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Still reflecting on the latest venture to the Italian Riviera, ProgBlog looks at the legacy of the port city of Savona: Delirium and Il Cerchio d'Oro who released the rather good Il Fuoco Sotto la Cenere in the autumn

By ProgBlog, Aug 28 2017 09:13PM

The sharp-eyed amongst you may have noticed that on Wednesday last week (August 23rd), Gentle Giant were inducted into Portsmouth Guildhall’s ‘Wall of Fame’. The Guildhall, originally the Town Hall, was renamed after Portsmouth gained city status in 1926. The neoclassical building was severely damaged during the Second World War but restored, with much of the original detail missing, and reopened in 1959 with standing space for an audience of 2500 in the largest performance space. The Wall of Fame is a recent feature, introduced in 2014 to honour (mainly) local artists who have achieved great success. Gentle Giant join artists like Mark King of Level 42 (originally from the Isle of Wight); local boy Mick Jones, who formed Foreigner with Ian McDonald; another local boy Spike Edney, probably most famous for his live work with Queen; and Steve Hackett, voted on by fans in recognition of his amazing musical career who was inducted in May this year.


The Shulman family originally hailed from Glasgow but set up home in Portsmouth in 1948 after the father of the yet-to-be Gentle Giants had been posted there during the war. The three Shulman brothers Phil, Derek and Ray first formed Simon Dupree and the Big Sound along with Eric Hine (keyboards), Pete O’Flaherty (bass) and Tony Ransley (drums) in 1966 and had a hit in 1967 with Kites, originally a ballad written by Lee Pockriss and Hal Hackady which the band were quite unhappy with, insisting it wasn’t in their chosen musical idiom. They eventually recorded a version at the insistence of their manager John King, in psychedelic style featuring a variety of odd studio instruments in Abbey Road, including Mellotron and a wind machine; they even got an actress friend to recite some Chinese during a spoken interlude and, to their surprise, the single did very well, ultimately peaking at no. 8 in the charts. Simon Dupree and the Big Sound had no further success but evolved into Gentle Giant in 1970 when the Shulmans recruited Kerry Minnear (keyboards), Gary Green (guitar) and Martin Smith (drums.)

The first Gentle Giant album I heard was In a Glass House (1973) and the first I bought, in an effort to hear as much of their material as possible, was Playing the Fool – The Official Live (1977) on cassette. It was obvious from a very early stage that GG were highly accomplished musicians playing incredibly complex material and it wasn’t until I heard Free Hand (1975), premiered on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show, that I realised they could also really rock without compromising their identity. At that stage, GG being a band that I looked out for, I had no idea of their relative lack of commercial success. What I heard of The Missing Piece (1977) indicated a major change, and not a good one. The Sight & Sound in Concert performance, filmed at London’s Golders Green Hippodrome on January 5th 1978 and shown on BBC TV a couple of weeks later was a must watch occasion, but Two Weeks in Spain and Betcha Thought we Couldn’t Do It were major disappointments. I started to build up a full collection of GG in the 80s and in the mid 90s, when progressive rock was slightly less vilified than it had been for almost 20 years and when the nascent internet was mostly accessed for academic purposes, I signed up to a couple of web-based forums: Elephant Talk for all things Crimson and On Reflection, the internet discussion list for GG fans; it was a revelation to read fans’ thoughts and anecdotes. There’s no doubt that the band deserve their place in the Portsmouth Guildhall Wall of Fame.


Gentle Giant inducted in The Wall of Fame
Gentle Giant inducted in The Wall of Fame

photo from http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/leisure/news/15494134.Gentle_Giant_inducted_into_Wall_of_Fame/#gallery0


London obviously exerts a pull on musicians and in the late 60s and early 70s the sheer mass of opportunity, the music papers, the range of clubs, the presence of record labels, recording studios and publishing firms was enough to make most artists gravitate towards the capital. Perhaps more important than any of those things was the presence of sufficient numbers of punters willing to listen to something which offered more than ephemeral pop; Pink Floyd may have had roots in Cambridge but it was London which formed the base for their success. In the very early days, their reception outside of the capital was frequently hostile and it’s 'Pink Floyd London' stamped on their banks of WEM speakers, clearly visible during the Echoes part 1 footage from Live at Pompeii, not 'Pink Floyd Cambridge'. Similarly, Floyd contemporaries Soft Machine may have formed in Canterbury and been responsible for an entire prog sub-genre, but they also migrated 100km along the route of Watling Street in search of fame and fortune. That doesn’t mean that the south coast of England was unimportant for progressive rock; an hour’s drive west of Portsmouth is Bournemouth, half an hour’s drive inland from Bournemouth is Wimborne and 10km due west of Bournemouth is Poole. This relatively small area is where Michael and Peter Giles, Robert Fripp, Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell, John Wetton, Richard Palmer-James and Andy Summers all began playing.


Pink Floyd of London - Live at Pompeii
Pink Floyd of London - Live at Pompeii

Over the last few weeks I’ve been to a number of towns on the south coast, lured by a combination of a bracing sea breeze and the prospect of browsing through second-hand records in both favourite and new haunts. One of the reasons for progressive rock musicians having a connection to the south coast can be detected in the architecture of the seaside towns which is another reason for getting on a train south from East Croydon station; the inter-war suggestion that swimming provided universal health benefits resulted in something of a seaside boom, coinciding with a penchant for streamlined art deco apartment blocks, hotels and public buildings, and the upturn in visitor numbers meant that there had to be provision of suitable entertainment; dance halls and dance bands. Likewise, when armed forces were barracked in the dockyards at Portsmouth or at one of the RAF radar stations, they needed an outlet for R&R. Both Robert Fripp in Bournemouth and Keith Emerson in Worthing played in hotel- and dance bands where the predominant genre was jazz; the young Emerson even played piano for a local dance class, covering a variety of styles and playing a range of tempos, all excellent experience for the future combination of rock, jazz and classical music exemplified by prog.


Seaside art deco: De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill
Seaside art deco: De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Our trip to Worthing wasn’t entirely successful. This was the most westerly of the towns visited recently and was intended to be a reconnaissance mission. I’d identified a couple of independent record stores, along with an HMV in the Montague shopping centre but the condition of the interesting records in the flea market on Montague Parade wasn’t brilliant and after thinking about replacing my sold off copy of Barclay James Harvest Live (1974) for £4, I decided against it. Next stop was Music Mania in West Buildings but this was closed until the end of August for holidays. I did manage to find a copy of Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975) by Synergy, aka Larry Fast, for £2.99 in Oxfam. It was very breezy on the beach but at least the architecture was good: the brutalist Grafton car park, given a colourful makeover by street artist Ricky Also, and the 1930s art deco flats of Stoke Abbott Court, even though their restoration wasn’t in keeping with their original, aerodynamic form.


Grafton car park, Worthing
Grafton car park, Worthing

Brighton is just brilliant. On our most recent trip I picked up an original copy of Tubular Bells for £5.50, David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), Pink Floyd's Obscured by Clouds (1972) and the rather obscure US electronic album Zygoat (1974) by Burt Alcantara under the name of Zygoat. These were all from Snoopers Paradise in North Laine; I then popped into Across the Tracks and bought a new copy of Stranded (1970) by Edwards Hands.


A short way east along the A27 is Lewes, and though it’s not costal, the river Ouse is tidal. Octave Music has now closed down but Union Music Store and Si’s Sounds are both worth looking around. Si’s was closed on the day of our visit and I was tempted by some unsold record store day bargains in Union, but not tempted enough. Lewes has a number of antique shops and I managed to locate David Sylvian’s double LP Gone to Earth (1986) which to some degree presages the Sylvian-Fripp collaboration in 1993, plus Phallus Dei (1969) by Amon Düül II, Moraz-Bruford Flags (1985), Barclay James Harvest Time Honoured Ghosts (1975), and the surprisingly good Point of Know Return (1977) by Kansas. The architecture in Lewes is very interesting and one of the most recent additions, a concrete and glass 5 bedroom house clad in Cor-Ten steel set on the banks of the Ouse on the site of an old workshop, is really special.


Union Music Store, Lewes
Union Music Store, Lewes

Most recent on the list of coastal visits was Hastings. Again, I’d identified suitable record shops to visit but the duration of the train journey, a little over 100 minutes each way, restricted our time for wandering around. It’s been some considerable time since I was last there and in the intervening years the town has been used as an overspill for London boroughs facing a housing crisis, shifting the pressure from the capital to local services in East Sussex. However, that’s not what we witnessed. The relative ease of the commute to central London and the laid-back vibe appears to have encouraged a degree of regeneration. The beach was empty and very clean; the pier has been redeveloped and shortlisted for the 2017 Sterling prize; George Street is like a short stretch of Brighton’s Laines with some unique gift shops, independent coffee bars, antique shops and best of all, Atlas Sound Records, which hadn’t been on my list. The cash-only shop acted as an outlet for at least three sellers who travelled the world to find suitable vinyl. I came away with Rakes Progress by Scafell Pike (1974) – folk rather than prog, but for £5 its Lake District name and the fact I’d only ever seen it twice before, once around the time of its release in Kelly’s Records, Barrow, and much more recently in a market stall in Vicenza, Italy, meant I had to buy it. I also picked up Midnight Mushrumps (1974) by Gryphon and Mass in F Minor (1968) by The Electric Prunes, a piece of gothic psychedelia that I’d only got in mp3 format, converted from a home taping of my brother’s copy of the LP back in the late 70s. I was encouraged to return because I was told that the stock had a good turnover.

Bob’s Records was on my list, in the basement of an antique shop in High Street; disorganised but reasonably well-priced and mostly in very good condition, there were bits of memorabilia for display like the framed cover of In the Land of Grey and Pink for £7 and three laminated back-stage passes for Pink Floyd concerts presented in a frame at £40. I bought a copy of the last Colosseum II album War Dance (1977). In another of Hastings’ antique shops I saw a framed Pink Floyd at Hastings Pier poster on sale for £20 and as far as I can make out, they only ever played in Hastings on one occasion, Saturday 20th January 1968, just before Dave Gilmour was invited to join the band, and I’m not sure if the article was genuine.


Atlas Sound Records, Hastings
Atlas Sound Records, Hastings

I think the atmosphere of some of the towns on the south coast is accurately captured by the melancholy of Exiles (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, 1973); those responsible for the track’s writing credits, Cross, Fripp and Palmer-James all had a history linking them to the south coast, as did vocalist/bassist Wetton (Cross was from the Plymouth area.) The contrast of a parochial existence with the glamour, real or superficial, found in cities around the world resonates today: Worthing town centre has certainly seen better days and the empty public spaces in Eastbourne are equally sad; Bexhill would be nowhere without the De La Warr pavilion and the towns seem to cling on to the remnants of a faded glory. Fortunately there are places like Brighton and Lewes, and now Hastings, where there’s a positive vibe... ...and good record shops.







By ProgBlog, Dec 27 2015 11:05PM

I was very fortunate to receive a good collection of prog this Christmas. I try to help family members with a wish list but even better, my wife, who has a history of buying prog for my birthdays and Christmases, gets progressive rock-related suggestions from Amazon. One present I wasn’t expecting was the Steve Hackett: The Man, The Music DVD (Wienerworld, 2015) which is an up-to-date documentary that includes material relating to Wolflight and ends with a dedication to Chris Squire who was interviewed for the release. It also boasts a design that dovetails with that for Hackett’s Genesis Revisited: Live at Hammersmith box set (InsideOut Music, 2013.) Filmed and directed by Matt Groom it includes some insights into the early Hackett family life but the parts that will be of most interest to fans are those that relate to the Genesis period and the subsequent solo (Hackett band) material. The man himself comes across as very thoughtful and very polite when he comes to discuss his former colleagues in Genesis. It may be that those interviews were conducted before the shoddy treatment he received at the hands of the Genesis: Together and Apart documentary aired in October 2014. Keyboard player Roger King features quite heavily because of the value of his long-term musical and production contributions and there are other cameos from brother John Hackett, drummer Gary O’Toole, wind player Rob Townsend, guitarist Amanda Lehmann and inimitable bassist Nick Beggs. There are also discussions between Hackett and Steven Wilson and Hackett and Chris Squire. Footage from a concert at Leamington Spa is very well recorded and it would be interesting to know if there was sufficient material from that gig for a full DVD release.

I was listening to Nursery Cryme (1971) on my commute to and from work one day last week and was surprised to hear For Absent Friends, thinking that I’d not included it when I transferred the album to my mp3 player. Described by Hackett in the DVD as one of his first contributions to the group, I find the song a little throwaway. Hackett confirmed what I’ve always suspected, that Phil Collins featured on vocals on this track though when I won tickets from Capital Radio to see Genesis for their Three Sides Live Tour, the question was “what is the Genesis track where Phil Collins first sings solo?” I answered, on a homemade postcard, More Fool Me from Selling England by the Pound (1973) which has the sleeve declaration “(Vocals Phil)”. As I put the postcard in the post box I did wonder if it was a trick question so getting the ‘congratulations!’ letter came as a total surprise. Overall, The Man, The Music is a well balanced piece of work covering all of Hackett’s output, his personal thoughts, his guitar technique and with some interesting input from collaborators and family. I’d recommend it for any Hackett fan.



Congratulations letter from Capital Radio
Congratulations letter from Capital Radio

My wife also got me David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), a CD that had been on my wish list for some time. I bought a copy of Bedford’s Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon / The Song of the White Horse (1983) on vinyl from a record fair earlier this year which I really like, having previously dug out a YouTube video of the fascinating Omnibus documentary about the commission and making of White Horse. I bought a copy of Höstsonaten’s live performance of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2013) from Fabio Zuffanti’s stall at the Prog Résiste festival in 2014, which included a DVD of the show from December 2012. That release epitomises Italian progressive rock with its brilliant musicianship and operatic scope and it rekindled my admiration for Coleridge’s poetry; when I was an undergraduate I used to own a copy of Coleridge’s complete works that I lent to an English student who never returned the book. I thought that the David Bedford version, from over 35 years earlier and narrated by actor Robert Powell, would make an interesting comparison. White Horse is truly organic, utilising the blowing stone in the instrumentation and describing a landscape; comparisons with Mike Oldfield’s sublime Bedford-orchestrated Hergest Ridge (1974) seem quite appropriate, whereas I find Ancient Mariner closer in structure to The Odyssey (1976) with less reliance on atonality and dissonance and more on recognisable melody, created with multiple keyboard lines. Having said that, there’s a highly evocative sparse percussive section where the ship is ice bound and it sounds like lanterns and sundry deck equipment is moving in the wind.

It’s interesting that Powell’s narration isn’t a recital of the poem; rather it conforms to what Bedford set out in the sleeve notes for the album, wanting to evoke the mood and atmosphere of certain passages, an effect achieved by using the notes from the margin of the poem. One of these, “No twilight within the courts of the sun” became a track by Steven Wilson on his first full-length solo album Insurgents (2008). I really like Ancient Mariner.

Another present that I’d not accessed before is Beyond and Before - the formative years of Yes by Peter Banks with Billy James (Golden Treasures Publishing, 2001.) Banks (born Brockbanks) died in 2013 and appeared on the first two Yes albums before forming his own band Flash. His style of playing was unique and he’s remembered as being a better guitarist than he was originally regarded. Flash weren’t really prog so I didn’t follow them particularly closely though it was hard to miss their albums in record stores. Banks himself has not really featured in much of the general discussion of the genre despite his excellent guitar work with Yes so this publication can be regarded as going some way to correct that omission. The book suffers from repetition, an excess of exclamations and some poor grammar but it’s gratifying to see very little bitterness in someone who wasn’t necessarily treated as well as they deserved; there aren’t many people he doesn’t like. He reflects upon material on which he performed and though he may have not been pleased with the recorded results at the time, he reassesses the music and generally now appreciates how it has turned out. It may not be deeply analytical but it’s easy and pleasurable to read.



Beyond and Before
Beyond and Before

Cactus Choir (1976) by Dave Greenslade is another album I’ve had on my radar for some time. Recorded not long after the break-up of Greenslade, the production is much cleaner than his previous band efforts but overall it’s less proggy and more bluesy and, in my opinion, less clever. I really liked the dynamic between Dave Greenslade and Dave Lawson and I liked Lawson’s lyrics. Early Greenslade may have sounded a little raw but there seemed to be a very good understanding between the four members. Simon Phillips isn’t a bad replacement for Andrew McCulloch and Tony Reeves features on half the tracks but the vocals are disappointing, with Steve Gould sounding like Elton John on the title track. For me, only Finale reaches the standard of the old band but it’s by no means a terrible effort.

With a remastered copy of GTR (2015), another Steve Hackett connection, Solaris’ Martian Chronicles II (2014) and, from my brother Richard Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy Two this has been a good Christmas. I really appreciate all my other presents but the prog-related gifts have been exceptional.




Christmas presents
Christmas presents




By ProgBlog, May 11 2015 05:35PM

I’ve just returned from a long bank holiday weekend in my native Cumbria, staying with my brother Tony near Ulverston, a short drive away from the Lake District National Park. The Lakes scenery is stunning, produced over millions of years by a range of natural processes and more lately tinkered with by man.

Part of the itinerary was to be a trip to RAF Spadeadam near Brampton in the north east of the county. The idea was to visit the former Blue Streak missile test site and, as we’d be travelling through the appropriate area, include a rendezvous with old friend Bill Burford, drummer for Water’s Edge who resides in Melmerby, near Penrith.

Blue Streak was intended to be the UK’s intermediate range ballistic missile but the programme was shelved in 1960 and the base was used for development of a Europe-based satellite launcher, itself abandoned in 1972. At least one of the Pages has a professional interest in cold war architecture; Daryl’s Historic Conservation master’s degree thesis was on the preservation and use of cold war bunkers - I simply wanted to take photos of the site for my next musical project, tentatively titled Cold War. Unfortunately, the organisers didn’t confirm our proposed visit and with insufficient time to plan any serious fell walking we just visited parts of the Lake District I’d not been to in the past, examples of human influence on the landscape: Allan Bank, above Grasmere, a former home of William Wordsworth and National Trust founder Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley; the Langdale Boulders at Copt Howe with their Neolithic markings, the most intricate and impressive examples of rock art in Cumbria; and Cathedral Quarry in Great Langdale, an enormous void where the roof is held up by a single pillar in a disused slate quarry.

Roger Dean has written about his trip to the Lakes where he describes seeing a mountain-top tarn that served as inspiration for the inside sleeve of Close to the Edge. It’s not difficult to imagine Dean walking from Honister via Haystacks, where his mountain tarn can be found, over to Langdale, the centre of the Lake District, and visiting the spectacular Cathedral Quarry where a huge hole has been excavated for the attractive green slate (more correctly Borrowdale Tuff, a volcanic ash around 450 million years old, metamorphosed by heat and pressure into a rock that forms one of the distinctive building materials of the region. I think that this edifice could have influenced the cover of Relayer or the cover of his book Views.


This landscape has inspired painters, novelists and Lakeland poets Wordsworth, Coleridge and De Quincy; landscape in general seems to have inspired nineteenth century Romantic composers too, who used long-form symphonic pieces to depict visual images of landmarks and landscapes such as concert overture The Hebrides (better known as Fingal’s Cave) and Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor) by Felix Mendelssohn and, as Romantic music was one of the major influences on progressive rock, it seems rather odd that despite frequent allusion to geographical or topographical forms there are only a few examples of prog compositions about a named physical landscape.

Not that I’m a fan but Haken’s The Mountain seemed like a good place to start looking however It turns out that the title is merely metaphorical. The most obvious classic prog track inspired by an imaginary landscape is Firth of Fifth, the perennial Genesis favourite, which is fitting because of the Tony Banks piano work and the notion of prog as an updated form of Romantic music; even Steve Hackett’s soloing conforms to the idea of nineteenth-century symphonic poems, stretching the song with sublime guitar lines that appear to describe the contours of the river valley, rounded and flowing, not aggressive or jarring.

Another obvious reference to a geographical location, real this time, is Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. I’ve previously described how I think this is the best Oldfield album and how the compositional style has been influenced by Romantic composers; the execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. This links rather nicely to The Song of the White Horse by David Bedford, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978. The idea of the programme was to show Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it and it showed him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission.

The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which are filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. I find it interesting that the White Horse is mentioned in the medieval Welsh book, Llyfr Coch Hergest (The Red Book of Hergest): "Near to the town of Abinton there is a mountain with a figure of a stallion upon it and it is white. Nothing grows upon it.” Oldfield released Hergest Ridge in 1974 and David Bedford began his commission in 1977.

Though trained as a classical composer, Bedford’s other works have included odd things like 100 kazoos and his charts have used pictures, rather than staves and notes. His rock credentials come via his work with Kevin Ayers, which is how he was introduced to Oldfield. On White Horse he was helped by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge on a variety of keyboards, a small ensemble with brass and strings and the Queen’s College choir, a hand-picked female choir from Bedford’s place of work where helium was used to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s singing by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s). The roughly 25 minute composition incorporates GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse which celebrates King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in the 9th century. Overall I think it’s a very satisfying piece of music incorporating basic sequencing, novel chorale work, Romanticism and some disharmony. It surprised me to find out that college friend Charlie Donkin, who liked The Who, The Rolling Stones, Harry Chapin and Dire Straits, was also a fan of The Song of the White Horse, ending up with a copy of Star’s End or Instructions for Angels when we went to see if we could find a copy in one of London’s many record shops; Charlie also liked Bedside Manner are Extra.



By ProgBlog, Feb 8 2015 06:37PM

There’s a column in Prog magazine called Locus Focus, written by rock gazetteer David Roberts (author of Rock Atlas) which has the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some musical iconography appeals to me. I appreciate that a rock atlas is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street, London W1) but the idea seems somehow related to prog for reasons possibly associated with my early academic path and an insatiable appetite for poring over maps.

Yes Tor is an obvious choice for a prog-related geolocation but there are some more obscure sites that equally fit the bill. I’m sure I remember a section in Roger Dean’s Views where he was describing the inspiration for the watery world depicted inside the gatefold of Close to the Edge that included a photo of a small mountain tarn. I seem to recall that he was describing this tarn as being on the top of a mountain ridge and, for whatever reason, I associated this with the picturesque and entirely unexpected tarns on Haystacks in the western Lake District fells; sadly, I’m no longer able to refer to my copy of Views, bought on its publication in 1975, because over the next few years I removed pages to adorn my bedroom walls.

The formation of these tarns, the so-called summit tarn, Innominate Tarn and Blackbeck Tarn is a feature of the Buttermere-Ennerdale watershed as it passes the rocky protuberance of Great Round How and is restricted to a narrow ridge, craggy and precipitous on the Buttermere side. Alfred Wainwright has drawn a picture of the summit tarn, which doesn’t have a name, in his Western Fells (book seven of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells) that looks very much as I remember it from a long time ago; the problem of having made a career in London is that I don’t get to do very much Lakeland fell walking anymore. It’s rather paradoxical that the second highest of these natural water features goes under the name of Innominate Tarn and of the three, this is the most magical with an indented rocky shore and a line of tiny islets. If Haystacks didn’t inspire Dean’s Close to the Edge cover, it appears as though it may have informed the cover of Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings with the rocky ‘islands’ protruding from the water.

The first time I noticed the Locus Focus column one album immediately sprung to mind: Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Hergest Ridge is an elongated hill running from Kington in Herefordshire to Gladestry in Powys in a roughly NE – SW orientation, traversing the border between England and Wales. The summit of the hill is on the English side and stands 426m above sea level, rising 158m above the surrounding landscape; the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath runs along the ridge. Following the success of Tubular Bells, Oldfield retreated to The Beacon, his house on Bradnor Hill, near Kington. The area obviously inspired him; not only was his sophomore effort titled Hergest Ridge but his third album Ommadawn, recorded at The Beacon, is appended by the short song On Horseback and contains the lyric “If you feel a little glum / To Hergest Ridge you should come”.

My copy of Hergest Ridge dates from 1975 and was bought for me for some ridiculous price; either 75p or 99p by friend Bill Burford who had seen cheap copies in WH Smith in Blackpool or somewhere like that. By the mid-late 70s I’d kind of grown out of Tubular Bells and sold my copy to the sister of classmate Eamonn Quinn. I wasn’t a great fan of side two and, at the time, didn’t appreciate the value of keeping hold of vinyl or the importance and longevity of the piece. It’s strange that I kept my Hergest Ridge but I’m pleased that I did because when I listened to it recently I thought it was a lush, symphonic piece. I’ve still got my original Ommadawn and I invested in Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II on CD. Based on a review by my brother Richard, I bought a cheap copy of Crises on CD when I was in Padova at the end of last year but I still think that Oldfield’s best album is Hergest Ridge, specifically the original mix; the 2010 edit is unbalanced to my ears as some of the sounds that contribute to the pastoral sweep are sullied by encroaching instruments brought out higher in the mix.

Whereas Tubular Bells owes a debt to the minimalists and Ommadawn, with its pipes and African drums, seems to have fully embraced world music influences, Hergest Ridge occupies more than just a place in the sonic continuum. In some respects it’s a ‘son of’ Tubular Bells and in some respects it preludes the Celtic vibe that is evident on its successor but the thematic development of Hergest Ridge is much more rewarding and continues over the two sides of the album; Tubular Bells is an album of two distinct parts, with side two coming across as a rather hurried composition and as a consequence is far less satisfying. Whole Earth band mate and composer David Bedford lent Oldfield a copy of Delius’ tone poem Brigg Fair before the recording of his first album and though Tubular Bells doesn’t really conform to the romantic symphonic style, Hergest Ridge comes much closer. Oldfield utilised the talents of Bedford to conduct a string section and choir and though it’s not evident how much Bedford was responsible for the orchestration, I can’t believe he didn’t have some influence and input. The album also features guest oboe players Lindsay Cooper and June Whiting plus trumpet from Ted Hobart. This extra instrumentation adds a distinct symphonic flavour that fits together far more seamlessly than the vertical arrangements of its predecessor and though no piece of romantic music lasts anywhere near 40 minutes, Hergest Ridge mimics the rhapsodic structure with pastoral themes, variation and development that characterise Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.

Perhaps as a result of Oldfield’s retreat from the public eye, some critics have suggested that Hergest Ridge encapsulates the mid 70s middle-class hippie vibe; the macrobiotic lifestyle, real ale and flowery names for the children, something cartoonist Posy Simmons loved to lampoon. I think that he’s crafted an album that demonstrates his care and passion for music; it may not be as groundbreaking as Tubular Bells but it’s been carefully assembled and perfectly reflects the majesty of wild, open countryside. Not bad for 75p!



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