is The Extraordinary World of Yes by Alan Farley because of the concise coverage of each album, information that could as easily be obtained from the album sleeve notes, rather than any in-depth musicological, sociological or philosophical analysis, though Farley does add a soupçon of personal perspective. Popoff includes some odd little asides to his Yes timeline which is primarily comprised of portions of his interviews with the main protagonists; I’m not at all sure why the release of Rush’s 2112 on April 1st 1976 warrants a mention, other than to indicate it’s a poor joke, though there’s slightly more rationale to announcing the eponymous debut from The Clash on 8th April 1977, three months before the end of the self-imposed studio Yes album hiatus, highlighting a radical shift in the musical landscape over the intervening two and a bit years.

Though the advancement of time since the beginning of the progressive rock era affects all bands that fall under this umbrella, a span lasting on for almost 50 years, there have only been two deaths within the Yes camp and it’s only the loss of Chris Squire, however much Peter Banks originally helped to craft the early Yes style, that has really had an impact on the group. This is largely because Squire was the only original member remaining at the time of his death and the only member to have contributed to every studio album but he was as much integral to the Yes sound as any other musician who hopped on or off the Yes roundabout, for his vocal harmony work as well as the punchy, treble-rich bass work. Yet, when I saw the Yes performance at the Royal Albert Hall earlier this year, I was more than pleasantly surprised by the way Billy Sherwood reproduced Squire’s lines and stunned by the way Sherwood had adopted his mentor’s stage mannerisms, from his footwork to the handling of his instrument.

This highlights one of the major issues. There’s no doubt that there are other musicians of an appropriate calibre to play the music, as the whole album performances show. The last two tours, one with Squire and one without, have been about the recreation of recorded music in a fairly true-to-original fashion, down to the detail of the track running order, which coincidentally allows us to measure individual member’s performance against the original release. On the 2016 tour, featuring Fragile and Drama, it was only Steve Howe who had been represented on the earlier studio album. Howe, Alan White and Geoff Downes had all played on Drama; on the 2014 tour of The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One, it was only Howe and Squire representing the line-up of the first two albums, and Howe, Squire and White from the personnel responsible for Going for the One.

So, despite my enjoyment of the gig I went to see in London, the latest tour was carried out without any original members; does that make them some kind of tribute act? Well no, not in my opinion. There are two strands to my thinking: Firstly, that Howe was one of the individuals making up the first of two ‘classic’ line-ups which starred Bill Bruford on drums and Rick Wakeman on keyboards and was responsible for Fragile and Close to the Edge. His appearance on The Yes Album marked a qualitative improvement in group composition and his playing style opened up a more symphonic sound but I think it was possibly his personal outlook and the way he fitted in to (what was going to become) the Yes philosophy added something unquantifiable but positive to the group. Furthermore, the replacement of Bruford by Alan White created the second classic line-up which lasted four incarnations but the revolving door of personnel changes was accepted by fans, at least on record, even including the Drama-Yes of Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn which only revealed a degree of disillusionment amongst those who went to see them play live when the tour hit the UK. This suggests to me that as long as there is the spirit of Yes in a group of players, it can still be called ‘Yes’.

That the cracks in support were appearing as the genre reached the end its golden era is in part down to changes within the music business itself but Yes had showed that they could change guitarists and keyboard players without adversely affecting their appeal; unfortunately when they replaced Jon Anderson, who many even now regard as the voice of Yes, support was less forthcoming. It’s of note is that following his departure from Yes, Anderson embarked upon a successful collaboration with Vangelis and it was, arguably, Anderson’s involvement with the Squire, White and Trevor Rabin Cinema project which guaranteed that band success as the 1980s Yes.

That particular version of the group was hugely successful but they alienated some of the original core support, including me. I blame the industry, manipulating output to maximise commercial gain, curtailing artist creativity and resulting in music which hasn’t aged very well, compared to the timelessness of Close to the Edge and the reappraisal of Tales from Topographic Oceans as a major piece of recorded work by a rock band. This brings me to the second major issue: The quality of the new material.

I’ve previously argued that the substance of the 80s material was more mainstream, hence the greater commercial appeal in a world that was becoming more self-centred with less time and inclination to think expansively. Any attempt to recapture the cosmic nature of early 70s Yes music, by an ever expanding Yes family which had itself become more fractious and cut-throat, was never likely to amount to much, though the keyboard-light Magnification came quite close for me. I’ve never been too happy with the long-form studio pieces on Keys to Ascension and part of this is down to what I feel is the unsuccessful blend of cosmic and worthy social commentary; part is down to the unsatisfactory keyboard sounds. I believe the best modern material is the Fly From Here suite which was actually composed during the Drama years, such that the concept of Yes music has to conform to certain structural and thematic forms, many of which have been abandoned along the way.

This brings me to the conclusion that it is fine for Yes to continue for the time being, playing material which represents the early phase of the group, as long as there’s someone from that era to carry the torch. I’ve outgrown my belief that Anderson has to be in Yes; I don’t doubt White’s contribution to the sound and equally, I can’t question Sherwood’s fit but I think that if Howe had to drop out for some reason, there would be no purpose in carrying on. I don’t mind if there’s no new material, I’ll continue to go and see the band if there are no more line-up changes and they continue to play the classic early 70s material. Roll on Tales! Roll on Relayer!

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